Monthly Archives: August 2010

Job Search Strategies: to litigate or not

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

When I went to law school I pictured myself working as corporate counsel, advising companies in their daily operations.  I had plenty of experience with how corporations worked, how they made decisions that had successful or disastrous results, the type of legal advice a corporation needs on a daily basis to run its operations and how to work well in house.

After graduating from law school and before I landed my first job as an associate, I played a very minor role in the Wal-Mart gender discrimination class action suit.  I am sure you have read or heard about the group of female employees who sued Wal-Mart for allegedly failing to pay, train or promote women on an equal basis with their male co-workers.

News about this case is of vital interest to me.  In spite of my brief role in it years ago, I feel that this is my case, that whatever happens in the course of it affects my life.  This type of litigation affects all of us closely and it is so large that its outcome is likely to impact all of our lives.

The class is now at over a million plaintiffs – a jumbo class action with a possible cost to Wal-Mart of over $1 billion in damages.  The numbers are huge, the possible effect could be wide-ranging.  The coming ruling by the Supreme Court with regard to the size of the class could set the standard for many other class action lawsuits.

My contribution to this case was minimal as is that of hundreds of people who have worked and now work on this suit, but all of us have had a hand in something important. Even hearing the names of the plaintiffs evokes strong emotion – having read their depositions and knowing a little of their personal stories, I am mesmerized when I learn about where they are now and what has happened to them over the last ten years.  I can also picture the events unfolding for the defendant corporation and how this litigation must be affecting their operations.  Building a business takes an enormous amount of energy, time, money and some luck and all that can be brought down in a moment, as we saw with the failure of some of the financial giants.

My first job as an associate involved extensive litigation.  I tried probably two dozen cases in my first year, I was exhausted, strengthened, in the depths of despair and exhilarated all in the same day.  I slept very little and felt great.  A 20-hour workday was routine, the work had a lot of drama.  After a couple of years of this, I was ready to move into a more sedate pace with my civil practice.  I did not miss being in court almost every day and sometimes in several courts in different parts of the Chicago metro area.

But I am reminded of why I went to law school, how the sudden realization over lunch with a friend changed my life, how I saw, in a moment of absolute certainty, that this is what I wanted to do with my life.  Because nothing makes change happen as much as the law, and there is drama and privilege in being an advocate in the courtroom.

The drama of litigation is compelling, but litigation, for me, is like the old story of the snake charmer.  I can’t take my eyes off it, even knowing that the result unfolding in front of me could be fabulous or disastrous.  I have a more peaceful life now but I also think often about how profound an effect court decisions have.  I carry on an internal debate on a daily basis about what I should be doing with my time, skills, talent and training.

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Q&A with Jennifer Burnette

Jennifer Burnette is an associate at Marshall, Gerstein & Borun, and her practice concentrates on foreign and domestic patent prosecution and client counseling in the fields of material science, chemistry/chemical engineering, nanotechnology, pharmaceuticals, and mechanical and consumer products.  She works with her clients to develop effective prosecution strategies to best protect their intellectual property rights and further their business objectives.

How has the practice of law changed from when you first got into it?

As a result of the market conditions, clients have understandably become much more cost conscience.  It is becoming ever more important to understand a clients business and commercial objectives and develop legal strategies that further those business and commercial objectives.

What advice do you have for law students?

Understand that law firms are often very different with very different personalities and atmospheres.  Look for a firm that meshes with your own personality and one in which you feel comfortable with the other professionals.  Having this level of comfort will aid you greatly in developing your career at that firm through the development of solid working and even mentoring relationships with the professionals at the firm.

What are the challenges of maintaining a work-life balance?

One of the greatest challenges of maintaining a work-life balance is learning to separate work from your personal life and leave work at the office to really concentrate on the important aspects of your non-work life, like family.

Keep your eyes on the prize

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.

When I was a law student, I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my law license — advocate for people with disabilities.  So, I made sure I always kept that in mind.  As a student, I did everything I could to learn about disability rights law, special education law and any other area of law that encompassed advocating for people with disabilities.   I never stopped making connections and learning the ropes and I’m still going strong to this day.  I have come a long way from that wide-eyed law student, but I owe my success to that persistence.

Being patient is super hard, but it pays off.  When I was a third-year student, I interviewed for a job that would have been perfect for me.  I was so excited about it.  In the end, another qualified attorney beat me out for the position.  I got to know him and kept in touch with him and, wouldn’t you know it, when he decided to move and take a position outside of Chicago, he suggested my name for his replacement.  Sometimes the stars align, but the stars can usually use a little nudging.  If you interview for a job and you don’t get it, don’t get bitter.  Instead, make it a point to keep in touch with people at that firm or organization.  If you are unwilling to compromise your passion, it will be evident.  If you have your heart set on a particular position, don’t give up on it just because someone tells you no.  Of course, be courteous and don’t be overbearing when it comes to keeping in touch.  Instead, give that person little reminders that you are still around and interested.  One tip I really like is to let that person know about timely and relevant news stories or cases that you’ve read to show you are up on the law.

