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Ideal Qualities in a Bankruptcy Attorney

published January 01, 2013

By CEO and Founder - BCG Attorney Search left
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Guiding Principles

Lawyering is often overwhelming, full of important decisions, adversarial situations and, especially in bankruptcy law, constant negotiation and communication with people. A few guiding principles will help you navigate this thicket. These principles are pretty simple - be honest, be ethical, and be clear. It's not so much that these standards of behavior will make you a morally upright citizen, although they surely will; but always minding these ideals will build and enrich your practice, make you a more effective practitioner and help provide you with signposts along this often tricky road.

Be honest

"With enough courage you can do without a reputation," said Rhett Butler to Scarlett O'Hara. Obviously Rhett wasn't a lawyer. Probably nothing is more important to your practice than a reputation for honesty and integrity. "In terms of your ability to get things done, the benefits of having a good reputation are incalculable," advises Gregory Willard of Bryan Cave LLP. Judges and adversaries come to rely heavily upon the explanations and representations of a straightshooter. The bankruptcy world is a "small town, a small country," notes Brian Behar of Bchar, Gutt & Glazer, P.A., and lawyers often work with and against the same practitioners repeatedly, developing trust along the way. "Quite frequently I can get something done more efficiently because I know opposing counsel and there's a lot of trust -we can get to a deal with a lot less posturing," notes Latham & Watkins' Shari Siegel. A shyster, on the other hand, faces an uphill battle with no one giving him the benefit of the doubt. Word of slippery behavior travels fast. "Once you lose your reputation for integrity, you can never get it back," notes Willard.

Be ethical

By the same token, behave ethically with clients and other lawyers. Lawyers are lucky - they have prescribed codes explaining what is and isn't ethical behavior. Read these codes, such as the Code of Professional Responsibility for your state bar, at least once a year. And follow their tenets. U.S. Trustee Attorney Leonora Long advises reading, and knowing Bankruptcy Rule 9011, which permits sanctions if an attorney submits court pleadings for any "improper purpose," such as harassment, or if such pleadings are based on unsupported allegations. The consequences of violating these codes range from sanctions to disbarment to the tainting of your greatest asset as an attorney - your reputation.

Be clear

The number one practice tip of almost every attorney interviewed for this guide is to communicate clearly with everyone - from your colleagues to your clients to the fax room attendant. Most errors occur as a result of miscommunication - a misunderstood request, a half-heard comment, an unclear instruction. When given an assignment from a partner or a request from a client, always ask questions until you are clear as to your marching orders and always summarize your understanding of the assignment or request at the end of each conversation. Better a moment of appearing dense than weeks of ramifications later on down the road.

A People-Oriented Practice

Playing in the sandbox

Bankruptcy is a people-oriented practice. Most of a bankruptcy practitioner's day is spent on the telephone, at hearings, in meetings, working together to get the job done and move the case to its conclusion. Whether working with friend or foe, colleagues at your firm or your client's chief adversary, the same principles apply - be congenial, be respectful, and remember that what comes around, goes around.

Working with your team

Law is a team sport, with your squad made up of your client, your bosses, your secretary, other associates and a whole bunch of administrative staff, including paralegals. Each relationship poses its own unique set of challenges and knowing how to work with each member of your team will help ensure both maximum results for your clients and a satisfying work environment for yourself.

It's all about the client

One of the strangest adjustments to the professional world is having clients. Much of the legal practice is similar to law school - you write briefs instead of papers, hand them to partners instead of professors. But clients? For many freshly minted lawyers, that's a brave new world. But it's not that hard to develop a solid rapport with your clients if you follow a few rules.
  • Always respond quickly: Nothing makes a client happier (well, aside from a win in court) than an attentive attorney - and nothing pisses them off more than having to chase their attorney down. Responding to clients' phone calls and e-mails in a timely manner is your number one rule for achieving client satisfaction. Return your client's phone calls and e-mails in the following order: (1) immediately, (2) as soon as possible, and (3) as a last resort, by the end of the day. If this means returning the phone call at 10:00 p.m. because you were trapped in a meeting all day, then leave a message, apologizing for the delay and letting your client know your schedule the next morning.
  • Remember who the boss is: You work for your clients. Treat them with respect and deference at all times. Never tell clients that they are wrong or "don't get it" if you disagree with them. Instead, politely suggest how a different approach might be more successful, or how the law is not in accord with their point of view. Gentle persuasion and well-prepared suggestions are appreciated and part of what you are paid to do; insulting your clients and rudely dismissing their ideas is not. Remember that the client calls the shots. You can't foist your wishes upon an unwilling client and ultimately need to follow your client's instructions (unless, of course, they are requesting illegal or unethical actions).
  • Never make 'em guess: It's easy keeping clients posted about good news; it's a lot harder letting them know that the case isn't going their way. One of the worst client sins you can commit is keeping your client in the dark until they are about to get slammed in court or slaughtered in negotiations. It sounds macho to say that your clients pay you to win; the reality is that your clients are paying you to do the best you can with the facts and the law, and that such facts and law don't always allow for a home run.

