Relationships

If you’re an attorney in a mid-sized or large law firm, the phrase “people manager” means as much to you as the phrase “spring bonuses” means to me (both of which situations are exceedingly unfortunate). You’re lucky to receive support from a group of under-appreciated administrative assistants, paralegals, and attorneys junior to you. The group supports other attorneys besides you, and in an ideal world, each such attorney would take efforts to manage and train the group.

But, since such things as Dewey puns exist, we obviously aren’t living in an ideal world. In this stark reality of pink slime and the Socratic method, what usually happens in a shared support situation is that some attorneys take the time to train the support group, and others don’t.

Here’s the thing. The attorneys who invest the energy to train the group members don’t end up reaping the full benefits of their investment. This is because the employees they’ve specially trained spend an annoying amount of time engaging in behaviors like supporting other attorneys. So the lazy lawyers at the firm receive an “unjust enrichment” of sorts — they gain the benefits of working with skilled employees, yet they haven’t expended any effort to impart those skills. In fact, the more you spend time training someone, the more likely it is that others will seek that person’s assistance, and that you’ll need to compete for the employee’s support. “D’oh!” would pretty much capture the appropriate response….

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Ed. note: This new feature is by “Rachel Marks,” the spouse of an attorney at a large law firm. She’ll be blogging about how having a husband in Biglaw affects the life on the home front. And she’ll be talking about what your spouses really want out of your career. You can reach her at rach512744@yahoo.com.

My name is Rachel, and I’m married to a NY Biglaw guy who’s married to his firm. (And when I say married to his firm, I mean it in the typing-on-his-Blackberry-as-his-wife-is-pushing-out-his-second-child kind of way.) Thus, for obvious reasons, my name is fake, my location is undisclosed, and this might not even be me writing these words.

Why would a Biglaw wife want to write on Above the Law, you might wonder? Well, my husband is usually doing one of three things: working, sleeping, or reading this blog. (How I wish this was an exaggeration!) And since he doesn’t like it when I call him in the office (not that that stops me!), and he’s impossible to wake up, I can FINALLY get his attention now that I’ve come to a place where he’s sure to come by. (And on that note — hon, don’t forget to put out the recycling this evening, and you MUST call your mother and have that *talk*.)

Now, on to my real order of business, since perhaps this could all just be handled in some couples’ counseling: SPRING BONUSES. Where the heck are they?! Even I’ve begun reading ATL regularly, in hopes of seeing that wonderful yet ever elusive siren at the top of the page, alerting readers of the breaking news that my husband’s bonus is now only 50% depleted (as opposed to its current 75% depletion) from the glory days of bonuses past….

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Like many other Bachelor fans, I devoted approximately 14 hours last night to finding out who Bachelor Ben chose as his future wife. After much soul-searching and a pensive walk through Switzerland, Ben picked Courtney, the model who everyone hated. Indeed, if the boos and glares directed at Courtney during “After The Final Rose” are any indication, America (and maybe Ben) has decided Courtney is a bad fit. Not to mention, all the other Bachelor losers were very open about their hatred for Courtney.

Ben’s path to “true love” is a lesson not just for pathetic women (see, Lindzi, the orange contestant, who missed all the obvious hints that he was not interested and still blabbered on and on about how she found true love before he ditched her), but also for small-firm hiring partners. Here are the top five takeaways….

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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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* Someone figured out exactly what’s on every nerdy lawyer’s holiday wish list: an iPhone app for PACER. Get it while it’s hot — it’s free! [iTunes App Store]

* The First Amendment will always reign supreme, even if people are harassing religious old ladies on the Twitter. [Underdog]

* Legalizing same-sex marriage is like eating your vegetables. You might not like it, but it’s good for your health. [Jezebel]

* This is quite possibly the worst “bitch owed me money” story ever. What kind of a person sets a grandma on fire? In an elevator? [TIME]

* Thanks to technological innovations, friending people online might soon carry more meaning than friending them in real life. [What About Clients?]

