What happens to work/life issues in a recession?

The economic forecasts seem to agree: we’re in a recession.  Unlike past slowdowns, this recession seems poised to affect law firms as much as other businesses — not a pleasant thought for lawyers accustomed to growth and more growth.  If you’re among those concerned (and if you aren’t, you probably should be), be sure to visit Gerry Riskin’s Amazing Firms, Amazing Practices.  He sounded the economic warning bell early, and he’s providing consistently useful ideas on how to survive the tight times and be prepared to accelerate when the economy improves.

What about lawyers’ efforts to integrate work and life?  Does that go by the wayside in the event of recession?  Should it?

I’ve talked recently with more than a handful of lawyers who are feeling the pinch, and with associates who are sensing or even being told flat-out that they should count themselves lucky just to have jobs, to put their heads down (subtext: quit complaining) and get to work.  Especially in the firms that have just raised associate salaries to levels previously unknown, it isn’t surprising that they might get such feedback.

And yet, the shut-up-and-work mentality flies in the face of efforts to help lawyers shore up declining professional satisfaction.  Work/life balance or integration continues to be an important issue for many lawyers, but how to manage those concerns when times get tight?

Cali Williams Yost, creator of the apt “work+life fit” concept, has posted some thoughts about why smart leaders will continue to integrate flexibility.  The short version, according to Cali:

*  Even in a recession, talent will still be a scarce commodity.
*  You can’t effectively service global clients and manage global teams without flexibility that considers impact on work+life fit.
*  In a recession, more needs to be done with fewer resources.
*  Finally, companies that need to cut back will use flex to creatively downsize.

I think she has some excellent points.  My concern is that between the anger that some law firm leaders feel concerning the escalated associate salaries and the remaining somewhat rigid view that law firms sometimes have on flex time and work/life balance (to use the phrase that firms tend to use), firms may be less willing to use flexibility as a management tool.

The word is already out about some firms firing associates for “poor performance” without any warning signs.  Other firms are openly laying off associates and poor-performing non-equity partners and/or de-equitizing partners.  As much as I’d like to believe that firms will adopt flexibility in greater numbers despite the tight economy, I find it hard to believe.

What do you think?

Monday Shorts 2/25/08

Blawg Review #148  Hosted by Brett Trout of BlawgIT, Blawg Review #148 is devoted to Internet Memes, complete with the requisite YouTube videos.  Who could resist this?

While considering a theme for this week’s Blawg Review, it struck me that lawyers do not spend as much time aimlessly meandering the web as would, for instance, a typical air traffic controller. As a result, most lawyers are woefully detached from the Zeitgeist embodied in the lowly Internet meme. An Internet meme is any amusing video, email, picture, audio clip or other material that spreads virally across the internet. Unlike computer viruses, which spread based upon how many paint chips the people opening them consumed in their youth, Internet memes spread based upon how entertaining viewers find them.

Although blawgers are more aware of Internet memes than your average lawyer, blawgers still find there are not enough hours to stay up to date with each new version of someone reenacting the Thriller video at a wedding. To save you from this critical legal research, I assiduously complied several of the most popular memes for you. While the list might not necessarily “make” your day, at least it might maintain your work/life balance in sufficient equilibrium to stave off the rubber room for another week. The list is not comprehensive, but it is the best I can muster without being served pre-marital divorce papers. For those of you true professional Internet slackers, swing by memelabs and test your meme IQ.

It’s a fun way to organize some of the week’s blawg posts, and it’s certainly worth a read.

What women lawyers think of each other. Or not.  I was all ready to blawg about the recent ABA Journal article titled What Women Lawyers Really Think of Each Other.  The results (presented primarily with graphics in the print magazine) were interesting, suggesting that women under 40 think male supervisors give better direction, give better constructive criticism, and are better at keeping confidential information private.  Women over 40 were reported as believing that women take directions and constructive criticism better than men and have better discretion than men.  And then, just as I was beginning to compose my thoughts, I noticed the critical modifier to each set of results: 58% of respondents said that gender doesn’t matter, and the cited statistics came from the 42% who expressed a preference for working with either men or women.  Sometimes it isn’t the story that matters, but rather the story behind the story.

The client perspective

A couple of years ago, I was a party to some litigation, and I had the mind-shifting opportunity to be a client.  I learned a tremendous amount about what it means to be a client.  Because these lessons would have served me very well when I was in practice, I share them with you today.

1.     Communication is key.  Clients want and need to be kept informed of what’s going on.  If I were to go back into practice, I would make it a habit to dictate a short note describing any case developments to each client on at least a biweekly basis, more frequently if the case is quite active.  And I would be certain to return calls within 4 hours, if only to let the caller know that their message had been received and that I would get back to them with a substantive response on a later date.

