Inside Straight

I took the title of this column from Aristotle: “Young men are easily deceived, for they are quick to hope.

But I’m really thinking about business development and, as I often do in my navel-gazing columns, simply using myself as a case study.

I graduated from law school in 1983 and published my first article (in California Lawyer) in 1986. (I’d provide a link to the article, but I’m afraid the internet didn’t exist way back when. The article was a thriller, though; trust me: “Reviewing the Unreviewable: Obtaining Appellate Review of Federal Trial Court Remand Orders.”)

Because I was a young man, I was quick to hope: I’d published an article! My phone would naturally start ringing off the hook within the next few weeks! I’d be deploying my novel thesis in cases left and right, and the partners at my firm would be dumbstruck by my ability to develop business! Life of Riley, here I come!

Because I was quick to hope, I was easily deceived: Publishing one short article — even an article with a pretty decent thesis in a journal with a fairly large circulation — does not generate new business.

So I expanded my analysis and published the long-form of my article in the Arizona State Law Journal in 1987.

Because I was still a young man, I was still quick to hope. . . .

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It’s so hard to judge yourself.

Deep in your soul you know that people who criticize you are idiots, and people who praise you are wise and sagacious.

How can you possibly tell if you’re any good at what you do?

I have the answer for you! I’ve created a litigators’ self-assessment test! Now you’ll know if you’re any good!

Here’s how it works: Take out the last brief you filed.

Do it. Now. You won’t learn anything if you don’t follow the rules.

Look at the first sentence of your brief. For about ten percent of the people reading this column, the first sentence of your brief says (and I quote) . . . .

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I worked at law firms for 25 years. I observed many things and heard many others.

Now I work in-house, and I have to select counsel to represent me.

If I saw you in action (or heard about your reputation) back then, will I hire you now?

It’s obvious how you could have impressed me: You could have put the client’s interests first, and you could have been breathtakingly good when analyzing issues, negotiating settlements, preparing briefs, or appearing in court.

But what could I have seen or heard that forever removed you from my subconscious “approved” list? What are the deadly sins?

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Rain on the Elysian plain?

Am I really mixing Homer and Lerner?

I am. (Hey, no one forces you to read this stuff.)

But to what end do I mix apples and wheelbarrows?

I live on the Elysian plain of in-house life: Freed of the demands of generating business; able to foist tedium off on the sad sacks who work at law firms; thinking strategically about the most significant issues facing the company; permitted (indeed, required) to work closely with a business. “‘Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.

But there are occasional drawbacks to working in-house, and I try to share those with the world when I notice them. Three recently came to my attention. . . .

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I’ve just celebrated my fourth anniversary working in-house, and I’m now officially out of touch with law firm life.

I thought I knew all the law-firm-partnership tricks. For example, when law students ask at interviews what percentage of firm partners hold equity status, some firms answer: “At this firm, all partners are partners.” That’s true, of course, but tautological; it says nothing about the equity and non-equity ranks.

On the other hand, this non-responsive answer serves a useful purpose. It may help to convince law students (or lateral associates) that they have a real chance at making partner at the firm, even though the equity partnership ranks are tiny and getting thinner every day.

But I recently learned about a new game that law firms play. This one is aimed not at deceiving law students or lateral associates, but rather the granddaddy of law firm rankings: The American Lawyer’s profits per partner calculation.

I thought I knew all the ways law firms could try to mislead The American Lawyer. There’s the possibility of outright lying, of course, and then there’s using funky methodologies that inflate profits per partner from $1 million to $1.8 million for the year 2011. But there’s a new game in town. It may well be widespread, but I heard about it only recently….

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What’s the key to good writing?

It turns out that it’s also the key to giving great speeches.

And to making great pitches for new business.

And to impressing clients, and your boss, and anyone else who matters to you.

Now that I think about it, it’s not a bad guide to planning your business development activities, ginning up theses for your articles, and plotting your blog posts. It would be a great way to design your firm’s website, too.

Eureka! The key to all professional success on earth!

And, of course, it’s just common sense . . . .

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This is my first column of 2014, so I’m due to join the ranks of those who make predictions for the coming year.

