Associate Advice

Mistakes happen. Take, for example, the current eyesore in Pioneer Court on Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago. Sculptor J. Seward Johnson’s “Forever Marilyn” is a 26-foot-tall, 34,000-pound sculpture depicting the image of Marilyn Monroe in the Seven Year Itch. The sculpture has been described as “creepy schlock from a fifth-rate sculptor that blights a first-rate public art collection.” One author seeking to answer the question of what is wrong with the sculpture concluded “pretty much everything,” including that it is sexist, kitschy, and has nothing to do with Chicago. Even @ebertchicago (aka Roger Ebert) is tweeting about this terrible sculpture.

More important than the mistake, however, is how one corrects the problem (except maybe with Marilyn, yuck). Don’t believe me? Check out any of your friends’ favorite quotations on Facebook, and at least one of them will have an inspirational gem.

With summer here, bringing with it a possible loss of focus (and fantasies about being outside), I decided to ask a team of experts how they recover from making mistakes in their practice.

Find out what they do, after the jump.

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Ever see Fight Club? Yeah, me neither. The 1999 Brad Pitt movie was more of a cult film than a commercial success, although it did make back its costs. But the movie did have a line that became something of a meme, and was once recognized by Premiere magazine as the 27th greatest line in movie history (which seems dubious, but whatever):

The first rule of Fight Club is you do not talk about Fight Club.

If only lawyers had the same rule.

You see, being a lawyer is like being a member of an elite club. OK, maybe not as elite as we like to think; there are more than a million members in the US. But elite enough. And the problem is, too many of us are dying to show off to others that we’re members of law club. And one of the ways we do it is by trying to sound like a lawyer when we speak, and especially when we write. This is a problem because sounding like a lawyer is the same as sounding like a tool.

I’ve come up with 20 lawyerisms that do nothing to advance the message you’re trying to send, but instead show that you’re a member of law club. And that you sound like a tool.

How many of the 20 do you use?

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As you probably know, the Boston Bruins won their first Stanley Cup since the Nixon Administration. I’m no kind of hockey fan, but as a Boston sports fan, I took a passing interest in it. Which is to say that I watched Game 7 on Wednesday. Mine was a short ride on the bandwagon. (I mean, it’s June. It’s baseball time.)

But Boston is a big sports town, having now won all three major North American sports championships (plus hockey, see what I did there?) in just a seven-year span. The closest any other city has come to that is 11 years (and that’s New York, with two teams in each sport).

But to be fair, the Bruins do have many fans in the Boston area. (Although apparently an entire season was recently canceled because of labor strife, and I’m pretty sure no one noticed.) Many of those fans made their way into Boston on Saturday to watch the Bruins’ victory boat. Police estimated that a million people came into the city to celebrate. Many of them parked in my suburban neighborhood, because we live near the end of one of the subway lines. Because that’s what you want: scads of drunken hockey fans parking in front of your house. Could have been worse, though; in Vancouver, the fans of the runner-up Canucks basically set the place on fire.

But some fans had trouble getting into town because of spotty rail service, and they weren’t too happy about it. What important lesson does this hold for small-firm lawyers?

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I’m under the impression that many of our readers are looking for a new job, or at least thinking about it. Some of you are still in law school and haven’t lined something up yet. Others have been laid off by a firm and are trying to find a replacement gig. Still others are unhappy in their current situations, and are contemplating something better. But how many of you know what you’re looking for?

I mentioned earlier that I’ve given a lot of informational interviews in the past. I do believe that it’s the most effective and most overlooked job-search tool going. But I’m often struck by how many people I meet — especially law students — who already know what type of law they want to practice. I certainly didn’t when I was in school; I became an employment lawyer because an employment-law firm offered me a job. I marvel at 1Ls and 2Ls who already know what type of lawyer they want to be when they grow up.

Knowing this has its benefits: it can help you direct your career path. But it has its disadvantages, too. It can seriously limit your job opportunities.

Here’s how to handle that problem.…

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Pile-o’-crap syndrome: We’ve all been victimized by it.

In private practice, it arrives in the form of four boxes of documents (containing about 2000 pages each) delivered to your door with a single handwritten note of explanation: “Here are the documents you’ll need to prepare Smith for his deposition on Wednesday.”

What does that note really say? “Here’s a pile of crap. I can’t be bothered. You deal with it.”

For an in-house lawyer, the pile o’ crap arrives in the form of a one-sentence e-mail responding to your request for a brief description of a particular lawsuit that’s headed to trial: “As you requested, I’ve attached my 100-page, single-spaced summary of the discovery record in this case.”

