Discovering my inner “hot worm”.. And changes for 2008

Perhaps you’ve heard this: “Do what you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life!”  I’ve seen that quote, or similar ones, attributed to everyone from Confucius to Harvay MacKay.  Now, here’s my corollary:  even so, you will nevertheless sometimes need to adjust priorities, to take time off, and to shift what you do.

On occasion I’ll read something that will really stick with me and change the way I think about things.  Stephanie West Allen’s December 2006 “hot worms” blog post is one of those.  In that post and other related posts, she discusses the danger in prescribing a “one size fits all” work/life balance, especially for those “hot worms” who love what they do and choose to work more hours than “experts” consider advisable.  As I’ve written over and over, I’m uncomfortable with the idea of “work/life balance” because it implies that there is a single balance that everyone should attain, and that’s clearly wrong to me.  So, I took Stephanie’s post as more evidence that each person must find his or her own balance or, to use Cali Yost’s term, work+life fit.

I enjoyed practicing law, but I was admittedly not a “hot worm” lawyer.  Some of my clients are, though, and coaching them on work/life integration is interesting because it’s hard to reduce hours or attention to something that’s thoroughly enjoyable and nourishing.  The focus of the coaching is on finding what works best for the individual, and sometimes cutting back on work is necessary (though difficult) to achieve other goals.  The process is challenging and rewarding, and my clients generally end up with a lifestyle that pleases them deeply.  As I coached these clients, I came to discover something about myself.

I’m a “hot worm” coach.

Perhaps that’s why I work so well with lawyers who are passionate about and devoted to their practices.

You see, I often wake up thinking about an article or a resource or an approach to use with a client.  I read constantly, and until last week, I’m not sure when I last read fiction or non-fiction that isn’t related to law or business.  I couldn’t sleep one night while I was out of town and I got sucked into watching Legally Blonde, not because it’s a good movie (in my opinion, it isn’t!) but because I was mentally drafting a blog post that would discuss Reese Witherspoon’s character and what lesson she might illustrate.  When I catch up with friends, I tend to talk about my business and the ideas I’m reading or hearing or creating — to the point that a friend recently asked if my husband and I had divorced because I hadn’t mentioned him!  (Sorry about that, honey.)  I’m not unduly frazzled or bedraggled; I just love what I do and choose to do a lot of it!  I am doing what I truly love, and it doesn’t feel like work.

And yet…

I get run down when I don’t sleep enough.  I get stiff when I sit all day.  Although I enjoy the work I do, I miss seeing friends.  And I know that I sometimes come up with more and better ideas when I’m working  physically (gardening, walking, whatever gets my body going and lets my brain wander) than I do when I’m sitting at my desk and intending to think.

These are signs that it’s time for a change.

I started this blog in January 2006 and began writing regularly in March of that year.  This is post #365.  Although I never announced it, I’ve aimed to post three times a week, and I recently expanded to include a fourth weekly post.  Since I started the blog, though, things have changed in my business.  I have more clients (as well as some openings), I’m writing more articles for formal publication, I’m doing more speaking, and I’m doing more face-to-face networking.  I’m also traveling dramatically more.

It’s time for a shift.

Change #1…  I plan to post twice weekly going forward, though I may include additional “shorts” posts that will offer links and brief news items, trends, or ideas.

Change #2…  On January 15, I will be launching a new email newsletter, titled Leadership Matters for Lawyers.  Each issue will include a feature article on leadership development, a relevant book review, summaries of recent posts on the Life at the Bar blog, and information about upcoming programs and presentations.  Leadership is an important topic for every lawyer, whether it’s self-leadership, leading within a bar or civic organization, being a thought-leader in your practice area, or serving as a leader of a team, a practice group, an office, or a firm.  Leadership Matters for Lawyers will reveal insights, research, and resources that will help you to create and benefit from leadership opportunities for yourself and your practice.


Thank you for your input — and happy new year!

Happy holidays!

