Saturday, March 29, 2008

My Sons' Eyes

I sometimes wonder if the sun envies me. I get up before it rises and return home after it sets. In the morning I kiss my wife Ana, and my two boys, David, 9, and Michael, 6, goodbye and head off to work. As I drive off, the last thing I see are my boys, standing in the front doorway in their pajamas, waving and smiling, yelling their last goodbyes. I always remember their eyes. Those eyes don’t see a tired man, lugging a brief case like a life sentence, worried about the hearing that morning or the deposition that afternoon. They see only "Daddy," bigger than life, bigger than any problem, real or imagined.

During one of the morning goodbyes, David looked at me, looked at the sun rising over my shoulder and shouted, "Look Daddy! You’re bigger than the sun!" Yes, bigger than the sun, bigger than any obstacle or problem. A superhero of sorts. No cape, no tights, no bat cave or designer costume, but a superhero nonetheless. Because you see, in my sons’ eyes, Daddy is immune to Kryptonite. That’s what my boys see when they look at me. I take that look to work and conquer the day with it.

There’s power in those eyes. I want to be the man they see. The one who does the right thing, not the easy thing. The one who confronts adversity, not runs from it. The one who keeps his head while those about him are losing theirs. I want to make those boys proud, to live up to their image of me. I don’t want to do anything to make that look in their eyes wane. I’m not naive. They will grow up, become teenagers, see me differently. I’ll look smaller in their eyes. But I’m going to do my best not to contribute to my own diminution.

Those eyes define professionalism for me. It’s not about rules, codes of conduct, mission statements or a list of dos and don’ts. It’s about being the man my boys see, the man I want to be. For me, professionalism simply begins and ends by asking the question, "Would my sons be proud of my actions?" What would they think about my conversations with opposing counsel? The questions I ask the witness at deposition? What I tell the judge at the hearing? They’re a constant presence in my life, even when I’m in the office and they’re back at home watching Barney.

Sometimes when I’m sitting in my office I can almost see my boys, sprawled on the carpet, their Spider Man coloring books open, crayons everywhere. Other times, when I’m typing on the computer, I can almost feel David’s breath on my neck, his fingers on my shoulder. I act as if they’re right there in my office, in the deposition room or in the courthouse. I deal with opposing counsel as if my boys are standing by my side, watching me. I write my motions and letters as if they’re peaking over my shoulder, asking me what I’m typing. Ask me about professionalism, about what it means to be a lawyer, and I’ll tell you about two little boys who idolize their father, who, with their eyes, push him to always be the man they see.

Each of us has someone who sees us for more than what we are. It may be a child, a spouse, a parent or a friend. We want to make them proud; we want to be the person they see. It is in striving to be that person that we pursue professionalism, true ethics. It’s more than following rules for the sake of following rules. It’s doing the right thing for the sake of those who matter. I try to do the right thing because my boys expect me to, and I do it to set an example for them, so that they’ll do the right thing too. Start looking deep into your loved ones’ eyes. You’ll find what it means to be a professional in those eyes, and you’ll find the inspiration to act like one.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

What Being a Lawyer Has Taught Me

The following are a few things I have learned during my short career as a civil defense attorney. As with most of my thoughts, they are in no particular order.

If you want to know a lawyer’s true character, see how he treats his secretary when he thinks no one else is looking. Better yet, how he treats the runner.

Professionalism is treating the cleaning staff that comes after hours the same way you treat the judge during motion calender.

You don’t need a pen and pad to write. Take advantage of the quiet times - the first few minutes after you wake up, when you’re in the shower, when you’re driving to work - to think through that memo or brief you’re stuck on or that legal argument that doesn’t quite work.

I would rather driver 3 ½ hours than go through airport security to catch a 45 minute flight.

I do my best writing while I’m driving.

Don’t let your standard of living increase every time your salary does. There’s nothing wrong with driving a car with over 100,000 miles or living in a working class neighborhood. Frugality gives you options in life.

But don’t be frugal when it comes to your shoes. You have to wear them 10 to 14 hours a day. How do you say good looking and comfortable? Two words - deer skin.

Learning from your mistakes is experience. Learning from others’ mistakes is wisdom.

Mentors are great. You get to learn from their mistakes.

