Litigators

I’m going to tell you the tale of two law firms.

Firm A: You win a major, high-profile case. The victory is covered by the legal press and mainstream media. The award to your client is huge, and the victory comes at the expense of a rival firm. Your only problem? Your client won’t pay you your millions in legal fees.

Firm B: You lose a major, high-profile case. Your well-known client gets rocked with a huge verdict, a rival firm is taking a victory lap all around town, and all you can do is tweet about the appeals process. But you are getting paid, and you expect to earn even more in fees as you plan your next move.

All else being equal, which firm would you rather work for?

If you chose Firm A, welcome to Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe. And good luck to you…

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It has been said that one has truly arrived as a small-firm superstar when he appears in this column. Who said that? Someone, I am sure. While I simply cannot confer that honor to all small-firm attorneys, there is a second place honor: a feature in the New York Times. Martin Singer — the “guard dog” to Hollywood royalty, and founder of the small firm Lavely & Singer — is one of these superstars.

Singer’s client list includes some major starpower: Charlie Sheen, Jeremy Piven (remember when Ari Gold had mercury poisoning?), Arnold Schwarzenegger, Senator Harry Reid, Quentin Tarantino, and (gasp) Sylvester Stallone. Through these relationships, Singer has developed a niche that anyone would want to scratch: “shielding stars and their adjuncts from annoyance.”

While Singer’s firm specializes in all things entertainment, “[n]othing gets Mr. Singer going like a whiff of defamation.” And when he gets going, he does what has made him famous: “kill, or at least maim, unflattering stories that have yet to surface.” Some attorneys do not believe the hype about Singer’s ability to kill said stories (e.g., noted First Amendment lawyer Martin Garbus, who described Singer as a “blowhard”). But Hollywood publicists are convinced that Singer is the man to call when a story breaks about their clients’ love child or sex tape.

Do not be fooled by the glitz and glamour associated with representing celebrities. After the jump, see how Lavely & Singer is like many other successful small firms….

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I recently had lunch with a guy who had worked at a law firm, gone in-house, and later returned to a law firm. (It’s actually more than that. This guy’s bio is: assistant U.S. attorney; associate at K&E; partner at Bartlit Beck; deputy general counsel at Bank One; and now at his own small firm. That’s called either “done it all” or “can’t hold a job.” Because this post will share with the world an idea that he proposed, I’ll credit him publicly: He’s Lenny Gail of Massey & Gail, a small shop based in Chicago and D.C.)

Lenny asked at lunch, as folks frequently do, what I’d learned about business development by having gone in-house. I answered honestly, as I occasionally do: When I was outside counsel, I always thought that business development was a game of chance. You tried a hundred different things, with no clue what might pay off, and then random chance struck and business arrived inexplicably, out of the blue.

As in-house counsel, my view hasn’t really changed: If you’re on our list of preferred counsel and we use you regularly, we’re likely to hire you again. If you’re a newcomer, there’s not much you can do or say to draw that first retention. Everything you say at our introductory meeting simply repeats what some other guy told us about his firm last week, and virtually nothing you’ve done is so breathtaking as to make you irresistible.

Lenny nodded, and we drifted back into our iced teas.

The real problem with getting retained is the first nibble. As outside counsel, once someone retained us for one case, it was a lock that they’d retain us for another. The client would come to know our people, our firm, the quality of our work, and the results we obtained. Parlaying one opportunity into many was easy; the hard part is getting the first chance. As in-house counsel, that continues to strike me as true for many (but not all) firms.

How do you get the first nibble?

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You always hear this business axiom: “The customer is always right.” Whether true or not, you’re supposed to at least let the customer believe that he or she is correct. But in my experience, that doesn’t always work.

Before I went to law school, I was a banker. (That sentence makes me sound old, since I started law school 20 years ago this fall. Whatever.) Anywho, in my years as a banker, I frequently had to explain to customers the vagaries of the American banking system. “What do you mean my money’s not in my account? I just deposited the check. Of course it’s there!” No, sir, I’d have to say. Your money’s not there. Your check hasn’t cleared. The customer was very often just not right.

Turns out, practicing law isn’t much different. Your clients are often wrong. And your job as their lawyer is often to tell them that they’re wrong.

