Legal Practice Management Advice From The Dusty Corners Of My Closet
Over the Thanksgiving weekend I spent some time cleaning out the closet in my home office. Thankfully I don’t have a ton of papers to get rid of, but I still have quite the archive of old files and data, stored on everything from Zip disks to 3.5inch floppies (!). (Note: A lot of my important stuff is, of course, backed up in the cloud.)
Mixed among my old copies of FPS: Football and Diablo, I came across a few notes on advice I was given during my time as a young lawyer. Stuff I used to jot down, specifically with the intention of someday looking back upon it. Now, with more than a few years of work under my belt, it was fun to see how some of these gems held up (or not) over time. Here’s a few to start – 2 not-so-good, 2 really good.
Setting: 1994, my first day of work at my firm. I walked into my uber-cool new “real lawyer” office, with my (awesome) nameplate on the wall, looked at my desk and asked “Where’s my computer?”
Not-So-Good Advice #1: “Lawyers don’t use computers – we don’t get paid to type.”
Yikes. Not very Nostradamus-like there. By 1994, I’d already been a computer geek for several years (all the way back to writing BASIC games on my TRS-80 and beloved Apple IIe), and was already good with WordPerfect and Lotus 1-2-3.
I could type as fast as I could speak and – more importantly – had become accustomed to composing documents on a screen in front of me, on the fly. The general reluctance to embrace new technology – certainly far from unique to my own firm – was something I got to experience for several years after that, lasting until I started working with technology companies. Better advice: be open minded on new technology, consider the trends, try to stay ahead of the curve – or at least try to understand where things are heading.
Setting: One year into my firm, 1995, hanging out with a few paralegals and secretaries in the lunchroom.
Not-So-Good Advice #2: “We’re all on the same team, but be careful mixing too much with staff.”
If what the partner meant to say was “be careful to remember to always preserve client confidentialities”, or something along those lines, it would’ve jumped into the “good” column – and certainly wouldn’t have been limited to staff interactions. The truth was, as a young lawyer, there were many occasions when if it weren’t for good staff relationships, I’d have been completely sunk. Like many others, I had the academic creds – top grades, Law Review, MBA, etc. – but experienced admins and paralegals had the kind of real-life, practical knowledge that only actual time in the field provides.
These folks always know plenty of extremely useful things – like knowing which corporate service company to use when you need something filed at 4:00pm on Friday, knowing the exact way an uber-picky partner or client wants a draft marked up, or knowing the best way to get a massive mailing out the door at the last minute (and it’s always at the last minute.). Better advice: Spend time getting to know, and learning from, experienced staff.
Now for a few that were just great “as is”.
Great Advice #1: Keep Your Client Informed and Up-To-Speed. This one might be self-evident to a lot of folks, but it wasn’t to me coming right out of school. Whether you’re working as an associate at a larger firm and your “client” is a senior partner, or if you’re thrown right into the fire and working directly with actual clients, you need to communicate early and often. Make sure you’re clear with your client on the objectives, scope, and strategy of a project. You need to make sure that whatever you’re working on, whatever you’re billing for, the client is kept up to speed.
Consider (or ask your partner to consider) if the client ought get a copy of that research memo you drafted, or of the correspondence you sent to opposing counsel – no matter how inconsequential it may seem to you at the time. Communicate, communicate, communicate. Working at a larger firm can sometimes get an academic or distant feel, but never let yourself forget that real money and real people with real problems are at stake. Make sure the client knows what’s going on.
Great Advice #2: Send Your Bills On Time. As a young lawyer, you can get the perception that nobody likes to get a bill – and that perception can end up justifying billing procrastination. However, let me tell you what’s worse – far worse: Getting a big surprise bill, that’s far more than you expect, and several months after the work was performed.
As a consumer of legal services, I can assure you that there is nothing worse (and no more certain way of me looking for a dramatic discount) than to stall on sending me a bill. Typcially, as a business consumer, I’m used to paying my vendor bills on a regular schedule, and usually pretty darn close to when the services for which I’m paying were performed. When that doesn’t happen, it creates all sorts of problems for me. First, I need to try and go back and remember what actually happened, reconstruct my own records, and so forth. Second, if I’m not the final signoff person on payment myself, you can be sure I’m going to have to explain all the facts to that final signoff person, and then paying the bill becomes a “process” rather than a routine event.
You don’t want to get in the “out of the ordinary” pile when you’re looking to get paid. In a way, this is all a repeat of the first piece of advice: communicate. If you’re communicating properly, the client should never be completely surprised by the amount of a current, timely bill. Plus, a timely bill – one that’s consistent with communicated expectations – is far more likely to be paid quickly, and without substantial haggling.
Now that’s great advice.