Friday, December 23, 2005

Why Law Firms Play "Hide the Associate"

Most law firms of any size these days have a website. Basic websites are easy and inexpensive to set up, and the potential exposure for firms is enormous. (Check out my related post on the merits of blogging as business development.)

One problem with firm websites, of course, is that they are replete with spin. Every firm does "cutting edge" work, has a "strong" stable of clients, and boasts lawyers who are "leading experts" in their fields. OK, fine. You don't need me to help filter this spin. Everyone knows there are a lot of worker bees out there engaged in monotonous drudgery.

No, what I want to focus on is what information is NOT on firm websites. Take a look at a few blue chip firm websites in New York, or Chicago, or D.C., or elsewhere. (I don't want to pick on particular firms, so it's up to you to choose what firms to examine.) What do you notice--in addition to the spin, that is? Here's the answer: many firms do not list detailed information about their associates! Firm sites brag on and on about their partners' areas of expertise, client bases, and publications--but for associates you often only see a name, phone number and e-mail address.

Why would this be? Are firms not proud of their associates? No, they are proud (and if not, they "encourage" associates to leave). Do they think associates cannot engage in business development, so that it is not necessary to tout them to the world? Again, the answer is "no." Associates bring in large and small clients all the time.

So what's going on?

What's going on is that firms are playing "hide the ball." Or rather, "hide the associate." Firms often try to keep information about their associates from other firms and headhunters (legal recruiters), to make it harder for their associates to be poached by other firms. And make no mistake: poaching is the name of the game at big firms. Salaries for junior associates are so high these days that most associates generate a loss until their third year of practice. So it is more cost-effective to let someone else train the junior associate newby (and take the loss) and then poach them away.

Here's the irony. This system does not work. Everyone is playing this game. So while a firm might keep information about its associates off the web, it is also harder for that firm to find out about attractive potential hires from other firms. It would seem far more efficient (and moral) for firms to treat associates better as a way to disincentize them from leaving. But no. It is easier (albeit sillier) to simply block others from seeing what your associates do.

I have seen this happen: one day a firm website contains associate biographical information, and the next day it is gone. One explanation I have heard is that associates are not partners, and only partner information should be posted. This is specious, in my view. If you have an equity stake in a firm as partner, wouldn't you want to maximize the firm's potential by promoting your greatest assets--namely, all your lawyers? (Hint: that is a rhetorical question.)

The truly ironic part is that instead of preventing people from leaving practice, this approach gives associates one less reason to stay. I myself am off the firm treadmill and happily employed as a law professor. And my school does not hesitate to post my information online, even though I do not yet have tenure. To do otherwise would make no sense.

How Law Professors Write Exams

I am admittedly a bit behind the curve here, but now that most law students have finished exams, perhaps they can joyfully relive a bit of exam week by reading about how law professors write their essay exams. In my experience, it takes a bit of time to write a fair exam.

So check out the conversation that took place recently on the law professor blog Prawfsblawg. It is worth reading in no small part because the professors involved inevitably got sidetracked and discussed what they think is wrong with the current law school exam system. Comments from any students still reeling from exams are welcome!

After I finish grading my exams I may post some thoughts on how to avoid common study-related and exam-taking mistakes next semester.

Vote for Sports Law Blog!

Some of you know about Professor Michael McCann and Greg Skidmore's Sports Law Blog, which provides superb coverage of sports matters from the legal side of the fence. Sports are a significant part of our society and culture, and they are an enormous business too. Lots of money is made in the sports world, and the sums paid--to players, for stadiums, for coaches, and so on--just continues to increase. And the foundation for any business (including sports) is the law. So for my money, a sports blog is great, but a sports LAW blog is even better.

Fortunately, I am not the only person who thinks so. Sports Law Blog has been nominated for the Best General Sports Blog of 2005 in the Red Reporter Awards, and personally it is my favorite of the nominees. I highly recommend that you check out Sports Law Blog for yourself. If you'd like to cast your vote for the blog (or any of the other nominees), please click here.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

"Business Casual" Woes

Here's a more "law career"-type post to follow my last one on national security and terrorism. This time, the topic is the all-important subject of business casual dress.

