Inside Straight

A correspondent recently posed this question: I’m a litigation partner at a big firm. If I go solo, will my corporate clients continue to use me for their smaller matters?

I’ll use this column to do two things. First, I’ll offer the customary answer to all legal questions: It depends.

Second, I’ll ask my in-house readers at large corporations to let me know (either by posting in the comments or sending an e-mail to the link in the shirttail below) whether their corporations use sole practitioners.

Will big corporate clients follow an individual lawyer who jumps ship and goes solo?

It depends . . .

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First, a shameless plug: Here’s an interview in which Ari Kaplan and I discuss “Inside Straight and the Impact of Getting Published on Professional Success.” (That’s Inside Straight, the book, not Inside Straight, the column, although I guess I see the room for confusion there.)

But enough of that. Let’s hear from the managing partner of our law firm:

Ah! Orlando in March! What a fine time and place for our annual firmwide retreat.

I want to welcome everyone to this magnificent resort, and I want to take this opportunity to say a few words about a subject that’s dear to our hearts: Billing time.

To paraphrase Sir Thomas More in “A Man For All Seasons“: “When a man [fills out his timesheets,] he is holding his own soul in his hands like water; and if he should open his fingers then — he needn’t ever hope to find himself again.”

For the junior associates in the crowd, consider this: You will, at some point, have a slow month. You’ll get nervous that the firm will punish you for not having billed enough hours. To protect yourself, you’ll be tempted to borrow from the future. You’ll think that, if you add just four hours to this month’s time, you’ll have hit your billing target. If you charge those four hours to your largest client, no one will notice that you’ve slightly padded the bill. And you’ll figure that you’ll make this up to the client in some future month; you’ll work four hours some Saturday morning that you won’t write down, so the client will come out even in the long run. “That’s not really fraud,” you’ll think, so you’ll have eased your conscience. . . .

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Personally, I gave up on law reviews in the mid-90s.

For a while after I graduated from law school, I flipped through the tables of contents of the highest profile law reviews, to see what the scholars were saying and to read things that were relevant to my practice. But by the mid-90s, I gave up: There was no chance of finding anything relevant, so the game was no longer worth the candle.

(When I took up blogging about pharmaceutical product liability cases, I began rooting around for law review articles in that field, which could generate the fodder for blog posts for which I was always desperate. Even then, the law reviews rarely offered much that practitioners would care about.)

None of that convinced me that the law reviews were dead, however, because I figured that the academics were at least still relying on the law reviews to screen and distribute each other’s work. But I had dinner recently with an old law school classmate who’s now (1) a prominent scholar in his or her field and (2) a member of the hiring committee at his or her law school. A short conversation with this guy (or gal) convinced me that law reviews are not long for this world. . . .

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Some years ago, information technology and research firms realized that they could thrive only by attracting and retaining employees with two very different skill sets. These firms needed both great scientists and great managers.

Great scientists, however, were being undervalued, while great managers were being given too much dignity. In many corporations, the more people under your supervision, the more authority, respect and, often, pay you command. How could IT firms keep pure scientists — who loved thinking great thoughts and creating great inventions, but loathed managing people — happy? Wouldn’t those folks become frustrated as they saw their peers — less able scientists, but great managers — move ahead in the ranks?

Those firms pioneered the idea of creating dual career paths. One path was the standard route to success: Manage people; control a P&L center; prosper.

But the second path was the innovative one: Lead specified projects; work with key clients; generate new ideas; prosper equally!

After the IT firms blazed that trail, sales organizations soon followed suit. Those outfits needed both great sales people and great administrators. So they created dual career paths, offering routes for advancement (and power, and riches, and corner offices, and all the rest) to both types of people.

Isn’t an analogous dual-career-path model worth considering, both at law firms and in-house law departments?

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I reported back in October that the New York Times had asked me to write an op-ed piece about the future of big law firms, but a Dealbook special unceremoniously preempted my piece.

I figured the editor at the NYT might think she owed me one, so I cranked out a replacement piece proposing to reform legal education. I’m pleased to report that this op-ed piece was not preempted! No, no, no: It was rejected on the merits. The editor said that my article made too many points and felt like a “report, rather than an opinion piece.”

But she was wrong. And, in any event, you should judge for yourself.

So here’s my recently rejected op-ed piece proposing how we should reform legal education. (I do believe this is the last in my short-lived series of “crap I wrote for the Times that the Times didn’t publish.” It’s an awful lot of work to produce 1,200-word pieces that become mere fodder for another column here at Inside Straight.) . . .

