Do you know the RULER for law firm economics?

Law as business vs. law as profession is a conversation that has largely lost its meaning and relevance, especially in today’s economy.  Lawyers must understand some of the basic law firm economics from day 1, if not before.  I happened across an article that presents these basics along with a handy acronym, RULER:

Rates: lawyers’ hourly (or alternative) fees
Utilization: the number of billable hours a lawyer works as compared with the cost of maintaining the lawyer
Leverage: the associate:partner ratio
Expenses: what a firm must pay to do business
Realization: the amount of fees collected vs. billed


Financial freedom

An anonymous email I received shortly after I began coaching haunts me.  This person (I don’t know whether male or female, but I’ll assume male here) wanted desperately to leave the practice.  He was responding to something I’d written, and he explained that he’d practiced law for nearly 20 years and hated it.  He never liked it, even in the beginning.  And yet, he wrote, he had no other choice, due to financial constraints, geography, and family expectations/requirements.

He felt destined to toil until his dying day, expecting that his stress level would keep him from living to retirement.  When I wrote to ask if he’d be open to a conversation, free of charge, to see if he might have some alternatives, he thanked me but declined: his children were in college and someone had to pay those bills, he had to finance retirement on the off chance that he’d live to see it, and he had no choice other than to continue plugging away and hoping for some unknown change to make things better.  It was, at the risk of being melodramatic, like a suicide note from the soul.

Fortunately, most of my clients are relatively happy in their careers and are seeking a tweak or to develop a strategy to improve their professional success and satisfaction.  Even those who consider leaving the practice are upbeat about their options, though challenges do pop up along the route.  I’ve noticed that some of the happiest lawyers are those who have created reasonable financial stability that allows options — in other words, financial freedom.

Is it possible to be financially free with as much as $100K in student loans, nevermind the other costs of living?  Yes. It’s not only possible, it’s necessary for a sustainable career.  And freedom absolutely does not require millions in the bank and no debt.  It requires careful choices and attention.

One of the biggest mistakes I see in new lawyers, especially those pulling down the $160K “big firm” salaries, is living the lifestyle full out.  The new BMW, the gorgeous condo, all of those nice accoutrements that seem like a fair reward for the hard work required to reach that earning level — if not purchased carefully, they turn into the proverbial golden handcuffs.

Some of the most disappointed professionals I know (this isn’t at all limited to lawyers) are those who literally bought into the lifestyle and then found it impossible to leave.  Others work as hard as they can, not to advance their careers, but because they fear that if they let up even a little bit they’ll be fired.  Sometimes that fear is realistic, especially in the current economy.  Handling it comes through taking an objective look at the likelihood of getting fired and working to create value.  Creating a contingency plan with a cushion of savings and a good network (in case a new job is in order) often helps as much or more.

Now, let’s be honest: anyone who knows me knows that I enjoy travel and impulse buys as much as the next person.  I’m not urging an ascetic lifestyle, nor am I recommending the kinds of budget cuts that reduce reasonable day-to-day comfort.  What I do recommend is living with enough of a financial cushion that a brief period of unemployment, whether voluntary or otherwise, wouldn’t be a catastrophe.  Living the $160K (or $100K or $250K or whatever the figure may be) lifestyle requires you stay at that level of income and eliminates a host of choices that would otherwise exist.

Are you wearing golden handcuffs?  What changes can you implement today to begin to build your financial freedom?  And remember not to look at this question just from the perspective of what you might eliminate: business development activity may create a book of business that will give you a measure of security worthy of the investment required to get it.

Internal client development

Generally speaking, law firms use the phrase “client development” to refer to the process of signing clients that the firm will represent in litigation, transactions, etc.  Today, I’d like to consider another type of client development associates must consider: internal client development.

As an associate, particularly a junior associate who receives work from more senior lawyers, you must consider two kinds of clients: those who are external, meaning the people we typically call clients, and those who are internal, meaning those firm attorneys for whom you do work, your supervising attorneys.  The more junior you are, the more important your internal client development skills are and the longer those skills may serve you.  Let’s consider an example.

Two associates, Ellen and Mary, begin with a firm at the same time.  Both are bright and eager to learn.  Ellen is gregarious, always chatting with more senior associates and partners about work, current events, whatever.  She enjoys discussing the cases she and others are working on, and as a result a lot of the firm’s lawyers tend to know what she’s working on and to have some idea of how she approaches her work.  When Ellen hears about someone who’s working on a case that interests her, she finds a time to talk with that attorney and offers to help if there’s anything she can do.  Mary tends to be shy, friendly when someone speaks to her but not someone who will seek out conversation.  She does very good work, and she prefers not “bother” the lawyer who assigns work until she’s finished unless she has a question.  Mary talks often with the other lawyers staffed on her cases, but she doesn’t interact too much with other members of the firm.

