Transition in the practice of law

In April, I’ll be presenting at the NALP annual conference along with 3 colleagues.  Our topic is titled, “Facilitating a Successful Transition from Student to Lawyer.”  Our proposal identified a number of issues that confront new lawyers, and we’ve also identified ways that law schools and law firms (our primary audience) can support those going through this transition.

My transition to practice occurred in 1993 or 1995, depending on whether a clerkship should count as practice for these purposes.  However, I had a second transition when I moved from Georgia to Florida, complete with another bar exam and needing to learn a completely new set of local customs and local rules.  Frankly, I think the state-to-state transition was more traumatic than the school-to-practice transition, simply because after practicing law for 10 years, I’d learned how to do the things that constituted a part of my practice and I was comfortable with those.  I knew what I knew, and I also knew what I didn’t know, so I’d moved past the stage of needing to look up every procedural step to be sure I was doing it correctly.  Ah, but that was no longer applicable!  I suddenly learned that local custom (not rule, which is written, but custom) required service of original discovery, something that was simply unthinkable in my home jurisdiction.  That, and seemingly hundreds of other differences, tripped me up on a regular basis after I moved to Florida, making me feel like a newbie all over again.

We’ll discuss at NALP what schools and firms can do to assist in lawyer transitions, but today, I’d like to consider what lawyers can do to facilitate their own transitions.

1.  Be prepared to learn new habits.  This seems to elementary, and in some ways it is, but I’d submit that it’s tough to change basic habits without a significant effort.  Taking my discovery example, I had to stop each time I was going to serve requests or answers and think about what I needed to ask my secretary to do.  My habits couldn’t stand.  And, frankly, I resented having to remember to check the rules I’d learned so long ago!  But after a few months — notably, after I was willing to relinquish my resentment — the new habit took over.

2.  Find a mentor or colleague you can ask for help.  Whether you’re a new lawyer or just new to your current jurisdiction, you need resources.  Someone who’s been in practice for a few years can be an invaluable ally to help you learn everything from the quirks of particular judges to which lunch spot will guarantee you a stomach ache.  Ideally, you’ll have more than one person to ask, but do yourself the favor of locating at least one friendly and knowledgeable colleague.

3.  Accept that you’re going to feel clueless for a while.  Especially if you’re going to a new jurisdiction, you’re likely to feel that everything you’ve known is suspect, if only because you’re going to have to keep checking the local rules or the new (new to you) state law.  This period is called Conscious Incompetence — you know what you don’t know.  Know that it passes.

4.  Spend extra time getting to know your new city, firm and/or jurisdiction.  This is the time for you to find and read past issues of the local business journal, legal newspaper, firm newsletter, and so on.  You can’t substitute for the knowledge that comes with being in a place over time, but you can begin to create your own database of knowledge.  It takes time, and that time will be well-spent.

5.  Declare your expectations for yourself.  This is specific way of saying, set goals.  Sometimes getting acclimated to a new environment is the top priority; sometimes you’ll be thrown right into a big project and showing your mettle is even moe important than learning your way around.  Super heroes may be able to do everything, but the rest of us have limited time and energy.  You’ll make the most of yours if you make conscious decisions about what you want and need to do as you transition into your new practice.

What’s your best tip for transitioning?

Happy Thanksgiving, all!

Sorry for the silence of late; my workload over the past week precluded sleep and blogging was a secondary casualty.  (Balance in action, you know.)  Substantive blogging may resume later this week, certainly by Monday.  At the moment, I have a pie in the oven, cranberry sauce on the stove, flourless chocolate torte cooling on the counter, and a turkey getting ready to be brined, and my husband and family clamoring for an advance taste of the goodies.  The work/life balance pendulum has swung firmly into the “life” category.

In the meantime, I wish all readers a happy Thanksgiving, spent over good food and wine with friends and family — or a bucket of KFC and good football, as you prefer.

Because I am at times a sentimental, traditionalist sap, I’ll share a list of my blog-related gratitudes here:

*  The many people I’ve met over the last 10 months as a result of my blogging
*  The new ideas and perspectives I’ve been exposed to in the blogosphere
*  The opportunity to develop a discipline of writing on a (more or less) regular basis
*  The fun of watching my readership grow
*  Having an opportunity to have a voice in the problems and solutions in the profession
*  The joy of working with each of my clients and watching them succeed

For these and so many other things, I am truly grateful.

Happy Thanksgiving!

What sets you apart?

Imagine for a moment being a client, trying to select a lawyer for a representation in a case you may or may not fully understand, in which you likely have no expertise at all.  And imagine that your case is one of your top priorities: a divorce or child custody case, a bet-the-company business case, or setting up the business you’ve been building in your mind for years.  How will you choose a lawyer you can trust?

