The legal profession has been kind to me. I’m not into braggadocio, suffice it to say I’ve done reasonably well as an attorney, and I probably surpassed my own expectations somewhere along the line. More than one person has asked me, “What’s your secret?” It’s simple, I had a good teacher.
My teacher was Attorney Dennis M. Campos, and he was my supervising partner at Diepenbrock, Wulff, Plant & Hannegan in Sacramento, California, the gargantuan law firm in Northern California where it all began for me.
I began working at Diepenbrock as a legal intern while I was still in law school in 1993, and the attorneys I worked for that summer were generally impressed with my stamina and my aptitude for the practice of law. So I was offered a permanent position with the firm the following year as an associate attorney in the litigation department. My starting salary in 1994 was $42,500.00. (That would be about $80,000.00 today, not bad for a kid fresh out of law school who knew absolutely nothing!)
I was warned by nearly everyone at the firm that working under Attorney Dennis M. Campos would be a challenge. Dennis was not an easy person to work for: he was very demanding, he could be irascible and ill-tempered, he worked constantly and he expected everyone around him to join the effort, but he was — without a doubt — a fantastic lawyer.
I can remember one Saturday I was planning a trip to Mount Tamalpais and as I was walking out the door, the phone in my apartment rang. My girlfriend answered the phone and handed the phone to me, and with a look of horror on her face she said, “It’s Dennis!”
I reached for the phone — “Get in here!” was all he said … you guessed it, the trip to Mount Tam was scratched. My girlfriend spent the day at The Rubicon in Sacramento waiting for me to be paroled. Eventually I joined her.
I missed a lot of fun trips and excursions that first year, and looking back I will admit that working for Dennis was grueling at times. He was always working — which meant that I was always working.
Anyway this background material is really just a lengthy drumroll for the topic of this article, which is the “lawyers bible” that I’ve been carrying around with me since 1994 when I began my career as a lawyer. During my very first meeting with Dennis, as we were going through our cases, he handed me a piece of paper entitled “The Top Fifteen List for our Litigation Department.” And Dennis told me with a look of deadly seriousness on his face, “If you follow these rules to the letter, you’re going to be a great lawyer, and you’re going to make a lot of money.” And I did, and he was right.
Rule No 1: Our litigators return their phone calls, and document their phone conversations.
Do you know how many people have complained to me that their lawyer never returns their phone calls? It’s epidemic in my profession. I make it a point to return all of my phone calls, even calls from people that need help with the type of case that I don’t handle. I try to refer those people to the New Hampshire Lawyer Referral Service or to a colleague. And these people appreciate the additional effort and it usually comes back to me in a positive way. And of course I prepare a daily timesheet every day and I carefully document the specifics of every telephone conversation. At the end of each day I scan that daily timesheet to my server and preserve it in case I need to refer to it later. I’ve seen lawyers in their offices, on the phone yakking away with opposing counsel about important client matters, but writing nothing down. What if they need to refer back to a vital detail from that conversation?
Rule No 2: Our litigators copy their clients on all correspondence, and send their clients copies of all pleadings.
Lawyers who stray from this principle could wind up in hot water with their clients and the board of bar overseers — strong communication is crucial between attorneys and their clients. And failing to communicate with a client, if egregious enough, is considered to be professional misconduct. These days I try to stay in close contact with clients, real estate agents and loan officers concerning the real estate transactions we are working on together.
Rule No 3: Our litigators do not engage in ad hominem attacks on opposing counsel.
I must admit, as a freshman attorney, I struggled with this one. Coming into the firm as one of Dennis’ lieutenants, in the fearsome Litigation Department, I wanted to brand myself as being “tough,” and my approach was always scorched earth. My letters and motions were incendiary, caustic and bombastic. My fellow associates jokingly referred to my missives as “napalm.” In every letter, motion and brief that I prepared, I would tear into opposing counsel, impugn their motives, and seek to diminish their clients. Dennis was constantly in my office, admonishing me, “Tone it down,” “Scale it back,” “Take it down a notch,” “Ease up.” I would tell him, “I’m from Lowell — we don’t mince words there.”