I hope those of you who celebrate Christmas have had (or perhaps are having) a marvelous, restful time with friends and family.  I naively thought I might induce my two dogs to wear their holiday finery (a reindeer headpiece, as seen here, and a Santa hat) and get them to pose in front of the fireplace, so I could post a “happy holidays” entry complete with canines.  Suffice it to say that the dogs were none too impressed with their holiday gear, and sitting still was not on the agenda.

Many who can do so elect to take some or all of this week off, and I’m joining suit.  As we continue the 10-day Lawyers Appreciate…  2007 campaign, please take some time to consider what (and whom) you appreciate.  If you’re moved to add your comments, please do!  Sharing appreciation is good for the spirit.

For my part in the appreciation festival, I truly appreciate each person who drops by the blog and those who comment.  I appreciate the lawyers who take on cases and causes, and I appreciate the Internet and the blogosphere for making the legal community connected in a way that would have been completely foreign even a few years ago.  I appreciate the professionals who support my practice (both the legal and coaching practices), and I appreciate my clients.  And I appreciate Stephanie West Allen for sowing the seeds with me to birth a bouquet of blog-based appreciation.

I’ll have one more post to share this year, reflecting on some themes and plans for 2008.  In the meantime, what can you do to bring 2007 to a successful close?

Second Annual “Lawyers Appreciate…”

Last December, Stephanie West Allen (of Idealawg and Brains on Purpose(tm)) and I launched a 10-day campaign that we called “Lawyers Appreciate…”  We asked legal bloggers to make a post, sharing the things and people they most appreciate in the practice of law.  And we were delighted with the results, which you can find summarized here.  We discovered that lawyers appreciate clients, staff and colleagues, fair jurists, family, and so much more.  (To my delight, I rediscovered a comment on the kick-off post that celebrates, in part, peppermint ice cream, which is my favorite as well.  Cheers to Monica Bay of The Common Scold, whose identifying info was apparently stripped from that comment when I migrated to the new blog.)

A few weeks ago, I asked Stephanie what she thought about launching a second annual Lawyers Appreciate… And she responded with an enthusiastic thumbs up!

Last year’s campaign ran from December 22 to December 31, with some appreciation coming in even into the new year — which, it has to be said, Stephanie and I both appreciated.  There’s no statute of limitations on this!  Since the 22nd is a Saturday this year (and I will be making extra-merry, since the 22nd is also my birthday) I thought I’d announce a day early, so resourceful bloggers can begin reflecting.  And, of course, anyone without a blog is welcome to participate as well by posting a comment.

Here’s how it works: tomorrow, we’ll invite 3 bloggers to join us in our appreciative countdown.  We’re asking them to post a blog entry that begins with the words, “Lawyers Appreciate…” and then to invite 3 more bloggers of their choice to do the same.  We’ll keep this up for 10 days, until (at least) December 31.  And we’ll kick off 2008 with conscious appreciation for what might otherwise go overlooked.

Get ready…… Get set………………….

Edited to add: from Stephanie’s announcement:

For those of you who posted your “LA . . .” list last year, what additions (and maybe subtractions) will you make in 2007? And to those new to the “Lawyers Appreciate . . .” countdown, we look forward to reading your posts of appreciation.


Clear your mind to increase productivity.

Every office has one: the messy lawyer, whose desk and/or office always looks like a bomb exploded and left behind papers and files and coffee cups and who-knows-what-else scattered everywhere.  It’s a good practice to clear the decks weekly or following the end of a major project, just to keep some level of tidiness.  This time of year is especially auspicious, since you may find a few spare minutes for cleaning, and it’s such a good feeling to return to a clean office on January 2.  Especially if you have the luxury of calling in an assistant to help with filing and organization, 30 minutes to an hour will often prevent an overflow.

