From Biglaw to Boutique

Tom Wallerstein

I recently met with Keith, a long-time friend who worked for years in Biglaw before leaving the practice of law entirely. We were reminiscing, and he reminded me of an incident I had forgotten about:

He had worked on an appeal in which the amount at stake exceeded $10 million. He spent dozens of hours conducting legal research and probably another 100 or so writing the brief.

He finished his draft months before the brief was due. So when he turned in the brief to his supervisor, it was not immediately reviewed. Every week or so, Keith would send a reminder, but the weeks turned into months.

Keith planned to file the brief with a Court of Appeals on the East Coast via Federal Express. E-filing was not yet available and, in any event, onerous binding of the exhibits and other requirements made that impossible.

What happened next?

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Tom Wallerstein

Lawyers love to give advice. They seem to have an opinion about everything. Lawyers even love giving advice to other lawyers, if for no other reason than they like to gratify their egos. Thus, there is no shortage of advice for junior lawyers about how to most effectively practice law, nor is there any shortage of advice on how to establish and run a small firm or boutique legal practice.

Often, however, the advice is easier said than done.

For example, many scoff at those who fall victim to some version or another of a “Nigerian scam.” We especially shake our heads when the victims are lawyers. But ignoring seemingly obvious scam emails often is easier said than done.

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Tom Wallerstein

My six-year-old is never satisfied. If I offer him a piece of candy, he asks if he can have two pieces. If I tell him he can watch a 30-minute TV show, he asks if he can watch a 90-minute movie.

As annoying as that can be, I have a grudging respect for his persistence. In my opinion, his attitude exemplifies the kind of approach I think makes for a successful lawyer, not to mention running a successful business.

Refusing to be satisfied pays dividends in terms of your professional development. At the same time, the instincts of a six-year-old may be counterproductive. For example, when a case resolves unfavorably, our knee-jerk reaction is to blame forces beyond our control. You lost because the jury got it wrong, or the judge didn’t understand something, or the client didn’t tell you something. The words come out like an angry stream. There are a dozen rationalizations for why it was anyone’s fault but your own. Hopefully, when the heat cools down, and you find your mind, you will ask yourself what you could have done differently.

But I think what is less common, yet equally valuable, is going through this exercise even when a case resolves favorably. There is always room for improvement, and a post-mortem debriefing always makes sense. Rather than being satisfied with reaching a great settlement, or a great victory at trial, it behooves you to consider not only what you did right, but what you might have done differently….

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Tom Wallerstein

I was grateful that Quinn Emanuel sent me to Los Angeles for a multi-week long, intensive trial advocacy training program. The instructors were incredible and the program overall was one of the most valuable training experiences of my career.

Some of the sessions featured practice drills followed by critiques from practicing attorneys. In one of the sessions, that “mentor” role was filled by a junior partner in a well-known firm. He had long, wavy hair and wore a tight silk shirt with the top several buttons open, exposing his chest hair and gold chains. His cologne should have been arrested for olfactory assault. If you think of a 1980s hair-metal band you will get the right idea.

Creepy-looking Mentor was constantly flipping his hair and paying far too much attention to the young, female associates. (He seemed to think it was particularly important to help them with their cross-examination posture, as he made a point of standing behind them and guiding them like a golf or tennis pro might do.)

Even though the program was only “practice” — cue Allen Iverson — there was a lot of pressure because many firm partners were there watching and, presumably, evaluating us. In this particular session, the associate doing a cross examination was very nervous, and visibly shaking. When the associate was finished, Mentor said he had a relevant war story he thought would be helpful to share, and did so….

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Tom Wallerstein

“I am having a root canal this morning, so I’ll be working from home.”

Some attorneys use the expression “working from home” to mean that they are mostly taking the day off for one reason or another. In other words, they really mean that they are “not working.”

Other times, “working from home” really means “I’m still working, just not in the office.” I might do this, for example, to avoid a long commute or because I can better tackle my project at home, perhaps because my home will offer fewer distractions.

Assuming that “working from home” means that you still are working, albeit in a different physical location, should a firm care when or whether an attorney comes into the office, provided nothing time-sensitive needs to be accomplished that day?

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Tom Wallerstein

Some attorneys think they are unable to transition from Biglaw to opening a solo or small firm boutique because they lack the ability to generate business. They might think, “If I can’t generate business at my current firm, with all of its vast resources, goodwill, and prestige behind me, then how could I ever hope to generate business on my own?”

This kind of negative thinking is pernicious, and based on a number of fallacies….

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Tom Wallerstein

For as far back as I can remember, the arrival of a new year has been an occasion for me to reflect on my life, where it has gone, and where it appears to be going. Many times I would spend New Year’s Eve simply being grateful; more recently, it has been an occasion to try to see a little furthur [sic].

This year, for the second consecutive year, our firm was approached by an Am Law 100 firm to explore the potential of our being acquired or otherwise merging. These overtures are flattering. They also intensify my annual ritual of considering my path and the choices I have made.

I have written before about some of the differences between Biglaw and small. My perception of those differences, however, has changed quite a bit in the nearly four years since I left Biglaw to help start a boutique firm. Our firm also has changed so much from one year to the next that my calculus of the pros and cons of Biglaw also has changed….

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Tom Wallerstein

It was our new receptionist’s first day at our office. I was in our kitchen, and I found a potato wrapped in a paper towel. Because it was a raw potato far in the back of one of our unused kitchen drawers, I had no idea how long it had been there. Months, maybe. So I asked Cassidy, the new employee, “Is this your potato?”

Cassidy was slouched nearly horizontal in her chair. She looked at me with an expression of vague annoyance, and reached up to remove her iPod earbuds. She mumbled a response but didn’t really answer me. So I asked again, “Cassidy, I was just curious, is this your potato?”

“Huh?”

I repeated my question for the third time and finally she replied, “I don’t know. Maybe.”

I tried a different approach. “Let me put it this way. Have you brought a potato into the office in the six hours you have been working here?”

“Um… Yes.”

Progress! “Well, then I think it’s safe to say that this is your potato. Mystery solved.”

The earbuds went back in and we let Cassidy go the next day. She called our office about a week later, asking to retrieve a pair of scissors and… you guessed it, her potato….

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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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Tom Wallerstein

Does this type of email look familiar?

“I’m delighted to announce that our firm, Dewey Cheatem & Howe, has just reached a settlement of a longstanding class action on behalf of our beloved client Evilem Pire Insurance Corp. (‘EPIC’). Due to our tireless efforts reviewing documents and engaging in discovery motion practice, EPIC was able to settle the case for only $1 trillion dollars, a mere fraction of the many quadrillions sought by the plaintiffs . . . .”

If you are a lawyer in a firm, then you probably have seen a similar email more than once in your career. The victory email is a tradition at many firms, even when the result can only barely qualify as a victory. Because I think it behooves lawyers to always consider the purpose of any communication, we might wonder why victory emails are so prevalent….

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