Practice Pointers

Lawyers like to say, “I’m a lawyer, not a psychiatrist.”

If you’re dealing with people’s problems, you’re a lawyer and a psychiatrist. While clients understand you are the person hired to try and resolve their legal issues, the not-so subtle secret of a successful practice is a slew of clients that believe their lawyer actually gives a crap about how their legal issues are affecting their personal life.

In small-firm practice, you’re dealing with someone who just got served, or is going through the anxiety of deciding whether to initiate litigation. Your client may be going through the stress of trying to buy a business, or asking you to split up his family. Someone is trying to get her spouse out of jail, while the person in jail is wondering about his future. The type of legal issues that we deal with in small law firms aren’t whether the corporation will have to pay a million dollar fine or whether the bank will have to write off a loan, they’re issues that cause people to lose sleep and sometimes just freak out.

And I know, I get the calls too. Clients want to talk about things that have nothing to do with the legal work I have to do. They ask the same questions that you can’t answer: “When will this be over?” or, “Do you think (this) will happen?” You’re tired of telling the client, “I don’t know, but just be patient.” The client calls and says he “read” this, or “heard” this,” or worse, “My friend had a case like this and…”

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Here’s another story from real life (unless I’m making it up). The draft mediation statement starts with: “We sued them in Texas, and they sued us in Florida. Judges in both courts have now considered the issues.”

I write back, in my usual sensitive, caring way: “Any brief in the world could start with, ‘Somebody sued somebody'; that’s kind of the starting point for lawsuits. Because your opening sentence is entirely generic, it’s entirely unpersuasive. Please consider starting instead with: ‘BigCo hired three professional assassins to storm our world headquarters. During the assault, the assassins killed six of our employees, wounded four, and stole our trade secrets along the way.’ Having thus shown the mediator that we should win, we could then go on to note that we sued them in Texas, and they sued us in Florida, and judges in both courts have now considered the issues.”

Outside counsel writes back: “Perhaps you’d be right in some other case, but not in this one. We mediated this same case 18 months ago in front of the same mediator, so he already knows what our case is about. He doesn’t need any more of an introduction than my draft provides.”

What are the mistakes here? First, I’m the client. If I propose doing something idiotic, then stop me by any means necessary. But, in close calls, let me win; that’s called client service (and it’s what I did during the 25 years I spent in private practice). Second, this isn’t a close call. When I’m right and you’re wrong, let me win; that’s called intelligence. Third, and why I’ve set fingers to keyboard — you’ve made a mistake that I see repeatedly among lawyers: You think that people remember you . . . .

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I wrote last week about my participation on a statewide panel on in-house attorney registration and pro bono work. As stated, Chief Judge Lippman and Judge Graffeo of the New York Court of Appeals, are spearheading the effort to have all New York in-house counsel, who are not admitted in New York, register with the courts. The State Legislature has gone further and has passed legislation making it a felony to fail to so register. In other words, starting November 1 of this year, failure to register can get you a charge of unlicensed practice of law (“UPL”). The resulting comments to this news ranged from snarky to ignorant. My suggestion to those that this upsets would be to suck it up, because the times they are a-changing.

As attorneys admitted in New York, we knew what we were signing up for when we joined the Bar. Pro bono work is a duty, not something to be swept under the rug with a “too busy, sorry.” An estimated 2.3 million people going unrepresented in New York is not only sad, but unnecessary. And law firms can only pick up so much of the slack. They have their own issues with pro bono, but at least give lip service to attempting to assist. In-house counsel are an untapped reservoir of capable attorneys who can at least act as a drop in the bucket of a pool of folks in need of representation…

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Lawyers who practice in small law firms are frequently in the media. The reason is simple: the cases we handle are interesting. When’s the last time your local TV station wanted to interview a Biglaw partner about a corporate transaction?

Stories of divorce, crime, ethics violations, catastrophic injuries caused by plane crashes, and whether the building collapse was caused by a construction defect are why Don Henley had a hit with “Dirty Laundry.” (I love the fact I was able to weave in a comment about Don Henley. Big fan.)

At some point, you may get a call from a local reporter because you either have a high-profile client, or the reporter knows you and there is a case in your practice area where your comments are requested.

Let’s begin with the obvious: lawyers like to talk. Lawyers like to talk when lots of people are listening. Lawyers like to get calls about cases. Lawyers like to get calls instead of the other lawyer getting calls. Media appearances are often considered free advertising. One of the best things about media appearances, paper or TV, is that most people don’t remember what you said, just that they saw you or your name. It goes like this: “I saw you in the paper.” “Oh yeah, what did you see?” “I don’t remember, I just remember seeing your name.” Thankfully, no one seems to remember you said something so ridiculous that it made you look borderline incompetent…

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Gold stars and praise for all law students!

