Keeping Sane When It’s Crunch Time

Big revelation: I was never a model associate. Despite my present willingness to freely dispense advice on how to make your career all that it can be, I was pretty consumed as a young lawyer with setting and adhering to strict boundaries and trying to maintain a work-life balance. While I was relatively efficient with my time and regularly achieved solid results, I never set any records for billing massive hours or being the earliest to arrive or the last to leave the office. My stats were underwhelming, at best.

I recognize now that, in my preoccupation with boundaries and balance, I was just delaying the inevitable realization that ours is just not a profession that conforms well to individual desires for boundaries and balance. We’re in a service industry, and we’re forever beholden to both clients and courts. Both are demanding. Without either, we’re sunk.

Although it’s technically possible to “skate by” as a young lawyer like I often did, there comes a time when reality catches up to you. Once you develop your own clients and cases, you suddenly realize there is no longer a safety net–the buck stops with you. You’re no longer worried about disappointing a partner with the quality of your research or writing in a memo or a brief. Instead, you’re worried about losing the case or the client, or both.

I’ve spent the past decade or so learning to adjust to this new reality. It was harsh at first, a little bit like my experience as a Southern Californian visiting Alaska in January for depositions. But I’ve evolved and actually developed some strategies to cope with the sturm und drang that is inevitable in an active litigation practice.

Recognize It’s Cyclic

The first step I’ve found useful is to be objective and recognize that, for most of us, episodes or periods of extreme stress tend to be cyclic. There will be demanding times and slow times. When I find I’m in a particularly demanding period, I remind myself that this will at some point pass and life will return to normal. At least my practice is cyclic and I know there will come a time when I’m slow again and hungry for excitement. If you are reading this and shaking your head, “no, there’s never a break,” then I think you might need to take a look at changing how you manage your professional life. Seriously.

Communicate With Those Close To You

I’ve only had the experience of being married to another lawyer. But if your spouse or significant other is not a lawyer (or even if they, too, practice) it can be challenging for them to comprehend the extreme stress we experience when we are preparing for trial, or are in trial, or are just too friggin’ busy. Communication can be key to making it through these periods. Even if you bore your family to death describing what you’re working on, they will appreciate being included and better understand the challenges you’re facing and the stress you’re under.

Get Outside And Get Some Exercise

Speaking for myself, the first thing that seems to happen when I go into “lockdown” mode is that I forget all about exercise or diet. I tend to be chained to my desk and I give in and eat a lot of crap I generally avoid when I’m more in balance. If I don’t actively force myself to get outside, I’ll pass several days sitting at my desk, only venturing outdoors long enough to get to and from my office or pick up lunch or dinner. Really unhealthy! I’ve learned, however, if I set my iPhone alarm to go off at 3 in the afternoon, I can force myself to leave the office and walk for at least a half hour. This not only provides a break with some mild exercise, it reminds me there is a world outside  that hasn’t stopped spinning just because I got busy. This small slice of exercise, daylight and reality can be refreshing and helps me not to be so irritable about being so busy.

Look On The Bright Side

Although I’m stressed and missing my family and chained to a desk getting fat, I actually find that our profession is most exciting and rewarding to me when I’m either in trial or getting ready for a trial. There’s something about this time, when a case is (hopefully) starting to really come together and make sense and we are nearing the point of no return that I find stimulating. I try to appreciate these times and, again, remind myself it’s all cyclic and before too long things will slow down and return to “normal.”

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Brand New Associates, Read This!

My college roommate and Venture Capital Badass Mark Suster maintains a well-respected VC blog, Both Sides of The Table. He recently quoted some advice his wife, Tania (brilliant, beautiful, Wharton MBA, ex-consultant, serious media chops), gave to a friend who was starting his first real job. I have no idea what kind of job. As I read it, however, I couldn’t help thinking it was the kind of sound advice we all wish we’d received (and, more importantly, followed) when we were brand new lawyers. I can’t resist sharing it. With kind thanks to Tania and Mark, here’s what she said:

