Monthly Archives: September 2010

The portrait of the attorney

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 people ask me what I do, I tell them I’m an attorney. When people ask me what I am, I tell them I’m an artist.

I have been a singer all my life, and I’m not talking about being a wishy-washy shower singer type either. I’m serious about my singing. I’ve sung in shows, at weddings and in competitions. For me, singing is exhilarating. Standing in front of people and bearing my soul is a meaningful experience.

I must admit that most of my closest friends are attorneys. But, I only think of them as attorneys after I have thought of them as artists. One of my friends is a brilliant painter, another is a photographer, another a musician, and the list goes on. I find artists to be some of the most talented attorneys because they approach situations with creativity, and shouldn’t law incorporate creativity?

Now, sure, there are talented attorneys who don’t have a creative bone in their bodies. They can write well or argue the law like champions. But, from my personal experiences, I’m never disappointed by an attorney and artist sharing the same body.

There are so many ways that lawyers can explore their creative sides. I will admit that when I was in law school, I forgot that I could be creative. I forgot that I was once close to applying for a Masters program in creative writing. I forgot these things because I thought I couldn’t be an attorney and an artist all at once. I was wrong. As I got older, I realized that I was more effective as both.

If you have passions outside of the law, and I hope very much that you do, you should indulge them. This past year I performed in the Chicago Bar Association’s Christmas Spirits Show. As a cast member, I met tons of artistic attorneys. Some sang, some danced (not me, I’m a dreadful dancer) and all of them had a great time. It was refreshing to meet attorneys who were interested in enriching their lives with art.

So, come on, work that right side of your brain! Go take a pottery class or start a journal. See a play or learn how to play the guitar. Just don’t be afraid to be an attorney with your muse as co-counsel.

Inside Perspective: Expertise tempered with humility

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.

Last week, I was honored and privileged to hear one of America’s truly great thinkers speak to a group of lawyers about failure. Specifically, Malcolm Gladwell spoke at the Association of Corporate Counsel Chicago Chapter Annual In-House Celebration Dinner to a group of in-house counsel, law firm lawyers, and business executives about the failure of experts.

It is not possible for me to restate Gladwell’s remarks here. After having met the man and listening, enraptured by his words, I know better than to even try to recreate his thoughts in a way that approaches the beauty and eloquence of the original remarks. However, the message he left us is quite simple and understated but also timely and very important. No matter who we are, no matter how well educated, no matter how well informed, no matter our title or station in life and no matter how much we think we know, we can and do fail. In fact, we fail often. And when we do fail, the consequences can be catastrophic.

Gladwell described a continuum whereon lies those who are incompetent at one end and those who are experts on the other. Those who are incompetent by nature or circumstance make mistakes at least as frequently as those on the other end of the continuum. However, mistakes made by incompetent people are generally of little or no consequence. On the other hand, mistakes by “experts” may and often do have dire consequences. Gladwell wove together the tales of the failure of Bear Stearns in 2008, the battle of Chancellorsville 1863, and Goldman Sachs and the Crash of 1929 as examples of catastrophic events caused by experts who should have known better.

These events occurred as a result of very smart people, the best in the world in their respective fields, making horrible decisions. Their self perception of their abilities, self-awareness, knowledge of the facts and circumstances and their expertise, did not align with reality. According to Gladwell, these people failed because their view of themselves did not match their true capabilities, as smart and as knowledgeable as they were. What they lacked was, in a word, humility.

As confident as we must be in our role of legal advisor to our client, whether that client is the board of directors, the VP of sales, the purchasing manager or the IT technician, we must, as all experts must, temper our confidence with humility. We must recognize that we may not know all angles to the issue at hand; that others may know more than we do. To minimize the chance that we might one day be cited as the reason for the next big failure, ask questions, ask the opinions of others, bounce things off your colleagues, discuss your thoughts and ideas with fresh thinkers new to the issues at hand as well as the wise sages in the field, open your mind to the possibility that your standard answer or response may not be the right one. Really think about what could go wrong with your solution. We must continually “recalibrate” so that our perception of ourselves aligns as perfectly as possible with reality. Always be prepared, always approach every question as if it could lead to the next Bear Stearns failure because for many of us, our decision just might have that implication.

Job Search Strategies: a true contributor

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

Here is a wonderful story to give you new optimism, about a DePaul law school graduate, Agnes Prindiville who at 81 is probably one of the oldest law school graduates to be admitted to the bar.

I heard Agnes’s story from her niece and I was thrilled when I talked with her and learned more details. Agnes has always been, as her niece calls it, an “academic.”  She majored in math and computing and information and went on to teach math at various colleges for years. After the first of her seven children was born, she began taking classes, eventually earning a master’s degree in math along the way.

