Moonlighting

Why can’t people admit it when they’ve made mistakes? I think it’s because they focus on the potential negative consequences and not enough on the benefits that admitting mistakes can have on their careers. It’s irritating when people can’t admit that they’re wrong in any situation, but it seems most annoying when it happens in the work environment.

Now, I’m not talking about when there’s an actual disagreement or when you genuinely don’t realize that you’ve made a mistake. Or when you’ve intentionally done something to screw someone else over. I’m referring to the situation where you know you’ve messed up and you won’t ‘fess up.

Instead, this is what happens…

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In the last installment of Moonlighting, we examined the importance of understanding the big picture at work. This week, we’ll consider one method of finding out more about the big picture: asking questions. Not the dumb ones. The good ones. So what are some good questions that can help us to see the bigger picture?

I solicited input from several general counsels, assistant GCs, etc., in different industries and here’s what they came up with. I know, I was surprised they got back to me too. I don’t know whether it had anything to do with the teeny white lie I told them — that they would be compensated for their answers with untold riches and fame — it’s a mystery. But here is what they said…

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Lawyers are great at thinking small — small picture, that is. We’re awesome at details, however painstakingly minor. We sport the “grammar police” badge proudly, even though we know that it’s the dorkiest one out there (wait, except for the “I memorized all of the two-letter words in Scrabble” badge — that one’s slightly dorkier). We find nit-picky, meaningless, hypothetical debates to be “intellectually stimulating,” while the rest of the world sees them as a complete and utter waste of time. And it’s all good. Details are essential to the practice of law. But so is seeing the big picture.

A law firm associate friend once represented a bank on a loan in which the borrower later ended up missing a payment date. Upon learning of the missed payment, he promptly drafted a default notice. When he presented the default notice to the law firm partner, the partner’s reaction was, “Whoa, Nelly… hold on there — no way are we sending any default notice.”

The associate was thinking small picture — how dare the borrower miss a payment to his client! In full gunner mode, he proceeded to take steps to ensure that the bank was paid the monies due (and, by the way, now at a default interest rate — haha!). He was only trying to zealously represent his client, right? Right? The partner, on the other hand, was thinking big picture….

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You may be one of those people who realized early on that law firm partnership is not for you. For me, this was the case even before I started law school. Law was going to be a second career for me, and by the day of my first 1L class, I already had two small children vying for my attention. Surprisingly, having small kids while in law school full time was not easy. You really need to be engaged in your kids’ interests, which can be hard when you’re also trying to dodge Socratic bullets for the first time. There was one semester when it literally took me an entire week to defeat the Elite Four in Pokémon Yellow. Tough times, tough times.

I later went into Biglaw with the understanding that the experience would look good on my résumé, and that I would get what people refer to as “great training.” (And, of course, the money was nothing to complain about, either.) And I actually did enjoy the work. But you can’t work Biglaw hours and expect to just breeze through all of the Pokémon versions — Gold, Ruby, Platinum, Black, etc. — there are so many of them! It’s just not possible, and I will challenge anyone who says it is.

So once you’ve decided that the in-house life is the life for you (or that there’s no way in hell they’ll make someone who’s so obsessed with kids’ games partner), when’s the best time to make the move? Well, it depends….

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In-house promotions are tricky. There are so many different kinds of companies, and so many things that can go wrong when you’re looking for a promotion. Some companies are upfront about the process: they’ll inform you if you’re being considered, let you know which committees need to approve, etc. Others are kind of like, “Uh, promotion, what’s that?,” and then they’ll just drop one on you when you least expect it, and run away (not that you’d complain about it).

Here are a couple of the obvious considerations that the powers-that-be will take into account when deciding whether you are worthy of attainment of the next level:

1. Do you do good work (i.e., do you have good legal/technical skills)?

2. Do you have good soft skills? Remember, from my last couple of posts — this covers everything from effective communication, to leadership, to being tasked with convincing your peers that going as breakdancing elves to the holiday party can show the rest of the company that Legal can be fun, too! Soft skills make or break a lot of promotion opportunities, and your superiors are looking for them. For example, one very senior in-house attorney mentioned that having courage of your convictions — to speak up (in an appropriate manner and in the appropriate venue) when you think a strategy is flawed, or when you think you have a better idea — is what distinguishes a leader from the rest of the pack.

Alright, so let’s say that you have #1 and #2 covered. And you’ve made it absolutely clear that you want a promotion (and “I was wondering if, uh, you noticed what a good job I did on that contract the other day” doesn’t count). You should start evaluating color schemes for that larger office you’ve been eyeing, right? Well, don’t switch your name plate over just yet. As far as your company’s concerned, “yes” answers to the above questions are great, but they just mean you’re performing as expected for your level. Here are some of the less obvious questions that they’ll also be thinking about….

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Last week, we looked at why lawyers need soft skills and noted that there’s a general lack of this kind of training for them. Today, we’ll consider some strategies for learning to play nice in the legal sandbox.