When a case comes in that would be equally appropriate for both Ellen and Mary, who do you think is more likely to get assigned to it?  I’d suspect it’ll be Ellen, if all other things are equal, because Ellen has been working on her internal client development.  A partner is more likely to know what Ellen’s workload is, to know how she approaches her work, to know how she gets along with other members of the firm, and to know enough about her to be comfortable working with her.  Although Mary may do equally good work, by failing to put herself in front of the other lawyers in the firm on a regular basis, they are less likely to think of her, and she’s less likely to get the assignments.

So, what do you do if you recognize that you’re like Mary?  First, go back to the business truism that, all other things being equal, people prefer to work with those they know, like, and trust.  (In a law firm, performing excellent work is the baseline, so be sure you meet that standard.  Otherwise, no amount of being known and liked will be sufficient to override the lack of trust that poor work product will bring.)

Set out on a campaign to become known, liked, and trusted – but start by getting to know, like, and trust other members of your firm.  Go to the cocktail parties.  Eat lunch in the firm cafeteria if you have one, and make it a habit to invite another lawyer out to lunch at least once a week.  Be genuinely interested in the other attorneys in your firm, both professionally and personally.  Perhaps the partner has a son who plays Little League, and it can make a difference if you remember to ask how the game was when you know the partner left early to attend it.  Discuss your cases, chew over a thorny legal issue with a colleague, and ask what cases others have going.  With a effort and authenticity, this approach will put you on good terms with others in your office and you too will be at the top of assigning attorneys’ minds when a new case comes in the door.

And for those who feel that this is a mercenary approach, there’s one other key benefit: your work life will almost certainly improve.  True, you won’t be best friends with everyone (or perhaps anyone) in the office, but spending long days at work is more enjoyable when there’s a sense of camaraderie.  Camaraderie comes from – you guessed it – knowing and liking those with whom you work and fostering a sense of being on the same team.

This internal networking is, of course, only one side of internal client development.  Other aspects of internal client development include building a strong reputation, becoming an expert in a niche area, developing skills faster than your classmates, and last (but certainly not least), asking for the work.

Be aware of your opportunities for internal client development: as a junior associate, you can position yourself as the go-to person in your associate class and you can get superior experience in a relatively short time.  If you’re one of the rare associates who stays at a single firm for the bulk of your career, internal client development will propel toward partnership much faster and with a much higher chance of success.  If you move to another firm, internal client development can pay off in helping you find a new position and in positioning you for referrals from your old firm in case of conflicts.  It’s a win/win proposition.�

Determining decision-making authority

In my experience, newer associates often have challenges in determining what they do and don’t have the authority to do.  Some may take on too little authority, undermining their usefulness to more senior lawyers who need not be consulted about every decision, and others may too on too much, possibly compromising strategic decisions that should be the senior lawyer’s call.

Senior lawyers bear much responsibility for these missteps, because they should have the foresight and ability to define what authority the lawyers they supervise may exercise.  However, all too often, everyone assumes that everyone is in agreement on what’s appropriate — right until the assumption comes crashing down in a rant of frustration at being disturbed yet again “for nothing” or a ballistic explosion at finding out that an incurable decision has been made without a full appreciation for its impact.

I’ve been reading a marvelous book recently: Fierce Conversations: Achieving Success at Work and in Life One Conversation at a Time, by Susan Scott.  In addition to setting forth a valuable approach to conversations that facilitate exploration of the truth and collaborative problem-solving, Scott sets out a Decision Tree that supervising lawyers can use to explain a junior lawyer’s scope of authority — quickly, simply, and in a framework that permits easy shorthand reference in the future.

Scott’s Decision Tree comprises 4 categories of decisions (quoted from page 119, Fierce Conversations):

Leaf Decisions: Make the decision.  Act on it.  Do not report the action you took.

Branch Decisions: Make the decision.  Act on it.  Report the action you took daily, weekly, or monthly.

Trunk Decisions: Make the decision.  Report your decision before you take action.

Root Decisions: Make the decision jointly, with input from many people.  These are the decisions that, if poorly made and implemented, could cause major harm to the organization.

It’s quickly apparent how these categories can be used in the practice setting.  In the context of litigation, for instance, a partner might identify deciding whether documents are relevant and thus to be produced as leaf decisions, deciding what witnesses to interview as branch decisions, preparing discovery requests as trunk decisions, and deciding whether to move for a temporary injunction as a root decision.  As the associate advances, more and more decisions will become leaf and branch decisions, which is a strong indication that the associate is becoming more skilled and thus merits more authority.