But eventually I got the point, I matured, my letters and motions became more cogent, and I dropped the invective and the personal attacks. My practice today is almost entirely transactional, I rarely go to court and I don’t file very many motions — but I do write letters and when I do they are always dignified and respectful. Looking back, I realize that it was wrong of me to send such venomous communications — cordial communications are the mark of a true professional.
Rule No 4: Our litigators introduce their firm as well as themselves when stating their appearances.
At Diepenbrock we did a lot of mock hearings and mock trials, so long before I ever appeared in court I was already well-versed in courtroom etiquette.
Whenever I appeared in court and addressed the judge for the first time I always announced myself: “Leonard W. Foy III, of Diepenbrock Wulff Plant & Hannegan, Sacramento, California, your Honor.”
And I still do this. I was representing a client before a municipal body just last week and when I was acknowledged by the board I introduced myself: “Leonard W. Foy III, of Foy Law Office, PLLC, Nashua, New Hampshire”
Rule No 5: Our litigators maintain a list of their active files.
Neglect and procrastination are the enemies of success, both in the practice of law and in the real world too. I was trained as a new attorney to “touch files” constantly, look for looming deadlines, monitor discovery obligations, remember to bill the client and regularly! Today I make it a point to remind my team to stay on top of their files so that we keep pace with the closing process. There is nothing worse than watching a closing attorney or title company drift away from the process and then scramble and play catch-up when it’s time to close.
Rule No 6: Our litigators maintain a list of the addresses and telephone numbers of their clients and contacts
Back in the 1990s, the database management software we have today wasn’t available. The only way to maintain a list of “contacts” was to do it manually, and we did. Thankfully today we all have smart phones and “contacts” and this is done for us automatically.
Rule No 7: Our litigators maintain a current resume.
Every lawyer in the firm was required to have a current resume on file, sometimes a client wanted to see it, to look into our background, education or work experience. Today I have a firm resume which is frequently requested by our institutional clients and YES I keep it updated.
Rule No 8: Our litigators keep their offices neat and organized.
Every now and then I find myself in another lawyer’s office or conference room and I encounter piles of paper, files which are spread out everywhere, and there is a pall of disarray and chaos. My office is organized, my car is organized, my home is organized — honestly I didn’t need Rule №8 because this was my nature even before joining the firm, but I adhere to the belief that a disorganized lawyer will never be a great lawyer. This may be harsh I realize, but it is also true as I have learned over the years.
Rule No 9: Our litigators learn to use computers.
This one makes me laugh — when I joined the firm most of the attorneys had these oversized monstrosities on their desk — we called them “computers” — but not everyone used theirs. I can remember Forrest A Plant, Sr., one of the firm’s oldest and most venerable attorneys, and a name partner, Forrest had his HUDs and letters manually typed by his secretary. I remember hearing the rap rap rap of the typewriter coming from his secretary’s office every time I walked by. In the early 1990s email was in its infancy, and quite primitive. Every once in awhile an attorney would walk into my office and scold me, “I sent you an email on this. You haven’t responded.” I’ll admit it took me awhile to get the hang of it.
Anyway, eventually I did get the hang of it, and I learned how to use computers — and in the spirit of this rule I have spared no expense in the pursuit of state of the art technology in my modern day office.
Rule No 10: Our litigators speak well of their fellow litigators.
I must say, it was a very, very long time at the firm before I heard one partner or associate be openly critical of another partner or associate — this was practically blasphemy. It was only once I entered the inner sanctum of the firm that I discovered the battlefronts, fault lines, power struggles and cliques which were concealed behind the façade of amiable brotherhood.
So possibly there was some hypocrisy at the firm, but it struck me as being familiar, it reminded me of the way I was raised, don’t air your dirty laundry in public, don’t take sides against the family. This rule is about dignity, respect and decorum. I’ve seen firms where lawyers badmouth one another, I’ve encountered lawyers that throw shade at other lawyers — to me it’s indicative of poor training. It’s wrong — and it should be avoided. I speak well of other lawyers, even those who aren’t necessarily “my cup of tea.”
Rule No 11: Our litigators maintain a current voice mail message.
At Diepenbrock, attorneys began each day by recording their voice mail message. If you left me a message in 1994 you might have heard something like this: “Hi this is Len, it’s Monday, October 17th, I expect to be in the office this morning, then I’m in court this afternoon, kindly leave me a message and I’ll return your call at my earliest opportunity.”
