Small Law Firms

Cleary Gottlieb switched over from “summer casual” to all-year business casual between my summer and starting full-time, so I never experienced a mandatory business attire office. Some senior folks would kvetch about the falling standard of decorum, but I suspected those guys were really just annoyed that they’d built a truly impressive suit collection and sat idly by as their wife started letting the tailor needle her, and for what? Younger lawyers rejoiced because not having to blow out a suit collection amounted to a functional bonus. I never experienced the full-on business dress policy, but personally, I could never imagine wearing business attire every day if for no other reason than business attire isn’t really conducive to the 18-hour workday.

More than a decade into the business casual movement, there are still holdouts demanding a return to the formality of the good old days. The problem with all these irritated partners is it’s not really possible to preach business attire without looking like a tool….

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Keith Lee

To say that people want rewards without responsibility or effort is a trite observation. But often times it seems as though the problem is growing increasingly worse. For example:

Five days to fitness, to three minutes, down to six seconds. Of course, true fitness is a total lifestyle commitment that requires years of sustained effort involving discipline and sacrifice. But that’s an awful lot of work.

Far easier to blow $100 on some get-fit-quick scheme, haphazardly follow it for a few days, and then blow it off. Then you can blame your lack of fitness on the program. No need to take personal responsibility for your position in life….

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Ed. note: This is the latest installment of the ATL Interrogatories. This recurring feature will give notable law firm partners an opportunity to share insights and experiences about the legal profession and careers in law, as well as about their firms and themselves.

Paul Steven Singerman is Co-Chair of Berger Singerman and concentrates his practice in troubled loan workouts, insolvency matters, and commercial transactions. Paul is active throughout the United States in large and complex restructuring, insolvency, and bankruptcy cases. Although Paul is best known for his representation of debtors in complex restructuring cases, he is also experienced in representing creditors’ committees, lenders, large unsecured creditors, asset purchasers in § 363 sales and trustees. Much of his work has involved companies with international operations or European or Asian parties-in-interest.

1. What is the greatest challenge to the legal industry over the next 5 years?

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Christina Gagnier

Ed. note: Please welcome Christina Gagnier, who will be covering small law firm practice. You can read her full bio at the end of this post.

Branding is often something overlooked by law firms, especially small ones. It has been fairly standard to go the “Smith, Smith and Jones LLP” route, but sometimes that type of branding alone might not work for your small firm. If you are just starting out and trying to differentiate yourself, you may have to get creative, and a bit cheeky, to get some attention.

When we launched our firm, my partner and I went down that traditional branding route and decided to go by Gagnier Margossian LLP. This completely makes sense, and there is a good reason why most firms do it, but let’s be real, it’s an ethnic mouthful. We have French and Armenian surnames and created a hard to pronounce mash-up.

Thankfully, a few years in, one of our clerks just started calling us “GAMA,” and it stuck. GAMALAW, GAMA, and GAMALLP are much easier to convey in a conversation than Gagnier Margossian.

Beyond naming, we had to think about the look of the firm. As a creative, creating a color palette and design guide for the firm was important, so we did a survey of what was already out there. We chose our colors since the combination stuck out, and there were many creative things we could do. Even after making these decisions, getting up our current website (launched in 2011) and working on making our brand distinct, we still did not feel that it was necessarily “us.”

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File this under “Why People Hate Lawyers.”

A partner working with the Milwaukee law firm of Styles & Pumpian killed himself. That is sad and tragic news for his family. You’d think it would be sad and tragic news for his law firm colleagues, but they didn’t really see it that way. Instead, they took the “He’s dead? More for us!” angle that is more the kind of thing you’d expect from the Donner Party than a group of well-fed lawyers….

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One of the questions I have been asked since leaving Biglaw is how I decided to join forces with my current partners. It is a good question, because over the years I have had the opportunity to work with many lawyers, both at my firm and at others. I have technically even had hundreds of “partners” between my two prior Biglaw firms. But other than my current partners, I can think of only a handful whom I would have considered opening a firm with.

