Small Law Firms

Last week, we asked readers to submit possible captions for this picture:

On Friday, you voted on the finalists, and now it’s time to announce the winner of our contest…

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Passover is a time for family. Judaism has holidays galore, but Passover stands unique in its family-centric nature. The highlight of the holiday, the seder (literally “order,” due to the specific program of the evening), is by its very nature a family meal writ large. And on Passover, the definition of family is an expansive one for Jews, with the unfortunate or downtrodden as welcome and entitled to sit at the seder table as one’s immediate relatives. The seder itself commemorates the biblical paschal offering, which was by design intended to be consumed in a communal setting, amongst family.

Just last week, I was speaking to a client about Passover, and despite our differences in both age and observance level, we easily agreed that some of our strongest personal memories are anchored in our childhood seder experiences. In my case, the fact that my childhood seders were fortunate enough to have included my grandparents was a special blessing. Especially since they themselves (together with my parents, who were young children at the time) were forced to flee Egypt as refugees, leaving family and possessions behind. Thankfully, they all ended up (my Dad by way of France, hence my name) in this wonderful free country, where opportunity is open to all who are willing to invest in creating it for themselves. For me, the most fulfilling part of making partner in 2009 was being able to share that recognition with my grandfather, who was in the final stages of a heroic decade-long battle with cancer at the time. His courage in leaving the place of his birth, locked in the bathroom of a passenger ship to Italy to avoid detection, paved the way for our family’s rebirth on these shores. Many have similar stories, and those stories make holidays more meaningful, no matter what holiday is being celebrated.

While I was in Biglaw, holidays presented some of the few opportunities I had for uninterrupted family time. I was always grateful to have worked with people who respected my religious observances, and tried my best to minimize the disruption caused by my unavailability….

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I’ve now written more than 250 columns at Above the Law; I’m invoking a point of personal privilege.

Neil Falconer (of Steinhart & Falconer in San Francisco) passed away last week at the age of 91. He was an extraordinary lawyer, a fine man, and a mentor to anyone who had the sense to listen. Between 1984 and 1989, I learned from Neil what it meant to be a lawyer – “be a sponge; soak up the law;” “never tell a small child not to stick peanuts up his nose;” “you take as long as necessary to solve the problem; let me worry about the bill” – and I later dedicated The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law to him. I expected to shed a tear when I read his obituary, but I didn’t expect to be dumbstruck. Words are a terribly feeble way to encapsulate a life. And sometimes you’re paid back, years later, for even the smallest of gestures. Here’s a link to Neil Falconer’s obituary in the San Francisco Chronicle. Rest in peace, Neil. And thank you.

Thinking about Neil caused me to reflect on the decision that I made, 30 years ago, to work at a small firm (of 20 lawyers) on the West Coast.

Everyone told me that I was nuts: “You can always move laterally from a big firm to a small one, but you can’t move laterally in the other direction!” “You can always move from a big New York firm to a firm in California, but you can’t move west to east!” “You have to start by getting the ‘big firm experience.’ Then you can always move to a small firm.” “Go to a big firm! That’s how you keep your options open!”

The conventional wisdom isn’t always right . . . .

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Organize Dissent

Keith Lee

Alfred P. Sloan, Jr., famed chairman of General Motors in its heyday, has been attributed with saying the following at a top committee meeting:

“Gentlemen, I take it we are all in complete agreement on the decision here.” Everyone around the table nodded in assent.

“Then I propose we postpone further discussion of this matter until our next meeting to give ourselves time to develop disagreement and perhaps gain some understanding of what the decision is all about.”

If you are like many other young lawyers of today, you likely came up through an education system that encouraged teamwork and consensus building in which everyone’s opinion and input were valuable. Warm, encouraging environments that allowed students to discover who they are and develop their own meaning behind their education. Their minds, not something to discipline and develop, but rather soft sponges to hopefully absorb information through osmosis. That there wasn’t really a wrong answer, what mattered was how did you feel about the problem. Which is nice if you care about the feelings of children, but next to worthless in the practice of law…

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Christina Gagnier

Joan Jett’s line from her famous song is apropos this week: “I don’t give a damn ‘bout my bad reputation.” Now, this attitude towards your reputation may have been all well and good pre the 24/7 media and social media cycle. Yet, in today’s world, what you do and post on the Internet is part of a permanent digital dossier. I caution any lawyer using social media to take pause and think before you post…

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Ed. note: Please welcome Shannon Achimalbe to Above the Law. Shannon will be writing about the journey from solo practice to a larger law firm.

