Brian Tannebaum

You loved that story, huh? Couldn’t get enough of Ms. “F**k You” to the judge. Everyone ran right to YouTube, 7,000,000 times. Non-practicing “legal experts” claimed they knew exactly why this was the wrong/right thing for the judge to do, while the coddlers and tough-love morality commentators claimed this was an example of a bigger problem.

So yeah, young people just in to the jail from a drug-induced night out don’t always have the best manners. Sometimes they say “f**k you” to people who are in a position to help them.

So do lawyers and law students.

Lawyers, you are the worst at valuing your colleagues time. You have a legal issue or question, you feel entitled to advice, case law, representation. You feel entitled to the extent that your appreciation is often nonexistent. You often want referrals to lawyers that will help you or your client for free because, well, now that you’ve been paid, there’s no more money.

Relax, I actually do have some examples….

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This is a post about the internet, and yes, it’s about small law firms.

You’re still in the race to page one of Google. Nothing is more important. It’s tiring. Your marketeer tells you that blogging is king. You don’t have time to blog, you need clients now — you aren’t interested in waiting for some client to think you had something interesting to say in your blog, and in turn, call your office, or some lawyer to read what you wrote and refer you a case.

Not a problem, says the marketeer. It doesn’t matter what you write, as long as your website is linked throughout the posts, like this:

Recently, this Craptown family lawyer read about a father being held in contempt for failing to pay child support. This case was not in Craptown and did not involve a Craptown family lawyer. As a Craptown family lawyer, it is important that anyone in Craptown who has a problem with Craptown family law call a Craptown family lawyer. It is unclear whether the father sought the services of a Craptown family lawyer, but contempt is a bad thing and is a reason to seek out a Craptown family lawyer. So for those of you fathers that are broke, it may be time to call a Craptown family lawyer.

These blogs all suck, say nothing, and exist only based on the marketeer’s promise of clients finding you via Google and dropping off a pile of cash at your office. The authors are very very very proud of their prose, as the marketeers cheer on their attempts to game Google. “Hey man, that last post was great, you had 27 links to your website.”

Obviously, this doesn’t apply to the vast amounts of Biglaw associates who read every single word of this column under duress every single week while waiting for their next assignment, but for those small firm and solo practitioners, I have a question: Does it work?

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Young lawyers just starting out with their own practice usually tell me the type of work they’re doing is “whatever comes in the door.” Of course the pedigree Biglaw types criticize that type of practice, but probably don’t know that when the now dead founders of their firm started, they probably had a similar type of practice. They did real estate work, wrote a will, and maybe even (God forbid) found themselves defending a client in criminal court. At some point, they developed a practice and became known for a certain type of lawyering.

What I see today is lawyers doing any kind of work in order to eat, and lawyers who are lucky enough to have a niche, but are still taking cases in which they have no idea what they are doing. It’s like the lawyer whose niche is probate, but has never stepped foot in a probate litigation case, or the lawyer who handles misdemeanor cases taking on a complex white collar case because “it’s a good fee.”

Those of us who suffer through lawyer e-mail listservs see these lawyers all the time. “Has anyone filed a motion for ____________ who can send me a copy?” That same lawyer asks for multiple documents in a period of several weeks and then asks about procedure and whether anyone knows opposing counsel. They’ve never handled a case like this, and worse, have no idea what they are doing. They’ll never realize how pathetic they look to everyone else on the list, many of whom will have an opportunity to refer a case, and will remember not to send it to them.

There’s nothing wrong with learning, unless you are learning to the detriment of the client. There’s no doubt we’ve unknowingly been on an airplane with a pilot who is in the captain’s chair for the first time, but there’s also someone sitting to the right of him.

This post isn’t simply about asking for help, it’s also about determining whether the case is something you should take. When you’re starting out, or struggling, and someone comes in with more money than you received in the last three months, you’re all too eager to pretend you know how to handle the client’s case. You’ll just take the retainer and start typing away on the listserv, or fake it and hope you can figure it out. You also hope the client will never know that they’ve hired a lawyer that has no idea what to do.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t take these cases; I’m saying you should protect your client, and yourself, in that order….

