Practice management

It’s not part of a legal strategy or way to churn the file; it’s an attorney-initiated discussion about the client smack in the middle of the case.

What usually happens is that the attorney is retained, legal work begins, the client is updated as to the status of the case/matter, asked to weigh in occasionally on strategy, and reminded about the pending bill. We see this as part of the job, but how do the clients perceive the representation?

At some point in the representation, the best chance you have to hear what the client is really thinking is when they are not happy. You’ll get that anxious phone call, that question that is really a criticism, and it is during those times that you focus on trying to make the client happy.

What if you were proactive?

What if you scheduled a non-billable meeting with the client, outside your office, for the sole purpose of allowing the client to voice their overall concerns after you’ve been representing them for a while?

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Carter Phillips

On Sunday, Sidley Austin announced a regime change at the firm. Over the next year, veteran Supreme Court litigator Carter Phillips will become co-chair and eventually chair of the firm’s executive committee. In 2013 he will replace the current chair, Thomas Cole.

Currently, Phillips is managing partner of Sidley’s Washington D.C. office. He recently argued his 76th case in front of the Supreme Court. I had the opportunity to ask him about the Obamacare arguments last month.

Keep reading to learn more about the transition and to find out what it takes for an accomplished practicing attorney to take on a crucial business role…

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For every matter that we handle, we need one “unifying mind.” We need one person at the helm; that person must either personally know everything that’s happening in the matter or, at a minimum, know where the knowledge lies. (Extraordinary cases may be beyond the capacity of a single unifying mind and may require two or more. But those situations are exceptional, and they pose challenges beyond what I’m thinking about today.)

The unifying mind might be found anywhere in the hierarchy, depending on the type of matter involved. At a law firm, the unifying mind can be a partner, if the matter is large and the partner a hands-on type. Or the unifying mind can be an associate charged with monitoring and tracking all events. But everyone on the team should know who’s at the helm, so everyone knows the person who should receive copies of correspondence, alerts about upcoming events, and reports about how things are going.

At an in-house law department, we, too, must have a unifying mind for every matter. In the litigation world, a corporation may have several line lawyers whose job is to supervise cases on a day-to-day basis. The line lawyer primarily responsible for overseeing a particular case should typically serve as the unifying mind for that matter. Outside counsel should communicate with that person, and everyone in-house should know that’s the lawyer to call if they need detailed information about a lawsuit.

That’s all fine in theory, but two things often screw this up in practice. What two things?

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Lawyers don’t like to be honest about not making money. (Unless you’re Jordan Rushie.)

I went out on my own in March of 1998. I did no advertising. The first month, I made three times what I was making monthly at the small firm I worked at for nine months. I was well on my way.

April was about the same, and so was May.

This was awesome. No looking back. Who said starting your own firm would be hard?

Then came June.

Nothing. No new cases, no money. The phone didn’t ring.

It was over. Three good months, and now I was done. I, of course, freaked out.

A few days into July the phone rang, and I was back. Whew. So I had one slow month. Now it would all be fine.

Then it happened again, and again, and again….

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Tom Wallerstein

There comes a time in all associates’ careers when they stop and do the math. They think about their salary, bonus, and benefits. They think about their billable hours. They multiply their billable hours by their billable rate and suddenly they think, hey, WAITAMINUTE. My firm makes three four five times what it pays me!

Like any other salaried employee, the more hours an associate works, the less they make per hour, bonuses notwithstanding. They might not mind so much if they’re also bucking for promotion, i.e., up for partner. Regardless, at some point, every associate thinks, “if only I were paid as much per hour as I bill per hour . . . .”

That moment for me was the epiphany that ultimately led to helping form my own firm. But since that time, I’ve also been able to see the other side of the fence, so to speak. There are a lot of reasons — some obvious, and some less so — why the math isn’t quite as simple as it seems….

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Tom Wallerstein

When I started my firm, several mentors gave me the same advice: Don’t work for free. It’s easy to see the problem with working for free. Giving away what you’re trying to sell isn’t exactly in the business plan. Unfortunately, this sage advice can only really be learned the hard way, through experience.

Working for free can arise in many different ways. The most obvious example is a client who wants you to represent him but can only promise to pay you later.

