When Do You Stop Being a Lawyer?

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    What to do when you can’t turn your thinking off.

What to do when you can’t turn your thinking off.

With a trial date looming, the potential for a case to become all-consuming is always there. As a lawyer, you have been trained to think like a lawyer. You have gained a certain skill related to the way you think. You gather data and facts. You analyze the data and facts. You interview witnesses. You have learned to ask questions, make arguments, and research law. A large part of your work takes place between your ears. You have an on-off switch for your phone, and you computer, but not for your thinking.

The Problem with Thinking
I recently read an astounding statistic that nearly 40% of lawyers are depressed. There were lots of reasons given, and if you are a lawyer, you are probably familiar with most of them. It seems to me that the main reason why so many lawyers struggle is because they have not figured out a way to turn off their brains. Most of the lawyers I have talked with (and represented) have noted that they have problems sleeping. They can’t stop thinking. They think about their cases, they think abut their practices, they think about their staff. All kinds of thoughts pop into their heads, all the time.

Now, I cannot stop your thoughts but I can suggest some ways that just may assist you.

Make a Decision
Decide when and where you will be a lawyer. If you are a lawyer during your “work,” that will not help you. “Work” is way too vague a word. We can be at work anywhere anytime.

I have seen more than a few people, sitting on a beach by the ocean, already up in their heads at work. They had left their vacation early.

I noticed this in myself. It would take at least a couple of days of vacation to finally get out of my head, and notice the sand at my feet, and the ocean air. Then, a couple of days before I was slated to fly home, I was already dreading the catchup that I had waiting for me back at the office. I have watched the little clock on my nightstand tick away, hour after hour while my mind raced with arguments, examinations, law and potential disasters.

Punch Out
Now, when I notice I am not sleeping, I “punch out.” I recognize that all that I’m thinking of is on the other side of a good night’s sleep. I recognize that without sleep, I will be much less of a lawyer.

If I am talking with family, I realize that there are relationships that, if not maintained, will make me less of a lawyer. Chances are, the more human you are, the better lawyer you will be. Take time, and carve it out, to be human.

What Do the Greats Do?
Sure, we all know some folks who are machines…legal machines. If they are great lawyers, check out what they do to become great. Chances are that they have developed a way to turn off the office. Chances are that they have found a way to be great lawyers by drawing some clear lines where, at times, they stop being a lawyer. Chances are that they have found some strategies for turning off their “work” brain.

 

Share your insights about turning off work with us in the comments!

Brian Vincent has over 30 years of experience as a business law attorney and has worked extensively with business owners to protect and defend their interests.  Contact Brian  online or at (616) 608-4440 with your questions.

 

Drafting the Documents

Drafting documents is a pain for lawyers but provides a distinct advantage.

Drafting documents is a pain for lawyers but provides a distinct advantage.

So, you are practicing law now. You have all kinds of work. Some of your work involves talking to people. Some of it involves working out disputes. Some may involve litigation, lawsuits, mediations, and other adversarial matters. No matter what you do, sooner or later you are probably going to have to come up with a document.

I am not going to sugarcoat it, most lawyers seek to avoid some jobs. Most lawyers avoid drafting documents. Now, I know that there are some lawyers who love to draft contracts, Motions, judgments, and yes, insurance policies. For those of you that are these lawyers, never mind. If you do not like drafting documents, read on.

I have trained a lot of associate lawyers. Sooner or later, they reveal themselves. How you ask? Well, they decide that all of their drafting duties are “admin” or administrative duties. That’s right, they simply assign their secretary, paralegal, or legal assistant to the task of document drafting. Now, this is a great strategy if someone else has trained the “admin” and the admin knows what they are doing. This is pretty rare these days for most solo practitioners or young lawyers.

If the lawyer does not know how to go about drafting documents, he/she is in for a rough time. I would insist that the associates know both how to draft documents, and also to know what documents had to be compiled to get something done. Once an attorney knows this information, they become far more powerful.

A Motion is More than a Motion
By way of illustration, take a simple Motion in family court. The job entails more than just drafting a Motion. In addition, the Motion has to be “noticed,” which requires a separate document. The Motion also has to be “served’ which requires a separate proof of service document. Also, the Motion must be served on the proper parties including, if children are part of the proceeding, proper service on the Friend of the Court’s office. It can also be helpful if the judge actually reads your Motion. In many Michigan Courts, it is very helpful (sometimes required) to serve a separate “Judge’s Copy” of the documents on the Judge so that she can review it ahead of time, and mark it up, if preferred.

