Category Archives: The Craft of Lawyering

My Newfound Obsession With Process

???????As the launch date for my solo practice approaches, I find myself obsessed in a way I never was before in my law practice about the subject of process. I have developed the belief that my own practice is far more likely to be both successful and satisfying if I establish a solid set of systems for how my business will operate.

This isn’t brain surgery, of course. I’ve been influenced by blogs I’ve read and the excellent law practice start-up books by Carolyn Elefant and Jay Foonberg. Specifically on the subject of process, however, I learned a lot from The E-Myth Attorney, by Michael Gerber, Robert Armstrong and Sanford Fisch.

The central notion of The E-Myth Attorney, about which I’ve previously written, is that law firms, whether a solo practice, small partnership or large firm, should adopt and meticulously implement specific systems for every single thing the business does, from greeting clients, to filing papers to making coffee. Ideally, under the E-Myth model, these systems will be reduced to a handbook that can be handed to every new employee as they walk in the door. As Gerber, et al. write:

“With the right systems, your law firm will . . . reflect your vision about practicing law. What is going to make your firm unique? Why should prospective clients pick your firm over all others? What special place will your practice occupy in the community?

In the beginning, maybe it was just about the money. Get the clients in the door and start generating as many fees as you can. But we all know that’s not a sustainable business model and, more importantly, will not ultimately serve you or your clients.

But when you implement systems, you create the machine that can work independently of you. You give your employees the roadmap they need to do the things that need to get done.

•  This is how we greet clients.

•  This is how we draft documents.

•  This is how we take a deposition.

•  This is how we prepare for trial.

•  This how we manage our finances.

•  This is how we generate leads and convert them into retained clients.

•  This is how we hire great people.

And so on and so on . . .” (Id. at 66-67.)

Applying this concept to my own world, what kind of systems am I developing for my new practice? First, a major priority for my firm is to be as paperless as possible while maintaining a reliable filing system. While litigators in California are still required to serve documents in paper by mail (in addition, perhaps, to email or fax service), I think this practice will soon be history. Already most courts I deal with do fax and electronic filing. Most lawyers I deal with prefer to receive documents by email. So, I suspect there will be only limited need to serve or hand-deliver anything in paper form before too long.

Embracing paperless practices, if done systematically, will reduce overhead associated with having a file clerk (or, gasp, doing it myself), and it will reduce storage space (and attendant cost). Using the system I’m developing will, moreover, make it easier to instantly access a document without the need to carry large, bulky files with me wherever I go. So, the system will be to convert any document I receive by mail, fax or email into a pdf file that can be saved–and is immediately saved–in an appropriate sub-sub-sub folder created for a particular client, matter, category (discovery) and sub-category (interrogatories). Again, I recognize that this isn’t rocket science, but it is one example of how I’m focusing lots of energy at the outset in developing systems for each aspect of my practice that can be reasonably systematized.

Of course, not everything can be done according to a system. Part of the reason lawyers are in demand and charge a financial premium is that we are taught not to think one dimensionally about a legal problem. In other words, the solution to a problem that best serves my client might not be the most obvious solution. It might require an innovative approach that is exactly the opposite of what our system would prescribe. But this is not an exception that swallows the rule. Rather, it is by subjecting tasks that are logically capable of systematization to a rigorous system, that we are freed up to devote time and mental energy to solving our client’s most complex problems in innovative ways.


Learn To Negotiate Like A Transactional Lawyer

negotiationI recently had lunch with  Mark Fingerman, a Los Angeles lawyer who has successfully transitioned from being a litigator to a full-time mediator. As I often do, when I get an opportunity to talk shop with mediators, I asked Mark some of his tips for successful negotiation. To my surprise, although Mark had been a litigator his entire career, his advice was to go a different direction entirely. “Litigators can increase the likelihood of success at mediation,” he said, “by acting more like transactional lawyers.”

This notion immediately made a lot of sense. After all, while it’s the mission of a transactional lawyer to get the best possible deal and terms for his client, their negotiations should very rarely result, as it so frequently does in the litigation context, in a stalemate. While a party to a lawsuit will sometimes view proceeding to trial as the best alternative to a negotiated agreement (aka “BATNA”), the job of transactional lawyer is generally to reach agreement and get the deal done.

