Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Stupid Resume Tricks

In previous posts I have talked about the importance of being honest in job interviews and on your resume. It's pretty obvious advice, but amazingly, people don't always follow it. In today's internet age, such honesty is more important than ever, since duplicity of this sort is easily discovered. (Not to mention that it's the right thing to do.) Relevant previous posts on this blog include one on Job Interview Do's and Don't's and one on a law professor whose resume apparently contained misstatements. And let's not forget such notables as New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, caught recently making resume misstatements.

So don't fudge your resume in any way, shape or form. Don't don't don't. And if you won't take my word for it, read a very good piece that appeared on MSN.com the other day. After all, it's online, and therefore it must be true, right?

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Mississippi 5 Months After Hurricane Katrina

Today, January 29, 2006 marks exactly 5 months since Hurricane Katrina devastated the coastal areas of Mississippi and Louisiana. There will probably be a surge of media coverage at the 6-month point, so I guess I am ahead of the curve.

Landon Howell, who is a cousin of one of my students, Karen Howell, recently took some truly compelling pictures of the Mississippi coast five months after the storm. They show, better than any words can describe, how complete the devastation remains, nearly one half year later. You can link to his photos here. Please check them out.

As compelling as these photos are, however, they still do not convey the full scene. I was in Gulfport, Mississippi last week for a gathering of Mississippi College School of Law alumni. A lot of clean-up has taken place since August, but frankly the coast is still an absolute mess. The devastation between beachfront highway 90 and the coastal railroad track (which is about a block inland) is nearly indescribable, even 5 months after the fact. Nearly everything south of the track is just gone, and all that is left is debris.

Just north of the track, however, there is significantly less damage. And I do mean just north--as in feet. The track lies on a raised grade, and that feature helped protect buildings just to the north from the storm surge. So a house immediately north of the track would have been flooded, but being somewhat sheltered from the direct storm surge it might still be standing (but probably is condemned). But just a few houses north of that, some residents will have moved back in. And all of this is within shouting distance of the coast and its barren, gothic landscape.

There is a lot being done to help the coast, including by lawyers, law students and law schools (including mine) volunteering their time to help those on the coast in need, but a lot more needs to be done. And yet perhaps the most important contribution is being made by people like the alumni I met last week, who are doing their part by staying in their communities instead of leaving for easier lives elsewhere.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Law Firm Salary Wars

Associate salaries at big law firms may be on the rise again, according to reports at Law.com. An article on that website reports that some big West Coast law firms are raising junior associate salaries by around $10,000. This means new law school grads who land these jobs will be making about $135,000 per year. Those poor junior lawyers! Firms that have hiked their associate salaries lately include Wilson Sonsini, O'Melveny & Myers, and Paul, Hastings, Janofksy & Walker. This round of increases was started by Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher. Since these firms have offices throughout the country, you can expect to see increases in other big markets as well.

Whenever big firm salaries go up, two things generally happen. First, associates in the trenches say, "Hooray! Now I make even bigger bucks!" And second, people who do not like big firms say something like, "Those @#%&*# don't deserve that much money. They are leeches on the back of society."

As it turns out, both reactions are wrong.

Why are the gleeful (greedy?) associates wrong? Because any salary increase is not free money. You are going to have to earn it. And for already big salaries, any increase will truly have to be paid for with blood and sweat. The firm is likely to increase your billing rate to offset your added cost--but with a higher billing rate you will have to be an even quicker learner and faster worker, since clients don't just blindly pay higher fees for the same work product. You also likely will have to bill more hours, and work more hours to do so. And when you divide your grand associate salary by the hours worked per year, the pay ain't so grand. (See my previous post about this.) So remember, the reason to work the big firm job is because you love it--or at least because the benefits exceed the costs. Not just because you are making 6 figures.

Why are the firm haters wrong? Because the map is not the terrain. Official salaries only tell part of the story. Firms are reluctant to lower official salaries, of course, because that looks bad. (In economic terms, law firm wages are elastic upward but inelastic downward.) But that does not mean that firms pay all associates at the official rate. In the past 5 years, in fact, a lot of big firms have added "part-time" partnership tracks. Part-time is actually a euphemism for a full time job averaging 40-50 hours per week, instead of 60-80 hours that most big firm associates put in. Associates on the slow track have lower annual billing targets, and in return they get paid less and take longer to make partner (say, 10 years versus 8 years).

In other words, "official" associate salaries only tell part of the story, and salaries on the big law firm market are undergoing a market self-correction. As well they should.

What is particularly interesting about the "part-time" track is that it was created largely at the urging of associates themselves. Many associates like their jobs, but do not like their hours. And they are willing to take less money (although still a good salary)--and in some cases they even forego a shot at partnership--in return for fewer billable hours. To turn again to economics, it's an application of the Laffer Curve--that at some point a person is not willing to work more for higher pay. At some point, the value of free time/quality of life exceeds the additional salary offered, and people say no.

I seriously doubt that we are going to see 50% raises given to law firm associates like we did during the dot com boom. But we are going to see incremental raises like those being implemented right now. The fact that they are incremental, however, does not mean they have little impact. Big firms will match each other dollar for dollar on paper, and as a result more and more people will try to work out other, more flexible deals so that they can have a life on the side.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Job Interview Do's and Don't's

Today's legal job market is tough, and there is a lot of competition out there. Each year thousands of students graduate from law school and go on the job market, and also each year associates at firms nationwide decide to make lateral moves. And while the number of applicants seems to be growing, the number of new jobs is staying fairly static at best--and in some parts of the country the number of available jobs is shrinking.