    Keeping a client fully informed of the case status not only prevents a nasty shock; it also allows the client to be a co-equal member of the lawyer-client partnership, readjusting her goals and bringing up facts previously deemed irrelevant. A solid line of communication with your client isn't just smart client management; it's smart lawyering.
  • Be diplomatic with multiple clients: Sometimes, you don't just have one client. You might represent two banks who jointly provided DIP financing, or even more complicated, the committee, one client with four, five, sometimes seven heads. Each of your clients has its own agenda, its own thoughts, its own personality. They don't always like each other. They might even detest each other. Often you feel that diplomacy school would have been better preparation for committee representation than law school.Sometimes, that's absolutely true.

    So think about how a diplomat would handle the situation and behave accordingly. Treat all committee members equally. Keep them all informed. With joint clients, make sure each has an equal say in decisions and that you have authorizations from each client for any action you might take. Always keep your committee members fed at meetings, making sure there are enough - and an even number of - cookies to go around. Remember, a well-fed committee is a happy committee.
  • And again - be clear: To repeat one of the central tenets discussed above, communication and understanding is key. When a client makes a request, make sure you understand what she wants, and repeat that request at the end of the conversation to guarantee that you are on the same page. On a larger scale, always know your client's goals in any proceeding, litigation or negotiation. "Have a big picture of the client and what they want to accomplish," advises Ben Becker. No matter how wild negotiations get, knowledge of your client's goals and bottom line, of which clauses are essential and which are disposable, will give you a roadmap with which to travel.

Being a Good Junior

As a newly-minted attorney, you sit at the bottom of the totem pole. This can sometimes be frustrating - you have limited autonomy, are subject to criticism, often feel clueless and don't always like the people you are working for. But these are also exciting years - your learning curve will never be as steep as it is when you lay the foundation for the rest of your career. Here are a few tips for not only making the junior years bearable, but satisfying and educational:
  • Know your place: Accept that you know less than the partners, and do as they say. At the same time, most partners welcome your suggestions and thoughts, so don't be too passive. If you have an original argument for a brief, don't go off half-cocked and write the brief based only on your idea; instead, explain your thoughts to the partner and let him make the judgment as to which path to follow.
  • Meet your deadlines: The best way to anger your superiors is to miss deadlines with no advance warning. You are part of a tightly coordinated ship. If you are late with a draft, you set off a chain reaction among the team. So don't be late, and if you anticipate that a deadline will be missed, let your superiors know in advance and explain your reasons. People often don't mind giving you some extra time - they do mind being taken by surprise when the deadline hits.
  • Ask questions: Remember - communication, communication, communication. "Make sure you understand the project. Don't be afraid to ask questions and for clarifications," says Roger Friedman of Rutan & Tucker LLR It's always better to ask many questions when you get the assignment rather than as the deadline approaches. "Life as a young associate is to make a partner's life easier, so understand the assignment from the outset," adds mid-level associate Tad Davidson of Andrews & Kurth.
  • Don't trust everything you're told: Don't assume that everything, especially legal assumptions, your bosses tell you is true. The law changes, and even the best attorney isn't always completely current on the latest legal developments. "Take a few extra steps and be a little independent," advises Brian Behar, who recommends that you confirm your partners' and senior associates' legal information through your own research.
  • Keep your eyes and ears open: New attorneys spend lots of time sitting in meetings, taking notes and saying little. These are wonderful opportunities for observing other attorneys and clients and learning from them - everything from the client's business to the art of negotiation. Take advantage of your front row seat and sponge it all up.
  • Ask for feedback: At the end of each project (and from time to time in the middle) request feedback on your performance. Your goal is not simply to do a fine job in every project, but to become an excellent practitioner in the long run. Even if the feedback stings, it will push you towards that ultimate goal of being the best practitioner you can be. In the short run, it's better to hear critical feedback early in the game, while you still have a chance to rectify any flaws, than six months later during your annual review, when it's memorialized in your file.
  • Manage your bosses with clear communication: At law firms, you have multiple bosses and it's not always easy to manage them. Again, communication is key. If you have no time for a new assignment, don't simply say "no" if a partner is trying to suck you into a new case; that will make you look lazy and obstructionist. Instead, explain your schedule and time constraints, and let him duke it out with the other partners for whom you are working. If you feel overwhelmed with work, let your bosses know so they can work with you to avoid burnout, which is in no one's interest.

