Inside Straight

Few folks use proposals for co-authorship to advance their careers. More should.

What am I suggesting?

Come up with a thesis for an article. Call somebody who matters to you, and propose that you write the article together. Write a first draft of the article, send it to your co-author to solicit revisions, and then publish the piece.

For whom might this work? Anyone who’s looking to curry favor.

For business development purposes, an outside lawyer might call a client or potential client and suggest co-authoring a piece in the client’s field of expertise. For career development purposes, a law firm associate might do the same with a partner, or an in-house lawyer might do the same with a business colleague or a supervisor. Few people would be offended to be offered co-authorship credit for an article, and many would be delighted to be given the opportunity and later to take partial credit for a published piece.

Why is this tactic used so rarely?

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Last week’s Am Law 100 list revealed publicly a trend that partners at big law firms have been feeling acutely: The largest law firms have de-equitized partners in the last two years in an unprecedented way. In the words of one of the articles, “Equity partner head count alone slipped 0.9 percent last year, after dropping 0.7 percent in 2009.” That trend may undermine the business models of some law firms.

Law firms have many and varied business plans and compensation systems. But one reasonable way to run a firm is to market your most marketable lawyers — concentrate business development in the folks best able to develop business. For that model to work, however, all partners must trust the institution. De-equitization reduces the necessary trust and may kick the stilts out from under this business model.

Here’s how the model works. If a potential new client asks your firm to respond to an RFP for litigation matters, you turn to your half-dozen heaviest-hitting litigators and decide which one will be offered up as the lawyer to lead the new engagement. You know that, if you’re invited to a beauty contest, the heavy-hitter will clinch the deal, because he’s clinched so many deals in the past.

If you read in today’s Wall Street Journal that the plaintiffs’ mass tort bar has just put another industry under seige, you spring into action. Pull together the firm’s marketing materials, identify lawyers with relationships in the relevant industry, draft up outlines of motions to dismiss and oppositions to class certification, assemble an outline of key issues and proposed responses, and then have your relationship lawyers call and email their client contacts, offering to have one of the heavy-hitters meet with the client to explain the firm’s capabilities. The heavy-hitter takes it from there.

If a corporate lawyer gets a serious litigation nibble, the corporate lawyer will naturally advise the head of litigation about the opportunity, so the firm can make an appropriate pitch. The head of litigation asks one of the heavy-hitters to lead the charge.

If a client asks a junior partner in the commercial trial department about the firm’s ability to defend a multi-billion dollar case, the junior partner reports up through the ranks. The firm puts together a response that proposes a talented litigation team to handle the case — led, of course, by one of the heavy-hitters.

This approach to running a firm isn’t crazy. To the contrary: Institutionally, this system makes a lot of sense. You offer up your most impressive lawyers to handle the most important opportunities, land the business, and distribute that business among the masses to keep everyone busy. Collectively, everyone at the firm benefits.

Enter de-equitization….

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Ed. note: This is the latest installment of Inside Straight, Above the Law’s column for in-house counsel, written by Mark Herrmann.

I understand using blogging as a form of business development for lawyers. I did it when I was in private practice. It produced the sorts of returns you might expect from the endeavor. And it makes sense that it might work: If you crank out basically a short article every day on one particular substantive area of law (and the piece is worth reading), you’ll develop an audience (and a reputation) over time, and that may yield opportunities.

But Twitter?

You can’t exactly prove your expertise in 140 characters. You can’t prove that you can write with clarity or grace. And you can’t even summarize information on the web to which you’re linking. All you can really prove is that you follow a topic and aggregate an interesting collection of stuff; you recommend things that you believe are worth reading. If you’re aggregating the good stuff in a particular field, then your followers should be clicking through your links to read what you’ve recommended.

So that’s today’s question: Are they? Do people click through and read information that someone recommends on Twitter?

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I never noticed this before I went in-house, because it never made a difference to me: When you’re an outside litigator, representing corporations in significant disputes, your clients are lawyers.

This may not be true for all outside lawyers. If you’re representing a small business, the business may not have inside counsel, so you may report to the business people. If you’re a transactional lawyer, perhaps your clients are more often business folks. But, as an outside litigator representing big companies, your client contacts are generally lawyers.

