Monday, January 26, 2009

Life Lessons from an Unlikely Source

I like being able to look back at something which became popular and say "I knew it". The first time I watched "The World Poker Tour" on TV, I said "The producers of this show have made a major breakthrough, poker on TV is going to be BIG". Their breakthrough was showing the audience the "hole cards". What makes it compelling TV is that it takes something many people know how to do (play poker), and lets the viewer into the game, while providing drama and expert commentary. When you add camera close-ups of players gulping and sweating as they agonize over decisions, and huge amounts of money, you have a modern day reality sports show. Here's a clip Note: These are some of the top players in the world, and if the announcers voice sounds familiar, it's Gabe Kaplan (Welcome Back Kotter)

The fact is, TV poker sparked an international poker boom. There are many tournaments, many TV shows, plus books, videos, magazines and everything else that goes with something popular. The game played in the tourneys and on the shows is Texas Hold-em....each player gets two cards and you bet, next three shared cards are "flopped" in the middle of the table and you bet, then a fourth shared card (called the "turn") and you bet, then a fifth card (the "river") and you bet. This is a variation on the games people play at home, but the priority of hands is the same. One more big difference, usually the game is "no-limit". This does not mean you can reach into your pocket for more money. Everybody buys in for the same amount and you can't generally add to that, but once the tourney starts, you can bet any part of your "stack" of chips, up to ALL of your chips, on ANY bet. Really affects your strategy. As an aside, there was a great poker movie a few years ago, where they played Texas Hold-em. It was Rounders, with Matt Damon, Edward Norton and John Malkovich. Worth renting if you've never seen it.

A few months ago I started playing online poker.....yes, for real money. Not a lot of money, because frankly, I don't consider myself a great player. When you play online you can build up "points", which you can use to shop in the online poker store. They had some nice sweatshirts for a zillion points. I had enough points for a poker instructional DVD, so what the heck, I got "Final Table Poker, with Phil Gordon" In this DVD, you are inside the head of Phil Gordon, a top player and commentator, as he plays at a final table. He shows you how he analyzes the other players, and provides about 30 concrete lessons on no-limit hold-em. Here's a sample.

After watching this video, my online play greatly improved. A nice surprise. An even better surprise was the applicability of many of these poker lessons to real life. Here are a few:

1. Be aware of the personalities and tendencies of people you are dealing with, and be aware of how these people perceive YOU. Even in limited involvement situations (poker and business both present these), you are creating your image as you go. Be aware.

2. Certain situations can start out promising, and you can capitalize on them, BUT, those same situations can turn into your worst disasters. He makes you aware of these.....hmmmm.....awareness.

3. Selective aggression. Pick your spots and be the initiator. Much good can come from this.

4. Take time to think. In poker you do not have unlimited time to think, but you have time to think through what has happened so far, who is doing what, and what you should do. Life is easier, we often have more time. Take time to think things through.

5. A poker tourney is a series of decisions. Although some people think poker is about luck, a poker tourney is really about knowing when important decisions are being made, and making a high percentage of good decisions.

6. He has a whole section on "odds and outs". It's about calculating odds, and it's kinda technical. It took some thinking to get a handle on it, and I watched that part a few times. It was not beyond my comprehension, and I feel better having learned it. Are there some things you need to learn, and COULD learn, if you tried a bit? I can't resist, here's a clip...don't be intimidated

7. Very often, you are playing your opponent more than your hand......sometimes WHO is more important than WHAT.

These are only a few....e-mail me to discuss some more.

One last thing.....Happy Groundhog Day to all

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Lawyering....Way Back in the Day

Back in 1982, several of my lawyer suite-mates had been practicing since the 1930's. Here are a few observations about lawyering back in their day:

1. Most, if not all, of the Judges were white males. Come to think of it, this was also true of their lawyer colleagues and law school classmates.

2. Most lawyers in small firms (or solos) were general practitioners....they knew how to do many kinds of cases.

3. There were "recommended fees" for various services, set by the Bar Associations. This practice was eventually eliminated, for the benefit of "the public". Sadly, as the ranks of lawyers swelled, the relative fees for "bread and butter" legal services have plummeted. You can say it's competition, and fair market values, but the fact is when you try to do a real estate closing at market rates, you will lose money.....unless you cut corners. Whose interest is that in?

4. There was no advertising. You built your practice by word of mouth.

5. They did their research in libraries.

6. Networking and knowing people were part and parcel of the practice. I was always amazed that one of the first things the older lawyers wanted to know about a new matter was "Who is the other attorney" and "Who is the Judge". If they didn't know the players, they would delve into their pedigree and find out who they knew. After a few years, I realized I do exactly the same.