Getting a mentor

All good attorneys have a mentor, or a series of mentors, to thank for showing them the ropes, introducing them to the legal community and giving them support. Having a mentor can make the difference between feeling lost and finding your niche. A mentor is someone against whom you can bounce ideas and who can show you the "gray areas" of the practice - how a particular judge might rule, how an adversary counsel thinks.

Many mentor-mentee relationships arise naturally, just as friendships do. Others you'll have to search out. Find a partner at your firm, or a more senior attorney, with whom you have a natural rapport. Then approach them. You might be surprised - most partners and senior associates are flattered to be asked to be your mentor. Don't be shy about asking a potential mentor for projects or soliciting advice. Remember that even your harshest boss was once a young associate like you and in most cases is happy to shepherd a young associate through the legal world. Find a mentor, and you'll have a source of legal advice, a proponent in partnership meetings and (cue the violins) a lifelong friend.

Your secretary and administrative staff

In many ways, the most important person in your professional life will not be your boss or your biggest client. No, your new best friend, your helpmate and crutch, your rescuer from nightmare situations, will be the person who sits right outside your door: your secretary. She or he will decipher your handwriting scrawl, screen your phone calls when a deadline is near, play interference with angry adversaries, arrange conference calls for 20 parties in five countries and, if you play your cards right, keep you informed of the latest firm gossip.

That's just the tip of the staffing iceberg; beyond your secretary, you are dependent - yes, dependent - on your paralegals and legal assistants, your library staff, your copying center, your mailroom, your messengers and any other person at the firm who might not have a JD on their wall but has a lot more knowledge, wisdom and experience in many areas than you, a young punk barely out of school, will have for years.

Many young attorneys, believing their degrees and paycheck grant them unique gifts and status, are holy terrors once unleashed in a law firm. They boss people around, make unreasonable demands, omit the phrases "please" and "thank you" from their vocabularies and otherwise act like lords of a sixteenth-century manor. These people quickly learn the meaning of "what goes around, comes around."

There are a few reasons to treat your non-legal co-workers with respect and deference. First, simple manners. Second, they are usually good at their job and have skills and expertise you do not possess. Just as you deserve respect for your hard work, so do they.

Third, you attract more flies with honey than with vinegar. Many attorneys don't fully grasp this fact until it is 6 p.m. and you need the copying center and paralegals to assemble 20 copies of a brief by the FedEx deadline of 8 p.m. Suddenly, your work depends on these co-workers; if you're known as a holy terror, you might watch as these folks revel in disagreeing with your assessment of your project as a number one priority. And remember: people talk and word gets around quickly.

So be polite and respectful. Always say "please" and "thank you." Ration your emergencies and do not run around crying wolf for every small project. Bring your secretary coffee when you get yourself a cup. Always get gifts for your secretary on secretary's day, Christmas, and his or her birthday (and if you don't know when it is, find out now). Keep in mind that the administrative staff are professionals who can perform miracles well outside the scope of your abilities, and treat them accordingly.

But don't be afraid to delegate

Don't be so polite with the administrative staff, as well as your junior associates when the time comes, that you don't delegate any work at all. Many new attorneys are timid about delegating work; this is often foolish and not in your client's best interest. As discussed above, the administrative staff is made up of professionals and experts in their particular areas; take advantage of this expertise. Delegation to other professionals, particularly paralegals, is also cost-effective for clients, given the lower billing rate for administrative staff. There is no reason a client should pay $300 an hour for you to stuff envelopes when a paralegal could do it for an hourly rate of $100.

Of course, you don't want to assign work to the administrative staff inappropriately. The key is determining the balance between properly utilizing and unacceptably taking advantage of your team. A few examples of this fine line include:
  • Do arrange for your copying room to pick up and copy cases from 20 different case reporters necessary for your research. Do NOT arrange for the copying room to pick up and copy a two-page case.
  • Do call the librarian to suggest a research game plan and discuss resources with which to research an obscure topic. Do NOT assign the librarian a research memorandum.
  • Do have your paralegal proofread and bluebook citations for a brief. Do NOT have your paralegal "shepardize" cases or rewrite sloppy prose.

Utilize the expertise of your support staff, but don't overstep your bounds, and, again, always treat them with respect and dignity.

Fitting in

One of the most daunting aspects of a law firm is simply fitting in and being comfortable with your co-workers. For a shy person, firm dinners and department meetings can be very intimidating affairs, with pressure to make small talk, participate in substantive legal discussions and use the proper fork all at the same time. These social events, however, are an important part of your professional life. Given the amount of time that you spend at work, you'll be far happier and more content if you know and are comfortable with the people around you. You will more likely be in a position to learn about and be selected for important assignments and for extra-curriculars like recruiting and client development.

