Sunday, November 30, 2008

Calm Under Fire; Ask a Question

Dear Readers:

The thoughtprovoking piece for leaders in today's New York Times is a discussion of one's ability to remain cool under pressure. In Never Let Them See You Sweat Kate Zernike writes about the effect of a calm temperament on leaders and the public perception of their reactions. Like many other character traits, the ability to remain calm under fire can be a good or a bad thing, depending upon what the audience needs at any given time. In my view, the most effective leaders are the ones who can calmly reassure, yet remain emotionally connected with the people involved so that the reassurance is effective, but not viewed as detached. In addition to having sufficient control over her own emotions, the effective leader also has a high "emotional IQ" so as to be able to discern the degree of emotion that is most effective for the situation. A tall order, indeed.

Final thought today: one must always strive to remain useful. A kind friend last week gently suggested that my writing might have the added value of relevance if I respond to readers' questions. So, following her wise counsel, I invite you to ask any question that is more or less on topic. Direct questions to Questions and answers will be posted with regularity, so that all may benefit.

Ask away...


Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Pumpkin Soup

For all you great cooks out there--

Many years ago a secretary at our firm showed great leadership by proposing a firm cookbook, recruiting authors, editing and formatting the recipes, and publishing a wonderful little book. What a great team building effort that was!

Here is my offering from that cookbook. Enjoy.


I begin this recipe in March or April of each year by planting sugar pumpkins.
One small sugar pumpkin

3 cups scalded milk
1 Tablespoon butter
1 Tablespoon flour
2 Tablespoons brown sugar
Salt and pepper to taste (use white pepper for a prettier soup)
Ginger and cinnamon to taste
Asiago Cheese

Select a nice 3 to 4 pound pumpkin when ripe, and keep it cool and dry until the day before Thanksgiving. Then cut into cubes of approximately the same size, so that all will steam evenly. Remove the seeds. I place the cubes in an electric rice/vegetable steamer and steam for about 30 minutes. Let cool, then remove skin and puree the pumpkin. This should yield about 3 cups of pumpkin puree, depending upon the thickness of the pumpkin flesh.

Whisk the pumpkin puree with the milk. Knead together the butter and flour, then add to the pumpkin/milk mixture. Add the remaining ingredients. Heat, but do not boil. Serve the soup at once, with warm homemade bread.

See Green Nature for more pumpkin facts. Happy Thanksgiving.


Peer Pressure, Leadership, and Lemmings

Cliff Jumpers:

Parenting teenagers changes a person forever. Among many difficult lessons the parent must teach, at the top of the list is giving the teen the confidence to think for himself or herself in new situations. The ability to bring to bear on a problem everything one has learned in the past, to look around at the situation and determine what is important, and then to decide how to act in a responsible manner is one of the signs of maturity that every parent hopes to see sometime before the darling child is shipped off to college. As a parent, you know the lesson has not yet sunk in when the explanation of a poor choice is "that is what everyone else was doing." Those are code words for "I didn't think it through." Having parented children through 13 teenage years, I suppose I have become hypersensitive to excuses for not thinking through decisions.

So a business decision explained by "This is consistent with peer groups" or "I checked with my buddies and that is what they are doing" suggests to me a management or leadership decision not to think the problem through. The approach probably derives from not knowing how to analyze the question, being too busy to analyze the question, or believing that the question isn't important and so the decision isn't either.

On the other hand, a decision that is explained by reference to core values reflects quality decision making. In a business setting, those core values might be reflected by how the action or inaction relates to economic factors, client service, practice development, and employee satisfaction. Decisions that are explained in such terms reflect well on thoughtful leaders.

But "I checked with the other firms and followed them" describes the analytical skills of a lemming, not a leader.


Sunday, November 23, 2008

More Essential Skills Training Ideas

Perpetual Students:

I thought about naming this post "What they don't teach in Law School," but it occurred to me that perhaps they do teach these things in law schools now. I haven't really looked at a law school curriculum in, um, more than 20 years. So those of you who learned to speak and negotiate effectively before or during law school, or who are otherwise brilliant orators and deal makers, just skip this post. The other reader may proceed.

It seems to me that most lawyers focus most of their continuing education efforts on cheap, easy, immediate accredited seminars simply to be able to fill in their State Bar compliance card in a timely way. As you start to think about your professional goals for 2009 (what, you haven't started on your New Year's Resolutions yet?), consider basic skills training in two areas that are as critical to success in a law career as the ability to research, analyze, write, and argue: speaking skills, and negotiating skills.

The lack of these skills in women lawyers can be particularly problematic, not because women are inherently less skilled at either area, but because in many situations what works for men simply will not work for women unless they are particularly adept at conveying the right message. It may take some effort to find good programs in your area, but be sure to look beyond the typical MCLE providers and find providers that work with business women in a range of fields.

The ones I like: John Patrick Dolan's Negotiate Like the Pros and Cara Hale Alter's Speechskills. I attended Dolan's seminar years ago, and although I am far from a skilled negotiator, I have remembered and benefited from his ideas for a long time. And I absolutely loved Cara's speech training that was part of the Hastings Leadership Academy for Women.

