Congratulations to the women of Kuwait!

This is off the ordinary topic, but today cannot be overlooked.  As readers likely know, women voted today in Kuwait’s elections for the first time in a national poll.  Without delving into the politics (or the socio-religious implications of the politics, or any combination thereof), this is a red-letter day for women in Kuwait and perhaps more generally for women in the Gulf and Arab world.  The spirit of change is clearly expressed by the offer extended by Jazeera Airways, a Kuwaiti carrier, for free flights to Kuwait for women, to ensure that as many Kuwaiti women as possible get the opportunity to cast a vote.  We may argue about what freedom is, how any society may or should express it, but it’s remarkable to see when all members of a society get a voice.

As an American woman, it’s hard to imagine not having the right to vote.  But, for the sake of interest, I offer the following selected dates:

1869:  unmarried female householders permitted to vote in Britain’s local elections
1893:  New Zealand grants equal voting rights to women
1894:  married women permitted to vote in local (but not national) British elections
1906:  Finland grants women equal voting rights
1907:  Norwegian women permitted to stand for election
1913:  Norway adopts full woman suffrage
1920:  U.S. adopts woman suffrage nationwide
1971:  Switzerland grants women the right to vote

The Woman Suffrage International Timeline is a fascinating read.  It’s surprising to note how early some women were permitted to vote, and how long women were required to wait in some “advanced” societies.

Did you know that U.S. women were first granted full voting rights by the Constitution of Wyoming Territory in 1869?  Indeed, Wyoming promised to forgo statehood rather than give up woman suffrage, though it was granted statehood in 1890 and termed the Equality State.

I grew up learning about Wyoming’s suffrage history because my mother wanted to research the story.  She did so for more than twenty years, and an overview of her findings were printed in the Centennial edition of the Wyoming Annals:  Sidney Howell Fleming, “Solving the Jigsaw Puzzle: One Suffrage Story at a Time,” Annals of Wyoming 62, no. 1 (1990): 23-72.  But there’s much more to the story.  Although I write with a daughter’s pride, the history deserves to be more widely known than it currently is.  I invite anyone interested in this topic to contact me for further discussion… It’s a breathtaking conversation.

What training should law firms offer? Networking 101.

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the “soft” skills on which law firms can profitably offer training to summer associates.  Networking was on that list, and it’s probably my top pick for the hands-down most important soft skill.  I received a number of questions about what I mean by teaching networking.  So, here’s a brief overview of the networking seminar that I’ve developed.  The seminar of course goes more deeply into the how and where of networking, as well as focusing on self-presentation skills… But this is the foundational material.

Networking for Career Advancement

Few “soft” skills receive as much attention in law school as networking.  The reason is simple: networking will have a huge influence on your career success, so attention to why, where, and how you network will pay immediate rewards.  The good news is that you network every day, whether you recognize it or not.  You have networking opportunities every time you come into contact with another person, so your focus should be on how to make the best use of those opportunities.

Why should you network?  Networking is critical for client development.  Most people who have a legal need will ask their colleagues and friends for lawyer recommendations – and that’s true whether the need is personal (i.e. will and estate matters) or business (i.e. commercial litigation).  People hire, give work to, and buy from other people they know, like, and trust.  That’s what networking accomplishes.

Networking is not the process of going somewhere armed with business cards, ready to pounce on the first person you encounter to get the business.  That’s the kind of behavior that gives networking a bad name and leads nice people everywhere to dread it.  Instead, networking is relationship-building.  It’s the process by which you meet someone, learn about him, his work, his interests, his family, what he needs and desires, and so on.  It’s developing an acquaintanceship that may yield benefits someday for you or someone you know.  Sometimes the benefits are immediate: occasionally, networking will reveal an immediate need that you can meet or will lead you toward an as-yet undiscovered opportunity.  More frequently, it’s simply the opening stages of a relationship that will mature over time.