I wonder if those lawyers who were starting out in the 1930's ever thought about the lawyers in THEIR suites who had 50 years experience. The guys who started in the 1880's. The thing is, some things about lawyering have not, do not, and probably will not change. For great illustrations of this, I highly recommend two books about Abraham Lincoln's legal career. Not only are they instructive about this brilliant lawyer turned politician, they show us the origins of modern practice. The two books are Lawyer Lincoln by Albert Woldman and
Lincoln's Herndon by David Donald

William Herndon was Lincoln's law partner for many years. Guess what? They had business problems, they had to figure out how to best employ their respective abilities, they had to deal with Lincolns' growing fame and outside commitments and personal challenges. These books are worth reading.

Lincoln-Herndon Law offices are a historic site. I haven't visited.....yet.

Here are some quotes from Abe Lincoln about law and life...

In law it is a good policy to never plead what you need not, lest you oblige yourself to prove what you can not.--February 20, 1848 Letter to Usher Linder

The leading rule for the lawyer, as for the man of every other calling, is diligence. Leave nothing for to-morrow which can be done to-day

Discourage litigation. Persuade your neighbors to compromise whenever you can. Point out to them how the nominal winner is often a real loser -- in fees, expenses, and waste of time. As a peacemaker the lawyer has a superior opportunity of being a good man. There will still be business enough.

Never stir up litigation. A worse man can scarcely be found than one who does this. Who can be more nearly a fiend than he who habitually overhauls the register of deeds in search of defects in titles, whereon to stir up strife, and put money in his pocket.

Let no young man choosing the law for a calling for a moment yield to the popular belief -- resolve to be honest at all events; and if in your own judgment you cannot be an honest lawyer, resolve to be honest without being a lawyer.

I used to wonder whether Abe Lincoln was "over-rated", or perhaps had the opportunity to govern during a huge crisis, and made his reputation by successfully navigating the Civil War. Studying his law career, his rise to prominence in the context of his times, is enlightening and inspiring. His top ranking is appropriate.

Gotta stop now.....a Judge Judy re-run is on.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Lawyering....Back in the Day

Like any older person (hey, 26.5 years as a lawyer makes me older than lots of people) I like to recall the days of old. Quaint times when things were not as they are now. Back in the day, when I opened my law practice in 1982, things were markedly different. Doesn't seem like that long ago? In the context of law practice, consider the following:

1. Nobody had cell phones. We went to phone booths (the Courthouse was full of them), and we carried change.

2. Nobody had their "calendar" or their "contacts" in a device. We had little leather diaries that went in our breast pockets. I recently unearthed my collection of pocket diaries, from 1981 (I was important enough as a pre-lawyer to have a pocket diary) through 1997. When I looked through my old diaries I had the same feeling as when I go to my archives and look at old files, another trip down "bad memory lane".

3. Nobody had a fax machine. We never got things instantly, we never sent things instantly. I think we thought more, but now, who has time to think about such things, with all these faxes coming in. During the first "big" case I ever worked on, my clients insurance company disclaimed coverage, and informed me of this by TELEGRAM.

4. Fedex (and other overnight services) did not exist. For local stuff we used messengers. For far away stuff people....waited.

5. Most offices did have copy machines. However, I did know older lawyers who used carbon paper. I also worked on some files for older lawyers where the copies were from carbon paper.

6. Some offices had primitive computers and word processors. However, electric typewriters, "secretaries who took shorthand" and "typing services" were commonplace.

7. E-mail did not exist. Web surfing did not exist. Facebook did not exist. Fantasy football and baseball did not exist. Online poker did not exist. How did we manage to waste time???

8. In 1982, lawyer advertising was pretty new. I know we are all proud of how lawyer advertising has evolved, improving both our service to people, and our image.

When I started in practice, I was in a suite with some lawyers who had been practicing for over 50 years. I liked to talk to them about THEIR "old days", when they started in practice, in the 1930's.

More on this tomorrow.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

More Pearls (and Perils) of Per Diem

By popular are a few more....

Treat your per-diem appearances as if you were appearing on your own case. If that means you care more about the case than the attorney who sent you, so be it.

If there is a major problem with a case, and you think the attorneys who sent you don't know it, tell them. I'd want someone to tell ME!

