Career Advice

Keith Lee

Ed. note: Please welcome Keith Lee of Associate’s Mind, one of our new columnists covering the world of small law firms.

Being in a small firm has repercussions on your existing activities and relationships. Going out, hobbies, spending time with friends and family and the like are often going to have to take a back seat to maintaining your practice. You simply won’t have the time for people that you had in the past. If you aren’t careful, this shift in priorities can cause resentment and ill will.

And despite lawyers complaining that they feel as though they can’t start families, I would imagine that most people do desire to start families or already have a family. Is it hard to balance time spent with family and friends while maintaining and growing a practice? Absolutely. Are you going to be able to have some vague, idyllic “work/life balance”? Nope. But can you have a family and be a lawyer? Of course; it’s ridiculous to suggest otherwise.

It comes with some caveats and difficulties, but it can be done. It’s important that the people in your life understand these difficulties — and it begins with managing expectations….

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Earlier this week, we mentioned the ridiculous argument from a University of Tennessee law professor, Lucy Jewel, that law degrees confer non-economic benefits like “cultural cachet,” which make a law degree valuable to people who risk financial ruin to get it.

Professor Jewel writes: “Every graduation, when I see the beaming smiles from my students’ family members, I do not think about the fact that they are getting a degree from a so-called fourth-tier toilet law school; I see people who have achieved a dream (albeit at great financial expense) and obtained a credential that signifies membership in a powerful profession.”

Guys… I just can’t. I can’t keep beating back every stupid argument that any law professor can come up with to defend the systemic price-gouging of American law students. I am just one man and they are many. I have never in my life confronted a group of educated people so eager to justify the precise manner in which they economically take advantage of students — kids, really — too stupid to know any better. At this point, if a law professor took candy from a baby she’d say she did it to help the kid save on dental bills.

You want talk about the non-economic benefits of going to law school? FINE! Let’s talk about the social and cultural “cachet” you’ll get, and see if it’s worth all the CASH you won’t ever be seeing again…

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Once upon a time, starting a law firm meant reading Jay Foonberg’s classic, How to Start and Build A Law Practice (affiliate link).  From 1976, when the ABA published the first edition, until very recently, Foonberg pretty much owned the law firm startup space, with over 300,000 copies sold — an unheard of accomplishment for a niche-market book.

What’s even more remarkable is that most lawyers of that generation who sought to hang a shingle never even purchased Foonberg’s hefty tome, which cost around $79. Instead, you either skimmed it in a law school library (surreptitiously, if you happened to be there researching for your day job at a law firm). Or maybe — as was the case for me, after the firm where I worked gave me six months’ notice –  a colleague pressed a copy into your hand and whispered, “You have to read this.”

And Foonberg covered all of it — from Foonberg’s Rule (get the money upfront!) to a pricing scheme that advised setting hourly rates with reference to the cost of a Big Mac at the local McDonald’s (I don’t remember the ratio — maybe 10 or 20 times the cost of the burger?). But Foonberg had other decrees also: a year of savings up front before starting out. Renting an office. Never let the sun set on an unreturned phone call. Family comes first…

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Keith Lee

Ed. note: Please welcome Keith Lee of Associate’s Mind, one of our new columnists covering the world of small law firms.

If you are a new lawyer in a small firm, you need to be prepared to have fear as a companion at times. Fear of missing deadlines, screwing up a discovery response, pissing off a partner. Fear of not having enough clients, being unable to make payroll, disappointing your family. From substantive case matters to interpersonal relationships, a dozen different challenges arise daily in a small firm that can cause stress, anxiety, and fear.

If you’re not careful, it can be crippling. Everyone is going to be afraid at times. Whether it is fear of a cranky old judge or looking like an idiot in front of your clients. What matters is how you deal with that fear.

Fear can also be fuel. Fear can motivate you to research an issue to exhaustion in order to ensure that you are absolutely correct in your position. Fear can cause you to to beat the streets, get in front of people, and land new clients. Fear encourages hard work, due diligence, and skill development.

Perhaps most importantly for new lawyers, fear should beget caution. As a new lawyer, you need to know what you don’t know. That some clients are too much for you to handle, no matter how much you try to research and learn about the issues. Experience matters. As a new lawyer, you don’t have it. And fear can help you check yourself and reflect on whether or not you are prepared to handle certain matters. But whether it be through hubris or ignorance, young lawyers continue to bite off more than they can chew….

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One is the loneliest number that you’ll ever do. Two can be as bad as one, it’s the loneliest number since number one.

Three Dog Night

Even for those who’ve always fantasized about hanging a shingle, the reality is that going solo can be a tough, lonely experience. From bringing in business, handling clients’ matters and paying rent and other bills, you’re completely and entirely on your own. No one else around to share the burden or expenses, to have your back, to listen to your complaints, or to blame. Still, as challenging as it is for a lawyer to start a firm solo, as the song goes, two can be as bad as one.

On the surface, partnering up to start a firm seems like a no-brainer. Partners can share costs for office space, legal research, fancy stationery, and maybe even an assistant or an associate, so you can start out in style, with much more than you might be able to afford on your own. Plus, firms are often able to get better bulk deals from vendors and thus, avoid the solo tax. On the practice side, a partner may contribute strengths that you may lack. For instance, you may be a legal genius, but also an introvert who’s afraid to ask a colleague to lunch. A partner with marketing or networking skills can compensate for your deficiencies. And a partner can also be a selling point for a small firm since you can also assure clients that you have back-up who can cover if something happens to you.

