Everything I Needed To Know I Learned AFTER Law School

Paperback, Second Edition (2016), Price $11.95

Whether you are a law student wanting to start your solo practice on the right foot, or a new lawyer struggling with the nuts and bolts of law practice or trying to build a professional reputation, this ebook will teach you all of the practical things no one ever teaches in law school.How do you find a mentor?

How do you know what kind of practice you want to have in five years?

What are the common mistakes new lawyers make about hiring staff? Billing?

How do you identify and attract the kind of clients you want?

How do you spot (and avoid) the Client from Hell?

How do you talk to clients about money so that they will feel good about paying you for your work?

How do you build a professional reputation?

All of these questions and more are answered in this ebook.

paperback

Why I wrote Everything I Needed To Know I Learned AFTER Law School

As a young lawyer in a busy firm, I didn’t get much hands-on mentoring. The theory there was “sink or swim,” especially for the first woman lawyer in the firm (“girl,” they called me). Half of them expected me to fail, and it wasn’t politically wise to ask for too much help, especially since I was very ambitious and fully intended to make partner (which I did four years after passing the bar). Fortunately for me, a couple of old timers from other firms took me under their wings at critical points in my early career, and prevented me from making some serious mistakes. As a result, although I turned out to be a good swimmer, I vowed that “sink or swim” was not the way I’d train the lawyers who came after me.

One of my jobs at the firm was to screen applicants for new associates. I’d interview the promising ones, and send the top candidates on to the partners for whom they would be working. I loved interviewing the new lawyers, looking for the talent, enthusiasm, and that gleam in the eye which denoted someone who really wanted to be the best. I especially loved training the new family lawyers. I carried this love of mentoring when I opened my own firm.

I closed my law practice in 1998, and devoted my time exclusively to private judging, thereby eliminating (I thought) any further opportunity to mentor young lawyers. Then, some years later, I met a young woman with whom I connected. Like the early me, she was very bright and ambitious, but without good role models and meaningful mentoring. I took her under my wing. She would email me questions, and I would respond. Our dialogue was gratifying to me, and I hope, helpful to her.

One day, after a particularly satisfying exchange, I was sitting under my lemon tree sipping a glass of wine and feeling sorry for myself because my mentoring days were over. After all, there isn’t much call for a private judge to mentor newbie lawyers. Just as I was working myself into real self-pity, it hit me. Sue, you can WRITE! I may not be training new lawyers in my own practice, but I can certainly offer that experience and training on paper.

As with my other books, once I realized it wanted to be written, the book wrote itself. I spent the next four days in a writing frenzy, covering everything that nobody had taught me, all things I learned the hard way, and everything that I wish someone had alerted me to in advance. I then emailed the young lawyer I had been communicating with, and told her there was a way she could repay the help I’d given her. I would email her the manuscript, and she had to read it, and tell me what else was missing that someone in her position would need to know. She made a number of helpful suggestions. Some colleagues generously reviewed the manuscript, and there you have it. I still love talking to young lawyers, still teach mentoring workshops whenever I get the chance, and do my best to pass what I know to the next generation.

Because young family lawyers rarely have any money, and the cost of publishing has risen since I first entered the publishing world, I’m doing it as an e-book, which can be easily downloaded (and updated). If you buy the book and find something I have missed or that you would like to know more about, please email me and I’ll include it in a later version.

Table of Contents

Some samples...

Preface

WHAT KIND OF LAWYER DO YOU WANT TO BE?

Why be a family lawyer at all?
What kind of clients do you want?
What do you want the colleagues you respect to say about you?
It’s always showtime
What do you want the judges you respect to say about you?
How to find a mentor
What if the attorney you work for is a brainless twit, who happens to sign the paychecks?
When to do it your own way
Do I have to work 60 hour weeks?
You are always judged by the company you keep
You don’t get a second chance to build a professional reputation

OFFICE MECHANICS AND WORK HABITS

Setting up your physical office
Technology is your friend
Forms and templates, or, reinventing the wheel
Checklists, outlines and other time saving tools
Fee agreements
Confidentiality
Sharing office space
Know your limitations
Phone calls and emails
How to paper your file
The ugly green monster on the corner of your desk

LEARNING YOUR CRAFT

What is an advocate, anyway?
Why it is important to develop a case plan and how to do it
Personal research files
Weaknesses? WHAT weaknesses?
The importance of being consistently professional
Distinguishing a gripe from a legal issue
How many cases at a time is enough?
Expert witnesses
Learn almost as much as your expert knows
The expert “Lawyer Wannabe”
Protecting your experts
Taking depositions
Preparing your client for his deposition and testimony
When to line up your witnesses
Oops! Tomorrow’s the settlement conference
Never underestimate your opponent
The difference between “real” time and “lawyer” time
Cross examination isn’t a refresher course
How to ask a question and other no-brainers they don’t teach you in law school
I just got out of law school. Why do I have to do CLE?
How to know when you’re out of your depth and what to do about it