So that means that if you are on the market, you have to interview exceedingly well to give yourself even a decent shot at employment. And that is where this post comes in. Over the years I have interviewed extensively--for college scholarships, for judicial clerkships, for law firm jobs, and most recently for tenure-track law professor positions. Those are all different processes, to be sure, but they share important commonalities.

In other words, I have found there are core interviewing strategies that apply no matter what type of interview it is. I'm not talking about mundane aspects like "dress professionally" or "smile and look the interviewer in the eye." Those tips have their place, but they don't give you the bigger picture.

What will get you far? Here are the essential eight fundamentals that I have always followed. They invariably have been successful.

Step 1. Have a perfect resume. You've heard this before, but its importance cannot be overstated. The internet contains loads of advice on what equals a good resume, but I can tell you that in law, what equals a bad resume is one with a typo. I went into an interview one time with a resume containing a typo, and guess what? The interviewer saw it. And I did not get a callback.

At the end of the day, all a resume does is show that you pass the employer's minimum requirements on paper and are worth a closer look. Then it's on to steps 2 through 8.

Step 2. You are not competing; you are self-maximizing. There is an important distinction between the two. On the one hand, if there is 1 job and 3 applications, you are by definition competing for the spot. But do not focus on the other people. Your job is to show the employer why you deserve the job--not why the other 2 candidates don't.

Think about it this way: there is always going to be someone with better grades than you, who speaks more languages than you, who is dressed better than you. Always. Don't worry about them. Worry about yourself. You bring something to the table that the other candidates don't. Which leads me to--

Step 3. When you interview you are telling the story of you. Your story is unique. There is something in your background that makes for a compelling story. What is it? The answer lies in surprising and often ordinary parts of your past. I grew up in West Virginia, and when I interviewed with big firms in Chicago I often brought that up--why I was living in the midwest, why I wanted to make my mark in a big city. I also talked sometimes about how I worked in fast food as a college freshman, how I hated it, and how it gave me additional drive to succeed in life.

The point is that the facts of your background may not be absolutely unique, but the meaning you attach to them and the lessons you learn from them are. And using them in an interview helps you tell a story, stand out from the crowd, and portray something important about yourself and your character.

Step 4. Practice, practice, practice. This one is huge. Remember how in college you thought you had your term paper all figured out, and then when you tried to write it the words just wouldn't flow? Don't let the same thing happen in a job interview. Practice your answers. Think of what questions the employer might ask, and answer them. Out loud. Do it in your car. Do it in the shower. Do it late at night when everyone else is asleep. (Do not do it while shaving. I learned that the hard way.)

I'm completely serious about this. You will catch yourself saying some really dumb things. But better to say them in front of a mirror instead of in front of the person interviewing you.

And here's a trick: if you are embarrassed about being seen talking to yourself in your car, just stick your cell phone ear bud in your ear and chatter away. No one will know the difference.

Step 5. Research, research, research. All firms are not equal, and the same goes for interviews. What does the firm do? What are its specialties? What does it not do? These are important things to know. This really should be obvious advice, but when I sat on the interviewer's side of the desk I saw this rule violated over and over again.

If you do your research, you will avoid major gaffes and will be able to ask intelligent questions. Questions show the employer you have done your homework and are taking the interview seriously. You don't have to sound like an expert--you just have to sound eager and on the ball. Something along the lines of, "I see your lawyer Jane Schmoe closed the Acme deal last week. That looks like it was an interesting project," is a good way to display that you are determined. And in this age of the internet, a little research is easy to do. That wasn't the case 10 years ago.

There's another advantage to doing your homework in advance: you may decide you would never want to work for that employer. If you figure that out in advance, that's good--you save everyone some time.

Step 6. Treat Each Interview as Special and Unique. Each interview is with people who may be your colleagues for years on end, so treat it that way. And all law firms (and companies) are not equal. Some do corporate law, some do litigation. Some are big, some are small. Not to mention how their cultures vary. So try to find out what you can about the firm, and tailor your interview to that. Don't interview at a corporate law firm for a litigation position. Again, this should be obvious, but I have seen the rule violated as often as I have seen it followed.

But this does not mean you engage in merciless spin about yourself. Rather--

Step 7. Always tell the truth. Tailoring your message means presenting yourself in a favorable light, not changing yourself or lying about yourself. It's like a date: you want to look good and come across well, and there's nothing wrong with that. But don't be dishonest. For one thing, you are a lawyer. You have been given a monopoly by your state government to practice law. With that right comes responsibilities, one of which is to hold yourself to a higher standard of ethical behavior. So do it.

Think of it this way: interviewing is like writing a legal brief. You recite the facts and make the arguments in a manner that is most favorable to your client (in this case, you). But you do not lie.

Step 8. Relax before the interview. This is a key step. Arrive at the interview a few minutes early, and sit still and breath deeply. By that time you have done all you can do (although perhaps not as much as you like); now what you need to do is be poised. Clear your mind and smile.

I have done it both ways: take a few moments to relax, or rush into an interview at the last minute. From experience I can tell you the former works far better.