My professional ambition was never to open a boutique. I very much enjoyed my time in Biglaw, and always thought that I would stay in Biglaw for the remainder of my career. Did that mean that I expected to remain at the same firm for my entire career? Of course not, no matter how appealing that idea sounded. The fraying of the Biglaw social contract as a result of the 2008 recession sealed that deal. But it was a big leap from knowing that my career could involve some moves within Biglaw to leaving Biglaw altogether.

Finding the right compatriots was a critical element of that decision. How did it come about?

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Recently, a group of Harvard Law professors released the results of their survey of 124 attorneys from 11 large firms, asking what courses Harvard students ought to take to prepare for Biglaw practice. Overall, financial courses such as accounting, financial reporting, and corporate finance, topped the list, as noted by Will Baude over at the Volokh Conspiracy. But the study got me thinking: what courses should lawyers interested in starting a practice — either directly after law school or a few years down the road — study in law school?

If you ask this question of solos or consultants, most will argue that law schools need to teach business-type classes like how to write a business plan or how to market a law practice. And while law schools should certainly make those classes available to interested students, I don’t view them as imperative. Let’s face it, most of this material isn’t rocket-science (high school dropouts open successful businesses, after all), and the web offers a bottomless treasure trove of this type of information. (As an aside, one of my personal faves is Canvarise, a one-page template that pulls together all of the elements of a traditional business plan).

Nor do I believe that substantive courses — bankruptcy, family law, immigration, copyright — are all that important. Substantive law is state-specific, so it’s tough to teach and it’s always changing. What you learn as a second-year law student may no longer be valid a few years down the road. Plus, it’s not difficult to pick up the basics of a new practice area on the fly. Think about it: most students studying for the bar gain a quick understanding of as many as 25 different substantive practice areas in a summer. No reason the same isn’t true in practice.

In my view, law students should focus on studying and acquiring the kinds of skills that aren’t easily found or readily mastered in practice. With that as a guide, here’s my top five list of classes that will help prepare students for solo practice…

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It’s so hard to judge yourself.

Deep in your soul you know that people who criticize you are idiots, and people who praise you are wise and sagacious.

How can you possibly tell if you’re any good at what you do?

I have the answer for you! I’ve created a litigators’ self-assessment test! Now you’ll know if you’re any good!

Here’s how it works: Take out the last brief you filed.

Do it. Now. You won’t learn anything if you don’t follow the rules.

Look at the first sentence of your brief. For about ten percent of the people reading this column, the first sentence of your brief says (and I quote) . . . .

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Nicki Minaj

* Being a former partner of a firm that’s flopped ain’t easy. Ex-Howrey partners find themselves haunted by the failed firm’s “phantom” funds, and now they’re going to court to fight their tax liabilities. [Am Law Daily]

* Silly Cadwalader! You’re not the “oldest law firm in the United States.” Neither are you, Howard, Kohn, Sprague & FitzGerald. That title goes to Rawle & Henderson, a firm that’s been around since 1783. [ABA Journal]

* If you’d like to work at a firm that’s being touted for its anti-Biglaw culture, you might want to take a look at Tandem Legal Group. You won’t ever have to wear a tie at this “fun” and “cool” place. [Washington Post]

* Jason Bohn, the Florida Law grad accused of murder — who also happens to be the guy who was once featured in an NYT article about the perils of law school — has apparently killed before. [New York Post]

* Nicki Minaj is being sued for $30 million by the man who once served as her “wig guru.” Having absolutely nothing to do with the case, imagine being so obscenely rich that you could employ a “wig guru.” [CNN]

Keith Lee

It’s often incredibly difficult to let things go in today’s always on, always connected world. There is a desire to multitask and switch gears at all times.

Check Twitter, check email, review a letter. Write a couple paragraphs in brief, get phone call. While on phone, pull up Facebook. Phone call ends, check Twitter, back to brief. Another lawyer sticks head in office, wants to talk about an issue in a different case. Finish conversation, back to brief, an urgent email notification pops up. Read email, not really that urgent. Reply anyway. Couple more paragraphs into brief, calendar notification goes off. Lunch scheduled with another lawyer in 25 minutes.

What are the chances that any of the work you just produced was actually of high quality?

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