What if it’s your mind that needs decluttering?  When your brain is filled with “must do” tasks of both professional and personal origin, when you’re worried about something, when you’re trying to make a difficult decision, and when all of your thoughts are further agitated by the “noise” of life, it’s easy to get lost in mental chaos.  One day when I was preparing for a major client meeting and dealing with my mother’s terminal illness, I stopped by the grocery store on my way home.  I knew I was distracted, so I’d takent he time to write down the items I needed to buy.  But I proved how distracted I was when I returned to my car to find it still running with the keys in the ignition!  I wish I’d had access to the recent terrific post by Zen Habits titled 15 Can’t-Miss Ways to Declutter Your Mind.  The tactics (with clarification available in the Zen Habits post):

1.  Breathe.
2.  Write it down.
3.  Identify the essential.
4.  Eliminate.
5.  Journal.
6.  Rethink your sleep.
7.  Take a walk.
8.  Watch less TV.
9.  Get in touch with nature.
10.  Do less.
11.  Go slower.
12.  Let go.
13.  Declutter your surroundings.
14.  Single-task.
15.  Get a load off.  (Vent!)

And I’d add one more: do something creative that gets you into a state of flow, where time passes without your notice.  Examples might be drawing or playing music.  Time spent in any of these areas is indeed time well spent.

Discovering “fit” between square pegs and round holes

I often request new clients complete the DISC assessment, both to give the client a sense of his or her natural tendencies and how much he or she feels the need to adapt to the current work environment and also to give me the background for communicating by using the client’s language.  As I outlined in a post earlier this fall, the DISC is also particularly valuable to clients who are seeking to enhance their business development skills, those who are experiencing some sort of personal conflict with a team member, and those who want to improve their relationships with clients, colleagues, and staff.  The profile requires an investment of just 15 minutes to complete the assessment and less than an hour for a thorough debriefing, and it pays off on that investment for years.

Interestingly, I’ve recently debriefed the DISC with a handful of clients who, after learning about their natural tendencies, feel that they’re unsuited for law firm life.  (And such a reaction is one reason why I always provide an oral debrief of the DISC, even though each client receives a detailed written report as soon as the assessment is completed.)  The reasons for these feelings varies; some feel they aren’t “dominant” enough, some feel that their preference for a slow and steady pace at work conflicts with the realities of practice, and some feel that they’re too “people oriented” to do well in a setting that requires a lot of solo reading, analyzing, and writing.  After discussion, though, each client has discovered a different interpretation.

You probably glanced at the photo I selected for this post.  Go back and look at it.  Really.

You’ll notice that the proverbial square peg has been altered to fit into the round hole — and that the alteration wasn’t easy, that it permanently changed the square peg, and that (by virtue of the hammer lying nearby) the process probably wasn’t all that easy.  But you’ll also notice that the square peg is still square above the hole.  And the percentage of peg above the hole appears to be more than that in or below the hole; in other words, although part of the peg was changed irreparably, most of it remains in its native state.

When I work with clients who feel like a square peg trying to fit into a round hole, this imagery comes to mind in two respects.  The first is: ok, you can make yourself fit by smoothing down some corners, shaving off bits and pieces, and adapting until you conform to the mold.  That’s what some clients choose.  And frankly, those clients usually choose not to work with me, because that process isn’t one that I wholeheartedly embrace and a client who’s decided to take that route usually requires the assistance of someone who agrees that the proper approach is to pound away at the “offending corners” until they’re gone.  Fair choice, but not mine.

The second approach is a quite different.  It calls for examining the discrepancy between the mold and the client, deciding whether it really exists or whether it exists only in the client’s perception, and then determining whether the client must change, whether the mold can stretch, or whether the client can change and the mold can stretch.  For instance, if a client is a nonconformist who enjoys marching to the beat of her own drummer — not always a popular path in law firms — we might examine whether her beat can coincide with her firm’s culture and goals (perhaps even putting her into some type of leadership role since her beat might inspire others to dance along) or whether she’d prefer to create her own rhythm elsewhere.

Few easy answers exist in this area.  However, I’ve found that lawyers who enjoy significant aspects of practicing law are generally able to find ways to adapt themselves and/or their circumstances so they can get more of what they enjoy and lead from their strengths, even when those strengths may not be the first that come to mind when envisioning law firm culture.

If you feel like a square peg, ask yourself questions along these lines:

*  What are the areas of disconnect?
*  What value is in those areas?
*  Do I want to create change, in myself or in my environment?
*  What can I do to develop a fit?  What support do I need?
*  How can I use my strengths in a way that serves me and my environment?