FINDING AND SCREENING CLIENTS

What kind of clients do you want, anyway?
Building referral sources
Other lawyers
Other marketing tools
The blind date: client screening and the initial interview
Why it’s sometimes a good thing to tell a client your strengths and weaknesses
(after you’ve figured out what they are)
Concluding the interview
When (and how) to turn a client away
Why refusing to accept a client who wanted to write me a big check that day
was one of the smartest client development moves I ever made
How not to reject a client

KEEPING CLIENTS

Setting boundaries
Accessibility issues
Hand holding
How to keep communication flowing
Tools for success with the disorganized client
What do you mean there are weaknesses in my case?
Nine things NEVER to say to a client
Things never to say about a client to someone else (especially the judge)
How to refuse to do something a client wants you to do
What if you are getting sucked into the client’s agenda and losing your objectivity?
How much of my strategy should I share with my client?
It seems obvious, but never lie
Discussing other cases with your client
Give clients bad news verbally and personally
“Strong letter to follow”
Swapping jokes in chambers
What to do when you see clients in public
Prepare anything which requires the client’s signature well in advance of the due date
What to do with the client who tries to bully you

FIRING CLIENTS

How to recognize the problem client and what to do about it
When and how to fire a client
What if you really detest your client?
The most dangerous client there is
How to spot the Client from Hell:
Does not want a level playing field
Is greedy
Is domineering
Is entitled
Is impatient
Is suspicious
Has an ax to grind
Is guilty over the breakup
Is utterly innocent
Is bitterly resentful
Is crafty
Avoids dealing with the divorce
Alienates the kids
Didn’t pay their prior attorney(s)

YOU AND YOUR STAFF

How much staff do I really need?
How much do I pay them?
The Gospel According to Aretha
Training isn’t optional
NEVER blame your staff for your own screw up
Share the windfall
Do your own work in a timely manner
Remember that you can learn from your staff
They have a life, too
What if you have no control over staff?
What if the staff treats you like the new kid on the block?
The Office Manager from Hell

OPPOSING COUNSEL

What about opposing counsel?
Opposing counsel is the enemy, right?
Demonizing the other side
What goes around comes around
Never complain about your own client to opposing counsel
The wages of “war stories”
What to do about “he said/she said” letters
The importance of professional courtesies
What to do with opposing counsel who tries to bully or intimidate you
How to know when life is just too short to deal with a particular opponent

YOU, THE JUDGES AND COURT STAFF

Always be courteous and professional
Why it is important to thank the judge who just handed you a part of your anatomy
Promises, Promises
Who is making the decision, anyway?
How to read the judge and what to do when you’re losing him
How to get on the judge’s blacklist
When it’s ok to talk with the judge at the conclusion of a case and how to do it
How to handle the judge who tries to bully you into sacrificing your client
What about the judge’s staff?

KILLING TREES: HOW TO DO GOOD PAPERWORK

We aren’t paid by the word any more
A leads to B leads to C leads to success
All arguments aren’t created equal
Eliminate extraneous facts
Always check your authorities
How to prepare exhibits the judge will love
Never put dangerous or confidential facts in a public record
Review spells success

BILLING AND COLLECTING FEES

Rule #1: It doesn’t matter how many hours you bill
What if you work for a firm which sets a quota for billable hours?
How to bill
When not to bill
When to reduce a bill
How to talk to a client about money
How not to do it
“It’s not the money; it’s the principle”
How to be sure you get paid
When to take it on faith
How to deal with the case that turns sour
The clash between crusades and business
What happens when you get burned on fees (and you will)
How to stay out of fee arbitration
The deadbeat client
How to win at fee arbitration
What if the person you work for only gives you lousy cases to work on and
won’t let you collect the fee directly

THE HARD STUFF

What to do when you think you have screwed up
You haven’t a clue how to do something you need to do
If you are really stuck and don’t have an in-house mentor, consider getting a second opinion
What if the person who is paying your bill isn’t the client and wants to call the shots?
What if your client wants you to do something you feel very strongly is
inappropriate, but not necessarily unethical?
What if your boss instructs you to do something you don’t think is ethical?
What if you’re well into the case and realize your client is a really “bad guy”?
The family you can’t fix
Protecting yourself

YOUR LEGACY

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

How to find a mentor

Of course, you want to learn at the knee of a master, someone who has exactly the kind of practice you want and who can teach you how to build your own. They are few and far between. As you start to interact with other, more experienced attorneys, ask them how they got started, what they did that really helped them, what they wish they had done differently. Don’t do this on your client’s time, of course. Most good attorneys are grateful for the help they received on the way up and are willing to pass some of it along to a bright young lawyer who is willing to learn. Take advantage of that. And don’t forget to ask the most important question of all: “What are the mistakes that new lawyers make most frequently and how can I avoid them?”

