April 29, 2009
Rebranding Cow Parts to Move More of Them
The New York Times has an expose on the efforts of beef manufacturers to come up with new fancy brand names for cow parts to increase consumer demand for beef. The article starts out:
the nation’s 800,000 cattle ranchers began a radical search for cuts of meat that consumers would buy besides steaks and ground beef.
The idea was simple. Dig around in the carcass and find muscles that, when separated and sliced in a certain way, were tender and tasty enough to be sold as a steak or a roast.
Thus, the article discusses the new "Denver steak" cut of beef, which is going for about 2X the price of ground beef. As one butcher says, “The difference in a good name is worth $3 or $4 a pound."
So if you're tempted by the new beef cuts coming out, just recognize that you are being merchandised to buy rebranded and repackaged cow parts. As the article's title says, "Same Cow, No Matter How You Slice It?"
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April 13, 2009
Gordy Davidson on Succeeding as a Business Lawyer
Last week, I went to a lunchtime student-oriented talk by Gordon Davidson, chair of Silicon Valley firm Fenwick & West, on the topic of "The Art of Being a Business Lawyer and the Changing Business of Law." Gordy laid out 10 tips for being an effective counselor (most of this post is my impression of his talk in my words, not verbatim statements by him):
1) "If "This answer must be wrong," reexamine your assumptions." The goal should be solving client problems, not necessarily answering the questions a client asks.
2) "Do the numbers; the answers might just appear." Lawyers are afraid of numbers, but sometimes crunching the numbers can reveal an easy solution. For example, if you calculate that a particular provision isn't worth very much financially, it should be easy to compromise.
3) "Recognize revenue (and expense) when you see it." Many law students don't know that received cash, recognizable revenue and invoiced amounts are all very different things.
4) "Look for real options; they have real value you can calculate."
5) "Learn the art of negotiation."
6) "Keep your eye on the business reality." Clients can be enamored with their ideas; sometimes a lawyer has to be the voice of reason to point out when they are being unrealistic.
7) "Business sense is as important as legal skill." Clients pay for a lawyer's judgment, not just the lawyer's knowledge of legal rules.
8) "Look for solutions, not just risk."
9) "Save "no" for when you really mean it."
10) "Think about the business consequences of your legal advice and how you communicate it." If your advice requires your client to do things you think the client isn't likely to do, you need to find another solution.
None of these points should be unfamiliar to experienced business lawyers, but Gordy did a great job of providing students with a pragmatic view of life as a business lawyer.
Gordy then turned to a discussion about the changing business of law. He discussed that clients won't pay for training new lawyers. In engagement letters, clients are restricting the firm's use of first and second year associates. Some clients are refusing to pay for any lawyer research, expecting that either lawyers know the answer off the top of their head or will do the necessary research to get up to speed on his/her own dime.
Gordy talked about the firm's fixed-fee arrangement with Cisco to handle all of Cisco's M&A work for a single periodic fee--an arrangement that is working well because Cisco's needs are mostly predictable. Indeed, Gordy said that he would like to do more arrangements like this but clients are reluctant to do so.
The fixed fee arrangement is part of a broader trend away from the billable hour. The alternative fee arrangements can have the benefit of encouraging the lawyer to assess the value of incremental tasks using the same approach the client would, i.e., is the extra effort a good allocation of scarce resources? However, some people think that eliminating the billable hour will reduce lawyer stress, but Gordy doesn't agree. From his perspective, the stress comes from a lawyer's desire to deliver good service to the client, and this desire is the same whether or not the billing arrangement is hourly or on a fixed fee basis.
He discussed the efforts of lawyers to work smarter and avoid duplicative tasks within a firm. He said Fenwick is building out internal wikis to capture the firm's knowledge in a more organized fashion. For example, some underemployed associates are being asked to build out the firm's wiki on cleantech. He also thinks that technology will, over time, reduce a firm's partner-to-associate ratio/leverage.
Finally, he mentioned Legal OnRamp as a marketing tool. It sounds like the firm's experience hasn't been that encouraging. He said the firm had posted about a dozen items to Legal OnRamp but these had not translated into prospective client inquiries.
April 11, 2009
Should an Incoming Associate Voluntarily Defer a Year?
I got an email from a graduating student telling me that his law firm had asked incoming associates to volunteer to defer their start dates for a year. This is an unfortunate situation, and naturally it produces significant stress and anxiety. I thought it would be worth publicly sharing my response to the student:
I'm sorry to hear of what surely must seem like bad news. However, if you can afford it, your choice is an easy one: take the year off and enjoy life. As a working attorney, you will get very few opportunities to have a big block of discretionary time like this ever again. Here, you are being encouraged to legitimately enjoy a big block of time. For most of us, who never felt free to take a year off in our overprogrammed lives, this would be a blessing in disguise.
Plus, it is no fun working at a firm when there is too little work to go around. The lack of work creates bad dynamics, like work hoarding by more senior associates and even partners, and the pressure to find work can chew up your life. You will feel like you need to wait by the phone/email from dawn to dusk just in case any scrappy work is available to pick up, so you will work harder but with less tangible rewards in a situation like that. Also, some associates are tempted to overbill/pad their hours when they don't have enough work to legitimately meet their hourly requirements, and this isn't a healthy situation.
If you cannot afford to take the year off, then you have fewer good options:
1) You can go to the firm and hope they will take you and that the environment isn't terrible.