Sometimes the answer is to leave the “round hole culture.”  And sometimes the answer is that the gap isn’t as broad as it may appear to be, that relatively small adaptations create a more multifaceted and thus stronger set of skills, and that the fit may be imperfect but nonetheless good.  That’s the secret that happy lawyers often discover.

Tuesday Shorts 12/11/07

Survival tips for new associates:  David Dummer, an associate in the Dallas office of Weil, Gotshal & Manges, has written an article with 10 survival tips for new associates.  Although the tips are not particularly revolutionary, they set a good framework for new associates and might serve as a reminder for more advanced lawyers.  Some suggestions never go out of style, such as asking questions to clarify an unclear assignment, taking a long-term view of networking and staying in touch with law school classmates, and making an effort to learn the case as a whole rather than focusing on only a discrete project within the case.  And I particularly like Dummer’s final tip:

10. Your nameplate is your shingle. Remembering this mantra will help you learn how to operate in the firm setting. In many ways, you are a solo practitioner, and the partners and senior associates in the office are your clients. Think about what makes these clients want to hire you — consistently good work, value-added creativity and efficiency. Run your office so that you can deliver this type of work product to your clients every day.

How did a small IP firm build a 54% female partnership?  One of the interesting things about having practiced patent law is the overwhelming male domination in the field — though that’s changing.  So I took notice of an article about Lahive & Cockfeld, a 30-lawyer IP firm in Boston that boasts 7 women in a 13-member partnership.  Lahive represents clients such as Biogen Idec, Navartis, and Wyeth and bills over $30 million annually.  It has created a flexible compensation system that rewards lawyers for billing as well as business generation, client maintenance and associate mentoring, and the firm offers a work/life balance-friendly work structure:

“We didn’t want to encourage attorneys building their own practice in isolation,” said Giulio A. DeConti Jr., chairman of the executive committee. “We wanted to encourage being like a firm.”

Lahive fully embraces the notion of full-time flexibility, or allowing attorneys to vary their hours and office time while juggling a full workload.

Today, seven of Lahive & Cockfield’s 13 partners are women and a full pipeline of women are waiting to move up the ranks, including 67 percent of its patent agents and 58 percent of its technical specialists. Patent agents, who can represent patent applicants at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, and technical specialists typically have advanced science or technical degrees and are usually attending law school part time. The firm has 18 patent agents and technical specialists.

Work/life fit:  As regular readers of this blog know, I continue to struggle with the term “work/life balance” and seek something more descriptive of the real situation — because “balance” just isn’t it.  I was delighted to discover “work+life fit inc.”, whose tagline is “It’s Fit, Not Balance.”  The company has recently sponsored a survey of 900 adults who work full time, with the following finding:

When asked what is the single most important change they would make to their jobs, respondents (51%) chose options that entailed working differently over making more money. When considering a different work style, 35 percent of those surveyed rated flexibility as most important and 16 percent rated responsibilities that better use their talents.

Of the 35 percent who chose flexibility, only 5 percent said reducing their schedule by more than 10 hours was most important. This was equal for men and women and counters previous research suggesting more people are interested in “part-time” employment. Working the same number of hours but with a more flexible schedule was most important to 13 percent, while 10 percent would opt to cut their schedule by 1 to 10 hours and 7 percent would prefer to work from a location outside the office.

“The perpetuating myths that people want to work significantly fewer hours and that work life flexibility means working less are simply not true,” said [Cali Williams] Yost [president of Work+Life Fit, Inc.].  “Most employees don’t want to work less, they just want to work differently in a way that better utilizes their talents or is a better fit with the rest of their lives’ demands and desires.”

“Managing up” in law firms

One of the interesting things about practicing law is that, until relatively recently, little discussion occurred about how to advance in practice beyond becoming a top-notch practitioner.  While I have no doubt that other skills  have always been required (the ability to communicate well, to lead well, etc.), it’s quite clear to me that more is needed now.  Client development skills, certainly, but also the desire to advance as a professional and as a key member of a team, whether that team is staffing a case or running an office/firm.  And “managing up,” a concept discussed with respect to corporate careers but rarely so in law firms, is a first step.

