Small Law Firms

Last week’s column discussed the underappreciated role that second chairs play in modern litigation practice. But how best to fill the role, once it is earned?

The easy answer is fanatical preparation. Meaning you will need to prepare for every hearing, no matter how minor, as if you were going to be handling the argument yourself. Or if you are at trial, and supporting another lawyer on the testimony (be it direct or cross) of a witness, preparing as if you were conducting the examination. Apply the “laryngitis test” if you need motivation, as in what would you do if the first chair woke up that morning without a voice? Knowing that you could be thrust into the spotlight on short notice should be motivation enough for thorough preparation.

But you also need to put that preparation to good use. Arguing in open court is difficult, for even the most seasoned advocates. If you are being asked to sit at counsel table, the idea is not for you to admire the wood paneling in the courtroom. The expectation is that you will put your knowledge of the case to work, by anticipating the flow of the argument, and making sure that whoever is arguing has any needed information readily available for immediate use. When your partner is speaking, that means keeping track of whether they will need to refer to a document along the way. Or whether they have forgotten to raise an important point. For that latter reason, working out a non-intrusive note passing system in advance can be worthwhile. The key is not to disturb the flow of the argument, but to enhance its effectiveness. If you have nothing to contribute, you should not be sitting there wasting the client’s money. The need to be “active” does not give license to hijack the hearing or cause distraction, of course. Engaged listening at all times and sparing active participation are the better approach in almost all cases.

double red triangle arrows Continue reading “Beyond Biglaw: Warming the Chair (Part 2)”

Looking into the crystal ball.

Last week, at Minnesota’s Strategic Solutions for Solo and Small Firms Conference, I shared a panel with Lawyerist’s Sam Glover and an innovational speaker, Matt Homann. The panel focused on the future of solo and small-firm practice over the next ten years. Although we all agreed that the solos and smalls — and, indeed, lawyers in general — will face challenges over the next decade, I still believe that opportunities remain for solos who understand these challenges and figure out ways to overcome them.

So, no great surprise there. But all of us on the panel agreed that technology is changing the face of law practice in a way that may expand access to justice but that may also take work from solos and smalls….

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Keith Lee

One of the first realities that new lawyers come to confront as they graduate law school — whether it be on their own or within a firm — is that clients are the life blood of practice. No clients, no practice.

This often comes as a surprise to new lawyers. Despite the the glut of lawyers, declining legal industry, and overall economic malaise, many new lawyers still think that clients will magically appear once they have received their J.D. and passed the bar. A few months into practice, they are quickly dissuaded of this notion.

Instead, they learn that clients must be developed or found.

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“Tear gas?”
“Wait, was that a flash grenade?”
“Oh, now there’s a picture!”
“They arrested journalists… just for being in a McDonald’s?”
“Now the arrested reporters are back online!”

Last night, many of us fixated on our Twitter feeds to follow, in real time, every breaking development in Ferguson, Missouri. The hashtag acted as a latter day, crowdsourced ticker tape keeping those miles away from the town — clear to Gaza — abreast as the peaceful protests brought on a symbolically striking military-style occupation, complete with the use of gas and rubber bullets and the arrest of journalists for performing their constitutionally protected jobs.

That’s what Twitter did that was awesome. Unfortunately, last night also put on display everything awful about Twitter. Everything that people mistake it to be when they set up a handle and broadcast their message to the world in 140 character segments. Others have tackled what Ferguson means in the grand scheme of criminal law and what lawyers should do in response to Ferguson. But there are also lessons to be learned from “#Ferguson” — the cyber place that conveyed the events of Ferguson — and the opinions of casual observers — to the world.

Lessons that all technologically connected lawyers, and frankly everyone, can use….

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Over the last four weeks, I continued to apply to various legal jobs and some non-law jobs. As was the case in my previous letter-writing campaigns, most of firms I applied to did not respond at all. But I also received a fair number of rejection letters and emails. This is the fourth-tier reality.

When I was a student and later fresh out of law school, getting rejection letters was devastating. But now that I’m a few years out and run a small practice, they don’t bother me so much anymore. In fact, they gave me the impetus to warn students about going to law school.

Today I will analyze the common and uncommon rejection letters that I received.

