Saturday, February 21, 2009

What’s Your Long Range Plan?

As lawyers, we are obsessed by the short term - the answers to interrogatories due tomorrow, the deposition at the end of the week, the hearing next Tuesday. But what about the long term? I don’t mean next month or even next year. I am talking about the rest of your life. What legacy do you want to leave behind? To lead a fulfilling life as a lawyer means more than meeting the next deadline. It means having dreams and living for them. If you want to take control of your life instead of letting circumstances control you, consider the following:

Start at the end. When you retire, what do you hope to have accomplished? Let’s take it a step further. After you die, how do you want to be remembered? Do you want to be remembered for billing lots of hours? For the discovery you propounded? Or do you want to be remembered for something more? People remember those who touch their lives. Do you want to affect others, touch their hearts and shape their minds? Do you want to be known for giving back to the community? For your commitment to pro bono? For winning the big case, being a mentor or writing a novel? To be remembered, you have to live a life worth remembering.

Sit down with a pen and paper and write down how you want to be remembered and what you want to be remembered for. Don’t make it long. Try to reduce it to a note card, and tape it to your computer screen or affix it to the refrigerator door. These are going to be your life goals. Always keep them close by.

Dream big. Don’t be afraid to dream big. Where do you really want to be? Don ’t ask yourself where you expect to be or where life will likely take you. Take charge of your life and direct it toward something bigger than yourself.

Develop a plan. Once you know what you want to accomplish with your life, figure out how to get there. Write out a plan of action to reach your goals. I suggest keeping a journal. On the first page, write down how you want to be remembered. On the next several pages, write out what you plan to do to be remembered that way.

Set Benchmarks. Once you have set out a roadmap to get you to your destination, set benchmarks to meet along the way. Where do you want to be twenty years from now? Ten years? Five? Map out how far along the path you want to be when you reach given stages in your life.

Decide how to reach each benchmark. Once you have decided upon short and long term goals, decide what tasks you need to perform to reach each benchmark. If you want to leave a legacy as a leader, what steps do you need to take to assume leadership roles in bar and civic associations? Set manageable goals. Put them too far out of reach and you’re setting yourself up for failure. You’re writing the script of your life. To get that happy ending, the individual acts have to be thought out and achievable.

Check off benchmarks, and make adjustments when necessary. In your journal, keep a record of your accomplishments. Did you get elected to the board of a bar association? Did you get to first chair your first trial? Write it down. Periodically, review your accomplishments and compare them against the goals you wrote down. Did you fulfill them? Did you get close? Were the goals you set realistic? Were they goals you truly wanted to pursue? You may find that the goals you set may need some adjusting. If so, reevaluate your life plan and make changes where necessary.

To make this work, you have to work on your life goals every day. Once you have set down goals for yourself, you have to work every day at achieving them. Some days, you’ll only be able to do something small -make a few calls, maybe read a couple of articles on practice development. But large or small, pluck away at it every day. Don’t lose traction and don’t lose sight of what you’re trying to accomplish.

Live your dreams. At the end of the day, all the goals and dreams in the world don’t mean a whole lot if you don’t pursue them. Live your dreams. Mark off your accomplishments and keep moving forward. Dreams are something bigger than us. They’re more than learning how to draft a motion or ague a hearing. They’re about leaving a mark on this world, making it better, changing things and shaking them up. Figure out what you really want out of life. Have you figured it out? Good. Now go do it.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Keeping Perspective

When faced with a crisis or a tough decision, it is easy to lose your head and make a rash decision. The trick, as Kipling said, is to keep your head when all those about you are losing theirs. If you can keep your poise, when others cannot seem to keep theirs then you are showing the maturity and character you need to deal with the stress and surprises that litigation brings. Lucky for you, poise is something you can learn.

Challenge yourself. People are afraid to fail so they avoid the tough challenges. Problem with that, though, is that there is nothing surer in life than the fact that you will face tough challenges, and if you have spent a lifetime running away from them you may fall apart when you are staring one in the eye. So, as with everything else, practice makes perfect. Search out the tough cases, the challenging legal issues, the depositions no one wants to take and tackle them all. Sure, you will fall on your face from time to time, much more than if you had played it safe. But it is in the falling that you learn that you can get up again. And it is in the falling that you realize that the falling is not so bad after all.