2) You can try to find a different one-year gig. Given how many attorneys are going to be in 1 year deferral situations, this market will be intensely competitive for any good paying work.
3) You can try to negotiate a buyout from the firm, i.e., get some cash to tide you over, but obviously less than the typical starting salary. If they haven't already offered cash, I suspect this money won't be easy to get.
April 02, 2009
Social Networking Sites and Blogs Talk Slides
I gave another talk today for PLI describing social networking sites and blogs. Even though it was for a lawyer audience, it was more fun than a typical CLE talk because it had no law. My talk slides.
April 01, 2009
Bay Area Blawgers 4.0 Recap
A couple of weeks ago, the High Tech Law Institute hosted the fourth gathering of Bay Area legal bloggers. About 20 bloggers and friends gathered on campus for a very spirited discussion. Attendees included Harry Boadwee, Cathy Gellis, Eric Goldman, Joy Haas, Kirk Hanson, Eric Hartnett, Greg Haverkamp, Gordon Johnson, Kimberly Kralowec, Mike Masnick, Cathy Moran, Amy Morganstern, Joe Mullin, Simon Offord, Chris Peeples, Colin Samuels, Michael Sardina, Mister Thorne, Kevin Underhill and Julia Wei.
We talked about blogger burnout. While updating the census of local blawgers, I noted that many bloggers who started in 2005 and 2006 have either stopped or substantially curtailed their blogging. We came up with a number of possible explanations for this phenomenon:
* one blogger said he had run out of things to say. I think this may be more common than people realize.
* a few bloggers discussed the rise of competing publishing platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter. As one blogger described it, the increased number of communication channels has dissipated efforts across all channels. This is definitely different from our first Blawger gathering 2 years ago, when Facebook and Twitter were far less popular than today. In my case, Twitter (which I automatically link to my Facebook status report) has unquestionably usurped some of the posts I used to make at this blog.
* a few bloggers discussed the lack of time to blog. This is an age-old issue. One blogger described how she goes through cycles of blogging depending on her schedule. Unfortunately, bloggers can have difficulties maintaining audience if they go silent for an extended period of time, so blogging in cycles isn't the easiest thing to do. (It can help to have reliable co-bloggers who can smooth out the publication cycle).
* one blogger described how she is burned out on reading blogs. I've definitely been there! In my case, switching from Bloglines to Google Reader has helped reinvigorate my reading excitement by expediting my ability to manage my data inflow. It's also allowed me to expand the blogs I'm reading, especially those that are episodic.
We then moved into a discussion about managing comments to blog posts. I don't have much to contribute to that discussion because my blogs don't have open comments, the legacy of a pernicious comment spam attack that caused my blog host to shut me down for a morning. Bloggers have very disparate attitudes towards comments to their blog posts. One blogger mentioned how she didn't really like comments because of the risk of commenters disclosing personal details (which can be a real problem for prospective clients). A different blogger preferred comments over email because of the public response; several bloggers discussed how it can be embarrassing and self-perpetuating for a blog to allow comments but never get any. As one blogger said, people don't want to feel like they are talking to themselves. Several bloggers also noted that lawyer-readers can be especially reluctant to comment to blog posts because they don't want the accountability. When I did allow comments, I definitely had that perception.
We also discussed Twitter. For a while, I was confused about Twitter's value proposition because, like blogging in its early days, the early adopters of Twitter used it to chronicle their personal life. Much like this early usage defined bloggers as self-absorbed and exhibitionist, I initially had the same impression of Twitter. However, once I figured out that Twitter was just another content publication platform, I found it could extend my reach. As a result, many of my tweets simply promote my blog posts, but I do make other types of tweets, including short entries that would have previously made it onto this blog and various personal observations that would never have warranted a blog post at all. One blogger commented that this mixing of personal and professional can help humanize a person.
What has amazed me about Twitter is that I've aggregated a bunch of lawyer-readers who would never have found or subscribed to my blog. This baffles me because Twitter is IMO a terrible reading interface. I find Google Reader a much more intuitive way to subscribe to and manage incoming content. As a result, I subscribe to very few people on Twitter because I'd rather read them in my RSS reader if I can. However, having identified a way to aggregate new readers shows me that people consume content using a variety of different interfaces. If people find Twitter a good substitute for an RSS reader (even if I don't), then it's in my self-interest to publish my content in the places people are reading.
There can be too much of a good thing, and we did discuss that some people are too noisy/frequent with their tweets, which can actually drive away readers/subscribers. We discussed at the meeting (and I've since heard elsewhere) that people are putting themselves on a Twitter "diet," i.e., a maximum number of tweets per day.
I'm not sure what the future holds for the Bay Area Blawgers group. Attendance has dropped significantly from the first gathering. Further, blogging is changing rapidly between the influx of "corporate" bloggers (i.e., law firms that are setting up blogs principally for SEO juice) and the splintering of publication options. It's not clear to me if there remains a blogging community sufficient to support a standalone event about blogging. Nevertheless, maybe we'll try to gather the group again in late 2009/early 2010, perhaps in San Francisco, and see who shows.
Prior resources related to the Bay Area Blawgers:
* Announcements of Bay Area Blawgers 1.0, 2.0, 3.0 and 4.0.
* Recaps of the first and third gatherings. Beth Grimm has written an interesting meta-recap.
* Photos from the second and third gatherings.
* List of possible issues for a blawgers' discussion.
* Census of Bay Area Blawgers.