This is admittedly a silly topic, and yet we keep talking about it, so it must matter. The December 2005 issue of the ABA Journal weighs in on the matter, and I recommend reading that article. Issues involved include questions such as: should you err on the side of caution and overdress? Or underdress? How do you pack for a business trip?

Only a few short years ago it was easy to pack for a business trip: you took suits. And casual Friday was a brand-new phenomenon. But today most workplaces are business casual every day. This is, I believe, just another manifestation of our societal shift toward informality. It is an egalitarian and enormously positive development, and it means that the lack of a well-tailored suit is no longer a barrier to entry into the legal profession. That is a good thing.

In other words, I disagree with Mr. Ben Stein, who in the New York Times in August argued that today men dress like "total slobs," and that their casual dress (read: not coat and tie) adversely affects their professionalism. I myself regularly billed more than 2,000 productive hours a year in casual clothes. The pressure was no less great just because I was wearing khakis.

So who is right--Ben or me? For lawyers, the answer is easy: YOUR CLIENT IS RIGHT.

The cardinal rule of legal writing is that you write to your audience. If the judge does not like split infinitives, then do not use them in your brief. If your client wants e-mail and not hardcopy mail, then you oblige her. The same goes for the way you dress. It is no accident that business casual dress started on the West Coast, with its software and high-tech firms and their informal culture. To them, the lawyer in a suit was essentially saying, "I am not on board with your business vision or mindset," while the lawyer in the golf shirt was saying, "I get it. Hire me."

So if you have clients that do not care how you dress, then dress informally to suit your taste. If they do care, then dress to their culture. That of course requires you to know what their culture is, and you may need to ask at first. But once you know, then dress to it.

One final point: do not for a minute think that your "clients" are limited just to your actual clients. Smart junior associates always dress in a manner acceptable to their most important "client": THEIR EMPLOYER. The senior partner can make or break you; don't let it be over a ratty pair of pants and scuffed shoes.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Professor William Bradford's Resignation Offers a Cautionary Tale

I have been thinking a lot in recent days about the resignation of Associate Professor William Bradford from the faculty of Indiana University School of Law – Indianapolis. (This has been big news in law school circles.) On the one hand, it sounds a lot like the sort of academic infighting that is of limited relevance to the larger world. On the other hand, it’s a perfect cautionary tale for anyone planning or already embarked on a career in law teaching or practice. For more details on the matter, check out the December 6, 2005 posting on the Volokh Conspiracy (a great blog).

For starters, let me clearly state what this posting is NOT about. I am not bashing Professor Bradford. Nor am I defending him. Others are doing a fine job of that. I am just looking for the lessons to be learned.

By way of background, I met Bradford at a conference last year, where he spoke on national security law matters (his area of specialty). He was smart, well-spoken, and even more convinced of the rightness of his (somewhat extreme) views on national security law than most law professors are about their beliefs—which frankly is saying a lot. Bradford seemed like the kind of person who did not mind shaking things up a bit.

That is not a bad thing in law teaching, of course. It in fact can be a good thing, since it generates debate and discourse. And after all, the role of law professors is to advance knowledge, not just reach consensus and play nice. Yet the Bradford tale provides three lessons on ways to avoid trouble in your law career.

First, did Bradford ruffle feathers on the Indy faculty? I do not know, but clearly certain tenured faculty members there were opposed to him. Whether he justly deserved their opposition or not is wholly irrelevant for my purposes. Rather, the lesson for any professor seeking the holy grail of tenure or any law firm associate seeking the brass ring of partnership is to tread softly if possible and not antagonize people. The old saying is that “friends come and go, but enemies accumulate.” If someone has a vote over your future, they have a vote, and that is that. Whether that person is opposed to you for valid or invalid reasons is quite beside the point: you either win her over (either through the merit of your work, your interpersonal skills, or preferably both), neutralize his opposition by having other people in your corner, or find another job.

