Small Law Firms

Bruce Stachenfeld

Of all the regrets I have in life, one of my greatest is that I never had the chance to meet Peter Drucker before he died.

Drucker is one of my intellectual heroes. He was able to look at the same world that everyone else was looking at but see things that others couldn’t see. He literally invented a science. And like all science, it is around you from the start but you just can’t see it till someone shows you the way.

The science he invented was the science of “management.” Before Drucker, people just ran things and sometimes good things happened and sometimes bad things — no one really delved too deeply into the “why” of it all. But then along came Drucker, who made order out of chaos and realized that there were principles that, if followed, would increase the likelihood a business would be successful.

All those leadership books you sometimes read, all those “how to” books you sometimes read, all of that thinking evolved from his groundbreaking analysis into the science of “management.” Drucker’s books are utter masterpieces. Indeed, there was an epiphany for me on every single page of his amazing book Management (affiliate link). I think I learned more about how to run my law firm successfully from Drucker than from any other source.

Here are two thoughts from Drucker that hit me like a bolt of lightning when I read them. Honestly, my business — and even my whole life — was never the same again.

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The current discussion regarding the decision by Dentons not to report its average profits per partner (“PPP”) to the American Lawyer is interesting. While I was at Greenberg Traurig, then-CEO Cesar Alvarez used to have a pithy statement on the whole PPP issue, along the lines of: The only thing partners really care about is “profits per me.” There is a lot of wisdom in that statement. In my experience it is true for existing Biglaw partners, potential laterals, and those (fool?) hardy associates aspiring to partnership.

At the same time, the popularity of the American Lawyer’s various charts and rankings can’t be denied. And PPP is one of the catchier columns on those charts. It is used as a proxy for determining everything from firm prestige, to strength of client relationships, to how well a firm is managed.

Savvy associates can and do use it to determine associate quality of life at a particular firm. Your firm has a blazing PPP and no big contingency windfalls feeding the flames? Good chance you are looking at a never-ending flow of “interesting work,” coupled with the partnership prospects of a diminutive drone buzzing around hoping to get noticed by the queen bee. In contrast, you might enjoy a better lifestyle if employed as associate #614 by a Biglaw 2.0 monolith, but you also run the distinct risk of making partner only to realize that the financial gulf between you and the “real” partners is a broad one….

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Not surprisingly, most small business owners rarely take vacation. According to a 2013 Sage Reinvention of Business Study, 43 percent of small business owners take less vacation time than they did five years ago. And from what I’ve observed among my fellow solos, vacations are even fewer and farther between. In fact, it’s not uncommon to find many solo and small firm attorneys who haven’t taken more than an extended three-day weekend as vacation in five years or more.

Solos’ reluctance to take vacation isn’t surprising. Some feel that they may miss out on a major client if they’re away from the office more than a couple of days, while others are so overwhelmed with work that they feel that they can’t make the time. Of course, cost is a factor as well, and it’s a veritable triple whammy what with the cost of the trip itself, lost revenues with fewer billable hours and the cost of bringing in an assistant or backup lawyer to cover cases.

Still, there are also costs to skipping vacation for years on end. Solos who never take a break experience burnout, reduced productivity and loss of time with family. Moreover, without vacation (and somewhat counter-intuitively), solos miss out on an opportunity to improve their practices….

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Keith Lee

There seems to be a general lament among the elder generation of lawyers in regards to the quality of new law school graduates. Simultaneously, there is also a cacophony of complaints from recent law school graduates about the general state of the legal profession and the dissonance between what they felt they should have received from their law school education. See all the assorted “scamblawgs.”

The older generation’s complaint seems to be that Gen Y grads are, well, complaining too much. Gen Y needs to strap on their big-boy (or girl) pants and get on with it.

Gen Y grads seem to be saying they just haven’t been given the opportunity…

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Over the last few weeks, I have been researching law firms and businesses with in-house legal departments. I checked each firm to see if they hired anyone from my alma mater or a comparably ranked school. I also checked the firms’ rankings both in certain specialties and their overall profitability.

Then I tried something more difficult – finding employee turnover rates and overall employee satisfaction. This information is important to me but is pretty much impossible to get without deeper digging and contacting people. The career counselor I talked to gave me some names of people who may be able to get more detailed information. If there was one thing I learned in law school, it was to find the negative information yourself because you should never trust the numbers on a company’s sales presentations and recruiting materials.

After the jump is a small sample of the prospective firms I researched, listed in no particular order.