But my predictions will be slightly different from others, because mine will be based on fact.

In the last months of 2013, I heard that two different law firms had reduced partners’ draws to offset the firms’ poor financial performance. At least one of the firms reduced draws retroactively — announcing near the end of the year that partners’ salaries would be reduced as of January 1, 2013 (which slices partners’ incomes dramatically in the last few months of the year). Both firms shared the pain among all partners — folks suffered in the equity and non-equity ranks alike. (This is a particularly nasty trick to play on income partners: “Here’s your partnership deal: If the firm does better than expected, you’re a mere income partner; of course you will not share the wealth. On the other hand, if the firm performs worse than expected, we’ll permit you to share the pain, and we’ll cut your pay. Here’s the partnership agreement! Sign right here on the dotted line!”)

I’ve now been in-house for four years, and my ear has lifted pretty far from the law-firm ground: If I heard about two law firms suffering from such terribly bad years that they were forced to reduce their budgets as year-end approached, then I’m guessing that many more than two firms suffered this fate. This means that, for many firms, 2013 was not a good year, which leads me to my predictions for 2014 . . . .

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This is as close to titillating as I’ll ever get in one of these columns:  When a senior lawyer (or executive) leaves a company in December, what does that mean?

Basically, Ecclesiastes is all about changing jobs:  ”To every thing there is a season.”

When a partner at a law firm moves laterally in January, that’s like leaves changing in autumn.  The partner waited to receive his (or her) year-end bonus from firm A and, having pocketed the bonus, then moved on to firm B.  That makes the lateral acquisition cheaper for the new firm.

The in-house world is a step slower:  When an in-house lawyer (or executive) moves to a new company in March or April, that’s like snow falling in winter.  The in-house person waited to receive his (or her) annual bonus in March (more or less) and, having pocketed the bonus, then moved on.  That reduces the hiring cost for the new company.

But when an in-house lawyer (or executive) leaves a company in December, that’s a blizzard in May!  The game is afoot!  (Blogging is so good for me.  I just learned that Shakespeare said that first, although I was thinking of Sherlock Holmes (who said it later) when I typed the phrase.)  Quickly, Mr. Watson!  What can we deduce from an out-of-season executive departure?

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I’m an honest guy: I confessed publicly when The New York Times solicited me to write a piece about the legal profession and then rejected my submission (because it had been preempted by a DealBook special).

I confessed publicly again when I submitted a second piece — this time about the future of legal education — and was again promptly rejected.

But enough of confessions: Today, I’m here to gloat! Here’s a link to “Have We Met?” which appeared yesterday in the “Sunday Review” (formerly “The Week In Review”) section of The New York Times.

Part of me says that I should end this column right here. I should say something snooty like, “Hey, Lat! I published an essay in the Times yesterday. Isn’t that enough recreational writing for a week? I’m outta here.” But Lat would probably complain, saying that I hadn’t pulled either my weight or enough people through the “continue reading” icon. What can I tuck behind that icon that will suck you through the jump?

Aha! Three things! First, how do you get an op-ed published in the Sunday Times? Second, if you pull off that feat, how much does the Times pay you for your work? And, finally, do I have a clever story linking what I wrote in the Times to Above the Law? You’re in luck! . . .

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Suppose your company has a system: All payments are run through the finance center in New York; all emails are encrypted by a certain process; all reports on a certain subject contain items 1 through 10.

As sure as I’m sitting here, someone on the sales side of your company will tell you that we must make an exception for his new client. For this client only, we should run the payments through Canada, use a different encryption service, or delete item 5 and add items 11 through 14 to the report.

Because you’re reasonable, you’ll explain that this isn’t possible: “We have a system that is hard-wired into the computers. We have 3000 different clients. We are able to offer clients only what the system permits. If we start making exceptions for particular clients, then costs will escalate and we’re sure to make mistakes. Please don’t ask us to tailor our systems to fit your client, because we just can’t.”

The sales guy will then sputter and turn red in the face: “But this client is different! This is the firm’s biggest client! And the best! And the one with the highest margin!” . . .

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