eyes open

eyes open
"know thyself" is the cure, the answer, the process, the goal, the result


"To Dare Mighty Things"--Thanks Bill!

Thanks to Bill Lerach, I have been saved from having a dreaded "dark" day on my precious blog. I was sitting before my screen, my beautiful 'tabula rasa', waiting for inspiration to come. The seconds were ticking away. Thankfully, Bill Lerach's resignation memo to his firm was put up by the WSJ Law Blog. I have to say, I've read scores of resignation memos (even written one or two!) and none of them were this good. The guy can write.

At any rate, what I liked most about his congratulating and self-congratulatory memo is that he included a wonderful quote from Teddy Roosevelt:
“It is far better to dare mighty things to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much because they live in the gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.”

As I sit contemplating the impending further stratification of class in the legal field, the potential melt-downs that always threaten our economic security, the challenges of new technologies and technologies yet-to-be implemented, and the increased complexity and unknown pitfalls presented by a true globalization of legal markets, it all boils down to this: guts, sweat, blood, and yes, tears. What are we as lawyers (and those that serve them) if we are not pushing boldly on the borders of our current experience, skill and paradigms? It is we who are or should be leading our clients into new terrain, over hidden obstacles, under ensnaring regulatory thickets.

As you psychically pause for breath before the impending storm of activity that will overtake us all after the "Labor Day" weekend, let's remember that it always, always comes down to the basics. It is not whether we stumble or even fall, it is whether we get back up, and quickly.

Have a great rest of your week!

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Read the Market : San Francisco mirrors the National Market for Legal Services

Sitting down to pen a report to my clients and candidates about the state of the San Francisco market report, I note that it sounds just like the reports of my colleagues for every other US market for legal services. Executive summary: Strong, but schizophrenic. Hire/don't hire. Grow/sit. Reach out/pull back.


Law firms are still in desperate need of corporate and securities attorneys at all levels. Firms have been chronically understaffed in the associate ranks in all transactional areas for at least 18 months and there does not seem to be any immediate end in sight. Partners who want to switch platforms need to be thinking of a seven-figure number before expecting to get any buzz from AmLaw 100 firms. Litigation remains at zero-growth—there are still legion opportunities, but these are all the result of natural attrition, not growth. Thus, credentials are still very closely scrutinized.

Now for some niche reports:

General Corporate, M&A, & Securities

Unchanged since the Spring. Firms are looking to hire, but they want the best. As usual in this market, a corporate candidate must be a generalist, but with a few niche-specialties under his or her belt to bring to the table. Resumes must emphasize the broad-based nature of the candidate's experience, and what value-added they can bring to client, now.

However, although firm needs are still at all-time highs, the recent credit market bumblings have made the hiring process EVEN LONGER. Firms are “checking their lists and checking them twice.” Even after call-backs, firms are hand-wringing before pulling the trigger on a hire. Kind of like the US Postal Service: they deliver, but it takes forever.

Project Finance

Of course this work is usually a DC or NY thing. However, lots of firms say they want to expand in this area. Bring your pedigree and get your transactions list together; it will be reviewed with a fine-tooth comb.

Labor & Employment

Still weirdly hot. It had appeared to cool down in Spring, but is back up to full strength. The L&E door is the only door open for some litigators now.

ERISA; Corporate Benefits

Unchanged. The few. The proud. The ERISA lawyers.

Energy; Environment

Firms are thinking growth and integration. There is lots of room here, but what it takes to break in seems in flux. If you have a story, let’s here it; firms are open-minded.


Just like your typical tax lawyer, the market for the same is not terribly interesting (no offense!). Must have LLM, must have top-drawer experience, must be well-versed. Firms are not going to train you.


Unchanged from the Spring but still stronger demand than Summer and Fall of ’06. Needs still are not extremely stronger however. We’ll see what happens in the next six months. Of course, if the economy tanks, suddenly firms will be knocking down your door.

Trusts & Estates

Unchanged from last quarter. The needs are few and not-well communicated. However, on balance, needs slightly outweigh available talent, so the diligent find positions.

Intellectual Property Litigation

There are still scores of opportunities here. Of course, patent is the sexiest of the markets, but soft IP is still in demand also. If I was still a commercial litigator, I would be doing my darndest to convert myself into an IP litigator.