This same principle is useful in a wide variety of other settings.  Suppose, for example, that you had decided to embark on a marketing program, and you decided to mail firm literature to some unidentified people and to invite others to lunch, to accept some requests to speak at CLE meetings or to write articles, and to use your box seats at a sporting event to thank or to woo particular clients.  The Decision Tree formula would permit you to delegate this process to a large extent to your assistant by explaining which steps you want her to undertake on her own without reporting back (sending out the marketing materials to new contacts), which you want her to do and to let you know about (setting up lunches with those in a designated group), which you want her to filter and then check with you about (”I don’t think you’ll want to speak at these conferences, but client XYZ always attends this one, so you may want to consider that”), and which decisions require input from you and perhaps others (which clients and colleagues should be invited to the playoffs).

Think today about how you can use Scott’s Decision Tree to clarify your own scope of authority and that of others with whom you work.

Blawg Review #142: Letter to a new lawyer

Susan Carter Liebel of Build a Solo Practice LLC is the host for Blawg Review #142.  Styled as a Letter to a New Lawyer, Susan has done a masterful job of delivering advice by using the titles of the legal blogs that have featured such letters this week.

Here’s a short taste of this week’s review:

And then there is the actual work. You may be nervous you don’t know the law and have to spend an entire Day on Torts because you have no mentors and you get a case which requires real Legal Juice from a seasoned veteran.  Mentors abound.  You just have to ask.  Find an affiliation which works for you. There are more lawyers like yourself looking for the same things then you realize. Or you may be a Mediator in the Making or want to be a PT Law Mom or you can be the Black Sheep of Philly Contract Attorneys discussing unionization of contract lawyers. Alternative ways of doing legal work will happen. Recognize not every lawyer wants to practice law in the traditional way.  Not every client wants to hire lawyers in the traditional way.  This is a reality which must be faced.  So be creative.

This Blawg Review is a grab bag of sorts, since you won’t know the topic of any post until you click on it.  Kudos to Susan for such a useful and lighthearted Blawg Review!

Letter to a young lawyer

Some months ago, Stephanie West Allen requested that fellow bloggers write a “letter to a young lawyer.”  Susan Carter Liebel has recently renewed the request  and I am delighted to join in, at last.

To the new attorney:

Welcome to the practice!  You’ve learned much over the last three years of law school, and you may be somewhat dismayed to discover that your learning is just beginning.  It’s a cliche to say that law school merely teaches you to think like a lawyer, but you’re about to find that there’s quite a bit of truth there.

I’d like to offer you a roadmap of sorts… A short list of foundations that underlie a successful practice.  Think of these as guideposts.

1.  Each time a client entrusts you with a matter, you’ve been granted a sacred trust.  You will have hundreds of clients — perhaps thousands — over the course of your career.  Some may be sophisticated legal consumers, but others will bring to you the only legal matter they’ve ever had.  Whichever camp your client falls into, it is your responsibility to treat the matter as if it’s the most important matter this client will ever have.  That isn’t to say that each client should in effect run your practice (you’d never get anything done), but when a client trusts you enough to request your representation, be aware and respectful of the trust… And earn it.

2.  Remember that the other lawyers in your firm who ask you to do work are your clients.  Act accordingly.

3.  It’s called legal “practice” for a reason.  You’re bright and accomplished, and you’re accustomed to knowing it all.  You’re about to enter a phase in your life in which you’re likely to feel that you know very little.  It’s your opportunity to practice the skills you learned in school, to read the law and to think deeply about it.  You’re going to make mistakes, no doubt.  It’s your duty to learn from each mistake and to make each one only once.  Ask intelligent questions and study the lawyers you admire.  A mentor is invaluable, and here’s a secret: your mentor will learn as much from you as you learn from your mentor.

4.  Begin your business development activities now.  Especially when you’re just beginning to practice, when you know so little about how the law really functions, it’s hard to imagine that you’re going to be responsible for bringing clients in.  Whether that need arises immediately (as of course it will if you’re a sole practitioner) or in a matters of years, you need to lay the groundwork today.  Keep up with your classmates from college and law school.  They may be at the bottom of a corporate rung today, but they (like you) will advance, and the confidence they develop in you over time will position you well to turn a social relationship into a business relationship.  The best marketing flows from superior legal skills plus masterful interpersonal relationships.  Remember that you need to develop both.