Second, Bradford padded his resume by exaggerating his military service record. The lesson is that you simply cannot lie or fudge about your professional and personal background. At all. Ever. The point is that we are lawyers, and lawyers are—and should be—held to a higher standard than the general public. Intentionally misrepresenting your background and credentials can derail your career. And in this digital age falsehoods are uncovered easier than ever.

Third, while the current ABA Model Rules for Professional Conduct do not use the phrase “Appearance of Professional Impropriety” (it appeared in the header for Canon 9 of the now-superseded Model Code of Professional Responsibility), this phrase should always be foremost in the mind of anyone considering a career in law. Bradford apparently posted “cheap shot” comments to a law school blog under names other than his own. He was caught by an Indy law student running the blog who noticed that different “commentators” on the blog had IP addresses matching Bradford’s. This just smells bad. Even if it did not technically violate any rules (which it may have), it just seems improper. The lesson in practice (and teaching) is that if something smells fishy it probably is, and just to be safe you shouldn’t do it. And any potential payoff does not match the fallout if caught.

Monday, December 12, 2005

"Syriana" Misrepresents International Lawyers

This weekend I saw the movie Syriana, and it just begs to be blogged about. For one thing, much of the move is about lawyers and what scheisters they are. For another, it is about international lawyers and what scheisters they are. As an international lawyer turned international law professor, this movie is right up my alley.

So like a typical law professor, let me point out a few reasons why I think the movie is both good and bad, and then let you draw your own conclusions.

Why Syriana is Good:

1. Syriana makes you think. Writer/director Stephen Gaghan does not pander to the audience on the assumption that people are stupid, and his movie absolutely demands full attention every single moment. Do not take a pee break during this film or you will be hopelessly lost.

2. Syriana is overt social and political commentary. As Tarzan might say, "Commentary good, silence bad." You may find the message--that oil rules the world and warps our political decisions, personal values and business ethics--all too obvious and more than a little heavy-handed. But the movie offers a message other than "Blow up the bad guys and you get the hottie with the tattoo," so that alone is meritorious.

3. Syriana is the only movie, to my knowledge, that actually quotes the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. In fact, the FCPA is the basis not only for a full scene in the movie, but for an entire subplot. I did a lot of FCPA work when I practiced law; if only it had been this exciting!

4. The movie illustrates that U.S. foreign policy decisions have enormous and far-reaching consequences. Should the U.S. back the movie's pro-democracy prince (a very good Alexander Siddig from Star Trek DS9) who wants to strengthen his Middle Eastern country's business ties with Iran? Or his playboy brother who obviously does not care about social progress but is willing to allow the U.S. to maintain a military presence in his country? The U.S. very clearly does reap what it sows when it makes foreign policy decisions like this. Don't forget that the U.S. strongly backed Saddam Hussein's regime against Iran in the 1980s.

Why Syriana is Bad:

1. Syriana is boring. I hate saying that, and I may catch flak for it, but so help me it is a boring movie. Well done, intricate, pretty to look at, disturbing--and boring. Someone actually fell asleep in the theater while I was watching it (no, it was not me). Maybe it was the direction: this was Gaghan's directorial debut. Traffic, which was written by Gaghan but directed by Stephen Soderbergh, was less pedestrian.

2. At least when it comes to lawyers, Syriana is hyperbolic. As I said, I did a fair amount of FCPA and other international work in practice--including a good bit of work for companies in the oil business. And never, ever did I see--or even hear about--associates sending their bosses to jail or senior partners working to effect a regime change abroad. I'm not saying it could never happen. I am saying that if it ever were to happen it would be the exception, not the rule. The story would have been far more accurate--and no less boring--had it been more nuanced. For example, based on a set of questionable facts the lawyer decides to go against his instincts to make a judgment call in favor of his client, and has to live with the potential amorality of this decision. All perfectly legal (lawyers are supposed to advocate for their clients after all), and all perfectly disturbing in such circumstances--since what you have is a lawyer making a living and a career out of such behavior. But no--this movie has to have lawyers shafting their bosses and up-ending foreign regimes.