Where should you network?  Anywhere and everywhere.  Networking can be structured.  Most commonly for lawyers, networking occurs at bar association meetings and firm- or law school-sponsored social events.  As a law student, look forward and think of networking as something you can do for your own professional and career development starting now.  Networking opportunities come up every day, every time you meet someone.  When you meet someone at the gym, that’s a chance for networking.  Attending a party is a networking opportunity.  Even attending your child’s little league game can be an occasion for networking.

You can and should network whenever you meet someone, but you should be networking to build relationships and not to get a job or get business or to get anything else.  The best networking occurs when the person with whom you’re networking has no idea that you are networking.  It’s social behavior at its best. 

How should you network?  This is a broad topic that deserves a post of its own.  But the bottom line is that you should seek to get to know other people, to look for opportunities to make yourself useful to them, to be other-focused.  There are two reasons for this.  First, and most importantly, this is an honorable way to conduct oneself in any setting.  Second, people like to talk about themselves and their business, but few people like to listen deeply.  You will distinguish yourself by focusing on the person with whom you’re in conversation.  She will appreciate your attention, and she’ll especially appreciate anything you can do to help her.  One terrific way to follow up on a networking contact is to send an article that would be of interest to your contact.  It shows that you were paying attention, and it’ll demonstrate your desire to help that person.  Your contact will be flattered by the attention, and he will reciprocate because he will be curious about the person who is so nice and so interested in him and his business or his life. 

One book that I highly recommend for summer reading is Bob Burg’s Endless Referrals.  Although the book is written primarily for sales professionals, everyone can benefit from the other-focused networking skills that Burg teaches.

Follow-up — it isn’t easy being green.

Apparently I’m not the only one who found the comments to the WSJ Law School: Does It “Keep Your Options Open”? blog post notable.  The WSJ law blog has posted a response from Professor Stracher himself, in which he provides the admirable advice:

But if your only reason for going to law school is because you want to be rich, or because you are confused and someone has told you it will “keep your options open” STOP RIGHT THERE, and read on.

This is a worthwhile addendum and clarification to Professor Stracher’s previous comments… And yet, the comments roll on.  It will be interesting to watch.

And, just as a matter of interest amid the law school bashing going on here, anyone who missed Friday’s news might be interested to note that the ABA has conceded that it breached a 1996 consent decree prohibiting it from misusing the law school accreditation process.

We’re as green as Kermit the frog.

Lawyers who regret attending law school are green with envy of those who made other decisions, while some aspiring law students are green in their naive approach to what it means to be a law school graduate.  The grass is greener on the other side… And let’s not forget the green cash that magically appears (or is that disappears??) upon graduation from law school.

There’s a fascinating post on the WSJ law blog, entitled Law School: Does It “Keep Your Options Open”?  The question is whether, because of the cost of law school tuition, it’s a cost-effective strategy to attend law school to keep open a variety of options, rather than to become a lawyer.  The answer appears to be a resounding no:

There’s something wrong with a system that makes a whole lot of people pay a whole lot of money for jobs that are not worth it, or that have no future. If we wanted to be honest, we would inform students that law school doesn’t keep their options open. Instead, we should say that if they work hard and do well, they can become lawyers.

So says Cameron Stracher in a WSJ article (available online only with a subscription).  A New York Law School professor and author of Double Billing: A Young Lawyer’s Tale of Greed, Sex, Lies, and the Pursuit of a Swivel Chair, Professor Stracher is also a blogger who asks whether one man can change his life by making dinner with his family at least 5 nights a week for a solid year.  (It looks as if the answer to that question is yes, but perhaps we should wait for the “great book, and a great movie, then a great bathtowel and beach chair, and finally a great sequel” to follow.)

The publisher’s synopsis of Double Billing says, “As the author vividly describes, law school may teach you how to think like a lawyer, but it’s being an associate that teaches you how to behave like one. Or misbehave. Stracher doesn’t mince words about the duplicitous behavior and flagrant practices of many lawyers in his firm, which is one of the premier partnerships in America.”  Notwithstanding Professor Stracher’s current employment, that’s a rather unflattering view of law school and practice.  In candor, I haven’t read the book (yet, though it’s on my constantly growing list), but it could be either an accurate portrayal or a Swiftian satire or possibly a combination of the two.  So, perhaps the gist of Professor Stracher’s article is not surprising.