Make a list of what is important. Sit down, take a pen and a paper and write down the three most important things in your life, that without you would be less of a person for. Your spouse? Your kids? Your faith? Is that deposition coming up on Tuesday on that list? How about the trial at the end of the month? When you are faced with a challenge at work, compare that to what really matters to you. It will help you keep perspective.

Seek help. If you are overwhelmed, do not hesitate to seek advice from others at your firm about how best to tackle a problem. There is probably someone at the office who has tackled the same problem and can tell you how you can do it too. A trick to keeping perspective is to seek the advice of those who already have it.

Take a breath. When faced with a “crisis,” take a breath, take a step back and think through your reaction. You will get through this and chances are you will get through it better if you have a game plan instead of shooting from the hip.

Have an exit strategy. When there is a fire you need to know where the emergency exits are. When a problem lands on your desk you need to figure out how to put the fire out. Sometimes you only have a few minutes to make a decision, sometimes a few hours and sometimes the luxury of days or weeks. Size up how much time you have to react, and plan an exit strategy to extricate your client from the problem at hand.

As lawyers, we are faced with problems all the time. The key is keeping perspective and staying in control so that you can control the problem and not let it control you.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Writing to a Partner

As an associate, you will receive your share of writing assignments from the partners at your firm. Before you turn in your next assignment, consider the following advice:

Know the assignment. After a partner gives you an assignment, repeat it back to him to make sure you took it down right. Even if you did take it down right, the partner, after hearing his own words read back to him, may realize he gave you the wrong assignment. The “repeat back to me” assignment may be intimidating, but is preferable than coming back several hours later with the answer to the wrong question.

Don’t reinvent the wheel. Another associate may have addressed the very issue you were asked to research. Another associate may have written a letter to a client very similar to the one you were asked to draft. It’s worthwhile to find out whether what you are about to write has already been written. It will both save you time and help you get it right.

Think it through. You are billing the client for your time and the clock is running. It’s tempting to just jump in and start writing, thinking you’ll save the client some time and money. The fact is, though, writing this way is very inefficient. Running off to write something without thinking it through first may result in a lot effort expended but very little accomplished. Before you write, think through what you’re going to write – either in your head or on a pad – plan it out – and then start writing. The extra time spent on the front end will result in time saved in the back end.

Know your audience. Some partners like detailed memos. Some don’t. Some like memos that look like the ones they wrote when they were associates. Some could care less. Talk to other associates. Ask for memos they wrote for the partner and that the partner loved. Study those memos, not for the content but for the style, and emulate it. If you give others what they want, they will be grateful.

Make it easy to read. Partners are busy. Use plain English, get to the point and support it in as few words as possible. Consider using bullet points or charts to state the facts or make your arguments. The less time and effort the partner has to spend reading your memo, the more time and effort they will have for everything else.

There are no rough drafts. What you submit to the partner has to be perfect. Proofread it, proofread it, and proofread it again. You do not turn in rough drafts. Assume the partner will turn it over to the client and draft it accordingly.

Follow up. After you turn in your assignment, follow up with the partner. Does she need anything else? Additional research? Does she want you to revise your work? Follow up and make sure everything was done to her satisfaction.

Good writing takes time. Take the time to learn the assignment, to tailor your research, to answer the right questions and answer then in a style and manner the partner wants. Do this consistently, and your writing will get noticed.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Pros and Cons of Being a Litigator

Before I became a litigator, I had a lot of preconceived notions of what litigators do. Some were accurate. Most were not. Before going down the road of litigation, you need to evaluate both the pros and cons.

First, the bad news.

Litigation is adversarial. If you hate conflict, don’t expect to enjoy litigation. Your client is either suing someone or being sued. There is no love loss here. The parties often expect their attorneys to be aggressive, sometimes overly so. Expect opposing counsel to come gunning for you.

Litigation is driven by deadlines. There are deadlines for everything. Answers to interrogatories, requests for production and requests for admission. Expert reports and expert depositions. Discovery cutoffs and looming trial dates. Multiply this by 20 to 50 cases, and it’s a surprise you’re doing anything but extinguishing the next fire. Attorneys who are in short supply of case management skills may find these deadlines dictating their practices to them.

