Category Archives: Careers

Taking The Plunge–Going Solo–But Not Without A Plan!

A diving dachshund pursues a sinking tennis ball underwaterAlmost exactly two years ago, I enrolled in the excellent 14-week class, provided by the Women’s Economic Ventures (WEV) organization in Santa Barbara, on how to write a business plan and start a business. You see, six months earlier, while recovering from emergency surgery to repair the first (of two) detached retinas, I had a vivid and exciting dream about leaving my firm and opening a solo law practice. Well, on March 1st, I’m finally doing it!

My wife had taken and absolutely loved the WEV course to develop her own business plan (to start a unique school for adult women). When I told her about my plan to open my own law practice, she absolutely insisted I take the WEV class, even though I’m . . . not . . . really . . . a woman. Q’est que c’est?  you’re wondering.

It turns out that, despite the moniker, the Women’s Economic Venture classes are open to men. Or men who are brave enough. Out of a class of 30, only 3 or 4 us were men. But I really found the class to be practical and useful. It forced me to think about all sorts of important things crucial to successfully starting a business that I would probably not have thought about until I was 15 months in and potentially struggling.

Like what, you ask?

For starters, there’s cash flow. Even if I am lucky enough to have a plate full of paying work the day I open my doors, under most billing models I have to do the work, submit an invoice, then wait to get paid. I might wait 30 days, or 60, or 90, or . . . Unless I had a bottomless well of cash (if I did I’d lawyer pro bono, or do something else entirely), doing a cash flow analysis as part of a business plan was the only way to have the slightest clue how much I’d need to set aside to get started. And even then I can only forecast how much I’ll bill, how much of that I’ll collect and when I’ll collect it. Educated guess work, but guess work none the less.

Then there’s a marketing plan. I’m not foolish enough to think that being a good lawyer is enough. According to the State Bar website, there are 181,474 active lawyers licensed to practice in California. I’ve got to somehow differentiate myself from the other 181,473 lawyers in order to get hired. Unfortunately, being tall isn’t enough. But the WEV program provided a lot of help in this, including some excellent written materials and exposure to marketing professionals who volunteered their time to help students shape marketing plans.

These are both critical pieces of the puzzle of starting a business from scratch that I could have foolishly skipped over, thinking that two decades of practicing law was preparation enough to jump ship and start rowing. Or swimming. Or treading water. Or . . . Apparently, I’m not alone. While Carolyn Elefant, writing in Solo by Choice (Decision Books 2008), which many consider the Bible of launching a solo law practice, advocates starting with a business plan, she also recognizes that not all solos share this view. She writes:

“For other lawyers, though–especially new or aspiring solos unable to identify immediate sources of revenue–a formal business plan might seem like an exercise in futility.” (Id. at 246.)

But, again, Carolyn urges against falling into this trap:

“Quite the contrary. A ‘business plan’ (which is just business-speak for a simple outline that helps you look ahead, allocate and prioritize resources, and identify future opportunities) will be extremely helpful whatever your circumstances.” (Id.)

One part of the business plan that I would easily have skipped, had I not been doing a class, is the development of a mission statement. It’s not that a mission statement is such a foreign concept. It’s just that I see a mission statement as the kind of guiding principle for larger entities, corporations and nonprofits. Why would a solo employment defense lawyer need a mission statement?

It turns out that this process of formulating a mission statement, even if it’s never communicated to anyone, is a good exercise for understanding why you’re launching your own practice at all. While I recognize there are lots of new lawyers who might be going solo out of necessity, if you’re making the move from a comfortable position in a large or small firm to the uncomfortable, but exhilarating, position of a small business owner with no safety net, it’s a good idea to think about why you’re doing it and what you want your business to look like.  Carolyn Elefant echoes this sentiment:

“A mission statement embodies all that you hope to accomplish in starting your firm. It articulates your vision of what you want to create. Most of all, a mission statement serves as a beacon for your practice, a light that helps illuminates [sic] your path on those days when the judge tears you apart in court, when opposing counsel drives you to tears with insults, or when a problem client brings a disciplinary action against you.” (Id. at 251.)

