Practice Pointers

Before I once again provide you with thoughts and advice that will hit a nerve, causing your bitter self to (1) again claim, like you do every week, that you hate this column, hate reading every word I write every week, and don’t know why you continue to read every word, every week, or (2) send me private emails thanking me, I just wanted to comment on David Mowry’s closing of comments in his column.

It’s fun to watch the commentariat scatter in desperation for another place to spew, using other columns to cry like infants about their loss of entitlement to say things that make them feel better about their miserable lives just based on the amount of up-votes they get (hey, three people who always like what I say liked what I said, again!).
I don’t know why Mowry closed comments, but I just want to reiterate that I will never close the comments on my columns. There is no reason to stifle irrelevancy.

I’ve watched lawyers reinvent themselves — both successfully and unsuccessfully. It can be done, but like anything else in the legal profession, it takes thought and time. (I just lost half the audience.)

For those left here, there are only two reasons you want to reinvent yourself. One is money, and/or two, is that you hate what you’re doing…

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For those AUSAs taking the plunge into Biglaw because they orgasm over having a “former federal prosecutor” handling their “white collar” work, my advice is call me when you realize you’re merely reading compliance documents and walking corporate executives over to your old office to give proffers. For now, you can stop reading here.

Leaving government work to “open your own shop” is a unique proposition. If you’re leaving Biglaw, your main concern is not making what you’re making now. If you’re “going solo” right out of law school, you’re worried about making any money at all.

Leaving government service is leaving a guaranteed salary, the precious “benefits,” and if you’ve been there for a good amount of years, a level of comfort not found in small law firms (with the exception of the federal public defenders who have fallen victim to the sequester and deserve better). The main reason people leave government is the perception that there is more money in the private sector. That was mostly true before the economy tanked. Now it’s not so certain, and it’s something you need to consider before cashing out on your accrued vacation and sick time…

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One of the things I hear from lawyers is: “I want to write, but I don’t have the time/know where to post/want to start a blog.”

Now I’m not in the blog-selling business or believe that every lawyer should have a blog because I’m not in the blog-selling business. (Get ready commentariat.) Not every lawyer can write (there commentariat… go!), but if you want to write, I’ll offer my thoughts. I offer them because this is my column, and I can do whatever I damn well please and I feel like it.

The first thing you have to determine when thinking about writing is your audience.

Unfortunately, many of you law review types actually think anyone out there wants to read something closely resembling a law review article. You can’t write anything without citing to case law or other articles no one has read or wants to read. You believe you’re still writing for adoration of your ability to analyze the history of some statute. You believe you can’t write anything unless it takes you weeks to research and is perfectly cited. You believe writing is done to impress rather than educate or inform.

When you write, you’ll see — ahem — comments about the writing style. Those are coming from those that can’t write like normal people. They spent months writing some over-cited, boring article that no one read and are raging against anyone who writes something interesting that contains a non-law-review-type writing style…

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I’ve always marveled at lawyers who continue to represent clients when they’re not getting paid, or are too weak and fragile to engage in a serious conversation with the client over the unpaid bill(s). It happens more in the civil arena, as any halfway intelligent criminal lawyer knows you get the money up-front. Bad results with open bills is never a good way to pay the rent.

But there are those criminal lawyers who are too stupid to get the money up-front. They claim “where I practice,” you have to offer payment plans. Problem is, there is no such thing as a payment plan. What I call it is a “non-payment” plan.

I can count on one hand, well, maybe one and a half hands, the amount of times I’ve been stiffed by a client. In most cases, it was where I was waiting for the “money up-front,” and decided to do some work in the interim because I (wrongly) believed the client was good for it. The client wasn’t good for it, and I quickly withdrew from any court case or ceased doing work.

And I know, there are those out there that believe it’s pure arrogance to claim that I get paid or I don’t work, that chasing money or waiting for money that will never come is part of the practice. There are criminal defense lawyers that get paid, sorry if you don’t know any, and not getting paid is not “part of your practice,” unless you let your practice run you instead of running your practice.

So let me tell you what I hear — you probably hear it too — or say it to yourself, and how to make it stop, and stop now…

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When I first went into private practice, I was doing exclusively criminal defense. A lawyer I didn’t know, who didn’t practice criminal law, got my name and wanted to refer me a case. He told me his client was arrested and asked, because the client only spoke French and he had an assistant that spoke French, if I would come to his office and consult with the client.

Sure, no problem.

I went to his office and sat in his conference room with the client, the assistant/translator, and the referring lawyer. As I went through the substantive and procedural aspects of the case I noticed that the referring lawyer, let’s call him “Joe” (because his name is actually Joe), was taking copious notes.

A couple days later, I called Joe to ask whether the client was going to hire me. “Actually Brian, I was surprised to hear from the client that he wants me to represent him.”