The thing you have to remember is to keep your eye on the prize.  If you want a job in a certain area of law, you need to keep your sights on that goal.  There are enough attorneys in Chicago to lead you there. It’s hard to wait it out sometimes, but I am telling you that it’s often worth it.  Along the way there will be twists in the road, but if you know your ultimate destination, you are sure to get there eventually.

You need to make a valiant effort to strategically place yourself in front of the right people.  Call your law school alumni association and ask them to help you.  Or, ask some attorney friends to help you make a roadmap.  It helps when you chart your path, so draw something out, even if that sounds silly.   I have heard numerous stories about successful people, and one thing always remains a common thread between them:  all of them have a plan.  Some of these people use visualization techniques and pump themselves up by picturing their goals coming to fruition; others write detailed plans so they know when they are hitting key points on their journey.  Whichever way you go, commit to taking active steps toward keeping your ultimate goal in mind.

Leveraging Your Reputation: Conflict management

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 midsized 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.

Some people might think that “preparing for the worst” is a pessimistic way of living. Why should we constantly think about the things that could go wrong? Why can’t we focus on the positive and happily go about our business? The reality is that preparing for the worst doesn’t reflect a half-empty outlook on life; rather, it is a smart business move, especially in the legal industry. Problems arise, and when they do, you and your firm will be much better of if you are prepared and know what to do if and when a problem occurs.

The trick is to be proactive instead of reactive, and the following outlines a number of suggestions on how to prepare for and handle the worst of times, because it can’t always be the best of times.

Have a Plan

Being prepared and understanding the possibilities for crises can help your firm handle them when they arise. Think about the way military trains even when not engaged in war. They are planning and practicing for specific situations so that they will be victorious. Proper preparation involves identifying and analyzing trends, issues and threats in the environment that could affect your firm, creating a strategy and an action plan for implementation and evaluating the effectiveness of this plan. Make sure your attorneys know who is in charge of what, and communicate the delegation of tasks clearly.

Keep Your Cool

When a major problem comes up, the worst thing to do is break down, which has the potential to create a negative ripple effect both inside and outside your firm. A few basic things to remember: be completely honest about everything you say, frequently provide information that is accurate and readily accessible to the public and the media, have a spokesperson available at all times to answer questions and dissolve speculation, and constantly monitor news coverage about your firm so that you can quickly respond to what the public and media are saying.

“No Comment” No-No

Sometimes attorneys are wary of making comments on an unfortunate situation or legal complication due to the fear that something will be said to make the situation worse. Of course there are times when you should postpone making a robust statement about an event or crisis, but always avoid “no comment.” For example, if reporters contact you about a certain situation that you have yet to know about, it is perfectly appropriate to say you will get back to them as soon as you learn more and get your facts straight. However not saying anything at all can actually be worse than saying something due to the lingering possibility for assumptions of guilt or responsibility. Take charge of the situation and be prepared to explain how it will be resolved.

Job Search Strategies: more on mentors

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

As I was reading Tiffany’s posting a couple of weeks ago about mentors I realized how grateful I am for the mentors that have been part of my life. They have been tireless in their enthusiasm for my efforts, generous with their time and advice and helpful in making other productive connections.

When I decided to go to law school several friends and friends of friends came forward to help. Over coffee sessions and dinners, we talked about the wisdom (or lack of) of signing up for law school at a mature age, about what it would mean to give up my relatively successful career to date — why do it, how to make it happen. Some of these mentors had themselves had good and bad experiences as lawyers. Nevertheless, they invariably encouraged me to analyze my own situation free of preconceptions and to make the right decision on the matter.

I received boxes of law books and study guides, piles of class notes and study note cards and useful website addresses. I jotted down directions on what to do, how to do it, what was important in sitting for the LSAT’s and in applying for law schools. Most importantly, every one of these mentoring lawyers conveyed to me by attitude and by word, their perception of the value of the profession and the pride they took in being lawyers. They made me feel confident and good about what I was undertaking. There was no way I would fail them by not doing my best.

Now 14 years later, several of these people are still with me. They answer my questions about ethics issues, about where to get forms I need, about how to deal with difficult clients, how to handle referrals. They encourage me take good cases and leave the rest, something I am not always smart about, and how to make the best of my particular talents as an attorney.

This wonderful team I have on my side, made up of “old” and “new” mentors, has saved me many times, by keeping me from making mistakes, by helping me fix the ones I do make, by making me a better lawyer and business manager. They bring me back up when I feel defeated.

I am telling my story because you should be aware that, particularly in the practice of law, being a loner is not the best way to go. Don’t let your professional pride keep you from asking questions, from getting help from the right friends.

