Monthly Archives: March 2011

Skills

Bill Wilson spent over 20 years in legal departments at corporations large and small, from high tech to brick and mortar, and is writing about various topics while trying to find that next great career opportunity.

It’s very hard to pinpoint when exactly you instinctively know that the answer to the question, “when is it over?” is “now.”  You will probably get to that point gradually, not in giant steps.  But it may come.  What do you do when it comes?

Most lawyers follow a fairly linear path.  You do very well in college, get into law school, find a job and start practicing.  Sometimes it goes according to a pre-ordained plan, with others it’s serendipity and little else.  You find a job you like, you do well at it, and you like it well enough.  You continue to do it because you get used to the income, you have a passion for the law, you enjoy the intellectual challenge, you like the social or professional status that comes with saying “I’m a lawyer” or some combination of all or none of these factors.  But then it’s gone, and your efforts to find another job in the law run into macroeconomic dislocation, a changing legal landscape, or naked discrimination, or something else, and you realize, “I may never get another legal job.”  While that realization comes for older lawyers today more often, it can happen to anyone.

Fortunately, lawyers are reasonably intelligent people with a variety of skills.  It’s important for you to grasp that those skills are transferable to many other professions, and that with some salesmanship and honest self-evaluation, you can move in another direction that may be equally rewarding, personally, professionally or economically.

Inventory what you did as a lawyer.  You wrote lots of different kinds of things.  Speak publicly in front of small and large groups.  Locate arcane information.  Investigate and dispute facts.  Evaluate the veracity of conflicting accounts of events.  Take large amounts of information and distill it into sensible, digestible portions.  Simplify the complicated.  Prioritize, organize and plan numerous projects to meet sometimes unyielding deadlines.  Persuade others.  Work with complex financial data.  Develop and use advanced computer skills.  Educate clients’ employees.  And don’t forget what you learned from your clients – you may already be a near-expert in some very interesting areas because you had to learn it in order to give advice to your clients.

Don’t forget your hobbies and your past jobs before the law.  What skills do they contribute?  I was an athletic trainer in high school, and I am sure could still tape ankles and knees to help prevent injuries, and provide first aid.  I worked for six years in a restaurant, ultimately becoming a traveling training assistant, who taught personnel in new stores how to prepare and serve food according to that restaurant’s policies.  I learned a lot about great customer service and how to get people to deliver it.  Sometimes these skills will be great as they are, sometimes they might need some validation or enhancement through additional training or certification, but shouldn’t be ignored as another advantage.

Once you have this inventory done, learn what other jobs require those skills.  There are a number of tools available on the Internet or in your local library that can aid this process.  In short, while you are often stymied initially by the box that you’re currently in, you need in this changing economy to be flexible and capitalize on how your skills may be transferable.

Learn about mediation

J. Nick Augustine J.D. is the principal of ALR/PRA, Inc., a full service law practice management agency.  Nick advises and assists attorneys in transition in public relations and marketing.  Nick also shares recruiting and staffing experience and tips for legal job seekers.

Attorneys in transition should become aware of the benefits of mediation.  This is one form of alternative dispute resolution that has been increasing in popularity as parties learn the benefits of participating in mediation.

I recently attended a 4 hour MCLE, offered by LEDDED, Ltd., and titled: “The Attorney’s Role in Mediation or the Culture of Mediation.”  Panelists were retired Judge Karen G. Shields; Margaret S. Powers, MSW; Beverly Tarr, LLB; and Sandra Crawford, Esq.

My take away from the messages offered by this dynamic panel are twofold: First, there are several styles and opinions on mediation roles and practices; and second, an increasing amount of family law parties are looking to mediation to increase their value and chance of co-parenting success after dissolution.

In 2006, the Illinois Supreme Court adopted the “900” series of rules concerning time limitations for custody cases under the Illinois Marriage and Dissolution of Marriage Act.  See the “900” series for rules concerning mediation.  Another body of law addressing mediation is Uniform Mediation Act, see 710 ILCS 35 et seq., and see also the website for the Mediation Council of Illinois, a professional organization designed to help the public find peaceful resolutions of disputes.

