Lawyers No Resting On Your Laurels

No Resting On Your Laurels


In SmallLaw, no ones cares what grades you got in law school. No one cares if you were on a journal. Few people even care where you went to school. It could be Harvard or Thomas Cooley. Doesn’t matter.

When I opened my own practice and started making pitches to clients, I learned quickly that no one cared about my background. They may like to hear I once worked at large firms, but for the most part, I’ll see eyes glaze over once I start mentioning the names of the firms. Nobody cares. Outside the legal field and back in the rest of the world where clients come from, people aren’t that knowledgeable about how, say, Nixon Peabody compares to McGuireWoods, and for all a lot of folks know, Fried Frank is something you can order at Nathan’s.

Yesterday was a good example of this. I had a 40-minute Skype interview with an industrial designer in Brussels whose Wikipedia page revealed he went to several top schools around the world (e.g., Wharton), and had a long history of brilliance in engineering and architecture. (After all, he had a Wikipedia page, which is more than I can say.) But he never asked me where I went to school, or what firms I had worked for before starting my practice. He spent the entire 40 minutes talking about his plans for his business and asking me questions about term sheets and capital-raising and the IPO process and my fees. Those were the things that mattered to him, not my GPA.

For the lawyers out there who may not have set the world on fire thus far, hanging out your own shingle is a great opportunity to reset the clock. After you open your own practice, few people will care about your résumé. They’ll just care about you as you are now, with your skills and abilities and what you can bring to the table today. If you always felt held back before, SmallLaw offers you a chance to prove what you can do when no one is stepping on your head by pre-judging you based on your background.

One afternoon a few years ago, I was vegging out and saw the Albert Brooks movie Defending Your Life. I never find his movies as funny as they’re intended — I can tell when I’m supposed to laugh, but his whining just doesn’t do it for me — yet there are always moments in each that stick out. Brooks has to defend in a court setting how he lived his life, and one day his normal attorney can’t make it, so Buck Henry comes in as a substitute. Buck Henry reports that he uses 51 percent of his brain, which in the movie is an astronomical figure. (Brooks uses 3 percent.) But then in court, Henry just sits there doing nothing, even as Brooks is repeatedly attacked. What good is a supposedly brilliant attorney if he doesn’t serve his client? That’s why no one cares about an attorney’s GPA.

I should add, though, that while potential clients may not care where a person studied or worked, they are often interested in how many years the person has practiced. I found out today the Belgian fellow went with another attorney who didn’t go to a high-ranked law school, was never a Fed, and hadn’t been in Biglaw since the 20th century. But, he did have a lot more experience than me, since he graduated from law school just as I was turning two years old. Apparently his now-client viewed his 40 years of practice favorably. Go figure.