More post-crash: Request for reader help

So I spent the last two days restoring my files from my online back-up.  I’ll identify the service I’ve been using now, because it’s been a life saver: Data Deposit Box.  It’s cheap and easy.  But even though it’s an automated back-up system, some human thought is required to make sure that it’s backing up all of the critical files.  And from that need springs my sorrow.  I’d been using Outlook Express, but sometime in the spring I switched to Outlook.  And I forgot to update my back-up file selections, so I’ve probably lost all emails and all address book changes since early April.  If you use an automatic back-up system, learn from my error: stop what you’re doing right now to be sure you’re backing up the proper files.

I presented a CLE program on e-discovery earlier this year and one of my co-presenters was the Chief Technology Officer with The Norcross Group, a company that provides computer forensic services (among others) to law firms.  I called him in a panic to ask whether it might be possible to restore the overwritten Outlook files (the answer was yes, but the odds are far below 100%), and I’ve shut down my computer until I can get it to him on Monday.  What a mess.

Today’s effort focuses on finding a suitable back-up computer.  I rely on my laptop since I split my time between Atlanta and Orlando and travel elsewhere several times a month, but it’s clear to me that it’s time to have a desktop for emergency use — and perhaps to remove some wear and tear on the laptop.  I don’t want to use Windows Vista (having heard not a single good word about it for my purposes), and I’m now trying to decide between scooping up one of the few NT Professional boxes I can find or (drumroll please) buying a Mac.

Two requests for help from you, readers:

1.  If you sent me an email and have not received a response, PLEASE RESEND!  I am not aware of any outstanding emails, but I’d hate to overlook something because of this crash.

2.  If you have comments about a Mac, and specifically switching from PC to Mac and/or continuing to use both PC and Mac, I would love to hear them.

And in the end… Back up early and often, and check your automatic back-up settings to be sure everything you need is being captured.  This is the pained voice of experience.

Regular topical postings will resume no later than Monday.

Recovering from a computer crash

Apologies for my silence of late.  While traveling last week, one of the Windows files necessary for start-up mysteriously vanished.  “It just happens,” say the tech support people, which is no consolation to me at all.  After trying every trick in the book, including mystical incantations, I finally wiped the hard drive yesterday.  I’m back running, though not nearly back to normal.

Happily, I was able to put in a good bit of work on Blawg Review #114 before the crash.  Stephanie West Allen put in yeoman’s work in bringing it home, and it appears in full glory on her Idealawg.  I have a new respect for those who host the Blawg Review.  Blawg Review has information about next week’s host, and instructions on how to get your blawg posts reviewed in upcoming issues.

And with that, I’m back to rebuilding my computer.  This is my second crash in six months (the last, which occurred on December 26 while I was flying from Atlanta to San Francisco, was a hardware issue) and I’ll be restoring my files from an online back-up service.  I’ll let you know how it goes, since I will be promoting the gospel of backing up from now on!

Coming soon: Blawg Review #114

Today is the summer solstice, the longest day of the year in the northern hemisphere.  I once had the joy of being on a Norwegian milk boat headed to the North Cape on June 21.  As we traveled northward, we could see the bonfires lit on the shore to mark the solstice.  It was one of those amazing moments in which everything was in flow, when the familiar, the new, and the timeless all intersected, and summer was born.

Stephanie West Allen of Idealawg and I are collaborating to host Blawg Review #114 next week, and we look forward to heralding the summer season in the legal blogsphere.  We’ll probably have some familiar posters as well as some new ones, along with ideas both timeless and fresh.  What sunny (or stormy) posts will find their way to us on the first summer breezes of 2007?  Please submit your own favorite blog post or some you’ve discovered during the past week!  You can find the Blawg Review Submission Guidelines and a handy submission form here.  The deadline is 11:59 PM PDT on Saturday — but there’s no need to wait.

Stephanie notes that Blawg Review #61 was also a collaborative effort, by Blonde Justice, Woman of the Law, and Not Guilty.  We look forward to introducing the latest team effort next week!

Representing an unrealistic client

One of the most challenging client relations issues that lawyers face is representing an unrealistic client.  It’s easy to see how a client can fall into what is, objectively, an unrealistic expectation about his situation.  After all, many clients (corporate and individual) are deeply invested in their matter, and many clients (especially individuals)  are likely to have few legal issues, so those they do have are of critical importance, stress-inducing, and wrapped up with a variety of emotions.

Since lawyers by definition deal with a variety of cases ranging from fairly minor to deeply complex, it’s easy for lawyers to lose sight of the client’s perspective on an issue.  Generally, we get a sense of the client’s perspective early in the case, but especially where something is largely paper-based or not on an urgent timetable, it’s easy to let that slip away in the press of business.  And that’s where things get dangerous and unpleasant.