What is surprising about the WSJ blog is the comments.  A few aspiring law students provide the tenor voice begging for guidance while the percussion section provides a drumbeat of danger warnings: tuition is expensive, law doesn’t pay well enough for the vast majority of graduates, the work is dull and oppressive, and business school (presumably investment banking) is the route to true wealth.  The composition is rounded out with a staccato of reeds who ask when lawyers came to be such whiners.


It’s certainly true that law school is now very expensive, even at most state school.  My own anecdotal evidence suggests that a substantial number of college students go to law school because they don’t know what else to do.  (I was a college senior in a 1990 English class when the professor asked how many of us were headed for law school.  A forest of hands went up.  Then he asked how many of us had any intention of going to law school before junior year, and mine was the only hand still up.)  And frankly, I do believe that those who end up in law school for lack of anything better to do have a much more difficult road to professional success (certainly in terms of personal satisfaction and enjoyment) than those who actually want to be lawyers.  I think the group next likely to suffer the consequences of an uninformed decision to attend law school are those who lack a realistic understanding of what a legal practice is all about.

If you’re headed to law school, ask yourself why.  If your answer is some version of “Eh, what else would I do?” start thinking now.  You can save yourself a lot of pain and tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of dollars if you clarify your reasons and your goals now.  If your answer is that you watched a lot of Law and Order (or Ally McBeal or any other tv show) and you know you’ll enjoy practice, do some informational interviewing now.  You may save yourself lots of money and heartache as well.  Personally, I’m in favor of an entrance and exit exam for law school: “Why are you entering law school” and “Why are you a lawyer”?  A cogent answer to these questions may be the best indicator for a meaningful career.

Does that mean it’s all gloom and despair if you went to law school and didn’t particularly want to be a lawyer?  Or if you’re practicing now and you’ve lost the passion — or perhaps never had it?  No.  It may take some self-examination (and the answer may be challenging, such as to change your area of practice or to leave the law altogether) but just about anyone can find a viable path in the law or a productive use for a law degree.  (For some resources, check the books on my Resource page.)

The road from law school is not paved with gold bricks.  It’s a lot of hard work, and the reward cannot be viewed solely as a matter of finances for the great majority of graduates.  As Professor Stracher says, hard work in law school promises only that a student can become a lawyer, and even that isn’t guaranteed.

If you have a vision for your practice (a reason for your decision to become a lawyer), be sure that vision is somehow integrated into your day-to-day life.  If you don’t, work to develop one.  The surest route to become permanently seasick-green is to finish law school, to be a lawyer, to be swept into a career that you didn’t want or intend and to see no way out.  If that describes you… Please, stop and think.  Get a partner to help your strategize what is and isn’t working.  It is possible to be a happy lawyer or to be otherwise happily employed with a law degree.

But, really…. Check out those WSJ blog comments.

Preparing to launch a job search

This post is primarily directed toward those of you who have been in practice for 3-5 years, though the general ideas may be useful for a broader spectrum.

So, it’s summer, and you’ve decided that it’s time for you to move on from your current position.  Popular wisdom suggests that summer is not a good time to begin actively searching for a new job.  As with so much popular wisdom, there’s some truth to that, but the situation will vary dramatically from person to person — so evaluate your own situation before you decide whether to wait until fall.  Consider factors such as the force of the reason prompting you to leave where you are now (ask questions such as: how unhappy are you?  do you have a sense that you may be asked to leave?  is business slowing to the point that your position may no longer be sustainable?  how are you faring, in terms of your work performance, workload, likeability, etc., in comparison with your contemporaries?), the state of business generally in your practice area, hiring trends in your geographic area, etc.  This is a great place to brainstorm with someone else, because it’s easy to see only one perspective when you really need a 360 degree view.