Sometimes attorneys want to do per-diem work and be part of your "crew". Not everybody can multi-task their appearances and maintain quality. Not everybody is ready to adhere to the per-diem "code of honor". OK, there isn't an actual code, but the thing is, not everybody is trustworthy. My approach is, I'll try out a new person, carefully, and they have to earn trust. If they don't understand this, I don't trust them.

If something screwy starts to happen on a per diem assignment, especially if you are appearing for an attorney the first time, DOCUMENT what is happening. I've had offices "abandon me" during an appearance (by not responding to calls from court, or not having anyone in authority in their office). It doesn't happen often, but I've had it happen. My approach on these is to "protect the client" (as opposed to the lawyer), and next "protect myself". I document the problem with an eye towards protecting myself in the event things really blow up. I know, sometimes all this extra work is not worth the $100 you might get paid (cuz these bad guys will stiff you too), but you have to do the extra work and protect yourself. These are "perils" of per-diem.

Pay attention to collections!!! It does you no good to bill $100K and only collect $60K. This is especially bad when you have subbed out some of your work (and paid your crew). Most lawyers pay their per diems, but it only takes a few big stiffers to really hurt you. Here are a few tips:

1. Set balance limits for open credit and stick to them. I use $500 with new attorney clients. If they are beyond 30 days and $500, I CALL. This is very important. If they act like weasels about it, cut them off.

2. Related to #1 is, set yourself up to accept credit cards. If an attorney reaches $500 and more than 30 days, and they won't pay by credit card, cut them off.

3. Beware of high volume clients who don't pay ALL the bills. I hate when this happens and it happens with some regularity. Sometimes it's innocent, and it happens because if your bill is also your report, it may go in the file and not to the check writer. The way to curb this is to send statements which are a compilation of the open bills. When I receive a payment for invoices that are later than some open invoices, I address this immediately.

4. Beware of round figure payments "on account". This can be innocent enough, but it causes confusion. When this happens, send a memo indicating what invoices you applied the payment to, and confirming the open balance. In this memo you should ask that payments refer to specific invoices.

5. Share information with your competitors about the bad payers out there. This is more difficult than it seems. I only want to give this useful information if I am getting useful information. What do the non-paying vermin do when we share information about them? We usually see them coming to court themselves, which I always find gratifying, or they go lower in the food chain and rip off some new per diem.

6. Speaking of non-paying vermin, if some lawyer doesn't pay me, and won't work with me, or make a credit card payment, I sue in Small Claims Court. Sometimes these lawyers play games when I do this, but I persist. Recently, after some jokers adjourned my Small Claims case 3 times by asking for a hearing "by the Court", they missed an appearance and I got a default judgment. I sent them a letter and they didn't pay. So, what I did was, I paid a City Marshal $40 to serve a notice at their office (probably served on a secretary) saying that he was going to seize their furniture and computers and auction it off. Two days later I got paid in full with interest. They'll never call me again, which is just an added bonus.

Gosh I love this business!!!

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Pearls of Per Diem

It might be a stretch to call per-diem court appearances "Zen-like" or "other-worldly". That being said, I have some philosophical observations about making multiple court appearances on behalf of other attorneys.....

The appearance I hate my last appearance.

It's harder to do two appearances than twelve appearances.

If you don't know what the case is about, you should find out before you say something stupid.

If you think you shouldn't be making the appearance, you are probably right.

When you are per-diem to the per-diem, and perhaps they were per-diem, you should make sure you are not your own grand-pa. (This version is pretty funny, but I once saw Uncle Floyd do it LIVE, which was excellent).

If you end up covering both sides too often, you could go blind.

If you have a choice to "go make the copies" or wait for someone else to "make the copies and bring them back for you"....go make the copies.

If an appearance has a lot of parties it's efficient to be LAST, as long as you are not LATE.

The TV show that is most like per-diem appearances was M.A.S.H., especially when they talked about "meatball" surgery.

If you are on an appearance with multiple parties and you know nothing (which happens all the time), and all the other parties are blaming one of the parties for causing the accident, invariably YOU are representing that party.

If you know what you are talking about ( happens!!!), and the Judge asks what the case is about.....TALK FIRST, and keep talking till someone tells you to stop.

In the movie "Defending Your Life" (one of my favorites...if you have never seen it, I highly recommend) there is a great scene featuring a per diem lawyer

In a desperate per-diem situation, when all else fails, there is always......the truth.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Other Side of the Desk

Sometimes as a lawyer, I want to switch places with the client, and say "Here, you sit at my desk, I'll be the person with the problem, and you can see what it's like." There are many things people don't realize about lawyering. Here are a few....

