Saturday, December 27, 2008

Why Do I Need a Mentor?

Everybody talks about mentoring these days. Firms have mentoring programs. Bar associations have them. And they come in all forms, including e-mentoring. But do they work? Why, you ask, do you need a mentor? The better question is how you have survived without one. What are the benefits of having a mentor? The following are a few.

You get to learn from others’ mistakes. As a young lawyer, you’re going to make your share of mistakes. Sometimes, the fear of making a mistake can be paralyzing. How do you avoid making them? Talk to a mentor who has made them and learn from his mistakes. In the practice of law, there are many potholes to fall into. Your mentor can help you steer clear of them.

Mentors take the mystery out of it. Countless times each day you will be called upon to make decisions. Sometimes, you’ll know what to do. Many times, you won’t. Usually, your mentor will. Mentors can take the mystery out of what to do and what not to do.

You get advice that works. Advice is only good if it works. Mentors can tell you what they did when confronted with the same problem. They have tested their theories, and they can tell you first hand, from their own experiences, what works and what does not.

You know someone has your back. Being a lawyer can be lonely. Sometimes you feel it’s you against the world - against the opposing party, against opposing counsel and sometimes against your own client. It’s good to have someone looking out for you, watching your back.

You learn the rules of the game. There are a lot of rules that come with being a lawyer, most unwritten. How do you find out what these rules are and how to play by them? You learn from someone who already knows them. A mentor can teach you the rules regarding such things as how to argue a motion or how to deal with opposing counsel, and he can help you comply with these rules rather than accidentally trip over them.

You have a sounding board. As young lawyers, we have a lot of questions that need to be answered. We have conflicts to resolve, problems to face and issues to address. We have ideas, sometimes based on fact, sometimes based purely on instinct, on how to confront these issues. Instead of simply trying out our hypotheses, to see if they are right or wrong, it is worthwhile to sound them off someone who has confronted the same or similar issues and can listen to your approaches, help you weigh the pros and cons and assist you in making thoughtful, rationed decisions.

You get a backstage pass. Mentors pull back the curtain and take you where the action happens. They take you to meetings with clients, conference calls to discuss strategy and access to their own thinking and reasoning. Mentors give you access to their legal worlds, where the big decision makers make the big decisions, and you’re their to witness it, experience it, learn from it.

You get connected. Mentors can help you get plugged into bar and trade associations. They can introduce you to people, get you involved in committees and assist you in your ascendancy to power.

You learn about the Firm. You want to know how your firm works -how it really works? Who does what, who expects what, what makes the partners happy and what their pet peeves are? Your mentor, someone who has been at the firm and who has seen first hand what kind of lawyers stay and which ones go, and of those who stay, which ones prosper, can provide you great insight on how to get along in the firm.

You learn how to network. To develop clients, you must develop relationships with potential clients. Before you can develop a relationship with someone, you have to meet him. How do you do that? Do you go to a trade group or bar meeting and simply walk around, stick your hand out and say hello to whomever you see? A much better approach is to go with a mentor, someone who knows that organization and the people involved. Someone who can introduce you to others and that can help you get your foot in the door.

These are just a few reasons to get a mentor. Mentors help you cut through the red tape, the self-doubt and your innumerable questions. Take the time to find a mentor and start working on a relationship that will affect, for the better, the rest of your career.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Graduation Speech

The following is the speech I delivered to the Honors College at Florida International University at their recent graduation ceremony:

I hold in my hand a blank envelope. It was on an envelope similar to this one where much of what we know as FIU was conceived. 22 years ago, Modesto "Mitch" Maidique became President of a small South Florida university with about 6,000 students. He had never been the president of a university or college. In fact, he had no experience in university administration. He had taught at Stanford and was a successful entrepreneur. But this was a new challenge, with new obstacles. He needed a new paradigm. He did not go out in search of one. He created his own.