Again, all of these steps and documents are necessary. Truth is, your paralegal or assistant is not going to be standing up in Court to take the blame if there is a defect. Also, it is considered “bad form” for an attorney to blame a member of his or her staff for a problem; after all, that attorney is responsible for their staff, and hence the defect.

Learn the Rules
Learning these rules (in Michigan, they are in the Michigan Court Rules) is essential. The associates I have worked with who refused to learn these rules, and have refused to learn how to draft these documents, have not been associate attorneys for long, and some have quit the practice of law all together. In short, learn the rules and learn how to draft documents.

The Power of Drafting the Documents
We recently had a divorce case wrap up. The negotiations lagged for months and, as usual, sped up and were fast and furious right before trial. We drafted the documents. The closer we got to trial, the less we were willing to bend on the terms. If they wanted a change, I would modify the documents only slightly in reply. We got to hang tough, and much of that was because we drafted the documents, and were in charge of the changes.

Throughout my career, I have run into lawyers who avoid drafting documents. They may not know how to construct them. They may not know the rules. They may just be lazy. The result is that I get to draft them to my client’s advantage from the start. Sure, I get some requests to change or modify documents, but many times I do not. Either way, if you put together the contracts, Motions, Orders and Judgments, you have a distinct advantage.

More than once I have seen my opponents let things slide in documents I have drafted because their clients were tired of being billed and wanted the matter concluded. I have seen lawyers, desperate to obtain an extension, agree to the wording of an extension Order, only to be whipsawed by the wording of the order later. I have seen lawyers approve language because they did not understand the meaning of the language and were either too proud to ask what it meant or they overlooked it.

Be Competent & Confident
In short, learn to be both competent and confident in your drafting ability. Learn what to file and serve, what to send and who to include. Learn the rules and you will have a distinct advantage over those who don’t.

Brian Vincent has over 30 years of experience as a business law attorney and has worked extensively with business owners to protect and defend their interests. Contact Brian online or at (616) 608-4440 with your questions.

 

Tired of chasing after potential clients? Learn to use the “Up Front Contract”

A potential client calls your office and makes an appointment. You are excited at the new prospect. All you know is what your receptionist wrote on the note: possible business matter. You get ready for the appointment. You are dressed to impress, your assistant has cleared your calendar to make sure that you have a full, uninterrupted hour, your yellow note pad and pen at the ready.

The meeting

You enthusiastically meet your client. A firm handshake as you make eye contact. You escort them to your office or conference room, making some small talk as you go: “Did you have any trouble finding us?” “No, you have a great location.” You sit down across from your potential new client and your discussion begins.

You ask, “So, what brings you in?” and the potential client launches. He outlines a series of issues he has had with his business. You take great notes, all along thinking of ways that you can help him.

Back and forth the conversation goes. You realize that your discussions have eaten up almost the whole hour. You have explained that you can help. Perhaps you have detailed the actions you would take and why. The prospect is very attentive and things are going great. The conversation turns to fees. There are questions as you explain your mode of billings and why. You even go so far as explain why he will receive a great return on investment from your fees.

Everything is going great then you hear, “I want to think about it.” Ugh, that again. Your heart sinks and you feel a bit heavy but you put on your best smile and shake hands. Your prospect leaves the room. You have no new client.

Now what?

Not only do you have no new client but you think that you may have a new client. It is even possible that your solutions to his problems need quick action. Now you are wondering what will happen next.

If you are doing what “they” (practice advisors, partners, Bar Journal articles) tell you to do, then you are going to follow up on the meeting. Another game starts at this point: you start to “chase” the potential client. Perhaps you call and leave a friendly message: “Just a little reminder that if we are to respond before the deadline, we should get to work on this.” Maybe an email. When you do connect, you hear it again: “I am still thinking about it.” This chase goes on and on until you quit, or your prospect starts letting your messages go to voicemail, again and again…then you quit.

If this has happened to you, it is because it happens all the time. It happens to lawyers, accountants, consultants – just about everyone trying to make a sale or providing services. It used to happen to me until I started to use the “Up Front Contract.”

By all means, if you like chasing people, continue to do what you have been doing. If not, try something different.

Like anything new, it will require some practice but if you take the brave step of trying it, you will soon see the benefits. I did not go to law school to become a “pest” and that was what I had become before I learned the technique. The problem with being is pest is that no one likes being, or dealing with a pest. Ready to learn the contract? Here we go…

Establish the Up Front Contract

At the very beginning of your conference seek to get agreement. This is the contract that you set right up front. I establish it by beginning with: “Now as we talk, you will have questions for me and I will have questions for you, fair enough?”