Even if your gut tells you that taking on that client is a bad idea, this can be surprisingly tempting to a new firm or solo practice. For starters, there is such a thrill with getting your first client, or your first “real” client, or your first big client, or your first whatever client, that the excitement can cloud your better judgment. You will be tempted to overlook the red flags that you will not be paid for your work….

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Being a small firm lawyer usually means that you’re not a cog in the wheel of some multi-national corporation while enjoying their stream of business sent to your firm because of someone on another floor. Small firm lawyers either have to blow their brains out on ads featuring their angry mugs (arms crossed in aggressive, “fight-for-you” anger), direct mail, or the art and science of talking to people and developing relationships, otherwise known as networking.

In this arena, there are two types of lawyers: Those that “don’t do networking,” and those that do it because it is required to establish a word of mouth practice. I know you think there’s a third — those that love networking, but those lawyers are to be avoided at all costs. Lawyers that love going out after work and eating bar food, drinking low-level vodka, and asking “so, where’s your office,” are rejects. Ignore them. They just want to give you their business card the minute they lay eyes on you and tell you to “call (me) whenever you have a (usually PI or real estate) matter.”

For those that want the word of mouth practice, and the reputation in the community as a go-to person (assuming you are a competent lawyer, and these days, that’s a big assumption), here are some things to consider….

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Brian Tannebaum

I’ve learned a lot in my one week here, reading comments from the anonymous miserable Biglaw associates who take a break from their “.1 review” of correspondence (e-mail) and “.3 draft correspondence” (one-sentence letter) to comment on ATL.

I learned the term “s**t law.”

I am a s**t law lawyer. I represent clients, real people with real problems. They need legal services. They need arguments made on their behalf. They need advice. They need something other than an edited “pre-bill” in the mail once a month. I love s**t law, and I love talking to Biglaw lawyers about their desire to join s**t law. And while I always thought lawyers that were smart enough to leave the confines of “.2 receive and review correspondence” law to strike out on their own practiced real law, I realize now that the Biglaw lawyers that tell me they hate their jobs, hate that they can’t bring in clients because they can only pony up $10,000 for a retainer, and want to have their own practice, are apparently all lying.

So this advice is for those of you who haven’t been brainwashed into thinking that the practice of law is on the 46th floor in a small office trying to meet the important goal of having the divorced-three-times 53-year-old partner walk by at 8 p.m. and see you there in the thick of it, preparing irrelevant motions to compel discovery for cases that will never go to trial. This is for those that can’t wait to leave, those that realize that no one can name the best Biglaw commercial litigator in their town, but can name the best of various types of s**t law lawyers. This advice is for those that want to practice law, and not feed the billable hour factory that is Biglaw….

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Two betas and an alpha

Do you ever get the feeling that the a$$holes in your office end up doing better than the decent folks? Yeah, you’re not wrong. A new study shows the people who score below average in “agreeableness” make more money than people who are nice.

The study’s authors offer a bunch of possible reasons for this. Agreeable men (the salary gap is bigger for men) might not conform to “masculine” norms. Disagreeable people might be more assertive in salary negotiations. Yada, yada.

But there is one reason that I think is more plausible than all the others: managers simply reward “disagreeable” behavior more, whether they know it or not. Doesn’t that sound like a law firm partner you may know?

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So Lat calls me up all excited about some Biglaw Midsummer Bonus or something, which I totally ignore, and also about some hysterical dicta that Judge Kozinski wrote, which I also ignore (although it probably was pretty funny), and then he starts asking me about my law career. Which, you know, ended. And he points out that I failed to get ATL approval of my decision to close my small firm, which means technically, my column should just be called “Big Lawyers,” which is a whole other kettle of fish.

Then Lat says he knows how we can fix it. “Go on,” I say. Lat says that I can tell our readers exactly how to start pricing their legal services instead of just billing their time. “But Lat,” I plead, “I can’t give away my secrets. I have a whole new consulting firm to tell people these secrets in exchange for scads of dollars.”

Lat is quick to admonish me. “We don’t keep secrets from our readers, Jay. That’s why our readers know all about my obsession with all things Sophia Chua-Rubenfeld and why they all know that Elie is as jovial as an Ewok in real life.” Then his tone sharpened: “Plus we can always get Staci to write your column in a tenth of the time it takes you. And we can even have her use your name as a pseudonym.”

Well played, Mr. Lat, well played. So here then are the secrets to pricing your legal wares in eight easy(ish) steps.…

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