And my own mission statement? Are you interested? Here goes:

“The Craigie Law Firm exists to provide small and mid-sized companies with a cost-efficient alternative when facing an employment claim or lawsuit. By combining skilled lawyering with a clear explanation of each step in the dispute resolution process, and a sincere willingness to work under alternative fee and billing arrangements, the Firm strives to bring confidence and predictability to the challenging circumstances of a lawsuit.”

It’s kind of weird to read it again after some time has passed. On reflection, I would probably change it slightly. Specifically, I’ve always prided myself on being a litigator–a courtroom lawyer–who’s strongest skills are dispute advocacy. Hence, the mission statement’s focus only on clients “. . . facing an employment claim or lawsuit.” In the two years since I crafted this statement, however, I’ve really come to appreciate the preventative role an employment lawyer should play in his client’s business. So, a revised mission statement would probably give dispute prevention equal billing with dispute advocacy.

I’m candidly elated at the prospect of launching my own practice. Wish me luck.


Should Young Lawyers Specialize?

"One word . . . plastics." -The Graduate

“One word . . . plastics.”
-The Graduate

I never for a moment thought about pursuing a career as a transactional attorney. I entered law school for the wrong reasons. I knew I could think, write and argue reasonably well. I was a liberal arts major (Philosophy and Literature-Writing) and did not really appreciate how such skills could translate into success in the business world. And I did not think I would enjoy a career as an educator.

So, I did exactly what I would urge no one do today: I took the LSAT, got into law school, and went to law school, without having any particular passion about the law.

If anyone had asked back then–and I don’t think anyone did–what I planned to do with that law degree, what area I’d practice in, what I wanted to do everyday, if and how I would make a difference, I wouldn’t have had a clue. When I was interviewing and starting my career, there were vastly more jobs in litigation, so I became a litigator. I started out doing insurance defense, but not the interesting kind, and immediately grew bored with fender-benders (“Was the light red or green?”) and slip-and-fall lawsuits (“Was the banana you slipped on yellow or green?”). Fortunately, I got hired right away at a boutique firm that did more interesting work (at least from my perspective). I quickly became a “specialist” in automotive product liability litigation, specifically suits relating to the performance of automobile air bags, which was an emerging technology at that time.

I remained a “specialist” in this area, with a smattering of other kinds of cases, for about the first 10 years of my career. However, I eventually figured out that, deep down, I’m not really a gear-head, and it shouldn’t be a big surprise that the lawyers who really excel in automotive product liability litigation, and who most enjoy what they do, are those who are interested in cars. Well, duh!?!

I eventually migrated to employment law for a number of reasons. First, and most practically, it was the only area that I was able to get any early traction in terms of developing my own clients. Equally important, however, being the opposite of a gear-head, I found I enjoyed disputes that arose out of (often flawed) interpersonal relationships in the workplace. Also, I had long felt that employment law was fertile ground for building a book of business, since every, EVERY employer, particularly in California, needs an employment lawyer. If they haven’t needed one yet–they will!

I had not intended this post to be a memoir. I recognize that my career path probably makes dry reading. But I wanted to tackle a topic that I think is important for law students, recent graduates and those still in the early years of their career: should you attempt to specialize? Like most people, I’m narcissistic and can only approach a personal question by starting from my own experience.

In any event, I posed this question to someone who has a fair amount of expertise in helping lawyers make the most of their legal careers. Gideon Grunfeld, the President of Rainmaking For Lawyers, was gracious enough to provide this valuable insight:

“Too many lawyers get shortsighted advice about whether they should specialize and what that means. There are substantive areas, such as tax, ERISA, and patents, where specialization is almost a necessity. But there are many areas, such as business litigation, where specialization can be counterproductive. Rather than focusing on the substantive nature of the law and, for example, specializing in trade-secret litigation, it’s better to encourage young lawyers to identify the clients they most want to serve. Thus, for example, if someone has a passion for high-tech start-ups, they can focus on cultivating relationships in that world and position themselves to solve the full panoply of legal issues that arise for that market or audience. For most young lawyers this is a more robust not to say more fun way to practice law and build a client base.”

I tend to agree with Gideon’s advice. I like the notion of letting one’s specialty develop organically. In my case, it developed because someone close to me gave my business development efforts a big jumpstart by referring employment cases my way. I found I liked it and wanted to pursue it further. This is pretty much the opposite approach from deciding I wanted to practice entertainment law because I like to go to the movies (which I do).

