As you may know, I passed the bar and began practicing law in 1971. I believe 2008 was the last year I billed any time as a lawyer. So, I had 36 plus years to learn lessons practicing law. In the hope you will not learn what I did the hard way, here are my 25 lessons I learned:
  1. The greatest asset a lawyer can have is clients.
  2. Real learning began after I finished law school and passed the Bar exam.
  3. The importance of doing what I was passionate about.
  4. The people who worked for me were incredibly important.
  5. The people who worked for me were not necessarily motivated by what motivated me.
  6. The more narrow I made my niche, the easier it was to be noticed and for my expertise to be recognized.
  7. Writing and speaking were the best ways for me to build my profile and reputation.
  8. Repurposing my material. Briefs and memos became articles. Articles became presentations. Presentations became guides. (In 2019, those would become blog posts.)
  9. My client representatives had different personality types, meaning I needed to speak with them differently.
  10. If I did not create a written plan with written goals, I did not use my non-billable time wisely.
  11. In order to make the plan effective, I had to break down my actions into smaller components.
  12. Planning my week around my roles including my personal roles.
  13. I had to make time for client development and my own development. (I would never “find” it.)
  14. That learning about my client’s work and industry was at least as important as developing my legal skills.
  15. The importance of making client development a habit.
  16. The importance of focusing on existing clients.
  17. That clients wanted me to understand their industry, their company and them.
  18. That while some lawyers may have natural people skills that make client development more natural for them, client development is an acquired talent.
  19. In client development, little things made the biggest difference.
  20. Every person is a potential client.
  21. The importance of asking good questions and actively listening.
  22. Actively listening is more than hearing what a client has said.
  23. To effectively communicate with a jury, I had to find something they cared about.
  24. If I was to be successful trying cases or helping clients close deals, I could not fear losing.
  25. To succeed, I had to be able to rebound from failing or losing.

I actually learned at least one more really important thing:

To be at the top of my game, I focused more on my energy management than I did time management.

 

I recently read Seth Godin’s blog: People Don’t Change. It is only a few lines and it applies to several lawyers I have known and some I have coached.

As Godin says the hard part is not changing. It’s wanting to change.

I have written that the only way you will make a change is to have a big enough answer to the “why” question. Why is making the change important to you.

When I was a young lawyer with senior lawyers feeding me work, I wanted to change and develop my own clients.

When I asked myself why that was important to me, I thought of making more money, providing more security for my family, not being beholding to a senior lawyer, the joy of knowing the clients hired me, and the independence I would feel from having my own clients.

Those answers to the “why” question were enough to keep me motivated when I wasn’t succeeding.

I have recently had two client relationship experiences I believe are worth sharing. In the first, I was the potential service provider and in the second I was the client. Tell me what you think of my response to each situation.

A couple of months ago I received a nice email from a marketing director. He told me he had heard good things about my coaching and his firm was starting a coaching program. He outlined what he had in mind, which fit me to a tee since it included both group coaching and individual coaching of lawyers from different offices and practice groups. He ended by suggesting we set up a call.

I responded expressing interest and he suggested a time for our call the next day. The next day I received an email saying a conflict had arisen and suggesting we talk two days later on a Thursday. On Thursday, I waited by the telephone but never received a call, or an email suggesting another conflict had arisen.

Contrary to advice I give lawyers to not follow up simply because they have not heard from the potential client, after a month without a call or an email, I contacted the marketing director and told him I assumed they had found a different person to do the coaching. He replied saying the firm had not made a final selection yet.

After pondering all of this for an evening, I sent an email asking to be taken out of consideration. My greatest concern came when the marketing director postponed the call to a specific day and then went silent until I sent the email a month later asking if they had hired another coach.

My experience as a client was even more bizarre. For years I went to a specialist doctor because of potential cancer. That doctor decided to retire and recommended a doctor. For the last three years I have gone to that doctor. After each visit I schedule the next appointment with the receptionist.

I was supposed to visit for labs on a date when later I was scheduled to be out of town, so I called the doctor’s office. I explained the conflict and asked to reschedule the labs. The receptionist took my name and date of birth. When she next spoke she told me they had no record of me being a patient. I made sure I was speaking to the correct doctor’s office and since he practiced in two cities I checked to make sure I had the right office.