So Joe sat there, listened to my 90-minute road map of how I would handle the case, decided he needed to pay rent, and told the client he could do it. Maybe that was the intention from the beginning; I don’t know. I do know that I no longer allow anyone to take notes during consultations, and I rarely go to someone else’s office to meet with a new client…

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I know it’s not popular to write about lawyers doing well, because misery loves company, but the sad truth is, there are lawyers who don’t spend their days blaming their law school for the fact that they should have never thought of becoming lawyers, or trying to figure out how every new “future of law” tool on the internet can bring them clients.

There are lawyers, regardless of what you’ve been convinced of, who are actually making a living off the time and sweat they have put into their practice. These are the lawyers getting multiple calls a week, whose main concern is not counting the days until their worthless LinkedIn connections bear fruit, but how they are going to get all the work done, and if the stride will continue.

So for the whiners out there, the heartbroken dreamers, the ones who believe expressing their anonymous anger on the internet will one day result in something positive, take the week off. I want to talk to the success stories out there in Small-Law-Ville (anyone own that term yet?)….

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I just returned from my annual Bar convention. Have you been? Hundreds of lawyers, judges, and a smattering of law students attending meetings, receptions, CLE seminars, and having chance meetings at the real “bar” with opposing counsel — it’s a day or two to realize you’re part of something bigger than your law office.

I know, some of you hate your state Bar. You don’t hang out with “Bar-types” and see no value in spending a day or two running around a hotel and saying hello to lawyers you know and don’t know.

Being involved in my state Bar has been one of the most important components of building my practice…

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Tom Wallerstein

Next week my firm will celebrate its fourth anniversary. I can’t believe it has been that long. It seems like yesterday that I was sitting at my desk at Quinn Emanuel, thinking about cases worth millions of dollars but still too small to be economically handled by traditional Biglaw firms. I wondered if I might try to serve a growing market hungry for less expensive but still high-quality litigation. Not long thereafter I was conspiring with my partner over the details, drafting business plans, and conducting informal marketing surveys.

As my firm approaches its fourth anniversary, it’s interesting for me to think back to my early plans and consider what worked, and what did not. What happened as I predicted or hoped, and what was unexpected…

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Lawyers like to say, “I’m a lawyer, not a psychiatrist.”

If you’re dealing with people’s problems, you’re a lawyer and a psychiatrist. While clients understand you are the person hired to try and resolve their legal issues, the not-so subtle secret of a successful practice is a slew of clients that believe their lawyer actually gives a crap about how their legal issues are affecting their personal life.

In small-firm practice, you’re dealing with someone who just got served, or is going through the anxiety of deciding whether to initiate litigation. Your client may be going through the stress of trying to buy a business, or asking you to split up his family. Someone is trying to get her spouse out of jail, while the person in jail is wondering about his future. The type of legal issues that we deal with in small law firms aren’t whether the corporation will have to pay a million dollar fine or whether the bank will have to write off a loan, they’re issues that cause people to lose sleep and sometimes just freak out.

And I know, I get the calls too. Clients want to talk about things that have nothing to do with the legal work I have to do. They ask the same questions that you can’t answer: “When will this be over?” or, “Do you think (this) will happen?” You’re tired of telling the client, “I don’t know, but just be patient.” The client calls and says he “read” this, or “heard” this,” or worse, “My friend had a case like this and…”

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Here’s another story from real life (unless I’m making it up). The draft mediation statement starts with: “We sued them in Texas, and they sued us in Florida. Judges in both courts have now considered the issues.”

I write back, in my usual sensitive, caring way: “Any brief in the world could start with, ‘Somebody sued somebody'; that’s kind of the starting point for lawsuits. Because your opening sentence is entirely generic, it’s entirely unpersuasive. Please consider starting instead with: ‘BigCo hired three professional assassins to storm our world headquarters. During the assault, the assassins killed six of our employees, wounded four, and stole our trade secrets along the way.’ Having thus shown the mediator that we should win, we could then go on to note that we sued them in Texas, and they sued us in Florida, and judges in both courts have now considered the issues.”

Outside counsel writes back: “Perhaps you’d be right in some other case, but not in this one. We mediated this same case 18 months ago in front of the same mediator, so he already knows what our case is about. He doesn’t need any more of an introduction than my draft provides.”

What are the mistakes here? First, I’m the client. If I propose doing something idiotic, then stop me by any means necessary. But, in close calls, let me win; that’s called client service (and it’s what I did during the 25 years I spent in private practice). Second, this isn’t a close call. When I’m right and you’re wrong, let me win; that’s called intelligence. Third, and why I’ve set fingers to keyboard — you’ve made a mistake that I see repeatedly among lawyers: You think that people remember you . . . .

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