What I would really caution against is remaining in a practice that never brings you any thrills. Even though I’m not a gear-head, there were parts of my products liability practice that I found compelling. I recognize that this is not the market for young lawyers to quit a job on a whim. On the other hand, there is nothing wrong with developing a mid or long-term career plan to move away from an area that brings you no joy, with the hope of finding something more fulfilling. If I was still fighting cases about people who tripped on a public sidewalk, I’d have to open a vein. But that’s just me.


When You Realize Clients Don’t Grow On Trees

cash1Some lawyers are lucky enough to breeze through a successful, maybe even lucrative, career without ever thinking once about finding new clients. This post is intended for the rest of us.

If you are in private practice, in business for yourself or a member, at whatever level, of a law firm, chances are pretty good that you will not excel in your career without becoming at least passably adept at identifying and developing new clients. I know there are some firms and some clients in which one can succeed simply by expanding the amount of work the firm does for an existing client, or you may be lucky enough to inherit a retiring or expiring lawyer’s book of business. Good for you. Even so, except in the rarest cases, only a fool would presume any single client will remain loyal forever.

If I haven’t convinced you, I don’t know what more to say, except to suggest you heed the often-quoted advice from financial planners that you keep an emergency savings account with several months–even a year’s worth of expenses set aside. Your job will never be secure. (Of course, that’s really true for all of us.)

For most of us, though, it’s not a matter of whether you need to cultivate clients, but when. When I conceived of this post–which could easily be (and sometimes is) the sole subject of an entire book, I had in mind addressing two issues that I’ve personally had to confront in my quest to develop my own stable of clients. These are: (1) the inevitable time squeeze and (2) the concept of freely giving.

1. The Time Squeeze.

As writer Mohsin Hamid points out, “Time is our most precious currency.” If you’re like me, you are going to feel a “squeeze” or shortage of this precious currency when you really commit to building business. To illustrate what I mean, let’s imagine that you work at a firm that expects–expressly or otherwise–that you will work and bill 1,900 hours in a given year. (When I say “bill” in this context, I’m referring only to hours that are chargeable to a paying client, i.e., excluding any hours spent doing pro bono, management activities, continuing education, networking and bar association events.)

Next imagine that, before you started on your quest to develop a book of business, you routinely spent 100 hours a year doing any of the other non-chargeable things listed above, including pro bono. For this illustration then, you are expected to devote 2,000 hours every year to both the practice and business of being a lawyer. If we give you a 2 week vacation, then you will be working and recording time–both chargeable and otherwise–40 hours per week. For most people earning a full-time salary, this sounds pretty fair. I don’t disagree.

The “squeeze” I was referring to comes when you start adding in time committed exclusively to finding new clients. I didn’t plan to write a compendium of all of the possible ways you could spend this time, but a quick and dirty list could include: attending events at professional networking, local state and national bar and practice area associations/groups, follow-up breakfast/lunch/coffee meetings with members of these groups to develop a rapport and cultivate a referral relationship, writing articles, lecturing, providing training and useful information to prospective clients, and developing a (hopefully) growing stable of contacts to be mined for potentially lucrative relationships (with the attendant breakfast/lunch/coffee meetings to develop a rapport and cultivate a referral relationship).†

How much time would you expect to spend doing these activities–if you really want or need to grow a book of business? 1 hour a day? 2? 3? If you averaged just one hour a day devoted to these activities, you’ll be adding about 250 hours to your 2,000 hour year, meaning you’d be working a total of 2,250 hours, or 45 hours a week, assuming you took a 2 week vacation (but no other holidays, so plan on working on Thanksgiving!). Again, many would view this as a fair investment, given the prospect of increased earning potential and job security.

But . . . if you can do it with a commitment of only 1 hour a day, I’d be both impressed and amazed. I say this because, each networking event I attend (roughly weekly) consumes at least 3 hours, including travel. The professional organization to which I belong creates an opportunity to have a “troika” follow-up breakfast or lunch with two other professionals from the group after each meeting. Assume, with travel, each of these meals consumes at least 2 hours, then I’ve already used up 5 hours for the entire week. Which would be fine if this activity alone was enough to gain all the new business I need. Unfortunately, doing this activity alone won’t be enough. Not nearly enough.