In addition, understand your firm culture - dress code, social obligations, and hours expectations, for example. Don't hide behind closed doors all the time, oblivious to the work culture; become a part of your workplace community and you will more likely have a more enjoyable and satisfying experience.

Working with adversaries

How do you stay civil in such an adversarial profession? It's not difficult when you understand the distinction between the personal and the professional. There is often a need for aggressive litigation and negotiation tactics, such as surprise motions for temporary restraining orders and all-or-nothing contractual demands; there is no call for nasty personal attacks, such as cursing, name calling and lying. Everyone has their own style and some attorneys appear to be more aggressive than others. That's fine. You need to be tough to be an attorney and you often need to challenge your adversaries, doing things like requesting case citations when your opponents bully you with their interpretation of the law (a tactic suggested by Brian Behar).

But you will lose effectiveness if you develop a reputation as nasty or, even worse, untrustworthy, making promises you cannot (or will not) keep and breaking your word. Hopefully you will have a long career as a bankruptcy practitioner. Today's adversary might be tomorrow's co-counsel, referral source, even judge. It is common for friendships to develop between former adversaries, which might well lead to later client referrals and business. Treat other attorneys with dignity and respect, even in the midst of heated litigation, and strive to develop a reputation as a straightshooter.

Stay reasonable in negotiations. "Where lawyers often go wrong is staking out extreme positions and asking for the sun and the moon," says bankruptcy tax specialist Mark Wallace. Asking for unreasonable and unnecessary concessions is often counterproductive. It increases costs and unnecessarily angers adversaries. Instead, know your client's "big picture" goals and fight for those. Everyone at the negotiating table has a different agenda. Know what points are important and unimportant for your clients, and limit your fighting to what your client really cares about, using the other points as bargaining chips.

Finally, always be prepared. Know the law, understand the facts, be aware of the interests of all the parties, and "never quote a statute without having it right in front of you," advises Shari Siegel. Preparation is your best weapon in negotiations and arguments. Never enter a negotiation without being prepared.

Getting to know the field

One of the nicest things about the bankruptcy world is the bankruptcy bar. Attorneys often refer to the collegiality of the bankruptcy bar as one of their favorite parts of being a bankruptcy practitioner. The bankruptcy bar is a small group of people, practicing before a small group of judges in a finite number of cases. Everyone gets to know each other. Take full advantage of this. Become a member of the bankruptcy section of your local bar and of the American Bankruptcy Institute. Enroll in the Practicing Legal Institute and other continuing legal education courses, seminars and workshops in bankruptcy law. Attend social events of local bankruptcy organizations, such as New York City's annual United Jewish Appeal Bankruptcy and Reorganization Lawyers Division Luncheon and Los Angeles Bankruptcy Forum lunches. Write articles about bankruptcy law and become a part of your practice group's informational presentations and client pitches.

In addition to learning about bankruptcy law, you'll meet the rest of your community, providing you with vital business contacts and making the bankruptcy world a far more enjoyable place in which to live. So get involved.
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Practical Practice Tips

Organization, organization, organization

Bankruptcy cases are often nightmares of paperwork and motions. No one has it worse than debtor's counsel, with your nose in every aspect of the case and the debtor's business. How to keep track of both the big picture and all the details?

Every attorney interviewed for this guide stressed the importance of staying organized, being on top of every piece of paper that enters your office and every deadline set by the court. As overwhelming as this may sound, it's actually simple if you follow these tips:
  • Calendar everything. The bankruptcy practice is governed by court deadlines; miss one and major problems ensue. So create or help maintain your firm's systems for calendaring dates and deadlines. Some firms go as far as decorating their walls with giant calendars containing all upcoming court deadlines. It might sound like overkill, but better to be constantly reminded of dates than miss a filing date. As soon as you learn of a court date or deadline, calendar it, and make sure you receive reminders -whether through managing attorney office notices or alarms on your Palm Pilot - in advance.
  • Maintain a folder for every matter. Maintain a separate "to do" folder for each matter, with all relevant papers and documents. Letters to be responded to, memos to be reviewed, motions to be replied to - all should go into your "to do" folder for that particular matter, or the relevant sub-folder for particularly active cases. Add a "to do" list to the front of each folder, with all pending tasks for the case. A quick glance at these folders should give you a comprehensive vision of all pending tasks, ensuring you are on top of everything even when your brain is fried.
  • Become a Zen master. Of course, these folders mean nothing if you don't put all vital papers into them. Some attorneys operate just fine under a heap of paper; most don't. A messy desk creates the risk of losing vital papers, missing deadlines and creating mental chaos. "Paper has an easy way of losing itself," notes David Unscth of Bryan Cave LLP. Take care of every piece of paper you receive by the end of the day, if not sooner. Trash, send it to records or put it into its appropriate "to do" folder.
  • Keep an accurate diary. Force yourself to keep detailed and accurate diaries - not only will you your work be appreciated by your colleagues preparing the fee applications, but you will also have a roadmap of your work on any given matter and sub-matter.
  • Keep paper in circulation: Don't hoard important papers in your office -send them to your record room (after putting a copy in the appropriate "to do" folder), circulate them to the rest of your team and otherwise follow your firm's records policy. Havoc should not strike if you are out sick; your colleagues should have copies of, or at least full access to, all your important papers to keep the show running in your absence.
  • Remember composition notebooks? Legal pads that you lug from matter to matter inevitably become a hodge-podge of unconnected notes, with every page from a different matter. Avoid this problem. Assign a separate notebook for each matter, giving yourself a chronological log for each of your cases and allowing for easy reference.
  • End the day right: Take some time at the end of the day to clean up and create tomorrow's checklist. Tad Davidson spends a half hour at the end of every day going through each active case file and setting his agenda, both for the next day and for the long haul. This helps you stay focused, making sure no important matter or task falls through the cracks. It'll also help you go home and enjoy the evening or the weekend, knowing you have all matters under control. Think of it as closure to the work portion of the day, something that allows you to move on.
  • Eat your Wheaties: Spend 10 minutes at the beginning of each day reviewing your "to do" lists and planning your day. This helps you set the pace of your agenda. In the often-unpredictable world of bankruptcy, this might all fall to pieces at any moment, but at least you begin with order, helping you to cope with the chaos to come.

