Monthly Archives: October 2012

The Virtual Law Office

What if, instead of working full time in an office, you could do high-quality legal work from home for as little time each month as you wanted?  That’s the option virtual law firms offer to the lucky few attorneys who have joined their ranks.   While Axiom is the biggest player in this space, and Montage Legal is growing, regional networks offer alternative models that are smaller and offer the same sophisticated work.

Corporate Legal Partners, for example, is a legal services provider near Boston that engages experienced attorneys to take ownership of short-term projects on a part-time basis.  Its clients include top US and European companies, and its attorneys are very happy people.

Corporate Legal Partners was started by Patricia (Trish) Landgren.  Trish got the idea for her business model while she was general counsel to a billion-dollar public company in the Boston area.  When she went on maternity leave, she tried to find someone to fill her shoes, knowing that she woul be returning to work shortly after giving birth.  Although she had a staff of attorneys, they were already busy and lacked the right experience for the senior role.  She wanted someone who could handle the GC role without a lot of hand-holding.   One option was to use a lawyer from the prestigious Boston firm she consulted with, at several hundred dollars an hour.  Another was to hire a contract lawyer whose qualifications seemed dubious.  Although she ended up hiring another lawyer, she wished there were a better alternative – so she decided to create one.

The ideal solution, she thought, would allow companies to hire talented senior attorneys on a project-by-project basis, especially when the projects could be completed fairly quickly.  It was easy to hire a temporary accountant or a human resources staffer, she recalls, but there was no way to hire a temporary senior attorney that a company could trust with complex legal work.   A virtual law firm could provide these services with much less overhead than traditional firms, resulting in dramatically lower legal fees for the company.  At the same time, it could provide attorneys who didn’t want to work in law firms with the opportunity to work on interesting projects for a short amount of time.

In order to make this work, Trish needed to find attorneys who had the confidence and competence to work directly with clients and who understood their business needs.   The ideal attorneys would have the kind of high-profile firm experience that clients would find attractive.  They would be self-motivated and efficient, and able to get the projects done well with little support.   One fairly senior attorney didn’t quite work out, Trish recalls, because although he was accustomed to solving complex legal problems as the head of a team, he had a hard time figuring out how to send FedEx packages himself.  Importantly, they would need to be comfortable with part-time work on a schedule that is not always predictable.  Working for Corporate Legal Partners is not a full-time job, except for Trish.

Trish found her first attorney through her extensive personal network.  Over time, Trish added to her roster of attorneys, making her decisions not only on education, skill and experience, but on personality fit.

As Corporate Legal Partners has developed a growing list of clients, and a backlog of senior attorneys who want to work for it, Trish has had to choose how big she wants the practice to get.  For the moment, Trish is keeping her practice small and manageable, so that she can maintain the personal service level that she enjoys and her clients value.  As her three kids grow, she may make different decisions.  Having that flexibility, of course, is one of the great perks of owning your own business.

Would you want to start – or work for – a network like Corporate Legal Partners?  Why aren’t there more options like this?

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From Lawyer to Policy Consultant

Moving from the wrong career to the right one doesn’t always involve a drastic change. Susannah Baruch, a policy consultant, has spent most of her career working on reproductive rights and genetic testing issues.  Having known Susannah since we were 14, it wouldn’t have surprised me if she were running for President right now.  But while she began her career with an interest in politics, her fifteen years of policy work have changed her view of how she wants to make a difference.

Susannah grew up with a strong interest in social change, the only child of parents whom she describes as liberal and feminist.  She chose University of Chicago Law School, with its traditional conservative reputation, because she thought it would be the best place to hone her advocacy skills. After a Skadden Fellowship, she worked in Congress for Nita Lowey on reproductive health issues.  While she found the work engaging, she found the context she found daunting at first.  “The Hill was, even more than law school, like jumping into a big ocean of hard,” she told me.  It was hard to get things done, she says, because of the culture of “sharp elbows.”

After her first child was born in 2000, Susannah heard about a new organization that would focus on reproductive genetics, or the genetic testing before and during pregnancy – some of the issues Susannah found most interesting.  She pestered the founder “until she gave me a job.”   As she started work for the Genetics and Public Policy Center, she found it satisfying and a relief to be a step or two away from the political battles on Capitol Hill.  When the economy collapsed several years later, and the funding for her permanent position evaporated, Susannah decided to become a consultant instead.   Her children were seven and nine at the time.  Consulting offered her a more flexible schedule and the opportunity to explore new projects.

While her first client was the Genetics and Public Policy Center,  her next and ultimately biggest client was Generations Ahead, a progressive ethics and social justice group based in Oakland, California.   “The week I realized I needed to move forward planning my future life as a consultant,” Susannah says, “I saw that the founder of Generations Ahead  was advertising a full time job for a DC-based policy expert.  I had met this woman before and was impressed, so I asked if she would consider hiring me as a consultant, and making the job less than full time.”   Susannah had been working four days a week since her children were born, and Generations Ahead agreed to her proposal.  Susannah’s consulting work involves research, analysis and writing, combined with strategic planning designed to build consensus.  She now has a range of clients including the National Asian Pacific Women’s Forum.

