Monthly Archives: May 2010

Job Search Strategies: the real estate issue

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

Indirectly, the real estate implosion is at the heart of the transition issues that are affecting many of us. When the housing market declined, so did many other parts of the economy. In general, as attorneys, our fates as professionals in the workforce are closely bound to the real estate market.

The economic downturn led by the housing crash affected those of us who are real estate attorneys directly. Lawyers who were doing 20 to 30 closings a week, or a month, even, saw their revenues drastically curtailed. Dozens, probably hundreds of lawyers who were working for or with mortgage companies, or for developers or banks, lost their jobs. Many of us who had invested in real estate suffered losses.

On a personal level, we may be affected by what we can now afford to pay for shelter, i.e., rent, mortgage payments. The only people spared are those who own their houses outright. But even they may have problems, either from still rising real estate taxes or from inability to sell if the need for a job relocation arises.

No one is being spared. My colleagues who are pursuing career positions in other cities are finding it difficult to sell their properties. Those who rent are being hamstrung by their lease contracts. If the out-of-town job offer comes at the wrong time, they either break the lease or they have to turn the job down. The latter is a rare occurrence, but may happen based on individual economics. For the most part, it seems that landlords are sympathetic, but they will get the last dollar they can from someone breaching a lease contract. Their sympathy is limited because the competition for renters right now is also fierce.

It is difficult to know what advice to offer in this area, except to stay as unencumbered as you can in your real estate holdings, sign the shortest lease you can if you rent. Of course, should the market suddenly head upward when your lease expires, your rent might increase to boom market level. Not likely, though.

Unfortunately, credit ratings can take a beating when negative things happen with your living arrangements. If you break a lease, the landlord may sue for the remaining rent due. If you walk away from a mortgage, obviously, this will have negative consequences on your credit standing.

I suppose one piece of advice I can offer is to stay on the best possible terms with your landlord, so if something comes up you might get cooperation. Also, sometimes it is worth paying a couple of extra months’ rent if that will keep the landlord from attempting to enforce the lease term in court.

If you own your own living space, and you are faced with having to move, you are probably well aware of your options – if doable, accept a long commute, keep paying the mortgage and rent temporarily wherever your new job is, rent out your house or condo, try to do a short sale, try to get a modification of mortgage, etc. The possibilities will be specific to your situation.

During this time, keep sight of the really important things in your life, like family, health, and good friends, and participate in interesting activities that engage you. The income part of the picture will right itself eventually. Meanwhile, count all your blessings.

Advertisements

Q & A with Allan Horwich

Schiff Hardin partner Allan Horwich has practiced for over 40 years in corporate counseling and litigation. He has advised corporations, financial institutions, investors, securities professionals and boards of directors on a wide range of questions, including disclosure, corporate governance, corporate compliance, fiduciary duty and insider trading questions.

What do you find the most interesting about your practice?

The way the law in my field (securities and securities litigation) is constantly evolving, through legislation, regulations and caselaw, including in the Supreme Court.  It requires keeping up on an almost daily basis, both analyzing potential developments (such as the financial regulatory reform proposals) and mastering new compliance requirements and interpretations of the law.

What makes a good lawyer?

The ability to master a complex body of law and translate it into practical solutions, whether conforming to regulatory requirements or (in the case of a defense attorney) arguing against an enforcement or private damage claim.

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

The impending financial regulatory reform.  If it does come to fruition in a form anything like the current legislative proposals (House enactment and Senate committee bill), it will have a significant impact on those affected to conform to new requirements across a very wide spectrum of activities.  Many non-financial corporations may not appreciate the impact it could have on their financing activities and other aspects of how they do business.

Think on your feet

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.

Thinking on your feet is required when you are an attorney.  It’s also pretty darn helpful when you are interviewing for jobs and networking.   Most people believe that thinking on your feet isn’t something you can learn to do, or train to do better.  I disagree.

I tested this theory after my first year of law school.  After being “socratized” time and again, I figured that I could always use a little more practice thinking quickly.  My thought was that practicing improvisation would help me sharpen my ability to think on my feet and would make me more comfortable with public speaking.  So, that summer I took an improv class at Comedy Sportz in Chicago.  It was something I had always wanted to do, but the idea of acting silly in front of a bunch of strangers seemed odd, especially when I had just spent the year acting serious in front of my peers.  I’m glad I did it because it was a great experience.  I learned to be comfortable with myself and with speaking in front of an audience.  As silly as it sounds, taking an improv comedy class helped me to be a better lawyer years later.

