Monthly Archives: January 2010

What type of puzzle piece are you?

Tiffany Farber is a solo practitioner who has been practicing law since 2008. As someone who has been through transition in her career, she understands the challenges lawyers in this situation face.

“I’m sorry, but we’re going to have to let you go.”  My boss’s words hung in the air like a cartoon thought bubble.  Suddenly, I was awash in a sea of confusion and HR paperwork.  I had officially joined the ranks of the unemployed, yet highly employable, Chicago attorney population.

If you’re anything like me, and I know that many of you are, you had to start over.  Sure, I wasn’t thrilled about being let go, but I was working for a struggling non-profit organization so I saw the handwriting on the wall.  I’m sure that many of you saw it, or see it, as well.  No matter what, you’re never quite prepared to be let go.

In this blog, I will share with you my journey and my advice for important steps you can take as you embark on your own journey. From networking to job searching to starting your own practice, if that is something you are interested in, you will grow leaps and bounds with each step.  I have experienced so many things within the past year and, while I may not always feel like bursting into song, I do feel that each day I learn something important about myself.

The thing you can always remind yourself is that you’re not alone.  If you have to write that on a piece of poster board and stick it to your wall to believe it, do it.  Many others are experiencing what you are right now.  You can dwell on the fact that you are one of many talented lawyers out of work, and that increased competition lessens your chances of finding employment, but I would suggest that you don’t.  Don’t think of yourself as one of many fish in the sea.  Instead, picture yourself as one of many puzzle pieces in a box.

If you think of the legal market as a huge puzzle, and yourself as a piece of that puzzle, you will see that there is a place where you fit.  A fish zips around in the sea with no real direction; a puzzle piece has a fixed place on a map.  Without one piece, the puzzle is incomplete.  No two lawyers are identical, and the experiences that you’ve had might fit perfectly with an employer in a way that another attorney’s wouldn’t.

My first suggestion for you is to take some time to really think about how your puzzle piece is designed, and where it fits into the whole puzzle, the legal market.  We each have qualities that make us marketable, the challenge lies in articulating yours.  My puzzle piece is made up of bright colors, because I am an extremely outgoing person.  I am a very approachable person, and I have a great deal of client contact in my practice, so the edges of my puzzle piece are rather smooth.  You may think puzzle pieces sound silly, but determining what type of person you are is extremely important.  It will help you narrow down your search and lead you to people who can help you on your journey.

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2009 looked great for firm’s design clients

By Melissa Birks

The patent team at Banner & Witcoff ensures that nobody can steal the designs you see — of televisions, computer mice, even soda cans.

In essence, they protect the way “things” look. And they protect the looks of more “things” than any other law firm in the nation.

For the seventh consecutive year, Banner & Witcoff procured the most U.S. design patents issued in a calendar year. In 2009, the national intellectual property firm with about 90 attorneys in Chicago, Washington DC, Boston, and Portland, Ore. procured 890 design patents; the firm ranked number two procured 309.

“I think we represent a lot of design-driven clients. Where some other law firms might represent one, we tend to represent many,” said Rob Katz, principal shareholder at Banner & Witcoff in Chicago.

Banner & Witcoff’s clients include Microsoft, NIKE, Nokia, PepsiCo, and Toshiba, all companies that collectively accounted for most of the firm’s 2009 design patents.

Design patents protect the appearance of an invention, as opposed to utility patents, which are concerned with an invention’s usefulness and new-ness. Design patents have a shorter life span, 14 months, than that of utility patents, which protect inventions for 20 years. And design patents typically don’t take as long to get issued by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office: 14 to 15 months on average as opposed to nearly 34 months for utility patents.

“If you create a new coffee cup, and it’s got a unique handle and or a new shape of the cylinder, you can get protection so long as it’s new and non-obvious,” Katz said.

Banner & Witcoff, for example, protects the look of Microsoft’s computer mice and the look of PepsiCo’s packaging.

“If you walk in the mall, you see it in store windows. You see people wearing it and carrying it. That’s part of the fun of what we do. You can say, ‘We worked on that!’” Katz said.

As for 2010, it’s difficult to say how the year will end, Katz said.

“It’s always hard to tell. A lot depends on what new stuff comes in the que, how fast the patent office acts on pendent cases … It wouldn’t surprise me if we had approximately the same number.”

A palatable ‘tool box’ of options

By Melissa Birks

Earlier this month, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission announced  new tools available to the Enforcement Division that will provide additional incentives to people involved in SEC investigations to cooperate.

