Ed. note: This is the first installment in a new series of posts from the ATL Career Center’s team of expert contributors. Today, for the benefit of newly arrived (or soon-to-arrive) first-year associates, we have some advice from Ross Guberman on writing for the toughest audience they’ll ever face.
With the help of many clients, I recently surveyed thousands of law-firm partners about the writing skills they want to see associates develop.
Across the country and across practice areas, partners agree on what they’d like to change about associate drafts. I’ve organized their responses according to my Four Steps to Standout Legal Writing. I’ve also included a fifth category that covers usage and mechanics.
A few sample responses follow.
Step One: Concision
Partners say they spend too much time cutting clutter and other distractions from associate drafts. Anything that interrupts the message — wordy phrases, jargon, legalese, redundancy, blather, hyperbole — is a candidate for the chopping block.
How can you drive clients nuts? Let me count the ways.
First, remember that it’s really not the client’s case; it’s yours! The client retained you. You’re tending to the thing. If you win, you’re going to link to the decision from your on-line firm bio. So take the case and run with it!
When journalists call, answer their questions. (Make sure they spell your name, and your firm’s name, correctly in the published piece. Free publicity can’t hurt.) That silly little client surely trusts you to handle the press properly and, if the client doesn’t, the client’s wrong.
In fact, don’t limit yourself to handling the press. Figure out what an appropriate settlement should be, and then move the process along on your own. Call opposing counsel and tell her that you haven’t yet run this idea past your client, but you think the case should settle for 500 grand. Tell her you’ll recommend that amount if she’ll recommend that amount, and see what happens. The client will be pleased that you evaluated the case and sped the process without bothering the client at all. That’s both convenient and cost-effective: You’ll be a hero! (It’s quite unlikely the client was thinking more broadly than you are, considering the effect of settling this case on business issues, or other cases, or the like. After all, it’s your case. Don’t be a weenie; you handle it!)
Great! We’ve pushed the client one step closer to the brink of insanity. What else can we do to nudge the client over the edge?
If you take the blue pill, you wake up in law school and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill — you keep reading Above the Law, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.
Apparently no one can be told what law school is. You have to make the mistake yourself.
The ability to learn from other people’s mistakes is a mark of intelligence, but it’s not a skill shared by your average prospective law student. Despite an internet full of information, they continue to make the same mistakes when it comes to choosing a law school.
The fact that prospective law students quickly learn the error of their ways when they become actual law students only seems to emphasize their failure. By January, I’ll start getting the first emails from 1Ls saying, “I wish I had read you before I decided to go to law school.” By springtime, people who shouldn’t have started in the first place will be asking me whether they should drop out. By the time people graduate, they’ll be experts on all the things they should’ve thought about before matriculating to law school.
Kaplan actually has a new study out that confirms this obvious reality….
Before I provide some advice on client relations that will be deemed “totally wrong” by some and “good advice” by me pretending to be anonymous, I wanted you all to know that I bought a wireless printer that allows me to send documents from my phone, wherever I am, to my printer at my office. Although I currently have no use for this feature in my law practice, and haven’t in 17 years, I hope this puts me in better stead with those of you that think I hate tech.
Now let’s talk about clients, for those of you that have some.
The core of running a practice is machines and toys clients. That you are able to do competent work for clients doesn’t matter if you are not versed in the retaining and retention of them. The retention of any client starts at the initial contact, not when they come to your coffee shop office with a check. For those of you who have practices where you never meet with clients, your initial contact with them (unless it’s them using your website as an ATM to buy documents) is even more important.
While you may be in a position where the client is only calling you, most clients are calling several lawyers. Regardless, you are now auditioning for the job. That audition begins at the very moment you first speak to the client, or the person calling for the client….
Now that classes are back in session, I really hope some professor at Cardozo Law School pulls Benula Bensam aside and tells her that her keeping the story about her passing notes to Judge Jed Rakoff (S.D.N.Y.) alive is probably not helping her chances of securing a legal job.
Fair is fair is fair: Two weeks ago, I wrote about how to drive partners nuts. Last week, I wrote about how to drive associates nuts. Today, I’m continuing along the lawyers’ food chain: Secretaries (or “administrative assistants”) — it’s your turn: How can you drive your boss nuts? [FN1]
First: Your time after work is yours, to tend to your family, watch TV, go clubbing, or whatever. So you have to handle all of the other stuff — like making appointments, chatting with out-of-town friends, shopping, and the like — during work hours. Happily, the telephone and computer at your desk are all the equipment you need. So do all your shopping on-line during business hours. Talk to your friends, post stuff at Facebook, and surf the web from your office desk.
That does three things for you. It gives you more free time at home, to spend as you like. It helps to pass the time during work hours. And — best of all! — it’ll drive your boss nuts! Every time your boss walks up to give you a project, just click away from Amazon.com and whisper “gotta go” into your receiver. Your boss may not notice and, if he does, you’ve just pushed him one step closer to the edge, which is, after all, the name of this game. Use your time at work intelligently; use it to handle all of your personal affairs.