These steps should serve you well. And in fact, I have found that steps 2 and 3 (not competing; telling my own story) are a wonderful way to live my life in general. To focus on improving myself instead of competing with others is healthy, I think. And to think about my own personal story has allowed me to chart my life's journey--to look at who I am today and decide where I want life to take me. That's far better than backing through life and succeeding by accident.

More About Law School Grades

In a number of recent posts I have focused on issues concerning law school grades. Specifically, I have discussed how law professors write exams, how to improve your law school grades, and how Justice Harry Blackmun's law school transcript was littered with Cs and Ds (shocking but reassuring).

Also on the topic of law school grades (especially IL grades)--what they mean, and more importantly what they don't mean--there's a good post on the Volokh Conspiracy by Professor Orin Kerr at George Washington Unversity Law School. I recommend it strongly. Among other things, Kerr urges distraught students to keep things in perspective and not to assume that "bad grade" = "I am dumb." That's critically important advice.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Are Lawyers Underpaid?

It's the spring recruiting season at law schools, and that means it's time for students to start comparison shopping among law firms. There are many factors that should be considered when comparing law firms, and I have discussed some of these in a previous post. But of all the factors that students look at, the most popular one is what?

Money, of course.

Beware of the bottom line, however. It can be horribly deceiving. Instead, try to figure out how much you will be making per hour. That's a rough but useful indicator of whether the job is worth it to you.

So let's do some math. First, it's common at many firms to be expected to bill 40 hours per week. And even in nonbilling legal jobs (such as working for the government in many capacities), the workload is similar (or sometimes higher), so we'll use 40 hours billed as a good proxy for a "productive week."

So far, so good. But again, beware: in order to bill 40 hours a week (i.e., get 40 hours of client work done), you have to work about 60! Think about it: client promotion (bringing in new clients), giving speeches, bar work, CLE, pro bono work--all of these things are important, but none of them gets the client work done. So you have to add them on top of the client work. (As an aside, any firm that does not give significant credit to lawyers who do pro bono work should be ashamed.)

What that means, gentle reader, is that to bill 8 hours a day you need to put in a lot of 12 hour work days, and some that are even longer. That is, unless you are unnaturally efficient--don't use the bathroom or stop to eat all day--or are not billing ethically.

And that means that in order to bill 2000 hours a year (40 hours x 50 weeks per year) you need to work 3000 hours, at least. That's a lot of hours.

So what do you get for all that work? The payoff isn't bad, but when put in hourly terms it's not the endless source of wealth you might think.

  • Big firm associates in big cities (NYC, DC, and so on): If you make $125,000 per year, that's $41.67 per hour.
  • Big firm associates in midsized cities: $90,000 means $30 per hour.
  • Smaller firms: $65,000 equals $21.67 per hour.
  • Smaller firms and other legal jobs in government: These often pay a lot less, but are no less demanding in terms of the hours or skills required. A salary of $45,000 means $15 per hour.
And here's the best part: my plumber bills at $80 per hour. Both lawyers and plumbers put up with a lot of crap, but the plumber gets paid more on an hourly basis, and even gets to charge time and a half for work on the weekends.

Am I suggesting that everyone should quit law school and be a plumber? Of course not. But I am suggesting that before you sell your soul for the big firm job, you'd better make sure it's what you want to do.

Practicing law in a firm or with the government is a wonderful way to carve a career path, but it has its shortcomings. And based on the number of hours you'll be working, you'd better make sure that the benefits exceed the costs before you take the plunge(r).

Thursday, January 19, 2006

How to Teach a Law School Class

For some reason, this week I have had some trouble figuring out what to post about. Usually, my problem is just the opposite--too much to say, too little time. And then it hit me: talk about what I think a law professor is really supposed to do in the classroom.

Now, if you are in law school, you're probably interested in this, so read on. But if you are not in law school, please bear with me anyway--this applies to you too.

My basic belief about teaching is very simple: the proper relationship between professor and student is very much like the proper relationship between attorney and client.

That's it. I am probably not the first person to express this thought, but I am the first one I know of. No one ever told this to me in law school. Yet this is a proposition worth exploring, because it works on different levels. In fact, looking back at my time in law school, the really great professors I had were invariably modeling proper lawyer behavior.

How are professors like lawyers in practice? For starters, let's not forget that law school is about training people to practice law. There are other elements too, of course--it's not just a trade school--but practical training is an essential element. And I don't just mean learning how to "think like a lawyer," as the saying goes. Rather, law school is also about learning how to behave like a good lawyer. There are a lot of lawyers out there who don't know how to behave like lawyers should, and it is detrimental to the profession and society. Proper lawyer behavior and mindsets can be taught in clinical or practical courses like Appellate Advocacy or Law Practice Management, but in my view it is just as important--more important, even--to teach proper lawyering behavior in all courses in law school.

So, for example, I strive to always be on time. Not all professors do that, unfortunately, and it sends the wrong message--that you are not a professional. And I am prepared. Always. I have seen classes in my educational career in which the professor shot from the hip and conducted a disjointed class. No, no, no. If you are a lawyer billing $300 or more an hour, is a client really going to put up with that? Of course not. This is simple stuff, really, but it is powerful.

In addition, professors should always treat students with respect, just like you would treat a client. Law is called a service professions for a reason. This is an easy one, too, and most professors I have ever known have treated their students with respect, but there have been a few bad apples--self-important grandstanders, or know-it-alls like the adjunct professor I had in law school who first told me there was no such thing as a stupid question and then berated me in class for asking what he considered a stupid question. That one still burns me up. I learned a lot from him about how not to practice law or teach law.

