Small Law Firms

Since I began my job search, I have read many books and articles on how to find a job. Most of them gave the usual tried and true advice — meet people and learn new skills — with some variation. And to prove their points, they include cool and heartwarming anecdotal stories.

But I have also been given awful job search tips. They typically revolve around a story about someone who uses a gimmick to get the attention of an employer. One thing leads to another and the applicant is hired over the many others who had better grades and work experience. The success story is passed off as advice because it worked in his particular case in very unusual conditions.

After the jump, I will discuss some of the worst job advice I have been given.

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At some point, while stuck in an unending traffic jam or pressed up against the throngs of humanity in an unair-conditioned train, every lawyer contemplates working from home. And any lawyer with kids thinks about working from home about twice as often. Imagine the convenience of strolling down the hall to begin the workday, dressed in your finest “whatever was laying around,” and taking a break to read Above the Law without anyone being the wiser. Living the dream.

Unfortunately, this dream is beyond the grasp of most lawyers today. The staid legal industry expects lawyers in their offices near their colleagues, even though few tasks aren’t handled electronically — even when lawyers sit mere steps away.

Fair or not, lawyering from home raises eyebrows. “If you’re working from home, people tend to assume you’re either doing it because you’re good at what you do, so you can, or because you can’t make it anywhere else, so you have to. You want to brand yourself as the former.”

One would certainly hope so. How does a lawyer go about doing that?

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At this stage of my career, I am pretty removed from the Biglaw associate recruiting scene. So I don’t know if firms have finished hiring their summer associates for summer 2015, or whether current 2Ls are evaluating offers and deciding which firm to join. While I was in Biglaw, I was very involved in supporting the recruiting department’s efforts, whether it was serving as a summer associate mentor or interviewing lateral candidates. So I know how seriously the process is taken by both Biglaw firms and the candidates.

As serious a business as recruiting is, however, it is often difficult for students and lateral candidates to distinguish between firms. Sure, enterprising law students and associates can study PPP or “prestige” charts in the American Lawyer or on Vault, or even take advantage of the vastly improved research tools for associates on sites like this one (including ATL’s law firm directory). Even more enterprising candidates will take advantage of their networks to solicit “real-world” feedback about the associate experience at firms from current and former employees of those firms. In sum, there is plenty of information, both collected and anecdotal, for young lawyers to consider when they are lucky and accomplished enough to have earned the right to choose between Biglaw firms vying for their services.

It is great that all this information is now available. But I think what younger lawyers would benefit from most is direction as to what information is worthy of focusing on, especially when making critical career decisions.

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Jodi Arias says, ‘You could own these!’

* If you want to know why Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s summer was “really not fun,” it’s because she spent it reading a book about Justice Antonin Scalia and a book written by Justice John Paul Stevens. [Washington Whispers / U.S. News & World Report]

* “There is less money to pay everybody.” Corporations are shifting more and more of their legal work to their in-house lawyers, and some law firms — especially smaller ones — are feeling the financial squeeze. [WSJ Law Blog]

* If you’ve wanted to know what federal judges discuss during their bathroom breaks, stop wondering, because it’s not that exciting. All they talk about is their “stupid little trials,” and get overheard by jurors and forced into disclosures. [New York Daily News]

* Dewey know why the former leaders of this failed firm want their criminal indictment dismissed? It’s because the case is allegedly based on a “flagrant misunderstanding of the law.” [New York Law Journal]

* If you want to own a “piece of history,” Jodi Arias is auctioning off the glasses she wore during the first phase of her murder trial. She intends to donate the proceeds of the sale to (her own?) charity. [Daily Mail]

Keith Lee

Starting out one’s career as a lawyer is hard. You’re inexperienced, with only a passing knowledge of the law, thrust into being responsible for other people’s problems. Too often you might not feel confident in handling your own. People are going  to criticize you for any mistake you might make and take you to task for not handling a matter exactly as they would have wished. When beset with criticism and difficult situations, it can be easy to turn inwards and reel in feelings of doubt and a lack of self-confidence.

It can be difficult to preserve….

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I thought now would be a good time to give a progress report on my job search. It’s been a little over five months since the race began, and I still have not reached the finish line. All of the jobs openings I applied to have been filled. By someone else.

