Pump up your writing!

My major (on my first trip through undergrad) was in English, with an emphasis on creative writing.  When I asked my favorite writing professor for a recommendation to law school, she literally covered her face with her hands and started shaking her head.  After determining that she had slid into despair and was not, as I feared, refusing to support my applications, I asked why she was so appalled.  After all, I reminded her, I’d be writing all the time!  But my professor believed that lawyers tend to lose the craft of writing and get mired in pointless Latin, highfalutin’ language, and eye-glazing prose.  I realized, after I’d been in practice for just a short time, that she’s too often right.  We get wrapped up in the law and lose the story.

Brian Clark of copyblogger has written a terrific post titled Ten Timeless Persuasive Writing Techniques.  Some of you may be thinking that it’s odd to refer to a post from a blog devoted to “copywriting tips for online marketing success” to speak to legal writing, but consider a few of Clark’s suggestions and note their application to the law:

Consistency.  “Use this in your writing by getting the reader to agree with something up front that most people would have a hard time disagreeing with. Then rigorously make your case, with plenty of supporting evidence, all while relating your ultimate point back to the opening scenario that’s already been accepted.”

Address objections.  “If you present your case and someone is left thinking ‘yeah, but…’, well, you’ve lost. . . Addressing all the potential objections of at least the majority of your readers can be tough, but if you really know your subject the arguments against you should be fairly obvious.”

Storytelling.  “Stories allow people to persuade themselves, and that’s what it’s really all about. You might say that we never convince anyone of anything-we simply help others independently decide that we’re right. Do everything you can to tell better stories, and you’ll find that you are a terribly persuasive person.”

Every lawyer writes persuasively, and I encourage you to visit this post and to consider how copywriting techniques may help to pump up your writing.  More broadly… From what other fields might you draw in developing your professional skills?  It’s a great question to ponder.

Simplicity: where personal and professional meet

One of the rules I keep in mind when writing  is that good writing is clear, crisp, and simple.  The same rule often applies more generally as well.  As Einstein said, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

When it comes to managing one’s personal life while maintaining a practice, “simple” is the name of the game.  (And this is a good time to note a favorite distinction: “simple” is not a synonym for “easy.”)  For instance, it’s much less stressful to prepare a simple dinner — say, a salad with various store-bought toppings and dressing — than it is to prepare a meal that requires numerous ingredients.  Likewise, I find that dressing in the morning is much more simple when my clothes are in reasonably good order and my closet not overstuffed.  Aspects of life that are more complicated than necessary drain energy.

And the same is true in the office.  If my files are a mess and I can’t find anything, I’ll have to stop and launch a search everytime I need a document, and that takes a tremendous amount of energy away from the task at hand.  Having a cluttered email box pulls at me because when I check for new messages, my eye is drawn to all of the messages I need to answer or otherwise handle, and slick filing system that put the messages out of sight make my life even more complicated.

Simplicity is especially important when personal and professional life intersect or affect one another.  One of my favorite questions to clients working on work/life integration issues is, “What can you stop doing?”  Releasing an activity that isn’t productive (in pleasure or in business) is often one of the most simple and most impactful steps to take.

Unfortunately, though, simplifying isn’t always an easy thing to do.  An overcrowded, disorganized closet may take hours or even days to get straightened.  So, I was delighted to find Simple Living Simplified: 10 Things You Can Do Today to Simplify Your Life on the zenhabits blog.  Ideas include:

— making a short list of top priorities (similar to an Absolute Yes list, which I previously discussed in this post);

— simplifying the “to do” list by identifying tasks that can be “eliminated, delegated, automated, outsourced or ignored;” and

— focusing on one task at a time.

And if 10 simplification steps aren’t enough, check the expanded list of the Simple Living Manifesto: 72 Ideas to Simplify Your Life.  Any list of 72 items feels unwieldy to me, but it’s worth a skim.

Tuesday shorts 9/25/07

Anne Reed of Deliberations hosted this week’s Blawg Review #127.  It’s a cleverly arranged Blawg Review, using the “17 best tips for voir dire” as an organizing theme.  Reading this round will not only teach you about voir dire (with tips such as #4 watch for points of view, #8 watch for the quiet ones, and #17 remember the majesty) but also introduce you to a wide range of interesting and insightful posts for the week.  Nicely done!

Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal featured an article titled Hard Case: Job Market Wanes for U.S. Lawyers, which describes the disconnect between the top law school graduates who secure jobs in large firms with starting salaries around $160K versus the rest of the graduates, some of whom may struggle to make it on $20-35 an hour document review positions while carrying as much as $100K in law school laws.  Although the article starts with the puzzling observation that “A law degree isn’t necessarily a license to print money these days,” (was it ever?) the situation described is familiar to many recent grads and those who work with them.  Don’t miss the charts that illustrate graphically just how the dollars are — and aren’t — moving.

And today’s inspirational moment comes courtesy of Good Morning America.  Last week, I happened to catch a part of a broadcast and saw Randy Pausch, a 46-year old professor at Carnegie Mellon who has terminal cancer and delivered his final lecture titled How to Live Your Childhood Dreams.  I listened with half an ear at first, but his comments grabbed me, particularly when I heard his tone — clear, funny, not a drop of self-pity.  I believe the interview wrapped up, as the website story does, with Dr. Pausch’s lesson:

You know, life is a gift,” Pausch told Sawyer. “Again, it sounds trite, but if you wait long enough, other people will show you their good side. If there’s anything I’ve [learned] that is absolutely true. Sometimes it takes a lot longer than you might like. But the onus is on you to keep the hope and keep waiting.

The full lecture is split into 4 parts.  Watch it.  You’ll be glad you did.

How to speak as a new associate

One of my favorite parts of The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law (previously reviewed here) is the section debunking the myth that a new lawyer is a potted plant.  It’s easy for a new lawyer to get tripped up by the knowledge that he lacks experience and the desire not to appear arrogant.  So, what’s a new associate to do while learning the lay of the land?

1.  Don’t be silent.  A great many new lawyers will be too young to remember the “potted plant” reference.  When Oliver North was testifying in connection with the Iran Contra hearings, the questioning attorney rebuked North’s counsel Brendan Sullivan for his frequent objections, and Sullivan replied, “What am I, a potted plant? I’m here as a lawyer. That’s my job.”

The moral of this story for new lawyers is, of course, that your job requires you to speak up and to participate in whatever is going on.  A new lawyer is unlikely to have the deciding vote on much of anything, but you’re a fresh brain and new eyes, and your perspective is valuable.  Don’t be arrogant, but do be confident in your ability to contribute.

Some lawyers who are reticent to speak up will need to break out of their comfort zone or to find another method to share their thoughts.  Staying silent is career suicide.  If this is a stumbling block for you, get help from a mentor or coach.  Now.

2.  Ask questions, wisely.  A new lawyer isn’t expected to know everything about the facts of a case, or the controlling law, or the client, or… You get the idea.  However, it’s important to use good judgment in deciding what questions to ask and what you need to discover on your own.  Initiative is a common measuring stick for attorney development, and it’s unwise to get a reputation for asking questions without forethought.  So, ask questions, but make sure you put thought into your inquiry.

3.  Don’t preface questions/comments.  Especially when new and uncomfortable, lawyers may have a tendency to preface their questions or comments with a disclaimer, such as:  “I may be wrong, but…” or “This might be a stupid question, but…” or “Do you think maybe it would be better to…”  These prefaces remove all power from the question or comment.  Of course, judgment comes into play here too, because it may be quite wise to say something like, “I realize the law is unsettled in this area, but it seems to me that…”  Don’t let yourself off the hook in a preface, but do signal appropriate uncertainty.

4.  Manage your tone and breath.  Some lawyers, especially new lawyers, get nervous and their voice shakes a bit or they stumble over words.  And sometimes a lawyer will end a suggestion with a tonal question mark.  Be attentive to your speech pattern.  End statements with a downward tone and questions with an upward tone, and don’t reverse the two.  Explore breath control for presentations.  And remember to breathe — and to breathe out before you breathe in.

5.  Be thoughtful.  Make sure your comments and questions reflect the thought and analysis you’ve put into the issue.  Especially in the early weeks and months of a new job, one of the key tasks is to demonstrate consideration of all the relevant factors and the process of arriving at a well-reasoned and insightful suggestion or comment.  On this point, see What Are You Thinking? on the always thought-provoking What About Clients? blog.

6.  Be ready to respond to questions.  When you’re asked for an opinion, do have one.  It need not be correct, necessarily, but you need to be ready to share and explain it.  Here again, the goal is to demonstrate your insight and your thought process.