Intellectual Property Transactions

This area is humming along quite well, but I haven’t seen any continued growth since my last report. Candidates that have corporate governance and other transactional experience combined with some litigation and other IP experience may find such positions a good fit. The practice area calls upon a fair number of disciplines. The standards are high; you MUST have been doing intensive IP transactions work for a full year to get any buzz.

Patent Prosecution and Litigation

I think last quarter I downgraded this area to “warm.” Well, I’m calling it “hot” again. As usual, technical degrees-especially BSEEs and MSEEs--are coveted. If you have one, call me! The needs are constant and varied, and there is a perceived lack of adequate talent. As one would expect, with respect to patent prosecution, the higher degree of technical expertise you have, the looser the standards will be on the legal experience and credentials side. Obviously, strong performance in science as well as in law is desired. If you are interested in patent litigation, the same is largely true, but make sure you that you have solid experience. General commercial litigators need not apply, generally speaking, unless academic and firm credentials are of the highest order.

Real Estate

Only “warm” I’m afraid. The needs are still strong, but movement has been sluggish. Still, there are numerous positions available to qualified candidates. If a particular candidate's credentials are not stellar, but there is solid, broad, and well-documented experience, that may suffice. There was significant movement in this area in Fall 06 and firms still need people, but the market is still coagulating.

Commercial Litigation

Same story we’ve had for two years. Firms can cherry-pick litigators now. If you are a fifth- or sixth- year, you had better make the change yesterday if you want to get noticed. If you are in the senior associate ranks, stay put. Partners? Be ready to demonstrate either a rock-solid plan for growth, or have a significant transferable book.

And now a word about business:

As stated at the outset of my report, firms are growing. If you have a book of business, now is an excellent time to consider finding a more appropriate platform. This means that firms are not only looking to expand the depth of existing practice areas, but many are seeking to add as many niche practices as they can. The new paradigm is full service. Partners looking to change platforms need to think more about the existing (and nascent) culture of target firms and a firm's recent and anticipated business moves with respect to geography, client base and practice group, ahead of the existing depth or quality of a current practice.


Universal growth, market pressures for further consolidation (merger), and clients’ demands for firms to be all things to all people, mean that the market for talent is hot. However, after the burned hands of the dot-com bust, firms are still slow to hire. Plus, the recent reminder that markets do actually come down and that discrete market sectors are subject to stupidity and cupidity, firms are again wringing their hands about whether to actually hire to fulfill their current needs. They have to hire, but don’t want to get hung out to dry. It makes for a very interesting scenario.

As a candidate, you need to get your irritation-o-meter up to snuff. It is going to be a slow and jarring ride.

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Calling Dr. Friedman!

Perhaps I just don't read the right stuff, or enough of it, but it seems to me we are not getting a strong diet of solid analysis on the current rumblings and bumblings in the credit markets. Where is Dr. Friedman when you need him?

I enjoyed reading Bruce MacEwen's post (in turn reviewing two other articles) on the possible fall-out for law firms in the current "uncertain" market. His advice, of course, is that firms need to be as diversified as possible, combined with some strategic thinking. In short, "kindly refrain from knee-jerk reactions." I couldn't agree more.

The trouble is that we seem to have entered an era without an economic guru or beloved "grand-dad" to help us interpret just what is going on. After Greenspan's retirement, we seem to be adrift in uncertainty. Perhaps the invisible hand has gotten just a tad more inscrutable.

Be that as it may, as "Uncle Milton" would say: "there is no long term." Thus, we must sit squarely on the fence-post between planning for future growth and taking advantage of present opportunities.

It seems to me that we might be better off strategizing how to create new service "products" for our skittish clients, than worrying about whether we should downsize in the midst of the greatest labor shortage in the legal industry we have seen in ages.

My own advice is the same today as it always is: Keep a watch on your billables, keep an open eye to opportunities ripe for exploitation, and keep moving.

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Whisper Sweet Somethings: An Interview with Neil Olson, Lawyers’ Coach

I have harped incessantly on the need for lawyers to step up their strategic game. Most of the advice I have given centers on external observations: What is the market doing? where are the next great opportunities? How can I revolutionize my practice to create synergies within my practice group, my firm, my client base?

Ratchet it up . . .