Attend the meetings of your family law groups and meet as many of the more experienced lawyers as possible. Ask them the same questions and make mental note of their answers. Learn to distinguish the egocentric blowhard who takes this as an opportunity to bore you to death with inflated tales of his exploits “in the old days” from the person who is willing to share experiences and lessons in a way that is constructive and helpful to you.

When you attend your local bar meetings, sit at a different table each time. Let the more experienced attorneys know you are out there. Get involved in committee work in your local bar. That is a great way to get known. Of course, it goes without saying that you should do excellent committee work. Be sure you always follow through on what you promise to do. That will show them you can be counted on to do the same for the clients they might refer to you in the future.
Find one or two experienced attorneys with whom you connect and ask them if you can occasionally call them, meet them for lunch or buy some of their time to pick their brains. Don’t make a pest of yourself and use their time wisely. If you call such an attorney, decide what questions you want to ask and what information you need. If you meet them for lunch, pick up the check. Sometimes the offer will be declined because they remember how tight the budget was at the beginning, and if so, accept graciously and insist on picking it up yourself the next time. And then, sometimes you have the reverse problem...

What if the attorney you work for is a brainless twit, who happens to sign the paychecks?

This happens to many new lawyers. You are thrilled to be hired by an experienced family lawyer, so you won’t have to learn your craft on the fly. She looks and sounds good. She has lots of clients, so she must be good, right? After all, how are you supposed to know who is good and who is bad, especially if the person who hired you seems to know their stuff (and they all seem to when you don’t know anything yourself). Then you find out that the person who is training you is lucky to be on the “C” list, when you are aiming for the “A” list.

Brainless twits are out there, a testament to the fact that sometimes family law litigants don’t know they’ve been badly represented, because they don’t know how much better they would have done with a really good lawyer. So they keep sending their friends to their lawyer, and pretty soon someone who talks the talk but can’t deliver the goods has developed a successful practice. That’s not who you want to be. You want to be recognized as someone who knows what he’s doing. And fresh out of law school, everyone knows more than you do. It is easy to make a mistake and think you’re starting out in a good office, only to find that your boss is the laughing stock of his colleagues. Follow the suggestions for finding a mentor and find some experienced and respected attorneys to whom you can turn in a pinch for guidance.

Sometimes it is instructive to see how it shouldn’t be done, assuming you know the difference. Of course, even a jerk knows how to do some things right, so don’t just assume that doing the opposite is better. Continue to watch the good lawyers and emulate their approach when appropriate.

Look for the weaknesses in your case

Weaknesses??? WHAT weaknesses?

Always look for the holes in your own case. Otherwise, how can you fix/minimize them? Too many lawyers assume the validity of their client’s version of the facts without discrimination. This isn’t to say that all your clients will lie to you, but they will put the best spin on their story, and of course, they are not objective. It isn’t a pleasant experience to get blindsided at court because your client’s story doesn’t bear scrutiny. You won’t enhance either their case or your professional reputation if you forget this rule.

The case plan is a good place to start looking for the weaknesses.

Of course, your opposing counsel will be only too happy to point more of them out to you when you have your first phone conversation or meeting.

By the way, just because your case has weaknesses, and you can’t figure out a way to fix them, don’t concede them all. Remember to keep something in your back pocket to concede in settlement negotiations. Also, the judge is never going to give you everything you ask for; so make sure you have a couple of throw away issues you don’t mind losing (as long as they aren’t totally stupid and indefensible: that goes to credibility).

The importance of being consistently professional

Family lawyers are unique in the bar in that most of us represent both husbands and wives. As a result, we have to be able to argue both sides of the issue.

Clients will sometimes want you to take a position that you don’t feel comfortable with. Sometimes it is because they think that is what the law ought to be, even though you’ve told them that’s not the way it is. Never take a stupid position just because your client wants you to. Remember, you’re building your professional reputation every time you interact with a colleague or a judge. It’s your reputation on the line, not your client’s. If you violate this rule and allow your professional credibility to be undermined, you and your future clients will be paying for it for years.

When I would tell a client the position he wanted me to take on his behalf was directly contrary to the law, and he said I should “try it anyway” my answer was always the same: “Presumably the reason you came to me was because of my reputation with the courts. That was developed over years of appearing before the judges and letting them know that I know my craft and don’t make untenable arguments. I’m not going to blow that reputation for myself and my future clients for any one case, even yours.” If they insist, they need to find another lawyer.

Distinguishing a gripe from a legal issue

There isn’t a legal redress for every “wrong.” This is especially true for all the perceived wrongs in an intimate relationship that has gone sour. You can’t fix everything. When you tell a client the bad news, some of them will imply that you could if you were a really good lawyer. Don’t fall into this trap, and don’t let them make you feel there’s something wrong with you if you can’t save them from the consequences of all the stupid decisions they’ve made in the past.