Secrets of the real world – stuff I learned the hard way

General Advice

  1. Don’t expect constructive feedback without asking directly for it. Most businesses have formal programs in place to give you feedback. Most bosses are too busy to put in the real effort to help you. Many just ask you to fill out the forms for them. It becomes more administrative than constructive. If you ask for feedback in a pleasant, non-defensive way you will likely get it.
  2. You won’t really have a mentor unless lightning strikes. But if you seek one out, most talented employees would gladly become your informal mentor. This can be your most valuable career management tool so use it. It can be a great way to build advocates that will move mountains for you in the future.
  3. People won’t communicate expectations clearly (you must ask, clarify, ask again). Knowing the expectations of your senior employees (and peers) is invaluable to your success and asking people’s expectations is the clearest way to get them to think about it in the first place. The easiest way to beat expectations is for you and your boss to agree them two-ways and check on progress periodically.
  4. Constructive criticism stings, but we all need it. So seek it out, push for real feedback and be open to hearing it whether you agree or not. If you’re defensive you’ll never get real criticism. It’s much easier for your boss to avoid the confrontation or putting the time into thinking through what you could do better.
  5. Don’t overly rely on HR. Make your boss and her boss your primary allies. Your career is best navigated though line managers. HR should be able to manage the sensitive information you give them separate from your line managers but in my experience they do not so be careful. They are not your free psychoanalysts.
  6. Show up early. You may be a morning person – you may not. But nothing gets noticed more than which employees constantly turn up late. Even if bosses say they don’t care – they do. Nothing tarnishes your reputation more quick than being THAT person. The one always slipping in late.
  7. Be humble. Nobody cares where you went to school or how great of a student you were. Get over yourself. Don’t be arrogant. Don’t try to act like a managing partner from day 1. It’s OK to be junior. Nobody expects you to be managing the whole division. In fact, they’ll resent you if you try to act like you are.
Working with Your Boss
Sit down with your boss asap and tell her you want to do an amazing job. Ask her:
  • What could I do to exceed your expectations? What have past employees done that made your life much easier? What tips would you pass along from the most successful employees who have had this job?
  • What is the worst thing I could do in this job that you want me to avoid?
  • Whom should I emulate? Who is great in this role that I should learn from?
  • How can I best help you?
What to do in Your First Weeks
  • Interview your peers, people in your role/team: set up a meeting and ask them same questions as above, plus:
  • How can I best work with my boss, what does she love/hate?
  • What mistakes did you make that I can avoid?
What is Your Job, Really?
  • Your job is to make your boss’s job easier – to help your boss succeed.  Always have that in mind even if it’s not in your immediate job description
  • NEVER bring your boss a problem without bringing him a few potential solutions. Be associated with problem solving, not problems, it creates a positive halo around you
  • Say “yes” to work even when don’t want to. Everybody loves employees who take on projects with enthusiasm. The world is filled with people who sigh when assigned work.
  • BUT if you do become overwhelmed with work it’s ok to say “I need your help prioritizing my tasks because I have too much on my plate.”  Make it a positive thing. The worst thing is to take on too much work and under-deliver.
Other Notes
  • Schedule in your calendar and in your bosses calendar a few check in meetings and ask for feedback and make it a formal conversation. Prepare them in advance by providing a list of the things you’re working on developing and tell them you’d love feedback on how to improve at those things.  You might want to preface with ”I want to learn how I’m doing so I can improve, please give me constructive criticism!” Mostly you don’t want them to feel like these meetings are obligations, reasons for hours of preparations or ways for you to be defensive about your job.
  • So take the feedback on and don’t get defensive. The more you get positive measurement on your work the more likely your boss will be aware of it at the annual review time. Make sure to thank you for his time (he is likely busier than you are, after all!)
  • After you feel stable in your role and with your relationship with your boss – make sure to get to know your boss’s boss. Don’t let your boss love you but his boss not know who you are! This WILL come in handy in your career but you have to manage this cautiously.
There. Invaluable advice. Read it. Memorize it. Duct tape it to the sun visor in your car.
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Knowing The Score Before You Open Your Mouth


Legal blogging rock star and client service guru Dan Hull recently recommended an interesting book, Lawyering: A Realistic Approach to Legal Practice, by James C. Freund. Trusting Dan’s judgment, I promptly ordered up a dog-eared copy of the tome from AbeBooks.

Turning first to the chapter entitled “Handling Clients,” I found some interesting and sage advice right away. Freund asks what do you do when a client calls and wants to be counseled whether her company can legally do something. In the simplest terms, if a client asks you the sum of 2 + 2, do you automatically say 4? Or should we be concerned with what the client wants to hear? Would she prefer to hear 5?

Recognizing this sounds like ethical blasphemy, Freund rushes to explain himself:

“Now before you round up a posse to haul me before the bar association, let me hasten to add that the reason for desiring this knowledge is not . . . that it can or should affect the substance of your answer or reaction, where a legal issue or some other objective manifestation of your views is concerned. You’re not worth your salt as a lawyer if you provide phony answers to please a client. You have to call ’em as you see ’em, no matter what the consequences: it may be painful at the time, but in the long run your client will respect you for this and value your advice all the more.