So I leave it up to you to decide whether this is a good movie or a bad one. I think it is an excellent but boring movie, which is classic lawyer-speak for saying that I think it is both good and bad. Or neither.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Law Firm Training Redux

On November 29, 2005 I posted a diatribe called "Law Firm Training is a Sham." Having been in practice for years, I saw how associate training typically does not occur in law firms. I think this is abominable, and it is one of my missions in teaching to turn out new lawyers who, once they are in positions of authority, will better understand the need for training and mentoring of junior attorneys. (Check back with me in 20 years to see if I have succeeded.)

The funny thing is that every few years or so a series of articles appears discussing law firms' "new" dedication to associate mentoring. Apparently we're in such a cycle right now. The National Jurist magazine for law students has a piece in its November 2005 issue called "Law Firm Mentors Associates Around the Globe," which praises the many wonderful things that my former firm, Baker & McKenzie, is reportedly doing to train and mentor its associates.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that this is not a "Baker bashing" article. Baker is a fine place to work in comparison to many other firms. I enjoyed my time there and am proud to be an alumnus. But so help me, I cannot resist exercising my First Amendment rights and commenting on this article. There are several things that bother me about it, namely:

ONE: "Baker & McKenzie . . . is one of a growing number of law firms emphasizing mentoring today."

  • News Flash: law firms always say they "emphasize" mentoring. No firm ever says, "we don't believe in mentoring, and we really work to de-emphasize it." So to me, this statement means nothing.

TWO: "A new program recently launched by the firm requires all Baker & McKenzie partners to mentor all associates."

  • What is really interesting about this statement is not what it says, but what it doesn't say. Does it mean that partners were not previously required--and accordingly many did not--mentor associates prior to this program? As a former B&M associate, I know the answer, but my lips are sealed.

THREE: "The point [of the new mentoring program] is to establish a standard for developing [associate] careers . . . to give all employees the same skills sets so they could work in any Baker & McKenzie office."

  • OK, I'll buy that. It's an aspirational statement to be sure--I really do doubt there will be identical basic skills sets for lawyers in, say, Washington, D.C. versus Baku, Azerbaijan (yes, B&M has an office there). But that's not saying it's not a worthy goal.

FOUR: "According to Nicholas Coward, a partner with Baker & McKenzie . . . 'Law school these days provides students with only the basics of legal training and a lot of aspects such as people management are not covered, but are critically important to being successful.' "

  • My question is this: Exactly how is this a new problem? Law schools have never provided any more than basic legal training. Law school is only a 3-year program. In fact, law schools today do a better job than ever before of preparing lawyers for practice--through programs such as legal clinics, trial advocacy programs, required (and optional) moot court competitions, law practice management courses, negotiations courses, and the like. What has changed is that firms typically do not mentor associates anymore. Associates no longer spend their careers at one firm, so there is less incentive for firms to train people who will leave. And with many starting associate salaries in the six-figure range, law firms need quick learners and self-starters who can be thrown in head first, fend for themselves, and pay for their exorbitant salaries through high billing.
  • So in other words, I agree with Nick (my former boss, by the way) that law schools only provide students with basic training. But the problem lies with firms, not schools. Who knows--maybe he agrees with me and is leading the charge to fix it. This upbeat article certainly suggests so, but we'll see. I will stay tuned to see if this latest cycle of enlightened law firm mentoring has more impact than previously ineffective cycles.

One final point: in fairness, I should point out that (according to my decidedly anecdotal evidence) Baker has better associate retention than other firms I have been exposed to. In Baker's D.C. office, for example, there is a larger percentage of lawyers who started with the firm as summer clerks and are still there--even some who are partners. Including Mr. Coward himself.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Blogging as Business Development

There's an interesting article in the current issue of The Lawyers Weekly (Canada) (Dec. 2, 2005) concerning blogging as a useful business development tool. The article is exactly right. In this age of easy access to information, large firms have much less structural advantage in terms of getting their names out there. A smaller firm--even a solo practitioner--can set up a webpage, and most practitioners worth their salt do that.