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You really don’t want to be sued in a corrupt, backwater swamp.

No, no! I don’t mean Louisiana! I mean a truly corrupt backwater swamp like, say, Sudan.

(I pick Sudan because it’s subject to sanctions by most first-world countries, so I don’t have to worry about someday being dragged before a Sudanese judge who isn’t tickled by my having called his country a “corrupt, backwater swamp.” I may well pay a price for having tarred Louisiana with that label, but my opening two sentences just wouldn’t have been funny if I hadn’t named a specific state. I’ll have to hope that judges in Louisiana have a sense of humor.)

You get sued in Sudan. You hire Sudanese counsel. You probe him about Sudanese substantive law, Sudanese procedure, and whether the Sudanese judicial system can be trusted. He answers your questions about corruption with vague assurances about how he’s a pretty well-connected lawyer, and most judges aren’t too bad, and corruption isn’t quite as rampant as outsiders seem to think. Then he goes on to explaining how he’ll defend your lawsuit.

That advice may be okay as far as it goes, but it’s missing the global perspective. Here’s one place where in-house lawyers — and sophisticated outside counsel — can add real value in litigation….

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I’ve been living in London for almost three months now, so it’s time to declare myself a native. What do natives know about the City?

First: Dryer technology is apparently too tricky for this country. Listen, chaps: A dryer is supposed to dry your clothes.

These folks don’t get it. They’ve invented a washer/dryer thingy: You put your clothes in the machine, press some buttons, and the machine washes your clothes. Without moving your clothes, you then push some more buttons, and the machine spins and makes some noise. At the end of the so-called “dry cycle,” you remove your clothes from the washer/dryer thingy and hang your clothes in the living room to dry.

The United Kingdom is one of eight countries in the world that has successfully detonated a nuclear weapon, but these boys can’t crack dryer technology? What’s up with that?

Hey, maybe that’s an answer! Nuke the friggin’ clothes! They might come out a tad radioactive, but at least they’d be dry, and they wouldn’t be hanging in my living room. Or maybe you could import some dryers from the United States: We’ve got a bunch that work, and we could use the export business.

But dryers are the least of it . . . .

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This week marks the second anniversary of my “Inside Straight” column at Above the Law.

Two years. Two hundred columns. One book. And 1.5 million clicks through the “jumps” to “continue reading” my silly little ditties. Your favorite columns were here (but it was a fraud, and I admitted as much), here, and here (and the kid landed a great job within weeks after the post went up!). I’ll lift my exhausted typing fingers to crank out these words: Thank you!

But back to business.

Oooh, oooh, oooh.

I wrote back in September that clients don’t prompt law firms to open new offices by insisting on one-stop shopping, and I suddenly became a popular guy. The letter carrier was exhausted, schlepping all those e-mails to my e-mailbox.

Remarkably, few people fundamentally disagreed with my thesis. I wrote that clients don’t insist on one-stop shopping, and I expected to hear that my experience was limited, my evidence anecdotal, and my position ridiculous. Instead, I heard largely that law firms open new offices for many and varied reasons, but client insistence on one-stop shopping is far down the list.

So why do firms launch new offices?

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An old Arab proverb says that there are four types of men:

“He who knows not and knows not he knows not; he is a fool — shun him.

He who knows not and knows he knows not; he is simple — teach him.

He who knows and knows not he knows; he is asleep — wake him.

And he who knows and knows he knows; . . .

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What was the most anxiety-ridden ten minutes I’ve experienced under an editor’s gaze?

I had finished the manuscript of The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law. My then-15-year-old son, Jeremy (who, like any teenager, would as soon spit in his father’s eye as praise him), said: “So, Dad, you wrote a book, huh?”

“Yes, Jere.”

Long pause. “Let me see the first chapter.”

I knew exactly what the kid was thinking: “I guess, if my Dad wrote a book, I should take a look. But this is going to be unbearable. So I’ll read a few pages and be done with it.”

Jeremy sat in the family room reading chapter one. I paced anxiously in the kitchen. My wife didn’t understand my anxiety: “Why are you so nervous? It’s only Jeremy.”

“Don’t you see? Jeremy’s my first truly neutral reader. He’s not a lawyer. He’s not inclined to read the thing. He won’t cut me any breaks. If Jeremy likes it, there’s a chance there’s actually an audience for this thing.”

After a few more anxiety-ridden minutes, Jeremy walked into the kitchen. After a seemingly endless pause: “Let me see chapter two….”

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