While Mark’s advice made a lot of sense to me in the abstract, I started thinking what does this mean? What does it mean to negotiate less like a litigator and more like a transactional lawyer?

I followed up with Mark after our lunch, and suggested this might be fertile ground for a blog post. He was pleased for the opportunity to explain his statement in more detail, and also suggested that this very topic is one that he covers extensively in a CLE program he offers to law firms and bar associations called Mediation: Prepare to Succeed.† Here’s what Mark said:

“This involves, among other things: preparing for the mediation as a negotiation, including identifying the interests of the parties, settlement ballpark and necessary deal points; focusing at the mediation on reality and problem solving instead of advocacy and pressure; using the mediator to gain and communicate information useful to making a deal rather than trying to turn the mediator into a super advocate.” 

A major difference I see in Mark’s approach from the approach we typically take is his shunning of our common tendency to try to leverage the mediator to apply pressure on our opponent that we cannot otherwise apply. This is indeed a departure.

After all, we often draft extensive mediation briefs, with cites to specific exhibits, that are little different from the brief we might submit if the neutral were sitting as an arbitrator who would issue an award, and not a mediator engaged to facilitate settlement. In an earlier era, it was common to do a mini-presentation of the arguments and evidence we expect to present at trial. In sum, we attempt to persuade the mediator of the merits of our case, with the hope she will step into the next room, caucus with our opponent, and, acting as our “super advocate,” pound them into submission.

So, if there’s no pounding, what should go on? Just as Mark points out, the mediation becomes less about applying pressure and more about “focusing . . . on reality and problem solving.”

This is all good. But I still found myself wondering more about how transactional lawyers approach negotiations. So I consulted a book about lawyering from the perspective of a career transactional lawyer. In Lawyering: A Realistic Approach to Legal Practice, M&A specialist James C. Freund says this in his introduction to the discussion of negotiating a deal:

“Most of what takes place in the course of negotiations can be characterized as either attempting to get a leg up on your adversary or striking a compromise between your respective positions. I firmly believe that the key to effective negotiating lies in achieving a functional balance between these two seemingly inconsistent aspects. If all your efforts are directed toward gaining advantages over your adversary, you will undoubtedly come on too strong; and where the parties possess relatively equal bargaining power, with freedom to consummate the transaction or not, you may cause your client irreparable harm–such as losing the deal.” (Id. at 188 (emphasis added).)

Again, from a transactional lawyer’s perspective, the goal is not to pound the other side into submission or walk away with no deal. Instead, in the interest of getting the deal done, Freund counsels that we strive to achieve a balance between getting a leg up on our opponent and striking a compromise. Makes sense, doesn’t it?

†Mark Fingerman encourages anyone interested in this presentation to reach him by email at: mfingerman@adrservices.org.


3 Ways To Make Your Brief Read Better On An iPad

24toys-articleLargeThanks to some of my Michigan colleagues, I learned today for the first time that a growing number of appellate court justices are reading briefs on an iPad. I guess it’s pretty clear that I’m out of touch. (I feel like Dr. Evil, on Austin Powers, when he demands the government pay him only $1 million.)

Fortunately for me, and for you, Daniel Sockwell, writing in the Columbia Business Law Review, is not so out of touch. In a piece entitled “Writing a Brief for the iPad Judge,” he offers some really useful advice for writing an appellate brief if you know your judge may end up reading it on an iPad. How would you know? By asking the clerk, of course.

Here are 3 of Sockwell’s tips:

1. Use Fewer FootnotesSockwell writes that “[o]ne of the advantages of reading on an iPad is that judges can adjust the screen view, zooming in and focusing on the current passage.” Unfortunately, this advantage is “lost if footnotes require the reader (judge) to constantly scroll to the bottom of the page for citations or substantive material.” Sockwell feels this compounds the risk that the judge or her clerk might not bother to read the footnotes at all.

2. Choose Your Font With Care. Sockwell notes that, while “the effective resolution of an iPad [is] closer to print,” there is a risk that “some of the best print fonts can become jagged or difficult to read at screen resolutions.” What should you do? Unfortunately, Sockwell leaves us wondering, though he does point us in the direction of an entire book on the subject of fonts (the perfect gift for that typography nut in your life). I started to do some of my own online research to find out what kind of fonts read best on iPads, but I came up short. I’m going to go with the plan to use a simple font rather than anything really creative. If someone has some clearer suggestion, maybe they could leave a comment.

