GPSolo Magazine - April/May 2006
Staying On Top Of Your Game
All lawyers, in every type of practice, have to stay on top of their game. This requires a commitment to constantly improve. The best way to do something now may not remain the best way two years from now. Laws change, the business climate changes, and you can always learn better ways to do things. Your competition is constantly adapting to changes in the law and the marketplace, and if you do not keep up, you will be left behind.
If you are in a solo or small practice, it may seem hard to keep pace with lawyers at large firms or at in-house legal departments. But no matter how small your practice, you can stay on top of your game by adopting the right mindset and following through regularly on a few basic tasks. If you are doing it right, your practice will not only improve, you actually can have fun with it, too.
Talk Shop with Colleagues and Clients
As a solo or small firm practitioner, one of the best and most important ways to stay on top of your field is to network with other lawyers and with your clients. Calling it “networking” makes it sound both formal and artificial. The best networking is done informally and as part of a genuine relationship. Networking is putting yourself in situations where you can talk shop with other lawyers on a regular and informal basis: grabbing lunch or breakfast with another lawyer in your practice area; stopping by her office to chat; playing a round of golf; and talking to him at the courthouse while you are waiting for your case to be called. When you find yourself in these situations, look for opportunities to engage your colleagues in discussions about what they are doing and what is working well for them.
What you do not want to do is to wait for a specific need to arise that requires you to pick up the phone and call a colleague. Although he or she may be helpful in that particular situation, it is not effective networking. You need to be interacting with colleagues in advance. These conversations should help solve problems you never realized were there—before they become a crisis.
When developing these relationships, be sure you go out of your way to volunteer to help other lawyers. Offer up a good idea that has worked well for you on a case, even if the lawyer is a friendly competitor of yours. Often lawyers are proprietary about their practice knowledge and are afraid that releasing their information will help out their competitor. If it is truly a great idea, the other lawyer will remember your helpfulness and will find ways to reciprocate. And if your suggestion was not such a great idea, you will at least get points for the effort, and you will not have lost anything.
Talking shop is a good idea not only with other lawyers, but with your clients as well. Talk to your business clients about what is going on in their industries and what they are doing about it. This will put you on the lookout for ways you can help them with their changing legal needs. You also may find that the business lessons your clients have learned will help you run your practice.
CLE: Participate, Don’t Just Attend
Lawyers who believe that they are staying on top of their practice simply by attending mandatory CLE each year are fooling themselves. As we all know, mandatory CLE too often has an air of high school detention, and too often it ends up just as productive. But CLE can become an important part of staying on top of your game.
CLE provides excellent opportunities for precisely the type of lawyer-to-lawyer networking discussed above. This is particularly true for out-of-town programs and programs that draw lawyers with whom you otherwise wouldn’t interact. You may not learn much in a half-hour session on the rule against perpetuities, but speaking with other lawyers at the CLE may help you learn how to run your practice better, give you substantive input on a practice area, or provide a contact for the future. When you attend a CLE program, look for chances to talk one on one with other lawyers about their practices.
Even better than attending a CLE program is presenting at a CLE program. Speaking requires you to learn the subject matter and, perhaps most importantly, to update your knowledge of the practice area. It may seem unpleasant to have to spend the time preparing for a CLE presentation, but just as writing a brief forces you to develop your knowledge of that area of the law, speaking at a CLE program requires you to get up to speed on part of your practice. Additionally, clients and colleagues will assume that your speaking at a CLE program is proof that you are a lawyer at the top of your game.
In addition to speaking opportunities, always keep an eye open for chances to write for various publications. Even more than speaking, writing requires you to hone your knowledge of an area in your practice.
None of these suggestions is difficult. You most likely have to attend CLE anyway, so now is your chance to make it productive. And whether it is your local bar association, a practice-specific organization, or a professional CLE organization, people are continually looking for authors and speakers. It may be extra work, but it is the sort of work that pays off because it helps you stay on top of your game.
Join an Organization in Your Practice Area
Another important way to stay on top of your game is to get involved in legal organizations in your practice area. The GP|Solo Division of the American Bar Association is an excellent example, as are the many practice-specific Sections of the ABA. For example, my firm limits its practice to employment matters, almost exclusively from the employee’s perspective. There are several ABA Committees that focus on labor and employment issues. These Committees provide meetings that review the substantive areas of the law, as well as give lawyers formal and informal ways to exchange information on their practices. Additionally, ABA Sections offer CLE telephone conferences devoted to recent developments in the law. These conference calls provide immediate updates on recent changes in the law and are an easy way to receive CLE credit.
