Career Advice

Keith Lee

About three years ago, a case caught my eye that still sits in the the back of my mind when looking at our firm calendar or speaking with opposing counsel on a matter. It highlights something that should be self-evident to most attorneys. Yet, as this case illustrates, even routine matters can cause extreme problems.

Booher v. Sheeram LLC was a fairly standard slip-and-fall case. A hotel had been receiving a number of complaints about its slippery bathtubs. The hotel subsequently placed non-skid material in the tubs. Regardless, Mary Booher slipped and fell after the non-skid material had been placed. She and her husband sought to recover damages from the hotel and retained an attorney. Things proceeded along as they do in these matters — discovery plus more discovery — and eventually the hotel filed a motion for summary judgment. After an extension was granted, the deadline for a response from the Boohers’ attorney was set for November 7, 2008.

But Booher’s expert was missing a key document, and was going to be out of the country during the deadline for the motion. And her attorney was about to undergo major surgery. He needed more time in order to properly prepare his brief in opposition. Opposing counsel didn’t mind an extension; these things happen. No one wants to be a jerk regarding scheduling matters. 

But Booher’s attorney didn’t follow the rules, so it didn’t matter. And he lost his clients their case, not on the substance, but on a technicality:

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For the past two weeks, readers of this column have benefited from the insights of Professor William (Bill) Henderson of Indiana University’s Maurer School of Law regarding the current state of Biglaw. When Professor Henderson kindly acceded to being interviewed, he made a request that was both unexpected and welcome: he asked that I commit to answering a number of his questions in return.

I agreed and am pleased to present our exchange. I found his questions probing, and I have tried to answer them from a broad perspective, despite the fact that they call for some personal viewpoints that are by their nature unique to my outlook and experiences. I have answered the questions in the order presented, and have not altered them in any way. Now, I get my turn in the interviewee’s chair….

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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, Alison Monahan looks at the pros and cons of joining a study group.

If you’re in law school, you’re eventually going to have a really bad exam experience.

I’m not talking about the normal “this is pretty un-fun” experience that is every exam — but one of those really horrible, terrible, awful exams. Maybe you studied all the wrong topics, or the proctor gave out the wrong questions (happens), or you got sick, or had a meltdown, or didn’t sleep the night before, or overslept, or whatever.

But you’re eventually going to walk out going, “WTF just happened?!?”

If this is your final exam, so be it. You can wallow for the entire Winter Break if you like.

But what if you’ve got other exams to get ready for? You don’t have the luxury of wallowing, so here are a few tips to help you recover from a terrible exam experience and get ready to study again.

Read more at the ATL Career Center….

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….

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