Make good use of your continuing education time on skills training, and don't waste time just filling in the credit hours with programs that are easy to get to, but are not likely to have any lasting impact on your practice.


Saturday, November 22, 2008

ABA 2008 Legal Technology Survey Report

Here is some really interesting data that was reported recently in IOMA's Law Firm Management report: a mere 8 percent of law firms maintain a blog. An even more minute number of attorneys (2 percent) have blogs. The recently published ABA 2008 Legal Technology Survey Report reports all this and much, much more. Unfortunately, it is extremely pricey at $1550 for ABA Members, $1800 for all others, so I did not read anything but a short summary. The headlines are intriguing, though, aren't they.

Everybody knows that lawyers are hopelessly addicted to using mobile technology devices such as BlackBerries, but surprisingly the profession lags far behind with social networking. The ABA report notes that almost all attorneys conduct research online, and roughly eight out of ten use news Web sites or use free or fee-based legal research services. But less than one-third read blogs (so those of you reading this are in that rarified group!), and only 4 percent of firms and 15 percent of individual lawyers belong to an on-line social network.

I suppose that the low number of lawyers who use social networking is because either (a) they have thriving and interesting personal lives and so enjoy real networks over virtual ones or (b) they are so busy working and running the hamster wheel that they haven't noticed the new ways to communicate and relate to the world. Or maybe they are just afraid to try something new.

In any event, it seems worthwhile to me to use these networks, if for no other reason than the fact that much of the business world (hint, hint, the clients) are using them. Better know and understand the tools everyone else is using, or risk being left behind.

See you in cyberspace.


Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Client Development and Trust

Memo to the Sales Department:

With the upheaval in the economy, every attorney is scrambling to work as hard as she can, if she has work, or to look for work as hard as she can, if she doesn't. This renewed energy for "marketing" is heartening to firm management everywhere, I am sure. In leading a group of lawyers in their business development efforts, however, I think it may be useful to remind everyone to step back and take a high level view on what it means for a lawyer to try to increase the amount of interesting and challenging work from clients who appreciate that work and are willing to pay reasonable fees for it. If that is the goal, many of the "marketing" tactics espoused in legal magazines and by consultants miss the mark.

According to the Wikipedia entry on the topic, "Marketing" is a business term referring to the promotion of products, especially advertising and branding. The term developed from the original meaning which referred literally to going to market, as in shopping, or going to a market to sell goods or services. The customarily thorough and scholarly wikipedia entry describes marketing in terms of the "seven Ps" for services marketing: product, pricing, promotion, placement (or distribution), people, process and physical evidence (case studies, testimonials).

Although there are some useful ideas in modern marketing techniques that can help a law firm to brand itself, the heart of business development for most lawyers requires a much more thoughtful approach that is based on a long-term strategy for developing trust and integrity among the intended circle of referral sources. Building trust and integrity is a very, very long term project. It helps, of course, to associate oneself with an established attorney or firm that already has a brand that is in fact trusted. And there is a place for modern marketing techniques in building a brand and message at an organizational level (more on that in a future post). But for the individual attorney who is trying to increase the number of appreciative clients looking for her counsel and advice, that is not something that can be "marketed" when the need arises.

Instead, what is needed is a long term effort focused on developing trust. Here are some tips that I have picked up over the years:

  • Spend time every day actively working with a "non-billable" focus on something intended todevelop trust and confidence among those in your referral and client network: write, speak, lunch, link, whatever. Like physical exercise, it requires daily effort.
  • Give more than you receive. Particularly with referral networks, liberally give of your time by actively participating in professional associations, as well as one-on-one with other professionals when asked to give some free advice.
  • Write books and articles.
  • Sponsor seminars, roundtables, mixers, and other appropriate educational/professional events on a regular basis. One shot projects are quickly forgotten; periodic events that become fixtures are much more cost- and energy-effective.
  • Leverage activities for maximum impact. Multi-tasking in developing skills and trust among those in your network is a fine thing to do; if you can sponsor or promote an activity that develops your skills at the same time as it builds networks or illustrates your trustworthiness, all the better.
  • When responding to any written request, begin the message with "As I promised, here is...." (I learned this from one of my favorite attorneys at my first firm).
  • Admit mistakes when made, and then fix them as best you can. Everybody makes misnakes, how you handle those unfortunate events either builds or destroys trust.
  • Remember that what goes around, comes around. How you treat other attorneys, accountants and related professionals is as important as how you treat your clients. Every professional interaction builds trust, or damages it.
  • Return all calls within 24 hours. Okay, sometimes I know that is unrealistic, but it is a good goal to have. Even if it is only to say, "I can't give you any answers today, but I did get your message." Responsiveness and predictability build trust; unresponsiveness and unpredictability damage it.

When times are rough, of course, and there is no work to be had, these things don't generate any work for the next day, the next week, or perhaps even the next month. Talented business development takes years of practice and hard work. Efforts that are focused on trying to bring in new clients during an economic downturn may be nothing more than "random acts of marketing" if the foundation for trust and integrity is not already laid. Random marketing efforts lead to results only by sheer luck.

