Tips for Making Partner in a Plaintiff’s Firm (2/3)

 

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Shoot straight.

People have expectations regarding consumer lawyers. Generally, they are low.

A lawyer named Impos Syble was shopping for a tombstone. After he had made his selection, the stonecutter asked him what inscription he would like on it.

“Here lies an honest man and a lawyer,” responded the consumer lawyer.

“Sorry, but I can’t do that,” replied the stonecutter. “In this state, it’s against the law to bury two people in the same grave. However, I could put `here lies an honest lawyer’.”

“But that won’t let people know who it is!” protested the consumer lawyer.

“Sure it will,” retorted the stonecutter. “People will read it and exclaim, “That’s impossible!”

I remember my father telling me while I was growing up that he would only do business with people who could be trusted to keep their word on a handshake. There are people who will argue that in this day and age that’s a quaint, outdated notion. I disagree.

It might be true we can’t avoid interacting with dishonorable individuals. Yet that doesn’t mean there isn’t value in being honorable ourselves. Or that cultivating character doesn’t have it’s own tangible rewards.

If becoming a partner in a law firm is much like getting married, then your known habit of dealing fairly and honestly with people outside the firm is likely to count in your favor when other lawyers are deciding whether they want you as a permanent member of their family.

Don’t fool yourself into thinking you can treat people outside your office badly or unfairly and word won’t come back that this is how you practice.

Trust is especially critical in a plaintiff practice, where the partners will often pursue their own cases with little outside supervision and their actions carry a direct financial consequence for everyone in the firm.

Be straight in your daily dealings and your path to partnership will straighten in turn.

  1. Be a closer.

A plaintiff attorney needs to be a closer, pure and simple.

Simply put, being a closer is the ability to figure out the right solution to your client’s problem and get it done. The less wasted motion and inefficiency, the better. Being a closer means the cases are moving, time and resources are used judiciously and the business of the practice progresses at an optimum pace.

Back when I was starting out with my old firm, I got a call from a gentleman who was having a run of real bad luck. He was a former sales manager for an insurance company who was disabled from working and whose home had been badly damaged in the Northridge earthquake. He had disability insurance, but it wouldn’t pay. He had earthquake insurance, but the carrier, the company he used to work for, was lowballing him. He had been forced out of his business. He had an unresolved claim for a personal injury totally unrelated to all his other troubles. He had been through two or three lawyers already and was a plaintiff in at least two lawsuits with two more waiting to be filed.

I’m honestly not sure I would take on that man’s troubles today, but this was early in my career and I liked the fellow. So I dug in and started working to dig him out.

What I discovered was, even though this fellow had several prior attorneys, none of those had been focused on closing anything. Which, as it turned out, was all the client needed.

So, I settled the injury case with a couple of telephone calls, which took care of lawsuit number one. I filed a bad faith claim against the disability carrier and then sent the defendant our own doctor’s report along with form interrogatories, which resulted in a quick mediation and a $1 million policy limits settlement thirty days later. A prior attorney had filed the earthquake bad faith case too late, so that case went away quickly. My client decided not to pursue a legal malpractice claim since the lawyer was a personal friend.

That left only the breach of contract claim against the insurance company that used to employ my client. I worked that case up for trial. Though I left the firm before the trial date, my old boss went ahead and tried the case. The jury awarded $17.5 million. The client was happy with that result.

Pretty much every successful plaintiff lawyer remembers a similar case where the big challenge was not so much legal reasoning as it was untangling a tangled mess. Closers are up to this challenge, because they never lose sight of why the client sought out counsel in the first place. After all, we are supposed to fix our client’s problems so they can move on with their lives. Our purpose is not to prolong the agony.

Failing to understand this key principle is probably the single biggest obstacle to either qualifying as partnership material or, more importantly, succeeding in a plaintiff practice.

I have known many fine lawyers who could think clearly, write compellingly and argue eloquently, but couldn’t close a case to save their lives. Some can’t resist the urge to hit for the fences every time out, even when the facts aren’t there. Others become fascinated with the legal process but forget that the client’s best interest might be a shortcut through the legal thicket rather than the long, long, way around. Some simply forget about the client’s best interest all together.

In a consumer practice, if you aren’t comfortable being a closer, you are probably destined to live out your days as an employee. Contingent fee lawyers are rewarded for being efficient. Inefficiency is punished. Not being a closer makes you horribly inefficient and certainly won’t make you a partner.

  1. Be realistic.

As I mentioned above, consumer firms are basically mom-and-pop small businesses that reflect the personalities of their owners. This being the case, it may be you are working with an owner or owners that love you personally and appreciate your work but are never going to share their business with you.

Sometimes, it’s because the owner doesn’t work and play well with others and knows it. Maybe there is a failed partnership relationship in the past and once bitten, twice shy. There are as many reasons why owners don’t take on partners as there are stars in the sky. Do not take it personally.

On the other hand, take a tip from the relationship gurus. If you believe you are stuck in a dead-end situation and it is making you crazy, it is probably time to think about moving on.

Only, be realistic about this, too. Not everyone is cut out to own their own business. A plaintiff’s practice is a risky undertaking. There are plenty of failed legal ventures past and there will be an abundance in the future. Consider whether you are willing to put your entire net worth on the line for a string of cases only a mother could love. The idea of a regular paycheck might seem more appealing.

As for myself, I went to law school in order to own a business. I made it clear to each of my employers that I intended to be an owner. In the end, I wound up becoming a partner in a firm that had a declared no new partner policy. So at least I have the personal comfort of knowing that, if it all goes south, at least it’s what I bargained for.

Make sure you ask yourself how much risk you are realistically willing to take. Answer yourself honestly.

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.