Tom Wallerstein

Posts by Tom Wallerstein

Tom Wallerstein

I recently had a client ask me about asset protection strategies. Having read The Firm (affiliate link) before I ever went to law school, and mindful of the classic Tom Cruise movie of the same name, of course I did what any diligent attorney devoted to client-service would do: I headed off to the Cayman Islands to investigate.

Due to an unfortunate series of strange boating accidents which I am not at liberty to discuss, my trip ended up lasting a bit longer than I expected. My email and telephone conversations also became compromised, hence my extended ATL hiatus.

Alas, the good guys prevailed, I am back safe and sound, and I’m happy to write about some of my reflections from beautiful Cayman (pronounced, as I learned from the locals, “Cay-Man,” with two distinct, equally prominent syllables, almost rhyming with “Cave-Man;” not “Cay-min” rhyming with “layman”)….

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Tom Wallerstein

Some of you may already know that I don’t believe in dead weeks, so you can imagine the fits I’m having this year when the Fourth of July falls on a Wednesday. You know I’m out of sorts when a holiday that is supposed to be a single day off is turned into a five-day weekend in the middle of summer. Honestly, I was happy to give my associates and staff some much-deserved time off. But I’m pounding out this post anyway, and only after putting some finishing touches on a motion for summary judgment.

And I found time for reflective celebration. The Fourth of July has become a day when the powerful United States revels in its glory, and its citizens delight in colorful pyrotechnics that emulate the more beautiful aspect of warfare. Personally, I’ve always favored the disenfranchised, the underdog. And Independence Day is their day, too. The Fourth of July commemorates the victory of revolutionary insurgents who didn’t obey the traditional rules, and who triumphed over their more powerful adversaries. Good stuff.

Some people see the growing resurgence of regional, midsize and small firms as a revolution. Some people see alternative billing arrangements as a revolution. I tend to think that both those trends are somewhat overstated. I see them less as “revolutions” than as subtle “evolutions,” with important but limited long-term effect.

Still, Fourth of July week is a particularly appropriate time for this column.

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Tom Wallerstein

Anyone who has been around children is familiar with the challenge of getting them to eat what you want them to eat. “My daughter won’t eat vegetables.” “My son only eats cheetos.” Like a lot of parents, I find myself frustrated by this dynamic. But I also have to laugh, because I know the solution is so simple. If someone is hungry enough, they will easily overcome their aversion to whatever particular food they think they don’t like.

For example, you might not like broccoli, and you swear you would never eat broccoli under any circumstances. But if you were on a desert island with nothing to eat except broccoli, it would not take very long for you to overcome, or at least overpower, your distaste. So, if you really want your kid to eat X, then just don’t allow them to fill up on not-X. Nature will take care of the rest. We’ve all got to eat, and a child won’t die from voluntary starvation any more than someone can kill themselves by holding their breath.

Like a lot of kids, mine have a very narrow range of food that they profess to like. Dinner, therefore, has a familiar refrain. The kids insist they don’t like X, and I tell them, “That’s fine. I understand you don’t like X. No one can tell you what you should like, and what you shouldn’t. You don’t need to like X if you don’t want to. Now shut up and eat it.”

Thus, “You Don’t Have to Like It” has become something of a mantra to me.

What does this have to do with succeeding in a small law firm?

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Partners love to emphasize to candidates who are interviewing that their firm provides not only “early responsibility,” but also abundant “client contact.” Associates who interview eat that stuff up. “Client contact” sounds like the epitome of what being a lawyer is all about.

But sometimes client contact might not be all it’s cracked up to be. For an associate, talking to a client often has little short term upside and lots of potential downside. If you give good advice, the partner is likely to take the credit for it. If you give bad advice, you better believe you will take the blame.

Once an attorney is blessed with significant client contact, they learn rather quickly that the much-vaunted experience can be rather overrated. More times than not, a ringing phone does not a happy lawyer make. Just consider some of the reasons why clients are likely to be calling….

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Tom Wallerstein

Associates generally don’t have much room to negotiate salary or benefits in Biglaw. Beyond paying a premium for specialized skill sets (e.g., an engineering degree) or pedigree (e.g., a former Supreme Court clerk), those firms tend to pay a certain amount per class year with little variance among individuals. Among different Am Law 100 firms, there is relatively little variance. A few firms pay exceptionally well and a few others lag below market, but all the Am Law 100 firms have generally similar salary structures.

Not so with small firms, solo practices, and boutiques. According to the Robert Half Salary Guide, for example, the median starting salary for a first year associate at a ten-attorney firm in the San Francisco Bay area ranges between approximately $66,000 and $113,000 per year. That’s quite a spread. Of course, ten-attorney firms also vary so much from one to another that trying to compare salaries across firms often makes little sense.

