- Keep a good work ethic.
There is a difference between having a good work ethic and being a good worker bee. The former makes you partnership material. The later defines a valuable employee.
What’s the difference? I believe it has to do with whether or not you approach your practice with a passion.
Partners in a consumer firm must be passionate about their chosen profession to the point of near obsession. There’s a practical reason for this. We’re collectively a constant target of bad jokes, we have powerful enemies and our general public image is at something of a record low. Contingent fee law is a gusher business, with funds coming in irregularly and unpredictably, so, a good month can be very good and a bad year, very, very bad. It is a practice environment where only self-starters able to perform consistently despite breathtaking discouragement will qualify, let along survive.
There’s also the simple business management necessity of a strong work ethic. Plaintiffs, of course, carry the burden in a civil proceeding. I’ve seen many practitioners take on a file and then allow it to sit dormant until the very last possible minute. Malpractice risk aside, this won’t get optimum results for the client in nine out of ten cases. Yet, since usually the clients don’t know the difference between proactive and reactive representation, it’s possible to get away with quite a bit of laziness, assuming it does not rise up and bite you on the nethers.
On the other hand, owners recognize sloth and are not likely to offer ownership to a slug. Work hard, my friend, always giving your best.
- Watch your caseload.
Work hard, but also work smart.
Besides being a closer, a prospective partner in a plaintiff’s practice must be an effective case manager.
Always keep in mind that as contingent fee lawyers, we are in the business of managing portfolio risk. By this I mean, there are a certain number of cases on your docket, only a portion of which will have any significant value. The remainder will either break even or be complete flops. In organizing your time and dedicating resources, you need to be able to separate the stars from the duds and deal with them accordingly.
In my experience, the 80-20 rule applies pretty well to a normal plaintiff’s practice, meaning roughly 20% of your cases will account for 80% of your revenues. What does that mean?
Well, for one thing, it means that if you have forty cases on your docket, on average you may expect that eight should come in strong, while the balance will either be non-productive losers or repay your time and investment, but just barely.
The clear upshot of all this is you don’t want to over-invest time and money in go nowhere cases or under invest in the ones voted most likely to succeed.
How do you tell the difference? Watch the caseload. If you don’t have good case picking skills, you probably shouldn’t be worrying about partnerships anyhow.
Case management software can make it easier to track your files. If your firm provides it, learn how to use it. But the old noodle is your first line of defense.
As Robert Heinlein once wrote, “Put all your eggs in one basket, and then watch that basket!”
- Give back to your profession.
Being a partner in a plaintiff’s firm means being a business getter. There are all sorts of strategies for marketing, branding and generating referrals, but the one that is time tested and mentor approved is giving something back to the profession you love.
There are plenty of opportunities out there. Just seek out one or two that suit your special passions or talents.
Writing scholarly articles to share your knowledge can work well and has the added benefit of helping you establish yourself as an expert in your field. Organizations like CAALA provide speaking opportunities where you can help educate your peers on current developments in the law.
If you have an interest in politics, get active with CAOC and the legislative process. Politics and lawyering go hand in hand and we can always use dedicated souls willing to volunteer their time to help preserve our precious right to seek redress through the American civil justice system.
Now, it is true there are attorneys and firms that sit back and take a free ride on the system. Don’t be that kind of lawyer. Be someone who gives back to your profession. It’s an important quality in a future partner.
- Be a part of your community.
I’ve never been particularly athletic. I can’t throw a baseball to save my life. But, when my son’s little league team needed a manager and no one else stepped forward, I volunteered for the job. The kids on the team all got to play. My son remembers that season very well. The folks in my neighborhood got to know me a little better and I made some friends.
Then there was the developer who wanted to put a high density senior residence in the middle of our single family home neighborhood. The neighbors started organizing to fight. I showed up to a meeting and they asked me to be a spokesperson because I was the only lawyer in the room. I wrote one letter and went to one meeting. Now, I’m the abogado who lives in the grey house under the oak tree with the horses. People smile and wave at me as they walk past the gate. It’s really a great feeling.