Let’s face it; if you know family law and domestic relations, you know that traditional litigation can be time consuming, expensive and mentally and emotionally draining on the parties.  Mediators facilitating settlement negotiations do so when the parties are represented by counsel and have agreed to attempt settlement through mediation in lieu of litigation.  Benefits of mediation include value in the investment of resources in a process designed to swiftly address all concerns and attempt settlement to avoid a protracted battle in court.  Proponents of mediation often talk about the increased likelihood that co-parenting will be successful when the parties have participated in mediation.

Karen Shields commented, regarding transitioning attorneys, “Mediation is catching on.  There is value for the clients and for the attorneys, and when mediation makes people happy, the numbers show that the parties feel better about their attorneys’ services as they are generally pleased with the mediation process.”  The panel interacted with the participating audience to engage in open dialogue on several issues including the business of mediation, ethics and confidentiality.  Learning from a multidisciplinary panel was well received.

Mediation has many benefits for attorneys who become trained and learn how to serve in the role of the mediator, facilitating the process of settlement, putting the decision making in the hands of the parties and relying on the attorneys to have prepared their clients for mediation and equipping them with knowledge of their rights under Illinois law.  Mediators are sought privately and are also appointed by courts.  Mediators charge professional rates and can help parties settle their divorce amicably without litigation.  Any attorneys in transition who encounter family practice should learn about mediation and its role in domestic relations.

Q&A with Mitchell S. Roth

Mitchell S. Roth is a principal at Much Shelist and he took some time to answer a few of our questions.

Why did you become a lawyer?

I received my bachelor’s degree in accounting from the University of Illinois and went on to become a CPA. To be honest, a part of me didn’t want to leave the academic world at that time and I had always been intrigued by business law. So law school seemed like a natural course. My love for and comfort with the numbers side of things (objective v. subjective) led me to the challenge of law school where skills in writing and analysis are paramount. A business degree along with a law degree (combined with my years of working in the middle market in Chicago) have provided a unique blend of experience that has benefitted me and the clients I’m fortunate to work with every day.

What advice do you have for law students?

Never forget that the education you are receiving is invaluable – no one can take that away from you and it’s a skill set that can and will be used in whatever career you ultimately choose. There are always going to be ups and downs in the market, but my advice is to stay the course. Today, we sit in a very difficult environment where there are less available positions for graduating attorneys than at any time I can remember. The profession will suffer as many highly qualified candidates will be forced to choose a different path. It pains me to see students give up on their dream of practicing law. The market will get better and job opportunities will open up. If you want to be a lawyer, patience and persistence are imperative. My first job out of school certainly wasn’t perfect, but that experience led to new and exciting opportunities.

Unfortunately, law school doesn’t prepare you for practicing law. The learning curve is long and difficult. Hard work and perseverance will lead to rewarding skills and success as an attorney, but may also lead to many unforeseen opportunities, whether with a client, with a third-party business or in an unrelated industry. Times have changed since I was a young attorney. Progressing towards partnership is no longer formulaic, as promotion today is truly based on merit.

What is the biggest change that you’ve seen in your particular practice?

In the last couple years, there was a dramatic decrease in business activity, especially in the M & A arena. Now that recovery appears to be in sight, we are starting to see deal volume in the middle market pick up again. We are also seeing many financial institutions come back to the market and lend at multiples they guaranteed would never be seen again. Such aggressive activity is more prevalent at the higher end of the middle market, but it’s also beginning to reach the next lower tiers. With increased liquidity from the banks and large amounts of liquidity waiting to be put to use from financial and strategic buyers, the next couple of years will likely see robust deal volume. That will be extremely positive for the legal profession and the economy as a whole. I expect this trend will lead to hiring not only by law firms, but also in the larger business community. Given the current levels of high unemployment, I am hopeful that this growth will happen quickly.

Stuff happens

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.

Recently, my friend Eric sent me a message.  It said, “You want to hear the top stupid lawyer trick of 2011 that I just pulled?”  I have to admit, I was pretty curious.  Eric explained that he’d had an interview with a firm he really, really wanted to work for.  He said the interview went well and that he followed up with a call to thank the partner.  Only, there were two partners at the firm with the same name and he was directed to the wrong one.  Eric was so embarrassed and really bummed out.  He thought that he would never get the job because of the mix up.  Guess what?  He got the job.