I think you’re starting to see what I mean by time squeeze. At this juncture, I probably spend between 10-15 hours of each week devoted to marketing efforts, though some of these are candidly spent on nonchargeable work at the front end of every new client or case (in other words, when I get a new engagement, I invariably spend hours looking at the matter, communicating with the (potential) client, researching a judge, budgeting, etc., none of which do I typically treat as chargeable). If you combine that with the responsibility to work chargeable hours, additional hours required to handle law practice management tasks, CLE, etc., it’s starting to look like a 2,500 hour year, which may be fine if you’re single and do nothing but work, but if you have a family . . .

Everyone faced with this time squeeze must decide their own best way to deal with it, because it presents a challenge. Do you spend less time with your family, forego personal time or regular exercise, reduce billable productivity? There’s no way to please everyone, but you’re only going to short-sell yourself career-wise if you’re in private practice and don’t make client development a serious goal at some point.

2. Freely Giving.

I’ve previously written about giving value-in-advance. This is really just an extension of that advice. In his excellent book, The Marble and the Sculptor, Associate’s Mind blogger Keith Lee included a chapter entitled “Attracting Clients and Business Development.” He discussed this notion of freely giving this way:

“So the big question, one that almost all new lawyers struggle with, is: How do you attract clients?

At the most basic level, it means being willing to give without expecting anything in return. This is often difficult for many people. People, not just lawyers, expect quid pro quo for the things they do. But it is often especially true for lawyers, as their trade is knowledge. Lawyers have received specialized, narrow training in a field and they tend to want to closely guard this knowledge as it enables them to charge clients hundreds of dollars an hour in return for access and use of that knowledge. It can be anathema to attorneys to share information freely as it might somehow devalue their knowledge assets.” (The Marble and the Sculptor (ABA 2013), at 68.)

This reluctance to freely share knowledge must be resisted and, ultimately, overcome. Why? Because sharing information without expectation of compensation creates a store of goodwill and provides prospective clients with an easy way to appreciate your expertise. Because in the real world many prospective clients will be unwilling to hire a lawyer for the first time without some kind of assurance that the lawyer is up to the task. Because it is one way to stand apart.

†A long time ago (relatively speaking) I wrote a post encouraging new law school graduates to make an effort to stay in touch with every person they got to know during school. If you followed this advice beginning at graduation, by the time you were in serious client development mode, at least some of those classmates would be in a position to refer business your way, whether they are in-house, general counsel or just fellow professionals. One really successful rainmaker I know used this method to jump start his book of business, which now hovers in the $3 million range.


One Lawyer’s Secret Weapon

yrtA lawyer I know, he has a Secret Weapon. When I get around to revealing it, you’re going to be surprised, because it’s so obvious. But it totally works.

First, a pop quiz:

Question One: What do you do when you’re trying to negotiate with an opposing lawyer over something small, but important–say an extension to respond to discovery–which, among professionals–people who wear white collars and silk ties to work, who attended years and years of expensive schooling, passed excruciatingly difficult examinations, swore an ethical oath–would seem to be an easy thing to agree upon–what do you do when this opposing lawyer unreasonably refuses, without any explanation, this simple, routine request?

Question Two: What do you do when you’re sitting across from that same lawyer in a cramped conference room, taking his client’s deposition and, over the course of several hours, he repeatedly insults and demeans you, challenges you to justify every third question, asks no less than five times “how much longer” you’re going to be, persistently interrupts you mid-question to interject the start of what will surely be a long, inappropriate speaking objection, and instructs his client not to answer at least seventeen times?

These questions are not directed to what you do the next day, or whenever you ultimately resort to serving objections, or moving the court to compel answers to the deposition questions and seeking sanctions, or asking the court to appoint a discovery referee.  I’m asking what do you do in the heat of the moment, while your heart rate is still elevated.