3. Go With “Scientific,” Rather than Traditional Legal Hierarchical Headings. We typically use traditional hierarchical headings in briefs that are printed (e.g., Part I, Section A, Subsection 1, etc.). This method apparently doesn’t work well for documents read on an iPad, because it’s easy to lose track of which “Section A” one’s looking at. Instead, Sockwell urges brief writers to adopt the scientific hierarchical headings (e.g., Part 1, Section 1.1, Subsection 1.1.1, etc.).

Sockwell includes one more point: be sure to adhere to local rules, even if it means making a stylistic sacrifice. While double spacing of lines might look horrible on an iPad, it may be required by the local rules, at least until rules are universally updated to reflect the reality that more and more judges are reading briefs on iPads.


How Will You Cope When Your Trial Technology Lets You Down?

frustratedPerhaps I should say how will you cope “if” rather than “when” your trial technology takes a giant lets you down, but I’m a pessimistic fatalist, or a fatalistic pessimist. Or something.

But the internet is all abuzz about Michael Bay’s meltdown on Monday during a Samsung press conference at the CES 2014 Conference. If you’ve missed the viral video, it’s not really that earth shattering. But, let’s agree that it’s lucky for Bay that he doesn’t have to count on his public speaking skills to earn a paycheck. If you or I were presenting evidence and our computer or Trial Director program went screwy, apologizing and walking off wouldn’t be a realistic option.

But this stuff does happen. And, like a jazz musician, you’ve got to improvise. Even if you are meticulous in your preparation and think you’re prepared for anything, chances are something could happen that will catch you off guard. I’m of the view that, rather than fooling yourself into thinking you’re so well prepared that nothing will surprise you, it’s a better idea to expect that something will go wrong–or at least something unexpected will happen–and prepare yourself up to deal with it. That’s more fun, anyway.

Concededly, one way to reduce the chances your technology will fail you is to rely on it less. Many trial lawyers still use overhead projectors because they’re almost fool-proof. Or they say they use them because they are almost fool-proof, but the real reason is they can’t be bothered to learn Powerpoint or Trial Director. Whatever their reasons, I have no quarrel with going old school, low-tech, if it conveys the message and wins the case. A good trial lawyer with nothing but an easel will do far better than a so-so lawyer with the most advanced technology available.

The problem with resisting technology in trial presentation, though, is that the internet, gaming and effects-driven movies have made people–some of them your potential jurors–almost numb to anything that lacks a wow factor. There’s also the brute fact that some of these technologies really are brilliant and, frankly, should be embraced to the extent they can help lawyers, good and so-so alike, present otherwise dry or complex information in a way that engages jurors.

Regardless whether you embrace technology or remain a caveman lawyer, you need to embrace the unexpected. I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that, given the fascinating life he’s led, there’s a decent chance Michael Bay could have conjured an extemporaneous presentation that was even more compelling than what was written on the broken teleprompter. But he needed to be prepared for the possibility that the teleprompter (or something else) would let him down.

I like the idea of trying to take a bad situation and turn it to your advantage. If a jury or other audience sees you confronted with a technical malfunction or other problem, it can be more than just an opportunity to let the jury, the judge and your client down. To fail miserably. It’s equally an opportunity to gain credibility and respect because you did not let the mishap derail your presentation. You get bonus points if you find a way to weave genuine humor–not corny or forced–into the situation.


It’s Resolution Time At Counsel Table

new-years-resolutionAs my wife will attest, I’m distrustful of resolutions, whether they’re made at New Year’s or some other momentous occasion, like discharge from rehab. But I’m going to take this New Year’s Day to make a resolution relating to client service: In 2014, I’m going to try very, very hard to change the way my clients think about lawyers.