I went to law school to make a better life for my family. Now that I’ve spent some time in the profession, I’ve come to understand that what lawyers also need to think about is how to help build a better life for the communities they live in.
When I talk to my friends about young lawyers in their firms, we don’t usually share how competent they are or whether they are punctual or speak well. Usually, it’s about what a great person they are and how something they did touched the life of another in a good way. We assume that partner prospects are competent, skilled practitioners. Asking someone to join the family business requires looking at other qualities.
For me, when I see someone is actively contributing to their community, that’s a strong positive. If they give themselves generously to their neighbors, I assume they will give themselves generously to the firm. I like that in a lawyer.
- Don’t just do it for the money.
If you ask me I’ll tell you my law practice is a business, not a hobby, and I expect to earn money for my labor. Don’t make the mistake of thinking what we do is all about money, though. There’s a balance here. In order to succeed, you need to find where your personal balance lies.
When I was just starting out as a lawyer, I remember attending a vehicle inspection in a motorcycle crash case. When the experts were done with their photographs and measurements they left the room where the bike was kept and I was about to do likewise. Then I felt a hand on my sleeve.
It was the mother of the young man who had been killed in the crash. She’d been standing quietly in the background until now. I don’t know that we’d spoken more than a few words the whole day. I was engrossed in the technical part of the exercise. For her the occasion was solemn.
“I want to show you something,” she said, pulling me to the motorcycle. She bent down and pointed to some rust-colored stains on the frame. “Do you see that?” she asked. “That’s my son’s blood. I thought it was important for you see.”
Over the years, I’ve thought about that mother a lot because she taught me something important that day.
You see, up until that inspection, I’d thought my law practice was about filing complaints, answering interrogatories, taking depositions and arguing in court. That mother, my client, taught me I was completely and totally wrong. A consumer practice, you see, isn’t about paper and argument. It’s about blood.
I’ve been mentored by great lawyers. I’ve sat through lectures by legal legends. I’ve listened to war stories, read case briefs, poured through hundreds of practices guides, treatises and legal memorandum.
Yet, when I think about the core of our practice, my first thoughts always go to that mother mourning her son on that cold desert day so many years ago. What we do truly isn’t about the money. It’s about something infinitely more valuable.
- Be a mensch.
The dictionary defines mensch as meaning “a decent, upright, mature, and responsible person.”
Will being a mensch make you partner more quickly? I don’t know the answer to that.
I do know that the menschen who populate our profession are truly too numerous to name. I think there’s a reason for this and a lesson to be learned from their example.
At the end of the day, consumer lawyers are something unique in this world.
The human condition insures a steady abundance of trouble and strife. To address the fact of human frailty, society charges us to serve as advocates and counselors in a court of law. In an age where so many feel powerless and disenfranchised, we are empowered to help shape the laws of this great nation.
How we go about our charge defines not only ourselves and our profession, but because of the reach of our influence, the entire nation. This is weighty stuff. It’s one reason why the bar exam takes a full three days.
With great power comes great responsibility. It follows that all consumer lawyers are duty bound, if not honor bound, to live our lives according to the highest human principles and society’s most enduring moral values. I mean, it’s obvious, don’t you think?
So, you should be a mensch. It’s good for you. It’s good for the country.
Also, you might make partner. It couldn’t happen to a nicer person.
Bill Daniels is a trial lawyer and shareholder with the law firm of DANIELS LAW in Sherman Oaks, CA. A graduate of Loyola Law School of Los Angeles, he is a former member of the Consumer Attorneys Association of Los Angeles Board of Governors, a founding member of Loyola’s Civil Justice Program and a past president of the Encino Lawyers Association. Since 2007, he has been named a Southern California “Super Lawyer” by Los Angeles Magazine. Mr. Daniels focuses his practice on serious personal injury, insurance and employment. For information, visit our website at www.daniels.legal or contact us through e-mail: Info@danielslaw.com.