She assured me I had the right doctor and right office and once again told me they had no record of me being a patient. I asked to speak to the doctor’s assistant. I was sent to voicemail where I left a message explaining the problem. When no one bothered to call me back, I sent an email to the doctor’s email address (which I assumed would go to his assistant).

It’s been a week, and no one from his office has called. No one from his office has replied to the email. I would have thought since doctors “need” top reviews, someone from his office would have taken care of me.

Update: I received an email from an assistant apologizing for the office blunder and asking for the name of the person with whom I spoke three times.

I replied saying I didn’t know her name and explaining what would happen if a member of my staff told him he was not a firm client

What is my point of each of these two stories:

  1. When a client sets up times to talk with you and then goes radio silent for weeks after the day he scheduled to talk with you, that client is probably not one with whom you will value working.
  2. If anyone in your office ever tells one of your clients that the firm has no record of him or her being a client, and no one from your office responds to voicemails or emails, I recommend you either contact me about joining another firm or find a new profession.

 

My colleague, Abby Gordon continues with part 2 of her advice to young lawyers.

The Lateral Market
15. Always keep your résumé up to date (and your deal sheet or representative matters sheet as well) because you never know when opportunity will knock….

16. Be conscious of your deal experience. To lateral to another firm, you generally need a number of solid years of experience in a specific practice area and not just a hodgepodge of experience in various areas. Keep your firm bio up-to-date and easy to decipher. Keep an up-to-date and ongoing list of the matters you’ve worked on.

17. Take advantage of career resources at your law school (even after graduation) and any resources (alumni affairs coordinators, etc.) at your firm. But be discreet about letting anyone at your firm know you are looking around.

18. Do not give notice at your current job before you have a new job lined up and cleared conflicts. I had a candidate who gave notice at his current firm so he would have more time to interview and look for a new job and the firm where he had an interview scheduled immediately pulled the plug.

19. Understand the lateral market. The lateral market is not the same market you encountered as a summer associate applicant. Just because you were good enough to get an offer at a particular firm then does not mean that same firm or a comparable firm will hire you as a lateral. The bar is much higher now. No matter how amazing you may be, law firms will not hire you unless there is a need for your specific skills.

20. Understand that you have a shelf life. Firms are very particular about the class years they are looking to hire. The vast majority of litigation openings are for second, third or fourth years. If you are even a mid-level (let alone senior) litigator, you may have a very difficult time making a move. Corporate associates are expected to have a bit more experience before lateraling. Even so, do not wait until you are a seventh or eighth year. You will have far fewer options.

21. If you are given an offer but are asked to take a drop in class year, do not look at this as a slap in the face. You would not have an offer in the first place if the firm does not see you as a potential asset. Although it means you will take a slight hit in salary in the short-term, it also means you will have more time to prove yourself before advancement decisions are made. You will be compared to other associates who are less experienced than you.

22. While prestige can be very important when choosing a first firm, do not put too much emphasis on prestige when looking to lateral to a firm where you will likely stay long-term. Often, the less prestigious the firm, the easier it will be to make counsel or partner. Consider the culture, the platform, and your advancement possibilities before prestige.

23. Be selective when it comes to choosing a recruiter. Learn about the recruiter’s background before you commit to working with someone (and keep in mind that there is rarely a need to work with multiple recruiters—it will often come back to hurt you). Do not let recruiters submit you to openings without your pre-approval and be sure to keep an up-to-date list of every firm/company to which you have applied and on which date. Be selective but of course…

24. Be nice to recruiters. Yes, this is a self-serving point, but it constantly amazes me how many associates are rude to recruiters and do not see them as the potential (free) resources of information they are. Even if you are not looking to make a move anytime soon, make the connection for the future. A good recruiter is an expert on the legal industry. Ask the recruiter to give you an update on the market for your practice area. Seek the recruiter’s advice on getting the right deal experience for your long-term goals or on updating your résumé. Get to know a recruiter before you are in a rush to make a move, and let the recruiter get to know you. Law firm associates are busy people, we get that. I was an associate myself so I know firsthand the pressure you are under. But there is never a good reason to be rude or unfriendly. Which leads me to…

25. Be nice to everyone. I cannot emphasize this enough. You never know when you will meet someone again and in what context. We have had candidates not get offers (and rightly so) because they were rude to the receptionist when arriving for an interview. Law firms operate on a hierarchical structure. But when it comes to how you treat other human beings, there is no place for hierarchy.

