January 13, 2010

How do you learn the unwritten rules of law firms?

In a very fun but true way, here is a list of many of the unwritten rules of law firms that you may want to know.

December 29, 2008

9 signs that something is wrong at work


1. You get no work You have heretofore received substantive projects. Now you are being asked to write CLE materials and to do 50-state surveys. It is imperative that you check your status with your supervisors.

a. This could have nothing to do with the quality of your work: it may be that there is no work, but the partners value you and want to keep you employed until business picks up.

b. It could have everything to do with the perceived quality of your work, and the firm is getting ready to fire you. There may be “blind' ads for your job in local legal publications right now.

c. Check in with the CPDC with a specific description of what you perceive is going on at work. We can help you decode, decipher, and, if necessary, design a useful departure strategy.

2. You get feedback and you ignore it The best way to annoy your employer is to ignore constructive feedback on your projects. This is a precursor to #1(b).

a. The most consistent criticism from law clerks and new lawyers is “We get no feedback." If you expect a 10-minute sit-down with a fully-marked-up document for each assignment that you turn in while working in a busy public or private law office, you will be disappointed. Over and over again.

b. During the Summers of 2006 and 2007, employers reported an increasing number of students who ignored specific criticism of their work and who declined to make the changes suggested by their supervisors. Both Law School and Employer professionals note that except for Incidents Involving Alcohol, that this is the fastest way to get from “New Summer Associate" to “Not Getting An Offer." Perhaps as the economy was beginning to turn, ignoring constructive criticism was no a highly-reported problem in 2008.

c. Employers point out that (1) Often, you know that you are doing “ok" at work if no one is yelling at you; (2) “Attaboy" and “Attagirl" are often the most feedback that you can expect from busy lawyers; (3) Conversations in the hallway that mention your good work are precious currency in busy law offices.

d. Employers are designing well-crafted and expensive Professional Development Programs and your enthusiastic participation is a key to your future. At one firm where the PD work isn’t “mandatory," but invitations come from Very Senior Partners, lack of participation has consequences. Fourth year associates were complaining that they didn’t get to take depositions. The PD Partner pointed out that more junior associates who had taken deposition training, were, indeed, getting to take depositions. “Why," she asked, “would we tap you for a deposition, when you’d shown no interest?"

3. You are asked to do the same thing several times When you are asked to turn down your music or to stop drinking more than once, you are marked for life, and not in a good way. This produces the same result as 2(b).

4. You are asked to do something that you believe to be unethical or illegal You should document the request and send a clarifying (not attacking) memo to the person who asked to you do the task. If you have misunderstood the assignment, you will then be on the correct path. If you are correct, then you have choices and none of them are easy: contact the employer’s “ethics partner" or “ethics attorney," contact the Bar Association Ethics Hotline, contact a law professor or the CPDC, and/or quit. If (when) you quit, make sure that your memo is in your employee file and that you have retained a copy.


5. Partners whose doors have always been open, now work behind closed doors This could be a sign of new and very confidential work, or it could be a sign that the partners are working on a deal to merge with another firm or to leave the firm altogether. [Reality check: One, but not all, might be working out the confidential details of his or her divorce.]

6. Partners whose out-of-office activities have been public (or at least not “secret") are “sneaking" out to meetings. Same as #5.

7. Your employer's 800 pound gorilla client or industry (more than 5% of the revenue) has had public reversals which will lead to dissolution, indictment or other distress guaranteed to disrupt or destroy the revenue stream.

8. The plant watering person has been fired. This is sign that the firm is about to close its doors.

September 1, 2008

Business casual: fraught with peril

One of the perks of having an email address attached to your employer -- as opposed to .edu or gmail or hotmail -- is that you will have access to law360 -- a very interesting and useful set of sites. Without benefit of a address, I asked nicely and Lianne Coble of provided the following ...


For Associates, Business Casual Holds Traps

by Shannon Henson

Law360, New York (August 27, 2008) -- As new associates try to make sense of their law firm's vaguely worded dress policy – if they are handed a policy at all – they should keep two simple concepts in mind: Get noticed for your work, not your dress, and dress for the job you want, not the one you have.

