Above the Law

While there are plenty of things they don’t teach in law school on the theory that “you’ll learn it on the job,” two of those omitted subjects would help new lawyers do a better job and probably hold on to a job longer.

The two are: how to find simple facts and how to bring in business.

Litigators don’t get the go-ahead to sue unless their clients are convinced that the other side has enough assets to make it worth the cost of litigation. Litigators, family lawyers and many others often have basic factual questions, but law school does little to prepare you to find out:

• How much money a person has in real estate, corporate assets, or squirreled away. Plaintiffs won’t move unless they have an idea. Lawyers who show them there’s gold to be gotten in court get more work.

• Where to find people who can be good witnesses in a case. You may need to figure out who used to work with the main witness on the other side, whose credibility it’s your job to impeach. Family lawyers need to prove that someone is misstating assets – something the right people can offer testimony to help prove.

• How to interview people before they are forced to talk to you during the expensive discovery process. Many people hate litigation, don’t want to be found and don’t want to talk, but finding them and getting them to talk may be your job as a lawyer at the outset of a case.

• How to determine which of the more than 3,000 county courthouses in the U.S. you need to search if you’re doing due diligence on a hedge fund manager. Don’t think that Google and the rest of the free internet constitute due diligence. They don’t.

• How the other side (in litigation or in a commercial transaction) may be expected to act in the future. Does he settle or fight? If you’re going into business with him, does he end up in litigation with most of his partners? What’s the result and what is the inside story you can’t get to on the public record because he always settles?

Fundamental as these and many more basic issues of legal fact investigation may be, they get skipped over by the great majority of law schools. Sadly, my course on fact investigation was discontinued at Cardozo Law School as adjunct faculty gets trimmed there and around the country. I now spend my time teaching it to lawyers who see the need for a CLE on these very topics. If a lawyer with 25 years’ experience wants my card after a CLE, shouldn’t he have studied a bit of this kind of thing in law school?

If there is little fact investigation at law schools, most also don’t offer a course called “Rainmaking.” You can be sure of this: While junior associates may not be expected to bring in business to their new firms, if those firms need to target someone for a layoff the person who has brought in business will always be the last to go.

Everything we learn at law school is for after the phone rings with an assignment to a partner who then hands you the work. But how does that partner get the phone to ring at your firm and not a competitor’s?

Short of a whole course, some advice on the elements of salesmanship would help. Some of the things I’ve had to learn in running my own firm include:

• The importance of face-to-face meetings. People choose a law firm for a number of reasons, but oftentimes it’s like anything else: people buy from people they like, people they trust, and people who are something like them.

• How to get meetings with strangers? Should you be texting, e-mailing, calling, writing them old fashioned snail-mail, or a combination of all of them? When do you choose one over the other? (Hint: snail mail still works wonders).

• Follow-up is critical. If you meet someone at a bar association event, send them a letter, e-mail them a month later and hear nothing, how do you decide when to give up or when to press on and keep contacting them? How much contact is too much? (Hint: most people give up way too early).

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Philip Segal is the Managing Member of Charles Griffin Intelligence LLC, a New York-based firm of lawyers who specialize in fact finding for other lawyers. Before graduating from Cardozo Law School, he earned an M.S.L. in law from Yale. Prior to law school he was a journalist for 19 years, most recently at the Asian Wall Street Journal and International Herald Tribune.