After I get a verbal agreement I ask: “At the end of our conversation, we will either reach a yes or a no regarding whether we work together, true?”

After I get an affirmation, I continue. “We can agree that we both reserve the right to move forward, or to decline to do business for any reason, or for no reason at all…we may just determine that we are not a good fit?” This meets with agreement.

I then explain, “What I am concerned with is that I may be a yes, and you may be a no, but that you are afraid to tell me no because you think that you may hurt my feelings or that I may take it personally.” I usually get a nod of the head.

Then I say, “I promise that I will not take your no personally, and that you will not hurt my feelings…can you agree to the same?” With that said, I explain that what I am really afraid of is that one of us will say, “I want to think about it,” and that will leave us hanging and will do nothing about solving the issue that brought them in to see me. Another nod of the head.

I go on, “So can we have an agreement that at the end of our conversation, that neither one of us will say, ‘I want to think about it?’”

Surprisingly, I have never had a person disagree. At that point, we have formed a contract that neither one of us will say “I want to think about it” at the end of the conversation. I get a yes and get to work for them, or I get a no and go back to looking for others that I can help.

It is as simple as that. If you use this clear way of communicating with your prospects, you accomplish a number of very valuable things:

1.    You no longer have to be a pest instead of a professional.

2.    You take a giant step in establishing your credibility.

3.    You establish yourself as a person who speaks clearly and directly.

4.    You eliminate that awkward time when your prospect says, “I want to think about it,” and the resulting awkward walk to the door.

Studies have proven that a successful person is one who consistently demonstrates the trait of decisiveness. With the Up Front Contract, you also learn whether your prospect is decisive or wishy-washy. Having had some experience of working with wishy-washy people before, I have decisively decided not to repeat that pattern.

Good luck with your newfound conversation opener! As always, I would love to hear about your experiences using this little gem.

 

Brian Vincent has over 30 years of experience as a business law attorney and has worked extensively with business owners to protect and defend their interests. Contact Brian online or at (616) 608-4440 with your questions.

 

Top 3 Grievances Against Lawyers

If you want to hear from Michigan’s Attorney Grievance Commission (AGC), here are the top three things to do.

1. Ignore Your Clients

When attorneys ignore their clients’ requests for help, contact, or action, they are playing with fire. True, anyone can file a Request for Investigation with the AGC. True, there is no statute of limitations on grievances. Still, if you are going to have a complaint, chances are it will be from a client. 

Unhappy clients are not new. Procrastinating lawyers are not new. Put the two together and you have a situation ripe for a professional complaint. 

Best advice: Answer calls from your clients.

2. Mess up your Trust Account

We have a new law in effect. If your client IOLTA account dips below zero, your bank automatically contacts the AGC. 

It does not matter if your client bounced a check to you, if you miscalculated your balance, or if your secretary wrote a Trust Check when it should have been a firm check. That balance dips under zero and you can count on getting a formal letter from the office of the AGC. That letter will require you to act fast to account for the problem. The AGC is going to look into your account … probably at least the last three months of activity. You are going to get all kinds of questions. 

Best advice: Keep your accounting current and exact.

3. Handle criminal defense and domestic relations cases

Both of these types of cases involve a lot of emotion. Emotion prompts complaints. Even lawyers who are very professional and competent in handling cases in these two practice areas are probably going to have to deal with a grievance at some point in their careers. Convicted criminals have time on their hands, and they tend to complain. Some find their way to the AGC. Angry litigants fighting out a divorce or custody matter also tend to lash out; sometimes at everyone, including you. 

The numbers tracked by the AGC show that these two areas of practice generate the most AGC complaints.

Best advice: Avoid these types of cases if you can’t keep clean, organized files that reflect what you did and when you did it. 

Do you have questions or want to share your own story about attorney grievances? Let us know in the comments below!

Brian Vincent served on the Michigan Attorney Grievance Commission for six years (including three years as the Commission Chairperson) and counsels attorneys who face complaints. Contact Brian online or at (616) 608-4440 if you need to respond to a grievance.

Posted on May 6, 2016 .

Law Firms and Lawyers: Train Your Staff Properly for Your Own Protection

I have had the pleasure of representing dozens of attorneys facing the disciplinary process. Out of all of these cases, there were a large number that stood out. These cases shared one thing in common: the lawyer or group of partners faced significant discipline, including suspension or worse, because of something that their staff had done or not done. The good news is that the behavior was discovered and stopped. The bad news is that the discovery had established misconduct within the firm – misconduct in the form of a “failure to supervise.” 

Posted on March 17, 2015 and filed under Law Firms and Lawyers.