This matters. The client contacts have been through four years of college and three years of law school. That may not mean much, but it means something. Tautologically, it means that they’ve had lots of years of formal education. (“If I’m still dumb now, it’s my fault.”) Practically, it means that your client contacts have learned how lawyers think and, to some extent, the words that lawyers use. (When I was outside counsel, not all of my clients knew what an “MDL” was. If the client had the misfortune to be dragged into one of those puppies, I might have spent a little time explaining. But basically all of my client contacts knew what the words “complaint,” or “discovery,” or “summary judgment” meant. We shared a common vocabulary.) And lawyers as a group probably care more about legal issues than non-lawyers do.

To be sure, outside litigators often work with non-lawyers. We’ve all had to prepare for depositions senior executives who were way too self-assured, or people whose view of the facts wasn’t exactly confirmed by the documents, or witnesses who required a lot of time and effort because they were slightly slow on the uptake. But, as outside counsel litigating cases for big companies, it was typically the in-house lawyers who ultimately supervised and evaluated our work.

Once you move in-house, that is no longer true. We’re the lawyers; our clients are not….

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Ed. note: This is the latest installment of Inside Straight, Above the Law’s column for in-house counsel, written by Mark Herrmann.

Can we just put this one to rest?

At every conference, and in many articles, people pose the question: “As a client, do you hire law firms, or do you hire lawyers?” The clients dutifully respond that they hire lawyers, not firms. Hasn’t this become sufficiently obvious that we can stop asking the question?

Why does any rational client hire lawyers and not law firms?

Because law firms are an aggregation of lawyers. Once a firm grows beyond a relatively small size, the quality of lawyers will vary. As a client, what matters is the quality of the lawyer working on your matter, not the quality of people not working on your matter, or the identity of the firm. (An exception may exist when a timid client is protecting itself against the possibility of a bad result: “We hired the biggest, baddest law firm available to handle this matter for us. Now that things have gone poorly, you can’t blame me, because I hired the best and sunk a lot of money into the matter.” But that reasoning is foolishness, and I hope this doesn’t happen often.)

The truth is that law firms themselves are uncertain about the quality of their own lawyers. Why?

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Ed. note: This is the latest installment of Inside Straight, Above the Law’s column for in-house counsel, written by Mark Herrmann.

Social media: They’re all the rage.

And they should be. At a firm, if you could convince half of your lawyers to write intelligent, substantive blog posts twice a week in their areas of expertise, you could stop paying the public relations folks. You’d dominate the web, and reporters from traditional media would beat a path to your url, seeking ideas for stories and comments on hot topics.

(The same holds for many corporations, although it would be the business folks (who are responsible for generating business) and not the in-house lawyers (who are not) who should be hitting the keyboards.)

But firms and corporations don’t do this, for many reasons. First, firms are skeptical; they’re not sure this would work. Second, this requires a large, non-billable commitment of time; many firms (or individual lawyers) aren’t willing to put in the effort. Third, firms are legitimately nervous. What happens when we urge our lawyers or employees to go forth unto the web, and those folks go forth and write embarrassing or crazy stuff, which they inevitably will?

In fact, even if you don’t encourage folks to participate in online discussions, they’ll do it anyway. So social media policies have necessarily become the next rage: How do law firms and corporations protect their institutional interests without unduly interfering with their employees’ right to express themselves online?

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Ed. note: This is the latest installment of Inside Straight, Above the Law’s column for in-house counsel, written by Mark Herrmann.

Law firms, and in-house law departments, should be outer-directed.

I realize that I just invented the word “outer-directed,” and sensible people might choose to call this concept being “client-focused.” But “outer-directedness” is broader than mere client focus — and I invented the word, so it’ll mean what I want it to mean.

At a firm, lawyers should naturally be client-focused, in the sense that client work comes first and most internal matters come second. “Outer-directedness” implies not just client focus, but a more general external focus — devoting efforts to impressing the world, rather than to impressing others within the firm.

We should naturally spend our professional time serving our clients. And, in a law firm setting, we should spend our semi-professional time gazing out through our office windows, not peering inwardly down our own corridors. If a case just settled and you have some free time, spend that time impressing the world, not your colleagues. Join a non-profit board, work for a bar or trade association, write an article, give a talk. Raise both your personal and your firm’s profile. That benefits the world and serves institutional purposes. Don’t spend your spare time impressing your colleagues.

We should of course be nice to each other, but that’s civility, not having an undue inner focus. I’m opposed only to the stuff that goes beyond civility, which I’ll delicately call “office politics”….