If you’re me–and believe me I’m not bragging here–you take everything personally, get pissed off, turn beet red and start talking with the snappy sarcasm of a desperate salesman in a Mamet play. You see: I haven’t mastered the Secret Weapon. I can talk a good game. I’ve written over and over about the wisdom of maintaining a professional, cooperative demeanor in litigation. But when the rubber meets the road I struggle to avoid stooping to an unprofessional opponent’s level, or (gasp) worse. No, I haven’t yet mastered the Secret Weapon.

But you can. The good news is that YOU CAN master the Secret Weapon. When the lawyer I’m thinking of is faced with the above, or worse, he pulls out his Secret Weapon and does this: he simply acts nice. He meets rudeness, lack of professionalism–you name it–with an oversized bucketful of fluffy pink kindness.

It’s impressive to see. Picture Roger Federer being pelted with a barrage of ugly, aggressive cross-court winners and absorbing and converting the energy, speed and spin of each angry ball, only to gracefully return it with nothing more than an easy, gentle lob. In fact, like CIA assassin Jason Bourne, whose manner of calm resolve seems actually to increase in a disturbing direct proportion to any rising threat of imminent capture or death, this lawyer’s attitude of kind, gracious, solicitude seems to actually grow in direct proportion to the lack of professionalism of an opponent.

He invariably takes the high road. He literally kills them with kindness. Is it always easy for him? I doubt it. Is he sincere in his “attitude of kind, gracious, solicitude”? Who cares. He’s getting the job done. In most encounters, his weapon immediately deflates a situation that in my fat, clumsy hands would become a runaway train wreck. It works. It really does. Try it next time you’re dealing with a total asshole less than professional member of our profession, you’ll see.


Be A Superlative Local Counsel

asdfreI previously wrote about the circumstances in which it makes sense strategically, financially or otherwise to involve local counsel. Here I want to draw on my experiences as an attorney who has frequently both hired and been hired as local counsel to offer some suggestions on ways you can be an outstanding local counsel.

One observation at the outset. Some lawyers or firms view the role of being local counsel to another “lead” lawyer or firm as less than desirable. They see it as somehow akin to being a second class citizen in the context of a lawsuit (or, I suppose, deal). While lawyers who have this attitude will usually swallow their pride and do the work, assuming they perceive the engagement as fiscally attractive, they never really put their hearts into it. I’ve had good fortune over the years with the firms I’ve hired as local counsel. And I hope my client firms have felt I brought value to our cases.

But I have sensed this kind of friction on occasion, particularly where my partners and I, as lead counsel, insist we do tasks that local counsel believe (perhaps accurately) that they would perform better and cheaper. This decision is usually based either on our financial arrangement with the client (a flat fee, for example) or because we perceive the client expects that we, as lead counsel, will do the work. There’s not much to say to local counsel in these circumstances beyond, I suppose, get over it.

With that piece of throat-clearing out of the way, here are some thoughts about what local counsel can do to set themselves apart and, in doing so, make future engagements more likely.

1. Put yourself in lead counsel’s shoes. Acting as local counsel is unique and calls for a kind of flexible, outside-the-box kind of thinking. Rather than “how would I handle this (situation, development, procedural requirement, etc.)?” the relevant question becomes “what does the client (i.e., lead) firm need to know in order to make an informed decision what to do under the circumstances.” This can be challenging because it may require a lawyer to suppress or ignore her own instincts about what to do, which sometimes conflicts with what the client/lead firm ultimately decides to do.

2. Don’t take much (or anything) for granted. Experience litigating in multiple venues may give us an idea how things are “generally done.” But some jurisdictions do things radically different. For example, the state courts in my home, California, have a very specific procedural scheme, particularly with respect to expert discovery. Out-of-state practitioners struggle to follow our rules of civil procedure because they are unique. Other states adopt procedures that seem to mirror the Federal Rules. The key for local counsel is not to assume your lead counsel knows what is required, even if your state court procedure is mostly on par with the Federal Rules.

3. What do you know about the judge? This is probably obvious, but one of the reasons to hire local counsel is for information and to have local connections. The best local counsel are active in their local bar association and/or Inns of Court. Excluding improper ex parte communications or other unethical influence, it is really helpful when the judge recognizes and respects our local counsel. Educating lead counsel about the judge is another area that is really helpful. You are our eyes and ears on the ground in the local venue.

