My new article “Law Firms Are Hiring Your Qualities, Not Your Skills” has been published on Law School Toolbox. The article discusses the qualities and character traits important to law firms who are interviewing job candidates (whether summer clerks or new associates), rather than the particular skills and experiences the candidates are often fixated on communicating that they have.
A while back an old friend called me, and the conversation went something like this:
Me: Hey, man, how’s it going? It’s been a while.
Friend: Yeah. Hey, I’ve got a question.
Me: Alright. Let’s here it.
[He explains his situation.]
Me: I’m not licensed in your state.
Friend: I know.
Me: And I don’t do this kind of work.
Friend: I know.
Me: You need to hire a lawyer.
Friend: I have one.
Me: Well, you need to talk to him about this.
Friend: I have.
Me: Well, what are we doing then?! Why are you asking me?
Friend: I just wanted to hear what you thought.
Me: I think you need to go talk to your lawyer. And then you need to do everything he tells you to do. And if you don’t trust him enough to do everything he says, then you need to get a new lawyer.
If you have family and friends who are geographically dispersed, there are going to be any number of occasions that you’re going to get a phone call innocently asking for your advice. If you’re not licensed to practice in whatever venue the problem is arising from, you have to avoid the temptation to volunteer some advice to your folks who have found themselves in a tight spot. And this despite any tugs at your heart strings or questions of allegiance.
The unauthorized practice of law is no space to mess around in. Model Rule of Professional Conduct 5.5 (of which most states have adopted a variation) reads as follows: “Rule 5.5 Unauthorized Practice Of Law; Multijurisdictional Practice Of Law. (a) A lawyer shall not practice law in a jurisdiction in violation of the regulation of the legal profession in that jurisdiction, or assist another in doing so.”
Discipline for the unauthorized practice of law can vary widely from a private admonition to public reprimand to suspension of a license. In Alabama (and presumably other states), civil and criminal actions can be brought against an attorney who engages in the unauthorized practice of law. The potential effects on your license run the gamut from public admonishment to disbarment.
Despite it being fairly easy to avoid UPL, lawyers everywhere seem to be tripping over themselves to get involved in it:
IN Supreme Court disbars lawyer for multiple UPL while suspended for repeated professional conduct violations https://t.co/pTdi1vy6yu
— Def Trial Counsel IN (@DefTrialCounsIN) August 2, 2016
— Nicole Hyland (@NiHyland) June 23, 2015
Pennsylvania Supreme Court suspends lawyer for 2 years for assisting UPL, improperly accessing CM/ECF, and making… http://t.co/GGfaW8bfQf
— Joseph A. Corsmeier (@jcors) May 18, 2015
Okay, there are some tricky situations with UPL, but it’s Florida, so you kind of expect it.
Yep. Every New York lawyer who brings a file with them while they're on vacation in Florida is committing UPL.
— Marc J. Randazza (@marcorandazza) July 24, 2017
Jay Wolman and Matthew Kreitzer have had some conversation on Twitter this morning arising from this post that sheds some additional light on the topic and potential pitfalls lawyers should be mindful of.
There are some states where that is exactly the ethical conclusion.
— Matthew Kreitzer (@kreitzerlaw) August 31, 2017
Won't argue there. There are many ethical rules which are questionable when it comes to enforcement.
— Matthew Kreitzer (@kreitzerlaw) August 31, 2017
Photo by Marty HawkinsMartyH.
How to Get Hired Despite Not Networking for a Job
For an introvert, the prospect of networking gives me the cold sweats. I have literally had nightmares about it. And the only thing worse is when your livelihood hangs in the balance on your ability to network. Small talk and innocuous chatter – I shutter at the thought. There has been many a day I have contemplated whether I would have been better suited to continuing my pursuit of being a historian, since my version of heaven is filled with libraries and the smell of antiquated books.
Nevertheless, I’m a lawyer. And if you’re reading this, you’re likely a lawyer or aspire to be one. If you are a law student, networking for a job with the right people hoping that one of them might one day offer you a job or recommend you to someone who will can seem like a Herculean effort. There are a few good ways to do it and a lot more really bad ways to do it.
When I was in law school, I was not good at networking for a job. So I didn’t really make an effort to go out of my way and meet people. This is not a good approach. The fact that I landed a good job (and can proudly say I seem to be one of the few in my class still working at the firm that hired me out of law school) after passing the bar is a testament to my doing one of those things well that causes people to recommend you for a job. I worked hard at a clerkship.
My third year, I worked for a couple of solo practitioners who shared an office space. They didn’t have the workload to take me on after law school. So I graduated without a job and with a mediocre resume and GPA. I studied for and took the bar without a job. And during all that time, I sent out dozens of resumes and cover letters. Most of which drew no response. After taking the bar, I sat at home every day while my wife went to work, and sent out dozens more resumes. Nothing.
Then I got a call. One of the folks I clerked for was on the line: “I know of a firm that’s looking to hire an associate in Birmingham. What do you know about insurance defense?”
My response, “Ummm, not much.”