Cross examination isn’t just for depositions or trial. You can learn a lot about what’s going on in your kids’ lives if you keep asking them questions.

I assume I don’t have much time on this earth. I live life like I won’t see my 40th birthday. I’m 36. It’s amazing the perspective you get when you think you have four years to live.

When you get to the hotel room, run the hot water and let the steam fill the bathroom. Hang the suits and shirts from your garment bag nearby. You’ll be surprised how many of the wrinkles will vanish.

The key to the practice of law is preparation. I would rather go up against an experienced lawyer who is lazy than an inexperienced one who works his butt off.

Never let another’s behavior dictate yours. No matter how obnoxious or insulting that other lawyer is, don’t respond in kind.

Take a long term view of things. It helps keep everything in perspective.

Always keep the client informed. Make sure the client knows what is happening in his case, what the problems are and what you are doing to address them. Listen to the client and seek his input when formulating a case strategy. Clients hate surprises. One surprise too many, and that client will look elsewhere for legal advice.

A client you speak with, write to and e-mail frequently is often very forgiving of the mistakes you make.

Your kids are always watching you. Live accordingly.

Work as if you’re kids are watching you.

Return messages promptly. In this age of Blackberries, Trios and other technology, the 24-hour-rule is an anachronism. Try 4 hours.

The attorney who was disbarred for misappropriating client funds started years ago by fudging on the little things. Don’t start down that path.

Learn how to use the postage machine. It’s only a matter of time until you’ll have to mail a letter after hours. While you’re at it, learn how to make two-sided copies, how to scan documents and how to send an overnight package.

Show me a lawyer who works hard and I will show you a lawyer, who sooner or later, is going to make it.

The Bible is right. You reap what you sow.

Instead of reading your kids bedtime stories, make them up yourself. Make your kids the protagonists. Have them fight ogres, slay dragons and seek buried treasure. They’ll ask for more and you’ll develop your story telling skills for trial.

Most emergencies are self-made.

Before sending anything out, proofread it at least twice. Three times is preferable.

And proofread outloud.

When you first get a file, call opposing counsel and introduce yourself. It’s harder for an attorney to be unprofessional if he’s had a pleasant conversation with opposing counsel.

Get to know opposing counsel. It’s harder to fight over trivial things if you’re asking opposing counsel about his daughter’s recital and he’s asking you about your son’s soccer game.

When the other side starts objecting during a deposition, you’ve tripped over something. When he starts making speaking objections, you’ve hit pay dirt. Keep digging.

Instant oatmeal is great. Pour a pack into a styrofoam cup, fill with hot water, and voila, breakfast at the office.

If you’re going to have breakfast at the office, make it a point to have breakfast with your kids on the weekend.

The first thing you do -- read the jury instructions. They will be your road map for the entire case. They tell you what the parties have to prove, what the defenses are and whether you stand a chance of winning or not.

If you want your clients to be happy, act like the waiter at your favorite restaurant. At my favorite restaurant, the waiter sits us at "our" table, makes sure we have plenty of bread, brings out the kids’ meals first and keeps our soda glasses filled. He knows our needs, meets them and does it all with a smile. Provide that quality of service to your clients and they’ll keeping coming back.

Funny thing. The food at that restaurant is good, but not great. We come back for the service.

You can’t win without a theme. Start developing the theme of your case early. Every interrogatory you propound, every motion you file and every deposition you take should be done to advance that theme. If you wait until two weeks before trial to develop your theme, it’s too late.

However, don’t be married to a theme. As your case develops, your theme must develop. During the course of litigation, you may pick up and drop a half a dozen themes on the way to finding one that is worth holding onto.

Have a theme for your life. What are you trying to accomplish? When it’s all said and done, and your career is over, what do you hope to have done with your life? Don’t settle for figuring out what your cases are really about. Figure out what you are really about.

Writing is all about nouns and verbs. Adverbs, adjectives and prepositions are overrated.

Actually, writing is all about verbs.

Extra words are the enemy. Eradicate them.

We all have short attention spans. When you write a motion, memo or letter, make your point up front, hit the highlights and stop writing.

Argue your motion out loud before a hearing. It’s one thing to see your arguments written down on paper. It’s quite another to listen to how they sound.

