Tag Archives: specialist

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.


Five Ways You Can Help Your Appellate Lawyer Help You

jjhhyygHopefully I won’t ruffle too many feathers with the following pronouncement: appellate law practice is a distinctly different animal from trial or lower court practice and it requires specialized training or experience to do it well.

I know that many litigators advertise to their clients and the world that they can ably handle a writ or appeal. Some can. If you’ve handled appeals in your career, whether through budgetary or logistical necessity, and you’ve had success, perhaps you’ll prove me wrong. But, assuming your client is willing, assuming she can afford it, and assuming you can work effectively, efficiently and cooperatively with an appellate specialist, I want to suggest that your client’s odds of prevailing on appeal will be vastly improved by at least involving an appellate specialist whenever possible.

The remainder of this post proceeds from the premise that it is fiscally and logistically possible to involve an appellate lawyer. A lingering problem arises from the impossibility of knowing, at the outset of a dispute, whether it will result in an appeal and a specialist will ultimately get involved. Certainly some cases are unlikely ever to lead to an appeal; I’m thinking here of disputes which are destined by contract to be decided through binding arbitration. Other cases, by virtue of their issues or parties, are virtually guaranteed to see an appeal–or many; here I’m thinking of a case like Apple v. Samsung. There’s just too much at stake for either party to go gentle into that good night without first exhausting every avenue of appellate review.

I call this a “lingering problem,” but it’s really more of a dilemma. Specifically, what can a litigator do, when it’s unclear if an appellate court will ever be asked to disturb a trial court’s ruling, to improve her client’s chances of success if an appellate issue does later arise?

In answering this dilemma, I solicited input from a true expert. Ben Shatz is a partner at the Manatt firm in Los Angeles, a certified appellate specialist from the state of California, a fellow blogger, a prolific writer and, most importantly, a good guy. What follows is our list of five ways that lower court litigators can make it more likely, if their case ultimately requires appellate review, that their clients will gain the most from hiring an appellate specialist.

1. Involve an appellate lawyer sooner than later. You probably saw this coming, but it’s worth stating. If it is economically feasible, Ben suggests an appellate specialist should become involved early “to help review theories, address key motions, spot potential writ issues, pre-cog anticipated appellate issues, review jury instructions and verdict forms (which are fertile areas for appellate review), and help with post-trial motions (which often preview appellate issues).”

2. Preserve that record. Again, obvious. But in the heat of the battle, my focus as a trial lawyer is almost always on convincing the single robed judge before me, not a panel of appellate justices. Ben suggests that “appellate kibitzing can help make sure points are properly raised and not waived.” So don’t forget to kibitz. And try not to let an impatient trial court judge prevent you from saying all you need to say to make a good record; this sometimes takes fancy footwork, particularly if the judge senses you’re just making a record to use later in seeking to overturn his ruling. (See my earlier post on judges playing games with the record.)

3. Don’t waive notice. Ben reminds us that, “too often, after losing a motion (or anything), trial counsel will meekly waive notice. But formal written notice is very useful in figuring out what happened and when, later down the road. Also, written notice often is the trigger for writ review, so it’s good to have a clear starting date for calendaring.”

4. When in doubt go ahead and order a transcript. This is actually two separate points. First, if you’re in a state like California with a struggling judicial budget, be sure to make sure there’s going to be a court reporter taking down the proceedings at any hearing in which there is even the slightest chance a writ or other review may be sought. This requires both ordering and paying for a court reporter.

The second point comes from Ben: “if you just lost a motion and are thinking about a writ, order a transcript right then; take steps to get a written order; don’t waive notice; ask immediately for a stay (or extension to file a writ, if allowed by the relevant statute).” As you’re probably starting to understand, this fourth point requires you to think about the possibility of appellate review before you actually appear for the hearing. Remembering on the morning of the hearing that you needed to order a reporter will be probably be too late.

5. Maintain clean, organized files. Finally Ben reminds us that “It’s not useful if I’m given papers that are annotated by hand (and thus can’t be used in an appendix).” Remember, too, that your client is hiring an appellate specialist for his or her highly specialized knowledge and skills. These do not include conducting “discovery” through your file to find key documents or exhibits.

So keep these suggestions in mind, even when it’s not yet clear there’s going to be an appeal. And, if there is an appeal, think about calling Ben or another appellate specialist, to assist you in getting it done right.


%d bloggers like this: