Practice Pointers

A plumber once told me, “There’s price, quality, and service — I can only give two. Pick which ones you want.”

In the service business there are those that focus on beating the competition the easy way — price. Quality and service are often assumed by unknowing clients who believe that a $500 lawyer is going to offer the quality and service of the $5,000 lawyer (sometimes that’s true). You find out your “competition” quoted a flat fee of $10,000 for the representation, so you’ll do it for $7,500.00. You’ve determined the client is only hiring on price, and you’re good at price. You would never think to tell the client that your fee is $15,000.00. You don’t feel confident in your quality or service, nor that the client cares. You’re just trying to compete at the lowest common denominator.

Focusing on the competition is a waste of time. I see it over and over again. A group of lawyers start a niche and there is a standard fee no matter who you hire. Then some young broke stud jumps in and charges $20 less. A few years later, everyone is charging 60 percent less. No one is making money, except those that aren’t focused on the competition….

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Suppose you had two work colleagues. Both are great lawyers. Both produce superior results, and are admired and respected by their peers for their substantive knowledge and work ethic. Lawyer #1 shows up to most meetings a little bit late, sits hunched over, and speaks in low tones that are difficult to hear, making eye contact with only one or two people in the room. Lawyer #2 is always on time, sits straight, and speaks clearly and loudly enough for everyone to hear, while making eye contact all around the conference table. Lawyer #2 even has nice teeth.

Again, assuming both lawyers are equally competent in their subject matter areas, whom would you send to the next important meeting with the senior executives? Since this is not a trick question, no duh — Lawyer #2. Heck, I’d choose #2 over #1 for anything I even semi-care about (including proper dental hygiene).

Executive presence is one of those soft skills that they just don’t teach you about in law school. Yet, it’s a critical quality you’ll need to perfect in order for you to gain your clients’ trust and to progress in your career. Your pretty face and ability to spew out boilerplate assignment provisions in your sleep will not get you there alone. And despite its name, executive presence is not just for executives….

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As lawyers, we often look past obvious signals when we’re about to get a new client. The client comes in, decides to hire “me” (yes, me!), and pays. What could be bad?

That the client showed up an hour late with no excuse or apology, or spent the hour with you talking about how his friend’s case worked out, or the opinion of his cousin who is a lawyer in another state is of no matter. We have a new client, a new check, and that’s all that we need.

I believe in the philosophy that sometimes the best client is the one you turn down. I’ll end a meeting after 10 minutes because the client’s expectations are only met through unethical behavior or by going to see the wizard. Or after meeting with the client, I’ll decline representation because even though the client can pay, I believe I’m not a good fit in terms of the client’s needs as far as time outside of the representation. Of course, then there’s the high fee you quote a client you just don’t want to represent who says (oops) “OK.”

Then there’s the client where everything seems great, until the day after you are retained….

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If you took a poll in which you had to answer how good a lawyer you are, how would you rank yourself — below average, average, or above average? With the “illusory superiority” phenomenon at work, more than 50% of you would respond that you’re an above average lawyer. Now, you don’t have to be good at math to figure out that something’s not quite right here.

Because I care about my ATL readers, I’ve decided to make it my mission in this post to enlighten those of you below average lawyers as to your not-so-great-as-you-think-ness. The key to getting around illusory superiority is to not rely on your own fallible opinion of yourself. Instead, look to other more objective indications of your inferiority.

What are some signs that you may be a below average lawyer?

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I am told there is a fad wherein you get up on a faux bicycle, and make your legs go around on pedals as fast as possible until the room starts spinning. To my Cheetos-stained mind, this sounds like an awful idea. (Hey, at least my mind is not nicotine-stained.) But the “spinning” I am talking about goes by several different identities: panic, anxiety, etc. It is caused by a single source: error.

As lawyers, we are expected to be perfect. Oh, not perfect people, oh no no no. But perfect in our writing, analysis, and so on. Laypeople have no understanding of the pressure that we regularly practice under, be it in Biglaw, or for overly anal-retentive judges. We are not allowed mistakes, there is no such thing as a first draft, there is instead a “perfect” draft that gets reviewed to the level of uber-perfect. However, because we are human, and not perfect, there is always a chance for disaster — missing a deadline, missing a citation, or worse.

Once error is introduced into our perfect worlds, spinning can set in if not immediately and staunchly held in check. Now, it is true that we aren’t following the NYC St. Patrick’s Day parade on shovel duty, but the pressure under which we practice manifests itself in some horrible things such as alcoholism, divorce, and suicide….