I won’t make the analogy that practicing improv is a lot like practicing law, because it’s not.  But, there are aspects that are similar: like having to adjust to a situation or play different roles.  If you’re going to be an effective attorney, you must step outside of your comfort zone from time to time.  Why not take an improv or theater class?  It may sound totally off base to you, but I think it’s a wonderful way to build confidence and learn how to work with people on multiple levels.

Alas, if taking an improv class isn’t right for you, look into getting involved with a group like Toastmasters.  Toastmasters is an organization that teaches public speaking and gives you the opportunity to practice speaking in front of small groups of people. Public speaking is the number one fear that human beings have, but the more you do it, the more comfortable you will feel.  I have heard great things from attorneys who are involved with Toastmasters.  These attorneys have learned how to speak clearly and concisely, both of which are incredibly important skills.  Do you want to be the attorney who “um’s” the judge to death? Of course not.  So, why not get involved with a group like this?

If neither of these options sound the least bit interesting to you, try to practice thinking on your feet with friends, family or your law school’s career service office.  Answering mock interview questions is a great way to do this.  Always ask for feedback.

It feels very exhilarating to speak in front of people.  Yes, it’s a bit scary, but it’s going to be necessary at some point in your legal career.  If you don’t already have experience doing it, your challenge this week is to look into ways to get some experience.  Check out an improve class.  Besides being helpful, it’s a lot of fun.

Catching the media’s eye

Tom Ciesielka is President of TC Public Relations (www.tcpr.net). Tom has over 25 years of marketing and public relations experience, working with individual lawyers and mid-sized law firms. He is also a former board member of the Legal Marketing Association in Chicago and has spoken at Chicago Bar Associations CLE programs.  Reach him at tc@tcpr.net.

Trying to catch the media’s eye is similar to the way that we try to catch anyone’s eye. We want media contacts to see us and our firms as interesting, engaging and worthwhile enough to talk to and report on. It’s really like we are trying to start a relationship. And the more quality information we consistently give the media, the longer our relationship lasts.

So what do you give the reporter you’re trying to “woo?”

Something Simple, Something New

I’m not talking something simple as in telling a reporter what you had for breakfast. I’m talking about simple packaging for the information. Media love “Top 5 Tips for…” or “7 Reasons to…” and also enjoy how-to’s and thought leadership on various topics. The key is it’s got to be new and unique. Think about why your how-to or story is different. What are you saying that other firms aren’t? Turn that something new into something eye-appealing (bulleted lists, numbered points, bolded titles with short paragraphs—like this newsletter) and you’ll have and hold the reporter’s attention.

Something Relevant, Something True

Sometimes there are stories in the news that are important to your practice area and expertise, but go unnoticed because bigger national stories take front and center. These overlooked yet important stories can often be your ticket to publicity. Just recently, our firm, on behalf of our client, a personal-injury lawyer, capitalized on several stories on sports-related injuries as they pertain to high schools’ legal liability. As schools gear up for summer sports camps, this topic is increasingly relevant and important to readers and viewers. Our client had some advice for parents who wondered, “What can we do to protect out kids? What do we need to ask when selecting a summer sports camp?” Turns out the media wanted to know as well. Keep your eye out for articles in today’s news relevant to your practice area, and consider how you can add your expertise for a more robust – and noticed – story.

Something Personal, Something Real

I’ve talked to many reporters in my day, and have learned that the majority does not like e-mail blasts that also go to 500 other reporters. A best practice we follow is first taking the time to think about which reporters you know and know you, and then sending them a quick, personal e-mail to ask if they’re interested in the story, tips or expertise you have to offer. If you know a reporter’s sweet spot and the types of stories he or she usually writes, think the e-box and try to set up a face-to-face meeting with your experts to give the reporter a great source for future stories. Use your current story idea or tips to give the reporter an idea of what your firm does and why you are an expert. Rise to the top of their source list by delivering customized information you know the reporter needs, offering the occasional exclusive and being sensitive to his or her deadline.

