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a curmudgeon's perspective
One way us old guys comfort ourselves about aging is by proving our continuing usefulness to the firm through mentoring new lawyers. While we may think that pearls of wisdom just drip from our lips, I wonder: Do we really have anything useful to contribute? Today’s young lawyers are looking for an edge in a legal world that is vastly different and far more competitive than when we started.
The Business End of Practice
It goes without saying that we know more law than Hamurabi and have been around as long as Methuselah, but where is this wisdom we can provide? It surely isn’t in our tools or methods—even legal basics we cut our teeth on are “old school” now. But I’ll tell you what we do know that doesn’t change: How to handle people and—assuming you’re still in a viable firm—how the business end of things works. So, why not apply your ability to provoke fruitful discussion (that also comes with seniority, by the way) and lay some of your thoughts on the kids. In the end, they may not admit your universal superiority—they may not even agree with you—but you will have prompted a discussion that will lead to learning.
Here are a few of the pearls of wisdom I use from time to time. You’re welcome to borrow them.
- People come to lawyers to get solutions. They have a problem that needs to be fixed. Listen and make sure you understand their problem before you go off doing your legal stuff. Some problems don’t require a legal hammer, just common sense. Remember that they are buying a solution. Don’t make the mistake a young lawyer in our firm made when he explained that what the firm sold was billable hours. (Groan.)
- If you do a good job for your clients at a good price, they’ll come back or send their friends. If you can’t help them, you shouldn’t take their money. They won’t be happy, you won’t feel good, and the karma will be very bad indeed, otherwise.
- The practice of law is a business as well as a profession. If you don’t take care of business, you won’t be able to practice law. Surviving as a business can require as much of your time as practicing law. It’s this simple: You need to earn more money than you spend. (You say you let other people take care of that stuff? Well, maybe that will work for you. But I recommend you buy some good walking shoes, because I see a pavement in your future.)
- People hire lawyers not law firms. All your fancy-pants advertising, branding and market segmentation won’t get you past a crappy personality, poor communication skills, failure to respond to calls or any of the other reasons people fire their lawyers. Clients are going to assess your commitment to their cause and the chemistry of your relationship regardless of how spiffy your website is.
- Listen. I know they train you in law school to know the answers and know them before anyone else. This isn’t law school. It’s likely to be the wrong answer if you speak too quickly. Besides, if you leave a silent space in the conversation, your client is more likely to fill it with something useful that you didn’t expect. See number four above: People like that you listen to them.
I know this sounds simple, but these are important topics worthy of discussion and exploration as a group—and you have a responsibility to lead and contribute to that. You’ve seen the bad cases and bad clients. You’ve fretted over the friend that never paid for your time. And you’ve been surprised by the hidden costs that nearly sank the whole darn thing. These young lawyers need to hear your stories and to tell some of their own. It’s the best way to learn.
Oh, and you may think lawyers in big firms are insulated from a lot of this, but you’re wrong. True, lawyers in smaller firms or solo practice are a little closer to the pavement. But if you are in a big firm and get this stuff wrong, you could be the first one out on the pavement.
Otto Sorts has been reading law since before Martindale met Hubbell. Of Counsel at a large corporate firm that prefers to remain anonymous, Otto is a respected attorney and champion of the grand tradition of the law. He is, however, suspicious of “new-fangled” management ideas and anyone who calls the profession the legal “industry.” When he gets really cranky about something he blogs at Attorney at Work.