The first thing I told Eric was to make sure to thank the correct partner.  The fact that he made a little mix up was not enough to give up on the job, and it didn’t change the fact that he’d had a great interview.  If his intention was to thank the partner who interviewed him, he should do just that.  So, he did contact the correct partner to thank him and, in the end got the job.

There is a certain love match that goes on during the interview process.  Much like dating, you know when something isn’t right or when someone isn’t the “one.”  Clearly, Eric knew this firm was “the one” and they felt the same about him.  One goof up wasn’t going to stop that momentum.

So, what happens when you goof up?  How can you recover from a writing sample that has errors or a cover letter that has typos?  How do you deal with a not-so-great answer during an interview?

First of all, remember that we all make little mistakes, even potential employers.  Try to catch the goof ups before they happen, if you can.  I once had a boss that said, “Your cover letter and resume should have zero mistakes in them.”  In an ideal world, our work product is error free.  But, we live in the real world and sometimes we make mistakes.  Have someone take a look at your stuff before you send it out.  A fresh eye is more likely to catch a typo than your own.

If you realize that you’ve sent out a resume or cover letter with an error in it.  Follow up with an e-mail that says something like, “Please find an updated copy of my materials” and leave it at that.  You don’t need to draw attention to the mistakes you made, but if you can correct them and give the potential employer an error free copy, even better.

What if you make a mistake during an interview?  It happens to the best of us.  If this happens to you, you can try to redirect an answer to another question back to the one you felt you didn’t nail.  Or, if you leave an interview and feel that you didn’t elaborate enough on an answer, or didn’t convey your experience adequately, you can include some brief thoughts in a thank you note.  Try not to dwell on these mistakes because often times we are harder on ourselves than our interviewer is on us.

Remind yourself that, as a human, you are bound to make a mistake or two.  More often than not, things work out in the end.  My friend Eric is a great example of that.

Leveraging Your Reputation: Podcasting for publicity

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 midsize 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.

A podcast is simply an audio file (mp3) that is posted online that people can listen to on their computers, iPod or phone. So what does it have to do with helping your publicity? It used to be that if you wanted people to know about you, you’d have to appear on a radio show for them to hear you. But with podcasts, you can be heard anywhere, anytime. That means that you can make it convenient for your clients and peers to listen to what you have to say, which is a nice alternative to written communication.

There are many ways to create and post audio online, and what’s great is that you no longer need a home studio to record something. You can do it right on your computer. All that’s required is an audio recording and editing program and a microphone.

Audacity – This is a free audio recording and editing program. Go to http://audacity.sourceforge.net to download it.

Microphones – USB microphones plug right into your computer, so there’s no need for fancy, expensive equipment. A couple of good USB microphones are the Snowball http://www.bluemic.com/snowball/ and Yeti http://www.bluemic.com/yeti/ .

Recorders – If you prefer to not use a microphone, you can use a high-quality handheld recorder. There are many recorders on the market, from expensive to inexpensive, but what’s important is the quality of the recording. A standard audio file is 44Mhz/96kbps or 128kbps, so make sure your recorder has at least that capability.

Hosting – You can host your mp3 files on your website as you would any other file, then post the link on your website, blog, in e-mails, on Twitter, LinkedIn, and other social media. If you don’t want to go through the trouble of hosting and setting up a system for your audio files, you can use podcasting websites such as Podomatic http://www.podomatic.com or Libsyn http://www.libsyn.com. Their instructions are easy to follow, and you can also create your own podcasting webpage there.

Once you have the tools, just practice what you want to say and do some test recordings. It’s best to keep your podcast short at first, probably no longer than 10 minutes, especially if you think people will be listening on their phones. The important thing is to have good content, and see how people respond.

Networking

Bill Wilson spent over 20 years in legal departments at corporations large and small, from high tech to brick and mortar, and is writing about various topics while trying to find that next great career opportunity.

The absolute best, nothing-else-comes-close, most likely-to-succeed way to get a job is through networking.  Now that I have said what thousands of others have (which by the way I DO agree with 100 percent as it has worked for me on several occasions, and for countless others that I know), is what I really think networking should be about.