You can also find other organizations that have information in your practice area. An example from my practice area is the National Employment Lawyers Association ( www.nela.org), devoted to helping lawyers who represent employees in litigation. Where ABA Sections are committed to presenting a balanced perspective in a substantive area (such balance provides an excellent opportunity to understand how your colleagues on both sides of the issue practice), groups such as NELA focus on uniting lawyers on the same side of an issue; this, too, is helpful because it allows you to candidly exchange information with your colleagues.
One of the most valuable features of membership in an organization such as the ABA or NELA is enrollment on its listserve (e-mail subscription list). These listserves post e-mails reflecting current legal issues along with replies from practicing lawyers. Generally, the best listserves, like NELA’s, involve daily e-mail summaries of the new messages and responses. These listserves offer valuable insight from numerous lawyers on a single legal issue. It’s like being in a virtual firm of thousands of lawyers.
Just joining these organizations and signing up for the listserves does not keep your practice sharp, however. You have to participate. This means reading the listserve each day, no matter how tedious it may seem; attending the out-of-town meetings and CLE; and talking with other lawyers at those meetings to exchange ideas. Be on the lookout for ideas that can help you in your practice, and, at a minimum, skim the organizations’ publications for helpful articles.
Read Legal Publications
Before the Internet, the best way to stay on top of pending case developments was to subscribe to hard-copy advance sheets that would briefly summarize and categorize cases by practice area. Some lawyers still use advance sheets, and they can be helpful. However, the Internet allows lawyers quicker and cheaper access to better information.
First, newsletters generated by other law firms are simple and free. As part of their marketing efforts, many large law firms publish newsletters that analyze hot areas of the law and summarize the latest decisions. These newsletters generally are posted to the firm website, where they can be printed free of charge.
You can find these newsletters in your practice area with a quick Internet search. Some firms have a subscriber option whereby you can receive them automatically via e-mail. Alternatively, you or your staff can regularly print out the new newsletters as they are posted. And there are other reasons to gather electronic newsletters from lawyers in your geographic area, particularly from opposing counsel. These newsletters will show you developments opposing counsel are concerned about, as well as strategies you are likely to see when you go up against them. Find- Law also provides free, electronically delivered case updates covering a variety of practice areas and jurisdictions. (To sign up, go to http://newsletters.findlaw.com/nl.) Other services provide greater coverage for a fee.
You also should consider subscribing to one or two electronic or print publications that summarize recent developments in your case area. In the employment area, for example, one of the best electronic resources is the Employment Law Memo ( www.lawmemo.com). Every day, the author digests and summarizes all significant employment decisions from across the country. Receiving these electronic updates ensures that there are no changes in the law that may have passed you by. Other publications provide similar information. BNA ( www.bna.com) in particular has a number of electronic and hard-copy publications containing both commentary and recent case developments. BNA specializes in in-depth analysis on particular areas of the law (environmental issues, class action issues, etc.).
Maintain a Work Product File
Once you have the process in place to gather the information that allows you to stay on top of your game, you need to make sure you can access it. A good system allows for easy retrieval with as quick a filing process as possible. Too many organizational methods flounder because it takes too much time to file the material, or, in reverse, because nothing can be found easily.
One good system involves simply dropping material in a manila folder. As material is added—either work product generated in a previous matter or information picked up from other sources—it can simply be put in a folder with similar topics, or a new folder can be started. Each folder is given a sequential number and filed in numerical order. A word processing document lists each folder number, followed by a list of keywords that would be likely search terms for the topic in that file. Later, locating a relevant file is no harder than typing in the keyword in the word processor’s find tool.
(Suggestions for an electronic filing system can be found in the article “ Old Docs, New Tricks” on page 48.)
Whatever system you use, however, make sure there is a way to find “that great CLE handout from last year.”
As long as you want to stay on top of your practice, and put in the time to do so, you will find your practice constantly improving. Ultimately, staying on top of your game does not require Herculean efforts. And it should involve having at least a little fun.
Nelson Thomas is a founding partner in the law firm of Dolin, Thomas and Solomon LLP in Rochester, New York. He can be reached at email@example.com.