In-House Counsel

It was one of those calls where the Customer just wants to vent to someone perceived to be in authority. They are upset at your Company for something or other, and have already taken the sales team to task. Now, it’s your turn. Some might say that the weight of the Customer on your bottom line should determine the amount of obsequiousness you serve. I would argue that in the scheme of things, it really does not matter the size of the Customer, falling on one’s sword can repair damage quicker than a protracted rant session that ultimately devolves into he said, she said.

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Would you rather be a great lawyer or be perceived as being a great lawyer?

For many people, I think the answer to that question varies over time: At age 30, you’d rather be a great lawyer. At age 60, you’d rather be perceived as being a great lawyer.

Why?

Because, over time, your reputation may come to track reality. If you’re perceived as great when you’re 30, but you’re actually no good, that truth may out over time. As you age, your reputation may catch up with you.

By the time you’re 60, your professional horizon will have shortened, and it’s less likely that the world will unearth your incompetence. If you’re perceived as being a great lawyer when you’re 60, you may well make it to retirement unscathed.

What of law firms? Would you rather that your firm be great or be perceived as being great?

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Judy Sheindlin once told me, “don’t go to law school, the world has enough lawyers.” My response was, “that may be true, but are there enough ‘good’ lawyers.” I posit that the answer is no, there are not enough ‘good’ lawyers. We practice in a field where there is certainly of glut of licensed professionals. And unlike doctors, there is not a constant worldwide need for our services, no matter how self-important we have deluded ourselves to be. I wrote last week about attending the ACC Annual Meeting, and having an enlightened moment of how very much in this field I don’t (can’t) know. Not for want of desire, but because of the evolution of technology, and good old case law.

It made me truly feel for those folks tasked with compliance for their companies….

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As we have discussed the past two weeks, Biglaw business development is not easy. The available flavors at the Biglaw business development ice cream stand are hardest (cold calls), harder (intra-firm networking and beauty contests), and plain old hard. As in turning referrals and unsolicited contacts from prospective clients into engagements. That is hard to do, but nowhere near as difficult as trying to land the matter when the prospective client has not invested in contacting you beforehand, or at least heard about you from a source that they trust. There is a reason rainmakers take the largest share of the Biglaw pie, even at white-shoe lockstep firms.

Getting other lawyers to refer you matters, even from within your own firm, is hard. The foundation one needs to generate referrals is the exact same one that is required to have success generating business through other methods. But there is an extra ingredient, or at least a greater emphasis on a particular ingredient, that needs to be there if you hope to get referrals. That ingredient? Let’s call it likability. No matter how skilled a lawyer you are, or how hallowed your reputation, you simply must be likable in order to generate referrals. Of course, the definition of likability becomes quite a bit more expansive when applied to lawyers considered at the top of their fields. Simply put, the person referring you has to feel good about making the referral, and they are much more likely to feel good if they consider you an agreeable person, at least to do business with.

Unsurprisingly, the definition of likability in the Biglaw context is quite different from the standards we normally apply when talking about the real world. For those who like analogies, consider that Biglaw likability is to indisputable real-world likability as Biglaw “hot” is to indisputable real-world hotness….

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I typically limit myself to one rant per column; today, I’m letting fly with two.

My first (narrow) rant is aimed at the Supreme Court of the State of Ohio: Hey, guys, have you heard? It’s the 21st century!

I have the misfortune to live overseas (in London) while maintaining licenses to practice law in three states — California, Illinois, and Ohio. California and Illinois give continuing legal education credit for courses taken by webinar, which seems entirely reasonable in today’s world. Ohio alone opts against reason; for standard CLE credits (as opposed to self-study or publication credits), you must attend a CLE class in person. Riddle me this: Where do you find a live, in-person CLE class in London, England, that’s approved for Ohio CLE credit?

When I was recently back in the states, I was forced to endure 2 1/2 consecutive days of live CLE courses, which will keep me in the Ohio bar’s good graces for the next couple of years. But now I’m throwing down the gauntlet, Ohio: I’m not doing this again in 2015! Give CLE credit for webinars, or I’ll go inactive in Ohio, survive on my California and Illinois licenses, and you’ll be out the $350 registration fee! Not only that — I’ll lobby every other similarly situated person to do the same! It’ll cost you millions! (Shhhh! Please don’t tell the folks at the Ohio bar that I’m probably rallying a group of one: All lawyers licensed in both Ohio and another state — so they can go inactive in Ohio and keep on practicing — while living overseas. If I don’t tell the Ohio bar folks and you don’t tell ‘em, they’ll probably never figure it out. After all, these are the clowns who didn’t think to give CLE credit for webinars.)