If you do decide to wait until fall, you can certainly begin your preparations now.  And you should.  Here are some ideas on steps that will move you forward before you’re ready for an official launch.

  1. Get your resume in order.  (Of course, you know that.)  Especially if you’re more senior, think about whether you should reorder your resume to highlight your work experience or to bring attention to other items.  This is not the time to accept the same old, same old without giving it serious thought first.
  2. Prepare a table of your work experience.  List every client for whom you’ve worked and what you did, in as much detail as you can, and list the opposing party where relevant.  Then, prepare a second table with the same information but omitting the client and opposing party names.  This does two things for you.  First, it sets you up to provide the conflict information that your new employer will (or should) request.  And second, it provides a handy reference for you and quite probably a useful document to provide to potential employers to demonstrate the breadth of your experience.  (Obviously, you provide the table without identifying information.)
  3. Network.  I hope you have a good network in place, not only of people in other firms or other practice settings, but also friends from undergrad and law school, bar activities, non-legal social activities, etc.  Re-connect with these people.  Summer is a particularly nice time to do that.  Perhaps you want to drop hints that you may be moving on, perhaps not.  But be attentive and ask questions that will not only generate good conversation (lawyers love tot alk about themselves and their work) but also will serve you well as you launch your search.
  4. Spend some time thinking about what kind of practice you want, what practice setting you want, how you’d like your work life to look.  What has worked well in your current position?  What hasn’t?  If you’re in a large firm, how would you feel about moving to a small firm?  What would it mean to you to lose the ready resources you likely have access to now?  If you’re in a small firm, what would it be like for you to move to a larger firm?  Do you want to consider moving in-house?  What about government work?  Do you want to stay in a strictly legal role?  This is the time to vision your next position.  There are plenty of books to help with these questions.  Use them and work this.  If you don’t know what you’re looking for, you’re at the mercy of what’s presented to you.  Not a great approach.
  5. Consider whether to talk with a recruiter.  This can be a good way to get a feel for hiring trends, for how marketable you may be, etc.  You will also get a good sense for the likelihood that working with a recruiter will benefit you.  The more senior you are, the less likely a recruiter will be able to present you as a candidate unless you have a book of business.  Ask around for who the good recruiters are in your area.  A recruiter can be an incredibly helpful source of information, sounding board, and partner.  Make sure you choose someone who is ethical and well-respected.  And consider whether to approach some of the recruiters who represent the candidate rather than the employer.

These steps will help you move forward before you launch your search.  So, if you’ve decided to leave but you aren’t ready to take action, be sure you’re laying the groundwork.

Change your mind, change your practice(s).

We cannot solve problems with the same level of consciousness that created them.
— Albert Einstein

This is one of my favorite quotes.  It is, at least for me, a truism that I must change my perspective, my way of thinking, my approach to a problem before I can possibly solve the problem.  Another great quote on this topic is, If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.  I understand that many 12-step programs use that statement to explain “insanity” in the context of the program.

What does the mean in the context of practicing law?  Plenty.  With regard to career advancement, if you’ve been taking the approach of being a reliable, industrious, somewhat reserved workerbee and you notice that you keep getting passed over for the big cases you’d like to work on, the answer probably isn’t to do more of the same and hope for a different result.  If you’re constantly running ragged, wondering how you can connect with your spouse and/or children in an hour or so at the beginning or end of each day, it’s a safe bet that you won’t shift your actions until and unless you shift your perspective.  Want a new job?  You’ll have to pull some time and attention away from what you’re doing now to make the time to launch a job search.  And if you believe that client development is something that you’ll begin “later,” you likely won’t recognize client development opportunities that may come your way — because chance favors the prepared mind.

To make a change requires stepping outside the situation long enough to identify a problem and then to make a mental shift that will help in solving that problem.  How the shift happens is individual to each person.  But creating and then using a shift relies on several basic principles.