Show me a lawyer who is always busy, and I'll show you a lawyer who is always working on building her reputation as a skilled, trustworthy, honest attorney among a broad network of clients and referral sources.


Monday, November 17, 2008

A Tradition of Progressivism

Forward Thinkers:

Tonight's television riff for this blog is The Daily Show. My husband and I nearly always watch it for the important news of the day, and my daughter actually responds when we ask her to be quiet so we can watch the news. Far cry from the news my parents watched on CBS, NBC and ABC when I was a child in the 70s.

In any event, in the episode I watched tonight, Bill O'Reilly sparred with Jon Stewart, and my favorite line was Jon's exhortation that this country has a "tradition of progressivism," which one can trace from the Bill of Rights through the decades of laws and court cases that have gradually expanded legal protections for basic human rights. The trajectory isn't a smooth curve, but it is a trendline upwards in the recognition of humanity's core values.

I do believe the same thing is happening for women in the legal work force, but the trend remains very slow, and requires constant vigilance. The Wall Street Journal Law Blog posted a provocative item today, which is notable not just for its content but also for some of the vitriolic responses. The basic point of the blog is that the National Association of Women Lawyers (NAWL) released the results of a recent study that showed the disappointing retention and compensation statistics for women in big law firms.

A couple of the comments to the WSJ Blog deserve a response. Several comments focused on the fact that women who don't like big law can always hang their own shingle and have a quite nice career in the law. That is certainly true for women who want to operate a solo or very small firm practice. But not all women want that, and if there are implicit or explicit biases in big law firms that make them unwelcoming for women, and particularly women with children, then that is wrong. It is not an excuse to say that women who don't like the bias can just go be happy doing a different type of law in a solo or small firm.

Many others commented on the continuing pay disparity. Assuming that all other aspects of men and women in a study are kept constant (years of actual practice, cumulative hours billed, etc) it is probably true that women make less than men. I don't actually think that study has ever been done; every study I've ever seen didn't keep much of anything constant and merely provided anecdotal evidence based on reported compensation.

In any event, I agree with several comments that note that the very real pay discrepancy is because the playing field is not level. In my view the playing field isn't level for any woman lawyer, although it is less of an ascent up Everest than it used to be. In most law firms that use compensation systems designed to maximize profits per partner, women will remain at a disadvantage for some time. Where the core value is profits per partner, the primary measuring sticks are and have to be originations (favoring older lawyers, lawyers with greater connections to the business sources, and people who are focused on maximizing their own compensation) and hours worked in a given measuring period (favoring lawyers without outside demands on their time). Generally speaking that type of system will only very, very gradually tilt to a level field for most women.

On the other hand, when compensation and advancement in firms is based upon core values of excellence in legal skills, client relationship skills, ethical conduct, sound practice and business management skills, and the ability to promote the good of the whole over the interests of the self, then women will advance to equity with men at a much faster rate. Those core values are less affected by the implicit gender bias in the business and legal world.

Law firms are fairly slow to evolve, adapt and grow, but they do. I remain hopeful that most law firms will continue the tradition of progressivism that is at the core of the history of our country and our profession.

Many thanks to a couple of women today who inspired these thoughts. You know who you are.


Sunday, November 16, 2008

Law Firm Finance


Every single day the financial news seems to get worse. Law firms are obviously not immune to the effects of the financial crisis, and the re-deployment of legal resources is much discussed in both mainstream news and in the legal daily rags.

What isn't discussed so often is the fundamentals of law firm finances and the management aspects of a large operating professional services business. Many women lawyers have finance, tax or business backgrounds and easily make sense of law firm economics. But for those who don't have an innate or studied familiarity with business finance and accounting, some homework is going to be essential. It is as important to understand law firm finance as it is to understand any other fundamental area of legal practice, such as legal ethics, human resources and employee relations, and so on.

Finding these resources takes a little work. I don't see much in the local bar offerings, but the Practicing Law Institute (PLI) seems to have a nice menu of basic financial literacy programs geared toward lawyers, but focused on business finance and accounting. The program "Pocket MBA for Lawyers: Everything You Need to Know About Finance," is offered in Chicago, New York, San Francisco and Houston in December 2008 and throughout the first half of 2009. Another interesting offering is "Basics of Law Firm Accounting" next July in New York, San Francisco and Chicago. I believe webcasts are also available for many of the dates. Although these are not about law firm finance, understanding basic business finance is definitely an asset in law firm management.

The law firm consulting firms also provide targeted law firm finance consulting (see, eg., Altman Weil and Hildebrandt) but these resources may not be as useful or available to rising women leaders. They are geared more toward those lawyers who are already ensconced in law firm management. Before arriving at the partnership compensation and finance discussion, be sure to understand the business and finance world. You'll be more likely to ask the right questions, and be respected for having them.


Saturday, November 15, 2008

The Glass Ceiling


Couple of interesting glass metaphors this week. First, nominations are now being accepted for the Jean Allard Glass Cutter Award, given each year by the ABA Business Law Section to an exceptional woman business lawyer who has made significant contributions both to the legal professionand to the Section of Business Law.