What does that e-mail really say? “Here’s a pile of crap. I can’t be bothered. You deal with it.”

In business environments everywhere, pile-o’-crap syndrome arrives in the form of e-mails that say only either (1) “see attached letter” or (2) “see attached chain of e-mails.”

What do those communications really say? “Here’s a pile of crap. I can’t be bothered. You figure it out.”

Why do people do this?

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Have you ever messed something up for a client? Ever make a mistake that was yours and yours alone, that caused your client a problem and you and your firm some embarrassment?

If you haven’t, then you haven’t been practicing very long. Because you can’t practice for a long time without making some mistakes. It’s human nature, and anyone who tells you otherwise is lying or self-deluding.

In 17 years of practicing as a small-firm lawyer, I made my share of mistakes. More than some lawyers, perhaps; fewer than others. Not so many that it prevented me from getting a reputation among clients and peers as a decent lawyer. But more than I wanted to make.

Obviously, we should strive to minimize the number of mistakes we make as lawyers, and to minimize their severity. But one of the most important things to learn as a lawyer is how to handle it when you’ve made a mistake.

Here are eight tips to help you fix your mistakes and make your clients love you.…

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There is a neighborhood in Chicago that smells like chocolate. The reason is due to Blommer Chocolate Company’s Chicago factory. I have never been inside, but according to a documentary I once saw regarding chocolate factories, inside there is a chocolate river, Oompa Loompas, and an eccentric chocolatier.

Much to my surprise, there was an opening at Blommer for over a year. Among other qualifications, the position required the applicant to be able to taste and consume chocolate and other products. Who would not jump at the chance to work there? Admittedly, there were a few negatives to the position (see here), but overall it sounded much better than a typical job wherein one does not get to taste and consume chocolate (at least not as an integral part of the daily routine).

If only there was some professional whose job it was to match open positions like this with qualified applicants….

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I have become obsessed with LinkedIn lately (and not just because of their recent IPO). I am trying to become one of those people with the 500+ connections. So I troll the website for potential contacts on an hourly basis.

Yesterday, I found a few guys with whom I had gone to law school. These guys bypassed Biglaw and went straight to IP boutiques. Five years after graduating law school, these guys were all partners. Seeing this, I confirmed a theory I have long held: the road to success in a small firm is vastly different than that in Biglaw.

I do not mean to say that the path to success is easier in a small firm, despite the shorter path to partner for my classmates (which is not true for all small firms). In fact, in some ways becoming a successful small-firm associate may be more difficult than in Biglaw. So, how do you excel at a small firm? I asked some small-firm superstars to share their tips….

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It’s very difficult to get a job as an associate in a small law firm. First of all, there is a lot of competition. Many of you are between jobs. Many are at Biglaw jobs looking to get out. Many of you are finishing up law school and are still looking.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s also hard to get a job at a big firm. I know. But the path there is at least more straightforward: Go to a Top 30 (or so) school. Work hard. Finish in the top 20% or so in your class (the lower your school ranks, the higher grade ranking you need). Wear matching shoes to your on-campus interview at the start of your 2L year. Don’t get slizzard at your summer-associate firm functions. Pass the bar. Sell your soul. Collect your buck sixty.

Yes, yes, I know. It’s not that simple, and the large firms do look for other qualities, too. But no one in my class who met that top 20% threshold failed to get a Biglaw summer-associate job.

The path to small-firmdom is more circuitous. And by “circuitous,” I mean “there is no path.” It’s certainly not about being smart, working hard, and getting good grades and a good education. Those are table stakes.

But I’ve identified the ten traits that make the best candidates for a small-firm-associate gig. See what they are after the jump.…

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Have you ever noticed that some lawyers become different people when they get in front of a keyboard?

It’s like a Jekyll-and-Hyde kind of thing. They might be perfectly pleasant individuals in real life, capable of warmth or at least civility to their fellow human beings. But get them in front of a computer with a law-firm template on the screen, and they turn into some sort of lawyerly unmanned drone.

Most lawyers, especially junior lawyers, have an idea about what a lawyer letter is supposed to look like. It generally has fancy lawyerly words like “pursuant to,” and it usually includes lawyerly weirdnesses like parenthetically writing numbers in figures after having just spelled out the numbers in words (“If we do not receive a response for you and/or your counsel in five (5) days …”), and it almost always contains threats about Very Bad Things happening. And they tend to be uniformly douchey.

But here are four (4) reasons why lawyer letters are less effective than phone calls.…

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