Courtroom etiquette

This should be easy - just do everything your mother ever told you. If you are polite, respectful and deferential, you'll do fine. "Lawyers should strive to preserve the traditions and dignity of the courtroom and the judicial process," says Bryan Cave LLP's Gregory Willard. A few tips:
  • Be on time. Nothing angers a judge more than an attorney holding up proceedings. Take all necessary steps to arrive on time. Factor extra time into your travel plans.
  • Be prepared. Study up on all possible legal points. Know the facts of the case inside and out. Next to lateness, unprepared lawyers arc the biggest source of judicial anger -judges do not like their time being wasted.
  • Keep a binder. Willard advises preparing three-ring binders for court appearances that contain all material and exhibits for the day's hearing, and distributing such binders to co-counsel and the court in advance. "Organization in the courtroom is simply indispensable in making the best possible presentation to the court," says Willard.
  • Mind your manners. "There's no such thing as casual day in court," notes David Unseth. So when the judge enters, rise and do not sit until she tells you to. When the judge leaves, rise again and remain standing, facing forward, until she is gone. Always stand when speaking in court. Always ask permission of the judge before approaching the bench.
  • Address the bench properly. The judge is always addressed as "Your Honor" (and in any written correspondence, "The Honorable So-And-So...). "Thank you" and "please" are as effective with judges as they were with your kindergarten teachers and your significant other's parents.
  • Be on point. Always remember that your primary function at court hearings is to inform the court of the law, the facts, and the reasons why you are right. Answer the judge's questions as directly as possible. Remember that fancy phrases and hyperbole are no replacement for substance.
  • Be honest. "A judge will always respect you if you tell him or her the full truth," says Leonora Long of the U.S. Trustee's Office;
  • Dress appropriately. Always wear a suit, preferably one with conservative colors, to court. Some judges require that women avoid pantsuits and open-toed shoes. As a rule of thumb, wear to court what your grandmother would find appropriate.
  • Be a mensch. Shake your adversaries' hands when arriving and leaving. There is no need for leaving your class at the door.

Understanding the business

"There are so many issues in a case that are uniquely business-oriented that you should have a working understanding of the debtor's business," advises James Bromley of Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen & Hamilton. In any proceeding, you will be spending time resolving disputes involving the debtor's contracts for services and goods, maintaining relationships with key suppliers and customers and facilitating sales of the debtor's assets and business lines. A solid understanding of the debtor's business will greatly enhance your effectiveness in any of these areas; negotiations of a dispute over a key services contract, for example, will go more smoothly if you understand precisely why those services arc so important to the debtor's business. So take the time at the beginning of the case to really get to know the debtor's business.

Pro bono

Law has a long tradition of pro bono service - working for the indigent, or for public service causes, for no pay. Pro bono work can be an exciting way to get hands-on experience. At many large firms, partners are more likely to assign a young associate as the lead (or quasi-lead) attorney on a small pro bono matter than a billable case, giving that attorney valuable experience. Firm-sponsored internships at legal services organizations can prove to be a particularly rich hands-on experience, giving young practitioners an opportunity to practice law on the front lines, maintain their own client base, and march into court on a regular basis.