Example:  I called a lawyer (we’ll call her Ashley) to whom I was referred by another lawyer I know personally and respect deeply.  Because she was on another line, I left her a voicemail, briefly outlining what was going on — including conflict information — and advising A that I would like to meet with her on a particular date to provide more information and discuss what alternatives I might have.  More than 4 days later, no one from A’s office had returned my call.  Can you imagine what the rate of communication would probably have been if I’d hired A?  I can.  And I called someone else.

2.     It’s a subset of communication, but clients want to know when there’s a problem.  Whether it’s something directly relevant to the case or whether it’s a potential problem you’ve identified while working on the matter, let your client know about it as soon as possible, especially if you can propose a solution.

3.     Be honest.  Although many lawyers pride themselves on saying that they can do anything a client wants — to paraphrase one firm’s slogan, “We don’t tell you whether something can be done, we tell you how.”  That’s all well and good, but clients want and need honest advice.  The fact that something can be done doesn’t necessarily mean it should be done, and that’s something clients must know.

4.     Lawyers know that procrastination sometimes pays off in litigation; if there’s a likelihood that a deadline will be extended for a brief, we sometimes prefer to wait to start writing until we know the date is firm.  This gives clients ulcers if they find out about it.  And, on those occasions when we guess wrong and the date isn’t extended, it reduces the amount of time a client can spend reviewing the filing.  This makes for angry clients with ulcers.  Communicate!  And allow adequate time for client review.

5.     Underpromise and overdeliver.  I’ve blogged on this topic elsewhere in another context, but it’s important.  If you promise a client you’ll deliver a memo, set a reasonable deadline for yourself and send it before that deadline expires.  Even if you’ve already given an oral report on the content of the memo, the client will be waiting for the promised document.  Don’t disappoint him.

6.     Be aware of the context in which you’re providing advice.  If you’re advising a company, know about its business and its officers.  If you’re advising a person, consider her overall situation.  No matter exists in a vacuum, and clients appreciate lawyers who not only recognize that, but who also acknowledge it.

7.     Don’t make excuses.  If there’s a problem, if you’ve failed to communicate as often or as clearly as the client expects, apologize.  Frankly, the excuse doesn’t matter.  Make it right.

I learned many more lessons as a client, but these are the bedrock principles.  How well are you serving your clients, from their perspective?

Is practicing law fun?

I’ve been having some interesting conversations lately with lawyers who demand a career that’s intellectually demanding, satisfying, financially successful, and fun.  Fun?  Can something as serious as practicing law be fun?  These lawyers won’t settle for less.  I’ve discovered 5 common attitudes and habits among these lawyers — how many do you share?

The lawyers I’ve met who insist on having fun (and who are, incidentally, deeply satisfied with their career and practice choices) are a divergent lot.  Some practice in large firms, some are solos, and some practice in a midsized firm, in-house, or in a government agency.  Their practices range the gamut from corporate to criminal to litigation, and their backgrounds are just as variable.  But I’ve noticed 5 key similarities.  Lawyers who have fun:

1.  Are invested in their practices.  Whether it’s a deep commitment to a particular kind of client (those who’ve suffered a brain injury, for instance) or to some agenda he or she advances through practice (representing domestic violence victims or lobbying for stronger legal protection for animals), Lawyers who have fun in practice have something at stake in their work.  There’s an underlying purpose and value to practice for them, and they’re energized by it.

2.  Are able to laugh at the absurdities of practice.  Every lawyer knows how utterly ridiculous practice can be at times.  Experts take completely unsupportable positions and refuse to budge despite the evidence.  Clients insist on the unattainable in ways big and small.  And things just happen.  So much of practice is deadly serious, but the lawyers who have fun know when and how to laugh, and they enjoy the humor.

3.  Find ways to integrate hectic practice and hectic personal life.  Lawyers who have fun in practice know that all work, all the time is a recipe for burnout, so they strive to maintain boundaries around their personal time.  By intentionally taking time away from practice (whether it’s on a weekly basis or whether it comes in the form of 2-week vacations when they’re absolutely unreachable), these lawyers preserve their energy with time away so they can be fully engaged when they’re practicing.

4.  Enjoy colleagues and clients.  Lawyers who have fun like and trust the people with whom and for whom they work.  Camaraderie lightens the mood (I remember and have heard all sorts of stories about working all night and staying energized by the other lawyers working then too) and offers opportunities to bat around ideas, strategy, and arguments, all of which can lead to great legal results and also great fun.

5.  Relish the bold and unconventional.  Lawyers who have fun in practice enjoy taking a step out of the expected.  Maybe it’s pulling words from The Devil’s Dictionary or making notes on an upcoming argument with a purple glitter gel pen or using dictaphones to record Dueling Banjos on a slow Friday.  Or, as the picture above suggests, maybe it’s getting a little work done in the park on a nice spring day.  The specifics don’t matter, but these lawyers have a healthy sense of play, individuality, and perhaps even rebellion.