I’ll start by defining “managing up” as the strategies and skills that a more junior attorney can apply to develop a strong working and collegial relationship with more senior lawyers.  This isn’t a concept limited to associates or to new lawyers, though; it’s something that any lawyer working with a supervising attorney should consider — even if the supervising lawyer is, for some reason, less senior.  You’ll recognize some of the aspects of “managing up” as skills and strategies that smart lawyers develop and use.  My hope is that by using the term “managing up” to encapsulate them, one concept can be used to describe quickly a variety of behaviors and considerations.

Many books and articles have been written on managing up, so it would be impossible for me to write a blog post that would approach the subject fully.  So, I’ll address it on a conceptual level, with some concrete ideas and suggestions, and perhaps flesh it out further over time.

When considering how to “manage up,” one question rises above all others: what will be most helpful in this situation to the supervising lawyer?  And that question breaks down into a number of sub-questions, such as:

*  What will best serve the client?
*  What is the client’s ultimate goal?  Think beyond the immediate to what really matters for this client.
*  What best serves the supervising lawyer’s style?
*  What does the supervising lawyer really need, and will the client pay for that?  If not, how can you adapt?
*  What does the supervising lawyer need to know?
*  How can I advance what the supervising attorney is trying to accomplish?
*  What can I do to best contribute to this team in a way that the supervising lawyer will appreciate?

For example, a litigation client’s ultimate goal is to protect its legal interest while doing minimal damage to an important business relationship, that client will likely approach the litigation differently than if the goal is to cause maximum pain to the other party.  To serve the client, and also to serve the supervising lawyer, most effectively, you need to know about the ultimate goal as well as the immediate goal of winning the litigation, and you need to know at what point the supervising lawyer will be acting from the primary motivation of each goal.  Similarly (and I expect every lawyer will already know this), it’s important when drafting a letter for a supervising lawyer’s signature to write the letter in her style, not yours — and to discover that style by checking previous letters she’s written or  by asking her assistant.

A good, quick rundown of “managing up” strategies is found in the table of contents for a book titled Managing Up.  I can’t vouch for the book (I haven’t read it), but I like some of  the chapter titles.

So, questions for you to consider: how might you manage up?  What would be appropriate methods of doing so?  And how might you advance by taking these steps?

The knowing/doing gap

I’ve been leveled by the flu this week.  Whether it’s due to the resulting brain fog or a flash of insight (and if so, a flash probably triggered by David Maister’s Strategy and the Fat Smoker, which is still buzzing around in my head), I have been struck over and over by a single theme while reading up on recent law-related news: the huge gap that exists between knowing and doing.  Just to select one example:

If you’ve ever considered hanging out a shingle, be sure to read A Conspiracy of One in this month’s ABA Journal.  It’s the story of Michael Grossman, a former Cook County public defender who opened his own office in September 2007.  It’s interesting to read about Grossman’s decision to start his own practice, and the article does a nice job of illustrating the challenges and benefits.  And happily, as the update indicates, Grossman’s practice is growing and he’s pleased with his choices.

Where I saw the knowing/doing gap is in an accompanying article titled Pencil to Paper Prosperity, which sets out David Freeman’s five elements of a successful client development system.  The five elements?

1.  Identify your target market.
2.  Reach your target market in the right way.
3.  [Have a] contact management method.
4.  Set goals.
5.  Create a system or accountability.

These are excellent steps in a business development plan.  They’re critical steps.  And I hope they aren’t news to anyone who’s contemplated bringing in new business.  Really, although some aspects of each step may bring new information, the steps themselves are something that we all know to do.  And yet, a great many lawyers don’t actually do these things in a regular, systematized way.  It’s a knowing/doing gap.  Bridge that gap, and you’ll likely develop more business.