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Every couple of months, I get a legal technology newsletter that mentions the Word vs. WordPerfect debate. It’s not so much a debate as it is a handful of lawyers arguing with everyone that WordPerfect is better than Word. I’ve had this discussion in person multiple times before as well. A few months ago, an attorney tried to convince me that WordPerfect is better because you can press ctrl+c and ctrl+v to copy and then paste text. People usually bring up that federal courts require proposed orders to be in WordPerfect format (although this is no longer true). No matter what the argument is, there is usually some name calling.

WordPerfect is like Latin. It’s dead and used only by lawyers. When I see people arguing why WordPerfect should still exist, I always picture that person as someone who still has a Gore/Lieberman bumper sticker on their car. It’s over. Decisively over. It is the betamax of word processing software. It has lost the race.

Most people have moved on from WordPerfect for the same reason that language was invented in the first place: to communicate with others. You cannot share .wpd files with people outside your office. Unless you represent Corel, your client probably has Word. Sure you can open a .wpd in Word or save a WordPerfect file as a Word document, but the formatting is so screwed up that it’s usually unusable as a pleading. And, sure you can save it as a .pdf, but then you might as well print it and scan it.

Here are the arguments that I see every time on this issue:

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Since Lat tweeted this past weekend about my UpCounsel profile, I thought I would share some thoughts about my experience with the service to date. First off, compared to leaving a Biglaw partnership to open a new firm, trying out a new legal platform was easy. I first heard about UpCounsel from a former in-house client who had struck out on his own. He happens to now be back in-house, but at the time we discussed UpCounsel, he was very enthusiastic about his experience using the site. Since I happen to like trying out new things, signing up once I left Biglaw was an easy decision.

Notice how I did not join UpCounsel while a Biglaw partner. Such things are simply not done. For all of Biglaw’s talk about encouraging partners to be “entrepreneurial” or to “try new marketing ideas,” there is a lot of resistance to using “new ways” to reach potential new clients. Couple that inertia with a general distaste towards marketing individual lawyers at the expense of “firm branding” (aside from a select group of key current rainmakers), and platforms like UpCounsel face a Tough Mudder-level set of obstacles to overcome if they want to break into the Biglaw firm marketing rotation. But I don’t think UpCounsel and their “evolution of legal services”-oriented kin want to….

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Keith Lee

One of the great, unspoken realities of being a new lawyer that is never mentioned in law school is that you are going to screw up – badly. And then you’re going to have to explain it to your client or supervising attorney.

You’re going to miss a deadline, not file an objection, miss some case law, or not contact an attorney involved in the case on a hearing. A mistake is going to be made and it will be your fault.

You may be tempted to try and shift the blame. Come up with excuses as to why something outside of your control caused the problem. That you were swamped with work and had too much on your plate. He said, she said. But if it was a task assigned to you, it is your personal responsibility to make sure it was completed on time and specification.

As the task, and subsequent mistake, are your responsibility – you must own it….

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Bruce Stachenfeld

I give credit for the inspiration of this article to a writer named Seth Godin who wrote a book called The Purple Cow (affiliate link). My law firm benefited hugely from this book.

The theory of the Purple Cow in a nutshell is that you should try to STAND OUT like a purple cow would stand out from the other mere brown cows. If you don’t STAND OUT, then you just blend in, and you are nothing at all.

Okay, so that is a good point – as if you didn’t know that already. But it is not that simple. And here is why. Our instincts and everything we learn every day – our emotions, our colleagues, and our loved ones – all lead us in the safe (and wrong) direction.

And the reason for this is very simple:

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When the world economy took a gigantic dump in 2008, among the many people whose jobs were flushed down the toilet were in-house recruiters and human resources employees of mid-size and large companies. Some of them began writing op-ed pieces on the internet advising employers how they should weed out the many résumés they received during those difficult times. By far, the most controversial advice was: Don’t hire the unemployed.

In the last few years, there were numerous news reports of employers refusing to hire the unemployed on the belief that it was the employee’s fault that he was fired. After all, if the employee worked harder by producing the extra widget or billing the extra hour, then his employer would magically generate extra business and would not have to cut staff, file bankruptcy or close up shop. And the housing market would not have collapsed. This irrational, unfair and possibly racist practice got so prevalent that some states and the federal government have enacted or proposed laws prohibiting this practice.

Now that the economy is supposedly recovering, has this practice declined? As far as law firm hiring is concerned, employers just became more covert about it….

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