But to really bring the game up to world-class, a lawyer needs to think who s/he can bring on to the team. A vital part of that team is a professional coach, and one that intimately knows the challenges and opportunities presented by the practice of law. There is a fairly new and growing cadre of lawyers-turned-coaches.

Saving you five hours’ worth of research . . .

I thought I would save you the research time in finding out what this coaching thing is all about. I asked the premier lawyers’ coach in my hometown of San Francisco to submit to questions I thought you might ask, and ask them as bluntly as I possibly could.

Below is a quick question-and-answer session with world-class lawyers’ coach, Neil Olson. Neil is a lawyer, a former law firm partner and a trained counselor and professional coach. (Scroll down to see more of Neil’s credentials.)

Neil, what are the three most important reasons that (first) a rising associate (and second) a partner needs a lawyer coach?

“The education, training and skills that lawyers have in common create a particular way of approaching, analyzing and solving problems. When groups of lawyers get together in business they tend to be highly competitive, highly independent and fiercely analytical not simply in their approach to solving their client’s problems but in their approach to solving their own. Modern law firms, however, are large organizations engaged in the business of law – not simply the practice of it.

“For both associates and partners, the value of a lawyer-coach – one who has ‘been there, done that’ – is having a mentor that is not competing with them for business, money or advancement. Having an experienced and committed confidant to sort through issues such as business development, management, leadership, and career satisfaction is the heart of why most lawyers who turn to coaching will want their coach to have practiced law.”

Okay, what's the point of having a coach who claims an expertise in coaching lawyer's problems? For that matter, are their really problems particular to lawyers that other business professionals don't have?

“The general problems lawyers face such as advancement, career fulfillment, in-office interpersonal relationships, effective management and leadership and life/work balance are challenges faced by a great many professionals today.

“The specific nature and the solutions to those problems often lie at the heart of the special education and training that lawyers share as well as the business model used by most law firms – the exchange of services valued by an hourly rate or fee.

“Lawyers are also challenged by the high ethical obligations they have to their clients, to the bar, to the courts and to the public. If a coach does not ‘get’ that, it will be especially challenging for him or her to provide effective coaching.”

Alright, what is this coaching thing all about anyway? Lawyers are so socially conservative as a group (I don't mean politically, of course)--and they get only more so with "age" in the industry.

Thus, if I talk with you as a coach, are we going to be doing funky guided meditations? Group hugs? Or is this something that a hard-boiled professional can get his/her arms around? We are NOT going to be talking about our childhoods, right?

“No ‘kumbaya’ – I promise.

“I come from the point of view that the lawyer-as-professional is typically highly functioning. Less common is the well functioning lawyer-as-business professional and less common still is the satisfied lawyer. It is the creation of a sense of balance between the professional services a lawyer provides and the business the lawyer is in – in the context of what the individual lawyer wants out of his or her life – that creates the biggest impact on the lawyer and the lawyers firm.

“So here is what we do – we take stock of where the lawyer is, we evaluate what needs to be done, we set metrics to determine how we will know if things are moving in the right direction, we create an action plan and we get to work! The coach provides support, inspiration, honest feedback, accountability and, in my case because I have been a practicing lawyer I provide insight on whether the actions are likely to yield the results desired in the context of the real life demands of the business of law.”

In that vein, what do you see as the major challenges facing first, partners, and second, associates, in living up to their potential as practitioners/rainmakers?

“In my experience the challenge is the same for both the associate and the partner – it is the desire to generate business purely by the quality of their services. It is, of course, absolutely critical that the lawyer produce excellent work product – and if he or she is in a narrow and highly specialized practice area that alone might indeed bring in sufficient business.
But that is the rare exception.

“For the most part professional service providers get business because of the relationships they have with the people who can give them business. For the new associate this means treating the partners in the firm as a highly valued client. As the associate rises through the ranks he or she must also then add the current clients of the firm to their list of highly values clients – and as he or she approaches partnership consideration he or she must have developed strong relationships with people in the industry he or she wishes to practice. It is the regular, consistent, and disciplined attention to relationships that, over time, brings in business.

“And you still need to produce high quality work product.”

So why should I have my candidates contact you? What makes someone a great coach?