Consultants agreed that dressing in a post-dot-com world can be a confusing proposition, especially for young female lawyers who face more sartorial choices and are confronted with conflicting messages from their peer groups and other sources.

"A lot of associates are in the dark," said business communication trainer Gretchen Neels, the founder and president of Neels & Company Inc. "They receive mixed messages through the media, and they get into the actual job and are so busy trying to do a good job that the whole wardrobe thing falls through the cracks."

The determination of what is appropriate attire varies from law firm to law firm, with white shoe corporate-based firms likely desiring their attorneys to dress the most formally. However, most firms – like Clifford Chance – look for attorneys to adhere to a business casual look.

The firm's policy says that every employee should maintain a business-like and professional image in the office. Employees should wear "business casual attire that is tasteful and neat." Formal attire is required for client meetings.

Mike Kachel, a firm spokesman, said that Clifford Chance hasn't had problems with employees failing to adhere to the policy. Lawyers should certainly be ready "to suit up when appropriate, but we want it to be a comfortable place to work," he said.

Most law firms moved to business casual about a decade ago amid the rise of the dot-com companies.

"Firms were losing their talent to Internet companies, which were full-on casual," said Brian Dalton, law editor at, a career information media company. "So in the late 90s, firms moved that way seemingly as a survival method."

Neels said that attorneys during the dot-com boom would go to meet with their technology company clients and "feel really out of place." Along with the shift came an office populace that wanted to be comfortable while working – especially when putting in such long hours at the office, Neels said.

But some attorneys drive right past the comfortable exit on the business casual freeway. "I had a firm that had to come out and say, 'No yoga or gym clothes,'" Neels said.

She also said that young professionals are too focused on what their friends and co-workers are wearing. "They say, 'I am going to wear Uggs because they are so super cool, and Patty and Donna have them too.' They don't think that those people two steps above them are saying, 'You have to be kidding me! What do they have on their feet?'"

Other potential clothing traps? Cleavage, the wearing of flip flops and the visibility of thong straps and "tramp stamps," or tattoos on the lower back, Neels said.

The policies of many law firms are vague at a time when many people aren't clear what constitutes business casual in the first place. The policies "tend to limit themselves to words like tasteful and appropriate," Dalton said.

Gail Madison, the director of the Madison School of Etiquette and Protocol, said that business casual is technically no tie and a polished loafer for men. For females, it's dress pants and a less formal blouse.

"But that's not what people think it is," Madison said. "It's still a nice shirt and dress pants, but a lot of people show up in jeans."

Neels said that many firms make the mistake of assuming that attorneys and employees know how they should dress. "If only I had a dollar for every time a senior partner said to me, 'She showed up in a low-cut blouse or she showed up in flip flops and should have known better.'"

Consultants agreed that women have a harder time with attire than men, mostly because they have so many more choices. The decision for women is simply more complex than whether to wear a tie or not.

Men "put on a shirt, pants and shoes," Neels said. "But with women there's capris, shorts, trousers, skirts, dresses ... When some people are overwhelmed with choices, they don't make the right ones."

For those who toe the line of permissibility, the costs may be subtle – including irritating the boss.

"I've heard that partners are complaining about associates looking slovenly and having no idea of the concept of appropriate attire," Dalton said. "They fret over what the clients will think, especially considering the rates they are paying."

Neels said that an inappropriately dressed employee will rarely get called on the carpet. Instead, a senior partner may not include that associate in a client meeting or ask him to accompany him to court. She said a boss wants someone he can be sure will be appropriately dressed.

"That person may not be the smartest or the brightest, but it's a whole lot easier and a whole lot safer," Neels said. "I think people miss out on opportunities because of their appearance and may not be aware of it."

The consultants agreed that young attorneys should want to be known for something other than what they wore to work last Friday.

"You want people to take you on your work product and intellect. Clothing shouldn't be part of the equation," Neels said. "You want to dress so that nobody notices."

Dalton said, "Don't try to express yourself sartorially. You're in the wrong business if that's what you want to do."