Catching the media’s eye is quite simple if you remember that each reporter is just a human being looking for a good story that readers and viewers will love. And as with any relationship, it takes time and effort to build and nurture a rapport with a reporter – so be attentive, helpful and friendly.  Some say that reporters also enjoy boxes of chocolates and other edible treats, but that’s actually only true of public relations agencies.

Inside Perspective: the in-house counsel’s ‘circle of life’

Anita Wilson is VP & Chief Employment Counsel at TreeHouse Foods Inc. in Westchester, Ill., where she handles all labor, employment, benefits, ethics and compliance issues.

One of my favorite childhood books is Richard Scarry’s “What Do People Do All Day?”  The book is a beautifully illustrated depiction of the animals in “Busytown” and what they do for work all day.  I bet some law firm lawyers wonder what in-house counsel do all day.  When I worked at a law firm, I could never get in-house counsel on the phone.  A partner would tell me on his way out the door: “Get so-and-so on the phone and find out what they think about the draft motion for summary judgment we sent them.”  I would call and call and call and leave message after message after message to no avail. One night, the office’s night cleaning crew caught me hiding under my desk whispering pleadingly into the phone “Please please call me back. The partner is going to skewer me if I don’t get a response from you.”

What DO in-house counsel do all day and why are we so hard to find?  After much contemplation, I’ve come to the conclusion that there is what I will call a “circle of life” to the in-house counsel’s time that is just so very different than the circle of life for the law firm lawyer.

When I was at a law firm, there was really only one key period of time: the fiscal year-end. Those billable hours better be completed, in, and accounted for (with minimal write-offs, mind you) by year-end.  Associates across the world start sweating like pigs at a slaughterhouse if year-end approaches and those hours aren’t finished.

After that, the next key moment in a law firm lawyer’s circle of life is collection time.  Lawyers put away their deals and briefs, kiss the children good-bye and for a two- to three-week period of time focus on CALLING CLIENTS TO COLLECT.  That’s it. The rest of the year is pretty much a free-for-all.

Contrast that to the circle of life for an inhouse lawyer — make that an in-house lawyer at a publicly-traded company.  That in-house counsel’s circle of life is dependent on the omnipresent SEC and its various Q and K filing requirements and deadlines, shareholders who wish to be informed from time to time about certain matters and board members who kind of need to be involved at some level.  Then there are the meetings.  There are meetings in which we share information, meetings in which we plan what to do now that we’ve reviewed the information, meetings in which we decide what to do as a result of what we planned in the last meeting, meetings to plan meetings …   After all that I’ve got about four minutes left to talk to you — the law firm lawyer.  Don’t get me wrong; I need to talk to you but, unfortunately, you kind of have to talk fast.

Recently, a law firm partner friend of mine, Victor, contacted me for recommendations for an in-house lawyer to serve on the board of an organization.  I connected him to a friend of mine who serves as chief compliance officer of a global, publicly-traded organization. Victor e-mailed my friend Friday morning.  By Friday afternoon when she had not yet responded, Victor sent me a frantic email asking “Where is she? She hasn’t responded yet!!”  I sent Victor’s e-mail to my friend and chuckled when she wrote back: “We are filing our quarterly earnings today.  I have a conference call with a board member and I’m leaving in an hour to fly out of the country.  I’ll e-mail you from the airline lounge.”  Victor will tell you that I’m exaggerating.  Well, maybe I’m exaggerating a little but that’s fundamentally a true story.  I’m not saying that in-house counsel are the only lawyers who are busy and that law firm lawyers don’t have anything to do.  But come on. Let’s just agree that we have very different circles of life.  I’m sending Victor a copy of this article as well as Richard Scarry’s book.

Job Search Strategies: a conundrum

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

Opening your own office without a financial cushion is a difficult proposition. I know a couple of attorneys that are recent solo practitioners who are struggling to survive financially. Running a practice, with all its expenses, when you are under capitalized, is a nerve-wracking and frustrating proposition.

Ideally you start with a couple of clients already signed up. Family and friends, as well as other attorneys, are reliable sources of client referrals. You may be elated that you start out with a small client base that pays you a retainer. The problem is that you may not begin to draw fees from those retainers until you have performed the hours of work to bill fees from the retainers. And, as we all know, preparing documents, filing cases, can take a little time.