The top client relations skill, then, is to observe the client’s point of view on a case and to keep that in mind while handling the representation.  The result is that if the case takes a small but unfortunate bounce, you might choose to call the client or meet with her rather than to send the news via email or letter.

Moreover, keeping the client’s perspective in mind allows you to recognize if and when a client slips into unrealistic expectations about his case, such as the finances (whether that’s legal fees, costs, or the expected damages, settlement value, or cost of the deal), or the speed with which the matter should be resolved.  The quickest way to a dissatisfied client is to lose sight of how the client is viewing what’s happening with your representation.  The second quickest is to fail to tailor your communications with the client to take account of how he’s seeing things.

So, what if you realize that your client is expecting a recovery in the millions when you think (and perhaps you’ve even told the client) that the case is worth only in the range of $10,000, or that the case should be resolved within 2 weeks, etc.?

1.  Communicate.  Find out why your client thinks what he thinks.  You’ll often find that he’s been consulting with a well-meaning but underinformed friend who’s a lawyer or other “expert.”  We all know that a single fact can take a case from “high value” to “dog,” and it’s a reasonable bet that the client will have disclosed only some of the facts, that the “expert” won’t know the law in the area, or that the conversation was only casual commiseration and the client took a comment far more seriously than it was intended.

2.  Communicate in writing.  We’ve all had the experience at some point of hearing a lot of information and remembering only some of it.  Obviously, the same goes for clients.  So you might consider drafting a detailed engagement letter that includes information such as the expected time to resolution, the expected fees for various stages of the engagement, and/or your intial assessment of the case — all, of course, with language that indicates that this is your best estimate but that subsequent events or discoveries could change the situation dramatically.  Writing such a letter not only confirms that you’ve discussed these issues, it also gives the client something to return to down the line to refresh his recollection.

3.  Address the unrealistic expectations right away.  As soon as you sense that your client is holding some expectation that you consider unrealistic, address it. Immediately.  And be sure other lawyers and support staff who deal with the client are prepared to notice unrealistic expectations and let you know about them, immediately.  Like mold on cheese, unrealistic expectations grow if not cut off.

4.  Explain why things are as they are.  So, for instance, if a client thinks a negotiation is taking too long when it’s about average, share your experience with your client.  Let him know how long things like this usually take, what’s causing any delay, and whether you think the delay is reasonable.  Depending on the situation, this step could be delegated to a paralegal or could be incorporated into a regular matter update to the client.  In other words, be proactive when possible.

5.  Review your client intake procedure.  A good client screening process is important to your practice and your sanity.  If you find a number of clients who hold unrealistic expectations, perhaps that reveals something about the way you’re communicating with clients in the initial meeting.  (The same holds true if you find yourself surrounded by difficult clients.)  Consider whether you need to spend more time or energy evaluating clients before accepting the representation.  It’s impossible to screen out every client who will be challenging, but if you keep getting these clients, you’ll be well-served by investigating why that’s so.

Networking technique: bring a friend along

For those who hate networking, walking into a room as part of a team may increase comfort and confidence.  The real beauty of this approach lies in having someone who knows you ready at hand to trumpet your skills — in other words, to introduce you glowingly (and truthfully) in a way that would come off as bragging if you do it yourself.

Here’s how it works: you and your colleague split up and circulate.  When you see your colleague in conversation with someone, you join them, and your colleague introduces you by referencing your background, your accomplishments, and what a great person you are — “Barb, meet Joe.  Joe’s an associate in my firm, and he’s doing terrific things for us.  Just last week, he argued a tough discovery motion in front of Judge Smith and not only won, but got our fees as well.  He’s a real go-getter, but I guess that’s what they teach at University of Fantastic, you know?”  (Of course, you should make sure that your buddy knows enough about you to tailor her introduction of you to the interests of the person you’re meeting.)  Following the introduction, you pick up the conversation and, after an appropriate time, your colleague drifts off to meet someone new.  You’ll want to return the favor for your buddy, and if applied well, you can make much deeper connections ripe for a follow-up using this method than you might by yourself.

From a coaching perspective, the questions to consider are these: how would you like to be introduced?  And what do you need to do on a regular basis to merit the introduction you desire?

