Small Law Firms

Of course I took an interest in Jordan Weissmann’s Slate articles saying that now could be the best time to go to law school. He argues that because of the continuing drop in law school applicants and the supposed increase or stabilization in law school recruiting, future graduates have a good chance of getting entry-level positions in law firms or those “corporate positions of distinction.” Despite this, Weissmann warns readers that “most people should not attend law school,” and that “some lower-ranked schools will continue to deliver miserable job prospects for their students.

But Weissmann’s articles — as well as Elie Mystal’s and Joe Patrice’s excellent responses to them — did not adequately address one question that was important to me: How seriously do employers consider experienced attorneys for entry-level legal positions?

Click onwards to read about my personal experience applying to one of these entry-level positions, and my thoughts about the advantages and disadvantages of hiring a newbie versus a veteran….

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On Monday, we noted the surprising news of a young partner leaving Wachtell Lipton to start his own boutique firm. Given the rarity of partner departures from the super-lucrative Wachtell, my colleague Staci Zaretsky described the news as “basically like seeing a unicorn.”

Why did Jeremy Goldstein, a 40-year-old partner in the firm’s executive-compensation practice, leave WLRK? The American Lawyer piece about Goldstein’s move painted a happy picture of a lawyer striking out on his own to be more entrepreneurial and to run his own business.

But we wonder if there’s more to this story than meets the eye….

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I didn’t know what Prezi was at the beginning of the year. I first heard about it at LegalTech New York in February. Since then, I’ve seen it all over the place and heard of lawyers using it in trial. I have since used it a couple of times, so I am going to explain the benefits and the drawbacks and how to use it effectively.

What Is Prezi?

When you start a Prezi presentation, you begin with a big blank slate. You place pictures and text boxes on your blank slate and pan and zoom into them. Instead of going from slide to slide, you pan from focal point to focal point on your big canvas. The cool part about it is the zooming. You can zoom way into something. So, say you are doing a case about blood clotting and you want to show what it looks like on a cellular level, you would do it like this:

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Biglaw associates are used to the “black hole” effect when it comes to their assignments. Sure the work is important and valuable, but because of the disconnect between a typical Biglaw attorney and an actual client, it can feel like any given assignment is destined for a “black hole,” rather than serving as a building block for solving a client’s problem. The further removed the lawyer is from the client, the more pronounced the effect. It can be a morale drainer, especially if it looks like the lawyer will never get the chance to work directly with a client on a matter of significance.

Working at a boutique or smaller firm, where there is more direct client contact by necessity, presents a different challenge to a lawyer’s motivation than the “black hole” effect. Because at a smaller firm, or even for partners in Biglaw firm lucky enough to make the adjustment from service partner to a true “counselor,” the lawyer in close contact with a client must confront the inherent limits in the attorney-client relationship. Yes, it can be much more rewarding to have a practice where you feel like you are partnering with your client to get things done. But it becomes all the more frustrating when you give advice, even good advice, that goes unheeded by that same client….

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Keith Lee

The other day I walked into my local Starbucks. It was moderately full but there was only one other couple in line. I placed my order after the couple in front of me (tall, skinny chai, extra hot), then sat down to wait. I pulled out my phone and thumbed it to life, scrolling through emails, checking Twitter, the usual. After a bit, I realized I had been sitting there for a few minutes without hearing my order.

The couple in front of me had gotten their order and were doctoring their coffees with condiments. The barista behind the counter had a flicker of motivation as he looked down at the ready area of the Starbucks bar. He was a typical-looking Starbucks barista — mid-to-late twenties, tall, skinny, bearded, with thick-framed glasses. A general demeanor of indifference.

“TALL SKINNY CHAI EXTRA HOT.” I walked up to the bar to get my order.

“Uh, your order has been ready for a bit but, uh, they forgot to call it out. If it’s not hot enough, I guess I can make you a new one or whatever….”

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I’m writing today’s column from New York City, where I’m covering Thomson Reuters Vantage 2014, a great conference focused on mid-sized and large law firms’ use of technology. There have been fascinating discussions about how larger law firms are adapting to change and are incorporating some of the latest technologies into their IT infrastructure. Not surprisingly, however, it turns out that like solo and small-firm attorneys, large and mid-sized law firms are often just as reluctant to adopt new technologies and processes despite overwhelming evidence that doing so is the best way to stay competitive.

