What does it take to successfully manage a law practice? Advanced degrees, years of experience and involvement in the community are all nice on paper, but a gutsy day-in, day-out workplace attitude makes all the difference. Where does that attitude come from? Some of it is intrinsic, some of it is learned, and when all else fails, some of it can be hired.
ACT I: I FIGHT LIKE A GIRL?
When I was in the second grade, a schoolmate asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I told him, “A judge.” He told me that I could not be a judge because I was a girl. I was stunned and indignant. It had never occurred to me that I could not be anything I wanted when I became an adult.
By the time I got to high school, I’d learned that when someone asks you what job you want, you must be assertive and ask for the best job for which you are eligible. I participated in a youth leadership program, and the steering committee was looking for participants to serve on the committees—an attempt to strengthen the program and raise its profile. There were 10 different committees, but when asked my preference, I replied, “The steering committee.” In my mind I thought, “The steering committee, of course.”
As I grew more experienced, I learned that assertiveness isn’t always enough, but the courage of your convictions—guts, if you will—almost always is. Being asked to serve is humbling (and rewarding), but taking the bull by the horns and asking or even campaigning for a job that you want, one that you believe you can do better than anyone else, takes guts. That lesson led to my becoming a public official.
Until recently, I had not realized how my strength, courage, backbone, intelligence and determination mold me as an attorney. They are not just important character traits; they are imperative character traits when practicing law and managing your firm.
ACT II: WE’RE NOT IN LAW SCHOOL ANYMORE, TOTO
I have encountered some very smart lawyers who are terrible litigators. When dealing with them, either as colleagues or the opposition, their fear is palpable.
When working with colleagues that lack backbone, I have organized for them plans that delineated what needed to be done, by when, and outlined the necessary steps to meet the deadlines. Clearly, this is not something law schools teach. Moreover, one need not know how to litigate a case to pass the bar exam and practice law. It isn’t only the teaching or the knowledge that these attorneys lacked—they lacked confidence. Unfortunately, even the best law schools do not teach confidence, strength, courage and grit.
But it is not for the lack of trying. When I was a first year, I had a property professor whose reputation preceded him as the Prince of Darkness. He had no tolerance for equivocation or hesitation, and he would pounce on any student who dared utter the phrase, “I think…” As he explained (very loudly) on the first day of class, “Clients don’t pay you to think; they pay you to know.” He followed that up with, “Judges don’t care what lawyers think; they want you to tell them what you know.” I can’t speak for my classmates, but he certainly drove the phrase “I think” out of my lexicon. It’s been 20 years, and I still can’t say it without a little shudder.
I have told that story over and over to colleagues to illustrate how a litigator must behave. As an attorney, you cannot stammer, question or throw your hand to your forehead when you are challenged, and you certainly cannot believe the opponent’s representation as to how you have to litigate a case. In essence: no guts, no glory.
When managing your firm, remember: no guts, no glory. While young, cocky associates and colleagues can be difficult to deal with, that aura of self-confidence elevates a firm’s reputation within the legal community.
Just as my professor said so many years ago, clients don’t want wishy-washy attorneys, and judges don’t want to hear uncertainty when describing the law—nor do they respect lawyers who cower behind the table. I’ve yet to meet an alpha lawyer with a beta personality. Preparation and experience will carry you far, but they’re all for nothing if you lack the confidence to argue your point or make yourself heard.
ACT III: NEVER DISCOUNT THE VALUE OF A GOOD HIRE
One of my first secretaries would run down the hall if I asked her to make a copy for me. You can’t teach good attitude; you just have to be lucky enough to have it cross your path. My current secretary was initially a prospective client. She had absolutely no legal secretary experience. When she described her job and pay rate, I realized that she was well within my budget. She told me that she was sure she was going to get fired and she did not really care because she was not really the breadwinner in her household. That should have been a turnoff right there, but she went on to explain that she had come to see me, in part, because what was going on in her workplace was so abhorrent to her that she wanted to know what she could do to fix the culture even though she was not going to be part of it any longer. In essence, it was just not fair. I did provide some legal suggestions, but a few weeks later, after giving it some thought, I offered her a job as my legal assistant. She had what I cannot teach—drive, integrity and compassion. For almost two years, she has done an excellent job taking care of me professionally and personally. And she has become quite the legal secretary because she has the gumption to learn the ins and outs of law office procedure. Pretty good for a prospective client!
When it comes to law practice management, success is a matter of attitude. Whether you’re born with it, learn it or hire it, you can’t afford to go without it.