This week I also found an interesting women business professional's network: The Glass Hammer Network. The site doesn't seem to have many participants yet, but perhaps it will grow and provide connections for like-minded women. It describes itself as an online community designed for women executives in financial services, law and business.

Edward Poll writes for Law Practice Today about online networking in Socialized Marketing: Lawyers and the Social Networking Phenomenon. Although social networking won't replace the direct personal relationships that are essential to developing a practice, and I doubt they'll be useful for client development among strangers, some social networks are going to be essential for maintaining contact with clients, referral sources, and business colleagues. If nothing else, the broad, popular sites like LinkedIn operate as a self-updating contact list. At best, these sites remind the people that I know and have worked with that I am still in their circle of acquaintances, and am looking for new and interesting projects. Carefully managed, a professional network site is another useful implement in the glass cutter's toolbox.

Not too long ago I was told there really isn't a glass ceiling, there is just a really thick layer of men. Or perhaps just a single layer of thick men. Either way, more women lawyers every day are breaking through.


Thursday, November 13, 2008

Question: What is a Meeting without an Agenda?

Answer: A waste of time.

Okay, that may be a bit of an overstatement, but lawyers who are pressed for time loathe unproductive meetings. In my view, the primary work for a meeting leader happens in advance of the meeting. The chair owes it to the participants to provide information in advance about the purpose of the meeting, specify material agenda items, and sufficient information so that they can come to the meeting prepared for the discussion.

There are many good resources for planning successful meetings, and in some circumstances (e.g., a retreat or strategic planning session) a professional facilitator can be essential. Offsite meetings and retreats are beyond the scope of this post.

But for the garden variety practice group meeting or committee meeting, the chair's task is pretty straightforward, though often completely miffed. To avoid annoying the participants:
  • Circulate a draft agenda and ask for additions or comments. Unless it is purely an informational meeting where participants are expected only to listen, an effective leader will solicit input from the participants in advance to find out additional topics for discussion.
  • Be prepared to manage the conversation so that participants stay on topic, and to promote discussion and engagement by all participants. Meetings are a wonderful opportunity for ensuring that your team members feel valued, listened to and included. The meeting chair can foster those feelings, or kill them.
  • Provide or ensure that background facts or materials are available in advance for study or preparation.
  • Stage the topics so that easy information items are discussed at the beginning of the meeting while people gather, followed by the most difficult topics or those that require creativity, and wrap up the meeting with a discussion of next steps and assignments.
  • If you anticipate that not all key participants can attend for the entire meeting time, be sure to indicate the anticipated time for certain sensitive or important topics, so that people can attend for the parts of the meeting for which their input is important (either to them or to the other attendees).
  • Have someone take minutes and make them available to all participants shortly after the meeting.

There is one other type of meeting without an agenda that isn't really a waste of time and that I very much enjoy: that is a party! But be clear when planning and facilitating a meeting that you know the difference. If it is a business meeting, respect the participants by providing an agenda and ensuring that the time is productive and positive. If it is intended to be a social event, then have a party. But don't waste my time with a meeting that is unclear on the concept, and can't decide whether to take care of business or have a social hour. And for heaven's sake be sure that everyone in attendance considers the time useful, and not a waste.

Until we meet again,


Wednesday, November 12, 2008

To Lead from Wholeness and Joy

If you have not already seen this, here is a beautiful letter from Alice Waters, from one leader to another:

"Dear Brother Obama,

You have no idea, really, of how profound this moment is for us. Us being the black people of the Southern United States. You think you know, because you are thoughtful, and you have studied our history. But seeing you deliver the torch so many others before you carried, year after year, decade after decade, century after century, only to be struck down before igniting the flame of justice and of law, is almost more than the heart can bear. And yet, this observation is not intended to burden you, for you are of a different time, and, indeed, because of all the relay runners before you, North America is a different place. It is really only to say: Well done. We knew, through all the generations, that you were with us, in us, the best of the spirit of Africa and of the Americas. Knowing this, that you would actually appear, someday, was part of our strength. Seeing you take your rightful place, based solely on your wisdom, stamina and character, is a balm for the weary warriors of hope, previously only sung about.

I would advise you to remember that you did not create the disaster that the world is experiencing, and you alone are not responsible for bringing the world back to balance. A primary responsibility that you do have, however, is to cultivate happiness in your own life. To make a schedule that permits sufficient time of rest and play with your gorgeous wife and lovely daughters. And so on. One gathers that your family is large. We are used to seeing men in the White House soon become juiceless and as white-haired as the building; we notice their wives and children looking strained and stressed. They soon have smiles so lacking in joy that they remind us of scissors. This is no way to lead. Nor does your family deserve this fate. One way of thinking about all this is: It is so bad now that there is no excuse not to relax. From your happy, relaxed state, you can model real success, which is all that so many people in the world really want. They may buy endless cars and houses and furs and gobble up all the attention and space they can manage, or barely manage, but this is because it is not yet clear to them that success is truly an inside job. That it is within the reach of almost everyone.

