Small Law Firms

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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Keith Lee

It’s always struck me as odd how isolated law schools tend to be. They often seem to be the loftiest towers in the ivory towers of higher education. Far removed from the day-to-day grind of their graduates and unconcerned with any sort of practicality as it relates to their instruction. Not only that, they seem to exist separately from the other enclaves of education within their university. For instance, at a university which contains both a law school and a business school, it would seem a natural conclusion for the two schools to work together and provide students with opportunities for cross-pollination of ideas and education. Particularly given law schools’ new found fetishization of “experiential education” and a focus on practical education for law students.

I mean, given the choice to learn how to run a business, would you rather learn from a law professor who spent a year or two as an associate in Biglaw before hitting the life-long professor track, or a MBA who spent 20 years in business before semi-retiring to teach a class or two in business school?

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So a guy hurt himself doing something that most of us would consider stupid. Then filed a lawsuit. It’s all hilarious.

Spreading stories about frivolous injury claims poses a moral quandary. While snicker-worthy suits like those often chronicled at Overlawyered are highly entertaining, the thinly veiled motivation behind circulating these tales is eroding confidence in the courts and promoting the dangerous assumption that all plaintiffs are crazy people trying to get rich quick. It’s all about using wacky outliers to convince everyone that the system is “out of control” before the next time some company poisons a water supply or something like that.

But there are some wacky lawsuits that need to be discussed because they ask something more fundamental. Like this one where a physical trainer decided — for no real reason — to do something EXTREME, got an EXTREME injury, and filed an EXTREME lawsuit.

And the fundamental question posed by this case is why we’re seeing more and more people with all of the sense of entitlement to do “whatever they want, whenever they want,” yet simultaneously possessing none of the commitment to personal responsibility for the consequences…

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Christina Gagnier

Once you have a lead on a potential client, the next step is to engage this individual or company in some way so that they decide to go with you and your firm for their legal matters. In some cases, you get a “slam dunk”, where they chat with you for a few minutes and it is a go. Other client engagements take a little more finessing, but at the end of the day, both you and the client are comfortable moving forward.

With others, the challenge is figuring out who is trying to get a freebie and just walk away with some free services and advice…

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