4. What do you know about opposing counsel? Ditto from above. Even if not friendly or social, do you have–or can you develop–the kind of rapport with opposing counsel that will easily facilitate extension requests or other courtesies? Does opposing counsel have a pattern? Are they lazy until the last 90 days before trial? Do they always fight hard and then settle? Are they competent in front of a jury? Do they know the judge well? Even if you don’t know the answers to these questions, you should have the resources (i.e., connections within the local bar) to ferret them out.

5. What makes your venue potentially unique? This goes back to not assuming anything. The procedural routines you’ve dealt with your entire career may be completely unique and unfamiliar to your lead counsel. Think of this on both micro and macro levels.

6. Exponentially increase lead time. I’ll confess this has been a personal challenge, but you absolutely must think far in advance and let your lead counsel know about upcoming events and deadlines.

A perfect example is California’s summary judgment procedure. I cannot speak to how summary judgment motions are scheduled in other jurisdictions, but the California Code of Civil Procedure requires dispositive motions be heard 30 days before trial. The Code also requires 75 days notice (assuming personal service) of the motion (with additional notice if served by mail, overnight, etc.). While this seems easy to calculate, the rub comes with the clogged dockets of our virtually bankrupt state court system, which can make it all but impossible to ultimately schedule a hearing date within the necessary window if a party does not begin the scheduling process very early. There is authority which suggests the court’s docket, etc. cannot deny a party the right to bring a dispositive motion, but the practical impact of delay will include expensive additional, sometimes nail-biting  procedures, like ex parte applications to have motions specially set the hearing and/or to reduce notice.

7. Communicate, communicate, communicate with lead counsel. And then make sure you communicate some more. Seriously.

8. Don’t friggin’ poach the client. The idea behind taking this work is not as an angle toward poaching the client away from lead counsel. If you see it otherwise, you’re not doing anyone, including yourself, any favors.

9. Do what you can to make lead counsel shine in the eyes of the client. When you’re hired by a general counsel, legal staff member or claims adjuster, it should be an important goal to make that person look good in the eyes of those to whom they answer, whether it is a board of directors, a more senior legal staff member or a claims superintendent. When you get a local counsel gig, make it a goal to make your lead counsel shine in the eyes of their client.

Because I am at the stage in my career where I am aggressively building my own practice, I take opportunities to act as local counsel for what they are–great opportunities to work for new clients and with different lawyers. There’s no reason you shouldn’t do the same.


American Lawyer, Eastern Mindset

MarbleandtheSculptorcover-683x1024I have long found much to admire about Keith Lee’s writing in his well-regarded Associate’s Mind blog. His voice is intelligent, but accessible. His tone is informed, but not condescending. His consistent message about the state of our profession is tough, but not without optimism.

I was pleased to find all of these qualities and more in his recently published first book, The Marble And The Sculptor.

What I particularly appreciate about Lee’s thoughts, as expressed in his words, is how they are often infused with precious pearls of Eastern wisdom. It is refreshing, at a time when the business of law threatens to eclipse what was once regarded as a noble profession, to encounter a fellow lawyer who strives to penetrate deeper into what it means to undertake a legal education, to prepare for and pass the bar examination and, finally, to carve out one’s own place within our profession. The decision to commit to this profession is a serious one, and Lee invariably addresses these issues with unflinching candor.

As an undergraduate student of Western philosophy, I occasionally flirted in a superficial way with Eastern thinking on issues of metaphysics, epistemology and religion. But I never let my guard down or did the work necessary to really grasp the Eastern mind. Again, when my wife and I traveled throughout Asia during our sabbatical, I was confronted and tried to learn about the Eastern religions, the teachings of the Buddha, the Hindu belief system and others, including radical Jainism. But regardless of my immersion, those teachings remained essentially foreign to my Western-bred mind.

Lee forces me to revisit the Eastern mind, but to apply that way of thinking to my own chosen profession as a lawyer attempting to practice here, in America. As the rapidly growing blawgosphere demonstrates, pretty much anybody can write about law. The difference in reading Lee is not only that he has something to say, but what he says carries a much larger, often universal import. His how-to manual for newly-minted lawyers would not require much revision to serve as a how-to manual for success in any career, or even in life. I believe it is his Eastern mindset that gives Lee’s words their added wisdom, their depth.