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If you’re one of the few left a lawyer that believes success and enjoyment of the practice of law may involve more than just sitting at home with some computer equipment and an internet connection, here’s a list of people, yes, real live people, that have been important in my practice:

1. The Accountant.

No, not your father’s accountant, but an accountant that has a few years on you and experience with lawyers. You know, someone like you that is building a business but in another field. I know, you have Turbo Tax or some other software you can type some numbers into on April 14th, but that’s not the reason for an accountant. Your accountant should know where you are financially and where you want to be. He should be someone you meet with at least twice a year and discuss your whole financial picture. Your accountant should be listening to the details of your finances, your thoughts about business, and giving you advice — not just putting numbers in to an 1120-S or 1040.

2. The Financial Advisor.

No, not the guy calling you with a “tip.” Find someone who is a certified financial planner that has been at the same brokerage house for over five years — not just someone with over five years’ experience. (Cue the blowback from financial advisors who find this advice bad for business). Why? I like someone that knows the philosophy of their firm and has some knowledge of their money managers. And I know, you have no money to put away or invest in the market, but if you build that great LinkedIn profile to start making money, you should. Maybe some advice from a financial planner will put you in a position to have a few bucks to put away, and soon enough you’ll have a killer defined benefit program. (I learned about defined benefit programs from my financial advisor.) Oh, and my financial advisor often sets up lunches for me to meet other professionals.

Who else should be essential to your law practice?

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Sometimes the customer is right. Once in a while, the customer is so very correct that I will go to the trouble of writing down a noteworthy quote or two. Recently, during a call with a CIO of a major corporation, she told me (and several others on the call) that what had occurred was at the level of “nothing less forgivable.” And she was absolutely dead on in her assessment of the situation. I dropped my usual schtick of “lawyer,” and had an honest and candid conversation with her. I sought her counsel on what solution(s) she would propose to the problem, and I promised to get back in touch.

The facts of this situation had to do with HIPAA compliance. Now, if you’re running a financial firm, it’s unlikely that you are overly concerned with HIPAA; instead, you have to worry more about Gramm-Leach-Bliley. And if you run a fireworks stand, you really need to focus on keeping sources of flame away from your establishment. My point is this: in no matter what field your business exists, there are acts that could cause a cataclysmic problem for you and your future.

As an in-house attorney, you must always be on both sides of the field with these issues — offense as well as defense. You must be vigilant about interactions with other entities, and you will sometimes be on the receiving end of criticism flowing back to you. Neither is much fun (though, as an old litigator, offense is still kind of enjoyable now and again), but both are absolutely essential. Especially your response skill set….

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Q: What’s one way in which the non-lawyers at your company are just like law firm partners?

A: Each person cares almost exclusively about her own work and her own little universe. And expects you to do the same. There’s no reason why Finance, Customer Service, HR, and Marketing can’t all be the most important function in the company is there?

Business people don’t have much incentive to give you a lot of time to review or prepare a legal document or address an issue. Generally, the faster they’re able to close deals, offer new products and services, and complete projects, the more quickly the company will make money and they’ll get the pats on the back. It’s actually hard to blame them for wanting everything done ASAP. Heck, I’d be the same way if I were on the business side.

From a quality of work and life perspective, though, “ASAP” is a bad way for a lawyer to go about things. Work quality decreases while stress levels increase. To manage ASAP requests, try to distinguish between the types of requests and collaborate with the business folks to meet their needs….

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Fair is fair: I wrote last week about “what drives partners nuts.” Having armed associates with the ammunition needed to drive partners crazy, it’s only right that I arm partners with ways to drive associates nuts. (I realize that many partners are quite good at this even without my help, but I figure a stray few could use some guidance.)

Come on, partners, how can you drive associates nuts?

First: Give associates disembodied projects!

If you wanted someone actually to be interested in a project, you’d tell that person what the project was about. You’d explain what the transaction entails, what the client needs, and the critical issues likely to arise. In litigation matters, you’d explain who’s suing whom for what, the path the case is taking, the client’s main concerns, and the likely endgame. That would put a person’s brain in gear, and the person might actually care about his or her work.

So don’t do it!

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I recently participated in a podcast for the ABA Journal on the subject of what drives partners nuts. (Here’s a link to where previous podcasts can be found. The session in which I participated won’t be posted until September 10.)

Because the podcast was supposed to analyze “what drives partners nuts,” I naturally prepared a list of things that drive partners nuts. But when we taped this session, the conversation veered away from its original focus and covered other subjects instead. That leaves me with a list of the things that drive law firm partners nuts — perfect material for a blog post! And, because this column often focuses on life as an in-house lawyer, I’ll throw in an added bonus: the in-house analogues to the things that drive partners nuts.

How can an associate drive a law firm partner nuts? Let me count my top three ways . . .

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