But the good news gleaned from this conference is that some larger firms are adapting, just as many solo and small firms are. And that’s my goal with this column: to showcase how individual solo and small-firm lawyers are using new technologies in their day-to-day practices. In the process, my columns will hopefully encourage and help other lawyers to do the same.

In today’s column I’ll be featuring Jill Paperno. Jill is a long-time assistant public defender, having worked at the Monroe County Public Defender’s Office in Rochester, New York for over 27 years. She’s currently the Second Assistant Public Defender and is the author of Representing the Accused: A Practical Guide to Criminal Defense (affiliate link). In other words, Jill is a diehard criminal defense attorney and has dedicated her life to defending our constitutional rights.

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I participate in at least one group discussion per month where a lawyer — employed or not — asks the collective for advice about starting a solo practice. These nonbelievers envy our independence and our ability to adapt quickly to client needs and changing trends.

We respond with the usual tried and usually true advice: Get ready for uncertain income. Don’t overspend. Don’t underspend. Find a mentor. Find another one. Practice in a unique niche you are passionate about, but also serve the needs of the community. Have a sales mentality. And did I mention network?

After the jump, I will talk about a few other things an unemployed lawyer aspiring solo practitioner should also consider — and rant about the worst reason to start a solo practice….

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Are you tired of getting the same questions over and over again from prospective or existing clients?  Should I choose an LLC or incorporation?  Will I lose my house in bankruptcy?  What is a power of attorney?  How long will my divorce take?  Rather than respond to these same questions over and over, why not school your clients instead?

These days, schooling clients is easy. With the rise of online training and college courses, a broader segment of the population is now familiar with online education. Plus, there are a variety of powerful free tools to create online educational programs to educate clients so that they’ll have a grasp of the basics.

Here’s my experience with some of those tools….

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Keith Lee

Before my partners and I started our own firm, I worked for a small insurance defense firm. It was a statewide practice, as most insurance firms are. Often times I would have to drive hours to some small county in the state for a 20-minute hearing, then get back in the car and drive right back.

I clearly recall one day when I spent roughly eight hours round-trip in the car, to attend one of those hearings that only took a little over 30 minutes. In the litany of intricacies of practice that law school does not adequately prepare law students for, add long car drives to the list.

That being said, I don’t really mind it. I rather enjoy the time alone in the car. It’s nice to be disconnected from things and alone with your thoughts. I listened to podcasts. I watched the pine trees go past mile after mile. I sat in silence, only the hum of the road to accompany me. In the hustle of drafting documents, responding to emails, returning phone calls, and meeting with clients, a few hours alone can be a respite….

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Jonathan Birenbaum

Ed. note: This is the latest installment in a series of posts on lateral partner moves from Lateral Link’s team of expert contributors. Jonathan Birenbaum is a Director in our New York office and focuses his practices on lateral partner, group and associate placements and client services in the New York area and Canada. Prior to joining Lateral Link, Jon, was a legal recruiter with a New York City boutique legal recruiting company where he placed associates and partners in a variety of practice areas with AmLaw, regional and boutique law firms in New York, California, New Mexico and in Toronto. Prior to his career in legal recruiting, Jon was a litigator with the City of New York, the New York State Attorney General’s Office and in private practice as a healthcare litigator with two New York City firms. Jon holds a J.D. from St. John’s University School of Law in New York and a B.A. in Political Science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

I started out as a legal recruiter in 2007. After success with a series of lateral associate placements, the recession hit and associate hiring slowed significantly. The owner of my recruiting firm encouraged us to start cultivating a partner portfolio to broaden the scope of our work. Since then, I have facilitated numerous lateral partner placements with regional, Am Law 200, and boutique law firms. I have come to understand that the recruiting process can differ greatly with the size of the law firm. Partner candidates and their recruiters must take these differences as well as the candidate’s scheduling and timing needs into account when devising the best search strategy for that individual.

The first partner I recruited was an undercompensated yet well-respected defense litigator. I introduced him to an Am Law 200 firm as well as to a regional firm based in Pennsylvania. My candidate appealed to both firms because of his national reputation, the key client he represented (a major North American transportation client), and his history of strong billables and collections. Both firms immediately expressed an interest in meeting with him….

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