On the back of an envelope like this he wrote out his dream for FIU. Unlike his namesake, it was not a modest one. It was not simply adding a department here or improving student activities there. It was so much more than that. On the back of an Eastern Airlines envelope, he laid out his vision for the university, listing his goals:

• transforming the school into a research powerhouse
• reaching $100 million in research grants
• securing an endowment of $100 million
• seeing 100 doctoral students graduate
• creating a law school
• creating a medical school
• creating an architectural school
• creating a 1-A football team

Those big ideas crowded the back of a regular sized envelope. It took 22 years to make them a reality. This year, he finished checking the last items off his list. And having accomplished everything he set out to do at a university that now boasts close to 40,000 students, he informed us all that he was stepping down. Having fulfilled his dream, his job was finished. And it all started with some notes on the back of an envelope.

Never underestimate the power of ideas. They have the power to transform and to inspire. They have the power to uplift and to change. They have the power to get you out of bed in the morning and face the challenges of a new day. Our ideas, our vision, our dreams – they bring out the best in us, the best in others. They are immortal. Unlike the flesh, they do not die. And without them? As the Book of Proverbs says, where there is no vision, the people perish.
Most, if not all of us, have had big dreams. It is almost as if it is ingrained in our DNA, as if we were programmed to think big. Many of you had big dreams as kids, and in high school and now in college. Maybe it was to run for office or start a charity or write a book. Perhaps it was to start a business or travel the world. I bet your dream was something big. Something that went beyond the mundane and the everyday. How many of you dream of simply going to work from 9 to 5, going home, watching television, and doing it again the following day? How many of you dream of middle management? Of your own cubicle? Of simply getting by? We were meant for so much more.

But sadly, many of us will never pursue our dreams. Many of us won’t even dare utter them out loud, for fear of ridicule, for fear of failure. Well, I am here to tell you it is time to let go of your fears, to let go of what is holding you back. For President Maidique, it started with the back of an envelope. For you, it starts with a blank business card.

Reach under your chairs and you will find 6 blank business cards and a pen. I have a blank card and pen of my own up here. Grab one of the cards and the pen. What is your dream? Your vision? What have you always wanted to do? If there is one thing you could accomplish during your lifetime, what would it be? Write it down on the card. I’m going to do the same. Find a cure for a rare disease? Write it down. Bring fresh drinking water to countries where it is in short supply? Write it down. Pen the great American novel? Write it down. Whatever it is, no matter how big or small, permit yourself to reduce it to writing. Now you have it in black and white. Carry this card in your wallet or purse until you accomplish what is on the back of it. Depending on the dream, it may take months, even years - possibly 22 as in the case of President Maidique.
There, you’ve taken the first step. At Stephen Covey says, you have started with the end in mind. You have given yourself permission to chase your dreams.

And the other five cards, you ask? In the next few days or weeks, hand them out to family or friends, and ask them to do what you just did. Ask them to reduce their dreams to writing. People who want to think big, who have vision, help others think big too.

So, you have reduced your dream to writing. Now what? Develop a game plan on getting from here to there. A roadmap if you will. Odds are others have come before you with similar dreams. Have made similar pursuits. Study what they have done. Research online. Go to the library. Visit the bookstore. Search out and speak with those who have pursued similar goals and aspirations. How did the local author get his book published? How did the local politician get elected? You may be surprised how eager they will be to speak to you. Ask them how they achieved their dreams.

Then sit down, and write your business plan. Spell out, in concrete terms, what tasks you need to perform. And provide yourself deadlines for accomplishing those tasks. If you were starting a business, you would do nothing less. When I prepare for trial as a lawyer, I sit down and write out my trial strategy. Plan it out, task by task. Certain tasks may only take a few weeks or months to accomplish. Some may take years. It does not have to be a fancy, spiral bound plan. The back of an envelope may do. Or a paper napkin for that matter. This speech was planned out on a diner’s paper napkin over a plate of fajitas.