Put yourself in the shoes of the judge and opposing counsel. Anticipate the other side’s arguments and the judge’s likely questions. Thinking this way avoids surprises at hearings.

Get involved. Being a good lawyer entails so much more than working on your cases. If you want to grow and develop, join a voluntary bar association or two and volunteer your time. The relationships you will develop in these organizations will be priceless.

Make a list of your strengths and weaknesses as a lawyer. Pick one of your weaknesses and work on it this year. If you write poorly, read some books on writing, maybe take a class. If you are a poor public speaker, consider joining Toastmasters. Tackle the weaknesses, one at a time.

Also make a list of your goals for the next year. So many of us have a strategy when it comes to our cases, but many of us do not have one when it comes to our lives.

Know your opposing counsel. Look at his website, his jury verdicts and published opinions. Ask around about the type of lawyer he is.

Know your judge. Read the appellate opinions that have upheld his rulings and those that have overturned them. Know what his judicial philosophy is and most importantly, what his pet peeves are.

Prepare every case as if it’s going to trial, not as if it’s going to settle, even though most do.

Always keep a clean desk. You look like you are in control when you do, even if secretly, you are not.

Write your own obituary. Write out how you want others to remember you. Now spend a lifetime trying to live up to that description.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Your Job as a Senior Associate

You have made it this far. You are arguing motions and taking depositions and handling your own caseload. You may have even second-chaired a trial or two or more. The brass ring of partnership is within reach. So what do you need to do to receive your firm’s blessing and become a partner? Here are some thoughts.

Market on the firm’s behalf. The life blood of a firm is its clients. Without them, there are no files to work on. So it is your job to keep the firm’s current clients happy and to help the firm attract new ones. Firm marketing is not just the marketing department’s job or the senior partners’ - it is everybody’s job, particularly yours. One of the things a firm is looking for when deciding to make one of its associates a partner is whether he already has clients or has the potential of attracting them.

To show your firm you have the characteristics it is looking for, get involved in bar associations and business organizations and market your firm to the people you meet at the meetings, conferences and cocktail hours. If you see yourself only as someone who is at the firm to bill hours, that’s how the firm will perceive you. They will appreciate all the hours you bill, but they will never see you as one of them - as a potential rainmaker who deserves to be named and treated as a partner.

Seek out leadership positions in your organizations. As a junior associate, you should have become involved in local and regional bar associations. As a senior associate, it is time to reap the benefits of years of hard work and seek out leadership positions in these organizations. Try to get on their boards and rise in the ranks to become an officer, and ultimately the president of the organization. It is also time to go beyond a parochial perspective, and start getting involved in national organizations, whether it is the American Bar Association, or another national organization. Start laying the foundation in those national organizations to lead them within ten years.

Master your files. Now is the time to go beyond simply managing your files and start mastering them. Not only are you thinking of the big picture, not only are you thinking long term when it comes to your cases, but you are coming up with ways, clever, creative ways to win. You are developing and implementing strategies that get your clients the best results possible. To do this, study how the partners at your firms win the cases they shouldn’t and read everything you can about the success stories of other attorneys. These "war stories" bear precious nuggets that can show you how to elevate your game to the next level.

Act like a partner. If you want to leap from senior associate to partner, it is time to start acting like a partner. What does that mean, though? It means working to fulfill the firm’s goal. It means living the firm’s mission statement in everything you do. It means you start mentoring the younger attorneys at your firm just as you have been mentored over the last several years. It means thinking like a partner when it comes to firm resources, handling files, dealing with clients and working with the staff. The more you act like a partner the more you will be perceived as someone with partnership qualities. Of course acting like a partner does not mean you throw around your weight or take advantage of others at the firm. It means leading through serving others, it means tackling the tough issues and it means not shrinking from responsibility. Behave that way and your title will catch up with your attitude.

As a senior associate your main goal is to lay the final groundwork for becoming a partner. The brass ring is within reach. Strive to grab it.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Your Job as a Mid-Level Associate

After you have the first couple of years at the firm under your belt, you will leave the uncertainty and fear that accompany being a junior associate behind you and find yourself enveloped in the fear and uncertainty that accompany the new tasks and responsibilities that define a mid-level associate. For, as you will see, no sooner have you mastered the tasks and duties of a new attorney, you will be thrust into situations that are wholly unfamiliar. What to do?

