Specialist

Releasing a book may not bring you fame or fortune, but it surely brings you interesting e-mails. I devoted last Thursday’s column to an e-mail I received from a reader of the Inside Straight book asking whether law firms undervalue good lawyering. I’m devoting this column to an e-mailed reaction posing a different question: Must a lawyer specialize if he or she hopes to develop business effectively?

My correspondent (who again is a partner at an Am Law 100 firm and again gave me permission to edit and reproduce his or her words anonymously) wrote: “Your case study of how you developed a pharmaceutical product liability practice (when you worked at a big firm) says as much by implication as it does expressly. You’re implicitly asserting that one develops business more effectively by showing that you’re a specialist in a field the client needs rather than saying that you have a fungible skill. But I suspect that your true value as a lawyer was largely unrelated to your business development pitch in which you pretended that you were a specialist.

“Ultimately, what you brought to the table in private practice wasn’t a nearly 30-year career in pharmaceutical products law. You brought a vast wealth of experience gleaned from cases that had nothing to do with the area of law that, at a particular time, happened to govern specific cases.

“It pains me that lawyers feel compelled to become specialists — or, at a minimum, to pretend that they’re specialists — if they want to develop business . . . . ”

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Here’s something that never crossed my mind before I moved in-house, but it affects both the nature of in-house legal jobs and outside counsel’s relationship with in-house lawyers.

ParentCo has three business units: Gadgets, Widgets, and Muppets.

ParentCo will have a general counsel. Beyond that, however, ParentCo’s Law Department could be set up in one of two ways: (1) there may be three lawyers, one of whom is the chief counsel for Gadgets, one for Widgets, and one for Muppets, or (2) ParentCo may have a litigation counsel, an M&A counsel, and a contracts counsel, each of whom support all three business units.

In the first situation, the lawyers for the business units are generalists, helping their specific business units with whatever legal matters arise. In the second situation, the lawyers are substantive experts, helping all three business units with matters that fall into the lawyers’ areas of expertise. An in-house lawyer’s work environment turns in part on which structure the corporation’s law department uses, and outside counsel can better serve clients if counsel know how a law department is organized….

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This week, I was introduced to an IP lawyer. Yawn. Another IP lawyer churning out trademark and copyright applications. Meeting one of them these days is no different than going to a lawyer cocktail hour and meeting yet another “commercial litigator.” (Translated: “I do general irrelevant crap. Where’s the guy with those little spinach things?”)

But I quickly saw in his email that this wasn’t just another IP lawyer:

“My area of practice is intellectual property, but with a twist: I represent technology companies in transactions involving the licensure, commercial exploitation and/or research & development of technologies — that is about 50% of my practice. The other 50% is representing digital marketing agencies, digital production companies, and related businesses in all of their IP and corporate needs. I handle a great deal of work in the area of data privacy rules & regulations, compliance with FTC rules for digital advertising, and matters involving outsourced technology transactions.”

Interesting. Next step is meeting this guy face to face, mainly so I can understand what that email just said. I realize he doesn’t want referrals from every guy in his garage with the next great invention, but although I think I know, I want to learn how and from where he gets his referrals, and how he built his practice.

There’s been a lot written about niche practices. A lot of it has been written by non-practicing lawyers, or those with a niche that they’ve had for five minutes. Although today’s kids would rather hear from those idiots than someone who’s been doing it themselves for a while, I’ll do what I do every week, and offer some advice that may make you less miserable, and cause you to think differently about your practice….

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I have spent many hours talking to others about the future of the legal profession. My Biglaw friends (at least the one who remains) proclaim that the future of legal practice is not that different from the past — by which she means that Biglaw is the future. The attorneys I meet from small law firms, in contrast, predict that Biglaw is out and small firms will prevail. My unemployed lawyer friends believe that they, along with a bunch of other unemployed lawyers, will toil away as hourly document review attorneys in the future. I believe that the children are our future, teach them well and let them lead the way. Oh, sorry, that is Whitney. RIP.

Corporate Counsel recently published an article, Bye Bye Big Firm, that predicts that while small law firms will not overtake Biglaw, they will be a major part of the future of legal practice. The article offers several reasons for predicting this future trend:

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I wrote last week about how an in-house lawyer overwhelmed by volume should stop worrying and learn to love the ignorance. Talking about ignorance plays to my strength, so I’m choosing here to expand the discussion.

When you’re at a law firm, it’s likely that you sell in part substantive expertise. You’ve assembled a “deal list” to prove that you know more about technology licensing than any other person on earth, or your “case list” shows that you’re better able to handle 10b-5 class actions than all those other pretenders. You may be selling certain things beyond substantive expertise — experience, relationships, presence — but substantive knowledge is part of the package.

When you move in-house, you’re no longer selling anything, because your poor corporate client is doomed to work with you, no matter what your state of ignorance. You’ll no longer polish your deal or case lists, because no one cares anymore.

But it’s worse than that: You won’t simply stop polishing your deal and case lists. You’re actually likely to lose some chunk of your substantive expertise….

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One lawyer offers to represent you for $1000 an hour. Another lawyer offers to represent you for $400 an hour. Who’s more expensive?

The correct answer is: You don’t know.

You don’t know for three reasons. First, some $1000-an-hour guys are remarkably specialized.

The efficiencies triggered by specialization are obvious: If I need a lawyer to call the local real estate office and cause my form to be moved from the bottom of the pile to the top, there may be only one person in town who can make that call. He charges $1000 an hour; I buy a half hour of his time; I get off cheap. The $400-an-hour guy can assign a troop of $150-an-hour associates to research local real estate procedures until the cows come home, but that firm is not going to be cheap.

Specialization can yield efficiencies for other reasons, too. If I have a question about a particularly obscure subsection of some obscure law, there may be two ways to get an answer: (1) Call the $1000-an-hour lawyer whose entire practice is devoted to subsection VI(B)(2)(a)(iii) of the Obscurity Code, and have him respond in two hours with an answer, or (2) Have the $400-an-hour lawyer try to figure out the answer from scratch. Who do you suppose is cheaper?

But specialization is the easy case. $1000-an-hour guys can be inexpensive for other reasons, too….

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Tom Wallerstein

This post is dedicated to William A. Rutter, who passed away last week. If you’re not a lawyer in California, you might not recognize the name. But at least in my world, Rutter is the guy who produced the invaluable and ubiquitous Rutter practice guides, covering a wide range of practice areas and procedures.

If you’re not from California, you might be more familiar with other Rutter creations, like the BAR/BRI prep course he founded, or his Gilbert Law Summaries for law students.

My firm, like most firms in California, has a series of Rutter guides on our shelves. And even though we run a virtually paperless office with Lexis, Westlaw, and other electronic research options, I still love my printed Rutter guides. We even have a joke about Rutter. Whenever a colleague questions their ability to handle a particular matter or solve a particular issue, we joke, “I’m sure there’s a Rutter Guide for that.”

The joke has a serious point, namely, that the basics of most practice areas can always be learned. And if it’s easy enough to learn a practice area, why shouldn’t a lawyer forming a solo practice or small firm become a true generalist, handling everything from family law, wills and trusts, civil, criminal, and essentially whatever walks in the door?

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