 

Long-term career options

When I finished law school in 1993, the expectation of joining a firm, making partner there, and staying for the entirety of a career was beginning to fade.  By this time, it’s almost an anomaly for a young lawyer to walk that path.  In 2006, a NALP study (reported in a Law.com article titled Firms Losing Top Talent to Clients) showed that 19% of associates leave their firms after their first year in practice, 40% leave by their third year, and 78% leave by their fifth year.  Where the departing associates go varies, of course — some to other firms, some in-house, some outside the law entirely.  But the bottom line is that for the majority of large firm associates, becoming a homegrown partner is no longer the presumed outcome of joining a firm as an associate.

The often-repeated “joke” that partnership is like winning a pie-eating contest only to find that the prize is more pie may well cast light on why the career path has changed so dramatically.  Equally likely is the emphasis on profits-per-partner and the rising level of what’s an “acceptable” profit.  Whatever the reason, an associate is well-advised to consider early what path she’d like her career to take.  Although the paths don’t necessarily diverge completely (because, for instance, building credibility and respect with colleagues and clients pays dividends regardless of which career path the lawyer selects), it’s possibly to think strategically toward a goal only if that goal is clear.

This month’s Law Practice Magazine is one of the best resources I’ve seen recently for hitting the highlights of the career route decision in short firm.  Articles include Making Partner — or Not: Is It In, Up or Over in the 21st Century? (reviewing modern alternatives in law firms to the old rule of make partner or get out), Is There Life After Law Firms?: Getting Off the Partnership Path (reviewing some options outside law firms), Going In-House?  Prepare for Culture Shock and Partnership Criteria: The Ground Rules of Moving Up (criteria and issues involved in making partner).  Also included are two articles written by lawyers who’ve chosen careers outside the practice: From Antitrust Lawyer to Executive Coach (written by Deborah Katz Solomon, a remarkable coach whom I’m delighted to call mentor, colleague, and friend) and From the Courtroom to the Classroom (the story of a lawyer who has moved to teaching after 25 years in practice).

While the articles included are probably not sufficient to inform career decisions fully, if you’ve been considering your long-term career plan, this issue is a must-have.  For newer lawyers who have perhaps been drifting along and hoping for the best, this issue will help you think strategically and clearly about what you want from practice and what you’re willing to put into it.  It’s great weekend reading.  Enjoy.

Addressing burnout: your productivity depends on it

Because of the stress of practice, burnout is a real issue for lawyers.  Just about every lawyer has at least an occasional period in which it seems that work is pressing 18-20 hours a day, and most of us know intuitively that it’s important to recover following that kind of exertion.

But what about the kind of day-to-day grind that can cause low-level burnout?

As an analogy only (and not as a diagnosis) compare major clinical depression with feeling down.  According to mental health professionals, the symptoms of the two are similar, but minor depression (feeling blue, dysthymia, etc.) tends to last longer and be more mild than major depression.  Where major depression is marked by an inability to function, someone who’s feeling down often sees the world in shades of grey, doesn’t enjoy life like he used to, and has reduced energy, but he’s still able to function.

Chuck Newton has recently posted on the “Cure for Lazy Lawyer Syndrome.”  It’s a terrific article that describes with a visceral clarity what it’s like to struggle with low-grade burnout:

You know something is wrong. You intend to get into work early to catch up, but fail to do so. You just cannot seem to make yourself finish that brief that is due in a week. You avoid phone calls you know you should take. You take a phone call and you know should make a note, but you just cannot make yourself get around to it. Then you forget the necessary details. You know you should call your client, but it is so-o-o-o inconvenient. You start to feel overwhelmed and you cannot find a starting place from which to even begin to catch up. You are just feeling tired, depressed and rundown. Vitamins do not seem to help much.

Does that sound all too familiar to anyone else?  I’ve certainly been there, and I’ve talked with enough clients to know that it isn’t an isolated feeling — though lawyers who are feeling this way do tend to isolate themselves.  And that tends to add self-condemnation to the mix, and the result is not pretty.

But Chuck has a solution, and he’s hit the nail right on the head:

My suggestion is that you will feel better about yourself, your practice and your competence if you will concentrate harder on the practice of law for shorter periods of time.  When you are in the zone, be in the zone.  Focus, but not so long that you get eye strain.

***

Short times away from your work (and I mean absolutely disconnecting from your work) will help you to be more productive and energetic back at your work.

Chuck’s post appears on the Solo Lawyer blog, and he even emphasizes that this advice is especially important for “home office lawyers, connected lawyers and Third Wave lawyers.”  To my mind, it’s critical for all lawyers, especially since most of us are now “connected” most of the time.  Although some of the suggestions that Chuck makes are difficult or inappropriate for lawyers who work in a traditional law firm (i.e., working 4-day weeks on a regular basis, absent a part-time schedule), the idea of short periods of intense focus alternating with period of complete disengagement can be applied in any practice setting.  I’ve referenced the book The Power of Full Engagement before, but I’ll mention it again now because it stands for the proposition that “full engagement” requires selective disengagement from work — which is, after all, exactly what Chuck espouses.

