Communications

I’m closing in on 250 columns at Above the Law, devoting many of them to mistakes that I’ve recently witnessed (or heard about) (or, I should say to protect the privilege, simply ginned up out of whole cloth).

Remarkably, I’ve not yet written about an obvious error that occurs regularly: If you say that you will communicate with someone on a certain date, communicate with the person on that date.

Period.

Think for a minute about how often people screw this up, both in-house and at law firms.

In-house, some crisis arises. You take the helm. You send an email to the relevant folks in the organization saying, “I’ll get to the bottom of this, and you’ll know the answer by the close of business my time tonight.”

The close of business comes and goes, and what happens?

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Last week, I came across this great blog post: The Merits of Not Throwing Someone under the Bus. It touches on a few issues that come up all the time during the practice of law (and probably at any job that involves contact with other human beings, which I’m pretty sure describes a few of the legal ones out there, but correct me if I’m wrong).

In sum, Joey P. found herself in a situation in which she opted to be a team player by correcting some minor edits in a motion that another attorney in her office had prepared and then sending the document out to the client. Doesn’t sound like it would amount to anything, does it? Well, there was a big, dumb mistake in the motion, and the client emailed Joey to point out the blunder (while cc:ing a couple of partners because clients tend to be super nice and thoughtful like that).

Joey explained to her partner what had happened and wanting to be a team player, she took responsibility for not noticing the mistake made by the other attorney and decided not to rat that person out.

The way she handled the situation was pretty admirable (especially for a lawyer). There are, however, a couple of other steps that I would have taken if I had been in her situation that I think would have helped to further team dynamics and also to prevent a poor, innocent associate from being blamed for someone else’s screw-up….

double red triangle arrows Continue reading “Moonlighting: Giving Credit and Taking Blame”

Ed. note: This is the latest installment in a series of posts from the ATL Career Center’s team of expert contributors. Today, in the second part of a two-part series, Casey Berman gives some practical advice to attorneys considering a corporate in-house counsel position.

While some are viewed as a valuable resource, many non-lawyers in the company automatically stereotype company attorneys as mere red tape, as an expense, or as an obstacle to be avoided (or derided as the “Department of Sales Prevention”). “Often, lawyers are considered overhead in a corporate situation, and to be a success, it really helps to be able to show how you contribute to the bottom line or at least don’t add significantly to it,” says Katie Slater, former Assistant General Counsel at AEI Services, a Houston based energy company, who now runs Career Infusion Coaching, a career management firm for lawyers.  In-house attorneys always have to manage expectations and demonstrate over time how their legal skill set contributes to the collective goals of the company.

The best way to demonstrate this value is to be able to communicate and express ideas in a quick, clear way in order to give guidance and ideas for next steps. “Bottom-line communication ability — can you say things in three bullet points or less, and in plain English?” says Slater.  “Being able to break down a legal issue simply and coherently to get to why this is an issue from a business perspective is a huge skill that will be valued.  Can you give ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ answers, and, if the answer is ‘No,’ can you come up with alternatives or work-arounds?”

Many business types think lawyers are put on earth to tell them “No.” To combat this, successful in-house attorneys are responsive (even if they are still working on an answer), and provide the business units with alternatives to mull on and consider. This interaction can build trust and shows that the attorneys is indeed on their side and contributing to business persons personal goals and the overall growth of the company.

Read more at the ATL Career Center….

Everyone has been mistreated — by bureaucratic institutions, unhelpful sales people, or phone systems that make you press ten buttons only to be left on hold for half an hour.

Given how awful the “usual” service is, it’s really not that hard to impress people with the quality of service that you provide. But, remarkably, lawyers (and others) screw this up all the time.

Suppose (to recount an incident I heard about recently) you’re asked to handle a trivial legal issue at a time when you’re swamped with other stuff. You are able to help; you are simply unable to help today. Consider two ways of handling this: First, silently ignore the issue for several days until you have time, and then deal with it. Second, tell the client that you’re currently swamped, but that you’ve received the request and your best guess is that you’ll handle the matter, say, early next week. If you’ve misunderstood, and this is an emergency, the client should let you know, so you can move this task up in the queue.