Agnes had always wanted to go to law school, but when she graduated from college in the 50s her family thought that was not a good idea. But, according to her niece, Agnes and her family are the type of people who say, “I want to do this” and they go and do it. It took her a while, but she finally found the time and the room in her life to do it, long after retiring at 64. She says, I am the type of person who likes to keep busy. No kidding!

I have friends who are around my age, some younger, who say that their brains don’t work that well any more, that they could not now undertake anything that requires complex learning and memorizing. But I wonder, is that because with age our brains go on an intermittent vacation or is it because we believe we can’t and therefore don’t try to do anything that is intellectually taxing after a certain age.

I see intellectualism losing ground, being smart and educated is not popular. So when I see people of an advanced age getting law degrees and many other older people doing things that require them to stretch and take risks, I see fresh contributors. Whether their contribution lasts 50 years, as with the twenty-year-olds going to law school today, or 10 years, is irrelevant. A great idea, or teaching or help given to someone who would otherwise not receive that help is reason enough to do whatever you can to improve yourself.

When I asked Agnes if she went to law school to make lots of money, she laughed. She went to law school because the law is really interesting and because as an attorney she can do things she couldn’t otherwise. Like give legal advice to people who are losing their homes to foreclosure, or people who are in a terrible marriage and need legal help getting out of it with their interests protected.

Agnes is also working on guardianship pro bono matters. She has done volunteer work throughout her life, but now, in addition to her law degree, she has also taken training or certification programs in guardianship, foreclosure defense, and divorce training and is excited about her work in those areas.

Our conversation turned to law school —  she enjoyed it, the classes themselves were not difficult, trudging around with those heavy books back and forth was tiring, and legal writing was a challenge. And now, she says, she has to be aggressive to get to do what she wants, but it does not sound like that will be a problem for her.

When we talked about whether she would do it again or recommend law school to anyone, she talked about one grandson (out of 20 she has), who is considering going to law school straight out of college. Her recommendation is that he work for a while before attending, just to get a feel for life before starting out on the law adventure. Well said.

Q&A with Milena Sukovic

Milena Sukovic is a patent attorney at Marshall, Gerstein & Borun.  She leads foreign and domestic patent prosecution in a broad range of electrical and computer system technologies.  She has a J.D., an L.L.M. in intellectual property, a B.S. in electrical engineering, and experience as a communication systems engineer at Motorola.

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

With regard to patent law, technology seems to be changing at a faster rate, especially in the area of systems engineering and information systems in particular.  Consequently, it seems that more companies are realizing the value of starting a patent portfolio to cover  technologies in the area of software such as, for example, in the area of interface technologies.

To provide some guidance on a topic related to this trend, the Supreme Court had recently been asked to rule on a case that generally asked the question of –  what is eligible subject matter for a patent application, i.e., the Bilski decision.  In Bilski, the Supreme Court, somewhat anticlimactically, avoided defining what is eligible subject matter, besides stating that an abstract idea is not eligible subject matter.

However, the fact that the Supreme Court avoided defining what is eligible subject matter may prove to be the best for society, as it gives the individual inventor, working in the arts that are the most cutting edge, the opportunity to make the initial decision as to whether to apply for patent protection.  Inventors in the newest arts should not be dissuaded from applying for a patent as soon as possible.

As an aside, in addition to the public disclosure that is achieved via a patent application, another benefit of such disclosure may be transparency of how some complex systems operate.  For example, one invention I would have liked to have seen patented is the financial system’s credit default swap idea.  Maybe if the inventor of this idea had explained it on paper via a patent application, then more people would have had the opportunity to understand what risks were being taken, and maybe the problem would have been identified sooner.  Contrary to my traditional belief, it seems that the people in the finance industry might be the most innovative of all (half-joking).

2. What advice do you have for law students?

Think about why you want the law degree.  Will it be worth it?  See how real attorneys live and work.

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

It helps to be organized and have as much control of my schedule as possible, but life and work are both unpredictable and complex, so flexibility is most important.

The American Dream

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.

As I was walking home this evening, I passed a man wearing a shirt that said in large silver letters, “There is no such thing as the American Dream.”  I paused.  It’s not every day that you see such a poignant message displayed on breathable cotton.  This shirt begged the question, is the “American Dream” just a collective fiction?  Are we all scrambling to travel down a path that leads to nowhere?