The risk of low-level burnout is that it makes everything less pleasant; it leads to reduced energy, reduced efficiency, and reduced productivity; and if left “untreated,” it can lead to major burnout.  My father, who’s practiced law since the mid-1960s, has given me much good advice, but one piece is especially relevant here.  Make it a habit — an occasional habit, but a habit nonetheless — to escape from the office midday, whether it’s to see a movie, to visit a bookstore or museum, or to take a walk somewhere.  Although the escape is great therapy to cure burnout, it’s even better applied to avoid it.

What’s your plan to address burnout?

Monday’s efficiency/productivity tip

Most of us start each day with a “to do” list, or at least a good idea of what must be accomplished.  Time management experts often suggest starting by knocking off the easiest tasks, and overachievers often attack the toughest item first.  However, each of these approaches misses the mark and may facilitate being busy at the expense of being productive.

Instead, I suggest starting each day with the most important task.  It may be a phone call that takes 5 minutes or a drafting project that requires 5 hours; once that task is accomplished, though, the day has by definition been productive despite any crises that may pop up.  The next step is, of course, to hit the second most important task.

*****

I’m headed back to Atlanta today, following almost a week in Dallas for a conference.  Carly Fiorina spoke yesterday and had some interesting points on leadership that I’ll share in a future post.  The question I’m left mulling is, how can lawyers in private practice show up as leaders?  And how do lawyers in private practice show up as leaders?

 

What could a professional coach do for your practice?

Lawyers and law firms increasingly have the concept of coaching on their radar screens, particularly as coaching continues to filter into the mainstream.  Now that the concept is well-known, the next step is gaining familiarity with how coaching actually works, what topics may be addressed, and what the effects may be over a given period of time.  The ABA Journal has stepped up to offer case studies, in which it matched 3 lawyer clients (selected from more than 100 volunteers) with 3 coaches.  The results offer tremendous insight into how a coaching relationship may function and the benefits that may result.

The ABA Journal offers three issues that stand between interested lawyers and coaching: uncertainty about what a coach might do for them, how to find the “right” coach, and how to find the time to engage in coaching.  The three lawyers (Jamie Abrams, a 5th-year associate wanting to “sharpen her career management skills;” Larry Koch, a partner in practice for more than 25 years seeking to get more clients following the loss of a significant corporate client that was acquired by another company; and Frank Petrosino, a lawyer in practice for 9 years aiming to refine his area of practice) met with their coaches for one month, and the result are impressive.

Career management

The first lawyer/coach pair met by telephone two to five times a week.  (By way of contrast, I talk with most clients twice a month, and almost never more than three times a month.)  The engagement began with an assessment that helped the associate to identify her strengths and to facilitate her growth, particularly in delegating work.  The lawyer said that working with a coach permitted her to reach for opportunities more effectively because she was prepared, and also that the coaching allowed her better to articulate her value to the firm and to develop practice goals for the next year.

Client development

The second pair spoke weekly for an hour at a time.  The engagement began by defining the state of the lawyer’s practice, including naming his key clients and clients who hadn’t terminated the relationship but also hadn’t given him any work recently.  The next step required evaluation of the lawyer’s current client relationships and how well they were functioning.  Coach and lawyer also explored the lawyer’s comfort level in business development activities — avoiding the hard sell, for instance, preferring instead to continue an organic client development path by seeking new opportunities to help clients.  These steps yielded a plan composed of practical goals (taking someone to lunch, for example) with deadlines.  The lawyer’s summary of the coaching engagement: “I think most people need this type of assistance-someone to help them with planning, execution and accountability,” Koch says. “Especially with activities that don’t come naturally and for which you haven’t been trained. . . [It] made me think about other relationships, other possibilities-and then take a disciplined approach to it all.”

Sharpening a practice area focus

The third lawyer wanted to “become the go-to lawyer for the Vermont hospitality industry.”  During the five calls of this coaching engagement, the lawyer identified his areas of marketing strength, refined those to be maximally effective, gathered data on the target client market, developed support within his law firm for going after his target clients, and came up with a strategy for setting aside time to continue his efforts.  Between the first and second calls, the lawyer arranged several lunch appointments and speaking engagements, and he even managed to sit in on a client’s management meeting.  Reflecting on the coaching experience, the lawyer said, “Obviously I have a full plate at work that I need to get done, but David’s calls gave me motivation, encouragement and energy that maybe I wouldn’t have had if he wasn’t there cheering me on.”