Litigation is not like television. Some of us went to law school, in part, because of popular lawyer shows - L.A. Law, The Practice or Law & Order to name a few. It looked pretty cool on television, didn’t it? But art does not always imitate life. The real practice of law is not glamorous. Most of your time is not trying high profile cases. More like it, most of your time is spent in front of your computer, doing research, drafting memos and responding to e-mails. In short, litigation may not live up to your expectations.

You never stop litigating. If you’re conscientious, it’s hard to leave the work at the office. At home, you wonder if you should have asked that extra question in deposition. When you’re out, you worry about whether the motion was filed. You even find that the conversations with your loved ones have turned into cross examinations. It’s hard to leave it at the office.

You will never know enough. It takes time to learn the practice well enough to feel comfortable in your own skin as a litigator. For some it takes 5 years. Others, 10 years. Some never reach a comfort level. It is a long process. You don’t become a litigator overnight.

A lot depends on instinct, and instinct takes time. A lot that is asked of us as litigators requires quick decisions - quick decisions at depositions, at hearings and at trials, to name a few. To make those decisions, we need to rely on our instincts, and instincts take time to develop. As a young litigator, you will second guess yourself a great deal. Only experience puts a stop to it.

Now, the good news.

There’s never a dull moment. Yes there is research to do and memos to write, but litigation is fast-paced and you will get swept up in it. You will plan how to beat the other side and you will use all your wits and heart and energy to see that plan through. All along, surprises and challenges will pop up and you will have to deal with them. It can be a bit terrifying but it certainly isn’t boring.

It’s like a good chess match. The other side wants to win. So do you. He’s making all sorts of moves to take your king, while you defend it, simultaneously trying to take his. For every move there’s a counter move, and nothing is as it seems. You like a good chess match? You’ve come to the right place.

Sometimes, it is like television. Yes, you spend an awful amount of time in front of the computer. Your office is your home away from home. But sometimes you get to venture out. Sometimes you destroy that expert in deposition. Sometimes you knock it out of the park at the hearing. And sometimes, yes sometimes, you actually get to try a case, and, get this, win. Sometimes you are Michael Kuzak from L.A. Law.

It improves with age. Like fine wine, being a lawyer improves with age. The longer you practice, the more your skills improve, the more law you learn and the more comfortable you become with the practice of law. If you get past the fear and uncertainty of the first few years, you will enjoy the fruits of your hard work.

When it comes to litigation, there are good things and there are bad things. If you can learn to enjoy the good and not linger on the bad, you may just make a career of it.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Building a Better Lawyer

As a young lawyer, you owe it to yourself to become a better lawyer - to constantly improve your skills -whether its your writing, your research, taking a deposition or arguing a motion. With an ever more competitive work force, getting by is a sure way of falling behind. To stay ahead of the curve, consider the following suggestions to build yourself into a better lawyer.

Evaluate your strengths and weaknesses. Start by being honest with yourself. Sit down with a pad and pen, and write down a list of your strengths and a list of your weaknesses. Don’t be too hard on yourself, and don’t be too easy.

Address the weaknesses. Pick one or two of the weaknesses, and commit to working on them for the next year. Set realistic goals on how you can overcome your weaknesses and commit to achieving those goals. Is your writing just average? Set realistic goals on improving it, such as reading grammar and style books, taking a writing course or getting an article published.

Build on the strengths. Pick one or two of your strengths, and commit to making them even better. If you want to set yourself apart from other lawyers, don’t just be a strong writer, be a great writer. Don’t just be good at taking depositions, be great at taking them. Consider taking CLE classes, reading books and thinking outside the box for other opportunities.

Find a role model and emulate him. To get better, you have to find better attorneys and do what they do. Is there an attorney you admire at your firm? Does he take killer depositions? Is she a great rainmaker? Study them. What do they do that you’re not doing? Just as importantly, what don’t they do, that you’re doing? Whatever they’re doing, they’re doing something right. Figure out what that is and copy it.

Read others’ transcripts. Read the hearing and deposition transcripts of other attorneys. What do they tell the judge? How do they argue their clients’ case? What questions do they ask witnesses at depositions? What questions don’t they ask? If you want to improve your oral advocacy skills, you need to read how others do it. If you want to take a better depositions, read how others take theirs. And don’t limit yourself to reading the transcripts of just the top partners. Read the transcripts of as many attorneys you can get your hands on. Study the different styles. You can learn something from every attorney in your office. If nothing else, you can learn how not to do things and what approaches are not particularly effective.