“First: Why contact me? If you are looking to make your career more satisfying, call me. I work with successful lawyers who have become a bit un-tethered from the satisfaction and (dare I say) fun of practicing law. I use a business-centered approach in that the work I do focuses first on the business of the lawyer, then on the profession of the lawyer and then on the life of the lawyer. And I say this emphasizing that it is the same for the lawyer working in a law firm, as part of a general counsel’s staff, in government or practicing as a solo.

“And, Second: What makes a great coach? Personally, I think great coaches are mature, experienced, grounded, self aware and have the capacity to consistently see the best in their clients. Most of all, like any processional service, the judgment of the quality of the coaching lies in the experience of the client. Like a dentist or a doctor or a lawyer for that matter, it is how the clients feels about the coaching that makes the coaching worthwhile or the coach ‘great’.

“And by the way, if your Coach does not have a Coach --- that should tell you something about his or her commitment to coaching as a professional service.”

As a practical matter, is a telephone relationship with a coach really effective? I know that many people in the business world are used to this model, but I don't think my candidates get it yet--convince them.

“I hold that once the relationship with the client is established, phone coaching can work. I discourage it as a regular habit though simply because so much more is communicated face-to-face. I meet with my clients twice a month for 90 minutes and I much prefer it face to face. I can meet at my office in the Financial District or I can go to their office. One caveat is the need to be generally undistracted by phone calls, email and the like for the 90 minutes.

“Of course, lawyers are busy professionals and sometimes their schedules are unpredictable and effected by the actions of others (like Judges, clients, opposing counsel and so forth). I find that using the phone for occasional meetings works just fine and is often the easiest way to reschedule appointments.”

What if I as a potential coach candidate really do have some problems (performance issues, personality deficit (wink), maybe some other inappropriate behaviors)? Can you handle this?

“I am not a psychologist or mental health professional. I do not provide mental or emotional therapy. I work with healthy and successful attorneys. I would refer those issues to a licensed professional.

“As for behavioral issues – I have been hired to help lawyers become more organized, to manage their time better, to develop more positive relationships with other lawyers and/or staff. Those issues can manifest themselves as short tempers in the office or a lack of interest in practicing law or even the spending of too much time at the office—often without an increase in work product or billable hours. I still hold that the first focus of my coaching is on the business of the lawyer and in that context an assessment of what the behavior is costing him or her and his or her law firm.

“I would also add here that every lawyer I know has an important reason of why they chose to practice law. Some aspect of the practice was interesting, or compelling or fun. That reason can become lost or obscured by the sheer demands of the profession or as a result of the business realities of being in a law firm – but the original reason is still there. Reconnecting the individual to that source of satisfaction is my passion and forms my greatest successes.”

To sum up, what is your operating philosophy towards success and professional development in the legal market? How do I know you and I would have a similar idea about what constitutes a "healthy", "successful" career?

And a corollary question: if you don't really have a fixed opinion about the same, what's the point of coaching? Is this really going to consist only of open-ended questions, sage nodding and warm handshakes?

“Perhaps I responded to this already --- my operating philosophy is that every lawyer I know has worked very, very hard to become an attorney. For each there was a core reason for doing so. I work to help uncover that reason and to place it in the context of the lawyers business, their profession and in their lives.

“As for the warm handshake – my coaching is “time-bounded”. I offer four separate modules. (“The Lawyer in Business”, “The Lawyer as Manager”, “The Lawyer as Rainmaker”, “The Lawyer as Leader”) Each module is six months long. Each module is stand alone and when you are done you are done. You’ll get a binder of information, an action plan, a certificate and you’re off. Before a client begins any module they must first complete a Personal and Professional Accounting and Assessment process which usually takes one month to complete. That includes a full day meeting with me.

“I also have two additional programs which are a bit more advanced and go a bit deeper – the first is “The Lawyer as Satisfied Professional”. It is a year long program and takes a broader look at the lawyer’s entire life. The second is a program for groups or teams of lawyers focusing on communications, team/group dynamics. It is designed for small firms or practice groups. It is designed to be completed over the course of a year but can be completed in a retreat setting over a three or four day weekend.

“And the warm handshakes are free.”

Thanks, Neil!