Best two lines ever on business development

Tom Kane of the Legal Marketing Blog has written perhaps the best two lines on marketing that I have ever read:

You can overcome your procrastination when it comes to developing business by doing a simple item each day. If you don’t get started, you may never become an effective marketer.

Fortunately, his post Spend a Few Minutes Each Day on Business Development continues with a number of concrete suggestions, drawn from Terrie Wheeler’s recent Law Practice Today article on Low Cost, High Impact Strategies to Market Your Law Practice – Even If You Only Have Five Minutes!

A number of clients I’ve coached struggle with procrastination.  I’ve been there too.  Often, perfectionism underlies procrastination, and I find that to be especially true concerning tasks that (like client development) aren’t deadline-driven.  What I love about Wheeler’s 5-minute ideas is that “perfect” or “not perfect” need not enter the picture on many of the ideas, and that may help to quiet the inner perfectionist.

Tuesday shorts: 9/18/07

I posted a few weeks ago about Saying NO, and I recently ran across a post on The Marketing Mix that suggests 7 ways to say no in a post titled, How to say “no, thanks”.  After all, as is so often true with communication, it’s just as important to know how to say it as what the “it” is that you want to say.  Ilise Benun offers 7 ways to say “no” (courtesy of marketing coach Susan DePue) including the “Gracious NO” (“I really appreciate you asking me, but my time is already committed”) and the “I Know Someone Else NO” (“I just don’t have the time to help you, but let me recommend someone else I know”).  It’s a handy guide to a variety of ways to say that magical one-syllable word.

Peter L. Smith, Managing Director of BCG’s San Francisco office and sometimes-blogger on Counsel to Counsel, has started a new blog called ad arguendo: the blog of law and leadership.  The posts are unusual in their depth and approach (drawing on sources from ancient philosophers to Elvis) and often thought-provoking.  Not surprisingly, I was intrigued by recent interviews with a coach for lawyers (for those interested in continuing to practice) and a firm that provides career counseling for those who intend to leave practice, as well as a post on taking action to make a bad situation better, titled Don’t Succumb! Unlearning “Learned Helplessness” Among the Attorney Ranks.  Ad arguendo isn’t a blog for casual reading, but it’s likely to tickle your brain in stimulating directions.

Designing your personalized professional development plan

A lot of law firms are working to make their associate review processes more useful — and some are even succeeding.  Over the last 2-3 years, it’s become quite vogue to require associates to design a professional development plan so that they and the firm can track their progress.  Although the plan is designed to be co-created by the lawyer and the firm, it’s obvious that the firm has a strong interest in the program and that the lawyer is likely to accede to the firm’s “suggestions.”

And please understand: I’m not knocking the firms that insist on such a co-creation.  It’s appropriate for the firm to bear a strong interest in ensuring that its employees develop the skills that the firm believes necessary for the employee’s development and his contribution to the firm’s development.  And devising such a plan is certainly a huge advancement over the stereotypical reviews in which a lawyer is told everything is “going just fine” right until things fall apart because no one is comfortable with confrontation or honest feedback.  (This is a real, if counter-intuitive, problem in many firms!)

But while the firm-sponsored professional development plan is a great start, it’s insufficient for most lawyers.  Given the associate attrition rates and the ease with which lawyers can change firms, it’s a mistake to assume that you will remain with a firm for your entire career no matter how happy you may be there today.  And even if you do stay at the same firm for the entire length of your career, it’s a sure bet that you won’t do so as an employee.  Instead, you’ll develop your own practice (albeit within the firm’s structure) and in so doing, you’ll be running your own “business” in a very real sense.

So, what’s the answer?  Designing your personalized professional development plan.  Starting with the plan co-created with the firm makes for a nice running start, but if you don’t have such a plan (or if you’re unhappy with your plan), consider the following questions:

*  What are your professional strengths?  How can you maximize them?
*  What are your professional weaknesses?  How can you best compensate for them?
*  What can you do to develop your strengths even more?

*  What do you want your practice to be composed of?  Consider substantive law and the mix of practice areas, type of work, what you want your days to look like, etc.
*  What kind of practice will be fulfilling at the apex of your career?  Describe the setting, the financial aspects, etc. as clearly as possible.
*  What is your practice goal in 1 year?  5 years?  10 years?  Again, describe it in as much detail as possible.