So I am on time, and prepared, and respectful. Students key in on that, and they appreciate it--just like clients do. The best professors I ever had in law school always did this, and they taught through their actions. So, thank you Marty Redish, Stephen Presser and Ken Abbott.

How are students like clients? This one is a lot easier. Students, just like clients, typically get out of a project what they put into it. If I had a dollar for every client who did not follow my legal advice and then came back 4 months later, screaming and in trouble, I would be a rich man. It's the same with students. There is no guarantee of a good grade, of course, but there is an incredibly strong correlation between how hard you work to understand a course and how well you do on the exam. Students who wait until the last minute and cram (contrary to my explicit advice in class) typically do not do as well. And like most law professors, I grade my exams anonymously. But when I match up the grades with the names, lo and behold! The people who came to class and were prepared typically do a lot better than those who try to just slide by. Just like with clients in the real world.

There is so much more to teaching than this, of course. There's the substantive law, legal theory, use of cutting edge scholarship in class, use of different teaching methods, and so on. But modeling professional and ethical behavior is a good place to start. And if you are in law school, watch your professors and learn. Hopefully you will learn something good, but even a bad lesson is better than no lesson at all.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Of Law Firm Culture and Compensation Schemes

There's always talk about law firm salaries for associates. Are they too high? Too low? What's the price associates pay for an increase in salary? (Partial answer: Working harder and less mentoring.) There are suggestions out there that modest salary increases are taking place in some parts of the country right now, while other reports suggest continued wage stability (as opposed to the end of the 1990s, when one year saw 50% raises at big firms).

It's useful to approach this topic from a different angle, however. Specifically, how are associate compensation schemes and law firm culture related? Average salaries are only the tip of the informational iceberg, and compensation schemes vary widely. Credit goes to Professor Eric Goldman of Marquette University Law School for inspiring this post. He has done some very good thinking and blogging on the topic. Check out his July 26, 2005 post in his Goldman's Observations Blog. Goldman tells his students that "if you want to understand a firm's culture, start by understanding the firm's compensation procedures."

Now that's superb advice for any student or lawyer.

Goldman discusses and links to articles in NY Lawyer on the subject. These articles focus on objective factors such as the disparity between a firm's highest and lowest lawyer wages, as well as profits-per-partner. Objective measures are all well and good, but what about the average Jane or Joe in the trenches? Aren't there some rules of thumb or subjective factors than can be used to compare firm cultures without resorting to formulae? Indeed there are. Here's my partial list.

One big factor is, "Are associate annual raises lock-step or merit-based?" Lock-step compensation is good in the sense that it discourages (somewhat, at least) nasty competitiveness between associates. Everyone makes the same amount (although bonuses may vary). But it doesn't reward superlative efforts very well. Did you bring in 3 new fortune 500 clients yourself and oversee several difficult projects that were above your level of seniority? If so, why shouldn't you get a big fat raise for it? Or is it that superlative performance is expected, and those who are merely very good should be concerned for their job future?

At the end of the day, you have to make your own judgment call: lock step's (possible) greater egalitarianism versus the greater glory and pay (and favoritism and ill will) that merit raises may bring.

Another factor is simply the number of partners versus the number of associates, regardless of compensation schemes. Is the firm a pyramid, with a few at the top? Or is the ratio closer to 1:1? A pyramid structure suggests that it is harder to make partner. (One caveat: specialty firms and practice groups tend to have a more 1:1 ratio, since fewer people practice in the area. There are a zillion litigators out there, but not so many lawyers practicing in, say, the area of export control law.)

A third factor is whether the firm has a one-tier or two-tier partnership structure. For those who don't know, a lot of firms--especially in the big markets--have equity partners (AKA "real partners" who have an ownership stake in the firm) and non-equity partners (AKA "fake partners" who are partners in name only). Sneaky, but true. And just like a lawyer.

Non-equity partners are typically not at will employees--they have contracts for a specific term--but definitionally speaking are not really partners. They are employees. A two-tier partnership structure suggests pretty strongly that it is harder to make full partner at the firm. And certainly it takes longer, since you have two hoops to jump through.

A fourth factor is how associates and non-equity "partners" are treated in terms of promotions. Does the firm have an "up or out" culture? Are the firm's non-equity partners second-class citizens? This is a very important factor to consider. It is a lot harder to make full partner at many firms than it was even 1 or 2 years ago (yes, I am being serious), and many excellent attorneys have opted not to go for it. At many firms non-equity partners are in essence highly valued, long-term contract attorneys. But at others they are not. How a two-tier firm treats its non-equity "partners" says a lot about how nasty or nice the firm's culture is.

Yet another factor is the dollar amount of its annual raises. In economic terms, what is the slope of the salary curve? Most firms pay market rates for starting attorneys straight out of law school. But some have really flat salary curves--meaning that after a few years, you are making far less than your peers at other firms. Ask that question when interviewing--and ask about bonuses too.

A sixth--and absolutely key--factor is HOW (as opposed to how much) partners are paid. Is compensation based on how many shares of the firm the partner owns? Is annual compensation largely subjective and based on the will of a compensation committee? It is pay-per-project? Or is it an "eat what you kill" scheme--meaning the more you bill (and the more others bill your clients), the more you get paid?