* “Going forward, nobody is going to get everything they want. Not Democrats, not Republicans, not me.” What a way to open the door to debate on the president’s newly endorsed bipartisan immigration bill. [New York Times]

* The ACLU is suing the United States over the collection of Verizon phone records, citing a possible “chilling effect” on the people who may contact the ACLU. What an entertaining (and egocentric) cause of action. [Bloomberg]

* When businesses throw cash at judges’ election campaigns, jurists tend to rule in favor of their donors — which is likely why Sandra Day O’Connor called state judges politicians in robes. [Washington Post]

* If it’s not news of layoffs, it’s news of office closures: Dentons partners will vote on whether to close the firm’s doors in Kuwait, and Curtis Mallet-Prevost already got the hell out of the Gulf. [The Lawyer]

* If you want a law school where professors pat you on the head and give you a treat each time you answer a question correctly, use this method to choose your alma mater. [U.S. News & World Report]

* There’s a pretty high probability that you’re a legal procrastinator, so here are some tips to stop the madness. Apparently alcohol isn’t the answer to your problems. Who knew? [WSJ Law Blog (sub. req.)]

* New York City may be trying to defend a ban on sugary drinks that are larger than 16 ounces, but if your milkshake brings all the boys to the yard, it doesn’t matter how big it is. [Associated Press]

I imagine there are a few dozen articles on the internet about “dealing with difficult opposing counsel.” There’s probably some good advice in some of them, but I thought I’d offer my own, as, well, I deal with difficult lawyers and have found a way to cast them into the abyss of irrelevancy, causing them to either question their own disgraceful way of practicing law, or wonder how to proceed next.

First, where I learned how to deal with these self-important blowhards. When I was a young lawyer, I had the opportunity to work on a case where a well-known securities lawyer was involved — he was on our side. I went to see him at his New York office, and after an all-day session with the client, he invited me to dinner. (See what I did there?) He told me the story of an opposing counsel in another case that sent him a “lawyer letter” laying out his position on the case, and making several threats and demands.

My friend responded with a letter of his own. It was two words: “I disagree.”

That dinner taught me two things. One, there is no requirement that your response be as wordy as the initial screed of threats and demands. Two, there is no need to respond in detail to bluster, regardless of who is blustering.

I’ve used this tactic many times. I read every email with this question in mind: “Does this require a response?” I also maintain a philosophy that I practice law my way, not opposing counsel’s way. Just because you yell, doesn’t mean I need to yell. Just because you’re a piece of crap, doesn’t mean I need to join you in the gutter….

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Yesterday Elie wrote about the NYU “professor” who twitted a pitiable comment about obese people not being able to obtain Doctorates. The Interwebs had a field day with the comment. And the sociopaths who have every word of this site transmitted to their email just so they can snark went bananas. Two days ago, a comedienne debated a friend of hers regarding the appropriateness of rape humor, and the responsive comments were frankly disgusting. As were many of the comments directed at a Cheerios ad that featured a bi-racial family. Finally, I wrote some weeks ago about the secrecy surrounding mental health issues in our profession, and someone with no medical qualifications likened a psychotic break to over-stress in the workplace. Now, of these examples only two come directly from this site. But all of the hate, misogyny, racism, phobias, etc. are displayed here on a weekly basis. Are you really that stupid?

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With a struggling legal economy, lawyers are doing everything they can do to stay afloat. It’s understandable — homes have been bought, cars you can’t afford have been leased, and Taco Bell doesn’t taste as good as it did in school at 3 a.m.

I’ve met with lawyers over the past few years who have told me to send them anything that comes my way that I don’t want. These are real estate lawyers that will now draft employment contracts, and civil litigators who are ready to draft a Will for the asking. (By the way, random question: do you capitalize “Will” when referring to the document? I know I can look it up, but many of you have nothing else to do, so let me know.) I see criminal defense lawyers taking on matters so far out of their practice area that I fear for the clients. Actually, I fear for all these clients.

Back in the day, the so called “country” or “neighborhood” lawyer did what today we pejoratively call “Door Law” (whatever walks in the door). There’s a difference between a lawyer who handles several types of practice areas, and the lawyer who doesn’t, but will in order to make rent. The latter is dangerous…

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Pop quiz, hotshot. A federal judge issues an order to show cause that you should be “sanctioned for repeated failure to prosecute cases” and “barred from practicing in this District.” What do you do? What do you do?

The correct answer begins with “responding,” obviously. And when you’re in trouble over “failure to prosecute,” maybe that should light a fire under you to respond thoroughly and on time.

Yeah… this guy didn’t. Instead he provided a detailed, if legally irrelevant, explanation of how he was just too busy to worry about responding on time. Think of this as “Prelude to a Benchslap”…

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Talking to my mother in Edmond, Oklahoma on Monday afternoon took a turn for the scary when she told me that Moore had just been hit by another very serious tornado and another one was (click)….

It took me two hours to reach my brother, who also lives near Oklahoma City, and who ironically enough works for a large cellular company. After my ranting about the lack of service that scared the bejeezus out of me, he informed me that while all was well with my family, Moore was devastated — again. I am guessing that some readers were around eight years old in 1999, when Moore was last left resembling Hiroshima in a Technicolor film. I am certain that some residents thought a once in a lifetime storm would never happen again, but it seems that Moore sits on some sort of Hellmouth. That’s the thing with tornadoes, they come out of the blue, there’s nothing you can do to stop them, and your only protection when you have no basement, is to hunker down in a bathtub and pray — and that’s if you’re lucky. It is the same thing with business catastrophes. And while that segue might seem rough at first blush, put in the context of this week’s damage, it makes a certain amount of sense…

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