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When asked what kind of lawyer one is, most of us go into sort of an internal panic. Some reply with canned, but hedged responses: “I do mainly intellectual property and commercial litigation in both federal and state courts” followed by a laundry list of “other stuff” — contracts, corporations, trademarks, wills. Some give an answer that depends on the questioner, telling property developers that they are real estate lawyers, foreigners that they are immigration attorneys and shady characters that they do criminal defense. Some new practitioners practically melt down at the question. Others respond with a peppy: “I just drafted a license agreement with Sony Entertainment” or “I just did a condo conversion.” Still others discuss their clients, rather than what they actually do for them: “I’m an entertainment lawyer representing musicians, mainly hip-hop and urban.” Big firm folks do not have these problems: “I’m with White & Case. Corporate side.” The firm name plus department says it all. But wait — “sixth year associate” — now we know everything, even your salary. But for those of us at smaller firms, big firm phlegmatism won’t get us far. As any canny cross-examiner would prod us after our initial response: We still haven’t answered the question. Are we a $600 an-hour Ivy Leaguer? A working-class hero who will take up a cause and think of money later? A voice of caution? A blustery troublemaker? Are we diligent, kind, caring and competent? Are we hungry or fat and lazy? We simply have more to answer for. Are we experienced in the matter presented, or will we be learning on this one? Do we want client trust, or do we want to do our jobs and be left alone? Do we sleep at night or do the many ulcers that our clients have lent us keep us agonizing long after the billing clock has ceased to reflect our mental activity? In answering what “kind” of lawyer we are, we need to consider the additional question. Do clients hire us for who we are or what we do? Some clients believe that they want the meanest, most rapacious attorney available. And then wonder at the astronomical alimony, the sanctions imposed, the poor result. These questions arise continually in all practice areas, in all of our lives. People in big firms and government jobs tell us that they long romantically for the “freedom” of “flying solo.” Rubbish. The same people look disdainfully at the business card or legal brief of a sole or small firm practitioner and only see someone they think couldn’t hack the big time for lack of intelligence, perseverance or people skills. Putting romance and prejudice aside, small firm practices lack the structure of large firms. We are freer to take on new matters, and at a much higher risk of straying into practice areas for which we are unprepared. So, how do we ensure a ready answer to the question: What kind of lawyer are you? Take regular inventory. Every once in a while, take stock of what you are doing that actually is generating revenue. Much to my surprise, I found that collecting judgments was difficult and challenging and that I enjoyed it and made money doing it. I did not want to call myself a “collections attorney,” but I bragged shamelessly about getting my client paid by sending a federal marshal to levy on stock worth $85 million in which a bank thought it had a prior perfected security interest. We all need to tweak a stale bio regularly. Adding a skill, if done carefully, will not kill your business plan or your self-image. Pigeonhole yourself. Entrepreneurs seeking to open an LLC want to hear you say the words “I open LLCs for people who wish to launch new companies.” For people who want “living wills,” hearing that your practice is “trusts and estates” is insufficient. So listen to what people are looking for, and repeat back the words “living wills” and say “I can help you.” If you don’t, people will assume you are not enthusiastic and competent. Price competition. People are petrified of lawyers and don’t wish to be embarrassed. If you do not address these fears directly, they will go to the lawyer their cousin heard of because they assume you are too expensive and don’t want to insult you. Big clients or steady sources. Big clients or steady sources of clients are desirable to cultivate. They need to clearly understand your desire to receive a certain type of referral and that you will not embarrass them in any way. Vague hints do not suffice. Wherever possible, do research on the company and its business, if possible, before meeting any principals. Be ready to discuss problems in the industry or current legal or business events. Try to pay a courtesy call to the premises, and walk around just to learn about the business. Be nice regularly. Act confident, talk modest. When someone approaches with a terrible problem related to your practice area and demands to know whether that’s the type of work you “do” or demands a quick answer, ask some more questions and look at any relevant document. A dentist needs to look at a tooth before giving advice on what’s wrong — a lawyer needs to collect and view the evidence. You’re either the kind of lawyer to take a crack at it or to refer it to a competent colleague. Emphasize, but don’t oversell, your experience and expertise. If you have neither, your education, willingness and price may close the deal. These actions show what kind of lawyer you are. What does your choice of a smaller firm show? We take on tremendous adversaries and win. We solve problems with few resources. We do more with less. We are sensible and practical, we meet payroll, we pay rent and we keep the lights on and the phones ringing. We care in a way no one else does, often for people for whom no one else will. We roll up our sleeves and get our hands dirty. We get burned and keep going. We don’t mess around. My firm’s new slogan: “We get the deal done.” As the years pass, your description of the “kind” of lawyer you are may change, but the real answer — what you are at your core — probably will not. Raymond J. Dowd runs the commercial litigation practice of Dowd & Marotta. He serves on the board of directors of the New York County Lawyers’ Association.

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