“Fine. What do you know about trucking.”
“Alright. Are you interested in the job?”
[Frantically trying to let him finish his question so I don’t cut him off mid-sentence in zealous anticipation] “Yes!” A few weeks later there was an impromptu phone interview, which actually came through while I was driving through a tropical storm on my way to Texas. Three interviews later, I was offered the job. But this all happened despite my not doing any of the things I should have done to network and meet people, except for one vitally important thing – I worked hard at my clerkship.
Networking for a Job the Right Way During Law School
A few months ago, I spoke to a group of students at Samford University’s Cumberland School of Law, along with a friend of mine, David Graves (who I’ve since interviewed on this blog about “Managing Clients and Evaluating Cases.”). After we spoke, several of the students approached, and we talked for a bit. A 3L told me about some of her clerking experience, which was similar to the work I do, and asked if I knew of anyone who was hiring. I didn’t. She later connected with me on LinkedIn. And that was it. We talked. She acted like a normal human being and left a favorable impression.
Some time passes and my firm starts getting ready to hire an associate. I remember the girl I met at Cumberland and get in touch with her. She’s still looking for work and sends me a resume, which I forward along to the decision-makers. A few days after that, she sent me a handwritten note thanking me for remembering her. Since then she’s interviewed for the job. Now I don’t have any idea whether she’ll get the job or not, but I know this – she went about networking for a job the right way. She was assertive in an appropriate situation and made a memorable impression on someone who might be in a hiring position down the road.
How About Networking for Clients?
I’m several years into my legal career. And I don’t enjoy networking now any more than when I started law school. But it’s necessary. And it’s a skill. And networking for clients now is every bit as important as networking for a job was previously. So I put in the time and effort to improve, and it’s begun to pay dividends.
Here’s a resource to help: I recently read and reviewed Merrylin Tartlton’s Getting Clients, which she markets as a primer for those getting into (or back into) the game of marketing and networking for clients.
Artwork by Sean MacEntee.
The short answer – ALL THE THINGS!
A new crop of rising 3L’s will soon begin filling out bar applications. Some of you will have some minor indiscretions in your past. And you’ll be wondering – like I did – whether you should disclose it to your state bar’s character and fitness committee, because after all, it wasn’t that big a deal, and it’s highly unlikely they discover it anyway. But that’s the wrong mindset.
What should you disclose to the character and fitness committee?
If your misdeed is minor, the character and fitness committee will not likely be dissuaded from allowing you into the fraternity of practicing lawyers as a result. But if you choose not to disclose your ill-conceived acts, and if the character and fitness committee learns of your past, it is going to perceive that you have attempted to deceive it. And lying to the state bar is a much greater offense than … say … lighting a smoke bomb in a dormitory (and not the little, colorful one depicted here – we’re talking about the big ones that look like a stick of dynamite). Even if that smoke bomb caused the entire dorm to be evacuated, and hordes of firefighters and police to arrive on the scene. Because that’s what I had to disclose.
This event had occurred my sophomore years of college (2001), ten years before I applied for the bar. I was fairly certain there was no written record of either the incident itself or my subsequent disciplinary probation with the school. And even if there were, there was an entirely different administration at the school. No one even knew me there anymore. It seemed highly unlikely that this event would be found out by the character and fitness committee if I didn’t tell them.
Why should you disclose all the things to the character and fitness committee?
Because lying to the state bar is a big deal. Even if it’s lying by omission. It didn’t take me long to discern that despite the negligible chances that the bar would learn of my disciplinary probation, I should disclose it in my application. So I did. And sure enough, I received a letter in the mail, to the effect of “Tell us more.” So I wrote out my tale of a sophomoric prank gone awry. It’s a good story, and I told it well. I’m sure the reader at the Alabama State Bar was entertained and decided it was mostly harmless. I later got my clearance … and the rest, as they say, is history.
But had I not chosen to tell the bar about my prank that turned out to have been a bad idea, my story may have come out differently. Maybe I still would have been allowed to practice law. But I certainly would have had to appear before character and fitness to explain my deceit to them. Maybe I start out my career on probation. Maybe the firm that eventually hired me decides they don’t need a lawyer who can’t be honest in his bar application process.
Because despite popular mythology, honesty is hugely important in our profession. You’re going to be handling people’s lives and livelihoods. You may be handling thousands or even millions of dollars at a time. You are going to be working with and against other counsel for the next thirty or forty years. Your reputation for integrity is going to be established early in your career. And if that reputation is one of mistrust, it’s a reputation that’s going to be difficult to shed.
Your reputation for honesty, however, can start with and be proven by your willingness to own up to your mistakes and disclose them to the character and fitness committee.
Photo by Karin Dalziel.
Chick-Fil-A has built itself into a giant in the fast-food industry. It didn’t happen overnight. And it didn’t transpire without adhering to certain core principles. Here are four ways that you can model your law practice after Chick-Fil-A and position yourself for greater success.