Short bio for Neil:

Neil Olson is a certified coach and licensed attorney who specializes in helping lawyers reach their fullest potential. Prior to launching his coaching practice seven years ago, Neil practiced law for over 10 years as an associate and partner in a large San Francisco law firm. Neil also founded his own boutique firm and practiced there for nearly 10 years. Neil has trained, coached and consulted with attorneys in AmLaw 50 International Law Firms, Bay Area regional and boutique law firms, in-house counsel for major corporations, as well as sole practitioners. Neil is on the 2007-2008 Executive Committee of the State Bar of California Law Practice Management & Technology Section. Neil is also the National Board President of the Professional Coaches and Mentors Association, and a founding member of the Renaissance Lawyer Society. Neil is dedicated to coaching lawyers in the San Francisco bay area, where he lives with his wife and two children.

Neil Olson -
The Lawyer Whisperer
e: neil@neilolsoncoaching.com
w: www.neilolsoncoaching.com

Captioned artwork: Whisper to Tree, by Gregory Gallo.

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Read What Your Clients Are Saying--About You

Waves of smugness are now emanating from my little black soul. Why? I'll tell you. One word. "Vindication."

If you scroll down my blog posts, you will see a strange assortment of obscure references to philosophers (of various ilks), impossibly convoluted analogies, and, I confess, plenty of turgid prose.

But you've got to give me credit, at least I'm thinking of ways to break lawyers, and especially law firm managers, out of their molds, ruts, what have you. There is good reason for this: what you are doing, esteemed colleagues, is not working. Your clients have finally spoken.

That Falling Hammer

The only valid indicator of your future success, in my book, is how well you are serving your clients. Generally speaking, and given sufficient time, clients will go where they feel they are being served as they want to be. Which is to say, to be treated with respect, and served quickly. Given how consistently clients feel they have been poorly treated by attorneys since, well, the beginning of time, basically, and the fact that law firms are still billing away, one might be tempted to think that one can keep on plugging and profiting by simply tweaking here and there without wholesale paradigm-change. In other words, that the aforesaid "given time" can be indefinitely forestalled.

But those days are over.

Clients Have Spoken

Take a look at the recent BTI Consulting Group study (free summary here (the whole enchilada costs around 3 'g's)). BTI interviewed hundreds of the choicest clients on the planet. The verdict? This year, half interviewed claim they are doing to ditch their primary law firms and look for someone else. This year. Half. That's 50%. Even if we all hold hands and just play musical clients, there is going to be impact on the bottom line in terms of scrabbling for the next chair before the music stops. Thus, if lawyers continue to think that they can let their hubris go unchecked (client arrogance is one of the biggest complaints), think again.
With the specter of outsourcing looming its head, and the amazing facility of markets to fill needs, one way or another law firms are going to have to do more than spout "client service" and "one firm" slogans to get more clients, to say nothing of retain the ones they have. And now for the mandatory back-pedalling which so many lawyers cannot live without: even if the BTI study is flawed and over-stated, isn't at least the expressed wish to of 300 or so of the largest, richest corporate clients on the planet to change their primary law firms enough to give you pause?

Forget "regime change", we need "paradigm change"

And perhaps, just perhaps, your firm needs more than a cool seminar on marketing to get it together. Maybe your firm, maybe you, need to get your old assumptions knocked around a little, just to loosen things up. Maybe all my crazy posts on Nietzsche, Heidegger, de Maistre and Arendt could actually help facilitate that. Despite the fact that my "statcounter" map looks like the first day of chicken pox, I feel vindicated: I rant frequently that our industry must get off its collective duff and start reinventing itself--and we need to do more than open outposts globally--we need to open new outposts right here, in our minds, in our perceptions, in our way of interacting with clients. Now clients back me up.

Exploitation does indeed, begin at home. With me and with you. Exploiting our own creativity, our own innate ability to transcend the status quo, our own outdated perceptions.


And another thing: You lucky 20 who got to the top of the BTI customer-service list don't get a free pass. One telling comment about ubiquitous attorney arrogance and why some clients haven't yet decided to look elsewhere? "Well", said one client, "you just have to pick your battles." In other words, the client just doesn't have the time to look for another, less arrogant, more communicative, more understanding firm. Yet. If that isn't a kick to the gut, then maybe you need your nerve endings re-attached.

Here's the list of 20 firms that made it to the top.

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