This is not at all original. In fact, this is one of J. Dan Hull’s notorious “World Famous Bad-Ass, Annoying and Infuriatingly Correct 12 Rules of Customer Service.” Here’s what Dan says about this rule:

“This rule, like Rule One, is not so intuitive. But it’s the most challenging. The “under-promise but over-deliver” and “exceed customer expectations” notion of keeping good clients is a great idea. But I just don’t think it works that well for lawyers. I think that clients, rightly or wrongly, and whether or not they are even aware of it, in fact have low expectations of lawyers in the first place. For two reasons:

A. Traditional Pervasive Distrust of Lawyers (General–Deserved & Undeserved)

There is a pervasive (let’s face it, ancient) cynicism and suspicion about lawyers which even our most loyal and valued clients carry around with them. Some of it is unavoidable and not our fault. It’s based on everything from literature, TV, movies and lawyer jokes to a genuine misunderstanding of what lawyers must do to perform well. It’s deeply rooted in world culture.

B. Real Experiences-Based Distrust of Lawyers (Specific–Deserved)

But most of the distrust is our fault because either (1) our substantive professional services are merely “adequate” and/or delivered without passion or real caring–clients can sense that–or (2) we view clients almost as adversaries (they joke about us; we joke about them), which gets communicated to clients in every step of our work for them. See The First Post.

Let’s not kid ourselves. Why ‘try to exceed expectations’ when the overall lawyer standard is perceived as low to mediocre? If your clients are all Fortune 500 stand-outs, and the GCs’ seems to love you and your firm, is that because your service delivery is so good–or because other lawyers they use are so ‘bad’ on service? Why have a low standard, or one that merely makes you look incrementally more responsive and on top of things than the boutique on the next floor up? Why not overhaul and re-create the whole game?

If you read the better writers on services, like Harry Beckwith in Selling The Invisible, you pick up on this simple idea: Rather than ‘under-promise/over-deliver’, which is essentially job specific, why not change the way people think of lawyers generally and what they can expect from them generally? Get good clients–those clients you like and want–to keep coming back to you by communicating in all aspects of your work that you care deeply about your lawyering for them, you want to serve their interests on an ongoing basis and that it’s a privilege to be their lawyer. Show them you fit no lawyer mold.

Oh, yeah. One catch–and the hardest part: it’s got to be true.”

So how do I plan to execute? After all, a resolution without a plan is just an empty promise to oneself. I’m going to work on three core areas that tend to fuel a lot of client disappointment in their lawyers.

1. Communication. I’m going to work hard to improve my communication habits and practices. This includes a resolution to respond to any email or phone call from a client the same day. I’m going to report more, and more often, what’s going on in our case. (Yes, it’s our case. We’re in it together.)

2. Transparency. I’m going to strive to better involve clients in strategy development. Of course there are all kinds of clients, and some would prefer not to be involved; others want to plan every move. But those who want to participate will have the opportunity.

3. Value. Clients often hate to involve lawyers because they assume we are out to financially “gouge” them. I’m going to turn this on its head. I resolve to bring more value-in-advance. I will think of at least one way to save my client money at every step in any litigation. I will work harder to keep clients aware of major changes in California employment law–for free!

There. Now pass the champagne.


Will You Give These Jurors What They Want?

jury1A couple of weeks ago, I sent fellow blogger and trial consultant Rich Matthews an email asking if he would comment on a post I was thinking about writing. It would be called “Avoid These Five Ways Of Alienating The Jury.” I was expecting him to provide a laundry list of “don’t dos” if you want to stay on a jury’s good side, such as wearing a bow tie,† showing up late, interrupting witnesses, etc.

Instead, Rich offered a much shorter list of ways–just two–to give the jury what they want and expect. On reflection, Rich’s list of “dos” made much more sense than my proposed list of “don’ts”. Here’s what Rich said:

“I think jurors want two and only two things from counsel, and get alienated easily when these are violated: help with understanding the material, and not wasting their time. That’s it. As obvious as that might sound, all courtroom lawyers should do a really honest reflection on their own trials and notice how many times they run afoul of either or both of these unconscious demands jurors have. That third witness you put on to say basically the same thing? Wasting jurors’ time, and they will resent you for it. That technical witness who was not understandable to them? Flunked both. A closing argument that didn’t explain [relevant rules, damages, verdict form, whatever] well enough? Didn’t help them with the material. I suggest that as counsel is planning the trial sequence, run everything through that filter; will it help jurors understand the material, and does it waste their time as THEY will judge it? Unless it’s ‘yes’ to the first AND ‘no’ to the second, leave it out. (Bonus hint: the first place to look is your witness list. Most of the time, lawyers would be better served to use fewer witnesses than they do. Wasting time in this manner just frustrates jurors if they don’t perceive each additional witness is adding new information or understanding.)”