Here’s the thing about commodities. People either want or need them. There is usually a great deal of competition for things people want or need. In order to reach your intended client, you have to distinguish yourself from others in the marketplace. Maybe you can do that with clever marketing – with talking cows that don’t spell very well. Maybe you can make a splash with the pricing of your services and implementing a different billing structure.
But regardless of how you get your intended client’s attention, you will have to deliver an effective product. If you fail to deliver on your promises, that client you’ve landed with clever ploys is going to walk out the door into the arms of a competitor.
If you’ve ever eaten at Chick-Fil-A (and at this point, even if you haven’t), you know that thanking a Chick-Fil-A employee will result in you hearing the words, “My pleasure.” Courtesy shouldn’t be a novel concept, but it has managed to become so. “People do business with people they know, like, and trust.” That statement didn’t originate with me, but I’ve heard it so frequently and from so many different sources that I’m not sure to whom I should give attribution.
Return phone calls. Reply to e-mails. Speak to other live human beings, rather than being distracted by your cell phone. Civility and in-person interaction are becoming lost art forms. And I’m not talking about your dealings with opposing counsel here. I’m talking about your clients. Those people you rely on to keep your business afloat. The number of lawyers who ignore correspondence from clients and treat them as mere inconveniences is appalling. That being said, you should likewise extend courtesy to your staff, the attorneys you work with or for, or those who work for you, and even opposing counsel.
Most of us work in relatively small legal communities. You’re likely going to work with many of the same lawyers over the course of the next 30 or 40 years (since most of us are going to work until the day grim Death meets us at our desk). You can choose to have a lifetime of contentious incivility, or you can exhibit good manners and a little bit of politeness.
The owners of Chick-Fil-A don’t shy away from their worldview. They’re closed on Sunday. And when asked, they speak with candor about social issues. Often to their financial detriment. But being candid, even when it’s not in your short-term best interest is a matter of integrity. For them and for you.
There are going to be times you have to communicate hard truths to those you work for, against, and with. And the thing about hard truths is they can be hard to communicate. But if you’re in a bad venue with bad facts, your client needs to know well in advance they need to be ready to offer up a real settlement number. If a partner or associate you work with is headed toward a misstep, you’ve got to have the gumption to warn her of it.
Everyone in your circle of contacts (clients, co-workers, opposing counsel) should recognize you as a person of principle, who is frank and forthright. But being honest and candid is not an excuse for doing so without tact or courtesy.
“We didn’t invent the chicken, just the chicken sandwich.” I don’t know whether Chick-Fil-A’s slogan is historically accurate, but for all practical intents, it might as well be. They have cornered the market on the chicken sandwich. The vast majority of fast food places now offer a Southern-style chicken sandwich as a result. But you know what the difference is – most of those other places also sell the chicken sandwich, in addition to their burgers or myriad other offerings. You know what Chick-Fil-A sells? Chicken. They aren’t trying to be all things to all people. And neither should you.
You need to find what you do well, build on it, hone it, and sell it to others. I started in trucking defense litigation. And I’ve grown to love it. At this point, I’ve spent thousands upon thousands of hours practicing trucking work. Not only on my caseload, but also on the peripheral stuff I need to know. The things I need to know and do to be better and more informed than my opponent. When it comes to trucking defense litigation, I want to be a monolith. When people need someone to defend their trucking company in Alabama, I want them to think of my firm and me. I know it’s going to take time, and I’m in it for the long haul.
Find your niche. Develop it. Introduce yourself to people who are in need of what you do. And give them reason to believe you are the best person to handle their legal matters.
In the legal market people have choices. Usually, lots of choices. Find a way to make yourself and your service visible, and once you’ve got your intended client’s attention, deliver on the service you promised. Exhibit courtesy and civility in interacting with your clients, and … well … everyone else for that matter. Operate with candor. Be forthright and trustworthy in your dealings with others. Don’t hide from your principles, especially when you hit a rough patch – that’s when your principles and character are revealed. Finally, create a niche and make yourself a cornerstone within that practice area.
Portia Porter is the author of Can You Stiff Your Divorce Lawyer?: Tales of How Cunning Clients Can Get Free Legal Work, as Told by an Experienced Divorce Attorney. Her book details all the many ways that wily clients may, can, have, and will escape paying their legal bills.
She answers the question posed as the title of her book with a definitive yes. But not only that, she give step-by-step instructions to would-be clients about the hows and whys of effectively escaping payment on a legal bill. By all appearances, Portia Porter has committed professional treason. Her name may be remembered along the likes of Brutus, Benedict Arnold, and Julius & Ethel Rosenberg.
Or considered differently, perhaps Portia Porter is a hero (or if you’re unready to accept that, maybe an anti-hero?) for forewarning and preparing lawyers for the myriad schemes, scams, and strategies that clever clients will employ to evade paying for legal services.
Nevertheless, here’s my interview with Portia Porter:
JWR: Let’s start with the title, Can You Stiff Your Divorce Lawyer? — it’s provocative and alarming and I’m sure it didn’t earn you any new friends in the legal profession. How did you land on that title?
