Tuesday shorts 7/29/08 (happiness in the law, client relationships, Blackberry malaise)

I’m attending a conference this week, so I thought I’d load up a few links to good articles and blog posts some of you may not have seen.

Seven Simple Suggestions for Success and Happiness in the Law  The JD Bliss Blog recently posted a summary of a commencement speech by Stephen Ellis, a lawyer who has happily practiced for 36 years.  The suggestions are deceptively simple:

  • Be there for your clients when they need you.
  • Don’t be obnoxious.  Do a good job on the law, facts, and strategy, but don’t make it personal.
  • Be enthusiastic about your clients’ matters; ask how something can be done rather than rattling off reasons why it can’t.
  • Believe in your brain–some things people tell you really might not make sense.
  • Stay focused and stay with it–renew daily your commitment to good work and reliability daily.
  • Get “outside” yourself and participate in community events.  In addition to being a great way to meet more people and broaden your appreciation for your community, you have a lot to offer, and you’ll have fun.
  • Be nice.  In Ellis’ own words, “Cliche it may be, but being pleasant and friendly makes the day’s good spots better and the rough spots smoother. And that makes everyone’s life better–for sure yours.”

Well said!

Building strong client relationships  Frank D’Amore, founder of Attorney Career Catalysts (a legal recruiting, consulting, and training firm), published a helpful article in The Legal Intelligencer recently, discussing how a first-year partner who has landed a major client can build a solid, long-term relationship with the client.  (I particularly appreciated D’Amore’s reminder not to focus so heavily on any single client that business development efforts slow down or stop.)  To build a strong client relationship, D’Amore recommends:

  • Understand your client’s business and industry.
  • Keep your client fully in the loop about what’s happening in the matter.
  • Make your client look good at all times.
  • Maintain regular contact with your client, even when there’s a lull in the representation.
  • Consider how you might help key client contacts in ways that extend beyond legal services.

Stop blaming your Blackberry for your lack of self-discipline  Penelope Trunk, the Brazen Careerist, has a funny-because-it’s-true post about those whose lives are run by their Blackberries.  Yes, I understand needing to receive and respond to emails immediately sometimes, but anyone who’s ever complained about Blackberry bondage should read this post.  Just a clip (from the end of the post):

Blackberries are tools for the well-prioritized. If you feel like you’re being ruled by your Blackberry, you probably are. And the only way to free yourself from those shackles is to start prioritizing so that you know at any given moment what is the most important thing to do. Sometimes it will be the Blackberry, and sometimes it won’t. And the first step to doing this shift properly is recognizing that you can be on and off the Blackberry all day as a sign of empowerment.

What’s in a name?

During my third year of law school, I was a member of the Lamar Inn of Court at Emory Law School.  For those unfamiliar with the American Inns of Court, it’s an organization based on the English Inns of Court and designed to bring together law students (known in the Inn as pupils), junior practitioners (barristers), and senior practitioners (masters) for education and socialization, with an exclusive focus on litigation.  The Inns of Court, during my involvement at least, created opportunities to rub elbows with some of the celebrated litigators in town, rising stars, federal and state judges — it was a big deal.  I was thrilled to be included, and I was especially excited to have my opportunity to take a “stand up” role in the first meeting, which focused on voir dire.

I will never forget “striking” that jury.  My team had planned our strategy, and we knew what kind of person we did and didn’t want on the panel.  The lawyers on my team took the lead, of course, and then permitted me to take a crack at it after they’d given an example of how voir dire should be done.  After I’d asked a few questions, I wanted to follow up with one of the jurors, a middle-aged man with kind eyes and a French surname that ended in “-et.”  But I couldn’t remember how it was pronounced!  Was it the true French “ay” ending, or an Anglicized “ett”?  I took a guess, and what a lesson it turned out to be.

I tried, of course, the split the difference, but committed to the Anglicized version in the end.  And as soon as I pronounced that “T,” I saw his face fall.  He recovered quickly and answered my question, but in that split-second I learned: you don’t massacre someone’s name if at all possible to avoid it.

After we finished the exercise and the participants and observers had a chance to offer feedback, the juror spoke and said that he felt such warmth from me initially, but that my fumbling mispronunciation of his name broke that.  Not fatally — he said he would have listened to me had it been a real trial, but I lost a point there.  And for years, when I’d see him on the TV news (he was a frequent guest because of his work) I would pronounce his name and feel terrible.  Names really do matter.

And now, I understand.  My last name is the unwieldy Fleming-Brown.  I try not to mind when someone refers to me as “Julie Brown,” but the truth is that I do mind.  I know what a pain it is to give my two last names, but my name matters to me, and its disregard does not go unnoticed.

The point of this rant is to remind you to be careful when using someone’s name.  Almost everyone likes to hear his or her own name, and even if the hearing isn’t a pleasure, hearing the name butchered is unpleasant.  It’s a small thing and shouldn’t be a strike against the fumbler, but it is.