Tuesday Shorts: 2/12/08

I was particularly interested in Closed Networks & the Problem with Facebook by Steven Matthews.  An excerpt:

This month’s edition of Web Law Connected could be seen as a bit of a rant, but the honest intent here is to explore the underlying marketing value offered to lawyers by what has become the 800-pound gorilla of social networks – Facebook.

It’s difficult to refute the fact that Facebook is the fastest growing entity on the web today, and the adoption rate within the legal community has been no different than that of any other group within the Facebook walls – it’s expanding, and fast. While some law firms are guarding business productivity by blocking access, we’ve also observed firms who see this latest gathering spot as an opportunity to expand their online presence. It should be noted, anytime we find legitimate communities and discussion on the web, the chances are good that individuals looking for business development opportunities will soon follow.

However, the bigger issue for me goes beyond the website blocking debate, or whether there is a legitimate business community here that can be marketed to. But rather, if we compare the relative value of Facebook to all the varying forms of web marketing out there, is it a good use of a lawyer’s online marketing time?

After a lot of consideration, and my opinion wavering, I’ve concluded that Facebook is a low quality marketing investment. And above all the positive aspects this service offers, the deciding negative factor was the closed nature of its network.

And your thought some of your clients were, uh, challenging.  I am fortunate to work with amazing clients now, but I remember a few clients from my days in full-time practice who could ruin a day simply by calling.  But who’s to say what separates a difficult client from the stereotypical “client from hell”?  Robert Sutton, author of the award-winning book The No Asshole Rule and the terrific Work Matters blog, has created the ACHE (Asshole Client from Hell Exam) to answer just that question.  Bob writes:

You can use it to help decide if it is worth continuing to work with a current client or if you want to charge them “asshole taxes.” You can use it as an “asshole screen” for future clients – send it to others who have worked with them to find out if they are a client from hell.  And if you are a client, and feel like most lawyers, management consultant, designers, accountants, and IT consultants that you hire are complete idiots,  you find yourself being gruff with them, and you find that fewer and fewer of them want to work with you –- and those that do keep raising their rates beyond reason –- you might take the ACHE as a self-test.  And you might get some of the people you’ve worked with to complete the ACHE to get some feedback about what it is like to work with you (if they feel safe enough to give you accurate feedback – you may have unwittingly taught them to only give you good news).

In case you need another reason to take care with email addresses: The story has already made the rounds, but as cautionary tales go, it can’t be beat.  The New York Times broke the story earlier this month that Eli Lilly was in settlement talks concerning alleged marketing improprieties of the drug Zyprexa.  Apparently a Pepper Hamilton lawyer representing Lilly emailed a package of confidential documents, thinking she was sending them to co-counsel Bradford Berenson when in fact she emailed them to NY Times journalist Alex Berenson.  Visit the WSJ Law Blog for the full, chilling story.  Just another reminder to treat “auto-address” email features as anathema.

How do lawyers learn to become rainmakers?

While I’m attending the Midyear meeting of the ABA (in sunny LA this year), I’m pleased to reprint a post originally published in September 2006. 

So often, people talk about “rainmakers” as if rainmakers are born, not made.  Not true.  I’ve never seen a survey of great rainmakers to see whether they believe they were born to develop business, but every one I’ve asked asked tells me that, although there may be some personality traits that they were able to develop to help them land clients, the skills themselves were learned.

So, how do rainmakers learn their skills?

1.  Mentoring.  If there’s a lawyer you know who excels at client development, talk with her.  Ask what she did to learn how to approach potential clients.  What attributes does she consider important for business development?  Which activities work well, and which don’t?  Most lawyers are willing to share their knowledge and experience, but you have to ask.

2.  Develop your own marketing plan and work it.  What steps can you take to market yourself to your existing clients and to broaden your network/external exposure?  If you need ideas, ask your mentor or check any of the many rainmaking skills books that are on the market.  Think strategically and plan your networking events (formal and informal), writing and speaking opportunities, and whatever else may be a part of your plan.

It isn’t easy to balance work and personal life, and adding in marketing may seem like it’s too much.  But planning your efforts, and considering how you might fold in personal interests with networking opportunities, will help you to find time to hit all of the bases.  Don’t over-extend yourself.  Instead, break down the larger tasks (like writing an article) into pieces that you can accomplish each day.  That will help you maintain forward momentum and it’ll also prevent overwhelm.  Be sure to share your plan with your mentor, a coach, or someone who can help you stay on track.  That action alone will significantly raise the chances that you’ll keep up with your plan and see results.