Recently, I wrote an email to an attorney named Stephanie whom I have known for many years and think of as a role model. Since I have been feeling discouraged and cynical lately, I thought it would be best to be direct with her and not beat around the bush. I was curious what kind of response and advice she would have, if any.

Read onwards to read my email and her response…

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You may have heard about a behavioral science experiment involving monkeys and a ladder with a banana at the top of the ladder. When one monkey would try to climb the ladder to reach the banana, the researchers would spray all of the monkeys with a hose. After a while, when a monkey tried to go towards the ladder, the others would stop him so that they wouldn’t get hosed. The researchers then switched out one of the monkeys with a new monkey who didn’t know about the hose. When he would go towards the ladder, just as before, the others would stop him. The swapping continued, and the new monkeys would join in stopping newer monkeys from going towards the ladder, not knowing about the hose treatment, but learning from the example of the original monkeys that going towards the ladder is bad. The researchers eventually swapped out all of the monkeys so that none of the original monkeys were together, but all of the new monkeys would try to stop each other from going towards the ladder.

There is some debate online as to the origins of that experiment, or whether it ever happened, so I’ll just call it the “parable of the monkeys who just do what everyone else does without understanding why” — or, for short, “the parable of the associate.” If you work in a law firm, you probably recognize the above fact pattern and can analogize it to your colleagues.

I’ve come across a bunch of lawyers since I started my legal career ten years ago. Some of them were really good, some were really bad, and most of them were just somewhere in the spectrum of not being memorable. The lawyers who were bad were all bad for about a thousand different reasons, but the lawyers who were good, almost always shared one quality: they were outside-the-box thinkers….

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With the kids heading back to school, it’s a good time to think about how education is changing — especially for lawyers. Our profession prizes continued education, and of course mandates it for those lawyers who otherwise would be too focused on billing or finding clients to learn. Both the way lawyers learn and for some the way they teach have been completely changed by technology. It may be trite at this point, but this is really the golden age of access to information and learning opportunities for everyone, lawyers included.

While on balance the development of the technology that has created the current state of information access has been a wonderful human achievement, there are downsides. Information overload can be paralyzing, and the speed at which information can be found and deployed creates stresses for those required to keep up. But if someone wants to learn something new, they can. And more than ever, for free.

As easy as it is to learn using today’s technological resources, that same technology has changed how a lawyer can teach others just as dramatically. When I gave my first CLE less than ten years ago, it was for lawyers within my firm, in one of the conference rooms, perhaps with some lawyers from other offices “joining” by speakerphone. For many years in Biglaw, that was how CLE was given and consumed. The biggest differences between sessions was the speaker and the size of the conference room. That changed over time, as firms started subscribing to audio or even video recordings of CLE from outside providers. With that development, it became easier than ever for lawyers to “consume” their CLE, often at group lunches sponsored by the firm. “Come for the food, stay for the CLE,” or something like that. Those lunches were a good way to make a dent in CLE requirements, especially if you aimed to get to one every month or two.

As busy as Biglaw lawyers often are, it was not uncommon for my colleagues and me to encounter a “CLE scramble” as registration deadlines approached….

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Most standard law practice management programs counsel against discounts. When given up front, they accustom clients to bargain rates, and if applied at the end of the project, they show a willingness to settle for less than what’s owed, thus setting in motion a tradition of haggling for future cases.  And now, a recent study suggests that there’s a correlation between discounts and collections problems, thus further reinforcing that discounting fees is a bad idea.

But Devil’s Advocate John Toothman, a lawyer who’s built a career on legal fee management, is appalled by advisors who diss discounts. At his blog, Civilian’s Guide to Lawyers, Toothman argues that the reason that many firms wind up giving discounts to begin with is because they never offered clients an estimate of the likely fee to begin with:

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Keith Lee

Last week I wrote about a complaint I heard from a client after they had been billed for two bottles of water served to them by their former lawyers at a meeting. I got numerous emails from people saying it was one of the most shocking behaviors that they had ever heard, the lowest of the low — a lawyer billing a client for a bottle of water that they had given to the client. When I wrote about it, it was the most egregious thing I had ever heard that a lawyer had billed to their client. But as a lawyer I know often says, “Take your expectations, then put even lower. Try the gutter.”

Less than a week later, there’s something worse in the news. A lawyer got sanctioned for his incompetent representation — then billed the sanctions to the client….

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