So, whether you’re meeting a new client, a potential client, someone at a networking function, someone you’re interviewing or by whom you’re being interviewed, be sure you catch the name.  Get it right.  If you don’t hear it well, or if you aren’t sure how to pronounce it, just ask.  Most people will be kind.  Using someone’s name correctly is a sign of respect, and mispronunciation or abbreviation can be taken as a sign of disrespect even if it isn’t so intended.  Pay attention.

Do you know the RULER for law firm economics?

Law as business vs. law as profession is a conversation that has largely lost its meaning and relevance, especially in today’s economy.  Lawyers must understand some of the basic law firm economics from day 1, if not before.  I happened across an article that presents these basics along with a handy acronym, RULER:

Rates: lawyers’ hourly (or alternative) fees
Utilization: the number of billable hours a lawyer works as compared with the cost of maintaining the lawyer
Leverage: the associate:partner ratio
Expenses: what a firm must pay to do business
Realization: the amount of fees collected vs. billed

 

Set ’em so you can reach ’em

When “Carl,” a 4th year associate in a large firm, contacted me about lawyer coaching, he was dreading an upcoming evaluation.  The office rumor was that associates were being asked to explain what they’d done to meet the goals they’d set in the previous year’s review, and Carl was nervous.  He explained that although he’d been working toward the targets he’d set a year ago, he wasn’t sure that his efforts would be viewed as meeting his goals, which he’d written as follows:

  • Improve skill in taking and defending depositions.
  • Improve written work product.
  • Get more experience in advising clients.

Do you see the problem that Carl recognized only in retrospect?  None of these goals can be quantified.  Had he improved his deposition skills?  Well, he could point to the depositions he’d taken and defended over the past year, but he couldn’t prove in any quantifiable way that volume equals improvement.  Same held true for his other goals.  After talking about Carl’s year, we found ways to suggest that he’d met his goals, but he vowed never to make the mistake of setting fuzzy objectives.

 

Unfortunately, lawyers at every stage of practice can set vague goals.  Have you ever said you’d like to “bring in more business” or “increase your billable hours” or “get more exposure to your target clients”?  These ambitions count as little more than wishes, because they’re not concrete and measurable.

How do effective leaders frame their intentions?  They set SMART goals, and they write down those goals.  A SMART objective is:

Specific: define what you intend to accomplish with sufficient detail to be meaningful.  Instead of planning to improve his deposition skills, Carl might have decided he wanted to get comfortable with the “funnel method” of questioning witnesses.

Measurable: a quantifiable definition of what you intend to accomplish.  (As Peter Drucker said, “What gets measured gets managed.”)  Carl might have said that he’d like to take 8 depositions over the course of the year and rate his comfort and skill in using the “funnel method” on a scale of 1 to 10.

Achievable: design a goal that’s a stretch, but a stretch within your reach.  Carl might realize that he’d be unlikely to take 8 depositions over the next year, and so he’d scale back to 4 depositions.

Realistic: create a sensible plan to attain your goal, considering your abilities and limitations.  Carl might approach the partner with whom he worked the most to share the goal he’d set and to get the partner’s buy-in, which would include agreement that the goal was realistic.

Time-based: define the time in which you’ll measure your efforts to determine whether you hit your objective. 

When you know what you want, you’re much more likely to seek out and accept opportunities to reach your goals.  Take a moment to recast your #1 objective as a SMART goal and write it down somewhere, perhaps in your calendar.  And then notice what happens over the next few days and weeks.  Chances are good that you’ll take steps toward your goal that you wouldn’t have taken without being concrete and clear and what you wanted to happen.

 

Financial freedom

An anonymous email I received shortly after I began coaching haunts me.  This person (I don’t know whether male or female, but I’ll assume male here) wanted desperately to leave the practice.  He was responding to something I’d written, and he explained that he’d practiced law for nearly 20 years and hated it.  He never liked it, even in the beginning.  And yet, he wrote, he had no other choice, due to financial constraints, geography, and family expectations/requirements.

He felt destined to toil until his dying day, expecting that his stress level would keep him from living to retirement.  When I wrote to ask if he’d be open to a conversation, free of charge, to see if he might have some alternatives, he thanked me but declined: his children were in college and someone had to pay those bills, he had to finance retirement on the off chance that he’d live to see it, and he had no choice other than to continue plugging away and hoping for some unknown change to make things better.  It was, at the risk of being melodramatic, like a suicide note from the soul.

Fortunately, most of my clients are relatively happy in their careers and are seeking a tweak or to develop a strategy to improve their professional success and satisfaction.  Even those who consider leaving the practice are upbeat about their options, though challenges do pop up along the route.  I’ve noticed that some of the happiest lawyers are those who have created reasonable financial stability that allows options — in other words, financial freedom.

Is it possible to be financially free with as much as $100K in student loans, nevermind the other costs of living?  Yes. It’s not only possible, it’s necessary for a sustainable career.  And freedom absolutely does not require millions in the bank and no debt.  It requires careful choices and attention.