The choice has an enormous effect on firm culture, and I have experienced both personally in practice. Compensation set by committee means that there are insiders and outsiders--and try as you might, someone gets shafted. And the process becomes enormously political. The "Eat What you Kill" approach lowers the infighting factor, but it leads some partners to hoard work if they can get paid more for doing work themselves instead of handing it off. That, of course, is bad for the associates. These categories are oversimplifications, of course. But still, ask the question. The answer will cast a huge spotlight on the firm's culture.

Finally, when you interview at a firm, how do you feel about the place? Do you get a good feeling, or a bad one? Trust your instincts. Always, always, always. (Read Malcolm Gladwell's book Blink if you haven't already; this is exactly what he is talking about.) Run from the "great" firm that makes you feel creepy; go with the firm that you like, even if it does not have all the objectively measurable qualities you want. It is a leap of faith, I know. But every time I followed my instincts in such matters (not rashly, mind you) I made the right decision, and every time I ignored them I made the wrong decision even though it looked great on paper.

There are a lot of other factors that could be listed, but space and time are short. This is supposed to be a blog post, not a book unto itself. Any comments on these or other factors are welcome.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. There is an enormous amount of commentary about Dr. King in the news right now, and rightfully so. His legacy of equality and peaceful opposition to injustice is something that has changed our nation for the better.

For my part, let me make one small but telling observation about Dr. King's legacy. What strikes me is how deeply entrenched MLK Day is in our societal fabric for such a new holiday. The federal holiday honoring Dr. King was only established in 1983, and it was not observed in all fifty states until 1999--only seven short years ago. Seven!

So just a few years ago we were debating whether there should be a full-fledged, nationwide holiday or not. Does anyone remember the song "By the Time I Get to Arizona" by Public Enemy that criticized Arizona's refusal to observe MLK Day? (PE is one of my favorite groups ever, by the way--intelligent and passionate political music.) And when I was in law school in the early 1990s, even major law schools (which are almost all liberal in outlook) did not all officially cancel classes. But today, here in Mississippi, my law school is officially closed today. And I think that is just wonderful.

So all the recent furor over whether a holiday was deserved or not has quickly faded, and rightly so. While we still have a long way to go, in an odd way that is a sort of progress.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Law Firms and the "Third Year Dilemma"

There's a great new column in the Wall Street Journal. It's called The FLaw (no, that's not a typo), and it is billed as "a new column about law-firm management, with a particular emphasis on the miscues, peculiarities and strange customs of law firms." In typical WSJ fashion it is well written and researched.

If you have worked in big firms as I have, The FLaw's first installment (January 4, 2006) won't tell you anything you don't already know. But if you haven't, well, it's a treasure trove of information. I am pleased to say that it is consistent with what I have been saying on this blog about law firms, partnership, mentoring, and so on. Check out my previous posts.

What The FLaw's debut column and my previous posts prove, yet again, is that money isn't everything. I have lived the big salary life, in which you tell yourself "I work hard; I deserve that expensive sportscoat/TV/car/etc." For some people, they may be working for the material acquisition, but for many, the spending just tends to increase with the salary. And if you are unhappy in your job, then spending helps you feel better, if only for a while.

Don't get me wrong. Money is great. And as a lawyer, I earned every penny of my high paycheck, so I do not feel bad about being well-paid. But money is not the end-all, be-all.

So what, specifically, are law firm associates usually looking for when they are unhappy?
  • More money? No. In fact, many are willing to take less pay for working fewer hours. (I will post on this trend soon.)
  • More interesting work? Sometimes, yes, but not always. In my own case, the projects I worked on were fascinating and intellectually challenging in the extreme. And with the digital revolution, small practitioners can compete with larger firms more easily, and that means big firm associates these days get less and less boring drudge work.
So what is the real problem? Why are associates not happy? I'll tell you what it is. People want to be part of something larger than themselves. My job in practice, for example, was intellectually satisfying, and yet I began to feel that I was not making my mark. I wanted purpose. I wanted to truly matter. As interesting as my job was, at the end of the day I was just another Fungible Billing Unit.

Here's an easy way for firms to solve this problem. First, treat people like you care about them as people. And second, mean it. Not all associates will stay, of course, but as a group they will feel more invested in your enterprise. When firms do this AND train their people, associate satisfaction will go up, and attrition rates will go down.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Harry Blackmun and the Transcript of Doom

Following up on my post yesterday about law school grades, there's a book out on the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun called Becoming Justice Blackmun. I haven't read the book myself, but after reading a post about it on another blog (with the wonderful name Frightened Monkey), I plan to.

As the book and other site point out, Blackmun bombed some law school classes. Take a look at the list. It's got Ds and Cs all over it! Wow. Bear in mind, of course, that he went to law school back in the days before grade inflation, when far more people flunked out of law school than they do today. But the fact of the matter is that he sometimes did not do very well in terms of grades. In contrast, his contemporary on the Court, Justice John Paul Stevens, graduated from Northwestern University School of Law with the school's highest GPA ever. And that was back in the day too.

So for those of you who did not do as well as you wanted this past semester, take heart. It is not the end of the world. Learn from your mistakes, and hang in there. And remember that for most people, grades matter for one thing only: helping you get your first job after law school. After that, no one really cares.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

How to Improve Your Law School Exam Grades

I just finished grading my fall semester exams. I am sure some of my students are not happy with their grades, while others are. The old adage is that students make A's, but they are given Cs. Or Ds.