But a blog is in some ways even better than a traditional web page. It is a way to show how well you write and what you think about various legal developments in your area. As such, it is a perfect promotional tool. To draw an analogy, a website is like a fancy Yellow Pages ad, while a blog is like a free seminar on your areas of expertise that you give to potentially millions of people.

Giving away free information is a wonderfully effective way to bring in new business. Potential clients feel assured that you know what you are doing (since you have already discussed your expertise) and are likely more willing to pay you for your services. And while you give away a little knowledge that you might charge for at the beginning of the client relationship, you can get far more business in return. (Just make sure you include the caveat that information in your blog is not really legal advice--you know, the legal fine print language you see all the time.)

The article gives two examples of such blogs:, which is maintained by Tom Collins, CEO of Juris, Inc., and, which is maintained (not surprisingly) by a guy named Gerry Riskin of Edge International. Personally, for U.S. lawyers I prefer the former. The information on that site is highly relevant to people who manage law firms (e.g., how to maintain profit margins, realize collections, etc.). Think about how detailed this site's information is: Collins is giving it away for free! Which establishes him in the minds of many as an expert in the field of law practice management.

Law firms could do quite well following this approach in their areas of expertise. Some do, but more should. A great example of a law firm blog along these lines is McGlinchey Stafford's, which provides a good deal of detailed information on hurricane recovery legal issues.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

China and Torture

I know this isn't exactly a "law career" matter, directly speaking, but I am an international trade lawyer, so I can't resist broadening my scope.

My last posting was on U.S. trade with China and how the U.S. cannot expect to unilaterally influence China's trade policy in a significant way. Facts are facts, and the U.S. needs to not buy in to the overblown rhetoric about its economic clout. Is the U.S. powerful? Yes. Powerful enough to unilaterally get China to do what it wants if the Chinese government disagrees? No.

Articles in today's Washington Post and New York Times reveal the results of a United Nations investigation into the Chinese government's "widespread" use of torture. Is that bad? Oh yes. Should the U.S. encourage China to stop this? Absolutely. But here are two points worth bearing in mind:

One: The U.S. has been leaning on China for years now in humanitarian matters, and human rights organizations like Amnesty International have been doing the same. And China has dragged its heels.

Two: When China did finally give access to inspectors, it was through the United Nations. Not the U.S., but the U.N. The lesson is that results in this area--and others of international importance--will usually come from multilateral efforts, not unilateral ones. The U.S. needs to bear that in mind and keep jingoism in check.

Friday, December 02, 2005

U.S. Trade With China

Please check out an Op Ed I wrote in today's Jackson Clarion-Ledger about U.S. trade with China. Too much of our national discussion on this topic involves the dueling assumptions that China is either (a) a nefarious troublemaker that must be controlled or (b) a potential panacea for the U.S. economy (since trade with China will help create jobs and so on). These editorials were no exception, so I could not resist responding. For one thing, I do not like Crossfire-style "is not/is too" debate--you lose nuance in your analysis and discussion. And you often miss the bigger point, which is what happened here. We can argue over whether China is good or bad in its trade policy, but what we really need to keep in mind is that the U.S. has far less influence over China than it thinks.

Yes, China recently joined the WTO, and it has opened its markets substantially. But why did China do this? Because of U.S. cajoling? No. It did so because it saw that it was in its best interests to attract investment and create closer economic ties with other nations. The U.S. played a part, of course, but it was a multilateral effort. Suggesting that the U.S. can directly affect Chinese trade policy just because of who we are smacks of enormous hubris.

Also, please check out my colleague Michael McCann's Sports Law Blog, which is excellent. Mike posted on how my Op Ed ties into sports law (which does!), so kudos to him for broad and creative thinking.