* Go ahead, get up and tweet about the location of DUI checkpoints. Just make sure you take those 12 steps back to your seat when you’re done. [Legal Blog Watch]

* My birthday is on Wednesday. If you want to give me a present, you can vote for Above the Law in the ABA Journal’s Blawg 100, under the “News” category. [ABA Journal]

Tom Wallerstein

Success in Biglaw often is measured by the size of an attorney’s “book of business.” Not surprisingly, having a book of business is also the best way to ensure the success of a private practice. The bigger the book, the greater your exit options. So whether your goal is to make partner or to open your own firm, everyone knows that the key is to develop a book of business.

That is easy to say, but virtually impossible to do in a big firm setting. Many big firms handle only matters in which the amount at stake is in the millions of dollars. This means that the prospect of an associate landing such a case is slim; a client would never entrust a multi-million dollar dispute to an un-tested associate. Associates are told to attend networking events, but what is the prospect of meeting someone who just so happens to have a ten million dollar dispute laying around, and who has not yet staffed the matter, and who is willing to entrust the matter to a junior associate he just met?

Once upon a time, mentoring relationships were strong, and firms were loyal to their associates. A loyal associate could hope that the partner for whom he or she worked would encourage clients to develop a relationship with the associate and allow the associate to claim ownership of future engagements from that client. If nothing else, a loyal associate could expect to inherit clients from a retiring partner.

Alas, the traditional method of building a book of business no longer works for most associates. Firms now sometimes go so far as to actively discourage associates from forming too-strong relationships with clients, lest the associate leave and take the client with them. And even if an associate is fortunate enough to get client contact, clients are likely to develop loyalties to the partner on the matter, even if the associate is doing most of the work. Unfortunately, just because you do good work doesn’t mean that over time you will magically develop that elusive book of business.

To make matters worse, it’s often impossible to predict future business, especially for litigators. If a client hires you for a patent dispute and pays you $1 million in fees in 2011 before the case settles, does that mean you have a $1 million book of business, even if you have no reason to expect any business from that client in 2012? How can you guarantee repeat business from any client, especially in litigation? Do you need a three or five year average? Those are long time frames for associates.

With all these challenges, how can an associate ever hope to make the rain they will need if they want to open their own firm?

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Anytime my lawyer friends talk shop, my divorce lawyer friend always has the most interesting stories. A few months ago, a group of us went for happy hour. The conversation turned to a discussion of what we were doing at work. I said that my client was contemplating settlement over his parking lot lawsuit. Everyone yawned. My finance lawyer friend began to talk about securitizing something, but then just stopped talking because she knew her work was even more boring. This trend continued until my divorce lawyer friend talked about a recent trial. The highlights of her story included a lesbian affair and a mail-order bride. We were all rapt.

For that reason, I have wanted to profile a divorce firm for a while. Recently, I was lucky enough to have a conversation with San Francisco family lawyer (I guess they prefer that term) Erik Newton. His firm, Heath Newton LLP, has become a highly regarded boutique law firm that specializes in “Family Building,” “Divorce and Dissolution,” and “Asset Protection”….

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As I approach the completion of my third full year at Above the Law, you’d think I wouldn’t feel the need to write a memo every time I take a week off so people don’t start partying like I’ve been fired. Yet… well, let’s just say that Dan Savage came to me in a dream and said, “It gets better — except for you, Elie.”

I jest. As regular readers know, this is the time I take off to celebrate my wedding anniversary. I leave you in the always capable hands of managing editor David Lat and ATL’s newest staff writer, Staci Zaretsky. Please send all tips and story ideas to them at tips@abovethelaw.com.

Marriage has been on my mind a lot this summer. I attended the wonderful wedding of an old friend last weekend. But mainly I’ve been thinking about marriage and family in the context of the many strong reactions to my debt posts.

Some of the most surprising reactions were from people who contended that I was essentially being a bad husband by quitting my Biglaw job while still saddled with serious debts. According to these people, including some women, a better husband would have stuck it out in Biglaw for however long it took until my wife and I could be debt-free.

Are these people insane?

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