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For lawyers considering opening up their own shop, malpractice insurance is one of those areas where you’re probably clueless. So you’ll rely on your friend’s recommendation for a carrier, or you’ll just call a few companies who advertise in the Bar publications and see if you can “get the best deal.”

As usual, I’m here to make your life easier with truthful information that you can actually use. No no, don’t thank me. I feel your appreciation.

For purposes of this post, I interviewed Sam Cohen of Attorneys First. Sam is a Florida-based broker. He is licensed in Georgia and has access to other brokers throughout the United States. Now before you gutter dwellers down there in the comment section start hypothesizing (I think that’s the biggest word I’ve used here) about my relationship with Sam, let me burst your conspiracy bubble.

Sam and I are long-time friends and have never done business together.

Some years ago, I was referred to Sam when my policy was up for renewal. He went out and got quotes from a half dozen companies, compared them to my policy, and determined that what I had was the best. So he made zero dollars, and based on his against-his-financial-interest honesty, I refer everyone to him. (There’s a lesson in there somewhere).

Here’s the interview….

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There’s no lack of advice these days about what lawyers should be doing to get clients or run their practices. And you take it. You take the advice of the former lawyers with no clients or practices, or the perennial failures who understand that lawyers are gullible when it comes to advice about making money. But still, you take it, or God forbid, pay for it.

So you create a Facebook Fan Page for your law firm and ask everyone to “like” your page. You go on LinkedIn and join groups. You go on Avvo.com and ask lawyers to endorse you. Your website is “awesome” and you’ve got an e-mail newsletter campaign going. Offline, you do the Bar association networking circuit. You’ve met some people for lunch, and you even had an article published. By the way, you’re also a good lawyer and have some happy clients.

But the phone isn’t ringing, or isn’t ringing enough. You get to the point of frustration, and start thinking of discontinuing part of your marketing, or worse, closing your practice.

Let’s be honest, some of you won’t make it. You’re decent lawyers but have no business sense. Some lawyers need to work for someone else. That’s why we have Biglaw, so really smart people with no ability to make a buck on their own can pretend they are superior.

Let’s say though that quitting is not an option, but neither is continuing on this path. You’re just trying to figure out which of the half-dozen things you’re doing is worth continuing, and what else you need to do.

So I’ll take a stab at it. My apologies for being a lawyer with clients and a practice, as I know I’m not the typical guru selling you on the dream….

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Paul Cravath does not approve of this post.

Light years away and in the distant future, perhaps some alien grad student in Defunct Planet Studies will stumble onto the ATL archives. He’ll conclude, not unreasonably, that the legal industry was a sort of oligopoly. That there were only a handful of firms: Skadden, Cravath, Latham, Quinn Emanuel, Tannebaum Weiss, and those few others that get such a disproportionate amount of our attention. And of course, there were only 14 real law schools.

This singular obsession with “prestige,” this mindset that the most elite firms and schools are the only worthy ones, is detached from the experiences of the vast majority of lawyers practicing at the 50,000 other firms and the students at the 180+ other law schools. Back in December, we had a little debate about the effect of prestige in the legal industry. In the spirit of the “prestige obsession is bad” side of that argument, we thought it would be worthwhile to see which firms and schools outside of the very top tiers are, according to insiders, great places to work or learn.

Over the course of 2012, we received close to 10,000 responses to our ATL Insider Survey, where lawyers rate their firms based on compensation, culture, morale, training, and culture, and students and alumni rate their schools based on academics, social life, clinical training, career services, and financial aid advising. Based on our survey, the most highly rated firms and schools also happened to among the most prestigious (e.g., Stanford, Davis Polk), but there is certainly not a correlation between prestige and insider rating.

After the jump, we’ll see which schools outside of the T14 and which firms outside the Vault 50 were rated the highest by their own people….

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First, because it’s required, Happy New Year. I don’t really care whether you had a nice holiday or New Year’s Eve, neither do the others that ask you and feign concern.

Now let’s move on to more important topics, like working for free.