Read others’ writings. In addition to reading others’ transcripts, read others’ writing. Read other attorneys’ briefs, memos, motions, letters to clients and other such documents. Study the attorneys’ style, word choice, the arguments they make, how they make them and ask yourself if the writing convinces you, moves you, changes you. See what works and what doesn’t, and strive to emulate what you feel works and avoid what doesn’t.

Study others’ resumes. Visit the web sites of other firms, pull up the profiles of their attorneys and study their resumes. See what they’ve accomplished. What organizations do they belong to? What have they’ve written? Where have they spoken? Attorneys’ resumes show you what goals they have achieved. Looking at others’ resumes makes you think what goals you want to set for yourself and some ideas of how to achieve them. Perhaps you can get ideas of publications that accept articles from attorneys, seminars to speak at or organizations to join.

Keep going to school. You’re never too old to learn something new. Don’t take the minimum number of CLE credits you have to take. Consider attending an extra seminar or two during the year. If you, as so many of us, don’t have the time to attend more seminars, consider listening to CLE tapes in your car.

Set goals and strive for them. Ask yourself the question, "Where do I want to be five years from now?" Do I want to be at the same firm? Do I want to be a partner at the firm? Do I want to be considered an expert in a particular field of law? Ask yourself where you want to be, devise a plan on how to get there and execute it.

Never be satisfied. Never rest. Never be complacent. Never be satisfied with what you’ve accomplished. As you stand still, others are running past you. They’re getting better as you stay the same. Eventually, they will pass you and others will pass you, and your great skills, by comparison, won’t be so great anymore. Strive for more.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Making the Most of Your Mentor

So you’re lucky enough to have a mentor. Now what? He’s no good to you if he’s a mentor in name only. Consider the following to build a lasting, meaningful relationship with him.

Meet regularly. Make the effort to meet with your mentor on a regular basis. It’s easy for your mentor to get too busy. It’s easy for you to get too busy. Schedule regular meetings to discuss the cases you’re handling and the issues you’re tackling. Consider meeting once a month, or more, for breakfast or lunch to get together and talk.

Communicate regularly. Aside from pursuing face-to-face meetings, call and email your mentor. Email is a great way to get much-needed advice. You can send your question when you find the time and your mentor can answer it when he finds the time.

Network together. Ask your mentor to accompany you to local bar functions where, due to his years of practice, he likely will know several attendees to whom he can introduce you. With your mentor at your side, you never have to go to a bar function again and feel like you don’t know a single person in the room.

Ask your mentor the hard questions. Your mentor is worth his weight in salt because he likely can answer your hard questions. Questions about ethical dilemmas, case strategies and office politics. Ask him. His experiences makes him equipped to answer them.

Seek his wisdom. Your mentor has a lot to teach. Not only about the law and the practice, but about family, about right and wrong and about the choices life presents us. Seek out his perspective and beliefs about the big things. You may learn something more important than how to take a deposition.

Find out his life story. We are a composite of our experiences. Learn your mentor’s experiences - the life he’s lived, the challenges he’s faced and what he’s done to get to where he is. Learning what challenges he faced and how he faced them can give you insight on how to face your own.

"I’m with him." Your mentor can give you access - to corporate and bar functions, to sitting on committees and boards and to meeting the people you want to meet. For example, if you’re looking to get involved in an organization, possibly pursue a leadership position, your mentor can help you get your foot in the door.

Ask for a favor. Sometimes you’ll find yourself in a tight spot and you’ll need someone to help you out. Maybe you’re not happy at your job? He may be able to recommend you to a friend who is looking for an associate.

Repay the favor. Just as you have needs, so does your mentor. Repay the favor and help your mentor with his needs. Does he need help with an article he’s writing? With a fundraiser his firm is sponsoring? With a legal issue he’s struggling with? Your mentor will appreciate your help and will be more willing to help you the next time you ask.

Start mentoring others. As a young attorney, you may think you have not amassed enough experiences to mentor someone else. You’re wrong. If you’re a mid- level associate, mentor an entry level associate. If you’re an entry level associate, mentor a law school, college or even high school student who has a whole host of questions.

A mentor is only good if he is, well, a mentor. That takes time and commitment, on his part and on yours. Prod your mentor to do his part and do yours by helping him when he needs a hand. Because in the end, mentorship, like any relationship, is a two-way street.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

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.