Finally, starting a firm with someone else to share the experience can be more fun. All of the cool kids in the start-up world have partners — though in that universe, partners go by the hipper title of “co-founder.” Apparently 2.09 team members is the ideal number for a start-up — and, in fact, co-foundership is so popular in the start-up world that there are several websites that function solely as matchmakers for entrepreneurs looking for to team up.

Still, just as partnerships don’t work all the time for entrepreneurs — in fact, 62 percent of businesses fail due to co-founder conflicts — the same is true for lawyers. And often for the same reasons….

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How do you deal with a difficult client?

Don’t be ridiculous: I’m not a difficult client! You’re a difficult lawyer!

I’m pretty busy. So how many drafts of your brief do you think I want to review?

One, reflecting your very best work? Or six, with each version fixing a typo or massaging the language in footnote three, so that I can see your next iteration?

When do you think I want to see your draft?

The morning it’s due, so that I won’t have a chance even to read the thing and, if I manage to read it, you won’t have time to make corrections? Or three days before it’s due, so we have time to make the brief right?

Do you think I want to circle all the typos and cite-checking errors in the draft you send to me? Believe me, I do not want to do this. But I can’t help myself: I spent two years entombed in the sub-basement of the library at The University of Michigan cite-checking articles and imprinting the Bluebook on my brain. I’d be delighted not to notice your errors, but I don’t have that capacity. This stuff is hard-wired into my very core.

How about your run-on sentences, use of the passive voice, and other grammatical and stylistic errors?

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Ed note: This is the latest installment in a series of posts from the ATL Career Center’s team of expert contributors. Today, Kate Neville, founder of Neville Career Consulting, offers helpful tips for law school graduates who would like to expand their career options.

The year 2009 is well known within the legal industry as the year there were more attorneys laid off than in all of the previous years combined. It is also the year that the number of people who took the LSAT exam reached a record high. Though law school applications have since dropped precipitously, that dichotomy remains a problem. There continue to be more licensed attorneys than there are legal jobs available in the current economy.

Continue reading at the ATL Career Center….

Keith Lee

Ed. note: Please welcome Keith Lee of Associate’s Mind, our newest columnist covering the world of small law firms.

Since Brian Tannebaum got too busy and important to keep feeding the trolls writing columns here, and Above the Law needed someone else to write a column about small law firms, I got asked last tapped for the job. Sure, Carolyn Elefant is writing a small-firm column as well, but Carolyn is much too nice and experienced, and knows what she’s talking about from years of practice. No way the typical ATL reader is going to listen to her. Far better to listen to me blather on about what it’s like to practice in a small-firm setting.

I practice law in Birmingham, Alabama. That’s deep in red state, flyover country, for you folks on the coasts. Yes, people and businesses actually have needs for lawyers in flyover country too. Next thing you know we’ll manage to get indoor plumbing.

I graduated from law school in 2010, right into the quagmire of the worst legal employment environment ever, but still managed to get a job. I was there for a year before I was downsized, cast off, s**t-canned. I ended up partnering up with two lawyers I went to law school with. We started off with three lawyers, no clients, crammed into a spartan 350-square-foot office. Two years later, there’s still just the three of us, but we’ve moved into an 1800-square-foot office and have steady, reliable business….

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Ed. note: Matt Kaiser founded The Kaiser Law Firm PLLC, a white-collar boutique in Washington, D.C., and will now be writing a weekly column for us about white-collar practice and his adventures in building a law firm. Matt previously covered the Supreme Court for us. This is the second installment of his new column.

Suppose you’re a fourth-year associate in a litigation department in a large firm on one of the coasts. You’ve worked on a lot of different matters — you’ve done document review for commercial litigation. You put together a privilege log for some patent litigation (who says patent litigation is specialized?). You waded through documents in an FCPA case. You even got to do some deposition digesting for a reinsurance lawsuit!

You really liked your work on the FCPA document review. You noticed that the documents related to a foreign country, which sounded exotic. You could sit in your office, staring at the brick wall on the other side of the alley, and imagine that you were an extra in Casablanca, with a view toward how the world really works overseas.

Perhaps most importantly, you loved how your friends from law school reacted when you told them you were working on an FCPA matter. Cocktail parties became more interesting when people thought of you as a white-collar criminal defense lawyer, rather than the reinsurance guy. You resolved that you’d do more white-collar work and perhaps make this noble practice area the focus of your career.

But how?

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At big law firms, a few folks engage in “training,” but very few bother with “coaching.”

That is: A partner may spend a few minutes training you how to write a brief or take a deposition. But, if you prove ineducable, the partner will promptly cut his (or her) losses: He won’t ask for your help anymore; he’ll pluck you out of his life. You won’t be fired; you’ll simply be forced to solicit work from other partners. You’ll never be “coached” about what you did wrong, except (maybe) at the end of the year, when some guy you never worked with evaluates you by reading aloud a comment that “one partner said you don’t write very good briefs.”

Corporations are different. Coaching is the name of the game: You can’t think? We’ll coach you!

Can’t write? We’ll coach you!

Act like a jerk? We’ll coach you!

Break your arm? We’ll coach you!

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