Over the years (though more recently on the increase it seems to me), I have observed people at various gatherings, furiously flitting like a hummingbird from group to group, never meeting your eyes because they’re scanning for the really important people they think might be there, always devoting 5 percent of their brain to what you’re saying and the other 95 to their strategy for “working the room.”  I have visions of a special floor in Dante’s Inferno for such folks where they have to read other people’s business cards 24 hours a day for eternity.  Allow me to submit to you that these people are doing something, but it’s only a perversion of “networking.”  When I see LION next to someone’s name on LinkedIn, I cringe involuntarily.

You can tell I’m not great at “networking” as many people define it.  I’m outgoing – to a point, personable, able to converse intelligently on a wide range of subjects, with a decent sense of humor, but I have near zero tolerance for artifice and glad-handing.  And you have to find what works for you and who you are.

I think your true network should be all about people you have taken time to get to know, or who have worked with you or share another connection such as an alumni group.  You share a fairly good idea of each other’s personality, strengths, weaknesses, talents, contacts, and interests.  You’ve seen each other in action and like what you see.  You know some faults, and while you take them into account, on balance you’re willing to overlook them.  You probably know at least something about their family.  You’ve known them a while, in some cases years.  Some of them are also “friends” in that you’ve met and know their spouses/significant others, and sometimes their kids, been to each other’s homes, and interacted socially.

This group is the result of considerable time spent on development, though you didn’t think of it that way when you did it: you just liked them.

There’s a second group: People who regularly turn up at those professional or alumni meetings, who you know almost on sight, and with whom you have had more than one conversation.  You either have formed, or are beginning to form the impression that they might be someone you’d like to know better.  They’re interesting both as a person and, in part, because of who they are, what or who they know, or because of what they do.  They remember you and will take your call, or take the time to return it.  Both are part of your network.

But the former group is the most critical to your job search.  These are the folks who are going to call that prospective employer and talk with the hiring partner they went to law school with, adding that they think you might be an asset to the firm.  They are going to say nice things about your capabilities when used as a reference.  They have trust and credibility with you and with the other people they might call on your behalf or introduce you to.

The latter group might open some doors, or pass along a hot tip about the hidden market, which is terrific, but value and nurture that first group all the time.  You can’t start when you’re laid off.

Big firm to boutique

J. Nick Augustine J.D. is the principal of ALR/PRA, Inc., a full service law practice management agency.  Nick advises and assists attorneys in transition in public relations and marketing.  Nick also shares recruiting and staffing experience and tips for legal job seekers.

Attorneys in transition can take advantage of movement in the marketplace by organizing and launching boutique firms.  Transitions can be communicated proactively and if you make the announcement appropriately, your friends, family and colleagues will consider you a leader.  The recent recession has caused many to move around, and in a period of recovery, this could be the best time to leave the big firm and set up a boutique practice.

If you are leaving a large law firm, and have been there for some time, you have the namesake and credentials upon which future clients might rely when hiring your new firm.  If you worked in the intellectual property group, for example, you likely know other strong IP attorneys who might jump at the opportunity to launch a boutique firm.  Launching a boutique requires the right set of skills, planning and some entrepreneurial spirit among attorneys you know, like and trust.

A proper announcement on good stationery offers the opportunity to signal that your decision to steer your career in a new direction is not a reaction to uncertainty or job loss.  You need not mention anything about the economy.  The style in which you communicate your launch should lead people to infer that you seized a great opportunity.

Members of the new firm should start planning at least six months ahead of their transition date.  During this time, you should first communicate your intention to your current firm, so long as you feel this is safe, so necessary parties can work on succession plans.  Securing the management, marketing, technology and financial components of a new firm also takes much more time and expense than most people realize.  Consider the transition to be an investment and be ready to finance a realistic amount of startup capital.

Once founding partners have a transition plan, a prospectus should be drafted for the purpose of approaching other potential partners.  Your profit per partner numbers increase when you line up the right set of partners; some who make it rain, some who win cases, and others who bring in a strong book of business.  If you have never drafted a prospectus before, look for an equity firm who can suggest some common points you should raise so that potential partners best appreciate the opportunity.

Planning for a transition to a boutique firm often requires outsourcing.  From the professionals who help you launch the new firm, to the outsourced practice management services you might want, consider running a lean firm focused on profit.  Nowadays, many law firms follow traditional business models, and those who practice in business-thinking firms often realize greater profits.  The right combination of talent, planning and execution can make the transition from big firm to boutique a less daunting experience.