PP: Once upon a time, many years ago, I read a chatroom exchange between two young women, Heather and Julia. Heather needed some advice. Julia responded with advice. Here’s how it went.
Heather was happily married. Heather’s husband had a good job and provided for her. Heather did not have to work. There was a child on the way, and Heather’s husband was a proud father to be. Indeed, Heather and her husband even made public announcement that they were expecting. All the grandparents were pleased and proud. Life was good for Heather. But everything changed unexpectedly when Heather’s husband revealed that he had been sleeping with another woman for all that time. Husband wanted a divorce.
Heather was surprised and angry. Or, in her own words, “blindsided” and “not going to sit back and take having my life I thought we had be ripped away from me.”
Heather wanted her comfortable life back. So Heather formulated a plan. She decided to hire (and I quote again) “a good attorney who will look out for my best interest in the most ruthless way possible.”
Heather wanted her happy life back, and she expected that a lawyer could do that for her.
So far, so good.
But, of course, remember, Heather was unemployed and had no intention of looking for a job. How could she get a “good” lawyer to fight “ruthlessly” for her, without paying him?
That was the dilemma, and that’s where Heather turned to the divorce chatroom. She needed advice on how to get a “ruthless lawyer.”
In the chatroom, there was another girl, Julia. She responded to Heather with advice. The street-wise Julia was succinct. Here’s what she told Heather. I quote Julia’s advice in its entirety:
From Julia to Heather: Drag it out, then stiff your lawyer is my suggestion.
That’s it. “Stiff your lawyer.” No instructions for what, how, when, or maybe what to avoid. Just “stiff the lawyer.”
When I read this exchange, my first impulse was to jump in and say: “Julia, dear street-wise Julia, your heart is clearly in the right place, but that’s not good advice to give our trusting Heather! She’ll get eaten alive!”
Stiffing a lawyer requires a fine-tuned plan, good knowledge of the legal system, some basic understanding of lawyer psychology. Julia was providing none of that. Just “stiff the lawyer!” I wanted to write to Heather and say: “Heather, are you nuts?! You couldn’t even spot the problem in your own house. Your genius husband cheating on you at the same time he was celebrating your pregnancy with all the grandparents—and that moron outsmarted you! What chance do you think you have fooling a “ruthless” lawyer?!” I wanted to tell Heather: “Look, why don’t you start with a simpler mark. At least, get some kid right out of law school. Maybe you can fool a naïve beginner?”
But, of course, I could not write to Julia or Heather. Who would believe me? I am a lawyer. I must be looking out for number one. Right?
That’s when I first got the idea for the book, “Can You Stiff Your Divorce Lawyer?” – a book that maps out how lawyers get stiffed, but that also warns the naïve young ladies like Heather of the plentiful traps that await clients who stiff their lawyers.
As a lawyer who has been stiffed many-many times, for many-many hundreds of thousands of dollars, I do know 100% more than I wish that I knew about successful stiffing. In all modesty, I am an expert in being stiffed. And now anyone who reads the book, whether an inexperienced attorney or a prospective client, can be too.
JWR: While the subject matter is serious and you treat it with sufficient deference, the book is written with a sense of humor. Do you consider yourself a funny person, and more importantly, do others find you funny?
PP: I am dead serious, all the time. I have no idea why my books provokes all the belly-laughter.
JWR: You wrote in the book: “The stark truth about civil litigation is that fighting a crooked defendant is much more expensive than fighting an honest defendant. The law works fairly well against the honest people but collecting from a deadbeat is uncertain and expensive.” That’s been both my personal and professional experience as well—do you have any tips for making collections either more certain or less expensive?
PP: No. Unless collections is your area of practice, a lawyer should never be doing collections at all. My book provides step by step instructions on how to get paid for every hour you work, but I have no tips on making collections less expensive. I can’t make death less certain either.
JWR: We undoubtedly want to avoid becoming the lawyer who’s stiffed by a client and is then faced with the prospect of either wading the miasmatic waters of suing the ex-client or writing off the loss. What are the best ways to put yourself in a better position?
PP: Read “Can You Stiff Your Divorce Lawyer?” by Portia Porter.
JWR: You don’t seem to harbor warm feelings for the state bars’ grievance processes, which allow investigations to be opened on unfounded complaints and often without any form of “due process” for the lawyer. What do you think can be done to improve the process, making it fair for both lawyers and those with grievances?
PP: The Grievance process dispenses with constitutional protections for lawyers. There is no due process, no right to face your accuser. And it is easy to use the grievance process for slander. If my opposing counsel stands in the middle of the Ducklingburg town square and calls me a whore, I can file a lawsuit sounding in slander, and sue him into bankruptcy. Why is that? That is because my good name for chastity is protected in America. The law thinks that I care deeply whether the good people of my hometown Ducklingburg continue thinking of me as a chaste woman. But in contrast, if a man stands in the middle of the city square and declares that he had just filed a grievance against me, and that I am a terrible, unethical lawyer, there is not much I can do to fight that bad reputation. Even if it later turns out that the whole grievance was a lie, I do not have a slander suit. Grievance process is protected that way.