Pro bono can also bring you satisfaction your corporate matters cannot provide. Law gives you unique tools and knowledge. Using them to help corporate clients brings its own satisfaction - of a job well done, of the development of your skills. But using them to help someone who otherwise cannot afford counsel - staying an eviction from a public housing project, representing someone falsely accused of a crime, fighting discrimination -helps you remember why law is an honorable profession.

Research: Computers, libraries and just plain thinking

These are dark days for lovers of books, with the advent of the Internet and computer databases. Most law firms have sharply decreased the size of their physical library, book collections and library staffs. Yes, the Internet and computer databases such as LexisNexis and Westlaw are wonderful research tools, especially when used efficiently. If you take advantage of the LexisNexis and Westlaw librarians, you can ensure that your search is concise and cost-efficient.

Unfortunately, many new attorneys are so computer-dependent they miss out on the advantages of hard copy library research. Law is fundamentally an intellectually creative pursuit. Books stimulate this creativity in different -and sometimes better - ways than the Internet. Computer searches can be notoriously over- or under-inclusive; either you get an unwieldy and confusingly broad array of results, or one or two cases that only address a single issue.

A library shelf of treatises and other guides to the legal topic, however, can provide you with a broad overview of an area, then allow you to hone in on particular topics. It is likely that review of a group of treatises and books will expose you to useful background information "laying the foundation" for your research, allowing you to stumble across a new point of which you had previously not thought.

Think of shopping via Amazon.com versus going to your local bookstore. Amazon.com is a wonderful tool for researching long lists of books on a single topic or ordering a single, previously identified book; in contrast, a few hours in a bookstore will give you a more intimate view of a given subject area and allow you to chance upon books and ideas that would have otherwise gone unexplored. Take a similar approach with your legal research, and combine electronic databases with library research to get the most effective results.

Finally, one last research tip. When you're trying to figure out the answer to a problem, don't be scared to just sit back or go for a walk and just think. Attorneys, like any other worker, often get caught up in running around and "doing things." Thoughtful reflection often seems like a luxury. When doing research and developing case strategy, however, thoughtful reflection is often the only way to process your research, think out the relevant issues, and perhaps figure out "the answer" to your legal question. So make time to just think, without distraction.

Staying informed

Keep informed of the latest developments in bankruptcy law. Part of being a good bankruptcy attorney is knowing the state of the law. Fortunately, you have many resources with which to learn the most recent judicial opinions and case strategies. Arrange for your law firm to order subscriptions or Internet access to, or make sure your name is on the office circulation of, these resources.

Among the most useful and informative bankruptcy and business publications are:
  • Bankruptcy Court Decisions Weekly News & Comment
  • Daily Bankruptcy Review
  • Daily Bankruptcy News
  • Daily Deal
  • American Bankruptcy Institute Law Review
  • The Wall Street Journal and the business pages of The New York Times and your city's newspaper of record

Continuing Legal Education

Continuing Legal Education ("CLE") courses often seem like a huge hassle at first; the whole concept of compulsory education can seem frustrating after you've left school. But you should always seek to improve your legal skills and take advantage of CLE to hone those skills (and learn new ones).

For litigation skills, Nationals Institute for Trial Advocacy ("NITA") is particularly noteworthy. NITA offers litigation training courses and a legendary boot camp, where you travel to a college campus for an intense two-week mock trial experience. U.S. Trustee attorneys have unique access to the National Advocacy Center in South Carolina, which hosts intensive trial advocacy courses and boot camps for attorneys with the U.S. Trustee's Office, as well as other Department of Justice attorneys.

There are also plenty of learning opportunities specific to bankruptcy, ranging from Practicing Law Institute courses and seminars to the annual American Bankruptcy Institute "Views From The Bench" conference, where bankruptcy judges discuss the latest bankruptcy developments. All of these forums are great ways of staying current in your bankruptcy knowledge and building relationships in the bankruptcy community.

Dress code

Dress codes in the legal profession - as well as in the rest of the corporate world - have been in tremendous flux over the past decade with the rise of business casual. Will the fall of the dot-coms mean a return to an all-suits, all-the-time culture? While some investment banks have returned to suits within the office, many law firms have not yet followed suit (forgive the pun). For the moment, enjoy the comforts of business casual, knowing that it might eventually be another relic of the dot-com bubble.

A few rules of thumb for business casual, all obvious but worth repeating:
  • Casual does not mean sloppy: Always be neatly groomed, wearing ironed or pressed clothes. This is not Sunday afternoon in front of the TV; this is work, so look sharp.
  • No-No's: Do not wear T-shirts, jeans, open-toed shoes and sandals, sneakers, shorts, halters, or any other clothes you'd wear to a picnic or as an American Idol contestant.
  • Wear clean, simple solids and patterns: Blow people away with the brilliance of your lawyering, not the brightness of your clothes.
  • Always have a suit: Always have necessary suit accessories (including shoes) in your office for emergency court dates and client meetings, too.
  • Know your audience: With clients or outside attorneys, proper attire varies considerably with the set of relationships. Sometimes business casual is acceptable; other times, not. If you don't know what is appropriate, consult with the partner on the case. When in doubt, wear a suit.