Don’t just fritter away your eight hours a day at the office. Also, nibble around the edges. Leave the office at 4:55 without telling your boss. Maybe she won’t notice, and she’ll surely never come frantically looking for you seconds after you’ve left. Sticking your head in the door and saying good night would just tip her off that you’re cutting out early; don’t do it!
Also, remember that Mondays and Fridays during June, July, and August are meant to be taken as sick days. If you take them regularly, your boss will get used to this, and he’ll become more efficient, doing all of his work between Tuesday and Thursday. He’ll probably thank you for this.
I recently met a young-ish female in-house counsel. She was a Biglaw refugee, married with an eye to starting a family, who had jumped at the chance to go in-house rather than submit to the particular pleasures of the partnership push. We got to talking, and while my instinct told me to go into sell mode, I decided to play things more coolly. A lot of active listening on my part ensued, as I was subjected to various and sundry complaints about life as a female Biglaw associate, followed by a discourse on how much better in-house life was. I kept the conversation light, injecting some shots at Biglaw (these met with laughter and approval), while letting her do most of the talking. I was consciously avoiding acting like a Biglaw partner, or showing any interest in her because of her status as potential client.
Things became interesting when she started discussing her dissatisfaction with her current outside counsel. Various and sundry became a litany, as she complained about the male partner’s inattention to her, the sloppy work of the female associate she was dealing with, and the size of the bills. Most importantly, she complained of feeling unappreciated by the Biglaw firm she was using — and suspected that the lawyers working for her actually hated her. She did not want to feel hated. I can’t blame her — nor would I be shocked if she switched firms in the near future.
We eventually parted ways, but like a good Biglaw partner, I followed up with an email and my contact info. The email differed from what I would send a male in-house counsel after an introductory meeting. My email to the in-house lawyer was much less formal, and was actually jokey — but I wanted to stick with what was apparently working in terms of getting her to open up to me. It worked, as she replied right away with a joke of her own, and warm acknowledgement of how it was good to meet. Looking good — until I decided to experiment with something….
Releasing a book may not bring you fame or fortune, but it surely brings you interesting e-mails. I devoted last Thursday’s column to an e-mail I received from a reader of the Inside Straight book asking whether law firms undervalue good lawyering. I’m devoting this column to an e-mailed reaction posing a different question: Must a lawyer specialize if he or she hopes to develop business effectively?
My correspondent (who again is a partner at an Am Law 100 firm and again gave me permission to edit and reproduce his or her words anonymously) wrote: “Your case study of how you developed a pharmaceutical product liability practice (when you worked at a big firm) says as much by implication as it does expressly. You’re implicitly asserting that one develops business more effectively by showing that you’re a specialist in a field the client needs rather than saying that you have a fungible skill. But I suspect that your true value as a lawyer was largely unrelated to your business development pitch in which you pretended that you were a specialist.
“Ultimately, what you brought to the table in private practice wasn’t a nearly 30-year career in pharmaceutical products law. You brought a vast wealth of experience gleaned from cases that had nothing to do with the area of law that, at a particular time, happened to govern specific cases.
“It pains me that lawyers feel compelled to become specialists — or, at a minimum, to pretend that they’re specialists — if they want to develop business . . . . ”
Fair is fair: I wrote last week about “what drives partners nuts.” Having armed associates with the ammunition needed to drive partners crazy, it’s only right that I arm partners with ways to drive associates nuts. (I realize that many partners are quite good at this even without my help, but I figure a stray few could use some guidance.)
Come on, partners, how can you drive associates nuts?
First: Give associates disembodied projects!
If you wanted someone actually to be interested in a project, you’d tell that person what the project was about. You’d explain what the transaction entails, what the client needs, and the critical issues likely to arise. In litigation matters, you’d explain who’s suing whom for what, the path the case is taking, the client’s main concerns, and the likely endgame. That would put a person’s brain in gear, and the person might actually care about his or her work.
So you like being an M&A (mergers and acquisitions) lawyer. Wonder if M&A work is different in-house compared to private practice? It’s just slightly different. Like maybe about 90% slightly different.
If you’re an M&A lawyer at a firm, your main responsibilities on a deal will be to draft the purchase agreement and other documents, actually review all of the due diligence on the company to be acquired, advise on and negotiate various legal issues, and keep track of everything that needs to be signed, filed, and otherwise happen from a legal standpoint to “close the deal.” The other primary value that outside M&A counsel provide is to inform on what’s standard and market in M&A deals and arrangements. This all sounds like a lot. And it is.
But because the tasks required of outside counsel are pretty much “pure legal” items, they’re a fraction of the amount of work that needs to be done by the in-house M&A attorney, who gets to manage all of the above, plus much of the non- or pseudo-legal stuff that the rest of the company actually cares about…
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