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Ed. note: This is the latest installment of Inside Straight, Above the Law’s column for in-house counsel, written by Mark Herrmann.

The Harvard Law School career services office recently asked me to record a podcast on the subject of “managing up.” This got me to thinking: What the heck is “managing up”?

Fortunately, the woman from career services explained. She was interested in discussing how, as a junior lawyer, you manage the senior lawyer who’s supervising your work.

That’s not anything I’d thought about before, but (as readers of this column well know) that hasn’t stopped me yet, so I said I’d be happy to help with the podcast. Now I’m thinking about what I might actually say.

I’ve tentatively decided that the key to managing up is exactly the same as the key to managing down. In fact, it’s the key to basically every interpersonal relationship you’ll ever have: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Think about it: How should you manage down? Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Do not have me, the father of two young kids at the time, fly to Cincinnati for what should be a five-minute meeting set for 11 a.m. on October 31, and then postpone the meeting for an hour, and then postpone it for another couple of hours, and then postpone it again, and then, after everyone else has headed home or to the airport to take their kids trick-or-treating that night, finally tell me at 6:30 that we’ll have to reschedule our meeting. If that ever happened, I might still remember the incident, with lingering resentment, eighteen years later….

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Ed. note: This is the latest installment of Inside Straight, Above the Law’s column for in-house counsel, written by Mark Herrmann.

Managing people at big law firms is easy: You don’t!

First, you don’t have anyone to manage. As an associate, you have a secretary. That’s it. And you share your secretary with other people, so you have only limited responsibility for giving annual reviews.

As a typical partner, you also don’t have to manage anyone. You still have a shared secretary. And you’re asked to complete associate evaluation forms once every year, which you dutifully do. Some other poor clown is stuck with the job of reading to associates the results of the review forms and saying, “I can’t really answer your follow-up questions, because none of these comments are mine.” Unless you’re responsible for some unusual duty — evaluating contract attorneys, or legal assistants, or some such thing — a partner at a law firm doesn’t manage people at all. (Chatting with an associate about an upcoming meeting or event, or discussing the contents of a brief, constitutes either doing work or being human. It doesn’t count as personnel management.)

Second, “career paths” at law firms are no secret. The “career path” (such as it is) for a secretary at a law firm is fairly obvious, so your secretary won’t ask much about it. And the career paths for lawyers are obvious, too. If you’re an associate, work hard and do good work, and you’ll be a partner some day. (I’m not passing judgment on whether this path is realistic or not; I’m saying only that, to the extent that it exists, everyone knows what the path is.) If you’re a partner, your career path is equally obvious: Work harder, and do better work, and bring in clients, and you’ll be even richer and more important some day.

Nothing to it. Everyone knows the game, so managing people is a no-brainer. No muss, no fuss, and (if you’re like me) you don’t even notice that you’re not managing people. You might even deceive yourself into thinking that you are.

Would that it were so easy in-house….

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Ed. note: This is the latest installment of Inside Straight, Above the Law’s column for in-house counsel, written by Mark Herrmann.

Lawyers in private practice collect things.

The lawyers use those collections to adorn professional biographies that appear on firm web pages. The garnitures generally include (1) experiences (which are trumpeted in the form of “deal lists” or “representative engagements”), (2) publications, and (3) speaking engagements. After you pick off a case in the Second Circuit, or publish an article in the National Law Journal, or give a talk to an industry group, you go home and polish your online image; you update your bio.

When you’re in private practice, it makes sense to do this. You are, after all, trying to attract business, so your online bio is essentially your calling card. Strangers may visit the website and see your bio; you may send a link to potential clients; you may print the bio and hand it out during a beauty contest.

In an odd way, for many people, assembling these collections marks the passage of time. (“2005? I was up to my eyeballs in MDL 1150.” “1997? That was when we tried the Doe case.”) You’re nuts, of course, if those professional moments even begin to approach the significance of truly important stuff — marriage, the birth of a child, a death in the family — but those events mark time, in the same way that changing seasons do.

Ultimately, who’s to say that collecting stuff is wrong? People collect stamps, and coins, and books, and they take some pleasure there. Maybe collecting experiences, or achievements, fills the same psychic need. Or maybe the need to achieve, and to prove your achievements to the world, is hard-wired into many people who spent their early years in college, law school, and law firms, pursuing a succession of brass rings….

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