One of the biggest mistakes I see in new lawyers, especially those pulling down the $160K “big firm” salaries, is living the lifestyle full out.  The new BMW, the gorgeous condo, all of those nice accoutrements that seem like a fair reward for the hard work required to reach that earning level — if not purchased carefully, they turn into the proverbial golden handcuffs.

Some of the most disappointed professionals I know (this isn’t at all limited to lawyers) are those who literally bought into the lifestyle and then found it impossible to leave.  Others work as hard as they can, not to advance their careers, but because they fear that if they let up even a little bit they’ll be fired.  Sometimes that fear is realistic, especially in the current economy.  Handling it comes through taking an objective look at the likelihood of getting fired and working to create value.  Creating a contingency plan with a cushion of savings and a good network (in case a new job is in order) often helps as much or more.

Now, let’s be honest: anyone who knows me knows that I enjoy travel and impulse buys as much as the next person.  I’m not urging an ascetic lifestyle, nor am I recommending the kinds of budget cuts that reduce reasonable day-to-day comfort.  What I do recommend is living with enough of a financial cushion that a brief period of unemployment, whether voluntary or otherwise, wouldn’t be a catastrophe.  Living the $160K (or $100K or $250K or whatever the figure may be) lifestyle requires you stay at that level of income and eliminates a host of choices that would otherwise exist.

Are you wearing golden handcuffs?  What changes can you implement today to begin to build your financial freedom?  And remember not to look at this question just from the perspective of what you might eliminate: business development activity may create a book of business that will give you a measure of security worthy of the investment required to get it.

Freedom of Expression

While describing an assessment I often use to a lawyer-client, I mentioned that it provides feedback about one’s natural tendencies and those tendencies as adapted to work, explaining that almost everyone wears a “mask” of some sort at work.

“You got that right,” my client chuckled wryly.

We went on to discuss the discomfort this client feels in the workplace.  She chooses not to be herself in the office, to rein in the zany and hilarious side of herself in an effort to show up as the cool, calm professional whose judgment is above reproach.  And, frankly, it’s hard to blame her or any of the others who make a similar decision.  Especially in a competitive world in which reputation may be built on first impressions and damaged in a moment, playing it safe may be an appealing choice.

That said, when there’s too much of a gap between one’s “real” self and one’s “work” self, going to work may become unbearably stressful.  A great deal of energy can be consumed by molding oneself to expectations, and everyone I’ve known to be in such a situation gets worn down by maintaining a false persona.  Even more troublesome, authenticity is generally regarded as a key leadership attribute.  People often sense inauthenticity, and when authenticity is lacking, it’s tough to build or maintain relationships.

I’ve always enjoyed the quote, “Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.”  (Attributed, variously, to Walt Disney, Dr. Seuss, and Bernard Baruch.)  Of course, those who employ or retain you do matter.  So, what if you feel required to present yourself as someone you aren’t?  The question is much too big for a single blog post, but I’ll throw out a few ideas.  If it generates sufficient interest, I’ll elaborate on another day.

1.  Change positions.  Sometimes it’s a “fit” issue.  A firm’s “culture” will define what is and isn’t acceptable, and a baseline fit between lawyer and firm is important.  While it’s unlikely that you’ll find a firm that allows you to be exactly who you are at home on a weekend morning among family or close friends, it is possible to find a firm where you can be more or less the same person.  If the “fit” is wrong, you’ll likely have the metaphorical sense of wearing a suit that’s too tight: constriction at work followed by the renewed ability to breathe when you’re elsewhere.  If you’re happy with your professional self, then the suit has to go.  Just be sure to note the areas of constriction so you’ll know what atmosphere would be a better fit.

2.  Practice allowing your personality to show.  Sometimes the issue is one of comfort: personality might be welcome, but you need to develop a certain comfort level to believe that’s true.  Try cracking a few jokes, mentioning your interest in feng shui, or hanging that unusual painting in your office.  And measure the reaction you get.  Assuming a reasonably good fit, you’ll probably begin to relax a bit (when the situation is appropriate for relaxing) and allow your slightly quirky self to show.  Treading slowly is probably a good idea: no one appreciates the colleague who lets the freak flag fly a little too high.  But personality is part of what will draw other lawyers and clients to you.  No one wants to work with an automaton.

3.  Express yourself in covert ways.  One of my good friends (not a lawyer) served as a consultant for several years for one of the big companies that functioned remarkably like a law firm.  She bought a toe ring that reminded her of her “outside” life and the trip to the Bahamas where she bought the ring.  I’ve known lawyers who relished having a navel piercing, living in an unusual part of town, or playing in a rock band on the weekends — none completely secret, really, just private enough to share with a select few.

4.  Act in integrity with your values.  On occasion, I’ve known lawyers who felt they were required to conform in distasteful ways.  Choosing to laugh at jokes that conflict with deeply held beliefs, for instance, puts a higher value on conformity than on the deeply held belief.  Integrity requires finding some way to reconcile belief and action, whether it’s ignoring or challenging the distasteful view.  Sometimes it’s an opportunity to educate, and sometimes it’s a sign that the firm/lawyer fit is wrong.

How closely do your home and work personas match?  Do you want or need to make a change?