As mentioned last week, there are so many different types of soft skills — communication, leadership, management, presentation skills, etc. What does a socially-awkward lawyer work on first? Well, it depends. (Fyi, “it depends” is a great lawyerly response for virtually every situation where you don’t know the answer.)

As with hard skills, the soft skills you should focus on depends on your pre-existing responsibilities and the skills you already have. For the purposes of this post, let’s assume you have none.

Below is a very basic outline of some required soft skills for particular levels of attorney seniority. I’ve listed a few skills listed for each level and a further description of one skill per level, to prevent this post from becoming a mind-numbing two-hour read (as opposed to a mind-numbing five-minute read). It’s a bit of a laundry list, but the idea is to provide a big-picture overview….

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Everyone talks about how soft skills are important for success. Soft skills, also referred to as people skills, EQ, et cetera, are key to influence, persuasion, karaoke smack-talk, and many other aspects of being a savvy lawyer and advocate. They’re essential for both in-house and law firm attorneys. But what are soft skills exactly?

We often know when soft skills are at play, such as when an employee is confronted by a group of hostile workers and is able to calm them down before they go too far and, God forbid, blog their grievances. Figuring out a definition, though, is kind of difficult. I decided to try asking my social media circles: “What’s your definition of soft skills?” I received many informative responses such as: “the ones I don’t have,” “skills our parents never taught us,” “hmm, that’s a hard one,” and “are we keeping this discussion R-rated and under?” Thanks people, very helpful.

Soft skills are difficult to define, in part because it’s easier to talk about them in relation to what they aren’t — hard skills. Hard skills are the technical information and expertise we need to do our job. Soft skills are basically everything else. Hard skills are quantifiable and more readily measurable. State bars test hard skills. Soft skills are behavioral and more difficult to quantify. Dive bars test soft skills. They involve a spectrum of behaviors, including verbal and written communication, effective management, overall leadership, and how to get the IT guy to fix your computer first. In sum, they’re the behaviors we engage in that impact our overall effectiveness on the job….

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It’s one of the biggest cons going around. I cringe whenever I hear it. A lawyer laughs and says, “I’m not good with numbers — that’s why I became a lawyer.”

On the surface, it seems to make sense; it sounds like it should be true. For some, it might even be true. After all, the last time we used quadratic equations was back when loafers on bare feet were considered desirable footwear (thanks Don Johnson).

In-house lawyers should never, ever say they’re bad at math — even those who really are. After all, business people are preoccupied with numbers. As an in-house lawyer, telling a business person that you’re bad at math is like telling them you don’t care about the most important thing that everyone else in your company cares about, and if your company is publicly listed, what every investor in your company cares about — the company’s numbers….

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‘Tis the season to puzzle over holiday gift etiquette at the office. Every year, a few questions come up about this topic — what’s appropriate, how much, whether they really have to, etc. No really, one year, a colleague complained, “Well, I’m not getting much of a bonus this year, so why should I give a gift to my secretary?” What you’d call a true, selfless, holiday spirit.

Obviously, this was back during law firm days, when bonus announcements are made early, unlike at companies, where the grand reveal isn’t usually for another couple of months after wilting trees have been cleared from the driveways. Not gifting your admin wasn’t exactly unheard of at a law firm, though, and I think it evidences a difference between the impact of gift-giving at a large law firm versus in-house.

At a law firm, you could give gifts to every employee at the office (or not) and, while your colleagues would be appreciative (or not), this act (or lack thereof) really wouldn’t make much of a difference in your career. Do you still have zero clients? Okay, still not making partner. Still have boatloads of clients? Continue with deity status.

At a company, on the other hand, you need to find out the unwritten rules for gifting….

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Well, last Friday was interesting. When I decided to close the comments for last week’s installment of Moonlighting, Lat responded, “I’m glad at least someone is willing to try deactivation.” As expected, undeterred from the fact that they couldn’t comment directly on my post, the usual group of ATL commenters uniformly hijacked Kashmir Hill’s “revenge porn” post which followed mine on ATL to provide me with their usual thoughtful and highly encouraging feedback.

Later, an anonymous 2L tweeted as follows: And @susanmoon has the dubious distinction of being the first @atlblog writer to close off comments. When I joked to the 2L that my feelings get hurt every week, the 2L (taking me seriously, I presume) told me that instead of hiding, I should “rise above it” because even a SCOTUS justice would get flamed on ATL. This invited Brian Tannebaum (an ATL small-firm columnist) and some others to rush to my defense. What ensued was a flurry of debate on Twitter — infused with an abundance of insults — mainly between Brian and the 2L. I’m actually not quite sure why Brian got so involved, as I’m not even sure he likes me (that’s the real reason I cry every week). I think he just likes to pick on poor souls every once in a while (read: several times a day) for his own sadistic pleasure.

In any case, in addition to the entertainment value that the Brian v. 2L debates offered on Twitterverse Legal last weekend, there were definitely some interesting points made on both sides about the value of anonymous feedback….

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