I would further advise you not to take on other people's enemies. Most damage that others do to us is out of fear, humiliation and pain. Those feelings occur in all of us, not just in those of us who profess a certain religious or racial devotion. We must learn actually not to have enemies, but only confused adversaries who are ourselves in disguise. It is understood by all that you are commander in chief of the United States and are sworn to protect our beloved country; this we understand, completely. However, as my mother used to say, quoting a Bible with which I often fought, "hate the sin, but love the sinner." There must be no more crushing of whole communities, no more torture, no more dehumanizing as a means of ruling a people's spirit. This has already happened to people of color, poor people, women, children. We see where this leads, where it has led.

A good model of how to "work with the enemy" internally is presented by the Dalai Lama, in his endless caretaking of his soul as he confronts the Chinese government that invaded Tibet. Because, finally, it is the soul that must be preserved, if one is to remain a credible leader. All else might be lost; but when the soul dies, the connection to earth, to peoples, to animals, to rivers, to mountain ranges, purple and majestic, also dies. And your smile, with which we watch you do gracious battle with unjust characterizations, distortions and lies, is that expression of healthy self-worth, spirit and soul, that, kept happy and free and relaxed, can find an answering smile in all of us, lighting our way, and brightening the world.

We are the ones we have been waiting for.

In Peace and Joy,

Alice Walker"

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Career Disasters


Seems hardly a day goes by without word about another law firm teetering on the brink or finally failing. The next six months will in all likelihood continue to bring about some re-structuring in the legal industry, as resources shift dramatically and law firms and businesses rise and fall with the changing tides affecting their clients. Although many lawyers will continue to be very busy, others will face severe professional setbacks either from their own mistakes, others' actions, or a combination of both. And a lot of those displaced lawyers will suffer the failure of their firm, or dismissal in a lay-off, or the cratering of a practice, as a career disaster.

An excellent resource for any leader--man or woman--who faces what appears to be a career catastrophe can be found in "Firing Back: How Great Leaders Rebound After Career Disasters" by Jeffrey A. Sonnenfeld and Andrew J. Ward (Harvard Business School Press, January 2007). Acknowledging that most fallen leaders don't recover, the authors chronicle the journeys of a number of modern day business leaders and their paths to renewed success, including Martha Stewart, Jimmy Carter, and J. Crew's Mickey Drexler. The authors describe these journeys to recovery in terms of the heroic quest.

Sonnenfeld and Ward use Joseph Campbell's 1949 book, "The Hero with a Thousand Faces," to illustrate the way for fallen business leaders. Like the heroic monomyth at the center of Campbell's writing, the transformational business leader follows "a path that entails a call to greatness, early successes (involving tough choices), ongoing trials, profound setbacks, and ultimatetly triumph as they reintegrate into society."

Although the tragedies and triumphant comebacks of the leaders profiled in Firing Back can seem remote or mythological to us mere mortal lawyers, the stories do point to important lessons useful to leaders at any level who strive to recover from a career catastrophe. To start rebuilding a career, the heroic lawyer leader will do well to follow the authors' words of wisdom:
  • Remember that failure is a beginning, not an end. Comeback is always possible.
  • Look to the future.
  • Help people to deal with your failure, and ask for (and accept) help.
  • Know your narrative. Reputation building involves telling and retelling your story to get your account of events out there.
  • Decide how to fight back, and take quick action.
  • Recover your heroic status by engaging in a multitiered campaign to clear your reputation and restore your stature.
  • Prove your mettle, and overcome any doubts about your ability to get back to the top.
  • Rediscover your heroic mission.

For more inspiration, see the thorough Wikipedia entries about Joseph Campbell and The Hero with a Thousand Faces.


Monday, November 10, 2008

Self Promotion

Humble Ones:

I recently came across the thorough report of the National Association of Women Lawyers "Actions for Advancing Women Into Law Firm Leadership," from its National Leadership Summit in July of 2008. The Report covers actions for change in four critical areas: leadership, retention and promotion, business development, and compensation. The entire article is full of great ideas and practical approaches to advancing women into the partnership ranks, and thence into leadership positions. The discussion of compensation has a number of blunt and honest critiques of the existing norms in the industry and their disproportionate adverse impact on women.

In its discussion of the impact of compensation systems on the advancement of women into leadership positions, the Report identifies legacy credit allocation systems as a source of unintended gender bias against women; one which in my view is especially pernicious. If it is true in most firms that 80 percent of the new business is from 20 percent of existing clients, and if credit is given only to those who initially "sourced" a client relationship, then such a system is going to disproportionately disadvantage lawyers that are relatively new to the law firm unless there is a conscious, measured, and accountable approach to encourage transfer of client relationships in a manner that is not biased against women, women with children, and attorneys of color.

The Report also notes that a fair and equitable compensation system also requires that women have the tools to advocate for the compensation they deserve, and suggests two actions to achieve that goal: First, firms should make compensation criteria transparent. Second, women need to be allowed and encouraged to promote their achievements. Most women are reticent about promoting their own achievements, because women are faulted for self-promotion that is readily accepted in men. Women lawyers need to be allowed and even encouraged to overcome societal inhibitions against self promotion.