Once you have your plan, it is time to execute. Everyday, dedicate some time to achieving your dream. Some days you will have an hour or more. Some days, you will only have a few minutes. But everyday, do something. Make the most of the time you have. Driving to and from work. Waiting in line at the department store. Brushing your teeth in the morning. Instead of listening to music, or sports radio, or daydreaming, think about the end in mind and how to get there. What is the next concrete thing you can do? Think about what it is and how to complete that task. And write all your ideas down. They’ll come to you when you least expect them. My best advice - always keep a pen handy.

And be prepared to change your plan. Life is not static. Circumstances change. The best laid plans, as they say. Be ready to take detours along the way.

And most importantly, be accountable. Do not shy away from telling others what is on that card. Share it with someone you trust, you love, someone who wants to see you accomplish your wildest dreams, and have that person hold you accountable. Meet with that person once a month and let them know of your progress. Have them serve as a sounding board for unexpected obstacles and issues that arise along the way and share in the joy as you check off the tasks on your plan. Consider keeping a journal, recording your progress.

In fact, one or more of you may have the dream of making the dreams of others come true. For you, I have a suggestion. You may want to create a website or message board or another online forum by which all of you in this room can post what you wrote down on your cards and encourage, and help and hold each other accountable. No one is an island. We all need each other. The bigger the dream, the more help we can use. And if none of you are interested in creating an online forum, I would encourage your professors and administrators to do so. A dream board. Have you ever heard of something that sounds more "honors college" than that?

I also encourage all of you to push forward. To chase what is most important to you. And realize that it is not the destination, but the journey which is most important. There will be challenges. There will be failures. There will be setbacks. Accept them. Embrace them. They mold you, change you, make you who you are. To get through life playing it safe, not stumbling here and there - well, that isn’t much of a life at all. On your death bed, you won’t regret the risks you took. You’ll regret the ones you did not.

And let me remind you that you are in good company. Many FIU graduates have sat where you have. Have had dreams of their own. And they have pursued their dreams and in so doing have made things better in our community, in our state, in our nation, and beyond our borders. They have gone on to become leaders in politics and business. Doctors, and lawyers and teachers. Inventors, creators and thinkers. They have shaped policies and ideas and ways of thinking, and in so doing, have left their indelible mark. They, like you, believed they could make big things happen, and pursued their dreams as if their very lives depended on it. And they, like you, started with an idea.

Let me finish with one final thought. I don’t believe in coincidences. I don’t believe it was a coincidence that I matriculated at FIU 18 years ago. I don’t think it was a coincidence that I was in the inaugural class of the Honors Program, as it was referred to then. 100 of us. And I don’t think it was a coincidence that a student named Ana Correa was in my section. She was bright, and charming and captivating. And I knew that day, the first day I met her, I would marry her. I told my best friend at the time, who was in my introduction to psychology class, that I would. He, as you probably do now, thought I was crazy.

Well, I asked her out. And she turned me down. And I asked her again. And again, she turned me down. Well, the third time was the charm. But I wasn’t satisfied simply dating her. I wanted to propose. Here I was, 19, and she was 18, students in the Honors programs, dating a mere two months, when I asked her to marry me. She said no. I asked again. Again, the answer was no. You’re probably seeing a pattern by now. Well, I asked her a third time, on her birthday, December 28, 1990. She said yes. We got married 3 ½ years later after graduation. We celebrated our 14th anniversary this past June. I was never suppose to come to FIU. My plan was to return to Chicago, where I grew up, and attend college there. Of course, if I had, I doubt I would ever have met Ana. But instead of returning home to Chicago, I stayed in Miami, and came here instead. And it is the best decision I ever made. Not only did I get a great education but I found my kindred spirit. I’m living proof ladies and gentlemen that there are no coincidences.

I also don’t believe it is a coincidence that I am here today, speaking to you. And I don’t think it is a coincidence that you are out in the audience. I suspect I had this rare and flattering opportunity to speak to you as much to help you pursue your dreams as to pursue my own. And I suspect many, if not most of you, were searching for a few words of encouragement, perhaps even permission, to chase down your vision. Here is what my card says - write a novel. A dream that I have picked up and put down for these past 6 years. Maybe giving a speech on pursuing dreams is the kick in the pants that I have been looking for. Maybe hearing my speech is the jump start you’ve been looking for.