Much of Lee’s advice for succeeding both as a law student and a lawyer comes down to one quality: discipline. It’s not an accident that Lee came to law school, as he puts it, “a bit later in life” at twenty-seven. After college, he spent a year as a runner/project assistant/gopher at a large law firm. Yet, even after this experience cemented his certainty that he wanted to be a lawyer, he did not enter law school right away, but instead moved to Canada to train as an ichi deshi to a shihan (master) for nearly a year. He briefly describes this experience as

” . . . crazy and awesome and painful and beautiful — one of the best and most difficult experiences in my life. It’s the sort of thing that’s hard to encapsulate in words. Sleeping in a storage closet under the stairs in the basement of the dojo on a thin mat. Subsisting primarily on rice, vegetables and PB&Js (okay, and beer on occasion). Training five to eight hours a day, five to six days a week. Bleeding toes and cracked ribs. Scrubbing toilets and washing mats. Friendships gained and lost. Intense spiritual moments of training and camaraderie, intense times of loneliness and introspection. No TV, no movies, no cellphone.” (Id. at 97-98.)

Not exactly Club Med. But perfect training for the mental discipline needed to become a successful professional. Describing the training during this period, Lee writes:

“After the lecture there would be an hour or so breakdown on one technique, perhaps one movement. A pivot or a shift of hips or moving into position against your partner. A single movement could be repeated hundreds of times. Occasionally I would be told the movement was correct. Mostly I would be told that the movement was wrong.

It was aggravating. It was boring. It was difficult. Deliberate, long, tiresome, and trying. After the tenth repetition of a movement I would grow bored. At the thirtieth, my mind started to wander. At the sixtieth I was barely concentrating. At the hundredth, my mind had become still and there was only the movement.” (Id. at 98.)

This focus on discipline as the key to growth as a lawyer is echoed throughout The Marble And The Sculptor. From one’s selection of law school electives, to developing key relationships, to balancing the competing demands of family and law school and, later, law practice, he returns again and again to the notion of discipline. Lee writes:

“Every lawyer, every person you meet, was once young, naive, and ignorant as you are. It is now your personal responsibility–no one else’s–to mature and develop into a competent lawyer who is fit to be trustworthy of a client’s problems.” (Id. at 21.)

Another vein that travels throughout the book is the notion of humility, which I believe also finds its genesis in his Eastern studies. There is a tendency, after you’ve devoted years of your life and a small fortune to finish law school, excelled on law review or moot court or whatever, to take yourself pretty seriously as a brand new lawyer. Lee gently reminds readers that, as new lawyers, you don’t know shit.

But his purpose isn’t to cut baby lawyers down. Rather, Lee is interested in teaching the kind of humility that is found in Eastern thought and easily seen in the martial arts, in the interest of helping you on your path to becoming a professional. He writes:

“After obtaining my black belt, did I consider myself a master? When I received my JD and passed the Bar, did I consider myself an expert lawyer? Of course not. They’re ridiculous propositions.

Traditionally, a black belt has only meant one thing: you were now considered a serious student. Everything before was playtime. Training wheels. Getting a black belt only signifies that you have mastered the basics and are ready to begin dedicated study. The same is true with a JD. Having a JD doesn’t indicate mastery of the law. It’s merely a signifier that you are probably ready to step onto the playing field. What follows is up to you.” (Id. at 102-03 (emphasis in original).)

Readers of Lee’s blog, as well as his new book, quickly learn that his choice of title for the blog, Associate’s Mind, was no accident, but reflects this essentially Eastern attitude of humility toward our profession. He writes:

“So, during my final year of law school, I started a legal blog titled Associate’s Mind, a play on words of a concept in Zen known as shoshin, or ‘beginner’s mind.’ A ‘beginner’s mind’ refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner in that subject would.

I wanted to adopt this mindset in my practice of law. The idea that an associate should be flexible and open to new ideas and processes, while being mindful of the guidance of those who have tread the road before them. ” (Id. at xii.)

I encourage you to read Lee’s new book, and to subscribe and follow Associate’s Mind. You will find there pearls of the kind of wisdom our profession desperately needs at this difficult time.