1.  The shift must be authentic.  If your partner, your supervisor, your doctor, or anybody else tells you to make a change and you don’t buy into it, there will be no shift.  Remember the punchline to the joke asking how many psychiatrists are needed to change a lightbulb?  One, but the lightbulb has to really, really want to change.  No psychiatry here, but if you don’t really, really want to change (or at least really, really believe you need to change), chances are good that you’ll keep on doing the same old, same old.

2.  Maintaining the shift means keeping it in the forefront of your mind.  If you’re trying to make a habit of arranging lunch with one potential client a week, put that on your calendar where you see it daily.  If you’re trying to incorporate some stretching into your day so you don’t feel like you’re 90 years old when you hobble away from your desk at the end of the day, set an alarm that go off periodically.  If you’re wanting to improve your efficiency in the office, use time management tools that keep your eye on efficiency.  Holding onto a shift in perspective means keeping it in front of you visually and/or aurally, because it’s often all too easy to slide back to the old, familiar approach.

3.  Reaping the benefit of the shift requires action.  While it’s important to recognize a problem or a situation that can be improved, that’s empty if it’s a recognition without follow-through.  If you want more balance in your life, take some action, even if it’s small.  Claiming a 15-minute walk for yourself in the afternoon will not only provide some balance but also will remind you that you’re seeking balance.  (Put it in your calendar and keep that commitment, too!)

4.  It’s easier to maintain a shift, and to design and implement the actions that the shift calls for, with support.  Tell your spouse that you need to set aside 3 hours on Saturday morning to catch up on work.  Tell your secretary that you plan to eat lunch away from your desk one day this week.  Work with a coach to provide accountability as you set out on your client development plans.  If you decide you’re going to make a change, you probably have about a 40% chance of succeeding.  If you decide to make a change, tell someone what you’re going to do, and commit to doing it by a certain deadline, you have about a 95% chance of succeeding.

What shift do you need to improve your practice and your life?

Success and the summer associate: what’s a law firm to do?

A lawyer dies and goes to heaven. St. Peter isn’t really sure what to do with the guy because they never get lawyers in heaven. So he makes a deal with him that they’ll let him spend a week in hell and then one in heaven and then decide where he’d like to spend eternity.

So, the lawyer goes to hell. Gets off the elevator and there are all his friends. They’re having a great time. The Devil is a nice guy, his minor minions are carting around drinks. They play poker, go out and golf, basically live high on the hog for a week.

Then he gets on the elevator and winds up in heaven. He spends a week there and it’s fine, but not real exciting – floating by on a cloud, playing a harp, etc.

So at the end of the week he comes to St. Peter and says “You know I never thought I’d say this, but Hell was just a lot more fun. I’d like to go to Hell.”

So he gets back on the elevator and the doors open in Hell and now there are lakes of fire, and his friends are covered in boils, and the Devil is a jerk, and the demons are sticking him with pitchforks. And he says “I don’t get it, when I visited before you were so nice and we had a great time. What happened?”

And the Devil replies “Ah, then we were recruiting you. Now you work for us.”

This often-circulated joke always makes its guest appearance about this time of the year.  There’s a perception, which has some truth behind it, that big-firm summer associates don’t actually work much; instead, they’re wooed over fine dining and fun outings, presented with interesting work assignments, and welcomed with open arms by everyone at the firm…. And when they return as first-year associates, everything has changed and they’re working heavy hours on dull assignments with senior lawyers who don’t know them and, really, don’t care to get to know them.  (Fortunately, it isn’t quite like that.)

On the flip side, many firms are getting serious about summer associate training programs. Some firms offer a shortened, but otherwise almost identical (i.e., “Oh no, not this same case study… not the same questions… not the same presentation!”) training program to summer associates and first years.  That suggests, probably correctly, that firms believe that substantive summer training is unlikely to be useful when summer associates return for full-time employment more than a year later.  So, what training can a law firm provide that will benefit students and, in the long run, the firm itself?

