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.