School starts up again soon. It made me think about the joy I experienced when I spoke at career day.

I was frequently asked to speak at career day in the spring at grade schools in the district where my daughter taught special education  Most of the students in that school district are living in poverty.

On career day, I showed up in a suit and had to compete with firemen and women who were able to let the students get up in the fire truck. There were many other far more exciting occupations.

When I spoke to 4th and 5th graders, my goals were to engage them, help them understand the role of lawyers in the United States, let them know what it takes to become a lawyer and conclude by sharing with them the wide variety of things lawyers do.

I begin by asking what the students dream of doing when they grow up. In one career day, several told me they want to be doctors, others shared they want to be veterinarians, a couple said they want to become boxers. Two students said they want to work for the CIA and four of the students told me they want to become fashion designers. One student told me he wanted to become a marine biologist. Only a handful told me they wanted to become lawyers, and I believe it was just being nice to the speaker.

When I looked into their eyes, I always saw the passion they felt for their dream future careers. I often wondered at what age someone begins to take their dream away, so many of them no longer believe they can achieve their dream work. I figured it started in middle school. If I could do something to help at that point, I would in a heartbeat.

Since several students dream of future pro sports careers, I always mention that when I was their age, I wanted to become a major league baseball player, but even in grade school, I had a “Plan B” if that did not work out.

I explained that to become a lawyer you have to work hard, study, learn and be a good citizen. I also told students that to be a good lawyer you have to be able to see what others don’t see. I showed them the logos for Federal Express and for The Big 10 conference and ask what they saw. Very few saw the arrow in Federal Express before I told them to look for the arrow. Most all of them saw the 11 in the Big 10 Conference logo, when there were 11 schools in the conference.

Then I talked to them about what lawyers do and point out that lawyers help doctors, veterinarians, boxers, the CIA, and fashion designers. Finally I toldl them about my work helping construction contractors. Because I competed with fire trucks, I showed them my MacAir, iPad and iPhone and told them those are tools lawyers use.

Each time I leave the school building, I am truly energized. Just being around those grade school children and hoping I say one thing that will inspire them to go for their dreams was a fantastic reward for my morning away from the office.

More recently I suggested younger lawyers I coached to take my place. I wanted those lawyers to share my experience and I thought the students would better relate to someone their parents age rather than someone older than their grandparents…

 

 

 

Abby Gordon is one of my Lateral Link colleagues who works in the Lateral Link New York office. She has great ideas for young lawyers and I’ve asked her to share those ideas in a series of blog posts.

In this post, Abby shares the first 14 of 25 things to know to not screw up your law career. Next week I will publish the last 11 things.

I was a paralegal before law school. I took four years between undergrad and law school, so I knew a herd of practicing lawyers when I was still applying to law school. I thought I had a leg up on everyone; I thought I had it all figured out. But in hindsight, I realize that there was a lot I did not know—not in law school and not as I made my way through seven years as an associate with a top international law firm.

Now as a legal recruiter, I see associates making the same mistakes over and over. I wish law schools would do a better job of preparing students for the practicalities of the legal industry and not just teach the substance of the law. But until they do, here is my list of key points to understand and mistakes to avoid…

Law School & Gearing Up for Practice

1. First-year grades are what matter for securing a summer associate position that will hopefully lead to a more permanent associate position. But for anyone who may look to lateral to another firm or go in-house eventually (and that is most of you!), second- and third-year law school grades do count—a lot. This is especially true for litigators in today’s market. Grades follow you around, so finish strong.

2. Check out bar requirements in advance for any state you might want to waive into eventually.

3.  If you want to become a litigator, strongly consider doing a federal clerkship. This is especially important if you may want to work at a litigation boutique one day. If you are a corporate associate, no one cares if you have done a clerkship.

 

Picking Your Law Firm
4. Law firm prestige does matter. It is certainly not the only consideration, but to lateral to another firm or move to a company, it is very important. You may get much better hands-on experience and training at a smaller firm, but prospective employers usually do not see it this way.

5. It is extremely difficult to switch practice areas once you start. Pick practice area wisely, based on your personality:
• You have to like what you do! Do you enjoy the substance of the work in that field of law?
• Keep in mind lifestyle factors when picking your practice area. Some areas have a steadier and more predictable flow of work whereas others have a very unpredictable workflow.
• Certain practice areas attract certain personalities more than others. You may not want to go into litigation, for example, if you do not deal well with aggressive personalities.