*  What skills and experiences do you need to develop to reach your 1-, 5-, 10-year, and apex practice goals?  If you have trouble with this step, consider gathering data by asking your mentors and successful colleagues, researching in practice development books, etc.  Remember that your answer will change over time.  Nothing about your plan will be written in stone, but the more clarity you can gain now, the better your gameplan and the higher likelihood that future changes will be adjustments rather than complete reworkings.

*  What habits, attitudes, or mindsets do you need to develop to attain these goals?  For example, do you need to break free from the sense that the firm owns you and to recognize that you are designing your practice and your professional life in conjunction with the firm?  Do you need to develop your confidence to increase your client development opportunities and/or your presentation skills?  Do you need to break your procrastination habit or to put your perfectionistic tendency in its proper place?

*  What will you choose to focus on from these lists over the next year?  I recommend a mix of skills/experiences and attitude/habit development goals.  For instance, you might set goals of becoming the go-to person on a certain area of the law within your firm and in the outside world, handling a client matter by yourself (with appropriate supervision but little direction if any), learning how to delegate work effectively to more junior lawyers and to staff members, and how to design and implement a business development plan that works.  (Note that this final goal has a number of subparts that are focused on developing skills and habits/attitudes, and it’s likely a multi-year goal with progress and its measurement changing each year!)

The key difference between your personalized plan and the plan that you may co-create with your firm is that the personalized plan is keyed to your goals without attention to the firm’s goals except to the extent they support your desires.  Your plan should be designed to fit what you — as owner of your practice and “CEO” of your career — want.  The two plans might be identical, or they may be quite at odds.  If you know that in 10 years you’d like to have a personal injury practice with a partner ready and willing to buy you out so you can compete in the America’s Cup, for instance, that’s almost certainly a goal that you’d be wise not to share if you’re working in a mid-sized insurance defense firm because your goals and the firm’s goals don’t mesh.

Finally, I suggest spending time in the fall roughing out your personalized professional development plan.  It’ll give you a good idea of where you’re headed when you have your annual review, and you’ll be ready to suggest the developmental areas that you’d like to work on in the next year.  In addition, you’ll be ready to incorporate the feedback you get into your plan.  So, start now.  Set aside time on your calendar, and mark it in ink.  Designing your plan will move you forward like little else.  Don’t miss this opportunity.

Tuesday shorts

As I recover from declaring blog bankruptcy, I’m finding time to stay up on the marvelous things going on in the blogosphere.  So, today I introduce Tuesday shorts, a collection of references to interesting posts I’ve run across recently.

Drowning in email?  I say a hearty AMEN to Dan Hull‘s (of What About Clients?) post E-mail is a great tool and it’s making you nuts. Call me.  Everytime I start to send an email, I question whether a call or actual visit would be more effective.  The answer, not infrequently, is yes.

Today’s Dilbert seems to be channeling some law firm managers.  Here’s an advanced management tip: if you have something unpleasant to convey to someone, spit it out rather than allowing them to marinate in worry.  And if you just need to discuss something, be careful of the way you phrase your request.  This suggestion is applicable to clients as well as those you supervise.  And along the same lines, Jay Shepherd of Gruntled Employees has discovered that Ept managers lead to gruntled employees, which in turn lead to minishing profits.  (Wondering about the mangled words there?  Contrast with “inept,” “disgruntled,” and “diminishing.”)  Management and leadership (not the same skill set) matter in law firms as they do in other organizations.  As you advance, be sure to develop these skills along with your practice skills.  And learn how to manage “up” as well.  (I’ll cover “managing up” in another post soon.)

This week’s Blawg Review #125, hosted by Kevin O’Keefe of Real Lawyers Have Blogs, is all about the “art of blogging.”  If you’ve considered writing a blog, or if you’re just wondering what the hubbub is all about, this is a can’t-miss opportunity to learn from some of the best in the blogosphere.

Finally, congratulations to Bob Sutton, whose fantastic book The No Asshole Rule (which I reviewed here) has won the Quill Award for Best Business Book.  Congratulatiopns, Bob!  It’s a well-deserved honor.

“She stabbed me in the back!”

I’ve sometimes talked with lawyers (especially associates at large firms) who believe that another lawyer has stabbed them in the back: withheld critical information, misrepresented some aspect of the lawyer’s work to a more senior lawyer or client, or taken credit for the lawyer’s work.  These experiences are enraging and painful, and it’s easy for an affected lawyer to become suspicious of colleagues as a result.

