Small Law Firms

It’s not all doom and gloom in the Back In The Race series. Despite getting ignored or getting countless rejection letters from law firms big and small, I like to have a little fun with my job search. So today, I will share my experience at an interview with a firm I had no interest in working for. Thanks to Above The Law’s generous contributor compensation plan, retirement benefits and student loan repayment assistance program, I can afford to be slightly more picky when it comes to choosing employers.

Over the weekend, a recruiter asked if I would be interested in meeting with a local solo practitioner who seeks to hire an associate. After learning a little bit about her and her area of practice, I knew it wasn’t going to work between us. But I decided to go to this interview anyway just so I could play the role of the demanding, entitled special snowflake and see her reaction.

So let’s find out who the lucky solo is and see how it all went…

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Fictional depictions of high-powered executives and lawyers feature personal assistants with job portfolios more akin to “slave child” than “professional.” Sometimes these assistants are associates, but usually they’re in some other job — like legal secretaries, or whatever Waylon Smithers does. These jobs don’t usually exist in real life. Sure, a partner might ask a paralegal or secretary for a cup of coffee, but they aren’t really so full of themselves as to expect some low-wage employee to peel grapes and fan palm leaves.

Unless you’re this guy, of course. This guy is a partner who wants an employee to “reduce my stress level” by handling every task that he feels is beneath his lofty stature. Behold someone so out of touch with basic decency….

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The week before Labor Day is one of my favorite weeks of the year. Has been for a long time. Even during my decade-plus in Biglaw, a fact that may be shocking to those who believe that the Biglaw experience ranges from the tolerable to the miserable — and never enjoyable. But even for those who feel trapped in the ravenous clutches of the insatiable Biglaw billable hours beast, the end of August almost always offers a welcome, if brief, respite. Because late August is prime Biglaw vacation season, and offices nationwide are running on a skeleton staff.

Partners, and even some associates, are trying to squeeze in some family time before the start of school. The younger set is off for a final round of beach weekends, or just enjoying lazy days in the office, relishing the chance to kick out at a normal hour. With time to hit the gym, before a meal in a real restaurant, rather than a Seamless-delivered dinner in a takeout tray. During my Biglaw years, the end of August meant the last few days of commuting down to the Jersey Shore by ferry from Manhattan, with twilight views of the Statue of Liberty and the Verrazano Bridge. Moments of serenity, even in a city of perpetual motion.

The end of summer can be wonderful, and the temptation to milk the most relaxation out of the waning days of the season great. But it would be a mistake to view this period as only one of enjoyment….

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Keith Lee

Because I’m a glutton for punishment (I’m writing for ATL aren’t I?), every now and then I will trawl through SSRN to see if there is anything worthwhile to read. Usually there isn’t. Mostly it’s stuff like Harry Potter and the Law or whatever. It can be hard finding substantive, interesting material to read among the cruft. The other problem is that the authors are publishing articles in law reviews — which no one reads. It’s far better to submit an article to a blog (or set up your own), if you really want to reach people. I gather the point is not to be read, but instead to have an extra line on your résumé. But I digress.

I stumbled across an older (2003) article on the perceptions of various members of the profession on the writing skills of new lawyers entitled How Judges, Practitioners  and Legal Writing Teachers Assess the Writing Skills of New Law Graduates: A Comparative Study, by Susan Hanley Kosse and David T. Ritchie.

It is a rather broad study covering a number of issues that arise from the quality of legal writing among new lawyers. In particular how established members of the profession view the writing skills of new lawyers. So how did they fare?

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Bruce Stachenfeld

There – I always wanted to write an article that had such a strange title that people would look at it and wonder what I was talking about. So here goes….

Everyone just loves to beat up on the big law firms. I keep reading articles everywhere that say:

They are overpriced.

They are inefficient.

Their partnerships destroy innovation.

They are terrible places to work – sweatshops – associates are worked to death until they quit.

Their business model is broken.

There was even a book that came out a year or so ago with a great title, The Lawyer Bubble: A Profession in Crisis (affiliate link). To me the book described the law business as part of a dying profession that is enmeshed in a conspiracy to ruin the lives of all in it — except the fat-cat senior partners at the top of the pyramid. I admit I read it a while ago and it is a bit hazy in my mind, but the author, a former Kirkland & Ellis partner, clearly is not a fan of the current state of Biglaw….

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When starting out, solo practitioners have to find clients. The traditional way, through networking and advertising, will get mixed results. So some think outside the box and try to find new ways to get people’s attention. Some attorneys have fantasized about setting up a hybrid business combining law and something else.

Law practice can successfully complement other work because of overlap. It is not unusual to see attorney/CPAs practicing in the areas of tax, business, and finance. I have also seen estate planning attorneys double as financial planners. And I have seen too many real estate lawyers work as sales agents or brokers on the side.

But once in a while, someone proposes a business that tries to combine law practice with something that seems totally unrelated, such as clothing sales or a bakery (I know some attorneys who have actually proposed these). These ideas sound crazy and in most cases go no further than that. But a brave few have ran with it. And some are seriously considering it in light of the terrible job market.

While I don’t want to wish ill on someone who is legitimately trying to make a living and taking a risk, I think most legal hybrid business plans are not viable. Not to mention sounding silly. Click onwards to find out why…

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A few weeks ago, I discussed whether it was possible to go paperless. I want to pick up where I left off and drop a few more tips for how to go paperless and why it’s important. For me, as a solo practitioner, I have to be efficient. It’s how I keep an edge over other small firms and how I level the playing ground with big firms. But, it’s not all about competing with others. I reduce my paper use because I am just way too busy to spend 3 hours doing something that I could do in 30 minutes.

Also, just to be clear, when I say “paperless,” I really mean “mostly paperless.” It is not possible or practical to go entirely paperless in this current decade, but I think that the less paper we use, the better.

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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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