6. …Based on your academic background: Be sure you have the right background to progress in your practice area. If you have no finance or accounting background or aptitude, corporate work may not be your best option. If you do not have a hard sciences/engineering/computer science background (preferably an advanced degree), think twice about doing science-related intellectual property work. You may be able to get your foot in the door without the science background, but it will be difficult to advance down the road.

7. …Based on geographic factors: Do (U.S.-trained) lawyers do this sort of work where I want to live? For example, if you want to move to a smaller city one day, capital markets may not be the best option. But if you want to work overseas one day, strongly consider capital markets over other practice areas.

8. …Based on market considerations: Understand the current market and think about where you see the economy heading. I would hesitate to pick a specialty that is very dependent on market conditions.

9. …Based on your future goals: Some practice areas lend themselves better to going in-house one day, to going into the government, to setting up shop as a solo practitioner, or to working out a part-time arrangement one day. To the extent you know where you want to end up five, 10, or 15 years down the road, pick carefully today. Again, I cannot stress enough how difficult it is to switch practice areas once you start.

10. Understand the various structures of law firms. It may not be a crucial factor for young associates, but you should at least be aware of the differences and the pros and cons of each. For example, lockstep firms may foster more cooperation and less competition among partners but tend to have more institutional clients and may not encourage the more junior associates to learn business development skills. If you enjoy the business side of being part of a law firm and you think you will have an aptitude for business/client development, consider a firm with a two-tier partnership track (income partners and equity partners), where you may have a better shot at proving your worth as a business-building partner.

Law Firm Life
11. Do not trust your firm to manage your professional development. They will not. It is not that they are necessarily being shortsighted or indifferent to your wellbeing, but the reality is that the firm’s priorities are probably not 100% aligned with yours. Perhaps law firms should take greater care in the long-term professional development of their associates (who may be future clients). But until they do, associates must take control of their own professional trajectories, become aware of their options, and…

12. …Do not succumb to inertia. Think about next steps early and often. Whether or not you are happy where you are or looking to make a move, make every choice an affirmative choice. Do not just sit back and let your career drive itself. Take control. Take in information whenever you can. Be aware of your options.

13. Keep up on the latest firm and industry news. It is too easy to get absorbed in your immediate work and neglect the bigger picture. Stay on top of which practice areas are hot and which are not. Keep aware of how well your firm is doing.

14. Knowledge of the law is only one side of being an effective and successful lawyer. You must learn the business side of the legal industry as well. Business development is key to law firm survival. The ability to bring in clients is a key element of making partner and making a livelihood as a partner. Unfortunately, many firms fail miserably at teaching you the fundamentals of client development and encouraging this practice. So be prepared to teach yourself if need be.

Clients are unhappy with the service provided by their law firms. Surveys reveal that 75% of the Fortune 1000 general counsels would fire their current law firm and hire another if they thought any other firm would do better. What an opportunity.

Instead of trying to “sell” clients and potential clients, try this. When I was the Construction Law Practice Group Leader at my old firm, I decided we needed a Client Service Policy. To prepare it, I went to clients and other contractors and asked them what areas of service were important to them. They were pleased to be asked and gladly shared their thoughts. This was a great “marketing” technique that was based on “serving” and “listening” rather than “selling.”

I write often about career success and life fulfillment. Why? I coached over 1500 lawyers in the United States and Canada. I learned a great deal by listening to those lawyers. I learn now when candidates contact me wanting to join a new law firm.

When I first started coaching lawyers in 2005, I coached two lawyers I will call Andrea and Samantha (not real names). They were both junior partners in firms that were about the same size. They both billed about the same number of hours annually.

Andrea enjoyed a successful career and fulfilling personal life. Samantha frequently called me to say she was burning out and felt like all she did was billable work for her firm.

Why do you suppose they were having different experiences? Is your career and life more like Andrea’s or more like Samantha’s?

Success and Fulfillment or Burnout

Here are some differences and how you can apply them to find your own career success and life fulfillment.

Attitude:  It starts with your attitude. As lawyers, we are taught to be skeptical. But, too often we apply skepticism to our careers. I love this Winston Churchill quote:

“A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.”

