There is a great deal of value to be found in finding a successful mentor — someone who is looking out for you and advocating for your success. Without my mentor in the early years of my legal career I would have been lost in the substantive, technical, and interpersonal aspects of my law firm practice. The right mentor can change everything.
When choosing your mentor, keep the following guidelines in mind:
1. Choose Someone Internal
Your mentor should be someone internal (and not your uncle who is a lawyer in the Cayman Islands). Your mentor should be in a position to help you decipher and navigate your specific office dynamics.
In last week’s Moonlighting, we checked out what several general counsels and chief legal officers considered to be the worst aspects of their job. And all of us in junior positions and middle management cried a tear for them.
This week, we’re going to look at what those GCs and CLOs said are the absolute bestest things ever about being the head of a legal department. Dare to take a guess? Is it the fact that they’re compensated with tons of cash, stock options, and other sweet benefits as a member of the exclusive C Suite? Or that law firm partners are as attentive to them as valets are to earls and dukes on Downton Abbey? Or that the Red Sea parts whenever they raise a staff over it?
Apparently there are greater benefits to being a GC than any of those above. And this includes one that was listed in last week’s column as a reason you wouldn’t want to be the GC….
I was grateful that Quinn Emanuel sent me to Los Angeles for a multi-week long, intensive trial advocacy training program. The instructors were incredible and the program overall was one of the most valuable training experiences of my career.
Some of the sessions featured practice drills followed by critiques from practicing attorneys. In one of the sessions, that “mentor” role was filled by a junior partner in a well-known firm. He had long, wavy hair and wore a tight silk shirt with the top several buttons open, exposing his chest hair and gold chains. His cologne should have been arrested for olfactory assault. If you think of a 1980s hair-metal band you will get the right idea.
Creepy-looking Mentor was constantly flipping his hair and paying far too much attention to the young, female associates. (He seemed to think it was particularly important to help them with their cross-examination posture, as he made a point of standing behind them and guiding them like a golf or tennis pro might do.)
Even though the program was only “practice” — cue Allen Iverson — there was a lot of pressure because many firm partners were there watching and, presumably, evaluating us. In this particular session, the associate doing a cross examination was very nervous, and visibly shaking. When the associate was finished, Mentor said he had a relevant war story he thought would be helpful to share, and did so….
Young lawyers just starting out with their own practice usually tell me the type of work they’re doing is “whatever comes in the door.” Of course the pedigree Biglaw types criticize that type of practice, but probably don’t know that when the now dead founders of their firm started, they probably had a similar type of practice. They did real estate work, wrote a will, and maybe even (God forbid) found themselves defending a client in criminal court. At some point, they developed a practice and became known for a certain type of lawyering.
What I see today is lawyers doing any kind of work in order to eat, and lawyers who are lucky enough to have a niche, but are still taking cases in which they have no idea what they are doing. It’s like the lawyer whose niche is probate, but has never stepped foot in a probate litigation case, or the lawyer who handles misdemeanor cases taking on a complex white collar case because “it’s a good fee.”
Those of us who suffer through lawyer e-mail listservs see these lawyers all the time. “Has anyone filed a motion for ____________ who can send me a copy?” That same lawyer asks for multiple documents in a period of several weeks and then asks about procedure and whether anyone knows opposing counsel. They’ve never handled a case like this, and worse, have no idea what they are doing. They’ll never realize how pathetic they look to everyone else on the list, many of whom will have an opportunity to refer a case, and will remember not to send it to them.
There’s nothing wrong with learning, unless you are learning to the detriment of the client. There’s no doubt we’ve unknowingly been on an airplane with a pilot who is in the captain’s chair for the first time, but there’s also someone sitting to the right of him.
This post isn’t simply about asking for help, it’s also about determining whether the case is something you should take. When you’re starting out, or struggling, and someone comes in with more money than you received in the last three months, you’re all too eager to pretend you know how to handle the client’s case. You’ll just take the retainer and start typing away on the listserv, or fake it and hope you can figure it out. You also hope the client will never know that they’ve hired a lawyer that has no idea what to do.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t take these cases; I’m saying you should protect your client, and yourself, in that order….
It is that time of year when the treacle runs thick. Nostalgia can lead to the blues that can lead to a bout at P.J. Clarke’s that leads to a pounding head in the morning. Conversely, some of you are full bore into booking hours for end of year bonuses and have no time for such shenanigans. Then there are the lucky among us who are given money simply for having jobs — starting with Cravathians and the imitator firms. If you are one of those, good on you; there is no bitterness here — envy, perhaps — but not bitterness.
As I began to outline this week’s column I was alerted to some truly distressing news: Dave Brubeck has died at 91. If you had the pleasure, as I did, of hearing Mr. Brubeck in person, you were touched by the presence of an American treasure and true musical genius. Even if you’re not familiar with Brubeck’s music, his signature piece, “Take Five,” would likely be instantly recognizable. Brubeck was an inspiration for his artistry, yet was a self-effacing and quiet individual. When I was fortunate enough to see him perform, he ambled ever so slowly to the microphone to say a few words. One was concerned the man would topple over given the frail nature of his shuffling. After saying a few words, he’d shuffle back to his piano stool and the power of some greater being would generate through his fingers. He seemed like a man that you would wish for in a grandfather. Of course, news broke today that Charles Schulz had an ongoing affair, but I digress.
The point is that there are some folks who just exist on a different plane from the rest of us, and whom, for better or worse, we treat as heroes. The same can be said of several attorneys in my career. I am certain that each reader could submit their own list of attorneys who have mentored, assisted, helped up, or just been there for us as young bucks as we made our way through the profession….
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When Chintan Panchal decided to leave a global BigLaw partnership to start his own firm, he could only hope that he would face the high-quality problem of firm building that many had cautioned him about. Focused on the uncertainty surrounding of a new firm launch, he decided to tackle staffing needs, IT challenges, and financial planning requirements after he had built up his legal practice.
Panchal Associates LLP–a corporate/finance and outside general counsel boutique–was quickly off to a great start. Clients and matters were flying in the door, and Chintan soon had a team of lawyers and staff with a variety of operational needs. To continue building an excellent team and provide them with a competitive benefits package, to expand his physical presence to include a European practice and additional partners, and to scale his operations and IT capabilities to support this growing enterprise brought with it demands of time, money, and expertise. Chintan knew he needed help.
“With the assistance of NexFirm, we have upgraded the capabilities of our firm to meet, and in some cases exceed, the standards we were used to at our former BigLaw firms. Operationally, we can now attract and service clients we didn’t have the bandwidth to support in the past, and continue to build our team with the best and brightest legal talent in the industry,” said Chintan Panchal, adding “It has worked out quite well in our case; NexFirm is an essential partner for us.”
The holiday season is upon us, and yet again, you have no idea what to get for the fickle lawyer in your life. We’re here to help. Even if your bonus check hasn’t arrived yet, any one of the gifts we’ve highlighted here could be a worthy substitute until your employer decides to make it rain.
We’ve got an eclectic selection for you to choose from, so settle in by that stack of documents yet to be reviewed and dig in…
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