That's not the case, of course. But it does raise this question: what are some of the critical factors in successful exam taking? What did you do well that you can replicate in future semesters? What did you do not so well that you can improve upon?

Here are some common exam taking mistakes that I see.

1. Not answering the question. Law school exams rarely test the entire semester. Rather, they focus on a subset of what was covered and test it in detail. So if the exam question is on, say, rulemaking (Administrative Law), don't talk about other topics unless they have bearing on the question. If you do, that's wasted time and zero points.

Corrollary to #1: If the question gives you clear facts, don't discuss what might happen if those weren't the facts. They're the facts, and you are supposed to apply them. Not pretend they are not there. If there is an ambguity in the question, fine--address it. But if a law is declared to be constitutional, don't waste time discussing how it might not be.

2. Not organizing your answer. Many law school exams are 3 hours only. You have a limited time to shine. And the way to shine is not to freewrite. Take time to figure out how to organize your answer, instead of just plunging in. 5 or 10 minutes up front may save you half an hour in answering the question. In fact, my rule of thumb is that perhaps 25% of your time during an exam should be spent reading the question carefully and outlining your answer.

3. When you outline your answer, include the outline at the top of your answer. That way if you run out of time, the professor can see where you were going to go and give you a few points. It makes a difference if the professor can see, in at least skeletal fashion, that you understood the basic parameters of the question.

4. Not citing to cases or materials covered during the semester and not using proper terminology. For better or worse, law is a verbal field. So proper terminology matters. You might have a solid grasp of what was discussed during the semester, but do you know the jargon? Think of law as a foreign language. When you speak in German, what words do you use? German ones. As for cases and materials, the exam is asking you to apply them to the fact pattern. So do that expressly.

So much for exam taking. What about exam preparation? The following points are critical in my view to exam success.

1. Adequately preparing during the semester. Daily preparation matters, folks, especially in the really hard courses. Did you read the materials and work to digest them? Did you keep up with the reading? Did you prepare your own outline? Waiting until the last minute to study is the kiss of death.

2. Going to class during the semester. It's important to remember that you are taking both a class and a professor. What does the professor like/dislike? Emphasize/not emphasize? In figuring this out, there is no substitute for going to class. That is not to suggest that you should only take notes and not do the reading, since often there are materials in the reading that are not discussed in class but can appear on the final exam. But if you can figure out what the professor expects, how she approaches the course, and so on, you have a better chance of writing an exam the professor will like. This, by the way, is good training for law practice: if you give the client something in the form he prefers (e-mail versus hardcopy mail, meeting versus memo), you are more likely to have a faithful (and paying) client.

3. Not asking the professor about the format of the exam. The professor should discuss this in class, but just in case, ask. Essay? Open book? Take-home? How many questions? When you show up for an oral argument you may not know what questions the judge will ask, but you do know the format. And there is some comfort and strategic advantage in that. The same is true for law school exams.

4. Not having a study partner. Two (or 3 or 4) heads are better than one when it comes to dissecting and analyzing a course. Others will think of problems and answers you haven't, and vice versa. That will make you better prepared come exam time.

5. Not asking a professor where you went wrong on a test. Did you do poorly? Go ask why. Not to challenge or argue, but to figure out what happened. It's too late in that class, but in a few short months you will be neck deep in exams all over again. So don't repeat the same mistakes twice. And frankly, it shows maturity and professionalism. Professors like that.

If anyone has any other thoughts on how to prepare for and take law school exams, please post a comment.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Is Law School Itself a Waste of Time?

On Thursday 1/5/06 I submitted a post called Is the Third Year of Law School a Waste of Time and Money? Over on Sports Law Blog my colleague, Professor Michael McCann, had a similar post, which I recommend you check out as well.

In my post, I suggested that adding a fourth year of law school might be a good idea. (Not a popular idea, I know.) The comments I received were so good that I felt an additional post on the matter was in order. Check them out. Some key premises of the comments were these: why do we even need law schools at all? Aren't they just protectionist barriers to entry? Wouldn't society be better served if we allowed more people to practice law, and thus drive the cost down?

These are serious and very valid questions, and they deserve serious thought.

Much of the frustration with modern law schools does arise from the fact that they have a monopoly on entry into the law profession. The justification for this is that society benefits if we require lawyers to go through a demanding course of instruction before representing people in real life. Now, I do think there is some merit to that. But it is also true, as with any monopoly, that you get inefficiencies. Why is law school 3 years long when some of our nation’s greatest lawyers, such as Abraham Lincoln and John Marshall, only received very limited instruction in the law? Why don’t law schools have opportunities for distance learning? Good questions indeed.

Let me concede that there are some people out there who would make excellent lawyers without ever going to law school. There are also probably some people out there who would make excellent doctors without going to medical school—but I don’t want them operating on me. Such superstars are the exception, not the rule. I myself benefited enormously from law school—from the culture of law it instilled in me, from the debates, from the opportunity to learn about the law in depth from both a modern, practical point of view and from a more historical or jurisprudential one. You simply do not get that by taking the bar. Or reading a book.