Your job is to deal with the legal issues. Not all problems lend themselves to legal solutions. If she married a jerk, you can’t change the jerk into the guy she thought he was when she married him, or the one she wishes she’d married instead. As a lawyer you take the facts and the personalities as you find them.

If what they really want is a personality transplant for a spouse, there are ways to remind the client that it was his choice:

“I’m sure you wish you had chosen a different parent for your children”

“I’m sure you never saw this side of his/her personality before you married”

Your job is to resolve your clients’ legal problems to the best of your ability, not to give them a “do over” on life or become a guarantor for their own poor choices.

How many cases at a time is enough?

Never take on more cases than you can realistically handle. Most family lawyers blow this one. They let accounts receivable get out of hand, then need to take on more cases to get the retainers to cover cash flow while they are waiting to get paid on the old cases. The problem is that when they do this, they have compounded the problem. After the new retainer is exhausted, they have another.

Client communication tools

cognizant of the emotional strain inherent in family law matters, and presumably took that into account in choosing this specialty, you still must maintain the boundaries and refuse to spill over into a therapist’s role. Ditto for your staff.

How to keep communication flowing

Poor communication is the number one reason for sour attorney/client relationships. It’s a snap to communicate good news to someone. It may be easier to give even bad news to someone you like. As professionals, we are often called upon to give very bad news. And sometimes we don’t like the person we represent. That’s when things get sticky.

Look the client in the eye. This is especially important if the news is bad. You have to tell them the truth, even if it’s hard. Even if they really, really, really don’t want to hear it. Even if they fire you for telling them the truth. Better that they fire you (or even blame you) than that they sue you for not telling them the truth or for putting a positive spin on the unspinnable. Human nature being what it is, they will always want to put the most positive interpretation on what you tell them. That means that if you tell them bad news in a wishy-washy way, they will latch on to the positive implications and disregard the negative. An important part of your job is to tell them what they should concede and where they should draw the line and stand firm. If they haven’t gotten the message that they are going to lose something because you said it in an equivocal way, they are certain to blame you, not themselves. Of course, even if you tell them the truth and they refuse to believe you, they may still blame you. But at least you’ve done your professional best.

There’s always a gentle way to tell the truth, though you may have to be creative to find it. And if the reason the news is bad is that your client was lying through his teeth, don’t “explain” it by telling him the judge screwed up. That just makes him wonder why you didn’t try to get the case to another judge. It’s ok to say “The judge apparently didn’t believe you.” It isn’t necessary to add that you didn’t believe him either.

Always keep clients informed about what you are doing on their case. Copy them with correspondence and pleadings. When you send your client a copy of the other side’s pleadings, don’t just leave them to wonder what it means. Send a letter explaining how you recommend responding and what information you want them to gather to assist you in preparing the response.

Don’t waffle. If a client is likely to lose, tell him so. And when you give him the bad news about why he can’t win and he asks the question “Whose side are you on, anyway?” tell him, “Yours. I’m not paid to lie to you. My job is to tell you the truth, even if we both wish it were different.”

When waiting around the courthouse for a hearing, we frequently get to observe other attorneys in action. We may be sharing a bench with an attorney who is in the process of telling bad news to his client. I’ve said before that I’ve often added and deleted attorneys from my referral list based on how they handled this one task. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard an attorney telling a client that the judge isn’t buying their position, whereupon the client asks “Does this mean we’re going to lose?” Now, that’s a perfectly straightforward question, and deserves a similarly straight answer. All too often, the attorney waffles at this point. Mind you, it usually isn’t because the attorney is a jerk who wants to fleece this client for the fees he will charge to try the unwinnable case. Rather, he wants to convey good news and nobody taught him how to convey bad. The correct response is to look the client in the eye, and say “Yes, it looks that way,” followed by suggestions for alternate strategies or compromising the losing issue in exchange for something else.

And don’t forget that someone else is always listening and forming judgments about you when you are talking to your client in a crowded hallway at the courthouse.

All of these rules are ten times more important if you don’t really like your client and don’t think he should win. We don’t get to interview both parties to a case and decide which one we would prefer to represent. We’re stuck with the one who called us first. And the truth is we don’t always get to represent the good guy. That’s no excuse for poor communication. The unfortunate fact is that the harder it is to communicate with a client, the more important it is that you do it clearly, honestly and carefully.

Tools for success with the disorganized client

If you suspect that the client is disorganized, it is a good idea to give them an empty file folder, with instructions to put all of the correspondence and other paperwork they get from you in the file for easy reference. That reduces the number of clients who bring you documents in shopping bags, and file folders are cheap in relation to the frustration of trying to communicate with someone who throws your letters into the junk drawer or a pile of mail on the dining room table.