The bane of bankruptcy: Tracking your time

Let's get one thing straight - most attorneys hate billable hours. And nowhere in the profession is billable hours more frustrating than in the world of bankruptcy. Debtor and committee counsel only get paid if the bankruptcy judge approves the fee applications, which means highly detailed time diaries accounting for every minute of the attorney's billable time. OK, every minute is an exaggeration; these diaries need only record time in tenths of an hour -you got it, six-minute increments. Judges have discretion to deny, or at least reduce, insufficiently documented fee requests. U.S. Trustees always get involved in the fee application fight, often disputing fee applications supported by sloppy, vague, or underdetailed diaries.

In addition to these bankruptcy specific concerns, you have personal motive to keep good track of your hours. Many firms have minimum hours requirements, where associates must bill at least 1,800, 1,900 and often 2,000 hours a year - meaning at least 150 to 200 (if not more) billable hours per month. Other firms hinge their bonus systems on floors - 1,900 hours gets you a standard bonus, 2,050 gets you a larger bonus, and 2,200 hours gets you a huge payday. Every hour counts, so don't let any work you perform to go unrecorded, undermining your hourly count - and maybe your bonus.

A few tips for keeping accurate time diaries:
  • Keep track of your time as the day proceeds. The more time passes between performance and recording your work, the more your memory falters. If you wait until Friday to tally up the week's hours, you will likely underbill or make inaccurate estimations of your time. Just record your time as the billable events happen. At worst, pause at lunch, mid-afternoon and the end of the day to assess the last few hours.
  • Be thorough in your time diaries. As discussed above, judges and U.S. Trustees demand that your fee diaries be detailed and informative. It's plain rude to dump sloppy time diaries on the poor associate or law clerk whipping the fee app into shape (and remember what goes around, comes around; you might have to prepare the next fee app). So be legible, be detailed, and only use abbreviations previously agreed upon within the team. Be as precise as possible - five hours spent on a motion is likely more accurately described as two hours on research, 12 minutes of phone calls with partner, two hours on drafting, and 48 minutes on a conference call with a client discussing the motion. Break down your time as much as possible and try not to leave any time increments larger than two or three hours, which will arose judicial suspicion.
  • Don't be so thorough that you give away information. On the other hand, keep in mind that these time entries arc public upon submission of the fee app. You don't want to reveal too much information about your strategy to any adversaries. Avoid including any substantive information, including precise areas of research. A description of "Research regarding potential avoidance action" is fine; a description stating "Research into availability of new value defense for avoidance action against unsecured creditor Charley's Nut Factory" reveals too much.Visit the Vault Law Channel at http://law.vault.com - featuring firm profiles message boards, the Vault Law Job Board, and more.
  • Keep an ongoing tally of your hours. At most firms, your annual billable hours affects your bonus, reputation and chances of partnership. So don't let low hours blindside you at the end of the year. Every month, tally up your billable hours, and anticipate what annual total you arc on track for. If your annual target is 1800 and you are only at 400 hours by the end of March, speak up and make an active effort to secure more work.
  • Understand your firm's definition of billable hours. Likewise, don't allow yourself to be surprised when your year-end billables don't include administrative or pro bono hours. Every firm calculates billable hours differently; some include pro bono and CLE courses, others don't. Find out your firm's policy early to prevent a December surprise.

Final Words

Maintain a balance

Regardless of how good you are, you're not going to be a bankruptcy (or any other type of) lawyer for long if you burn out. It is incumbent on you to stay balanced and prevent work from overwhelming you. You will have extremely busy times when you are completely overwhelmed by approaching deadlines. This should not be, however, your way of life. Maintain, and zealously guard, your life outside the office, and always remember that your personal life is more important than your professional life - don't lose your perspective.