Well, this may come as a surprise to you, but I care much more about my professional reputation than my reputation for chastity.
What could we do to improve the process? I am not going to presume to know the answer. My book is not about fixing the system. My book is a law practice management book. Lawyers who start or manage their own practices and clients who hire them are well served to understand the system. That’s all.
JWR: In his commentary on your book, Boozy Barrister remarked: “Not surprisingly, the tips seem to boil down to 1) trust nobody; 2) get retainers paid in full immediately; and 3) never sign the engagement letter until the retainer payment has cleared. The overarching theme of her book seems to be that a failure to do these things will lead a young lawyer into working for nothing simply because they wanted to work at all.” Do you agree with that assessment?
PP: Yes, Boozy is right on the money. The problem for young lawyers is that these tips sound a lot like “buy low sell high” for stockbrokers. The principle is described correctly, but nobody tells the young lawyers how to apply it. When I started my law practice, I read quite a few of these law practice management books, looking for guidance. All of them caution that young lawyers should work hard, be ethical, serve the client, respect the court, always be on time. Also, charitable and pro bono work is supposedly a good way to network and better oneself as a lawyer. These days, law practice management books added another chapter: strive to have a balanced life, take the time to breathe deeply, maybe even take a yoga lesson.
JWR: What’s wrong with this advice?
PP: Nothing is wrong with this advice. It’s great advice in principle. But from the practical business management perspective, it is useless. These law practice management books describe young lawyers like the iconic “reasonable person” in torts. Remember the “reasonable person” from your tort class? The reasonable person always looks to the right and the left when crossing the street, always puts the car on hand park on steep heel, always wears protective gear. And because the reasonable person behaves reasonably, he mostly avoids the sort of problems that happen to the negligent plaintiff.
Here’s the problem, though. In real law practice, stuff happens to you, no matter how much you conscientiously strive to be “reasonable.” Lawyers who are managing their own practice need to know that. They will have all sorts of trouble while managing their practices, no matter how ethical, hard-working and respectful to the court they turn out to be. Because law practice is a business, and managing a business means ups and downs and getting stiffed and getting baseless grievances filed against you. That all will happen. But that’s OK, because there are wonderful parts to having your own business too. And lawyers who are thinking of opening their own business should be prepared for what a small practice entails, and should learn how to actually make a profit.
We do not need more books teaching lawyers how to be charitable and ethical. We need more books teaching lawyers how to actually avoid bankrupting their practice and, instead, make a living off their law degree. That’s what “Can You Stiff Your Divorce Lawyer?” is about.
JWR: There seem to be a number of Star Wars references in your book, and lawyers are generally associated with the Empire. What gives?
PP: Barney references did not work as well to describe the litigation process.
JWR: Why did you choose divorce work as your primary area of practice?
PP: It’s like asking, “Why did you step in dog poop?”
JWR: You mention in the book that divorce law is a hustle, requiring huge amounts of effort with a low yield in accumulated capital, so why have you stuck with divorce law?
PP: It is true that a multi-million divorce practices are rare. But if you have a good head and willingness to work hard, divorce is a perfect area for starting out, especially for a lawyer who does not have a large team.
JWR: In addition to Can You Stiff Your Divorce Lawyer? you published another book in 2016, how do you make the time to write that prolifically?
PP: Two reasons.
Once I stopped getting stiffed all the time, and no longer was forced to work for free, that freed up a lot of time. That’s the first reason.
JWR: And the second reason?
PP: And the second reason is: Portia Porter is a fictional character. That frees up a lot of time too.
JWR: At one point you state that you were afraid the divorce business had made you a doom-and-gloom pessimist. Has it?
PP: Yes. I hope that I’ll live long enough to see this interview in print.
JWR: What’s the singular most poignant piece of wisdom you would share with lawyers on the topic of making sure you get paid for the work you do?
PP: Lawyers, even the young ones, are smart people. But even smart people will make mistakes and get stiffed. As lawyers grow older, they learn from their mistakes, and they get stiffed less often. Of course, that takes a couple of decades. Or you can buy the book and maybe you will learn from my mistakes. That will take only a few hours. It’s your choice. Personally, I never manage to learn from somebody else’s mistakes, but some of my readers are undoubtedly wiser than I am.
I highly recommend that you read Can You Stiff Your Divorce Lawyer? The entertainment and educational value are worth the price of admission. But mostly, you don’t want to be caught unawares when you’re clients have read it and deploy new non-payment strategies. Thanks to Portia’s generous spirit, by subscribing to my blog (see below), you can get a 15% discount her books at gumroad.com, or if you’re just into paying full price for things, you can purchase Can You Stiff Your Divorce Lawyer? on Amazon
Rating (out of 4 gavels):
Like many other professionals, there are plenty of lawyers who wonder if they should start a blog? And if so, to what end? I took the leap in June of 2016. I enjoy writing and had some ideas for topics to write about where there appeared to be a gap in the market. But in order to answer broader questions about blogging in the legal sphere and whether one should (or should not) consider it, I wanted to consult someone who’s been at it a great deal longer than I.