As you head out of this ceremony, hold onto that card. Keep it on you at all times. Years from now, it will be yellowed, and dog eared, and wrinkled. Some of the words may be smudged or blurred. You may get new wallets, new purses, new credit cards, new family photos. But keep the card. If you hold onto it, read it regularly and pursue the dream written on it, I can’t promise you will accomplish what’s written on it, but I can promise your life will be all the better for doing so. That I can promise you.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Starting Your Own Blawg

The ABA recently revealed its second annual list of 100 top legal blogs - or "blawgs." With the dominance of the internet and the public’s demand for instant information, blawgs are becoming more sought after for the latest, most relevant and most practical legal information. You may be the next person to create one of these sought after blawgs.

Before you jump into the blogosphere, count the cost. Those who rely on blogs are looking for the most up to date information. They are expecting regular posts. A monthly post will not do. Be prepared to do posts at least once a week. Preferably daily. Keeping that in mind, you have to ask yourself if you will have the time to juggle work, family and your blog.
I’m celebrating the first anniversary of my blog Advice for the Young Lawyer,, where I post an article every weekend on topics and issues relevant to young litigators. Even just a post a week takes time and planning and effort. Have a game plan for your blog in terms of coming up with ideas and finding the time to write about those ideas.

If you conclude you will have the time and energy to keep your blog current, find a niche for that blog. Maybe it’s on jury selection, or on a federal statute or on a fledgling or novel area of the law. Once you have a topic in mind, search to see if someone has beat you to the punch. If so, evaluate whether you want to pick a different theme for your blog or create a different slant on an old theme. When I started my young lawyers blog, I did not come across anything quite like it, so I felt I was filling a need. If there had been several blogs like mine, I may have had a different approach to my own blog.

Once you want to create a blog, create a business plan for you and your firm. What will be the theme for the blog? How many posts will you make? How long will they be? How many contributors will there be? Will this be a joint venture with others at your firm? What will the cost be? There are companies that will create and maintain blogs for you. Of course, you can create and maintain yours for free through Google, for example. Who is your target audience? How will you inform them of your new blog? What will attract them to your blog? Write all this out and approach your firm about your idea. You will need their approval and their support.

Once you have counted the cost, devised a plan and have procured your firm’s approval, it is time to create a blog. My blog is supported through Blogger, sponsored by Google. It is a free service which helps you create a blog and provides you easy step-by-step advice on how to do so, including how to design it and how to make posts. If you want to use this free service, you can go to Other services exist out there. Take the time to do a search on the internet for different blogging services and evaluate which best serves your needs and your wallet.

Once you go through the process and have your blog up and running, you need to let others know about it. I would suggest the following. Spend about a month with your blog, making posts, showing it to a few good friends, and getting some feedback. What works on the blog? What does not? What changes do you need to make? Once you are happy with the layout, with your photo, your personal information, the entries and posts and everything else, you are ready to promote it. Devise a list of e-mail contacts -personal and business contacts - and send them an e-mail notifying them of the blog and providing them a link to your blog, encouraging them to make it one of their favorites. Include the blog address on your business card and notify new contacts about it. Regularly marketing your blog is integral to its long term success and popularity.

Blogging of blawging has become very popular, with more lawyers jumping in the blogosphere every day. If you want to start your own blog, you may find it is easier than you thought. Take the time to plan it out and spend the time to contribute to it regularly. The best of luck.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Improving Your Firm’s Writing

What do others think about your firm? To answer that question, you must ask yourself, "What do others think about my firm’s writing?" What do judges think when your motions come across their desks? What do clients think when they read your letters and memos? Do they think how clear the writing is? How concise? How simple it is without being simplistic? Or do they think it is muddled and confusing. Do they pick out the grammatical gaffes and wonder whether they reflect not only shortcomings in your writing, but reflect a more systemic problem?