The U.S. is blessed (or cursed, depending on your perspective) with huge numbers of lawyers, many of whom are skilled in their practice areas, who strive for excellence in everything they say and do in service to their clients, who seek to provide exceptional client service.  And yet, to the outsider, lawyers in the same practice area tend to sound very much alike.  How does a client choose?

A question for you to consider this morning: what sets you apart from other lawyers?  Is it your expertise in a very narrow niche?  Is it the perspective you bring to your cases?  Is it the dedication you exhibit to your clients?  Or something else?  How would a client see what you identify as your distinguishing mark?  (Maybe you should ask several clients — and if that suggestion feels even slightly threatening, ask yourself why.)  And really drill down.  Don’t allow yourself to accept a weak, watery distinction.

This raises and important and sort of an existential question: What do you stand for as an advocate?  How would a client know?

Explaining decision-making authority

In my experience, newer associates often have challenges in determining what they do and don’t have the authority to do.  Some may take on too little authority, undermining their usefulness to more senior lawyers who need not be consulted about every decision, and others may take on too much, possibly compromising strategic decisions that should be the senior lawyer’s call.

Senior lawyers bear much responsibility for these missteps, because they should have the foresight and ability to define what authority the lawyers they supervise may exercise.  However, all too often, everyone assumes that everyone is in agreement on what’s appropriate — right until the assumption comes crashing down in a rant of frustration at being disturbed yet again “for nothing” or a ballistic explosion at finding out that an incurable decision has been made without a full appreciation for its impact.

I’ve been reading a marvelous book recently: Fierce Conversations: Achieving Success at Work and in Life One Conversation at a Time, by Susan Scott.  In addition to setting forth a valuable approach to conversations that facilitate exploration of the truth and collaborative problem-solving, Scott sets out a Decision Tree that supervising lawyers can use to explain a junior lawyer’s scope of authority — quickly, simply, and in a framework that permits easy shorthand reference in the future.

Scott’s Decision Tree comprises 4 categories of decisions (quoted from page 119, Fierce Conversations):

Leaf Decisions: Make the decision.  Act on it.  Do not report the action you took.

Branch Decisions: Make the decision.  Act on it.  Report the action you took daily, weekly, or monthly.

Trunk Decisions: Make the decision.  Report your decision before you take action.

Root Decisions: Make the decision jointly, with input from many people.  These are the decisions that, if poorly made and implemented, could cause major harm to the organization.

It’s quickly apparent how these categories can be used in the practice setting.  In the context of litigation, for instance, a partner might identify deciding whether documents are relevant and thus to be produced as leaf decisions, deciding what witnesses to interview as branch decisions, preparing discovery requests as trunk decisions, and deciding whether to move for a temporary injunction as a root decision.  As the associate advances, more and more decisions will become leaf and branch decisions, which is a strong indication that the associate is becoming more skilled and thus merits more authority.

This same principle is useful in a wide variety of other settings.  Suppose, for example, that you had decided to embark on a marketing program, and you decided to mail firm literature to some unidentified people and to invite others to lunch, to accept some requests to speak at CLE meetings or to write articles, and to use your box seats at a sporting event to thank or to woo particular clients.  The Decision Tree formula would permit you to delegate this process to a large extent to your assistant by explaining which steps you want her to undertake on her own without reporting back (sending out the marketing materials to new contacts), which you want her to do and to let you know about (setting up lunches with those in a designated group), which you want her to filter and then check with you about (“I don’t think you’ll want to speak at these conferences, but client XYZ always attends this one, so you may want to consider that”), and which decisions require input from you and perhaps others (which clients and colleagues should be invited to the playoffs).

Think today about how you can use Scott’s Decision Tree to clarify your own scope of authority and that of others with whom you work.

How important are your clients?

It should go without saying that client service is the bottom-line, critical piece of practice that cannot be overlooked.  Unfortunately, that message does seem to be overlooked in some areas.  At the risk of stating the obvious, clients are an attorney’s lifeblood.  Without clients, practicing law is impossible.  That makes your clients pretty important, doesn’t it?  And yet, lawyers all too often unintentionally teach their clients that they aren’t important.  Failing to keep a client up-to-date on the latest developments in his case (or letting her know that there aren’t any developments, and why), returning phone calls slowly if at all, rushing during conversations, and the like will quickly convince a client that you’re not interested in the client or his case.