But what about distance learning? (Again, check out the comments to my previous post.) Should we do that? Based on my experience as a law professor, I believe there is enormous benefit to live, in-class discussion. Distance learning hinders that. But again, it is a matter of balance. Many law schools have night divisions that do not interact with the day divisions—and this does not bother those schools! So if we are willing to compromise this dynamic in one aspect, I think we should compromise it in another and allow distance learning, under certain conditions. In fact, I would not be surprised to see this happen in the next 5 years. After all, law schools are supposed to be engaged in public service. And enabling qualified people to obtain JDs and pass the bar is public service.

But back to the main point: should there even be law schools? Like any institutions, law schools are not perfect. But it is my experience in teaching—and in practice—that they are necessary, despite their faults. My reasoning comes down to this. American high schools should be teaching students to write, research and think. Yet many high school graduates do a poor job of all three, in opinion. And many college graduates, for that matter. These are not stupid people, mind you. To the contrary, many are extremely bright. They just haven’t been taught properly. We live in a society that values action over reflection, success over education, and it shows in our educational system.

So what that means is that law schools, for better or worse, are sometimes the last bastions of formal education for people before they become lawyers. That is a critically important role to play. And that, in a nutshell, is why I gave up my life of comparative wealth and luxury in private practice for a life in teaching in a place far away from friends and family.

Any other comments on this are welcome. The proper role of law schools is one of the most difficult, and most important, questions that law schools face. And we should be working hard to craft the best answer possible and make sure that law schools are not just barriers to entry. That means the more dialogue, the better.

Friday, January 06, 2006

What the West Virginia Sago Miners Can Teach Us

I have been thinking a lot this week about the disaster at the Sago Mine in Tallmansville, West Virginia. I grew in West Virginia. My grandfather was a coal company doctor for a time, and my wife's grandfather worked in the mines. So this tragedy has weighed heavily on my mind.

Let's think about what happened. There is a lot of talk and fingerpointing about the mining company and its numerous safety violations. And maybe the company's actions did contribute to the accident, although that is not yet determined. If the company did contribute to the accident, I hope it pays through the nose for it.

But what about the miners?

There they were, trapped underground, knowing they might well die, and what did they do? Some of them left notes to comfort their families. That is truly remarkable. They thought first and foremost about those they were leaving behind. Even as they faced the end of their lives, they put others before themselves.

I have spent my professional career in the white collar world of law firms and law schools--about as far from a life in the mines as you can get. And yet there is a commonality here. As a professor, I strive to instill my students with a sense of mission and meaning about their careers. Lawyers are in a service profession, so serve. Put other people before yourself.

The Sago miners bring that message home in spades. The notes they left were magnificent acts of courage and compassion that move me profoundly. And they teach us all a good lesson--not about how to die, but rather about how to live.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Is the Third Year of Law School a Waste of Time and Money?

Does the third year of law school add all that much? A recent post by Denise Howell on Between Lawyers says this:

The 2005 Annual Report from the Law School Survey of Student Engagement, which "gives schools an idea of how well students are learning and what they put into and get out of their law school experience" (and is the basis for the article Dennis [Kennedy] linked earlier), is here. (Via Genie Tyburskie) "[T]hird-year students look similar to first- and second-year students in areas such as critical thinking, effective writing, and work-related knowledge or skills." If you were to survey practicing lawyers, you'd find resounding agreement on two points: very little about law school prepared them for for the bar exam, and even less prepared them for the actual practice of law. So why not just axe the third year? (My response: 'cause when else for the ensuing 40-odd years do former law students get to goof off?)

Check out her post here. There are some very good links and some comments, including one by yours truly. In particular, look at Dennis Kennedy's related post on the same site.

Denise's answer is appropriately tongue in cheek. But is the unstated suggestion of this dialogue that a 2-year law school would suffice? Yes, I think it is. Is that suggestion right? Not to me.

In a field that is literally splintering and hyper-specializing, the third year of law school allows people to take courses in specific areas. If I were the U.S. Law School Czar, I would think very hard about actually adding a FOURTH year. (Of course, I might feel differently if I had not already graduated.)

What is the number one complaint practitioners have about law schools? That "law schools don't prepare students for the practice of law." If I had a dime for every time I've heard that one I'd be rich and living on a beach somewhere.

So what is the answer to that problem? Easy: to teach people not just how to think like lawyers, but also how to act like lawyers.

The question really boils down to this: what are law schools supposed to be? Traditional graduate schools, or trade schools? Should they focus on theory and doctrine? Or on practical instruction, such as how to write and file a motion, maintain files, bring in a new client, etc.? The easy (and right) answer is "both of the above." Law schools are a hybrid institution. You learn the theories underlying a rich discipline, but you also really should be learning the key basics and tricks of the trade. And you can't do that in two years. We don't really do it well enough in three.

So, while law schools are not just supposed to train technical monkeys, they do a great disservice if they do not give their graduates the rudimentary practice skills to succeed. And that's where the third year of law school should come in. (And my dream fourth year, which might be part internship with a firm, as law schools in some countries like Canada do it).

The point is that if students have to learn practical skills solely on the job, that has enormously negative effects. First, it undercuts the validity of law schools and makes them little more than a 3-year barrier to entry to the profession. And second, it hurts the graduates. And aren't they the ones we are supposed to be serving in the first place?

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

The Dangers of Blogging (and e-mails, and letters, and talking, and . . .)

There was a good article in the Baltimore Sun recently entitled "Caution: Blogging Can Get You Fired" that re-appeared a few days later in my local Mississippi paper, the Clarion-Ledger. In the article, reporter Amy Rosewater discusses in a cogent and well-organized fashion how blogging can get an employee in trouble. Say bad things about your employer, the article says, and you can be in big trouble. Even fired. That's good advice, especially for people like lawyers who often work for firms or companies that value privacy and don't take well to internal dissent.

