Practice Pointers

The case had been tried (to a judge, in a country outside the United States) in 2008.

The potential exposure was, let’s say, material.

One can’t exactly wait with bated breath for four years, but one can be keenly interested in a judge’s decision.

So one can be slightly disappointed when the “re” line of an email from outside counsel reads (in its entirety): “Statement of Decision in BigCo v. YourCo.”

Did we win? No news yet.

Surely the news is just a click away.

But one could be a tad frustrated to read the contents of the email message that followed . . .

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At a breakfast last week, the Seventh Circuit Bar Association learned the true meaning of going “from the sublime to the ridiculous”: As Judge Frank Easterbrook took his seat, I approached the lectern.

I won’t burden you with the subject of my remarks (regular readers of this column could probably guess), but I’ll share the sublime. Judge Easterbrook said one thing, and he failed to mention another topic that he often raises.

Judge Easterbrook explained that, as a young lawyer, he had sent a brief to the Third Circuit for filing. The clerk rejected the brief and mailed it back. Easterbrook called, and the clerk’s office explained that it had rejected the brief because the back cover was the wrong shade of blue — a shade specified by an unwritten local rule. Easterbrook asked if there were any other unwritten rules, and the clerk said he wasn’t sure. Easterbrook mailed a revised version of the brief, which the clerk’s office again rejected — this time for violating a different unwritten local rule. On the third try, the clerk’s office finally accepted the brief. Easterbrook swore that, if he were ever the chief judge of a circuit, all of the rules would be in writing. Easterbrook then told the assembled crowd that (1) the Seventh Circuit’s written rules are fairly comprehensive and (2) the clerk’s office is extremely helpful if you call for advice, so there’s no longer an excuse for not complying with appellate local rules.

Judge Easterbrook last week chose not to discuss a different subject. One of the other folks who attended the breakfast meeting told me that the judge often raises this in his talks . . .

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CHECK YOU PRECEDENT.

The issues presented in this appeal have been previously decided. Counsel were given an opportunity to distinguish our prior cases but Appellant’s counsel used that opportunity to criticize, rather than distinguish, them. There is nothing more to say. AFFIRMED.

– A unanimous panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, in a non-precedential order disposing of the appeal in Commonwealth Property Advocates v. U.S. Bank National Association.

(This unpublished order reminded me of two prior benchslaps, discussed below.)

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How do you keep a client (or a boss) happy? Be “light.”

Everyone has worked with people who are heavy, and everyone has worked with people who are light. Light is better.

You ask a heavy to do a job, and he says that he will. But you’re not at all sure that the job will actually get done. You call two weeks later to ask for a status report, and you receive back an ambiguous response about what’s happening. As the deadline passes, you ask for the finished product. It finally arrives, a couple of days late.

That’s a heavy load for you, the supervisor, to bear. Multiply that by eight direct reports (in a corporate law department) or 20 associates (working under your supervision at a law firm), and the burden is unbearable. All that heaviness crushes you, and, next time around, you go in search of light people.

What does it mean to be light?

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Chief Judge Frank Easterbrook: do not mess with this man.

Aficionados of appellate law are familiar with the Seventh Circuit’s reputation for procedural punctiliousness. The court has a track record of benchslapping lawyers who fail to follow rules, lawyers who seek to deviate from rules without justification, lawyers who engage in substandard advocacy, and lawyers who are “menace[s]” to their clients.

Lately the Seventh Circuit has been laying down its pimp hand. Last Friday, for example, Chief Judge Frank Easterbrook declared one Bridget Boyle-Saxton, who allegedly blew deadlines and ignored multiple orders to show cause, “unfit to practice law in this court.” Ouch.

Now, snobs might think, “Sure, Boyle-Saxton might be a well-known Milwaukee lawyer — but she works at a small law firm, apparently with two relatives of hers. What can you expect from such an outfit? This is why people hire the large white-shoe law firms. You pay through the nose, but you expect (and receive) perfection.”

If that’s your attitude, think again. Biglaw just got a big benchslap — from none other than Chief Judge Easterbrook.

Which firm incurred His Honor’s wrath, and for what alleged infraction?

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First, a shameless plug. Then, back to business.

I’ll be giving my “book talk” about The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law at The University of Michigan Law School on Monday, March 5, and again at Northwestern University Law School on Tuesday, March 27. If there’s a chance your organization might be interested in that talk, and you’ll be in Ann Arbor or Chicago at the right times, please let me know. We’ll sneak you into the room, and you can get a sense of the topics that I discuss.