That doesn't mean that an associate shouldn't dress with her aspirations in mind. "You want to dress for the position you want to have," Madison said. "If you want to be a senior partner, dress that way. Perception is reality."

Thanks to Martha Capper of Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi LLP for providing the original link.

June 7, 2008

Your "Summer Job" is neither the time nor the place for the "Summer of Love"

Unless your employer specifically allows or encourages office romances, be very careful about the relationships that you develop or that you allow to develop around you.

If you are a Summer Associate, improving your legal skills and doing the excellent work that you need to get an offer by the end of the summer are two activities and a full-time job. Balancing your Public Professional Self and your Private Office Affair is a time-and-reputation-consuming distraction. Yes, there have been summers of "affairs," and sometimes people get offers in spite of their public behavior, but the surrounding buzz rarely accrues to the benefit of Participating Summer Associates. The three-word fallout can include more than random heartbreak: sexual harassment litigation.

Office Romances, Legal Style gives more than a hint of the trouble you may be in...(From the NY Lawyer site -- registration is required, but it is free.)

April 24, 2008

Summer Success from National Consultant Mary Crane

From "Read Mary" -- Mary Crane's blog, Summer Serious

February 6, 2007

Reflections on higher salaries

Based on this from the Chicago Tribune and other reports from around the country -- salaries at large law firms are, once again, going up.


I was just interviewed on this very subject for the second time in a decade -- and the question was what impact will increased salaries have on law firms and law practice? This time around, there is general agreement about the consequences -- both good and bad -- and to the eternal credit of managers, a significant part of the discussion balances both effects.

But the short answer is that some lawyers -- often with huge school loans -- will earn more money.

The more nuanced answer is that there will be more billable hours worked to pay for higher salaries; the partners will either earn less (unlikely) or make the associates work more hours. Some firms will crater because they want to pay top dollar but can't "compete." Others will decide that paying top dollar is unsustainable within their business models, and they will fall back onto the tradeoff of time for money, attempting with a range of success, to portray their firms as "lifestyle."

There will be less money on the table for law firm philanthropy and pro bono -- which is extremely sad because law firms are great engines of philanthropy and provide the bulk of the sorely needed pro bono hours.

There will -- again -- be damage to the culture. When new lawyers complain about working more hours than they were promised during recruiting, the partners may reasonably reply "Be quiet, we're paying you a lot of money to sit in the chair."

New lawyers will have an even steeper learning curve than they have had in recent years. While the Olde Training Model was "carry my briefcase for three years -- and don't speak," the new training model gives new associates no more than two chances to demonstrate their legal writing ability before being consigned to the Dreaded Document Review Team because no one trusts them do to their work. No work = no review = no job.*

One positive result in the decade since the last salary increase has been an increased emphasis on professional development and training. Major firms and agencies spend hundreds of thousands (or millions) of dollars each year on professional development. I suspect that this will happen again, on the theory that "if we are going to pay these salaries, then by golly, these new lawyers had better be able to do darned good work AND become really productive as soon as possible." But that's just a theory.

*Based on interviews conducted at the 2006 NALP ALI-ABA Professional Development Institute. When asked what would happen to a new associate who was perceived to be a "bad writer" after two assignments, every Professional Development Professional except one said "The associate would stop getting work." The dissenter said that the associate would get a writing coach.

June 15, 2006


Lawyers rarely get to field easy questions. Clients willing to pay hundreds of dollars an hour for lawyering will solve their simple problems and then pay handsomely for solutions to the Big Ones. Pro bono cases that go to a Supreme Court were not resolvable along the way. Whether at work or at a cocktail party, the "one quick question" more often than not is a case of first impression -- by definition, a hard question.

If all of the questions are HARD QUESTIONS, how do you prepare for your first legal job? After 16+ years of sucess at pre-legal education with clear directions, well-lit signposts and consistent recognition and rewards, how can you be expected to work without a roadmap? Isn't law practice like working without a net?

Not exactly. There is a roadmap and a net, but the nature of law practice often means that you will have a hand in drawing the map and weaving the net. Neither will be handed to you in the same way that your TORTS syllabus was posted on the web.