  • Soft skills training, especially communications skills.  Students will use writing skills and oral communications skills between the summer associate and the full-time associate period.  They’ll be able to incoprorate and build on the training they receive in this area.
  • Networking skills.  Students will meet a lot of people during the summer associate period.  If law firms teach them how to approach and follow up with these people, they’ll help students develop the beginnings of a professional network.  Again, student will be able to incorporate and build on these skills during their third year of law school and while in bar review classes.  By developing these skills, the student will enrich his or her network, and that will sow the seeds for client development in future years.  That’s money well spent.
  • Staff relations skills.  This is something often overlooked in training.  Many law students have never worked with a secretary before.  Almost none have worked with paralegals.  And this is an area that’s often challenging for young associates.  Presenting a program on the boundaries of delegable work (i.e. what’s using a paralegal’s skills and what’s facilitating the unauthorized practice of law?), on how to partner well with a secretary (including issues like how a 25-year old associate can “supervise” and learn from a 55-year old secretary), and on how the firm’s support and administrative staff works will pay huge dividends.
  • Legal research skills.  Although students may use these skills less during their final year of school than some of the previously-discussed skills (except, perhaps, in moot court and practical litigation classes), these skills will pay off immediately in helping the summer associate deliver higher quality work.
  • Professionalism.  It’s much discussed, but professionalism is a fuzzy topic to a lot of law students.  It shouldn’t be, and it’s a great topic for a lunch-and-learn.

And what if you’re a summer associate and your firm isn’t providing this kind of training?  Ask for it.  It doesn’t have to be formal for you to benefit.  Find a senior associate or a partner and ask what she wishes she’d known when she was a summer associate, then ask how she could have learned it.  This is a small but important step toward being the CEO of your career.

The other side of work/life balance

Generally, when anyone discusses work/life balance in the context of lawyering, the assumption is that the focus is on the “life” part of the balance, because the “work” part comes with the turf.  That’s usually quite true.  But today, I’d like to examine the “work” part of the equation.

“[The law] is a jealous mistress, and requires a long and constant courtship. It is not to be won by trifling favors, but by lavish homage.”  The Value and Importance of Legal Studies – Joseph Story, (1779-1845)

This quote is well-known for a reason: it’s true.  The law isn’t a 40-hour a week job (at least, not for most practicing attorneys).  I’m sure scores of writers have observed that our work is called a legal “practice” for a reason: we become good lawyers through practice, through trial and error (and, one hopes, correction), and through mentorship.

Many lawyers will tell you that their quickest professional growth occurred when they were working on a case or a deal that required hours upon hours, when their focus was riveted on work, when they saw sunrise and sunset from their office windows.  Periods like that reinforce the truth that we have to work in the law to get skilled at it.  There are no shortcuts.

Aside from those periods that occur in almost every lawyer’s life when life becomes work, there’s a balance to be found between work and non-work, and the price for getting out of balance is equally high regardless of which way the imbalance tips.  To succeed in the law, it’s necessary to put in plenty of billable time.

On an average day, most people’s billing limit is somewhere in the range of 10 hours — and that’s for more senior attorneys who are able to maximize the billiable time yield from time spent in the office.  (Brand new lawyers may have a ratio of nonbillable hours to billable hour of as much as 3:1.)  Some increase in that limit is possible, whether it’s by ensuring a good night’s rest before every working day, by eating mostly lean proteins and fruits and vegetables, or by training the body through regular exercise — all tactics to increase energy.  Exceeding your limitations on hours worked on a routine basis will result in reduced efficiency, so it’s a losing proposition long-term.  The answers is to learn to be efficient and energetic in the office, so you can make the most of your hours there.

How’s your balance today?

New lawyer skill: Commit to setting aside time for yourself.

Although I’ve titled this as a new lawyer skill, it’s applicable to all of us.  One of the challenges in creating work/life balance lies in the fact that it doesn’t just happen.  It must be created.  And, once created, it must be protected.  Zealously.

One of the fastest routes to balance is to block out some time for yourself every single week.  I’d suggest at least an hour two or three times a week, but everyone has a personal minimum that needs to be maintained.  What’s this personal time for?  Anything other than work.  Remember that gym membership?  This is when you can actually use it.  Or get a massage, visit a museum, browse the bookstore, or have lunch with a friend.  This is [a part of] the time that will make you a well-rounded, interesting human being rather than a worker-bee “human doing.”

The tricky part lies in protecting this time.  So often, we make commitments to ourselves and break them when something else comes up.  The key to getting the benefit of these self-appointments is to regard them as being as important as an appointment you make with someone else.  Yes, sometimes you will have to cancel them.  But if you find yourself canceling on more than a rare occasion, I’d suggest that you aren’t really making an appointment; rather, you’re making a plan that will fold if anything better comes up, or if someone else asks you to do something work related.  Getting the benefit requires making the commitment.

Pull out your calendar, your PDA, whatever you use to keep track of your time and schedule some time for yourself.  RIGHT NOW.  Waiting until you know what demands may be coming your way won’t make it easier to do, it’ll make it less likely.  Although spending time away from your work-related commitments may feel strange in the beginning, commit to trying it for 6 weeks and see what happens.  I predict you’ll feel more relaxed and find renewed energy for your work.

The client perspective

I am party to some litigation right now.  I am a client.  Although my case is completely outside the scope of the practice I maintained in patent litigation, I am learning to appreciate what it means to be a client.  Because these lessons would have served me very well when I was in practice, I share them with you today.

1.     Communication is key.  Clients want and need to be kept informed of what’s going on.  If I were to go back into practice, I would make it a habit to dictate a short note describing any case developments to each client on at least a biweekly basis, more frequently if the case is quite active.  And I would be certain to return calls within 24 hours, if only to let the caller know that their message had been received and that I would get back to them with a substantive response on a later date.

Example:  I called a lawyer (we’ll call her A) to whom I was referred by another lawyer I know personally and respect deeply.  Because she was on another line, I left her a voicemail, briefly outlining what was going on — including conflict information — and advising A that I would like to meet with her on a particular date to provide more information and discuss what alternatives I might have.  More than 24 hours later, no one from A’s office has returned my call.  Can you imagine what the rate of communication would probably be if I hired A?  I can.  And I’ve called someone else.

2.     It’s a subset of communication, but clients want to know when there’s a problem.  Whether it’s something directly relevant to the case or whether it’s a potential problem you’ve identified while working on the matter, let your client know about it as soon as possible, especially if you can propose a solution.

3.     Be honest.  Although many lawyers pride themselves on saying that they can do anything a client wants — to paraphrase one firm’s slogan, “We don’t tell you whether something can be done, we tell you how.”  That’s all well and good, but clients want honest advice.  The fact that something can be done doesn’t necessarily mean it should be done, and that’s something I as a client want to know.

4.     Lawyers know that procrastination sometimes pays off in litigation; if there’s a likelihood that a deadline will be extended for a brief, we sometimes prefer to wait to start writing until we know the date is firm.  This gives clients ulcers if they find out about it.  And, on those occasions when we guess wrong and the date isn’t extended, it reduces the amount of time a client can spend reviewing the filing.  This makes for angry clients with ulcers.  Communicate!  And allow adequate time for client review.

5.     Underpromise and overdeliver.  I’ve blogged on this topic elsewhere in another context, but it’s important.  If you promise a client you’ll deliver a memo, set a reasonable deadline for yourself and send it before that deadline expires.  Even if you’ve already given an oral report on the content of the memo, the client will be waiting for the promised document.  Don’t disappoint him.

6.      Be aware of the context in which you’re providing advice.  If you’re advising a company, know about its business and its officers.  If you’re advising a person, consider her overall situation.  No matter exists in a vacuum, and clients appreciate lawyers who not only recognize that, but who also acknowledge it.

7.     Don’t make excuses.  If there’s a problem, if you’ve failed to communicate as often or as clearly as the client expects, apologize.  Frankly, the excuse doesn’t matter.  Make it right.

I’ve learned many more lessons as a client, but these are the bedrock principles.  How well are you serving your clients, from their perspective?