I retired from the practice of law in 2013. I spent 43 years as a transactional attorney, mostly as a partner with Foley & Lardner, LLP. Neither of my children decided to become lawyers, so I never thought to share much with them about the lessons I learned during my years of practice that helped me succeed as a partner in a large law firm. Since I believe there is some “wisdom” to be gained from my experience, I decided to share some of them with you in this three-part series. Part one of this series can be found here.
Manage Your Legal Career
You need to manage your own legal career. At the New York City firm where I started practicing law, there was a senior associate who I thought was a terrific lawyer. He was single, so he was willing to work even longer hours than the long hours worked by the rest of us. This allowed him to retain a significant amount of work that he had started doing as a younger associate, even though he was also doing lots of much more sophisticated partner level work. He was passed over for partnership because the partners felt that his total mix of work wasn’t sophisticated enough, even though no one had suggested that he give up the less sophisticated work, and he was the hardest working associate in the department. To me this proved the truth of the old adage that “no good deed goes unpunished”.
At the time this was happening, I was assigned a repetitive task that today would be done by a paralegal. It involved liquidating and dissolving hundreds of subsidiary corporations that had been created by the parent for tax reasons, and that were now going out of business. This had to be done correctly or the parent corporation could suffer significant adverse tax consequences. I was told that this work was for a very important firm client, and that in the two prior years, the associates assigned this work had been offended by the nature of the assignment, had handled it badly, and had been fired as a result. I decided that the only way I could survive this assignment was to view it as a challenge rather than a burden. I designed a system of coded master forms and lists that matched (today’s computers would have made this a piece of cake), so that a secretary only had to fill in a few blanks on several of these master forms for each corporation, which made the proof reading very easy. In a few days, all the work was done, and using form letters, the documents were mailed to Secretaries of State across the country. In about a month, all of the corporations had been liquidated and dissolved, and appropriate evidence of this was in the files.
I reported to the partner I was working for that the work was completed. He expressed disbelief and asked to see what I had done. When I showed him the system I had created, he told me that I had done such a good job that he would ask me to do it again next year. I told him that he could give my system to someone else, but that if he asked me to do it again I would quit. He knew I was serious, gave me credit for turning lemons into lemonade, and I was never asked to do anything like that again. So if you are given a really bad job to do, accept it graciously, do it great, and try hard never to have to do it again. However, in today’s much tougher legal market, you might decide not to actually threaten to quit unless you are quite confident about your next career move.
Be A Little Paranoid About Typos
There is an old saying that if you give the client bad legal advice, the client may never know, but if you misspell the client’s name, the client will always know. While it is virtually impossible to eliminate all typos during a long legal career, even with spell check, I have certainly tried. I proof read everything twice before I sent it to be sure the content was correct, the tone was right, and that there were no typos. In addition, if the document that I was working on had gone through multiple drafts to reflect the terms of ongoing negotiations, then I always read the near final draft from front to back as if I had never seen it before.
While it takes lots of discipline to do this, it is one of the most important things that I learned from my first mentor. Why important? To cite a few examples, by following this practice I found options in leases that were exercisable by the wrong party, conflicting contractual provisions in long documents that had been revised in one place but not conformed in other places, incorrect cross-references, and important issues that had not been addressed but that needed to be because of what I had learned during the negotiations. I am sure that this practice helped me avoid malpractice claims and litigation over the meaning of documents that I helped negotiate and draft.
Learning Where to Hit
My mentors taught me that there is a difference between motion and forward motion in the practice of law. Every day that you come to work there are probably lots of things you could do for your clients. Prioritize them so that the things you do first are the ones that are likely to advance the ball rather than just move it from side to side.
I am a terrible chess player because I can’t see more than one or two moves ahead. However, in my practice I developed the ability to see how all of the pieces of a transaction fit together. That allowed me to develop a plan, identify the necessary documents, and prioritize my actions so that I could help push a transaction to closing.
There is an old joke about the driver who brought his car into a gas station because the engine was knocking. The attendant got a hammer and hit the engine, which immediately stopped knocking. The driver asked how much the repair cost. The attendant said $100. The driver thought that was a lot and asked for an itemized bill. The attendant gave him one. It said “Hitting car with hammer-$1. Knowing where to hit-$99”. It is important that you learn where to hit.
No Problem Without a Solution
As a young lawyer you lack the experience that older lawyers can draw on to help them solve their client’s problems. Every matter you work on is brand new, and many of the problems you encounter will have no clear answer. I learned to ask myself what I would recommend to the client if I were the only lawyer working on the matter. I would develop proposed solutions and then present them to the partner at the same time that I described the problems, with the caveat that I might be wrong because of my limited experience. I found this proactive approach to be well received by most partners. I would revise this approach for individual partners who preferred a less proactive approach.
Public Speaking Is an Art
Learn how to do public speaking. This is a real skill, and you should get some training to do it right. I thought I was pretty good at it until as a 40 year old partner I took a public speaking training course with some young associates. I went first and made a short presentation, and was then critiqued by the group. One of the young associates who did a lot of work with me said that my presentation was “too scripted and technical, and that my personality and sense of humor had vanished”. I found her comments to be extremely helpful, and they have stayed with me through many years of public speaking. I also was quite proud of her for being willing to speak the truth to me. However, she knew and trusted me. If you choose to speak truth to power, be careful to pick the right time, place and person to do it with.
If you take any of this advice, and it helps you become a partner, please “pay it forward”, and become a mentor to one or more young associates who will benefit from your wisdom.
Thanks for reading this.