3.  Tune up your attitude.  Two beliefs about rainmaking present challenges: that it’s somehow rude, and that it’s unnecessary.

Some people conceive of client development as the task of getting out, meeting people, and self-promoting.  One image of networking is that of an opportunity to foist a business card on any warm body and a soapbox to tell unsuspecting contacts about how great a lawyer the networking genius is.  ICK!  I don’t know of anyone who would like to interact with someone who behaves that way.  That isn’t what client development is about.  Instead, it’s an opportunity to learn about other people and to develop a relationship.  It’s often repeated that clients hire people, not firms, and it’s human nature to prefer to hire a known entity.  (I take some issue with that, but clients certainly interact with particular lawyers and there’s no question that those interactions can facilitate or retard the decision to retain the firm.)  So, the short-term view is that marketing is a way to become that known entity and to develop relationships; the long-term view is that it’s an opportunity to help potential clients solve legal problems they’re facing.  Focus on that attitude.

Although some lawyers would prefer to focus on doing top-quality and top-volume work, and not on bringing work in the door, that’s probably an unrealistic desire.  As a junior associate, it’s easy to expect to be fed work.  But someone has to bring the work in.  A lawyer’s success requires a stream of incoming work, as does a firm’s success.  Firm “grinders” (who grind out the work but do nothing to bring it in) may be in a tenuous position because strong legal abilities and good client service are the minimum requirements for practice, and those who have nothing more to offer are weak when times get tight.  This is even more true in today’s highly competitive environment.  As a result, client development skills are critical.

Finally, consider the career satisfaction that will likely result from bringing clients into your practice.  You’re building in the ability to work with clients you enjoy, on the kind of work you prefer, and you’re creating your own success.  That’s hard to beat.

4.  Think creatively.  As noted above, the market is flooded with books that promise great tips on marketing.  Some of those books deliver, some don’t… But you can bet that your competition is reading them as well.  Spend some time thinking about what you can do that’s outside the norm for client development.  Instead of serving as a speaker at a CLE event, can you organize an event?  Can you get involved in a professional association to which your target clients belong?  Can you put together some kind of program that offers tangible benefits to your target audience?  This kind of activity requires planning time and will likely require support from your firm, but if carefully executed, it can pay off.

5.  Never forget your existing clients.  While you’re working on how to bring in new clients, be sure you attend to your current clients.  Always provide excellent service and legal work.  Clients are often willing to sing the praises of good attorneys, and they are always quick to criticize those who fall short.  Whether you serve individuals or large corporations, your clients will talk about your service if a friend or close colleague asks.  Keep in mind what you’d like them to say, and let that guide your practice.

What do you need to do to increase your rainmaking?

Tuesday Shorts: 2/5/08 (diverting from law school, alternative careers, leadership question)

Just a few shorts today…  First, thanks to all who completed the 2007 Life at the Bar survey!  I appreciate the feedback and your suggestions, and I look forward to bringing you more of what you’d like to see.  Congratulations to the lawyer who won the drawing for an Amazon gift certificate; for privacy’s sake I won’t announce his name but will share that he’s counsel with a large firm.  Now, onto today’s shorts.

Law School Naysayer:  I hold that lawyers who chose to go to law school primarily because they didn’t know quite what else to do are much more likely to be dissatisfied with their careers than other lawyers.  And now, Kirsten Wolf is a BU Law grad who is campaigning to keep others from sliding into a career that won’t be a good fit:

I’m on a one-woman mission to talk people out of law school. Lots of people go to law school as a default. They don’t know what else to do, like I did. It seems like a good idea. People say a law degree will always be worth something even if you don’t practice. But they don’t consider what that debt is going to look like after law school. It affects my life in every way. And the jobs that you think are going to be there won’t necessarily be there at all. Most people I know that are practicing attorneys don’t make the kind of money they think lawyers make. They’re making $40,000 a year, not $160,000. Plus, you’re going to be struggling to do something you might not even enjoy. A few people have a calling to be a lawyer, but most don’t.

Or choose a non-practicing position: It probably isn’t news that not everyone who goes to law school ends up practicing law.  JD Bliss has profiled four lawyers who’ve chosen non-practicing roles:

Meet four law school graduates who are doing something different with their legal education.   They are in the minority, but these doctors of law are pursuing a diverse array of careers, including:

  • financial planner,
  • owner of a real estate investment business,
  • campaign worker for presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama, and
  • consultant for the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization.

The reasons for these mavericks’ selections of nontraditional career paths are as varied as the positions they currently hold.

And a question for you to consider: When you think about your approach to your career (or just about anything else), are you playing to win?  Or are you playing not to lose?  I’ll be writing more about this in the future, but the question itself — and what it says about your leadership, whether of yourself or of others, may be illuminating.