You must ensure that there is no question that you have billed sufficient hours to completely account for the fees you draw from the retainers. That is how many attorneys get in trouble, when they tap into client funds without having fully performed the work they billed, among other things.

You may be practicing real estate, in which case you collect your fee when you do closings, but those fees are minuscule and closings are now few and far between for most of us. Criminal law can also be a “pay as you go” situation, where you collect and perform the legal services somewhat simultaneously for small cases.

In general, as with any business, starting your practice is a much smoother and less worrisome exercise if you have accumulated a reasonable financial cushion. That brings us to the-chicken-or-the-egg problem. How do you accumulate funds if you are not working and alternatively how do you set up your office if you have no money, so you can start creating an income flow?

Some attorneys I know work at other jobs while they are developing their client base. The problem with that is that you are pulled in several directions at once and it can become an exhausting endeavor where you are not doing either function well and are constantly running to stay abreast of both jobs. You have to be very cautious in this situation not to take your eye off the ball with your cases and miss a crucial date or make some other mistake that could land you in trouble.

That all being said, however, lots of practitioners start this way, with little money and/or other jobs and eventually are able to make the transition to only working their own practice, which then takes off.

There are many helpful sites and other resources where you can get help with starting your practice on a shoestring. There are also creative ways to raise funds. Or, you can take your time working at other jobs and wait until you have a sufficient start-up fund. Each of us knows what works for us. However you do it, good luck and good fortune, there is nothing like being your own boss and working a practice that is ethically comfortable for you and where you decide how your clients will be served.

John Marshall professor talks about her book

Professor Ann Lousin has been on the faculty of The John Marshall Law School since 1975.  Prior to that, she served as a research assistant at The Sixth Illinois Constitutional Convention, where she worked on the drafting of the 1970 Illinois Constitution.

She then spent four years on the staff of the Speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives, two of them as Parliamentarian of the House, the first woman ever to fill that role.  Now considered the foremost expert on the Illinois constitution, Lousin was recently recognized by colleagues, friends, and some of the 1970 con con delegates at a reception and book-signing in honor of her new book on the Illinois constitution.  She also writes a column, “Law and Public Policy,” for The Chicago Daily Law Bulletin.

In one paragraph, can you tell us what your book is about?

The book is called The Illinois State Constitution: a Reference Guide. It describes the history of Illinois constitutional development and then comments on each section of the present constitution, which was drafted and adopted in 1970.  I wanted to explain the background of each section and how it has affected Illinois since 1970, especially in the legal and political spheres.  Since Illinois became a state in 1818, we have had only four constitutions.  The one adopted in 1970 was one of only a few complete revisions of any state constitution in the latter part of the 20th century.  Arguably, the 1970 Illinois constitution has been the most successful state constitutional revision in two generations.  I believe we succeeded because the delegates at the convention wanted to produce both a good constitution and a constitution that the voters would adopt.  Illinois is an incredibly diverse state with many differing points of view on social, political, and constitutional issues.  Finding common ground was the key to the convention’s success in 1970; that is also why the constitution has worked so well since then.

What made you decide to write the book?

This is one of a series of “reference guides” to each of the 50 state constitutions.  The original publishers came to me in 1989 and asked me to write the guide for Illinois.   They said everyone they talked to said I was passionate and knowledgeable about the Illinois constitution and should write the book.  I readily agreed.  Recently, Oxford University Press bought the rights to the entire series to expand their inventory in comparative constitutional law.  They recognize that the American state constitutions are the oldest written constitutions still operative.

How long did it take you to write the book, and what do you hope people will get out of it?

I began organizing the book in 1990 and finished it in 2009 — 19 years!   The research was quite simple because I have voluminous files on each section of the Illinois constitution dating back to the convention.  The task of writing was much harder.  I tended to write in spurts — nothing for several months, then I’d send the editor a chapter.  The editor was extremely patient even though I offered many excuses explaining my delays.  As he said, the work product I did turn in was good.  Everybody tells me that the book is well worth the wait; we have sold all but about 20 copies. But I am not sure that I am ready to write a sequel for a while!