The Report concludes with a checklist of action items for law firm leadership. Take a look at it and see how your firm measures up.

Now, I feel motivated to get back to client work...


Sunday, November 9, 2008

Acknowledging the Maternal Wall


Last week the American Association of University Women (AAUW) celebrated the 30th Anniversary of the passage of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. Huge gains have been made by women in the workforce since the Act was passed on October 31, 1978, and it is a good thing to pause from time to time to recognize the advances in parity since then.

Even with those advances, however, the bias now known as the "maternal wall" is still a relatively un-acknowledged source of implicit workplace bias against working women. The phenomenon has been studied and discussed by Joan Williams at the Center for WorkLife Law, now at the University of California, Hastings College of Law, who is the "rock star" of the issue. The workplace—including and perhaps especially private law firms—is still designed around an “ideal worker” who works for 40 years without a significant break. The traditional private practice of law involves long, unpredictable hours, heavy and stressful demands in high-stakes matters, and many years of time-consuming, powerful personal networking oriented around male-dominated activities—all things that are admittedly difficult for men who are fathers, but they are nearly impossible for working mothers to deal with. Working lawyer moms know very well that their work lives would be much smoother if they had wives at home.

Although the term “family responsibilities discrimination” is new, many professional women with children know very well that the practice of limiting a woman's career options because of childrearing responsibilities creates very real barriers to success. According to Joan Williams, while the glass ceiling still exists, most women hit the ‘maternal wall’ long before they ever hit the glass ceiling.

The first step to changing any problem is recognizing that it exists. Learn more about the maternal wall and its effects on working women lawyers at the Project for Attorney Retention. Those who understand the problem can be leaders on the path to change.


Saturday, November 8, 2008

Weekly Round Up of Women Lawyer Issues in the News


A few noteworthy articles arrived in my inbox this week. The first item of interest for you litigating ladies out there is a new magazine, Sue. I love the concept and have already ordered my subscription. Check it out. I hope someone will organize a similar magazine for women business attorneys, but it may be a little tougher to name. I can't think of a woman's name that also means "closing" or "compromise" or "compliance." But I'll be pondering that all week, I am sure.

Also of note is a short piece in the ABA Journal noting that women lawyers were 'Canaries in the Coal Mine' at Heller. The article has interesting observations about the retention problems for women attorneys, and suggests that the problems spurring women lawyers to leave law firms also contribute to firm implosions.

This week brings both good news and bad news for women lawyers aspiring to parity in politics, or at least an even playing field. Ms. JD has posted election victories for women. Check out the site to see the progress made in political leadership circles by women this time around. There is a lot of other interesting news on the Ms. JD site.

Finally, it is nomination time for several awards of interest to women lawyers. Nominations for the 19th Annual Margaret Brent Women Lawyers of Achievement Awards are due by the close of business on Tuesday, November 25, 2008. The National Conference of Women's Bar Associations is now accepting nominations for its 2009 Annual Public Service and Outstanding Member Program Award for women bar association sponsored projects.

Time to do the laundry, see you tomorrow.


Friday, November 7, 2008

Attention Shoppers

Dear Shopaholics,

I like to end the year by making an effort to acknowledge clients, and two good ways to do that are by sending holiday cards and a token of appreciation. Most years I send cards to a pretty long list of clients and other professionals. For years I faced the conundrum of what sort of card to send—can't be religious, can't be strident, can't be sappy, can't be cloying… so… I finally got smart and realized a New Year's card works really well. Not only does it send a tone of "let's work together in a new year," it is also celebratory, hopeful, and positive. All messages that I like to send to clients and referral sources that I want to keep working with! Not all of the people on my list seem interested in the cards, but it is surprising the number of people who reciprocate. Nothing comes in the snail mail run for me other than junk mail and letters from the IRS, so those holiday cards really make my day.

As for client gifts, I don't send many, but for the clients that spend a lot of time with me during the year, I look for something cutting edge, innovative, and meaningful that will reinforce my brand and the message I want to send about the quality of my legal work. A bottle of wine doesn't work so well for me since my usual choice of wine is from the "buy one get one free" rack in the Safeway wine aisle. A basket of fruit won't do either. Since one theme for my brand is innovation and creativity, this year I am looking for new, cutting edge gifts that reinforce that message. I really like customized gifts, too. Of course, there are always customized M & M's for clients that like candy, customized camcorders for the filmmakers, or tons of other customized products at Café Press. If green is your message this year to support a new practice area in global warming, there are lots of those options out there, too. A client appreciation gift is a great opportunity to further your brand and demonstrate your core values in tangible, memorable way. Choose something that will resonate with your key message.

But there are only 47 shopping days left, so get going...


Thursday, November 6, 2008

Pro Bono Publico

Humble Servants,

One of the core values of the legal profession is its commitment to help those who cannot afford to pay for legal services. The California Bar defines pro bono service in a typical fashion: providing or enabling the direct delivery of legal services, without expectation of compensation other than reimbursement of expenses, to indigent individuals, or to not-for-profit organizations with a primary purpose of providing legal services to the poor or on behalf of the poor, or disadvantaged, not-for-profit organizations with a purpose of improving the law and the legal system, or increasing access to justice.

