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Small Firms, Big Lawyers: A Civil Practice

I have a confession to make.

Most of my friends are lawyers. Forrealz. To be sure, an increasing number of them, like me, no longer practice. But most of them still do, and I still like hanging with them.

When I would go to Suffolk Superior Court in Boston, or the federal district court across the channel in Southie, I would bump into classmates or colleagues more often than not. Later in my practice, it became increasingly common that I would already be friends with my opposing counsel. Some lawyers don’t like litigating against their friends, but I always did. It made it easier to get things done, and you didn’t have to waste time with unnecessary gamesmanship.

If you already had a level of trust with your opposing counsel, you could skip all the silly things that slow down litigation and make it more unpleasant. Discovery disputes, for example, drop down to zero. Settlement talks start sooner and are more meaningful. Extension requests are automatically given. Cases get resolved faster and easier.

But do you know who doesn’t like it when opposing lawyers are friendly with each other?

Find out who — plus big news about this column — after the jump.

Clients. Clients don’t like to see their lawyers palling around with the other side’s lawyers. It reminds them that we lawyers are hired guns, and that while we care about their position, that care stems from the fees they pay. They hate the other side; they want you to hate the other side’s lawyers.

But that’s silly. And it’s also not the client’s call to make. I once had a client chastise me for appearing too friendly with my opposite number. He told me it seemed unprofessional. I told him that maybe that word didn’t mean what he thought it meant. Professional means doing my job as effectively as possible, which includes working with the other side’s lawyers. Unprofessional means being obnoxious to the other side just because my client wants me to.

A lot of people leave the practice of law because they grew tired of the adversarial nature of the profession. That’s not why I left, but I can understand the sentiment. Unfortunately, too many lawyers think that adversarial means “hostile” or “pugnacious.” It doesn’t; it simply means that there are two sides opposing each other. And opposing doesn’t have to mean “antagonizing.”

I’ve said this several times and several different ways in this column: The reputation you have with your peers is a critically important factor in how good a lawyer you are. It’s as important as your legal-writing skills, your public-speaking skills, and your command of the laws in your field. If other lawyers (and judges, too) think you’re a pain to deal with, then you’re not as good a lawyer as you could be. Or as you think you are.

But if you have a reputation as being someone who fights hard for clients but still is someone people can work with, then you’re a much better lawyer.

• • •

Now for the news:

I’m sorry to say that this is my final regular “Small Firms, Big Lawyers” column. I’ve immensely enjoyed writing it, but now it’s time to turn the reins over to someone else — maybe even someone who still has a small firm.

True story: Within a few hours of Lat’s offer for me to be a columnist, I got an email from a publisher offering me a book deal. Interestingly, both gigs came about because of my blogging. (So who says social media never accomplishes anything?) I’ve been serving two masters ever since, churning out tens of thousands of words for ATL and for the book.

I’m now firmly in book hell, with the completed manuscript due in early October. I even have a book beard going, which I’m told is common among writers (Gertrude Stein originated the custom, apparently). The book is a guide to the riskiest thing you can do in the workplace with your clothes on: firing employees. It’s called Firing at Will, and it’s due to be published November 22. You can even preorder it on Amazon (affiliate link, baby: ATL will probably get more money if you click than I will). I noticed that they’ve already discounted it, which makes me wonder if they know something.

Besides the book, I’ll be continuing my work at Prefix, where I speak and write about pricing professional knowledge and making lawyers (and other professionals) happier and more profitable.

This is my fifty-third ATL article, meaning that I’ve written about 65,000 words — nearly a book’s worth. (Ironic.) The posts have generated over 420,000 pageviews and several thousand Likes, tweets, Ins (do we even say that?), and Pluses (we definitely don’t say that). I’m told that they’ve also generated a few thousand comments from secret admirers, but I have a rule about reading things when I don’t know who wrote them: I don’t bother. (And, yes, I know who Val is.) Likewise, other bloggers wrote pieces about my articles, which was nice, although I tended to skip over the few that used social media to rail against social media (and then tweet endlessly about it to their relative handful of followers). That’s too much #irony even for me.

The column’s most read post was “20 Ways to Write Like a Tool,” which generated requests for my Firm Style Guide from lawyers in small firms, large firms, government, academia, and the military, and from nearly every state (including Alaska and Hawaii) as well as Hungary, Mexico, Australia, Canada, the UK, Puerto Rico, Afghanistan (at a forward operating base), Spain, Chile, the Philippines, Japan, and South Korea. (Plain English, sweeping the globe.) This speaks more to ATL’s amazing reach than to my ability to properly hyphenate.

And speaking of which, I’d like to take a minute to remind you readers of the incredible resource you have here in front of you. David Lat started ATL just over five years ago (one month before I started my Gruntled Employees blog). What he and his team have managed to create and sustain is remarkable. Continually churning out ten to twelve articles every single weekday, week in and week out for five years and counting, is an impressive performance. And many might not fully appreciate the high quality of writing (and editing) by Lat, Elie, and Staci. I have been very fortunate to get to work with them.

And from time to time, I will continue to work with them as a guest contributor. Future articles will likely have more to do with fixing the practice of law, but there may be an occasional small-firm-related piece.

In the meantime, I will continue to enjoy the terrific writing of the ATL editors, columnists, and contributors. Thank you to everyone who has read, emailed, tweeted, Liked, Inned, and Plused.

Stay civil, my friends. Shepherd out.

Jay runs Prefix, LLC, a firm that helps lawyers learn how to value and price legal services. Jay Shepherd also spent 13 years running the Boston management-side employment-law boutique Shepherd Law Group. He writes the ABA Blawg 100 honoree The Client Revolution, which focuses on reinventing the business of law, and Gruntled Employees, a workplace blog. Follow Jay on Twitter at @jayshep, or email him at

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