“This is a potential game-changer for the Division of Enforcement,” Robert Khuzami, the SEC’s director of the Division of Enforcement, said in a Jan. 13 news release. “There is no substitute for the insiders’ view into fraud and misconduct that only cooperating witnesses can provide. That type of evidence can expand our ability to conduct our investigations more swiftly, and to act quickly to file charges, freeze assets, and protect investors.”

The new tools include three different types of agreements that the SEC can extend to would-be cooperators in its investigations: “cooperation agreements,” “deferred prosecution agreements,” and “non-prosecution agreements.”

David Porteous , a partner and securities-practitioner at Ulmer & Berne, said these new tools provide greater incentive to those who are involved in or have information relevant to SEC investigations to cooperate “early and often.”

In short, Porteous said, the SEC has reinforced the notion that “the first person on the bus gets the best seat.”

“It creates additional ‘inflection points,’ for a person involved in a SEC investigation to consider the possibility of cooperating, that others may already be cooperating ahead of you, and that they need to be prepared to ‘come clean’ if they do decide to cooperate because minimizing their own involvement will not score them any points for cooperation,” Porteous said.

He and others in the practice area can now present broader options to clients who are willing to cooperate, where in the past,  persons may have felt  there were fewer benefits to cooperating with the SEC, forcing them to fight or invoke their Fifth Amendment  rights.

“This is that option,” Porteous said. “It  incentivizes them to get on the bus earlier.”

The SEC also streamlined the process for submitting witness immunity requests to the Justice Department for witnesses who can help its investigations and related enforcement actions. And it set out, for the first time, the way in which it will evaluate whether, how much, and in what manner to credit cooperation by individuals to ensure that potential cooperation arrangements maximize the Commission’s law enforcement interests, according to the SEC release.

Job Search Strategies: New financial planning

Aurora Donnelly is a solo practitioner always looking forward to the next exciting transition.

I met with a new financial planner last week to do a routine personal financial check and to set my financial position going forward.  After serious admonitions to immediately take my money out of stocks and never think of doing that again, the conversation with the financial guy turned, of course, to how to economize in daily living so as to leave more funds unspent.

We have all heard and read more than we needed to know about giving up the daily latte, walking or taking public transportation instead of cabbing it, keeping your aging car going a little longer.  All of these ideas make sense, but there is another level of thriftiness to consider.   Here are some cost cutting ideas pertaining to health care and household necessities that may be available in your neighborhood. And, of course, you can probably uncover myriad other opportunities to economize that fit your lifestyle.

Regarding health care, since my husband and I often work as independent contractors, we sometimes pay for our own health insurance.  Even during times when we were salaried employees, we noticed that the employee portion of the health cost tab was becoming larger and larger every year.  A couple of years ago, like thousands or millions of other people, we decided that the option of insuring ourselves was no longer reasonable.

I panicked, of course, and envisioned immediate catastrophic consequences to our decision.  But soon I discovered that St. Joseph’s Hospital offers extensive testing through a reduced-cost program available to everyone, regardless of income level. This type of testing is probably replicated in dozens of neighborhoods around the city.

The tests include blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar, arterial pressure and an electrocardiogram.  The service included a consultation with a cardiologist at the Hospital to discuss the results.  The cost of this set of tests was $40!  I signed up immediately.  The test day was easy, pleasant and took less than an hour.  For other tests, I contacted the City of Chicago and received thorough and professional tests and services at a beautiful, brand new neighborhood clinic for nothing, no cost to me at all.

Exploring neighborhoods in Chicago, we made another astonishing discovery.  Shopping at some neighborhood grocery stores reduces our grocery bill by 20to 30 percent over buying groceries at our local Jewel.  Not everything is less at Tony’s Finer Foods, but most of the food we purchase on a weekly basis is less.  The Entenmanns outlet store sells breads and pastries for at least 40 percent less than Jewel or Tony’s.  The rest of our groceries we pick up at Jewel, Dominick’s or Trader Joe’s.  Costco is probably also a good alternative for certain things.  You do have to allow a little extra time to go to the various stores.

We made these discoveries some time ago and have embraced this way of shopping.  Even when the economy bounces back and there is less angst about finances, we will continue with these good money habits.

Instead of paying for a personal trainer to examine my swimming and running issues I have an appointment at another health-care facility in a couple of weeks for a free screening of my sports form.

The new financial planner said we are not his first clients to tell this story and that one of the great benefits of this financial downturn is that people who have learned to overhaul their personal finances to live more frugally are likely to carry this on when times are flush.  A good thing, don’t you think?

A Q & A with one of our speakers

Julie Maeir, director of placement at Providus, is one of the speakers at our upcoming Attorneys in Transition event. She took time to answer our questions.

What is the number one piece of advice for those lawyers going through a career transition?