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I spent ten hours in a deposition on yesterday in the office of a large law firm in Los Angeles. Just looking around the room, I noticed two things: 1) they were better dressed than we were, and 2) our computers were so much better than theirs. I stepped out into the hallway and noticed that a lot of their hardware was stuff that a public school would auction off. It reminded me of the first few years of my legal career when I worked in a large law firm. We had all the amenities you could want. All of our legal pads were branded with our firm’s logo, and we wrote on them with pens that had our firm’s logo branded on them. I ate lunch every day in our break room that looked over the ocean. But, when lunch was over, I would go back to my desk and work on Office ’97 on my bulky CRT monitor. This is because large law firms are very big, slow-moving beasts, especially when it comes to technology.

My fellow columnist Nicole Black wrote an article last week about how a small firm is using technology to keep up with Biglaw firms. This is not a fantasy. When I was working at the aforementioned large law firm, my boss told me a story about a solo practitioner. By way of background, we represented a Fortune 500 company, had an army of Ivy League attorneys, and almost unlimited resources. Despite all that, this solo practitioner was able to run circles around us. He was better organized and was able to do things more efficiently. The case we had against him was before my time, so I had no idea if it was true, but the important thing was that, having seen how the sausage was made there, I knew it was absolutely possible.

Here’s why:

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There are certain legal skills of critical importance that receive the same level of attention as a mid-summer pilot for a sitcom not expected to make it to the fall slate. In fact, there is usually a disconnect, particularly in Biglaw, between what is “taught” and what lawyers really need to learn as they develop. A recent anniversary of sorts reminded me of an example. Let’s discuss the notably unglamorous, but often critically important, role of “second chair” at a hearing or trial.

For the uninitiated, the typical hierarchy on a litigation matter for lawyers is support (faceless associate research drones), team member (associate or higher who is “on the case” but may not even get to sit at counsel table), second chair (trusty lieutenant, perhaps content in the role, or perhaps gunning for more), and first chair (field marshal winning the war and the peace on behalf of a grateful if lighter-pocketed client.)

August is the anniversary of my first patent trial, well over a decade ago….

double red triangle arrows Continue reading “Beyond Biglaw: Warming the Chair (Part 1)”

Keith Lee

For years now, there have been cries for more affordable “Access To Justice.” That is, to find ways to provide legal representation to those with low to modest income. From the federal government,  to the states, and all the way down to individual counties, there have been a variety of initiatives bandied about that seek to bridge the access to justice gap. Sure there are public defenders, but they are overworked and legal aid is spread thin. So people continue to try new ways to provide affordable legal services. And a few lawyers in Utah think they have an idea to solve the problem…

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I’m sitting in a Vancouver, BC coffee shop with Gerry Riskin, author of the Amazing Firms, Amazing Practices blog. We’re talking about leadership and the differing mindsets of lawyers and business people. Our conversation was prompted by Gerry’s mindset slide:

The Professional's Mindset and the Slight Edge Theory

I can relate. Early in my legal career, I worked with lawyers in leadership roles who wore this mindset like body armor. They did not inspire. They did not act in ways that moved people closer to a common goal. They often left a bad wake. They lacked awareness. They were not good leaders….

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Bruce Stachenfeld

I am famous for a saying. Actually I am not really famous, but I have a saying that I have been, well, saying for years, as follows:

“Lawyers are only happy when they’re miserable.”

What I mean is this: You are working round-the-clock so much you haven’t even been home for a full day and hardly at all for a month on a doozie of a deal. You are completely sick of it. All you can think of is when the deal will be “over.” You are clearly “miserable.” If only you could have your personal life back! Then, finally, the deal closes — at last. Your client is wiring out the funds. As the transfer of funds is happening, a (terrible) thought races through your mind. You hate yourself for the thought — you try not to have the thought — but you simply can’t help it… and the thought is that you are kind of worried because you have nothing to do now and that is disquieting… gee, what if work has really slowed… at some point this will be a real problem. You’ve had your personal life back for maybe a second — you haven’t even taken a shower — and you are worrying where your next deal will come from.

Or the other way around. Work has been slow — very slow — for a couple of months. You have enjoyed some rounds of golf and gone out to a bunch of dinners and lunches, but you really would like a nice tricky and challenging deal to sink your teeth into. And of course you are mindful of the fact that like it or not lawyers just have to bill hours. That is how we make a living, and you just aren’t billing hours. Not a good thing. You are edgy — if only you could have a big deal to work on….

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