A System Without A Goal Is Not A Good System

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” . . . and a donut without a hole, is a Danish.”
-Caddyshack

In a media dialogue between two minds I greatly admire, Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, and Associate’s Mind blogger and newly-published book author Keith Lee, the notion of setting goals recently took a severe beating.

Adams kicked off the goal-bashing in an entertaining Wall Street Journal piece, “What’s the best way to climb to the top? Be a failure.” Waxing autobiographically about the twists and turns that ultimately led to his huge success as a cartoonist, Adams suggests that goals, like diets, are basically a recipe for failure or disappointment, or both. He says:

“To put it bluntly, goals are for losers. That’s literally true most of the time. For example, if your goal is to lose 10 pounds, you will spend every moment until you reach the goal—if you reach it at all—feeling as if you were short of your goal. In other words, goal-oriented people exist in a state of nearly continuous failure that they hope will be temporary.

If you achieve your goal, you celebrate and feel terrific, but only until you realize that you just lost the thing that gave you purpose and direction. Your options are to feel empty and useless, perhaps enjoying the spoils of your success until they bore you, or to set new goals and re-enter the cycle of permanent presuccess failure.”

So, since “goals are for losers,” Adams suggests we settle into a comfortable couch and spark some high-resin Bob Hope, right? Sadly, no. Instead, he suggests the recipe for success is found in developing “systems.” Unlike goals, systems are not only durable but evolutionary. He writes:

“Throughout my career I’ve had my antennae up, looking for examples of people who use systems as opposed to goals. In most cases, as far as I can tell, the people who use systems do better. The systems-driven people have found a way to look at the familiar in new and more useful ways.”

For his part, in a post entitled “Goals Are For Losers,” Lee embraces Adams’ mantra hook, line and sinker. Because Lee tends to focus on our development as lawyers, he suggests that systems are the path to success as a lawyer. He says:

“This focus on systems – and systematic improvement – can apply to almost every aspect of being a lawyer. Want to improve your writing? Develop a system in which you consistently write and receive feedback. Want to improve oral argument skills? Get together with other lawyers and set up an informal meeting/group devoted to affording lawyer the opportunity to engage in oral arguments and receive feedback. Think mock trial team from law school. Hell get your firm or the local bar to sponsor/support it. You can’t just skate by and hope to succeed as a lawyer. You have to work at it.”

I’m here to say that I haven’t heard so much empty linguistic sophistry about “systems” from intelligent minds since I finished that awful Hegel seminar my last quarter at UC San Diego. Both Adams and Lee are spot on that systems are indeed the path to success. And Adams is absolutely right that all of us are going to encounter failure along that road. After all, failure and adversity are what teach us resilience and build our character.

Where both go wrong, however, is in the suggestion that we abandon goals. Whaaaa?

What is a system without a goal? It’s just an exercise. We wouldn’t “consistently write and receive feedback,” as Lee suggests, for the sake of writing and receiving feedback. We use this system to help reach the GOAL of becoming a better writer. If you were going to take time out of your otherwise busy life to “set up an informal meeting/group devoted to affording . . . the opportunity to engage in oral arguments and receive feedback,” you would do so in order to reach the GOAL of becoming a better oral advocate. (Brief aside: don’t bother “setting up” any such thing, just join Toastmasters.)

There are perpetual students who obtain multiple degrees and never really leave school. But they have a system–just no goal. Goals are the key to success, as the authors’ own success aptly–but perhaps unwillingly–illustrate. Keith Lee would never have become a lawyer without setting the GOALS of graduating from college, getting into law school, then completing law school. He wouldn’t have built a wildly successful and influential blawg without the GOAL of building a quality law blog. And, he would not have a new book worth reading if he had not set the GOAL of finishing a book worth reading.

The key here is not to abandon goal-setting. Rather, once you set a goal, develop a system to reach that goal. And be flexible about adjusting that goal if it begins to seem unrealistic or you suffer a major set back, which is reasonably likely.

On the other side of the coin, when you achieve a goal, don’t spiral into depression, feeling “empty and useless, perhaps enjoying the spoils of your success until they bore you.” Set a new goal! Reach higher and farther.

And read Dilbert. Often.


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