Starting even before law school and onward, line up the best team of mentors you can get on your side, through networking, through treating them well, through realizing and letting them know their value. Stay in touch even when they don’t always respond right away. Let them know how much you value their support. Always be on the look out for these special, wonderful people who have the talent and desire to help others and then let them help you.

Inside Perspective: Outliers

Dan Harper is vice president, corporate counsel and secretary for Océ North America, Inc.  He is also President Elect of the Chicago Chapter of the Association of Corporate Counsel. The views expressed herein are the opinions of the author and do not reflect the position or viewpoint of Océ North America Inc., Canon Inc. or any of the Océ or Canon companies.

“Outliers: The Story of Success” is the title of one of  several best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell’s New York Times No. 1 best sellers.  It is about people who fall outside the bell curve, off the charts if you will.  I was recently prompted to read “Outliers” because Mr. Gladwell is the keynote speaker for the ACC Chicago Chapter Annual In-House Celebration Dinner to be held Sept. 23.

As the title suggests, Gladwell explains how successful people get that way.  The book is not a “How To” manual.  Rather, it looks at the various factors that make successful people like Bill Gates successful and, conversely, why otherwise hardworking intelligent people turn out to be not so successful.

According to Gladwell one of the factors contributing to success is time.  His assertion is set forth in the “10,000 Hour Rule.”  Practicing your craft for 10,000 hours will make you highly successful at it so long as you have intelligence, drive and opportunity, all of which are driven by other factors such as family, friends and culture.

How does one apply the 10,000 hour rule in the context of being a lawyer?  How do we measure 10,000 hours of quality legal “practice”?  Can it be measured by the standard 2,000 hour billable year?  I don’t think so because not every one of those 2,000 hours is spent “practicing” law in a meaningful way.     The quality of the time spent in practice varies depending on the kind of work the lawyer is doing, the task assigned to the lawyer, the complexity of the problem being solved, the quality of the mentor guiding the lawyer through the project, the independence exercised by the lawyer, the culture of the firm and so on.

I know a few lawyers who spent several years in what I would term “apprenticeship” at small law firms.  Going to school at night, they had the benefit of working in a law firm full time during the day.  They were able to experience the academic principles they learned at night in their day jobs and apply their learning to real world situations.  In those days, a “law clerk” could step up before a judge on simple matters, could attend real estate closings and in many small firms, draft pleadings and conduct research as they wrote the brief and then went with the lawyer to court when the case was argued.  Once these lawyers passed the bar, they seamlessly transitioned to full out legal practice and felt very comfortable jumping right in.

Contrast this experience with the lawyer who graduates from a top notch law school and spends her first few years working in a “white shoe” firm on deal papers huddled in a closet before ever getting to be the team lead on a deal, or works on discovery requests for two years before ever seeing the inside of a courtroom.  All else being equal, which lawyer would you hire as your new in-house associate?

As in-house counsel, we generally have the benefit of years of experience “practicing” our craft.  I am sure that most of us put in our 10,000 hours before we went in-house and were more than ready to provide a new level of guidance and counseling to our clients.  I suggest that the 10,000 hour rule be applied to all in-house lawyers and those who want to be in-house.

So, if you aspire to work in-house, put in the time on quality projects so that when the opportunity arises, you rise to the challenge and can provide that next level  of expertise required to make you a master of your craft and maybe even become an “outlier” in your own right.

If you are interested in attending the ACC Chicago Chapter Annual In-House Counsel Celebration Dinner, you can click here for information:    http://www.acc.com/chapters/chic/index.cfm?eventID=9621

Q & A with John F. Shonkwiler

John F. Shonkwiler, a partner at Novack and Macey, concentrates his practice in complex commercial litigation matters, principally those involving contract actions, business torts, partnership disputes and intellectual property issues. He took some time to answer a few of our questions.

How has the practice of law changed from when you first got into it?

The three biggest changes in private legal practice since I started in 1998:  e-mail, e-mail and e-mail.  E-mail has dramatically changed:  lawyers, judges and clients’ communications in the work place; lawyers’ lives away from the office – as everyone is now reachable 24/7 via BlackBerry; and discovery, by making infinitely more complicated the process of gathering and producing documents.  I think the bench and bar is only beginning to adapt to these changes and, to make matters worse, our e-mail habits and technology are changing faster than we are adapting.

What advice do you have for law students?

Don’t go to law school unless you’re excited about it.  Tuition is expensive and good jobs are hard to come by.  If you’re not highly motivated to work hard, your grades will likely suffer.  In this economy, if you don’t get top grades – especially in your first year – you’ll find yourself behind the eight ball in terms of having any shot at getting the job you want.

What are the challenges of maintaining a work-life balance?

As I said in response to No. 1 –  with the BlackBerry, you’re expected to be available and responsive to routine work-related correspondence on virtually a 24/7 schedule.  This makes it next to impossible to take a real vacation.