The Exceptional Lawyer

December 4, 2008

Big Frightened Egos Break Deals

Filed under: Uncategorized — joshuahornick @ 12:25 pm

Exceptional lawyers know their stuff.  Scores of lawyers have echoed this fundamental truth to me.  It’s an incomplete truth.  Since we cannot know everything, being comfortable with our areas of ignorance is also critically important, just as important as knowing our stuff.  And, unfortunately, it’s very easy for us to be uncomfortable with our areas of ignorance.

As a real estate lawyer said to me yesterday, “We [lawyers] have to be right 100% of the time.”  If a corporate executive is right 80% of the time, she receives accolades.  If we are wrong 1% of the time, the client who experienced that 1% is outraged; it’s unacceptable.  People hire us for perfection.  

Most of us who become lawyers like to have the answers.  We like to be the providers of something like perfection.  It’s a persona we enjoy.  And, when we don’t know the answers or really understand what’s going on, we’re pretty good at covering up so that others don’t see what we don’t know.  We don’t like to give the appearance of less than perfect, especially in any matter related to our area of expertise.  So, we are often slow to fess up when we don’t really get it.

This morning, an in-house counsel told me that lawyers that don’t know their stuff well enough become deal breakers because they don’t understand what constitutes a reasonable risk.  After further conversation, she amended that to say it is really the lawyers’ fear of owning up to what that don’t know that breaks the deal.  After all, if we are comfortable showing our ignorance, we can learn–even in real time, properly assess the risks and benefits, and make the deal.

While some clients may be initially put off by your not knowing the answers, my experience indicates that they are most impressed with the courage of a lawyer who admits she doesn’t understand something.  They appreciate your willingness to appear ignorant, to sacrifice your ego, for the sake of providing them with the best representation.  My own proudest moment as an associate came when I approached a partner for whom I was working to say I didn’t understand the overall structure of a type of deal we often engineered for our biggest client.  It turned out that I wasn’t alone, and he scheduled a series of seminars to bring all his associates up to speed.  It was probably the most valuable thing I did for that client.

All this is not to say that a lawyer should always immediately announce when something is not understood, although it’s not a bad idea.  If the circumstances are inappropriate (specifically, when they would put your client in a compromising or embarrassing position) be circumspect, be politic, be careful.  

I recommend for any attorney to pay attention to all the times over a three-day period that he “covers” for something he doesn’t know, then to experiment in low risk ways to see what happens when he owns up to not knowing something.  The results may surprise you.


December 3, 2008

Late Time Reporting Never Stands Alone

Filed under: Uncategorized — joshuahornick @ 12:29 pm

“Sure, Sarah’s a fabulous lawyer.  Only problem is she’s terrible about reporting her hours.”  That’s not true.  If Sarah’s not reporting her hours in a timely manner, she has other issues, too.  Late time reporting is a problem that never stands alone.  And, she probably doesn’t have to think too hard to identify correlating problems.

Anyone who has made a career of practicing law understands the business importance of tracking time [see, Avaro, Deborah L., Game Plan for a More Profitable and Productive Law Firm].  One reason that Sarah may not be efficient in logging her hours is because she doesn’t understand that importance.  For Sarah to miss that importance is, simply put, shocking.  It could only happen if she blinds herself to business realities.  That’s a big issue for a profit-conscious undertaking.

If Sarah understands the importance, she may have problems with time reporting because she’s bad at scheduling and prioritizing.  Maybe, she’s too overwhelmed with work to take care of administrative details.  Poor prioritization and scheduling skills or feelings of overwhelm will have a negative impact on all parts of her practice.  She’s apparently smart enough and hard-working enough to do a good job despite those limitations.  Still, she’s not on top of her game.

The good news is that if Sarah can extrapolate from her difficulty with tracking and reporting her time to understand the underlying issues, she can then deal with them.   This creates an opportunity to substantially improve her productivity, her understanding, her attitude, and–usually–her enjoyment of the work.  The result is a more powerful practice across the board.

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