Bridging that gap requires making a commitment, which in turn often calls for devising a system for accountability.  The huge numbers of demands on most lawyers’ time means that without some accountability, the least urgent tasks are likely to get left behind — and while there’s work yet to be performed, business development tasks may well be viewed an non-urgent.  It’s important, then, to create a system that raises the urgency level, whether that’s maintaining a calendar and task list that includes the steps to which you’ve committed or whether it’s having a buddy, group, mentor, or coach with whom you check in periodically to provide updates, to troubleshoot, and to lay plans going forward.

If you’re interested in learning more about this gap, do read The Knowing-Doing Gap by Jeffrey Pfeffer and Bob Sutton.  Although it explores the gap that exists in large organizations and how some organizations bridge it (think GE, Toyota, and the like), there’s useful information that is applicable by analogy.

Where is your knowing/doing gap?  Is it around business development, skills enhancement, a necessary but not pressing career change, implementing time management strategies, or the way you balance your professional and personal responsibilities?  Take a step today.

Law and the tightening economy

This week’s article AmLaw 200 Managing Partners Issue Fog Advisory for 2008 provides a clear snapshot of some of the challenges facing law firms and lawyers these days.  According to the article, a “substantial number” of managing partners (25% of those polled) are “uncertain” about their firms’ prospects in 2008, largely due to the slowing transactional market and a drop-off in new litigation.  A secondary factor cited by one blunt firm leader is the perception that firms have stretched their resources to their limits: “We can’t beat the donkeys any harder.”  Nevertheless, 92% of leaders surveyed responded that they expect their firms’ profits per partner to rise next year.  These leaders are tightening the reigns on their donkeys in several ways, according to the article:

*  Making (unspecified) structural changes.

*  80% expect to hire fewer partner-track associates or to bring in a higher
percentage of contract and staff lawyers over the next 10 years.

*  2/3 plan to shift the partnership balance at their firms even farther away from
equity partnerships, either by de-equitizing current partners or by building up
the ratio of nonequity partners among future hires.

*  61% expect to experiment with alternative billing arrangements.  However,
other interviews suggest that these experiments are almost destined to fail.

*  99% plan to raise billing rates, with almost 2/3 planning to do so by more than 5%.

Brian Ritchey, the new primary voice of More Partner Income has an interesting post today that examines the strategies law firms use to increase profits.  The top strategies identified (based on a survey of midsized firms conducted by the Remsen Group) are (1) increasing fees and (2) increasing marketing and business development.  Cost cutting and improved efficiency are the next most effective steps, with only 7% citing an increase in billable hour requirements.  After examining the results in more depth, Ritchey provides his summary of steps likely to produce more profit:

• Better efficiency in workflow – lower the days to bill and days to collect fees;
• Discontinue “lock-step” compensation increases to the extent your firm uses this to compete;
• Adopt and adhere to a written, achievable strategic plan;
• Measure your key performance metrics:
o Effective rate upon collection of fees;
o Realization both at billing and collection;
o Productivity (billable hours or equivalent);
o Operating Margin;
o Leverage – either by headcount or billable hours;
• Market to your strengths – don’t be afraid to ask for business.

While there’s a lot to be said about the uncertain economic forecast and the likely belt-tightening underway, in a sense, it isn’t new at all.  I see two key questions: what can you, the individual lawyer (whether associate or partner) do to secure your place at the table, and what can firms do.  One area of overlap is in business development efforts, and that’s where both individuals and firms should be focusing now.  (Again, this isn’t news… Just affirmation of what’s been clear for quite a while now.)  If you’re hoping to maintain and grow your role within your firm, bringing in new business or cross-selling the current clients is the best opportunity.  And I’d also suggest that firms would be wise to shift some of their associates perks from luxurious indulgences to training and support designed to help their associates (and partners) achieve business results that will profit both the firm and the individual lawyers.

And how about for the associates who may be feeling like the real donkeys in this picture — fungible billing units, probably being asked to bill more with even less promise of achieving equity partnership, at least in large firms?  Business development is the key to increasing the chances of hitting equity.  And I continue to suspect that bright lawyers working as solos or in small firms have an unprecedented opportunity to woo clients from large firms, as discussed here and here.