Failing to update one’s voice mail was viewed as a serious faux pas, and there was nothing worse than a senior partner walking to your office to tell you, ”You need to change your voice mail — it’s still on yesterday.” And I recall the facial expressions which accompanied those not-so-gentle reminders — it was the look of disgust!
Today … I cheat! I have had the same voicemail for years, both at my desk and on my mobile device, there is no mention of the day or the date, and that’s how it’s going to stay.
But … when I’m on vacation or on the road doing closings which are likely to keep me away from the office for an extended period of time, I do set my email on auto-reply mode so that clients and colleagues are aware that my response may not be immediate.
Rule No 12: Our litigators keep their time on a daily basis.
This rule is fundamental to success at a large law firm — where it’s all about billable hours. Every hour was broken down into ten 6 minute intervals, so that lawyers were expected to document their time in 6 minute blocks and report it accurately on their daily timesheet. At the end of each day we turned in our timesheets to our managing partner, and the time was either billed (that’s good) or “written down” (that’s bad).
Time that was “written down” was essentially wasted time — it couldn’t be billed to the client and it didn’t count towards an attorney’s billable hours. Younger, less experienced attorneys tend to have more of their time “written down” because they tend to be inefficient.
I came up with a solution to this dilemma: I worked more hours, a lot more, and I worked nights, and I worked week-ends, so that after my time had been chopped up by the senior partners I still had a commanding amount of billable hours. I would skip lunch and other social engagements, a practice known as “working through.” I even found a dry cleaner that would pick up and deliver clothing right to my office. I realized early on that lawyers in big law firms with high billables have no natural enemies or predators — we pay the bills, and more importantly, we pay the partners. A mid-level associate at the firm, who later became a close friend, told me early on, “If you have enough billable hours they’ll never fire you, no matter what you do.”
Today … I still work too many hours. But everyone in real estate works hard, it can be a tough business, a demanding business, but it’s worth it.
Anyway, at least I don’t have to complete those clinical timesheets, with those microscopic lines and columns and those blasted 6 minute intervals! And how many billable hours did I turn in last year? I have no idea!
Rule No 13: Our litigators place their clients’ interests ahead of their own.
We all know the Ten Commandments, we also know that some of them are more important than others. Of these rules, Rule №13 is among the most important. A good lawyer knows to put the client first, always, and I always do. The clients pay the bills, they rule the roost, and short of being asked to do something unethical, I always accede to my client’s wishes.
Rule No 14: Our litigators consult with another.
Rule №14 advances the idea that the practice of law was intended to be collaborative. No one lawyer could possibly have all the answers, thus lawyers in a firm should constantly be consulting other lawyers for advice, tips, strategies and solutions. And that is one of my most vivid memories from those halcyon days at Diepenbrock, everywhere you looked you would see lawyers huddled together comparing notes on cases, trials, clients, judges, other lawyers. I probably took this rule just a bit too far and found out the hard way that we were never to consult attorneys outside the firm. I was working on a Byzantine insurance defense case and I telephoned an attorney at another firm who had argued a similar case, successfully, before the Supreme Court of California. Dennis was aghast, “We do our own homework around here.” Lesson learned.
Today I encourage the attorneys and paralegals in my office to consult one another. It may be admirable for an attorney or paralegal to barricade themselves in their office and try to “figure something out on their own,” but it is also unnecessary and wasteful. I always tell the people who work in my office, if you’re stuck, reach out for help, that’s what we’re here for.
Rule No 15: Our litigators enjoy the practice of law.
I sure do! I did then and I do now, maybe now more than ever because I paid my dues, I fought my battles, won a few, lost a few, but today I can put all that I have learned over the past twenty seven years to good use for my clients. I truly enjoy the practice of law — I think my clients understand that.
Becoming a successful attorney isn’t a question of luck, and it isn’t being in the right place at the right time, and it isn’t easy. Becoming a successful attorney is a question of having a plan, having a strategy for success, and yes, observing a few ground rules never hurts.
So when people ask me, “How did you do it?” or, “How did you do so well?” my answer is simple, I had a good teacher, and I rigorously followed “The Top Fifteen List for our Litigation Department,” because my teacher told me to. Thanks Dennis.