Now, the business: You are not a potted plant! When you transmit something, either within a law firm or to (or within) a corporate law department, add value. You are not — or should not be — simply a conduit through which things flow. You don’t impress people with your timidity, and you may well annoy people.

What am I thinking of?

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Last week, we looked at why lawyers need soft skills and noted that there’s a general lack of this kind of training for them. Today, we’ll consider some strategies for learning to play nice in the legal sandbox.

As mentioned last week, there are so many different types of soft skills — communication, leadership, management, presentation skills, etc. What does a socially-awkward lawyer work on first? Well, it depends. (Fyi, “it depends” is a great lawyerly response for virtually every situation where you don’t know the answer.)

As with hard skills, the soft skills you should focus on depends on your pre-existing responsibilities and the skills you already have. For the purposes of this post, let’s assume you have none.

Below is a very basic outline of some required soft skills for particular levels of attorney seniority. I’ve listed a few skills listed for each level and a further description of one skill per level, to prevent this post from becoming a mind-numbing two-hour read (as opposed to a mind-numbing five-minute read). It’s a bit of a laundry list, but the idea is to provide a big-picture overview….

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Oh, you’re all running here now. You saw the title. Here you come. Click click click. It’s all you want to know. And by you, I mean those who claim to love Biglaw, but would jump to your own place or a smaller firm in a second if you “could make the same money.”

I know.

I know when you call me, when you come to my office to discuss the “possibility of leaving,” that it’s the only thing on your mind. Sure, you want your name on the door, more freedom, more client contact. But you just have one real question. One real fear. One real concern. One thing you need to convince your better half of before you make “the jump.”

Can I make the same money?

Here’s the answer….

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Everyone talks about how soft skills are important for success. Soft skills, also referred to as people skills, EQ, et cetera, are key to influence, persuasion, karaoke smack-talk, and many other aspects of being a savvy lawyer and advocate. They’re essential for both in-house and law firm attorneys. But what are soft skills exactly?

We often know when soft skills are at play, such as when an employee is confronted by a group of hostile workers and is able to calm them down before they go too far and, God forbid, blog their grievances. Figuring out a definition, though, is kind of difficult. I decided to try asking my social media circles: “What’s your definition of soft skills?” I received many informative responses such as: “the ones I don’t have,” “skills our parents never taught us,” “hmm, that’s a hard one,” and “are we keeping this discussion R-rated and under?” Thanks people, very helpful.

Soft skills are difficult to define, in part because it’s easier to talk about them in relation to what they aren’t — hard skills. Hard skills are the technical information and expertise we need to do our job. Soft skills are basically everything else. Hard skills are quantifiable and more readily measurable. State bars test hard skills. Soft skills are behavioral and more difficult to quantify. Dive bars test soft skills. They involve a spectrum of behaviors, including verbal and written communication, effective management, overall leadership, and how to get the IT guy to fix your computer first. In sum, they’re the behaviors we engage in that impact our overall effectiveness on the job….

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I’m writing this wearing my new bifocals. They take some getting used to after years of regular glasses and contacts. But, after watching me examine small print like I was Mr. Magoo, my wife convinced me that it was time to take a symbolic plunge toward middle age. I admit to no small amount of trepidation at the prospect of wearing “old folks” glasses. But the risk of not seeing properly finally outweighed my vanity, and a change had to be made.

And so it goes with some legal decisions in-house. When faced with a dilemma, you weigh the risks versus rewards, and pull the trigger on what you hope is the right decision.

In a company the size of mine, people have performed risk/reward analyses on legal issues for years, down to the proper placement of semicolons in contract clauses. To borrow from the iPhone ads, yep, there’s a committee for that. We have Lean Six Sigma belts of all colors who are subject matter experts in every facet of our business. There are folks with many years of experience, who own any number of policies from which I am to draw when making decisions. It sounds on paper like filling in the blanks will get you where you need to go, but that is far from reality.

In a perfect world, for my job anyway, a Customer would receive a proposed agreement, see the inherent fairness in the document (and the work that went into carefully crafting all those clauses and semicolons), and sign on the dotted line. But sadly, life isn’t perfect, and I have yet to receive a contract back without so much as a redline….

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