Although I am a big believer in multi-tasking, pro bono service is one area where it is important to focus on the public purpose to the exclusion of other objectives, at both the individual and the organizational level. Individual attorneys make a commitment to pro bono service when they are admitted to the bar. Every attorney should do some pro bono service, but not everything that is labeled "pro bono" really is. Purported pro bono projects that are really business development activities for a big firm client, or training activities to gain experience, are not really pro bono activities. Those activities are worthwhile, but they should be recognized for what they are. Similarly, time spent on a "pro bono" activity only if it "counts" as a "billable hour" is not truly "pro bono." Think about it: if you want your employer or your partners to pay you and count your work for the poor as part of your required duties and as a component of compensation, you aren't really working without expectation of payment, are you? The legal provision of services to the poor without expectation of compensation is a core value of the profession for all members of the bar, not just those who are partners or principles in their own firm.

Similarly, at an organizational level, the pro bono message should be consistent with a core value of meeting professional commitments in an authentic way. Firm leadership best supports this core value by walking the walk and talking the talk, not by paying others to provide "free services" to the poor, or as part of the firm's PR efforts. Authentic pro bono is legal service to the poor, not a tool to burnish the firm's brand name, satisfy paying client demands or train lawyers. The purpose is a professional commitment to provide legal services to individuals who cannot afford them, not a marketing tactic.

Different lawyers find different ways to meet their commitment. The ABA has tremendous pro bono leads, as do all state and local bar organizations. Personally, the best fit for me is working in tax preparation clinics for the indigent in my community in a program called Tax-Aid. Because the heaviest demand is in the first quarter of each calendar year, these programs start up in November and December with training and organizing activities (hence the timing of this diatribe). I like the local Tax-Aid program because the time commitment is clear (one training session and four Saturdays in January, February and March), the program is well-organized, and the client service is very personal.

So get out there! No excuses.


Tuesday, November 4, 2008

What (Not) to Wear


I've realized recently that perhaps the reason I am not getting comments on my blog is that I don't write about controversial topics, so I am going to go out on a limb here and tell you what I really think about a really important issue. As I sit here this evening watching the election returns, I have a confession to make. My first personal reaction to Sarah Palin was a comment on what she was wearing and how her hair looked. The sad truth is that women in politics and in business are ruthlessly assessed by how they look and what they wear. It may not be fair, it may not be right, but it is true. What professional women wear does matter.

Last month I wrote about my favorite TV series Dirty Jobs; I also have a disturbing attraction to the TLC series What NOT to Wear. In each show hosts Stacy London and Clinton Kelly throw away some poor woman's entire wardrobe and show her the way to bring out a style appropriate to her job. I haven't yet seen an episode where they dress a woman lawyer, but they probably should.

I also think that women attorneys get somewhat mixed messages about what is appropriate to wear in law offices. The current dress code in most firms allows for casual clothes most any day of the week. Unless the day calls for a visit to court or a closing, many women wear comfortable clothes rather than a business suit, conservative dress, or pantsuit. For many years I did the same; I rarely wore suits, and have even been known to wear my paddock boots to the office if the end of the day means a visit to the barn.

Work habits that inspire confidence and trust, and that evidence competence and attention to detail are incredibly important to successful practice development. Of course it doesn't matter what one wears if the actual legal work doesn't reflect those attributes, but I don't believe for a moment that the most brilliant legal work will be recognized if a woman is not dressed for the part. Appropriate attire depends on the type of client and the task at hand, but when in doubt, the prepared attorney pays attention to the smallest detail, including the image projected by what she is wearing. Most women attorneys know that in every meaningful professional situation, a successful woman has to be ten times more prepared than everyone else in the room, whether it is a client meeting, internal firm meeting, bar event, or any other professional situation. Why risk that hard work on a less than professional appearance?

So what to do if you really have nothing to wear? Work at home. Clients have no idea what I am wearing when I call in from here. And that's a good thing.


P.S. And guys, yes, women notice the same thing about how you are dressed. Old shoes, mismatched socks, food stains on your shirt—not everyone notices, but the women who pay attention to detail do. It may not matter to the development of your practice, but don't think for a moment that no one notices.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Turn Back the Clock

Time Travelers:

This morning at 2 A.M., daylight savings time ended for 2008. This is always a depressing day for me because I realize I haven't saved any time all year, and now the dark days of winter really have arrived.

The other day my timesheet had 20 entries on it. Although I was at my desk from 8 in the morning until 6 that evening, and then worked at home for another couple of hours after dinner, it was still a struggle to allocate the day to the projects I was working on. I had been switching from one task to another all day, I was mentally exhausted, and had little to show for it. But I had successfully rushed from fire to fire and beat back the flames all day.

I don't think my experience is unique. I do think the problem of time management is particularly acute for women lawyers in positions of leadership who also have children at home. There really is a limit to the number of hours in a day.