On the other hand, knowing how the client wants to come out can be very important to you in deciding on the manner in which you reply–the style, as contrasted with the substance–and on shaping any practical advice you might offer.” (151-152)

Freund offers a couple of good illustrations, hypos if you will, to make his point. In the first, you are called by a client CEO who immediately announces you are on speaker phone and in the room with him is an “Employee.” CEO wants to know whether the company can issue the Employee shares of stock which the Employee will pay for with promissory notes.

While the law either allows or doesn’t allow the company to issue shares to an Employee to be paid for with promissory notes (I have no friggin’ clue), Freund points out that “the way that you handle the question can be influenced significantly by whether . . . (CEO) actually wants to issue . . . (Employee) some stock for notes, or whether . . . (he)’s just going through a charade–using you as a whipping boy–for the benefit of . . . (Employee).” (152)

What do you do? Freund suggests you try to ascertain what client CEO really wants to hear before you begin providing advice (assuming, unlike me, you could answer this query on the fly). Freund concedes it may not be easy to determine CEO’s angle:

“By the way, ascertaining . . . (CEO)’s real interest here may not be so easy–and tomorrow, you should let him know what an uncomfortable position he put you in, with a warning against future repetitions. For openers, don’t answer right away. Get . . . (CEO) talking; he’s likely to drop a clue (such as, ‘I told (Employee) this was a very difficult thing for a public company to do . . .’), which you can then pick up on.” (152)

Another way to get an idea what the client is looking for is to “test the water. Say: ‘And what did you tell him when he made that suggestion?’ The client’s reply should give you a fair indication of the direction in which he’s heading.” (153)

But why do you want to know? Again, it’s not about conjuring a phony answer, but about subtly strengthening your relationship with the client and bringing greater value. For example:

“If you determine that  . . . (CEO) isn’t really interested in issuing the stock, you can emphasize the legal difficulties which do exist under the applicable state law when you use notes to pay for par value shares–to say nothing of the unfriendly scrutiny such a transaction would receive from stockholders, other employees, and so on. All of this is good, sound counsel; you’re not deceiving anyone . . . On the other hand, if you sense that . . . (CEO) very much wants to issue the shares, then your litany of difficulties would be somewhat more muted, with a smooth transition into a constructive analysis of how the transaction can be accomplished–by securing the note, charging bona fide interest, and so on.” (152)

Again, as Freund says, the object of this preliminary fact-finding isn’t to cause you to change the substance of your advice to match the client’s desires, but instead to influence how you present the advice. The closer we get to the justifiably coveted status of “trusted advisor,” the more these subtleties matter. We’re not legal research “machines,” hired to churn out one-dimensional answers to legal questions without regard to how our advice impacts the client. Our role is not just to protect, but to advance the client’s interests, and the route to this goal is not always obvious or easy.

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Some Other Things The Judge Said

I last wrote about a recent presentation made to my office by a retired judge, “Practical Advice and Perspectives From the Bench.”  While I found it most compelling (disturbing) to learn that many (most?) jurists in Los Angeles Superior Court, have a policy of denying even meritorious motions for summary judgment, the judge also offered several items of valuable advice.  While much of this will be familiar to lawyers who regularly appear in court, it is all useful and some of us, myself included, benefit from the occasional reminder.  So, in no particular order, here are some of his more valuable insights and suggestions:

1.  Never, ever, ever preface any argument to any judge using “With all due respect . . .”  This conveys the opposite, essentially, “You, Judge, are a moron, incapable of understanding the most basic legal concept . . .”

2.  Do not give equal time and/or space to weaker arguments.  This dilutes the stronger arguments.  Always lead with your best argument.

3.  Avoid repetition.  In the law and motion context, do not repeat arguments from your client’s motion in your reply.  And don’t orally repeat the argument again during the hearing.

4.  Don’t argue when the tentative is in your favor or you’re otherwise winning.  Sit down and shut up.  Don’t snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

5.  Always give pin-cites (i.e., to the specific page within an opinion).  While this is how I was trained and how I practice, I would not have guessed pin-cites were so important to judges (and research attorneys).  The judge said his practice was always to look up cases lacking pin-cites and 50% of the time the case did not stand for the cited proposition.

6.  Refrain from petty complaints about opposing counsel.  The judge hears this all day long and you’re not furthering your cause, even if you’re 100% correct.

7.  When you appear on a multi-party case, take the time to orient the judge as to who the parties are, how they fit together in the controversy.  We apparently have “no idea” how confusing and disorienting it is to the judge when five different sets of lawyers appear on a case.

Again, many of these are either common sense or things most of us already know.  But, coming as they did from a retired judge, I thought it would be useful to share them.

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