Small firms thus have considerable flexibility in setting salaries, and associates have significantly more room to negotiate their salaries in the small firm environment. Granted, associates at small firms will tend to make less — sometimes significantly so — than their Biglaw counterparts. Be that as it may, valuing the worth of an associate to a small firm can be complicated.

Often, associates who are used to the Biglaw model both overvalue and undervalue their worth to a small firm or boutique….

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Tom Wallerstein

I have long spent my Sunday nights watching HBO. When I graduated from law school, The Sopranos was in its first season. More recently, I’ve been enthralled by Game of Thrones. For those who aren’t fans, Game of Thrones is a medieval fantasy series which won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Drama Series, and a Golden Globe Award for “Best Television Series – Drama.” I guess this post needs a spoiler alert, because what follows are some legal lessons I think can be gleaned from the hit series.

That being said, let’s take a look at the six lessons that the legal world could learn from Game of Thrones….

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Tom Wallerstein

Everyone knows the expression “the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.” The proverb claims that whatever we don’t have always seems more attractive than what we do have.

If the proverb were true, then we might expect that Biglaw associates would pine to work as solos or in small firm boutiques. But do they really?

It’s no secret that many lawyers are miserable. Some people like Will Meyerhofer have made careers out of trying to reassemble the shattered psyches of victims of Biglaw excesses. But as miserable as an associate’s life might sometimes be, I’ve rarely heard attorneys wistfully musing what it would be like to practice on the other side of the fence, so to speak. Nor do many solo or small firm attorneys often say they wish they worked in Biglaw.

I can’t help but chuckle at the self-rationalizing that seems to overwhelm so many attorneys. Many of them are so cocksure of their career paths and so defensive when challenged, you have to wonder if they doth protest too much. And indeed, although I’m not a shrink, I do have my theories as to why lawyers especially seem prone to criticizing other lawyers whose career paths are different than their own….

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Tom Wallerstein

As readers of this site’s “Lawyer of the Day” posts everyone knows, lawyers and their clients can be guilty of all kinds of outrageous behavior. Litigation especially, with its inherently adversarial nature, seems to bring out the worst in people.

Bad behavior by lawyers comes in many forms. To non-lawyers, most if not all lawyers are jerks or worse. All bad behavior by lawyers is lumped together. But there are important differences.

A lot of bad behavior should be avoided simply because it is counter-productive. For example, an attorney may refuse to offer voluntary extensions of time to respond to discovery, or to a complaint. Aside from violating a principle of professional courtesy, that behavior also is ultimately self-destructive. In litigation, what comes around goes around, and granting extensions of time that will not prejudice your client is a prudent way to ensure later modest courtesies for yourself when needed.

Declining modest extensions to respond to discovery requests is especially unwise, as the responding party can always just serve objections, with the intention of serving substantive responses before a motion to compel can be filed. Because there is no instantaneous remedy for a failure to serve substantive responses, you often have little to gain by refusing a request for a modest extension of time.

Continue reading to find out when bad behavior crosses the line….

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Tom Wallerstein

Smaller firms which compete with their Biglaw brethren on cost often promote their efficiency and lower overhead. Understandably, these firms impliedly or expressly try to associate lower overhead with lower fees for their clients. Smaller firms have been so successful with this approach that overhead often seems to connote waste and inefficiency. But overhead is sometimes a necessary evil, and it behooves small firm entrepreneurs to remember the “necessary” aspect as well.

For example, forsaking a physical office in favor of a virtual shop obviously lowers a firm’s overhead and allows the firm to offer lower fees. But many people, including me, have written about the several benefits of having a physical office. I pointed to benefits such as credibility with clients and other lawyers, and helping yourself stay motivated and focused. This is an easy example of how lower overhead may impose a hidden cost on the business.

Of course, the biggest overhead expense for most law firms is payroll. Limiting the number of employees is the surest way to keep expenses under control. But is it always the right move?

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Tom Wallerstein

Once upon a time there lived a fisherman named Jay Dee. Every day Jay went to Lake Beeglaw to fish. Lake Beeglaw was the biggest lake in the entire country, and it was home to the biggest fish. Just one fish from Lake Beeglaw could feed a family for weeks. Consequently, Lake Beeglaw was the most popular fishing lake in the country.

But fishing at Lake Beeglaw was hard for Jay. Because the lake was so popular, Jay had a very difficult time even finding a place to cast his line. Jay had only a small canoe, and the bigger and more established fisherman all had big commercial boats. Whereas Jay used a simple fishing reel, many of the other fishermen used nets. Jay sometimes went weeks without receiving a bite, much less catching a fish.

One day, Jay decided to leave Lake Beeglaw and find another, less crowded lake…

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