This past week, a friend of mine from law school got the chance to address this important issue with President Obama at a town hall meeting.  Much like the man I passed tonight, my friend questioned the concept of the American Dream.  He explained to the president that he attended law school to pursue a life of public service, and he is now in debt and very disheartened by the dismal job market.  He is having trouble meeting his loan payments, and thinking about the future is making his head spin.  As a young person looking towards the future, he feels that he can’t attain the American Dream.

This issue was very thought provoking, and not just to me.  Several news organizations have since followed up on his question and interviewed my friend.  To him, the American Dream includes having a job, and having a home and a family one day.  When I think about the American Dream, I think about my ancestors who came here from Europe hoping to make a better life for their children.  I think about the rise of the suburbs in the mid 1900s, and the ever quickening heartbeat of progress that has pulsed through this country for many, many years now.  But now, it may be time to reevaluate what exactly the American Dream really means to us personally.

The American Dream is billed as a collective concept.  It presupposes that we all want the same things.   But, I believe the dream is something that is personal to each one of us.  It shouldn’t be marketed like the bulls eye in the middle of a dartboard.  It seems that now it’s about reevaluating what it is we really want and need.

For me, having a law license was something I felt that I needed to serve the public most effectively.  I’m sure that those of you reading this have your own reasons for becoming an attorney.  The common thread between us is we had “attorney” as part of the fabric of our dreams, and we didn’t give up until we achieved that goal.

There is no easy answer to the question of whether the American Dream is still alive and kicking.  Perhaps we should each just take positive steps towards living good, fulfilling lives without regard to whether we have checked “achieve American Dream” off of our “to do” lists.

Leveraging Your Reputation: Is it the end of PR as we know it?

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.

As I think about the end of summer, I think about other things that I’ve overheard are ending or ended. The oil spill leakage. Lindsay Lohan’s career. And public relations.

The end of public relations? As a PR professional, naturally I don’t agree. Sure, the way we communicate, share information and interact has changed, but shouldn’t that mean we need professional communicators now more than ever? In this spirit, I’ve given three examples below of how public relations will adapt…and survive.

Public relations will survive the downturn of print

It’s no secret that print newspapers and magazines are cutting staff and/or folding completely to move their content online. However, no matter what anyone says, print versions of newspapers and magazines will never die out completely. When radio was first introduced, newspapers took a hit. When TV was first introduced, radio took a hit. When the Internet was first introduced, all other media took a hit as people became glued to their computers. It’s a cycle – which by its definition means the balance of media is bound to change again. Who knows what will be beyond the Internet, but one thing is for sure – new technological developments do not mean the extinction of what came before, but rather create an extraordinary opportunity to integrate across different mediums. Consider the iPhone – you can listen to the radio, watch TV, send an email, and make a phone call all on one device. But there’s still nothing like picking up a fresh copy of Sunday’s paper. Knowing how to integrate the old and the new will always be our job.

Public relations will become stronger by joining forces

Public relations. Marketing. Advertising. Internal communications. Each department has different strategy and tactics, but ultimately we’re all working toward the same goal: build a brand that resonates with key audiences internally and externally. As these different sectors start to consolidate into one super-department with shared resources, it’s going to take an eye for PR to develop and massage the firm’s key message and communicate it not only to the public and the media, but to all the internal players, as well.

Public relations pros will be needed to explore the unknown

With all that has happened with the Internet and all that has yet to happen, professionals are needed to sort through and decipher new and up-and-coming applications, tools, platforms and outlets. It is our job to understand what works, what doesn’t and what has potential. While some claim to be “experts” I think it’s safe to say that the most any of us will ever be is an “expert-in-training.” All we can do is stay on top of what is currently useful for clients, predict which new tools will help businesses move forward, and show how to use all the applications and platforms in a seamless and productive way. Hand us the blueprint for your firm’s business and we’ll make sense of the toolbox to build something newsworthy and interesting for your clients and the media.

All of the above concludes that it, in fact, might be the end of public relations as we know it, but it certainly is not the end of public relations.

Chicago Lawyer’s Person of the Year

Do you know of a great Chicago or Chicago area lawyer or judge who you think should be recognized? Then you should nominate that person for the Chicago Lawyer Person of the Year, who gets recognized in our December/January issue of the magazine.

Here are the details:

The ideal candidate is a lawyer or judge who has made a unique contribution to the profession or the legal community during the past year – in academe, pro bono, service to the bar, legal practice, or on the bench – or in a combination of these areas. Past winners have been multi-faceted individuals and outstanding role models for the community.

To nominate someone contact: Robert Yates, executive editor, at ryates@lbpc.com

The 2010 Person of the Year will be featured in the December/January issue of Chicago Lawyer.

Nominations due Nov. 1, 2010