Surviving and getting past such an event requires quick action.  First, the hard truth: whether the stabbing was intentional or purely accidental, your reputation is on the line and your response may well determine how others will see the situation.  Think quickly and dispassionately so you can find the best possible resolution.  Given the situation that currently exists (regardless of how it got there), what do you need to do to serve your client?  Take that step immediately and decisively.

Only when the client (internal or external) is fully protected can you return to the backstabbing itself.  The first step is to look unemotionally at what happened (ideally, with a mentor or unbiased assistant of some sort — certainly not someone who will agree with you regardless of the facts) and see whether this event really was a stab.  If you weren’t given important information, for example, look carefully to see what happened.  Perhaps the person who should have conveyed the information intentionally withheld it, or perhaps he simply forgot.  Is this event part of a pattern of behavior?  What does your intuition tell you?  How does your dispassionate observer see the situation?  Backstabbing does happen, but it’s critical to be sure that’s really what happened before you react.

Your next steps depend on whether what happened was done to you maliciously or negligently.  If malicious, consider (1) whether there’s any correction necessary and (2) what steps you can take in the future to avoid falling into a similar situation.  For instance, if someone assigned you work but left out a critical piece of information that caused you to present a memo, brief, or other product with a gaping hole in it, after you revise the work appropriately (to serve the client and to make the necessary correction), you might consider restating your assignments in a “confirmation” email to that person.  There’s rarely any point in confronting the malfeasor, unless you have incontrovertible evidence and are willing to pursue it to full resolution.  Generally speaking, your best response will be to note the problem, to work around it if possible, and to create avenues to avoid it in the future.

If the error was an accident (as, honestly, most are), consider whether a conversation could help to turn up a safety mechanism for the future.  Do you need to check in with that person on a regular basis to be sure you have the latest information, do you need to request to be a cc on all emails related to a particular case, or something along similar lines?  The trouble avoidance technique may be the same as it would be if the error were malicious, but conversation about an oversight is likely to be both productive and important to a good working relationship in the future.

In either event, if a third party (a partner or more senior associate, perhaps) is involved, you may need to have a conversation with her to clear the air.  Blaming the person who did wrong might feel good, but it won’t look good — so don’t do it.  Instead, address what happened on a factual basis and explain how you’re going to avoid a recurrence.

A word of warning: pay attention to your intuition.  A client once described to me a series of events that left him with an odd feeling about a coworker.  Although their interactions were professional and cordial, my client said that he always felt that his colleague would gladly “throw him under a bus” if need be to protect his own interest.  Unfortunately, his sense proved to be accurate; fortunately, my client had taken preventative steps to establish that he had provided certain information to that colleague.  Although 99.5% of the lawyers you work with are professionals with integrity, if your intuition signals that a colleague falls into the other .5%, take proactive measures right away.  Done with care, there’s no downside, and you’ll be protected if a problem ever arises.

How do you talk about what you do?

When you meet someone for the first time — especially in a social setting or at a networking function — how do you answer the inevitable, “What do you do?”  The tendency for a lot of us is to answer quickly, “I’m a lawyer.”  The person you’re talking with may inquire further about what kind of law you do or where you work, but it’s equally likely that the response will be something else entirely.  (One of my favorites is always, “Really?  You don’t seem like a lawyer!”  Is there a good answer to that?  I think not.)

So what’s a better response, especially with a view toward potential client development?  Prepare a 30-second commercial that explains what you do in a way that a non-lawyer would understand immediately.  I suggest lawyers answer 4 questions to create their commercial:

1.  What type of clients do you work with?
2.  What problems are those clients facing?
3.  What do you help them to do?
4.  What do they end up with?

So, a patent litigator might say, “I represent large companies that have or are developing a significant patent portfolio and have discovered an infringement. We work to target infringers, to negotiate a settlement where possible, and to litigate as needed so my clients’ IP rights are protected, they receive appropriate compensation for infringement, and their technical leadership is respected in the industry.”

By introducing yourself and your work this way, you’ll make it clear what you do and the person you’re talking with will know right away whether they need your services and whether they know someone else who does.  It also opens an opportunity for an interesting conversation about your work.  And, naturally, you can tailor your introduction based on the event and company you’re keeping.

How will you introduce yourself for maximum impact?