This should be an easy choice, shouldn’t it?

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Fair is fair is fair is fair: First, I analyzed what drives partners nuts. Next, I revealed what drives associates nuts. Third, I suggested how secretaries could drive their bosses nuts. Which (unless my imagination improves) leaves only today’s column: How to drive clients nuts!

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?

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In the late 90’s, lawyers taking credit cards was not the norm.

Stores took credit cards. Restaurants took credit cards. Lawyers took checks and wire transfers, and yes, cash in rubber bands. It was typical lawyer arrogance and ego – taking credit cards turned the lawyer in to a merchant, and paying a portion of the fee (because if you check your state ethics rules and opinions you may find you cannot charge the client for the percentage you pay the credit card company… oops) for the convenience of the client being able to “charge it” was seen as unattractive.

I didn’t take credit cards at first, a couple years later I started, and now I take them under certain conditions. One, I don’t advertise that I take credit cards. No signs on my door, no indication on invoices. If the client asks, the answer is yes, but like many places, there is a minimum amount (and no, it’s not $20). For volume-type lawyers who charge small fees, credit cards are a great way to sign up clients and maintain a good cash flow. For those with bigger fees and smaller practices, it’s a last resort for that client that you believe may have an issue paying, or who just can’t come up with the retainer unless it’s charged on a credit card.

Visa and Mastercard rates are lower than AMEX, but in the end, you’re looking at getting about 96% of the fee once the percentage and transaction fees are paid. If you can’t survive on that, I can’t help you.

What about house calls?

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I saw this all the time at law firms: I’d be in the middle of preparing to argue an appeal — reading key cases, studying the excerpts of the record, and thinking about likely questions from the bench. My mind was completely engrossed in what I was doing. And someone would walk into my office and say, “It went well.”

I had only one reaction: “Who are you again, and what are you talking about?”

Now that I’m in-house, I see this even more frequently. Cases — or legal issues, or administrative inquiries, or whatever — cross the desks of many in-house lawyers at a frantic pace. The things that an outside lawyer, or some other in-house colleague, is thinking about, may not have flitted across your mind in six months. But folks figure that you’re thinking about whatever happens to be on their mind at the moment.

Here’s an example….

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How much do other people have to know?

This question comes up in many different contexts, and answering it always requires a little judgment.

At law firms, the questions often involve what the partner or the client needs to know. These people are supposed to be kept in the loop, but that task may be trickier than it seems. You want people to be fully informed, but you don’t want to become a pest, constantly alerting people to irrelevant trifles. What’s a person to do?

The answer varies by many things, including the nature of the matter you’re working on, the compulsiveness of the person you’re working with, the degree of trust established between you and the person you’re working with, time pressure, and the like. To the extent it’s possible, though, let’s establish some general rules….

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As you probably know, the Boston Bruins won their first Stanley Cup since the Nixon Administration. I’m no kind of hockey fan, but as a Boston sports fan, I took a passing interest in it. Which is to say that I watched Game 7 on Wednesday. Mine was a short ride on the bandwagon. (I mean, it’s June. It’s baseball time.)

But Boston is a big sports town, having now won all three major North American sports championships (plus hockey, see what I did there?) in just a seven-year span. The closest any other city has come to that is 11 years (and that’s New York, with two teams in each sport).

But to be fair, the Bruins do have many fans in the Boston area. (Although apparently an entire season was recently canceled because of labor strife, and I’m pretty sure no one noticed.) Many of those fans made their way into Boston on Saturday to watch the Bruins’ victory boat. Police estimated that a million people came into the city to celebrate. Many of them parked in my suburban neighborhood, because we live near the end of one of the subway lines. Because that’s what you want: scads of drunken hockey fans parking in front of your house. Could have been worse, though; in Vancouver, the fans of the runner-up Canucks basically set the place on fire.

But some fans had trouble getting into town because of spotty rail service, and they weren’t too happy about it. What important lesson does this hold for small-firm lawyers?

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