I’d intended to write a post to discuss ideas about how lawyers can provide consistently excellent client service, but while going through my Bloglines subscriptions, I ran across Dan Hull’s What About Clients? 12 Rules of Client Service.  These rules deftly require a seamless blend of “client service activity” with everyday work.  (In other words, it’s about how to “be” excellent client service through the work you do and the way you do it.)  While I don’t necessarily agree with all aspects of the rules (contrary to Rule #1, for instance, I do think a lawyer can provide excellent client service to a client she doesn’t like, probably even to a client she actively dislikes, though that’s certainly not fun and quite challenging), living by these rules will lead to truly great client service.

Post # 100… Discussing my own work/life balance

I’m astonished to be hitting post #100 this morning.  How time does fly!

I’ve been thinking lately, with something between amusement and horror, about my own work/life balance.  One of the things I’ve learned as a coach is that I very often end up working with people who face the same issues that confront me.  No idea why that is, but I’ve observed it repeatedly.  Lately, work/life balance has hit at the top of that chart.

I thought it might be helpful to be open about my own work/life balance challenges just so you readers will be aware that I’m not writing about work/life balance from a white, fluffy cloud somewhere in the sky that allows me to observe the issue without ever being embroiled in it.  Some days, I wish that were the case!

Because this is a me-centric post (using self as an example), I’ve taken the unusual step of breaking the post here.  If you’d like to know more, read on.  And otherwise, see you in Wednesday’s post!

Read more

Litigation pet peeve

It’s come to my attention again that many, perhaps most, litigators step all over one of my pet peeves.  My pet peeves aren’t a big deal to anyone but me, but committing this particular error should be.

I hate, detest, despise hearing an attorney, especially a litigator in a jury trial, refer to his or her client as “my client.”  It’s nails on a blackboard.

Before you dismiss this as a bizarre quirk, let me explain why this is so.

Litigators spend a great deal of time thinking about how they come across to a jury or a judge, and they often coach a client on what to wear, how to sit, how to react to what unfolds in trial, and so on.  Although exceptions exist for every rule, generally the lawyer’s job is to stand with and for her client, and there’s a certain identification that occurs between client and attorney.  Counsel is sharp, intelligent, respectful, etc., so the client might be seen to be so as well.  There’s a game of sorts played out in this: the jury sees the lawyer and the client and their interaction, and to the naked eye it should appear that the lawyer is entirely convinced of the merit of the client’s case, that the lawyer stands with the client without hesitation.  (Indeed, that’s how it should be, not just appear, but that’s another post.)

But the moment a lawyer references “my client,” the game is over and the image is shattered.  The lawyer isn’t acting on his client’s behalf because the client is right; the lawyer is being paid.  There’s an immediate distancing that occurs as soon as “my client” is uttered, and the lawyer becomes less an advocate and more a paid mouthpiece.  I’ve heard some really marvelous arguments splintered by those two words.

Think about the final moments of a criminal trial, when the jury foreperson is about to announce the verdict.  The judge asks the defendant to rise.  And who stands?  The defendant and counsel.  That simple act defines representation to me.  No, counsel won’t serve time alongside a convicted defendant, but for that one critical moment of trial, counsel and defendant operate as one.   The same principle applies in a civil case.  Uttering “my client” is, to me, antithetical to that bond between lawyer and client.

It should be a privilege to represent someone.  Don’t stain that privilege by verbally breaking the wholehearted advocacy with  a reference to “my client”.

Consistency in rainmaking efforts; making the most of the next 2 months

Tom Collins posted last month on The 10 to 15 Minute Rainmaking Plan (no longer available).  The principle is that marketing activity fits nicely into any lawyer’s schedule when arranged in 10- to 15-minute phone calls,  and that the benefits of these calls accrue when done daily.  He suggests several questions that would lead very nicely into a focused conversation that will at least deepen a relationship and could perhaps lead to new business.  Most helpfully, Tom also suggests ways that your assistant can help you identify the people you might call each day.

As I’ve noted before, marketing guru Jay Conrad Levinson has observed, “a mediocre marketing program with commitment will always prove more profitable than a brilliant marketing program without commitment.”  Tom’s post suggests a much better than mediocre way to arrange a program you can work consistently.  Try it for a few months and see what happens.  I suspect you’ll be pleased with the results.

And, as today is November 1, it’s time to pause and ask two questions: What did I intend to accomplish in 2006?  Have I done it?  The next two months are a good time to press so you can close out the year on a high note.  Especially with the holidays coming up, it’s easy to plan a fresh start for January and to spend the rest of this year focused only on practice deadlines — the “urgent” rather than the “important”.  But wouldn’t you rather start 2007 continuing a high point rather than having to reconstruct your mothballed professional development or client development plans?  Give it some thought.