Specialization

Three cheers for “cultural capital.”

* Despite his hatred of 3L classes like “Law and Unicorns,” Justice Scalia believes that the third year of law school is necessary — perhaps a necessary evil, but still necessary. [Memphis Daily News]

* “[T]his excuse — sometimes labeled the ‘too big to jail’ excuse — is disturbing, frankly….” The eminently quotable Judge Rakoff is at it again, this time with harsh words for the DOJ. [New York Times]

* According to the latest survey from Citi Private Bank’s Law Firm Group, managing partners think that 2014 will be better than 2013. This means bonuses will be the same next year. [Am Law Daily]

* Attorneys from Wiley Rein are fighting for $2 million in fees in the wake of their SCOTUS win in the Shelby County Voting Rights Act case. The firm’s quest has been called “absurd.” [National Law Journal]

* “The record is utterly devoid of any evidence of criminal intent or intentional misconduct.” It turns out the attorneys accused of malpractice by the Miccosukee Indians weren’t bad after all. [Daily Business Review]

* Rather than pegging its value at $1 million, a professor from a fourth-tier law school is promoting the “non-economic value” of a law degree. Can “cultural capital” repay your loans? [WSJ Law Blog (sub. req.)]

* “[N]o law school in Canada should be allowed to weed out gay students.” Too bad. Trinity Western University, the law school that bans gay “sexual intimacy,” received preliminary approval. [Globe and Mail]

* Law school specialization and you: follow these three simple steps to help you decide which niche you’ll be unable to find a job in after you graduate. [Law Admissions Lowdown / U.S. News & World Report]

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….

double red triangle arrows Continue reading “Inside Straight: The Structure Of Corporate Law Departments”

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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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….

double red triangle arrows Continue reading “Inside Straight: When Is ‘Expensive’ Cheap?”

I’m under the impression that many of our readers are looking for a new job, or at least thinking about it. Some of you are still in law school and haven’t lined something up yet. Others have been laid off by a firm and are trying to find a replacement gig. Still others are unhappy in their current situations, and are contemplating something better. But how many of you know what you’re looking for?

I mentioned earlier that I’ve given a lot of informational interviews in the past. I do believe that it’s the most effective and most overlooked job-search tool going. But I’m often struck by how many people I meet — especially law students — who already know what type of law they want to practice. I certainly didn’t when I was in school; I became an employment lawyer because an employment-law firm offered me a job. I marvel at 1Ls and 2Ls who already know what type of lawyer they want to be when they grow up.

Knowing this has its benefits: it can help you direct your career path. But it has its disadvantages, too. It can seriously limit your job opportunities.

Here’s how to handle that problem.…

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