Many days I don't have much choice about how I spend my time. Time management consultants will recommend that you set aside work time, put your phone on "make busy," turn off incoming email reminders, and close your office door to eliminate interruptions, among other very sensible techniques. For many lawyers those ideas aren't helpful or realistic. I may need to answer the phone immediately if I see that the key people on one of the five deals in progress are calling; many of the client emails really are urgent matters that need input quickly, within the same workday; if my office door isn't open for drop-ins by colleagues I seem unapproachable. And if a key referral source is trying to line up a call with a new client, I want to respond right away. The idea of controlling the number of distractions is fine in theory, but impractical.

For many years I tried doing multiple things at once. I learned this skill in one of my first jobs, as a teenager working at McDonalds in the late 70's. I learned then how to cook burgers at the same time as I took orders, and filled cups with soda (and, would you like some fries with that?). I was really good at it. In those days you actually had to be able to calculate change, too.

In her October 24, 2008, New York Times article "Multitasking Can Make You Lose … Um … Focus," Alina Tugend points out how multi-tasking isn't really about doing multiple tasks at the same time, in reality it is about switching rapidly between tasks and losing concentration in between. The article confirmed for me the sense that I have had lately that if I am on the phone, I need to turn away from my email inbox to avoid the temptation to track and respond to messages at the same time. If I am working on a significant project on my computer, and emails come in on other less urgent matters, I am tempted to respond right away and get them finished. Lately I have been sorting those into a folder immediately for addressing later so that I am not distracted by seeing them in my inbox all day. Usually I catch up on those items between 8 and 10 at night, which seems a good time of day for me to respond to things that don't take a high degree of mental effort.

Years ago young attorneys were told never to spend their time making copies, or doing other tasks that did not require a law degree. A lawyer's secretary or administrative assistant made copies, filed correspondence, distributed documents, screened calls and scheduled meetings. Very few attorneys now are afforded that much staff support, but wouldn't it be nice if that were possible. Just scheduling conference calls some days generates dozens of email messages. When possible, I do get help from my secretary, who has the patience of a saint and the ability to read my mind. But with the pace of the work coming in electronically and the software programs for practice management, it isn't realistic to rely on a secretary to meet all of these organizational demands. The trend in law practice management over the past 20 years has been to quietly shift many of these administrative tasks from staff to software programs that attorneys are expected to use. In the end, many of these "time savers" actually just shift the tasks to the attorneys and away from non-billable support staff.

Ok, enough complaining. Time being what it is, let's move on and suggest something helpful. As we all know, Microsoft Outlook in many ways has replaced the live human administrative assistant. Take a look at the Outlook features that can help with scheduling, distributing documents, sorting messages and tasks, keeping up your rolodex (oops, that is an antique concept, I meant your "Contacts"). Or, if your learning style benefits more from one-on-one teaching by a human, schedule some time with a time management consultant (one I really like is Irwin Karp).

But who has time for that?

Saturday, November 1, 2008

The Third Rail

Oh Hungry Ones:

In my first job as a lawyer, the office manager across the hall refilled her dish of M & M's each afternoon at about 3 o'clock. The sound of the candy hitting the dish was Pavlovian: it stopped me in my tracks and I took a break from whatever I was doing to grab a handful of afternoon energy. Thus began a career that closely associated relief from stress with a sugar high.

In most law firms, the food supply is a high priority, but, in the grand scheme of things, not viewed as a significant expense. Until, that is, hard times hit and the quest for cost-cutting commences. As a percentage of expense items, breakfast pastries, stale sandwiches, cold pizza, candy and cookies, and dinner events are all, collectively, trivial when compared to salaries, rent, health insurance, and liability insurance. But for conscientious managers food costs seem to be low-hanging fruit, which would seem to be first on the cutting block.

Usually, though, that is an ill-advised strategy. Whether it violates a sense of entitlement, removes psychological comfort food, or just creates a lightening rod for dissatisfaction, reducing the quantity and frequency of employer-provided meals can have a negative morale impact disproportionate to the cost savings. The lost productivity alone from the angst created by making people go out and buy their own food may not be worth the minimal savings.

In a work place that has a high degree of communication and openness with staff, cost reductions in stressful times can actually be a source of shared team spirit in addressing a tough economy. Everyone who reads the paper knows that law firms, like most all sectors of the economy, are facing difficult economic times. Open communication that reassures staff of management's commitment to containing costs where possible can actually be a positive strategy. On the other hand, failing to communicate how an institution is dealing with tough economics leaves workers (attorneys and staff alike) anxious about job security. Reducing frivolous expense items as part of a firm-wide plan to control that which is controllable can be a good thing, if viewed as a collective effort. Extravagant meals and treats should be fair game; sandwiches and cookies probably are not. Thoughtful communication of that message announces positive, productive, and prudent management, reassuring those most valuable resources, your people.

At my editor's suggestion, I did google this topic on Google Scholar ( to find out if anyone has documented peer-reviewed research on the impact of reducing the amount of food available to law firm employees during difficult economic times. Alas, I did not find any such research. So the foregoing is merely my opinion, supported only by anecdotal observations.

To order your customized M & M's in your signature colors, go to My order, of course, is all rose.

Happy munching,