Think outside of the box.  Today’s legal job market is remarkably different than it was just a few short years ago. Take the time to think where you want to be in your career and what steps can you take to achieve that goal.  Sometimes you may have to verve off that path for a while, but often that can lead to new opportunities you would have never considered in a traditional job market.

What do you hope people get out of next Wednesday’s event?

I hope people will hear new and different perspectives and options for themselves during their transition.  Events such as this allow lawyers to meet with others in similar situations and exchange advice and experiences, in addition to the speakers’ presentations.  It is great to build a “job search” network with others that can understand your situation and offer support and encouragement.

What are the challenges lawyers face in this economy?

I have noticed different challenges for lawyers based upon where they were in their careers before they entered or re-entered the job market.  Obviously, for all levels of experience, the biggest challenge is supply versus demand.  We all know that there are too few jobs to accommodate all the skilled attorneys seeking employment.  For those recent graduates, their challenge is the lack for experience and how to gain that experience. For some highly experienced attorneys, the challenge is finding the right opportunity that can utilize their experience to the fullest potential.

Q & A with Douglas Albritton

Douglas Albritton, a partner at Reed Smith, works in the commercial litigation & disputes practice group. He focuses his practice in the areas of (a) trade secrets and employee restrictive covenants (both prosecution and defense, and all related causes of action), (b) securities litigation and enforcement (including the prosecution and defense of shareholder oppression claims, and other investment-related actions arising out public and private transactions in various industries and asset forms), and (c) complex business disputes, including class action and MDL cases, emergency matters requiring expedited proceedings, and commercial real estate litigation.

What do you find the most interesting about your practice?

To paraphrase Billy Crudup playing Russell Hammond in the movie “Almost Famous” — “To begin with, everything.”  From the smart and interesting people I work with, to the  fascinating clients who trust me with their work, a Chicago and broader legal practice for the kid from Normal, every day brings challenges and rewards beyond anything I could have hoped for.  Being a movie buff, it also is true as Tom Hanks said in Philadelphia, “It’s that every now and again – not often, but occasionally – you get to be a part of justice being done. That really is quite a thrill when that happens.”

What makes a good lawyer?

A good lawyer is kind, conscientious, intellectually curious, passionate about his or her work, and driven by the need to get it right for the client (and to do even better the next time).

What is the biggest legal news right now, and what is its impact?

I handle a lot of non-compete work, and the big news has been the Illinois Appellate Court for the 4th District’s decision in Sunbelt Rentals, Inc. v. Ehlers, which removed the requirement to demonstrate a “legitimate business interest” when seeking to enforce an employee restrictive covenant under Illinois law (at least in the 4th District).  The impact of this decision, which has yet to be fully seen, could be to make it substantially easier for these agreements to be enforced, and to make it harder for new employers to hire employees away from other companies.

A second legal news item with a more national scope continues to be the migration of traditional business financing from banks to pooled investment entities (hedge funds, private equity, venture capital, etc.), and the evolving litigation landscape of borrower claims and investor disputes that accompany this ongoing change.  This change significantly impacts the way businesses borrow money, how investors invest (including new levels of sophistication required), and is expanding and refining the law in many areas.

Q & A with one of the speakers

Christina Martini, a partner at DLA Piper, will be one of the speakers at Wednesday’s Attorneys in Transition. She took some time to answer a few of our questions.

What is the number one piece of advice for those lawyers going through a career transition?

I would recommend that folks in this position have faith that things work out for the best, and sometimes life presents you with situations that you may not have expected, envisioned, or necessarily wanted at the time they arose.  If you have faith that things happen for a reason, and that sometimes your life is meant to change direction at certain times and in certain ways that can be unpredictable, it will make the whole experience much easier. Success and failure are often driven by your attitude, and being open and receptive to change and optimistic about your future can make a huge difference in the ultimate outcome of a career transition experience.

What do you hope people get out of next Wednesday’s event?

I hope that people learn some valuable information as to how to go about exploring different options during this time, and that they leave the session much more hopeful about their situations.  I think all of us at different times during our lives go through huge transitions in our careers and lives, and it is normal to feel very uncomfortable and scared.  Hopefully, folks will feel like they are not alone and that they do have support from those around them during this time, and that this period can actually be a really great opportunity for them!

What are the challenges lawyers face in this economy?

The challenge is that there are too many people for too few jobs, and that it is a 24/7 responsibility to think of ways to distinguish yourself from others and to make yourself indispensable to your employer.  What is really challenging is that decisions to terminate an employer/employee relationship are incredibly difficult and are generally driven by circumstances beyond one’s control (such as a huge drop-off in the organization’s revenue).  Thus, there is an intense feeling of a loss of control, which is incredibly difficult to deal with (especially for lawyers) and can have some very significant life consequences.