CLARITY FROM A WISE HIRING PARTNER: After being peppered with questions about preparation from his incoming summer associates, one very wise Hiring Partner said, "Part of how we evaluate you is on your ability navigate ambiguity and to figure out how to solve a problem." He was delighted to be welcoming, but unwilling to draw a detailed roadmap with instructions for specific tasks which he believes are more appropriatly learned by doing real work and solving real problems.

There is no "teacher's guide" to law practice. The hard questions that lawyers work on every day require:

Continue reading "AMBIGUITY ALERT" »

May 15, 2006

Going to work? Want to keep your (paid or unpaid) job? Get an offer?

Quick tips for a successful summer (and first job)...

1. Summer associates and law clerks do not get to take vacation during their eight to twelve week summer programs. If you have a previously scheduled event (wedding, family reunion) that you have not yet disclosed to your summer employer, do so TODAY, and note that you do not expect to be paid for the two days that you will be away from work.

2. Be extra nice to your legal administrative assistants, to the library staff, to the copy center staff and to anyone else with whom you work. Everyone is watching you, and they will not hesitate to report unprofessional behavior. If, on the other hand, you are perceived as courteous and well-behaved, they will also be extremely supportive of your ultimate candidacy. NOTE: Be friendly, but do not even think about going out for drinks or dating staff when you are a summer clerk.

3. "Give me a rough draft" means "Give me a perfectly researched, impeccably grammatical and 100% spell-checked and thought-checked document."

4. There is no ambiguity in "I need the memo by 9 a.m. on Friday," and missing deadlines will cost you an offer. If, by Wednesday, you know that you can't meet the deadline, notify the assigning attorney and seek guidance.

For more, click

March 22, 2006

Developing Cultural Competence

Developing an understanding of various cultures is becoming increasingly important in the workplace because, according to the latest U.S. Census reports, one in every three Americans belongs to a racial or ethnic minority group (1). Building a deeper awareness and appreciation of others' beliefs, values, and attitudes will lead to effective client/customer relationships inside and outside of the country as well as provide you with different perspectives on how to approach issues or problems. Here are a couple suggestions on how to improve your cultural competence:

1) Develop cultural sensitivity. Be alert to possible cultural differences when interacting with people from a different country. Take the initiative to introduce yourself to people who are from other cultures.

Continue reading "Developing Cultural Competence" »

March 17, 2006

Culture 2: Twelve questions provide a lens to view your work

Here is a list of questions to consider whether you are currently working or are seeking work. They are often called the Q12 and were developed by The Gallup Organization. Buckingham and Coffman (authors of the book First Break All the Rules) believe "measuring the strength of a workplace can be simplified to twelve questions...They measure the core elements needed to attract, focus, and keep the most talented employees."

1. Do I know what is expected of me at work?
2. Do I have the materials and equipment that I need in order to do my work right?
3. At work, do I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day?
4. In the past seven days, have I received recognition or praise for doing good work?
5. Does my supervisor, or someone at work, seem to care about me as a person?
6. Is there someone at work who encourages my development?
7. At work, do my opinions seem to count?
8. Does the mission or purpose of my company make me feel that my job is important?
9. Are my coworkers committed to doing quality work?
10. Do I have a best friend at work?
11. In the past six months, has someone at work talked to me about my progress?
12. This past year, have I had opportunities at work to learn and grow?

March 16, 2006

Culture: Offices are different. How can you tell them apart?

No two organizations operate the same and understanding what the culture is in a specific workplace is an important part of any job search. In addition to assessing your skills and abilities, organizations will be looking to see if you are a good fit with the culture. As a job seeker, it is equally important that you attempt to learn about the culture of the firm or office for which you may be working. Cummings and Worley, in their book Organization Development and Change, define corporate culture as a "pattern of values, beliefs, and expectations shared by organization members." In other words: "It's the way we do things here." Or, the 'modus operandi'.

Click below for some things to consider as you assess an organization's culture:

Continue reading "Culture: Offices are different. How can you tell them apart?" »