5.  Set goals for your career and adjust as appropriate.  Two errors plague lawyers: advancing in practice without having a plan and sticking to a plan even after it’s quit being the right plan.  Spend time determining what you want your life to look like both professionally and personally.  That knowledge will guide your steps as you decide where to practice, whether to stay there or leave, whether to pursue or accept a partnership offer, and much more.  However, be sure that the plan you’re following really fits you.  There’s little worse than climbing to the top of the ladder only to discover that you’ve scaled the wrong wall.

6.  Develop your leadership skills — you’re going to need them.  You may not view yourself as a leader right now, but you’re going to find yourself in a leadership role sooner than you recognize.  Learn how to discipline yourself, how to communicate what’s right, how to stick to your vision and to motivate others to join in the effort, how to convey your presence as a leader.  You’re going to find yourself on a board, in a courtroom, leading a team of lawyers, or bringing your legal skill to a matter of importance in your community.  Learn how a leader behaves and seek opportunities to practice.

7.  Integrate your personal and professional aspects.  You will be most effective in the office when you’re rested and the demands of your personal life are sufficiently met.  It’s unrealistic to imagine that you will always be able to meet those standards, but you must strive to do so.  “Work/life balance” doesn’t mean dividing your time or energy 50/50: it means knowing how to devote your time and attention where you need to, when you need to, according to your values.  Sometimes you’ll have to disappoint friends or family, and sometimes you’ll have to disappoint colleagues or clients.  Learn how to balance competing demands to wring the most out of every moment you have, without wringing yourself out.

8.  Give back.  You may feel overwhelmed when you think of the debt you’ve accumulated while pursuing your degrees.  Never forget that you’re among the most privileged people in the world, whether you’re at the highest paid law firm or the lowest paid public service agency.  Find ways to contribute to your profession and to society.  You will be richer for all you give.

There’s much more to say and learn… And you’re in for the ride of your life.  Welcome to practice!  Go as far and as fast as you can, in service to your clients, your community, your profession, and yourself and your family.

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.”

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.

“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.

Creating “work/life balance”: 5 steps to success

I was in a Starbucks last week reading Beyond the Big Firm: Profiles of Lawyers Who Want Something More.  (Review forthcoming.)  A man sat down at the table next to me, carrying 3 or 4 bar review books, and looking somewhat frazzled.  He kind of nodded to me, and I nodded at his books and asked how he was feeling about the bar.  (In case, you’ve lost count, it ended yesterday in most states.)  As he started talking, out of habit I put my book down to listen — face down on the table, so the cover showed.  He noticed the title, and that’s when the conversation turned interesting.

After some pleasantries (Oh, you graduated from XYZ?  Which BigLaw office?  Oh, great people, great work, you’re going to love it there….) he asked why I was reading that book.  I explained that I’ve now transitioned to coaching lawyers, so I read books that may be of interest to clients or potential clients.  He looked a little worried and asked whether all my clients “want something more” and if that means leaving a big firm.

I crafted my answer carefully, because my clients do typically want more, but that more can be anything from BigLaw partnership to a part-time schedule with great work to leaving the law altogether, and plenty of points in between.  He told me that his friends were going to big firms with the plan to pay off their loans, save some money, get good training, and then move to a smaller firm or hang out a shingle, but that, following a terrific summer clerkship and lots of thought, he really wanted to stick it out and make his career in BigLaw.

And then he admitted that he was worried about balancing that desire with wanting to be an involved dad to his 2-year old and to keep his marriage strong and vibrant.  (Ya gotta love coffeehouse anonymity; it’s the next best thing to anonymous conversation on an airplane.)  I hope he sees today’s post.

Lawyers in firms of all sizes are interested in “work/life balance” (I’m still searching for a more accurate, less loaded phrase).   Steve Seckler of the Counsel to Counsel blog posted this intriguing suggestion last week under the title Getting Control of Your Hours:

The central career issue of our day is finding meaningful work which leaves time for our personal lives. Professionals who charge for their time know this firsthand. In the legal profession, where the pressure to bill more hours has never been greater, this is particularly true.

But choosing a career in law does not automatically require you to sacrifice your whole personal life.With some deliberate thinking and good career planning, it is possible to enjoy a measure of work/life balance even at some of the top law firms.

Fortunately, he then provides 5 excellent steps toward actually accomplishing this goal.  The tips (without his commentary, which expands and clarifies) are:

1.  Focus on work that has predictable flows.
2.  Early in your career, be a “yes” person and do great work.
3.  Build strong partner and client relationships.

4.  Find a firm where the culture supports outside interests.
5.  Learn some time management skills and learn to delegate.

Of course, as Steve points out, “getting control of your hours” or at least “enjoy[ing] a measure of work/life balance” requires forethought, planning, and careful attention.  I would argue that it’s never too late to undertake this process, though it’s likely harder to accomplish if not started early.