There is never "one right way" to handle something.

There is usually not a "right answer" to any question. Anyone can find THAT, and the client would not be there if there were. Most situations are multi-layered, with results coming in inter-dependent layers. Not so simple.

We often don't know, but we know we can find out.

Sometimes the best research is "calling someone who knows".

The Courts really don't care about your case or your problems. It's not that they are mean or callous (though some are), it's that there are so many cases and so many problems that they CAN'T care. When clients don't understand this, I refer to it as "terminal self-importance".

Court clerks really know the court system. Lawyers have to be nice to them or nothing gets done.

The best lawyers are not the fancy talkers, but the straight talkers. Clients, judges and juries like them best. The best trial lawyers fit this description.

You can make a lot of money as a lawyer, but not all do. It's not a license to print money, and many lawyers struggle financially.

Ethical questions come up every day. This is not because lawyers are unethical, most are highly ethical. Questions come up because the nature of solving problems involves knowing where the legal and ethical boundaries are.

We often feel "besieged", by clients, Judges and adversaries.

Law practices have the same issues as any for new business, controlling overhead, managing employees, with the added overlay of a "product" (legal services) that is difficult to quantify.

I don't see lawyers as a problem in society....when people say this my reaction is that lawyers reflect societal values. I would not deny that defective social values breed the legal behavior many abhor.

One skill lawyers have to have, and most DO have, is the ability to explain things. If I want something explained (like a baseball play, or a movie), most lawyers are above average-excellent at this. Many times as a lawyer, if I am trying to persuade someone, the MOST important aspect of persuasion is to EXPLAIN THE FACTS CLEARLY. Once that is done, the argument is essentially made.

OK, let's switch the seats back.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Tribute to Donald Westlake

One of my favorite writers, Donald E. Westlake, died on New Years Eve at age 75. Here's a link to his NY Times obituary

When I like a fiction author, I generally read EVERYTHING they have. My good friend Mitch introduced me to Donald Westlake about 15 years ago. The books I liked best were the "John Dortmunder" series. As a tribute to Donald Westlake, I will tell you about this series, and why I enjoyed it so much.

John Dortmunder is a hard-luck, likeable burglar. He's not an ordinary burglar, he's more of a general contractor of big heists. Many of the books follow a familiar plot line. Dortmunder's friend Andy Kelp gets a lead on a potential big job. It's usually something daunting, and seems impossible. Dortmunder is asked to "look it over". If it has potential, he puts together the necessary crew, and many of these characters appear repeatedly. These are:

Dortmunder - the planner, plus basic lockpicking and safecracking
Kelp - steals vehicles (always MD plates so you can park), versatile with other skills too.
Stan Murch - expert driver....obsessed with routes and traffic, but first and foremost, a driver.
Ma Murch - Stan's mother, a cab driver, appears if a second driver is needed.
Tiny Bulcher - big, strong and scary. Muscle as needed, but more important, carries stuff.

If a job requires expert lock man, a demolition person, a computer whiz, they'd bring one in too.

The fascinating thing was the depth and ingenuity of the PLANNING for the jobs. After reading for awhile, you realize that Dortmunder is the respected leader on every job because he has the one skill that is indispensible......his job is to "think of everything". As he tells the crew each thing he thinks the job needs, you say to yourself "oh yeahhhhhh" Of course, despite the ingenius planning, things always go wrong. Dortmunder seemed to expect this, and then made further plans to solve the problems. Some may be familiar with the movie "The Hot Rock" (starring Robert Redford as Dortmunder and and George Segal as Kelp), where a valuable gem is stolen and lost and re-stolen several times. It's a funny movie, worth renting if you can find it, but as usual....the book is WAY better.

If this brief intro inspires anybody to check out Donald Westlake, it will be worth it. I know I am always appreciative of a good book/author recommendation. While I am thanking Mitch for Donald Westlake, here's a bonus recommendation for my readers (also originally courtesy of Mitch). Mystery writer Lawrence Block. I've read at least 30 of his books. (well worth checking out if you are looking for an author to try). I like the "Matt Scudder" series (retired NYC detective turned private earlier versions he is an active alcoholic, in later years he is in AA.....the drinking/abstinence issues pervade the series). Another series is Bernie Rhodenbarr, another funny burglar series, though he operates strictly solo. Then there's Keller, a hit man you can love....though he's kinda psycho and I don't always love him.

I hope you try some of these and like them. Got any recommendations for me?