Eilene Zimmerman, whose ex-husband Peter died of a drug overdose, published an arresting account of his descent into addiction. Peter was a patent attorney at Wilson Sonsini, and Zimmerman ties Peter’s story to a larger problem of drug and alcohol abuse in the legal profession. While I haven’t witnessed much of this problem firsthand in my interactions with other attorneys, the problem identified by the article is that the culture at law firms leads attorneys to hide signs of weakness, so it’s not surprising that I haven’t seen it.
The New York Times writes about the rise of “pop-up” employers, essentially temporary organizations that are organized for a specific project and then go away. As the article notes, certain types of activities have been organized in this manner for a long time – Hollywood productions and political campaigns, for example. What’s changed recently is the exponential improvement in technology that can match people to tasks efficiently, allowing even complex organizations in many different industries to be created quickly.
I believe this approach could be employed in the provision of legal services. Currently, only large law firms can efficiently handle projects requiring the involvement of more than a few attorneys. But it’s not hard to imagine a portal that can be used to identify a team of attorneys to work on, say, an M&A transaction (senior and junior corporate people, tax, benefits, etc.). Of course, this sort of arrangement would have to be harmonized with existing rules for attorney client relationships (i.e., does the client engage the portal or each of the individual attorneys? How are conflicts handled?). As I’ve written about recently, my firm has joined a network of solo and small firms, and this sort of arrangement has the potential for being the basis for pop-up teams of attorneys. [Read more…]
Gary Ross, another founder of a small corporate law firm, writes in Above the Law about how lawyers should handle client inquiries about areas of law outside their specialty. As Ross notes, this issue comes up far more for lawyers at small law firms than it does at big ones, where there is usually someone with appropriate seniority and expertise to weigh in.
Clients should definitely avoid the mindset that lawyers should be able to speak intelligently about the basics for every area of the law. Law school and the bar exam cover a lot of ground, but far from everything. There is no reason to expect that a randomly selected lawyer would be able to rattle off details about, say, import/export regulation or local liquor licensing requirements, if asked out of the blue. While there are still true generalists who practice in small towns, their actual knowledge base is limited to the types of matters that generally come up among citizens doing regular things, i.e., not derivatives regulation.
My law firm recently joined Select Counsel, a new and fast-growing network of law firms with profiles like mine: small firms founded by attorneys with significant sophisticated large law firm experience. The resulting network is not itself a law firm, but it provides a way for both lawyers in the network and interested clients to quickly locate highly qualified attorneys in appropriate jurisdictions and practice areas. The network has also established an active LinkedIn group enabling participating attorneys to run questions past other members.
When I am speaking to potential new clients, my pitch is pretty simple: I’m the same guy that would have handled your matter when I was with a big firm, but without the big firm infrastructure, I’m able to offer those same services at more reasonable rates and with more personal service. Fortunately, I’ve found that appeal works more often than not, and I’ve built a nice practice. Sometimes, however, potential clients will elect to go with a larger firm. Certainly, there are matters that are better handled by teams at large firms (multi-billion dollar merger, IPO underwritten by first-tier investment bank), but there are certain transactions that I’m capable of handling, where the potential client makes what seems to be the safer choice of a larger firm. (I don’t want to come off as too harsh about big firms, where there are many fine lawyers – and they’re a significant source of referrals for me!)
The Select Counsel arrangement has the potential to eliminate a lot of the queasiness that some potential clients have about small firms, in particular that their expertise is too narrow to handle anything but discrete projects. With the ability to quickly locate the right kind of attorney, it’s easy to quickly assemble a team to collaborate on a matter. Of course, even before this network started, I had assembled my own ad hoc go-to team of specialists (tax, etc.), and I continue to rely on them. But the ability to fill in any gaps through the network will allow me and others in the network to replicate the geographic and practice area scope of a big firm, benefitting both me and my clients.
Of the many times that I’ve worked on a corporate deal – not a simple agreement, but a transaction of some complexity involving multiple documents and perhaps multiple parties – it is extremely rare that the transaction got done early, in advance of the target closing date set at the beginning of the process. This is not necessarily the fault of anyone involved, but it’s a matter of deal-making being a process with a lot of moving parts that takes time. This causes some frustration, usually among the principals more than the attorneys. Although there’s no magic bullet that will cause deals to get done instantaneously, the following are some tips that will expedite the process in a manner that doesn’t cause unnecessary stress and hard feelings:
- Follow up, nicely. While job number one for you is ensuring that you are pushing out paper without much delay, once that’s done, if you’re waiting on something that’s in someone else’s hands, and it’s taken longer than expected, ping that person with a polite email, asking for an ETA.
- Schedule check-in calls. Particularly if there is a large working group, it can be helpful to have periodic conference calls where the participants go through a closing checklist or otherwise get themselves on the same page. Having the call on the calendar has the side benefit of prodding people to attend to their to-do list before the call, to avoid having to admit on the call that the work is not done. But these calls shouldn’t be done too frequently, which causes frustration, with everyone thinking they’d rather be left alone to do the work.
- Don’t showboat about off-hours work. Particularly when the transaction (inevitably) falls behind the unrealistic schedule, you’ll start to see behavior like someone emailing the group late at night or on a weekend, implying that they are sacrificing free time to work on this and wondering why everyone else isn’t as committed. Ultimately, it is unknowable what other people’s workload is and whether they’re doing as much as they can on your deal. Instead, treat everyone else as a professional, and if there are timing considerations, discuss them respectfully.
- Don’t set fake deadlines. Deal principals will often announce that a deal needs to close by a particular date, without much explanation. If, as is often the case, it’s a BS deadline that was set to short-circuit the process and perhaps limit transaction costs, it will backfire when the deadline inevitably passes because of factors that may be outside anyone’s control. At that point, the deadline-setter has lost credibility.
- Create a transaction timetable. In my experience, certain types of transactions (IPOs, for example) have a detailed weekly timetable, while others, like M&A, are less likely to have one, probably because they are too unpredictable. If it makes sense in a particular transaction, it’s good to try to impose a broad framework like this if it builds in buffer time and is more realistic than just “close by Friday.”