The difference between Samantha and Andrea was that when thinking about their careers Samantha frequently said: “yes, but” and Andrea said: “sure, how.” Samantha found reasons she wouldn’t make it happen and Andrea found ways to make it happen.

Clarity on the What Question: The second difference was Andrea knew exactly what she wanted to accomplish in her career and life and Samantha has focused on what she did not want to do.

Napoleon Hill, who studied successful people for over 20 years in the early 20th century, said it well:

“There is one quality which one must possess to win, and that is definiteness of purpose, the knowledge of what one wants, and a burning desire to possess it.”

Successful lawyers have a clear idea of what they want and many actually visualize accomplishing it. You can’t visualize or get energy and a burning desire around what you don’t want. Andrea knew what she wanted both in her career and personal life and had a burning desire to achieve it. Because of her burning desire, she set goals, developed a plan and was not easily derailed.

Keeping Score: The third difference was how Andrea and Samantha defined success. Over the years Samantha defined success by her billable hours and money she was making. That is like a golfer looking at the scoreboard rather than the ball. Andrea found meaning and success in how she helped her clients succeed.

Being in the Zone: Finally, Andrea was in the zone in whatever she was doing. Samantha was easily distracted. When Andrea was working on a client matter, she was in the zone. When she taught at a local college, she was focused on her students. Andrea frequently left the office early to coach her older son’s soccer team. When she coached, she was in that moment and not distracted. She planned her personal life as well as her professional life. Samantha planned her billable time at the office and her time at church on Sunday, but not much beyond that. So, she was rarely in the zone and focused on the moment.

You can have a successful career and fulfilling personal life by saying: “sure, how,” having a definite purpose and a burning desire to accomplish it, finding meaning in your work by focusing on how you benefit your clients, and by focusing on the moment.

I have a theory based on my own experience with YouTube. My theory is that lawyers neither have time or interest in sitting through an hour-long learning session, especially when there is no CLE credit.

Do you agree?

As you may know, Lateral Link, with whom I am working, has asked me to present a 12-part Rainmaker series.  So far, the longest video is about 36 minutes.

In the first session, I covered Client Development for 2019 and beyond. Here is a link to the first session:

In the second session, I covered How to Prepare a Business Plan that Works. Here is a link to the second session:

In the third session I cover motivation and time management.

It really won’t take you much time to watch the program. I have workbooks/handouts for most, if not all, of the sessions. If you are unable to get the workbook, send me an email cparvin@laterallink.com.

I am still thinking about blogging today.  Recently the Harvard Business Review posted a blog titled: The Moment Social Media Became Serious Business  I was fascinated reading what Harold Adams Innis said about the reduction in the cost of communication in 1951, long before anyone was blogging. What he said applies to blogging today.

  • Redistributing knowledge and, in doing so, shifting power
  • Making it easier for “amateurs” to compete with “professionals,” because access to knowledge substitutes for mastery of complexity
  • Allowing individuals and minorities to voice ideas
  • Reducing the advantages of speed that formerly accrued because some had knowledge before others
  • Reducing the advantages of size that are based on the ability to afford high costs.

Because blogging costs so little, smaller law firms and younger lawyers have a chance to compete against bigger law firms and more senior lawyers. Borrowing a Seth Godin book title,  the problem is, the more lawyers and law firms blogging, the less blogging by lawyers is a Purple Cow.

So, if you are blogging, you better find a way to make your blog unique and valuable to your target market because your clients and potential clients are being inundated with indistinguishable client alerts and blogs written by lawyers. Want some tips? Take a look at 45 Things I Wish I Knew Before Starting a Blog. That post may give you some good ideas.

What can you do to make your blog be unique and interesting? One way to stand out is to tell stories. Your readers will more likely read a story than some dull summary of the law.

How to do it? Here is a blog Storytelling in Blog Posts: How to Add Sparkle and Delight Readers. I like the three parts of a story:

  1. a beginning sketching the problem
  2. a middle part showing how the problem was solved
  3. a final part explaining how the hero lived happily ever after

As many of you know, I wrote a column for Roads and Bridges magazine for 25 years. I followed the three parts of a story approach in most of my columns. Every quarter I wrote a survey was taken of what was most read in the magazine and almost every quarter my column was most read. Readers liked reading stories about other contractors.

Is your blog a “purple cow”? If not, try writing a story and see if that attracts more readers.