This doesn't mean you should give your job short shrift; your goal should be to do the best job possible in each case. What it docs mean is working with your partners to balance the demands of your job with your outside life so you do not get overwhelmed. How?
  • Use your vacations. Failure to use your vacation days is not a badge of honor; it's a mark of stupidity. Use your vacation days to do whatever rejuvenates your batteries, whether it's sitting on a beach, trekking through the Himalayas or just kicking around the living room with your spouse and kids. Use each and every precious vacation day. You are not as indispensable as you think you are.
  • Set boundaries and priorities. Face facts - many weeks will not allow you to work strict 9-to-6 schedules. Evening or weekend hours are required. Some people prefer minimal weekend work; others hold their evenings sacred. Determine your personal priorities, set appropriate boundaries around times that arc important to you, and strictly enforce these boundaries, avoiding obsessive hourly voicemail and e-mail checks.
  • Be careful about lugging work home. Some people like working at home. Some even have elaborate home offices. It's tempting on Friday afternoon to decide you'll do those extra two hours of work over the weekend and toss the necessary papers in your bag. But by Sunday night, you usually still haven't started your work and are exhausted from thinking about it all weekend.
    Many attorneys are blunt in advising against bringing work home. "Don't even grab that folder" when going home on Fridays, says Tad Davidson, counseling a strong work/home division. Better to stay a little bit later on Friday afternoon. If you must bring work home, reserve a specific block of time for work, and maintain that schedule.
  • Pick your battles. You won't last long if you can never stay late or work a weekend because of your personal life. Pick your battles, protecting the really important personal events and sacrificing that trip to the Cineplex.
  • You're only human. Don't take on too much work. Better to do a reasonable amount of work well than a super-human amount littered with errors.
  • Communicate. Do not be afraid to tell your team you have plans. Proper communication ensures the rest of your team doesn't get left in the lurch and helps you preserve your work-life balance. Just make sure you give plenty of notice of vacations and days off, or of evenings when you must leave work early. Especially with vacations, repeatedly remind the rest of your team of your coming absence during the preceding weeks. Generally, as long as you are organized and get the work done, these boundaries will be respected.
  • Partners aren't the enemy. If you are overwhelmed - haven't had a day off all month, billed 300 hours for each of two months in a row, with no letup in sight - speak to the partners you work for. Partners are often unaware of, or too busy to pay enough attention to, overworked associates. So let them know you are having a rough time. You will often be surprised at their practical advice and the steps they take to help you. Most partners would prefer their associates work with them to maintain a reasonable schedule than suddenly burn out or quit. See your partners as your teammates instead of the enemy.
  • Don't miss your anniversary, or daughter's birthday, or every soccer practice or best friend's graduation or... Work is important, but not as important as your personal life. It's never worth the sacrifice, no matter how good the money. Keep your priorities straight.

Push yourself

The first years of legal practice can be daunting, with more responsibility than you ever contemplated. Going to court can be an especially intimidating experience for many young lawyers. But if you push yourself, you'll usually rise to the challenge. "Young lawyers should have the courage to thrust themselves into situations and not to be afraid to take the deposition, to go to court," advises Ben Becker of Becker Meisel, LLC, adding that "preparation will make up for your lack of experience." Pushing yourself into unknown situations is the only way you are going to learn - and if you are well-prepared, you'll not only survive the experiences, but you'll eventually thrive in those once-frightening environments.

Nobody's perfect

Perfectionism is a common trait among attorneys. Armchair psychologists can posit all sorts of reasons as to why, but the one unavoidable fact is that many people rely on you to always be right - and that creates a lot of pressure. Your bosses rely on you. Partners entrust their associates to do much of their legwork and if you screw up, they screw up. If you lose a motion because of insufficient preparation, it's the partner who has egg on his face in front of your client. That client relies on you too. For him, your mistakes mean only one thing: a loss, whether of a motion or a negotiation or an entire trial.

People are relying on you. That's a lot of pressure to always be right and to never make mistakes.

Well, guess what? You will make mistakes. You will be careless. You will miss the case in your research once in a while. You won't always spot every single issue. In order to be happy and to actually use your bed for sleep as opposed to a platform for twisting and turning in the middle of the night, you need to deal with the fact that you will make errors - that you arc not perfect. You should strive for perfection - your clients and partners expect it, and that is why you are, as they say, making the big bucks. And you should, of course, learn from your mistakes, so you won't repeat the same one over and over again.

But miring in an error, repeating it over and over in your mind, will waste time, cause sleep deprivation and, ultimately, eat at your confidence. Don't fall into that trap. Accept that you made a mistake. Understand why you made that mistake, and take it as a lesson learned, never to be repeated again. Often, so-called mistakes are instead simply differences in style - that draft returned by a partner filled with red marks might be the result of a different type of drafting, not proof of any incompetence. "Don't measure yourself against other people," advises James Bromley, "and set your own standards." Accept that you are not perfect, and that you will make other mistakes again. Then move on and return to the playing field, focused on the next task at hand.
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Alternative Summary

Harrison is the founder of BCG Attorney Search and several companies in the legal employment space that collectively gets thousands of attorneys jobs each year. Harrison’s writings about attorney careers and placement attract millions of reads each year. Harrison is widely considered the most successful recruiter in the United States and personally places multiple attorneys most weeks. His articles on legal search and placement are read by attorneys, law students and others millions of times per year.

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published January 01, 2013

By CEO and Founder - BCG Attorney Search left
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