Keith Lee is an attorney practicing in Birmingham, Alabama. He is the founder of Associate’s Mind, the law blog dedicated to helping lawyers make the transition from amateur to professional, law school student to attorney. Keith has developed a platform with broad reach and interesting connections with legal professionals across the country. The content on Associate’s Mind ranges from practical legal advice for young lawyers (Career Planning for Associates) to lawsuits arising out of an assault using Twitter.
Having met Keith a few months ago, I want to ask him questions about blogging, establishing a platform, and some of the benefits and pitfalls in doing so.
Here’s my interview with Keith Lee of Associate’s Mind:
JWR: It’s my understanding you started Associate’s Mind early on in your practice. Was that your first experience with blogging?
KL: I actually started Associate’s Mind during my final year of law school, which may not have been the best idea. My first time blogging was actually way back in 2001, before most people even knew what a blog was. Thankfully, it’s not online anymore.
JWR: Why was it important to you to start a law blog?
KL: It was a means to differentiate myself from other graduates. I graduated in 2010 when the legal industry was in the midst of huge upheaval. Plus I enjoyed writing and this was a way to force myself to do it in public.
JWR: What were your goals when you started Associate’s Mind?
KL: Goals make it sound like I knew what I was doing when I started the thing. I was completely winging it as I went along. Mostly I just wanted to talk about the process of becoming a new lawyer. How could I be a good associate? What was going on in the legal industry that new lawyers should pay attention to?
JWR: What are some of your goals for Associate’s Mind now that it’s been around for six years and is an established brand?
KL: My goals at the moment are for it to continue to grow. I want the community aspect (Lawyer Slack) to continue to expand as well, but not too much that it becomes overwhelming. I’m also in process of building out an educational/professional development training systems that should be available later this year.
JWR: How has your law blog affected your practice?
KL: It’s certainly raised my profile in a way that would not have been possible without it. And as a lawyer raises their profile, they raise the firm’s profile. It’s led to speaking engagements, board positions, clients and more.
JWR: What opportunities, unrelated to your law practice, have come to you as a result of blogging?
KL: The biggest opportunity has been the ability to cultivate relationships with lawyers around the country and the world. I’ve been fortunate to develop relationships with lawyers through blogging. After interacting online for years, it’s been great to meet with lawyers at conferences and other events around the country. Dinners, coffee, drinks, etc.
More recently I’ve been pleased with the development of Lawyer Slack. There are around 250 lawyers in there, all sharing and talking about practice, news, politics, etc. I’ve been very fortunate to have created a place where lawyers want to come spend time and exchange information.
JWR: What advice would you give to someone who is considering starting a law blog?
KL: Just do it. Lawyers often fall into a paralysis by analysis when doing something new or outside of the box. The thing is when you start a new blog, no one is going to read it. It’s going to languish in obscurity for awhile. It’s also likely going to be awful. It takes time to develop your “blog voice.” So the sooner you get to doing it, the better.
That being said, unless you are a writer, you should probably skip blogging. You have to want to get up and write on a regular basis. If that doesn’t sound fun to you, then avoid blogging.
JWR: How would you respond to lawyers who are skeptical about or opposed to blogging?
KL: Some of their skepticism is probably warranted. Lawyers need to keep their clients in mind when addressing topics. Blogs can also generate negative attention if you’re not careful. That being said, I’ve found the benefits to far outweigh the negatives I’ve encountered.
JWR: What is one piece of practical advice that law bloggers should consider?
KL: Develop thick skin. Be prepared for people to try and tear your ideas down. Others will make fun of what you’re doing. You’ll likely experience ad hominem remarks on social media with some regularity. Conflict of ideas is part of being online. If that’s not something you’re ready to face, then you might want to reconsider.
Are you interested in starting a law blog, podcast, YouTube channel, or some other space where clients or potential clients can find you? You’re likely experiencing a reasonable amount of anxiety about your considered course. But don’t let that dissuade you. I started this blog last year, and doing so have given me the confidence and platform to pursue opportunities would not have been available to me.
Take a measured approach, plan your steps, and jump in. The water’s fine. But most importantly – produce good content, and keep producing good content. You’ll not likely experience overnight success, but this thing is a marathon, not a sprint.
Now that you’re an associate attorney, what steps can you take to become a better associate for yourself and the partners you work for?
I write this not as a “guru” who’s got it all figured out. I am not saying – “This is what I did, and it’ll work for you.” Because I’m still here, trying to become a better associate. My purpose here is to pass along some acquired experience, and hopefully wisdom, in an effort to assist you who are entering or at least early in this uncertain and anxiety-ridden tenure as an associate to become a better associate.