Conclusion

It appears that each of the clients came into the engagement highly motivated and willing to make the effort necessary to see results.  Although coaching engagements are occasionally as short as a month, they usually last in the 3-6 month range, and not infrequently they continue much longer.  However, the ABA experiment is a terrific example of what can be accomplished even in a very short period of time.  The unspoken question, of course, is whether any or all of these three lawyers would hire a coach on their own dime.  I am admittedly biased — since I am a coach for lawyers and since I’ve also been a coaching client for my legal practice — but the lawyers’ comments suggest to me that they did find significant value.

Two questions that the ABA Journal story raised but didn’t address: how to find the “right” coach and how to make the time.  Making the time does require commitment, of course, but I’ve found that the stronger the motivation to make a change, the more likely the lawyer will set aside time for coaching (and the related work) and hold that time sacred.  The “right” coach will vary among clients, but I always suggest investigating a coach’s background, experience, and coach training; the next, and most important step, is talking with a coach to get a feel for the coach’s style and personality.  Most coaches offer free consultations before beginning an engagement, since the “chemistry” is important.

What restores your professional self?

I often write here about taking the time for real recreation and relaxation.  It’s important for all of us (lawyer and non-lawyer alike) to do something that refills the pitcher of “self” so that we have more to pour out in service to our clients.

But there’s another dimension to restoration, and that’s getting the professional self recharged and refilled.  Have you ever been to a CLE meeting that’s so full of exciting ideas and interesting people that you feel yourself swelling with delight?  Remembering that sense of why you became a lawyer?  Knowing that, even on the difficult days, your decision was correct?  If not, you owe it to yourself to seek out that kind of experience.

Last Friday, I attended the annual conference of the DC chapter of the International Coach Federation.  (For those who are unaware, I split my time primarily between Atlanta and Orlando, but I’ve also elected to remain part of the DC coaching community following my completion of Georgetown’s Leadership Coaching certificate program.)  Make no mistake, I am delighted with my work as a coach on a daily basis.  And yet, attending this meeting popped my excitement to the next level, fueled my desire to learn and do more, and reignited by commitment to bringing the best of my self, my skills, and my experience into every coaching interaction, all in service to my clients.  It was an incredible day, and echoes of it will show up here over the next few weeks, I’m sure.

Several topics grabbed my attention sufficiently to share them here, albeit in shorthand.

First, sustainability.  I attended a program that asked how those of us who coach leaders can bring sustainability into the equation, and I expected to hear about personal sustainability.  Instead, the presentation addressed environmental and social sustainability.  I left mulling over what it means to be a citizen, personally or corporately.  I have an inchoate sense that there’s a role for lawyers beyond legislation and even beyond pro bono work… But I’ll tease that out over time.

Next, Marshall Goldsmith, executive coach extraordinaire to CEOs of companies such as Glaxo SmithKline, Ford, and many others, spoke about “feedforward” as opposed to feedback.  Rather than focusing on what’s happened in the past — which is, by definition, unchangeable — Goldsmith recommends a forward-looking process in which the subject selects a behavior to change and solicits suggestions on how that change might be accomplished.  The exercise is positive and forward-looking, and regardless of what idea is set forth to facilitate the changed behavior, the only acceptable response is, “Thank you.”  It’s a terrific process, and I commend the linked article to you for more information.  Can lawyers implement a feedforward process?  Hmmm, more to come on this.

And I attended a presentation on leadership in the context of advancement.  Perhaps you’ve seen the recent statistics showing the 40% of newly-promoted managers and executives fail within the first 18 months.  Scott Eblin spoke on his book The Next Level: What Insiders Know About Executive Success, particularly highlighting what behaviors will support leaders and which will undermine them.  There’s much more to say here as well.

Throughout the day, I met coaches with diverse specialties and training/experience.  Wonderful conversation popped at every turn.  And although I’d had only 3 hours of sleep the night before, I was energized by the day.

So… Where can you find professional reinvigoration?  How can you build it into your schedule?  Perhaps there’s a magazine that feeds your professional self?  Or a CLE topic, possibly directly related to your area of practice or possibly not, that stirs new ideas and excitement?  Perhaps it’s the pro bono work you do, research and writing or speaking, or simply meeting with colleagues for conversation about wide-ranging topics?

Next time you notice yourself feeling more energized professionally, notice what’s created that for you and notice the results it yields.  Chances are that you’ll find it develops you as a better-rounded lawyer who’s more committed to your profession and your clients.  It’s a win-win situation that deserves to be cultivated.