But that’s all process; now I’m moving on to substance. The CLE presentations themselves provoke today’s second rant. What mistake, I ask you, do you see made by just about everyone who teaches CLE courses (or, indeed, gives any presentations to live audiences)? More to the point, how can you avoid embarrassing yourself publicly when you speak?

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Arriving home exhausted on the red eye from Los Angeles, site of this year’s ACC Annual Meeting. Tired though I may be, I am refreshed and energized about my job. Sharing a large convention center with in-house counsel of all stripes and from around the world is fantastic. I get to share ideas, learn more about topics that I don’t touch in my everyday practice, and collect a raft of CLE credits. I also get to network to my heart’s content. All of those things are integral to success for today’s in-house counsel.

I have written about the importance of those topics individually over the past years, and the chance to experience them in a three day conference can really change your frame of reference, and refocus your mind on just how much is out there that you don’t know. It’s like the old law school joke about the gunner who came to class not having finished the day’s reading. When asked “why” by the professor, she said, “I kept following the case cites and never got to the end.” There really is that much out there. And after sitting in on a CLE about social media and big data, there is so much more that just keeps on coming…

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Last week we discussed the high-risk, high-reward approach of making cold calls to develop business. Because of the low percentage of success even the most personable and sales-skilled Biglaw lawyers have when adopting that approach, any business development effort that relies on cold-calling exclusively is almost impossible to sustain in a Biglaw setting. And there is a valid argument that one does not really need Biglaw if they are able to establish a strong track record developing business through cold calls. In fact, the successful legal “cold-caller” would likely thrive without the artificial constraints the Biglaw business model (e.g., rates, types of matters) places on its partners. Again though, it is the rare Biglaw attorney who generates a single matter via a “cold call” (or a single new client for their firm actually), and rarer still to find one capable of doing it with enough regularity as to sustain a Biglaw career.

So while trying a cold call on occasion is an important element of a comprehensive business development approach, you need to “work” the resources of your firm to try and generate business. That means selling yourself to existing firm clients, participating in client pitches for new business that are generated by the firm, and making a good impression on your colleagues. The latter is important, because you never know which of your colleagues will go in-house and be in a position to give you work down the road. In many ways, trying to use your firm’s resources for business development is the traditional Biglaw approach to business development. As the contracting ranks of Biglaw equity partners suggest, it is a hard way of generating business — and getting harder…

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If you’re hiring a lateral partner at this level, then quality is assumed….

If you’re using Bigg & Mediocre, then quality is assumed….

If you’re hiring only from the top ten percent at the top ten schools, then quality is assumed….

Let me start again:

By the time you get to major league baseball, quality is assumed.

Right. But I’d rather have Babe Ruth than a journeyman outfielder.

We instinctively realize that, in every endeavor known to man, there are true superstars. But, when we talk about lawyers, we somehow assume that they’re all fungible. Or, in the examples I just gave, that all the lawyers within a certain rarefied group are fungible. That’s just not true. There’s quality, and then there’s real quality. In the words of Arthur Schopenhauer: “Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see.” Talent is nice; genius is better.

If you’re with me so far, then you don’t believe that all law firms are created equal; you don’t believe that all lawyers (or partners) within a single firm are created equal; and you understand that many law firms are basically incapable of true quality control….

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I have a Phish hangover: scratchy throat from the smoke (“ah, the peat”), deaf in one ear, and “Light” reverberating on earworm replay. It was nice to see a major band come to my little town on a throwback tour of smaller and more intimate venues. It gives one a chance to see the performers up close, take in and appreciate fantastic musicianship, and have a good time with a few thousand of my friends in music. Sometimes smaller is better, and getting a close up view of how things are done can give you an appreciation for the larger machine at work. I tie this to a recent foray into the Sales cycle where I was able to see and hear things in which I don’t usually participate. Yep, I went on a Sales call….

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Anyone who has worked at a Biglaw firm understands the importance of developing business of one’s own. There is nothing as liberating for a Biglaw lawyer, nor as career-sustaining, as acquiring the proverbial “book of business” that is the golden ticket for a long and lucrative stint as a Biglaw partner.

Of course, acquiring that book of business is an all-encompassing challenge for all but the most privileged of Biglaw attorneys, many of whom resent the fact that it even needs to be done in the first place. In their view, business development is the province of salesmen, not noble professionals, a form of hucksterism that fails to reward the academic and perhaps even legal achievements that brought them into Biglaw in the first place. In fact, many Biglaw lawyers fortunate enough to have cultivated a client base of their own can sometimes be self-effacing or even apologetic about their achievements, particularly when in the company of other Biglaw lawyers — yet another example of Biglaw’s unique ability to render even the most accomplished insecure….

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