Even if it gets you fired.…

double red triangle arrows Continue reading “Small Firms, Big Lawyers: The Customer Is Always Right. Not.”

Judge Eric Melgren (D. Kansas)

A trial was scheduled to start in Kansas federal court on June 14, 2011. Defendants moved for a short continuance because one of their lawyers is expecting his first child on July 3. (The lawyer in question, Bryan Erman, is quite cute — check out that chin dimple.)

Plaintiffs’ counsel objected to the continuance — strenuously. This took Judge Eric Melgren by surprise. And not in a good way.

Judge Melgren granted the continuance — and took the opportunity to benchslap the lawyers who refused to consent….

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Ed. note: This is the latest installment of Size Matters, one of Above the Law’s new columns for small-firm lawyers.

After talking to so many happy small-firm lawyers, I have begun looking for my own niche to scratch. It came to me while driving in the suburbs a few weeks ago. There was a radio ad for an awesome night club (“18 to party and 21 to drink”) promoting ladies’ night and a wet t-shirt contest for the ladies until midnight.

As I got off the highway to head to the club, I realized that I had found my niche: ladies’ night is just for the ladies. What about man night? Where is the justice in the world? I should fight for all the men who are discriminated against by paying a cover charge on ladies’ night (well, except for those men who ultimately get preferential treatment from said ladies who enjoyed their free drinks).

Unfortunately for me, Roy Den Hollander took up this worthy cause before my fateful drive to the Boom Boom Room on Highway 12. Let’s learn more about him….

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In parts one, two and three of the Career Center “Tip of the Day” series, focused on how junior associates can become more indispensable to their law firms, we covered the importance of taking ownership of your work, becoming an expert in your field, and developing effective management strategies. Today, we’ll discuss a point that sounds obvious but has some subtleties: following the rules.

These tips are provided by the experienced recruiters at Lateral Link, who, in addition to providing sound career advice, can advance your career by consulting with you on the hundreds of law firm and in-house positions they have in their network.

Now, on to tip #4….

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Ed. note: This is the latest installment of Size Matters, one of Above the Law’s new columns for small-firm lawyers.

When I was in sixth grade, my teacher, Mrs. Johnson, asked all of her students to write an essay on who we admired most. My best friend Marni wrote about President George Bush, Sr. She loved America. I wrote about my dad. I loved my family. A classmate named Jay wrote about Ted Turner. He loved money.

Apparently, Jay is not the only person to love money. In fact, I am told that some lawyers chose the profession because they too love money.

Those lawyers work at Am Law 100 firms, right? Not all of them. Not the country’s richest practicing attorney….

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On Tuesday, Ropes & Gray was sued in Manhattan federal court by a former partner, Patricia A. Martone. Martone’s lawsuit claims age discrimination, sex discrimination, retaliation, and interference with protected retirement benefits in violation of ERISA (the basis for federal jurisdiction in the S.D.N.Y.).

As you might expect from an ex-Ropes partner, Martone has some high-powered counsel: Anne Vladeck, one of New York’s top labor and employment lawyers, widely regarded as the queen of employment discrimination law. Vladeck famously (and successfully) represented Anucha Browne Sanders in her sexual harassment lawsuit against Isiah Thomas and the Knicks.

Patricia Martone is a veteran intellectual-property litigatrix, a specialist in patent litigation, with almost 40 years of practice under her belt. She made partner at Fish & Neave, the well-known patent law firm, in 1983, and then became a Ropes partner in 2005, when Ropes absorbed Fish. She’s now a partner at Morrison & Foerster, which she joined in October 2010.

Why did she leave Ropes? Let’s have a look at Patricia Martone, and her lawsuit….

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There must be no more of this childish abuse…. No more or there will be sanctions. In more than 29 years as a judge, I have never encountered such bickering, quarrelsome lawyers. You are wasting my time and your clients’ money.

– Judge Richard Posner of the Seventh Circuit, sitting by designation as a district judge (N.D. Ill.), ruling on motions in limine in Chamberlain Group, Inc. v. Lear Corp. (PDF).

(The context of this quotation, which contains additional benchslappery, appears below.)

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