1. Immerse Yourself in Your Practice Area
During law school, I clerked with a district attorney’s office, for a municipal judge, for a couple of civil solo practitioners, and for a real estate attorney. But what I didn’t do is have any experience in the area in which I would spend more than 75% of my time in my first four years of practice – trucking defense litigation. I had limited knowledge of the insurance industry. No real knowledge of the trucking industry, and certainly no familiarity with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations. And I had no expectation that over the course of four years, I would peruse hundreds of thousands of pages of medical records.
That is to say, you’re likely going to enter a field with which you’re largely unfamiliar. That’s to be expected. But those you’re working with (and against) have had years, if not decades, of experience. I had to be a quick study. What were the rules that the truck drivers and motor carriers I was representing were operating by? What sorts of injuries could reasonably be expected to be associated with what types of collisions?
Depending upon the firm that hires you, your billable hour requirements will likely be hefty. But there’s going to be knowledge you must acquire that you’re going to be unable to bill to obtain. It’s going to require perseverance and dedication to develop the base of knowledge necessary to be proficient in your practice area.
And yet there will still be occasions when a partner approaches you about participating in a corporate bankruptcy trial that’s six weeks away. And not only do you know nothing about corporate bankruptcy, you’re not even admitted to practice in the bankruptcy court. So you just dig in.
2. Work Proactively within Your Parameters
You may work for one partner or a half-dozen. Each of them has expectations for the scope of work you are to undertake. One may be comfortable with you taking a case from the initial pleadings and working it more-or-less autonomously to its resolution. Another may expect you to work from a task-based assignment system. Know your role with each partner, and operate within those parameters.
Over the last four-plus years, I have consistently worked with several partners at my firm. I’ll identify them by their practice areas, so as to keep the self-incrimination to a minimum.
- In my first three years, I worked primarily for Trucking Lawyer. We had regular meetings, sketched out our strategies for each case, and I operated with significant freedom within each case.
- When it came to Personal Auto Lawyer, for the first your years, most of my work was task-based and closely supervised. As needed, I wrote reports to clients, attended hearings and depositions, and drafted pleadings. Once the particular assignment was completed, there was nothing more to be done for Personal Auto Lawyer until the next task was assigned. Over the last few months, Personal Auto Lawyer’s needs have changed, as has the willingness/ability to trust me due to the work I had performed over the first few years. Now, I have a set of tasks to undertake with every new case that comes in, and together we plan for how to approach the case.
- I only semi-regularly receive case assignments from General Business Liability Lawyer, but when I do, he expects me to operate largely autonomously. I keep him in the loop and ask for guidance and advice when I encounter unfamiliar circumstances. But by and large, the cases are mine to run with.
- Whenever I get a call from Insurance Coverage/Municipal Liability Lawyer, I know that whatever the case or legal question at hand, it’s going to be something bizarre that I’ve not dealt with before. This lawyer’s approach is different than everyone else. He tells me what outcome he wants to achieve, and it becomes my job to get us there.
With each of these partners, there are different roles and expectations. Once you have identified your role, anticipate the needs of your partner and take the steps necessary to meet them in advance of deadlines or expectations.
Be proactive, not reactionary. If there’s an expert deposition approaching, know how early your partner likes to begin preparing, and have ready for her all the documents, reports, or resume information she may need to try to punch holes in the expert’s opinions or credibility. Do you have a dispositive motion hearing approaching? Be ready with the motion and exhibits, any opposition responses, and printouts of whatever caselaw may be needed to convince the judge of your position. When you go into a planning meeting, know the case better than your partner. Familiarize yourself not only with the status of how the case is currently positioned, but what the next course of events needs to be.
To use a sports analogy, play on the balls of your feet, not sitting back on your heels.
3. Understand the Time-Value of Money
Above all else, an associate’s job is take make the partners money. This point can be summarized fairly concisely: Bill your time – all of it! Your ability to bring in money is directly tied to your future.
Some days it’s going to be easier than others to make money. When you spend the entire day in a deposition, your time is pretty simple to keep up with (unless you’ve received and responded to dozens of emails during that time, because you can rest assured that the days you’re away from the office are the times your inbox will be barraged). The days that it’s trickier are when you field a dozen phone calls, work on reports for multiple cases, and draft discovery responses. If you want until the end of that day to write down your time entries, you’re either going to over- or under-bill the amount of time tasks took.
I’ve had conversation with people who told me they were a couple days behind in writing down their time. My mind was blown! That’s just no way to operate. I keep a notebook with me at all times in which I down my time for every task – the time I start and when I finish. Every single time. In fact, I have every notebook going back to my first day of practice.
A significant sub-part to this point is to know how work needs to be worded in order to be paid by the client. Some clients are very particular about verbiage in the bills, or the amounts of time they will pay for certain tasks – regardless of what the reality is for the amount of time something takes to actually perform.
I was once advised that we should “give our clients the privilege of paying us for the work we do for them.” But that privilege should only extend to the amount of time something actually took, not more and not less.
