New ABA book offers introduction to firms

By Correy Stephenson

The Daily Record Newswire

Call it the non-fiction version of "The Firm" (without Tom Cruise).

The American Bar Association's Law Practice Management Section recently released "Introduction to Law Firm Practice," by Michael Downey, a partner at Hinshaw and Culbertson in St. Louis, Mo. and an adjunct professor at Washington University School of Law.

More than 50 percent of law school graduates join a firm as their first job after graduating from law school, Downey notes, and many do so with only limited information about how a firm really works.

The book, which offers a companion website at, is meant to provide a guide for those joining a private law firm who may not understand the day-to-day realities of firm life.

The book documents the evolution of law firm practice in the United States under the "Cravath" system, and explores different forms of firms and firm governance.

Downey also defines various roles, such as "of counsel" and "senior counsel," as well as the different types of partnerships, such as shareholders in a professional corporation or members of a limited liability corporation.

The book discusses profitability issues and details various types of billing arrangements, noting the increase in the use of alternative billing arrangements, such as flat-fee billing.

In a section that will be especially helpful for new lawyers, Downey walks through the process of intake, from performing a conflicts check to handling a retainer.

He offers a basic format for time-billing entries: [Verb] [object] with/for [prep object] regarding [prep object] (for example, "Conference with Dr. Smith regarding deposition of plaintiff's cardiology expert") as well as samples of more detailed entries that includes an explanation of why the lawyer did what he or she did.

The book also explores business development. Downey provides a brief discussion of all aspects: retaining work from existing clients, managing client relationships and developing business from new clients.

He offers advice based on where a lawyer might be in his or her career. For example, first-year associates should create a mailing list and keep it updated, while sixth, seventh and eighth-year associates should be setting annual business goals.

For lawyers who are completely new to the law firm environment, the book includes a chapter on firm culture and time demands.

Don't necessarily model your behavior on senior lawyers who come in at 10:30am, Downey cautions, as the later arrival time is most likely a privilege earned after years of early morning starts.

He also includes a chapter on mistakes, and offers five tips for dealing with a serious mistake that could impact the client or firm in a negative way, such as missing a filing deadline.

Two possible suggestions: look to a mentor or a more experienced lawyer who can offer guidance and attempt to formulate possible solutions.

For lawyers looking for help navigating law firm life, Downey's book provides essential information.

For more information, or to order the book, go to:

Published: Thu, Sep 23, 2010