At a macro level, Susannah’s shift from Capitol Hill to consulting may not appear to be radical.  But she has made important changes in both the nature of what she does and the way in which she works.  While politics is not as comfortable a fit for her as she thought it would be when she went to law school, she is still engaged in the policy work that she has always found compelling.  Instead of competing with the hard-nosed advocates who work to push laws through, she works on developing the intelligence necessary to define what those laws should look like to be most effective.  By focusing on her strengths, maintaining her values and using her network, Susannah has created a career that allows her to work on important social issues without sacrificing the time she wants to spend with family.

What tweaks could you make to your own career?  Is a smaller shift better for you than a more drastic reboot?

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From Lawyer to Communications Professor

Deb Volberg Pagnotta grew up in exactly the kind of environment that you’d think would lead to an interest in diversity.  Born in the United States, she spent large parts of her childhood in Europe and Africa.   Her daughter is Chinese.  But Deb’s transition from government lawyer to diversity consultant to communications professor was anything but predictable.

Deb went to law school because she was interested in social justice; Clarence Darrow, she says, was one of her first heroes.   After her first few years in private practice, in which she found herself in the uncomfortable but not rare position of working for a lawyer (a sole practitioner) with questionable ethics, Deb moved to the New York State Attorney General’s office.  One of her first responsibilities, as a young female lawyer, was to defend the prison guards at Attica in the wake of some high-profile prison riots.  She found herself spending much of her time with the guards and decided to teach them how to run a procedurally sound hearing.  In doing so, she found that she enjoyed the process of training people.  Her work was so successful that she soon found herself with a number of new job opportunities, and she moved to the environmental bureau.  This, she says, was like finding family.  She loved going out into the community and talking with people about local environmental issues.  She excelled at making connections, which led to productive conversations.  As she accepted promotion after promotion at the New York State Attorney General’s office and then the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation., she found that she always enjoyed the public education part of her work.

Her government work ended when a Republican governor took office.  Soon after the regime change, Deb found herself with 24 hours left to clean out her own office.  She decided to start her own practice, but had to change focus.  Although she had years of experience in environmental affairs, she couldn’t litigate many of the key issues because she had worked on the government side.  She turned instead to employment law and developed a successful sexual harassment training program.  This, in turn, led to a diversity training practice.  Years later, she collaborated with an artist to create diversityDNA, a phone app that launched in 2010 and has received over 75,000 hits on YouTube.   It’s now a full-fledged interactice web app that allows users to create, compare and explore their diversityDNA profiles.  She also started teaching courses here and there on communications to college students.  Deb is now in her first year of full-time teaching communications advocacy and technology at Iona College, including courses on interpersonal and intercultural communication that use diversityDNA.

One thread I see running throughout Deb’s career is a passion for helping people work better together.  I see this in her work with prison guards and her community outreach for the environmental bureau.  Her work on diversity training and her development of the diversityDNA app may also stem in part from a desire to help people understand each other better.  In a way, her current work teaching communication couldn’t be more fitting – but it’s certainly not something I think she or anyone else would have expected at the beginning of her career.

What specific parts of your work have you always been good at? Can those strengths help you figure out your next move?

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From Lawyer to Journalist

Adam Liptak took the long way around.  Between his entry level job as a copy boy at the New York Times and his first full time job as a journalist there, Adam got his JD from Yale Law School and then practiced law for 14 years.  He’s now the New York Times’ Supreme Court correspondent and one of the country’s most respected journalists.

When I spoke with Adam on the eve of the First Monday in October, he seemed remarkably calm.  But when Howell Raines, then editor of the Times, offered Adam the position of national legal correspondent ten years ago, he was terrified.  “It was my dream job,” he told me, but he had never worked as a journalist for a national publication before.  One of his colleagues told him, “We know you can write well.  Now we’ll see if you can write fast.”

Adam landed the copy boy job immediately after getting his BA from Yale.  Why didn’t he just stay there?  Although he had always wanted to be a reporter, he decided to go to law school in part because he thought he’d never get promoted at the Times.  That first job involved getting coffee for other people and doing a lot of other things that bore little resemblance to the work he wanted to do. Given the choice between working for a less prestigious newspaper where he might work his way up, and going to Yale Law School, Adam chose Yale.

After law school, Adam went to Cahill Gordon & Reindel.  As so often happens, his glorious summer associate experience working on libel cases alongside Floyd Abrams did not carry over into his full time assignment, and he ended up working on asbestos cases.  He always enjoyed writing briefs, however, and remained in touch with contacts at the Times.  After four years in private practice, he moved into the Times legal department and stayed there for another decade before becoming the Times’ national legal correspondent.

Adam’s advice to lawyers who want to become journalists is this: write as often as you can, and get published as widely as you can.  While Adam was working in the Times’ legal department, he wrote for the Week in Review and the Book Review whenever he could.  He occasionally wrote for other publications as well, including the New Yorker.  When he had the opportunity to move, he had already demonstrated that he could write well, so the transition was less of a risk for his editors than it might have been.  He also cautions against getting too used to law firm salaries, which bear little resemblance to those of even the best reporters.

What did you love before you went to law school?  Should you – and can you – find your way back to it?

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