Rich’s suggestion that what the jury wants most is help understanding the material echoes a point Professor McElhaney makes in the opening chapter of Litigation, entitled “The Guide.” He writes:

“You are the guide who knows the territory, the one who can be trusted to steer the jury straight throughout the entire trial.

Does it work? Imagine for a moment: Suddenly you find yourself in the middle of an unknown swamp. You don’t know where you are or how you got there. All you know is that somehow you  have to find your way out. You have no compass. There are no roads or trails, no signs or maps, no shadows or guiding stars. As you look around, you see two people, each saying there is only one way out. The problem is, each one is pointing in a different direction.

Which one do you follow–the one who has the suitcase with the collapsible legs, who wants to sell you one of the watches on his wrist; or the one who is pointing out landmarks and is helping you understand the terrain?” (Litigation (ABA 1995), at 4.)

Rich’s point about not offering duplicative testimony which the jurors judge as a waste of their time brings to mind this comment by another notable trial advocacy guru, Professor Thomas Mauet. In his Fundamentals of Trial Techniques, Professor Mauet points out that:

“Whom you call as witnesses to prove your case is frequently not an issue. You simply must call the witnesses you know of to establish a prima facie case, and there is no room for choices. Most of the time, however, you will have choices. . . In deciding to call certain available witnesses, remember the following considerations:

1.  Do not overprove your case. Many lawyers call far too many witnesses, thereby boring the jury or, even worse, creating the impression that the lawyer doesn’t have confidence in her own witnesses. In general, calling a primary witness and one or two corroboration witnesses on any key point is enough. It’s usually best to make your case in chief simple, fast, and then quit while ahead.” (Fundamentals of Trial Techniques (3rd Ed. 1992), at 388-89.)

I think Rich’s approach to giving the jurors what they want–rather than trying to walk on eggshells not to alienate them–is by far the better approach. Thanks, Rich!

†Truth be told, I have no problem with bow ties, and I expect most jurors don’t, either. A bad, porno movie mustache, on the other hand, will not be tolerated (except by jurors with their own bad, porno movie mustaches).


When All You Hear Is “No”

gtreHave you ever found yourself negotiating with a brick wall? Maybe not a wall, but an opponent, coworker, spouse or five-year old so entrenched in her position that it seems to take a herculean effort to procure even the slightest movement?

I’ve previously quoted from the slim but powerful text about negotiation strategy, Getting To Yes. One of the authors of that landmark, William Ury, subsequently wrote Getting Past No: Negotiating With Difficult People. I don’t know about you, but anyone who doesn’t go along with my program is clearly difficult.

Ury developed a five-step strategy for making progress with these . . . er . . . difficult people. The first step is to take your own emotions out of the equation; this will help prevent you from reacting without thinking, which can immediately stall or even end productive negotiations. Ury calls this Going to the Balcony. He describes it thusly:

“When you find yourself facing a difficult negotiation, you need to step back, collect your wits, and see the situation objectively. Imagine you are negotiating on a stage and then imagine yourself climbing onto a balcony overlooking the stage. The ‘balcony’ is a metaphor for a mental attitude made of detachment. From the balcony you can calmly evaluate the conflict, almost as if you were a third-party. You can think constructively for both sides and look for a mutually satisfactory way to resolve the problem.” (Getting Past No (Bantam 1991), p.17.)

Step two is to Disarm Your Opponent. Here, I picture Jason Bourne using some slick Krav Maga move to take and use his opponent’s own weapon against him. Sadly, Ury’s tactic is not so sexy. But it’s easier. The goal is to step to your opponent’s side. This requires active listening, which gives your opponent an opportunity to articulate her position, then paraphrasing it back to her. Ury writes, “It is not enough for you to listen . . . [h]e needs to know that you’ve heard what he has said.” (Id. at 39.) Once you both agree that you understand your opponent’s position, the second part of this step is to create a favorable climate for negotiation. This can result from one or a combination of efforts, which can include  acknowledging our opponent’s feelings and agreeing wherever you can, which can help you “accumulate yeses.” Ury summarizes this step as follows:

“[T]he hurdles you face are your opponent’s suspicion and hostility, his closed ears, and his lack of respect. Your best strategy is to step to his side. It is harder to be hostile toward someone who hears you out and acknowledges what you say and how you feel. It is easier to listen to someone who has listened to you. And respect breeds respect.” (Id. at 54.)