Face it. Everything your firm sends out, every motion, letter, memo and even e-mail, reflects not only upon the author but upon the firm. We are constantly being sized up, and the measure of our talents is often what we write. That being the case, we owe it to ourselves to improve not only our own writing, but the writing of each and every attorney at our firm. Nothing less will do.
But how do you get your lawyers to write better? Many think that writing is an innate talent. Either you are a good writer or you’re not, and no amount of effort can change that. Nothing could be further from the truth. Good writers are not born. They generally evolve from mediocrity. They spend hours learning the rules of good writing and hours more applying those rules to their writing. And along the way they realize that writing is a life long process and that no matter how good their writing becomes, it could always be better.

So your first job is to convince your attorneys that their writing can stand improvement. This will be hard news to break. Most lawyers take pride in their writing, some so much that they view any revisions to their work as an affront to their very person. Tell them that their writing is less than perfect and prepare for bruised egos. However, tell them you must.

It is best to institute a firm-wide writing program where attendance is mandatory by all attorneys - partners, senior associates and junior associates alike. By making everyone participate no one feels that he is being singled out for his poor writing. Furthermore, those who believe their writing is beyond reproach can feel, and will probably openly state, that their participation is wholly unnecessary. But they will be in attendance, and they, ironically, will have the most to learn from the experience.

At the first meeting, preferably a lunch meeting (free food does wonders for attendance), explain the rationale for the writing boot camp:

The writing course will improve work product. Better writing translates into a better work product, which clients will appreciate and possibly reward with additional business.

The writing course will improve thinking. Clear writing promotes clear thinking. If you can express yourself in a clear, direct manner, you will be better able to articulate your thoughts and process them, making you a more effective advocate.

The writing course will Improve efficiency. If everyone writes better, less time is spent revising documents. How much time is spent by senior associates and partners rewriting junior and mid level associate writing? If everyone’ s writing improves, less time is spent trying to make it better.

The writing course will standardize everyone’s writing style. Creating a writing program provides you an opportunity to teach your lawyers the same style rules and in so doing, makes their writing more alike. By making everyone ’s writing similar, your readers come to recognize your firm’s writing, as opposing to an individual ’s style. Furthermore, it makes revisions easier when everyone agrees what writing should look like and how it should be revised.

Once you’ve convinced your lawyers of the benefits of a writing program you have to implement one. What does a successful writing program entail? The following are some suggestions.

Discuss good writing. Explain to the attorneys what good writing is and set out three or four principles you want your lawyers to learn, emulate and live by. I suggest you want your lawyers to:
(1) write plain English
(2) say more with fewer words
(3) write in an active, direct manner
If your lawyers accomplish these three goals their writing will be as good as or better than the competition.

Purchase textbooks. Good writing starts with good grammar. Purchase a grammar book for adults, such as "Whose Grammar Book is This Anyway," written by a lawyer. And who could do without Strunk & White’s " Elements of Style." In addition to purchasing 2 to 3 grammar books for your students, purchase 1 or 2 books on style. Create a "writing" reading list, and have your attorneys read a book a month.

Discuss the textbooks. Meet once a month to discuss the book’s highlights and what the attorneys have learned from reading them. You will be amazed how many grammar and style rules you’ve forgotten, and how many you never learned in the first place.

Develop a firm style. One of the overarching goals is to create a firm "voice" or "style" to which all the attorneys subscribe too. To do so, develop a list of writing rules which most, if not all the attorneys agree should be followed. Many of these rules will be derived from the writing books you will ask your attorneys to read. Once you have all the rules, write them down and circulate them. These will be the firm’s commandments which everyone will be encouraged to follow.

Get Published. Encourage your lawyers to submit articles to newsletters, newspapers and magazines. The process of getting an article published is a great way to develop one’s writing skills. Consider making it mandatory to have all your attorneys publish at least one article a year.

Good writing is crucial to your firm’s success. Develop a plan to help your attorneys write better and get your attorneys behind it. As their writing improves, your firm’s profile will improve too and you’ll be left wondering why you waited so long to institute a writing program.