We all do it. We all have the friend, the family member, the downtrodden college buddy out of work or just broke, or the person we owe a favor or for whom we want to do a favor because we just “feel bad,” or worse — we think something will come of it.

This week, a stat came out that there are 21,880 legal careers available for 44,000 law school graduates. I read it on the internet, so it must be true. If it is, it looks like there will be plenty of lawyers doing free work out of necessity, boredom, or as a marketing tactic.

For this discussion, actually, for most of the discussions here, I have to put in the “I know, moron” disclaimer. I know, moron, that there is no way to handle these situations with a bright line policy. For example, moron, I understand that pro bono work that you do to help the needy is not something for which you should consider charging a fee. But whenever someone writes anything on the internet, there is some moron out there who says, “But but but, what about the situation where… see, you’re wrong, you’re just wrong wrong wrong.”

So I will say this, most (he said “most”) of the time, doing work for free is a mistake….

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I cannot just write a post today without expressing that the depths of my heart go out to the parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, brothers, and sisters who sent their little one to school Friday and are now preparing funerals. As the father of two girls, I, well, you know. I just cannot imagine.

On to less important things.

It’s already starting. The lists of the 10 things not to do in 2013, 20 things to do in 2013, seven ways to be happier, five things Google will do to kill your practice, what the future holds for the future, how every lawyer in the world will be loving MySpace again in 2013, and on and on and on. None of these people will tell you that they have no idea what they are talking about. They only live to tell you at the end of the year that they were right about one of their many silly predictions, the making of which has brought them nothing (e.g., “More lawyers are using (insert shiny toy here) and this I predicted, praise me.”).

I have no such list — no to dos or do not dos. No predictions. My only prediction is that your life probably won’t change much. I say set mediocre goals. Do not try to accomplish anything extravagant. You’ll just be disappointed.

So I’m just going to tell you what I’m doing in 2013. You can do or not do these things, I don’t care. Really, I don’t….

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For those of you that have clients, and in turn, those that have referred them to you, other than an expensively created fake online presence (half, no, two-thirds of my readers just clicked off) you may be wondering how to say thank you to them this holiday season.

Not to worry, as always, I am here to help. No, no, no need to thank me, it’s my pleasure. The following is based on years of receiving crappy and awesome gifts during the holidays and provided in an effort to make you look like at one time before you became a lawyer, someone taught you good manners.

First, I know you like your name or your firm’s name or logo. No one else does. I’ve thrown out more leather binders with law firm logos, coffee mugs, pens, Godforsaken calendars, and things I’m supposed to carry around on in my golf bag that have a law firm name or logo than you’ve received.

Holidays are not a time to blatantly market your firm, they’re a time to say, “Thank you, you did something important for me.” The marketing aspect comes from making an impression without thinking that your logo in the hands of your referral source or client is something special. I know you got all excited when you opened up the box of firm logo trinkets (“Oh, awesome, this is my name on something.”), but please, throw them away….

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Brian Tannebaum, my fellow small-firm columnist, recently described as silly the notion that “success in the law doesn’t come from good legal work.” I agree with Tannebaum that success requires far more than “being able to obtain a volume of calls from a fake presence, a creation of a ‘brand,’ and trying very, very hard to get our hand to the top of the baseball bat of the internet.” But I also think that success doesn’t come just from doing good legal work. In my experience, the most talented lawyers often are not the most successful, at least by traditional definitions. Nor are the most successful lawyers the best lawyers.

For Biglaw associates, success is usually defined as making partner. Anonymous Partner recently wrote that when you make partner in Biglaw, you “occupy a new professional status, and the nature of making partner is such that no matter how badly you screw up the rest of your life, you have accomplished something very rare. It is a life milestone, on par with getting married or winning the lottery in terms of its immediate alteration of your identity.”

And who makes partner in law firms? The best writers? The best oral advocates? The most thorough? The hardest working? The most efficient? Not necessarily any of the above.

Partnership decisions vary from firm to firm, and I am not so cynical to suggest that merit plays no role. Obviously, “merit” always plays a role. It’s just that what is meritorious is in the eye of the decision-maker, and that differs from what many associates might think is most important….

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