Ury’s third step is to reframe the dispute. “Reframing means recasting what your opponent says in a form that directs attention back to the problem of satisfying both sides’ interests. . . You act as he were trying to solve the problem, and thus draw him into the new game.” (Id. at 61.) This is tough to explain without an example; fortunately Ury provides one. He cites the 1979 SALT II arms talks with Soviet leadership. The US sent a very junior senator, Joe Biden, Jr., to Moscow to negotiate with (read: against) Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko. Regardless how you feel about Joe Biden today, he certainly held his own on this early mission.

Gromyko quickly articulated the Soviet’s unequivocal nyet (no) to the US proposal. When it came time for Biden’s turn, here’s what happened:

“Instead of arguing with Gromyko and taking a counterposition, he slowly and gravely said, ‘Mr. Gromyko, you make a very persuasive case. I agree with much of what you’ve said. When I go back to my colleagues in the Senate, however, and report what you’ve just told me, some of them–like Senator Goldwater or Senator Helms–will not be persuaded, and I’m afraid their concerns will carry weight with others.’ Biden went on to explain their worries. ‘You have more experience in these arms-control matters than anyone else alive. How would you advise me to respond to my colleagues’ concerns?’

Gromyko could not resist the temptation to offer advice to the inexperienced young American. He started coaching him on what he should tell the skeptical senators. One by one, Biden raised the arguments that would need to be dealt with, and Gromyko grappled with each of them. In the end, appreciating perhaps for the first time how the amendment would help win wavering votes, Gromyko reversed himself and gave his consent.” (Id. at 61-62.)

See what Biden did? “He reframed the conversation as a constructive discussion about how to meet the senators’ concerns and win ratification of the treaty.” (Id. at 62.) When trying to reframe, Ury suggests posing questions to your opponent. Ask why, why not, what if, and, as Biden demonstrates, how would you do it. This turns your opponent into a collaborator.

Step 4 of Ury’s strategy is to make it easy for your opponent to say yes. He calls this building them “a golden bridge.”  This strikes me as connected in a fundamental way with Ury’s third step, reframing the issue. When Biden solicited Gromyko’s advice, he was, in effect, building him a golden bridge to see the issue from Biden’s (and, therefore, the US) perspective and cross the golden bridge by reversing his entrenched position.

According to Ury, what’s important is to resist the temptation to tell your opponent anything. Telling, aka “pushing may actually make it more difficult for your counterpart to agree. It underscores the fact that the proposal is your idea, not his.” (Id. at 90.) If you can persuade your opponent–overtly or covertly–that your proposal or goal is actually her idea, this builds a golden bridge making it very easy for her to adopt your position. Ury makes several suggestions, including helping your opponent save face, offering her choices and help writing her victory speech back to her superiors or contingent.

Step 5 is when you crush your opponent–bring her to her knees, right? Actually, no. In the final step of Ury’s strategy, while you make it hard for them to say no, this is done by bringing them to their senses, not their knees. Unlike the “power game” which we might instinctively resort to, which involves making threats if your opponent doesn’t agree to your terms, Ury urges instead that we think in terms of educating your opponent of what the alternative is if an agreement is not reached. Again, the better way to educate is not by telling your opponent what you’re going to do, or telling her what will happen, but instead to ask reality-testing questions. Here are three reality-testing questions Ury likes:

  1. “What do you think will happen if we don’t agree?”
  2. “What do you think I will do?”
  3. “What will you do?”

Ury acknowledges that this won’t always work. He reminds us of one of the most important concepts from Getting To Yes, formulating your own Best Alternative To A Negotiated Agreement (BATNA). Before you resort to actually implementing your BATNA, Ury suggests “you should let your opponent know what you intend to do. You want to give him a chance to reconsider his refusal to negotiate.” (Id. at 117.)

The book obviously covers these strategies better and in greater detail. I recommend Getting Past No to anyone who spends a good part of her career–or life–negotiating with difficult people. Then again, don’t we all?


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