Think big picture. As a mid-level associate, you are asked to tackle assignments that may affect the entire case. You are asked to look at the big picture, to see how your actions affect the case not only here and now, but months, possibly years, from now, when the case goes to trial and the jury weighs all the evidence.

Start thinking about partnership. It is never too early to start thinking about partnership. You need to investigate what it takes to become a partner at your firm and what you need to be doing now to get on the partnership track. What types of cases should you be working on? What extra-curricular activities should you be involved in? What marketing efforts should you be engaged in on behalf of the firm?

Accept bigger challenges. It is time to move from simply doing research and writing, motion calender hearings and record custodian depositions to meatier projects. If you are not getting those projects, ask for them. If you don’t get them, then the partners probably don’t think you are ready for them. Find out why and rectify whatever shortcomings the partners believe you have.

Start managing your own files. Move away from piece meal projects and start working on entire files. Your goal is to handle more than just a hearing or a deposition. Your goal is to handle an entire case. Study how the partners run their cases and read everything you can about how others handle their cases - from start to finish. Apply what you learn to the files you are working on and ask to run them yourselves.

Start managing your own caseload. Don’t settle with managing a case or two. Your goal is to handle your entire caseload. The more self reliant you are, the more free time you afford the partners at the firm to dedicate to other matters.

Focus on a specialty. It’s time to pick a practice area and start specializing. Choose an area and become an expert in it. If you master an area of the law, it will show through your work product and you will become the "go to" person at your firm whenever that type of case comes in through the door.

As you move out of your first years into your middle years, it is time to think about your long term career. Do you want to become a partner at your firm? If so, lay the foundation during those middle years by assuming more responsibility and tackling that responsibility with the right attitude.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

What Is Expected of Junior Associates

Law school and the bar exam are behind you, and your first job as a junior associate awaits. What is expected of you?

Exemplar work product. Whether you are asked to research an issue, draft an internal memo or write a motion to the court, your job is to make sure it is perfect. But perfection takes time, you say. The partners at the firm will think I’m slow and inefficient, you say. It’s a tempting trap to fall into - not to go that extra mile for fear that others will think you are not bright or are milking a file. Don’t fall into the trap. If you are billing by the hour, the partner can cut your time if need be (junior associates often get their time cut, even when they are "efficient"). If time is an issue, you may have to spend some late nights or early mornings to keep up with your workload.

But whatever you do, make sure that your work is the best it can be. Find that extra case, go down the next rabbit hole and the one after that and proofread what you wrote not just once, but three times. Partners remembers associates who do quality work, and deep down, they know that quality takes time. They’ll forgive inefficiency. They won’t forget poor quality.

Do the dirty work. No one likes doing the mundane, detail-oriented tasks, like going through boxes of documents, answering interrogatories or tracking down hard to find witnesses. Volunteer for these tasks and do them well, and you will get noticed.

Do it with a smile. Doing your job is not enough. You need to do it with the right attitude.

Learn a practice area inside and out. Now is the time to learn everything you can about your practice area. Read the Bar journal articles relevant to your practice. Attend local CLE seminars. Go online, find and read everything you can about what you do. The greater your mastery of an area of the law, the more you will be relied upon when those types of cases come through the door.

Get involved. It’s never too early to get involved in bar associations. Your best bet is the local county or a local specialty bar association. Most bar associations have young lawyer divisions who are eager to invite new members into their fold.

Get along with the staff. Even though you are an attorney, you are, in a way, junior to your very own secretary. She probably knows more about your job than you do, as do the paralegals and possibly even the file clerks. They can help you handle all the practical aspects of your job -how to set a hearing or deposition, how to send a proposed order to the court, etc.

Learning the rules. As a junior associate, your most important job is to learn the rules - the rules of your firm, of your partners, the other associates and the staff. Every organization and every person plays by its or his own rules. Law firms are no different. If you want to get along and fit in, figure out what those rules are.

As a junior associate, your job is to integrate yourself into firm life and do the best job on your assignments, whether they are a document review, a memo or a motion. The odds are that you will not get many of the exciting assignments, but if you do what is expected, your time will come.