Some time ago, I met with a consultant to discuss how I could improve and expand my solo practice. I told him my future goals: to be recognized as an expert in my areas of practice, make lots of money, and have free time for my personal life. He said I could accomplish these goals, but it would depend on how much time and effort I put in. He then told me that I would need to “invest” money in marketing, blogging, networking events, and joining various organizations. I would also need to make plans to upgrade my office and get a staff. Finally, he told me to pick a religion, because I’d be praying often.

But when I looked at the projected costs to accomplish my goals along with the non-guarantee of success, I hesitated. A flurry of questions went through my head: Who do I need to connect with and hire? What niches are marketable and enjoyable? When would I start to see a return on my investment? Where are my potential clients?  How many more networking events do I have to attend? Why am I doing this? Am I going to enjoy doing this? When I found myself asking that last question, I knew it was time to look at other options…

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Want to see what it looks like when a fourth-year Weil Gotshal associate plans to marry a family law practitioner from a small firm? It looks like it’s going to rival the epic display of elegance and class that is the upcoming Kimye wedding.

Please save the date for the “Boss Wedding,” which is what they’re calling this dignified affair…

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One of the things that was always interesting about Biglaw was just how much the skills of senior partners were celebrated, even in the absence of any verification. Or rigorous comparison to their peers, for that matter. Such exaltation of abilities was not limited to individual lawyers, of course, but extended also to practice groups and even other firms. In fact, a fair amount of Biglaw’s “prestige” is pollinated by secondhand anecdotal evidence, many times passed along by people who have either never seen their subjects in action or who are not qualified to distinguish between a great performance and a mediocre one.

Of course, I do not doubt that many, if not the vast majority of, Biglaw reputations are well-earned. For example, even though my knowledge of real estate law is severely limited, I would feel comfortable hiring some of my old colleagues at Greenberg Traurig in New York for real estate help, should I ever be in a position to acquire or dispose of some commercial real estate. I admit that I have no frame of reference, other than reputation and some personal relationships, supporting such a prospective choice. But it is not like I could “shadow” a closing and figure out which set of lawyers is doing a better job anyway. “Wow, those guys really put out a nice refreshment spread in the room with the closing binders” would be the level of my analysis. Probably not a good idea to choose counsel solely on that basis.

Are there other options out there?

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* The Eighth Circuit axed a $900K jury award after a lawyer recounted her tale of sexual harassment by a law professor at Drake University Law during closing arguments. Well, that sucks, but we’d really love to know which professor this was. [ABA Journal]

* If flat is the new up, then mergers must be the new growth. The new year is upon us, and law firms are on track to either meet or break the merger record set in 2013. Thus far, 22 firms have announced mergers or acquisitions in 2014. [Washington Post]

* A lawyer in Minnesota who’s been in trouble with the bar quite a few times was recently charged with setting his girlfriend on fire. Yikes, someone’s way too excited about the Fargo mini-series. [Star-Tribune]

* Oscar Pistorius took the stand in his murder trial yesterday, revealing that when he killed his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, he was really trying to protect her. This case gives us the sads. :( [New York Times]

* Sorry we’re not sorry about the toupee: Paramount wants this Wolf of Wall Street suit dismissed since it’s undeniable the plaintiff was part of “bizarre travesty that was Stratton Oakmont.” [Hollywood Reporter]

Most days, I’m proud of owning my own small law firm. And while technically, I’m not a solo — I’ve had an assistant for over eight years now as well as a revolving crew of of counsel, part-time associates and independent contractors — many of my colleagues lump me and most very small law firms into that category nonetheless. So when other solos act foolishly or unprofessionally, it reflects poorly on the rest of us.

Understand, I’m not picking on solos.  Let’s face it — large law firms are hardly paragons of upstanding conduct; one needn’t look further than the recent Dewey & LeBoeuf scandal as proof. But for whatever reason, when Biglaw behaves badly, that conduct doesn’t diminish the reputation of Biglaw in the eyes of judges and other lawyers as it does for solos.  

So that’s why it bugs me when solos do stupid — and often avoidable — things. Here are my top three peeves:

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