Valerie Katz

For the next few months, I am working and living in San Francisco. It’s not surprising, but I have met some interesting folks since I moved here. And, I have learned not to sit down on any public space.

It is safe to say to that it is a different world here than in Chicago. This difference, I have learned, is present not only outside of the office, but inside as well. How? No, people do not go to work naked (at least not many). According to several small-firm attorneys, this difference manifests itself in a work culture that stresses healthy competition in a supportive environment.

Let’s examine this difference in a little more detail….

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On July 28, I asked for readers to share their tips for success on Twitter. Several readers and social media experts have weighed in on this topic. Apparently, the way to garner a loyal (and numerous) Twitter following is the same way you make friends: build relationships, communicate and engage one another, and share information and unique insights.

Yes, Twitter is like high school, except that anyone can be a cool kid. So, if you want to be a Twar (read: Twitter star), use the following tips….

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Nepotism is not a new concept. I would bet that anyone reading this article can imagine an example where nepotism played a role in one’s obtaining a legal job, rising to prominence at a law firm, or securing a client. Some people, including myself, used to scoff at those people. I thought that one should rise or fall based solely on his merit. I was wrong (and naive).

What made me change my tune? Two things. First, I recently came across a study that concluded that ants practice nepotism. The ants can distinguish who their closest relatives are and kill their more distant relations. If ants practice nepotism, that means that we should, too. As the saying goes, if birds do it and bees do it (and even educated fleas do it), we should do it, too.

Second, I recently became a part of a new ant colony. For the next three months, I will be working with my dad. After two days of working together, I can now say that nepotism rules. Screw meritocracy….

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For some reason, something must end before we learn our lessons. That is precisely the reason that Sophia Petrillo from The Golden Girls attended her own funeral. She wanted to hear how much people appreciated her while she was still alive, correctly realizing that eulogies are much more valuable at a “funeral” where the individual is still alive to hear the nice things said about her.

This is also why every tech blogger and new source is discussing what we can learn from the retirement of Steve Jobs. My favorite “eulogy” is from a Wall Street Journal blog, The Juggle, recalling a commencement address Jobs gave at Stanford in 2005 about never settling. While I am pretty sure I did not listen to his advice, it is nevertheless sound. He said:

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Who among us does not love bathroom humor? As we saw last week, Anderson Cooper loves him a joke about bodily functions. No one, however, wants to live a poop joke. And, according to a conversation that I had with two small-firm attorneys, they are doing just that.

I was at a birthday party last Saturday night for a woman with whom I used to work at my small firm. She has since left and is now working for another small firm. The party attendees were composed of mostly small-firm attorneys from several firms in Chicago (and yes, it was just as raucous as one would imagine given that guest list). As usually happens when a group of lawyers gather, we all started exchanging horror stories about work.

Some people lamented the lack of quality secretaries, some complained about outdated technology, and some whined about the face-time requirements at their firms. These gripes I had heard (and personally experienced) before.

Then my friend Tammi (not her real name) shared her tale of woe….

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A common topic in my discussions with small-firm attorneys is whether or not to specialize. There are pros and cons to both, but one of the greatest difficulties in specializing as a small-firm lawyer is to make sure that your niche can provide enough business to serve as the sole focus of your practice. For instance, it may be possible to focus exclusively on trusts and estates matters, but it is unlikely possible to focus solely on fashion law.

There appears to be a growing area that may be worthy of a niche practice: reproductive law. Consider the statistics (provided by Andrew Vorzimer who specializes in this area and writes the blog Eggdonor): 1.5 million couples will seek treatment for fertility related issues this year and half of those will be unsuccessful with traditional treatments and likely turn to assisted reproductive technologies (e.g. in-vitro fertilization and surrogacy), which often require specialized agreements (and could lead to specialized litigation). Despite this demand for legal services relating to assisted reproductive technologies, there is a dearth of legislation in this area. Together, these seem like the building blocks for a lucrative and exciting legal specialty.

There is another reason why smart, competent, and ethical lawyers should consider this specialty. This is because there are small-firm lawyers in this field like Hilary Neiman and Theresa Erickson….

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When I graduated from law school, I decided that I would take a job at a large law firm because it would maximize my chances of going in-house. I had no idea what either job would entail, but it seemed like a sensible plan. And, even without knowing what it would be like to be a litigation associate in Biglaw, I suspected it would be bad enough that an exit strategy would be necessary.

A few years later, I switched my exit strategy and went to a small firm. I decided that I could not wait for three to five more years to get the skills required to go in-house. So, I went to a small firm to get “hands on experience” and position myself for my new exit strategy: a federal government job. Then, hiring for federal jobs froze, and the few openings were impossible to get unless you had the exact experience required and could figure out your grade level. Consequently, I am currently reformulating my exit strategy. I am contemplating running for president or becoming a certified yoga instructor.

I have yet to meet a lawyer who did not plan or fantasize about his or her exit strategy from law firm associate, be it Biglaw or small. I blame it on the nightmare that is billing hours — even if the requirement might be less at some places. The most common exit strategies are (1) in-house and (2) fitness professional.

Is it possible, however, for a small-firm associate to go in-house, or is the small-firm associate required to follow my path and find a new exit strategy?

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When I was in Biglaw, I always dreamed of taking part in a beauty contest. I do not really understand how it goes down, but it sounded very exciting (at least more than my fifty-state-survey.) According to YouTube, it looks something like this.

When I went to the small firm, I did not hear mention of beauty contests. Clients mostly came through referrals, and any client pitches were much more informal. For instance, I heard a story about two partners trying to get an FLSA class action, so they went to the employer’s factory and donned the poultry processor workers’ uniforms (and perhaps touched some chicken parts going down the conveyor belt). Unlike the stories of the Biglaw beauty contests, there were not lawyer teams from several other small firms lined up in their chicken-suits.

If a team from Skadden or Sidley were lined up in chicken-garb, however, how would the small-firm attorneys best position themselves to win the contest? I asked some Biglaw-turned-small-firm attorneys for their best tips….

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When I was a little girl, I wanted to be a princess, an actress, and a firewoman. For most, growing up means losing the “and” (and the dreams of doing something so far-fetched, by which I mean me becoming a firewoman). Indeed, for many of my lawyer friends, particularly those in Biglaw, you become “a lawyer,” no “and.” Billing hours overtakes your life. If you are lucky, you become a lawyer AND someone who sleeps occasionally (on a huge pile of money).

I recently met a small-firm lawyer who embraced the “and.” Whether it is unique to the small firms where she has practiced or is true of many small-firm lawyers, Cheryl “Cheri” Richards reminded me of something I had forgotten about lawyers: they can be interesting and multidimensional….

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I am not proud to admit this, but it is possible that my three-year-old niece knows more about branding than I do. I learned this the other day when I was reading my niece one of her favorite books, Fancy Nancy.

For those of you who not know Nancy, she is a little girl who loves to dress fancy, act fancy and talk fancy. For example, this little girl does not say that her favorite color is purple. She prefers fuchsia, a word that is “fancy” for purple. Similarly, Nancy does not want a new hairdo. No, Nancy uses the fancy word “coiffure” instead. For some reason, my niece loves Nancy, but I think she is a showoff. When asked why she loves the know-it-all Nancy, my niece explained that she made things sound better.

Maybe my niece had a point. If you want your small firm to sound better, then use fancy words. As Nancy would explain, do not call yourself a “trial lawyer.” Everyone knows that “litigator” is fancy for trial lawyer. Or is it?

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