That being said, this piece bothers me. Every time I read articles like this I think, "Are people really that dense?" (The bloggers, that is. Not Rosewater.)

I mean, come on, folks! If you post under your real name (or an easily unmasked nom de plume), what's the difference between that and sending an e-mail? Or a letter? Or talking behind people's backs and being overhead?

The answer: there is no difference in kind, only a difference in degree. A furtive conversation at work is likely to be overhead by only a few people, whereas a blog has a potential audience of millions. Or billions, at least theoretically. But the basic fact remains: they are your words, you said them, and now they are out there. The way to keep something private is to not tell others, and that should be obvious.

So honestly, I just don't understand. Or maybe I do. Maybe people think the medium involved makes a difference, even though that makes no sense. Maybe no one's mama (or daddy--let's be politically correct) ever says anymore, "If you can't say something nice, then don't say/write/e-mail/text message/blog anything at all."

So here are my workplace rules of thumb for communicating your thoughts. I developed these tried and true methods under fire in the practice of law, and I think they work. And they help avoid a lot of stress and unnecessary controversy.

Rule #1: If you say it, you say it. It does not matter if it is in a meeting, letter, e-mail, telephone conversation, or in a blog or other forum. All discretion and no witty banter makes Jack a dull boy, but Jack just might make partner.

Rule #2: When you break rule #1, admit it to yourself and try again. It's like giving up smoking--you'll have to try several times. And then still mess up. Keep at it.

Rule #3: E-mails = Hardcopy letters. There's a lot of commentary out there about how impersonal e-mail is and how easily it is misconstrued. Is that because e-mail fonts are impersonal or somehow rude? No, it's because people don't think about what they say before they click send. So, draft and revise your important e-mails, just like you do for hardcopy letters. They are called e-mail--ELECTRONIC MAIL--for a reason.

Rule #4: Blogs = Hardcopy letters. The only difference is you are writing to the world. I do not mean you should be boring all the time. Just make sure that whatever you say in your blog, you don't mind anyone reading it. And work to avoid possible misunderstandings. For example, take a look at the top of this post. I took pains to emphasize that I most certainly am not taking the reporter who wrote this article to task. She wrote a good article.

Rule #5: Voicemail messages = Hardcopy letters. You see the pattern. If you have to leave a message and it's a delicate one, then perhaps you shouldn't leave it at all. Just ask the person to call back. But if you absolutely must leave a delicate message, perhaps you should practice a few times first. After all, they are your words.

Rule #6: If you get caught violating any of these rules, standing your ground is better than backing and filling. I'm serious about this. Let's suppose you've been caught redhanded in the hall complaining about a partner behind his back, and the partner walks up and taps you on the shoulder. Or passes by in the hall. What do you do? If he heard, own up to it and explain. You're already in trouble, so don't be a coward too. Show some integrity. Maybe something good will come out of it--like the partner actually addressing your gripe. And certainly, the next time you will think twice before opening your trap in a non-secure environment.

Monday, January 02, 2006

A New Year's Resolution for Lawyers

The New Year's holiday is always a time for reflection and positive forward thinking. Forget about what went wrong in the past; what are we going to do right in the coming year?

With that sentiment in mind, let me say some positive words about law firms. It's easy to criticize law firms--their culture, attitudes, lack of training and mentoring, and so on. But this is not a blog devoted to bashing law firms. While there are lawyers out there who seem to be the lost siblings of Dilbert's boss, you get that in all professions.

No, my point is that practicing law can be a magnificent career path. I mean it. Truly exciting and highly rewarding careers are out there, and in plenty. Sometimes in practice I would come home and tell my wife, "I had the most exciting day. I love my job!" And that was a desk job!

So why can practicing law in a firm be grand? Here are some reasons:

1. You are surrounded by smart people. For every Dilbert boss, there are a dozen people who are bright, ambitious, and dedicated.

2. You can make a difference. Whether you help the homeless or work for corporations, you are helping someone. Don't forget that helping a corporation helps it stay profitable--which benefits the economy and protects (at least some) employees' jobs.

3. You get to think for a living. This one is self-explanatory.

4. You get to learn for a living. For me this was an enormous benefit of practicing law (and being a law professor, for that matter). No matter what kind of law you practice, you get to meet new people, learn about new businesses, and stay current with developments in the law.

5. You have the opportunity to mentor younger attorneys and guide their careers. It is on this last point that too many firms stumble--often badly. The daily pressures and emergencies of law practice get in the way of the more important goal.

4 out of 5 isn't bad--but 5 out of 5 is far better.

So for the new year, if you are a partner or senior associate in a law firm, I challenge you to make practicing Point #5 one of your New Year's resolutions. Even if no one else in your firm is doing it.

And if you are a junior associate, make it your resolution to honor this point too when you have the chance. Even if no one else in your firm is doing it.

In fact, if no one else is doing it that is a prime opportunity for you to make your mark. The lawyers you mentor will appreciate it and be loyal to you for it. And who knows? You just may be a catalyst for change and help your firm reach its magnificent potential. I personally have seen this happen in practice, and I can attest to the enormous difference it makes.

So Happy New Year, happy practicing, and happy mentoring!