Bursts of Thought

I’ve long admired Seth Godin and his prolific works. His short bursts of thought belie their profundity. I’ve often wished I could be more like Seth.

So I’ve decided to do less wishing and more doing. Now.

A Very Belated “Thank You”

I started my legal career as an associate at Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal LLP in San Francisco, which, at the time, had one of the only big firm Latino equity partners in the country. Gary Hernandez was at least 80% of the reason I joined Sonnenschein SF. He was funny and charismatic. And he was influential within the firm and beyond. Above all else, he was a good person whose background was similar to my own, and he took an interest in my professional development.

During my first year of practice, Gary was often the only firm partner who invited me to work on special projects with unique value to a young associate. There was the time he asked me create a PowerPoint deck responding to an insurance examiner’s pointed letter inquiring about a client’s advertising practices. While the request itself wasn’t so novel, subsequent events sure were: when the insurance examiner met us to discuss, I loaded the deck and handed Gary the clicker. Without fanfare, Gary handed it right back to me and told the examiner that I’d be walking through the presentation. There was also the time he had me lead a client call involving a new business inquiry. And the time Gary handed me an impressive list of friends and clients and asked me to call and invite everyone to a fundraiser he was hosting for Darrell Steinberg, one of Gary’s law school chums. These are not the only examples.

Gary also took an interest in my personal life. He always invited me to grab time on his calendar and discuss whatever was on my mind. He always asked if I were getting quality work assignments from others. He asked if I were enjoying the experience and if there were anything else I wanted from it. And he always asked about my mom and whether I was saving enough money to send to her.

Above all, Gary encouraged me in ways that no other lawyer has since. He’d laud me with unconditional praise, saying things like, “you’re doing a great job,” and “you’re going to make one hell of a lawyer.” Now, I don’t easily accept praise, and I think Gary often sensed this. In one exchange that I still remember vividly, Gary pressed on with praise until I acknowledged it: “I know you don’t believe me, but you should. You’re going to be one hell of a lawyer someday.” I managed a timid, “thank you,” but of course, Gary was right. I didn’t believe him.

Gary passed in 2011 at a fairly young age. I had already left Sonnenschein and was living in LA. Gary and I hadn’t talked since I’d left Sonnenschein over a year earlier. I was sad to hear the news, and sadder still that I couldn’t pay my respects in person. And I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t think much more about it for some time.

Recently, my career has developed in ways I could never have guessed when I was a first year sitting dumbly on Gary’s leather chair. At some point, not sure when, I started feeling confident in my ability to advise and counsel. At some point, not sure when, I started feeling confident in my ability to mentor and train other lawyers. And at some point, not sure when, I started asking myself the question, “would Gary now think of me as a helluva lawyer?”

An In-House Lawyer’s View on Business Development

Before anything else, it’s important to understand that I’ve never been in the position of having to develop business. My career so far has taken me from the lowly rungs of big-firm associate-hood, to government lawyer, and to in-house counsel. Given that admittedly unorthodox trajectory, I’m the first to acknowledge that I should not be dispensing business development advice.

But I can’t help myself.

I can’t help myself because I’m now often on the receiving end of many pitches by other lawyers. And, more often than not, I cringe at the attempted pitch.

Here are three common missteps I find most offensive:

  • The out-of-the-blue contact from a “friend” – I don’t pretend to be everyone’s friend and you shouldn’t either. I also share many libations and business cards with many lawyers, which should be an invitation to start developing a relationship, nothing more. A business card exchange is not an invitation for you and your partners to pitch me before you learn anything about my business. There’s a fine line between assiduous follow-up and aloofness. When in doubt, here’s a general rule of thumb: if we only just met, or if the last time we spoke was over a year ago, I’m probably not going to want to listen to a pitch. Let’s start with coffee.
  • The resume recitation – once you’re in front of a prospective client, there’s really no need to recite your CV or past accomplishments. That stuff is readily accessible (at least it should be) online. Instead, use this time to ask questions about my business and listen. I do not want to have to issue spot for you. That’s your job.
  • The presumptuous alternative fee letter – this one should be fairly straight forward. Simply put, don’t send a proposed engagement letter unless expressly requested. I don’t much care if it’s an “alternative fee arrangement” that is “drastically reduced” from your normal rates. For all I know, your normal rates are unreasonable to start, especially if you’ve yet to establish a concrete value proposition. I’ll tell you if I ever want to kick the tires on your services.

From what I can tell, the lawyers that are best at business development are those that are focused on building relationships over the long term, take time to understand a business and its pain-points, and give value long before they take.