As an additional resource on lawyering generally, I recommend reading Keith Lee’s blawg, Associate’s Mind, as well as his book The Marble and the Sculptor. And for the humorously forthright reading about practical lawyerly topics, you should visit the Boozy Barrister. For a valuable resource on making sure you take the right measures to get paid for the work you do for clients, see Portia Porter’s book Can You Stiff Your Divorce Lawyer: Tales of How Cunning Clients Can Get Free Legal Work, As Told by an Experienced Divorce Attorney, which despite its alarming title is aimed to assist lawyers.
Photo by Ricardo 清介 屋宜.
You’ll likely note right away that this is a deviation from my standard fare, but it’s an experience I wanted to share. Hopefully, you can find it helpful. But I also hope it’s not something you can identify with too closely.
There may be a time in life when a confluence of cataclysmic events conspires against you to result in failure. At the end of it, when you’re surveying the damage, you may be left wondering what you can learn from failure. And the answer may very well be, “I have no idea.”
In 2007 I purchased a small house in Warrior, Alabama (a small town about fifteen miles north of Birmingham). It wasn’t a particularly nice house, but it was the best I could do at the time. And I was tired of paying rent, so it was time to buy. Besides, in 2007, we were all still operating under the supposition that property values only ever appreciate.
I asked the advice of all the right people and received assurances that this purchase was a good decision. My now-wife Anna and I were dating and had been for a couple years, but at least one of us (me) wasn’t quite ready to discuss our forever future. Had I been ready to have that conversation, I expect Anna would have told me this wasn’t a house she could envision herself living in.
So I bought the house, made some improvements, and moved in. About nine months later, Anna and I got engaged. Shortly after that, we started looking at a garden home in another town, which we ended up purchasing. That was the summer of 2008.
I put my house up for sale, where it stayed for more than six months. The market had begun to turn. Unbeknownst to us at the time, we were at the front end of the Great Recession. Month after month, my house sat empty and for sale, with very little traction.
Eventually, I listed it for rent. I found tenants fairly quickly. And just in time too. Anna and I got married in the summer of 2009, and I started law school two months later. The tenancy situation went well…until it didn’t. Several months before their contract was up, the tenants just stopped paying rent. I got promises of good intentions to get caught up, but those never materialized. They left and the house sat empty again. I tried to sell it. Nothing. I sold my motorcycle to pay the mortgage for a few months. Then I found more tenants.
The new tenants ended up staying in the house for more than four years. The bulk of that time went pretty well. But when it went bad, it did so in a hurry. They abandoned the place still owing seven months back rent. They left behind the majority of their possessions (everything from clothes to family photos to baseball cards), including a refrigerator full of food, but with no power to it. I should have known better than to open that refrigerator door, but now I’ll forever have emblazoned in my olfactory sense the odor that assaulted me. Piles of garbage in the back yard, and a garage filled with more of the same.
Once I cleared out the rubbish, I was left with a rundown house that was going to take several thousand dollars to get back into any kind of presentable condition. But I was out of money. By this time, I had gone nine months without any cash generation from the property. We were staring financial ruin in the face. There were innumerable nights that I lay in bed after the house was quiet and prayed that a lightning strike would burn the place to the ground. God has worked his will by fire before – why not now?!
Then I got an offer to sell. But the buyer was only offering about 60% of what I had paid for it. Accepting that offer would mean taking a huge loss. A loss that I couldn’t manage. Yet everyone I sought advice from said it was time to cut my losses. My folks stepped up to help me with the financial loss I was incurring. And I agreed to sell the albatross that had been saddled around my neck for the better part of seven years. I still haven’t calculated the total amount of money I’ve sunk into that house and lost. I don’t think I will.
So here I am at the end of this particular episode of my life – I hesitate to even call it a journey, since my experience has been that journeys are intentional – and I’m wondering, “What can I learn from this?”
I did all the things you’re supposed to do before making a big decision. Prayed over it. Asked the advice of people with more experience and wisdom than me. Yet for years I was burdened with this house that placed a considerable amount of mental, financial, and emotional strain on me and my family. At the end, I’ve gotten rid of the house, but it’ll be years before I can be rid of the financial aftermath. So what have I learned? How can I not make this mistake again? I’m still not quite sure.
I’m reminded of a scene in Burn after Reading, in which after a series of unforeseeable calamities, two CIA officers are reflecting on the situation. The superior officer asks his subordinate what they learned from the events that had just unfolded. The subordinate replies, “I don’t know, sir.” And the superior responds, “I don’t ——- know either. I guess we learned not to do it again.”
One my takeaways from this experience has been that you can do all the things you ought to do, but sometimes stuff just goes sideways. So I’ll just keep pushing until I get to the other side, and hopefully, learn not to do it again. Because when there’s nothing to learn from failure, you just persevere.
That perseverance is multi-faceted. I will persevere in my faith. I don’t believe in a “prosperity gospel”. I know that not all of my life experiences work together for my immediate good, but as a Christ-follower, I believe they are orchestrated for my ultimate good. I will persevere in my work. This debacle was a setback, and it’s going to take a while to dig out from it, but rather than the failure of it being a defining occasion, I am endeavoring to leverage it into an inflection point. But in order to do that, I’ll have to just persevere.