Tag Archives: policy

Do Workplace Dating Policies Reduce Risk? An Unorthodox Solution By Philosopher Blaise Pascal.

When Blaise Pascal was just a teenager in seventeenth century France, he invented the first mechanical calculator.

Son of a tax collector in Rouen, perhaps Pascal’s interest in numbers and organization is not that unusual.

But Pascal applied his talent in mathematics in a variety of surprising ways.

At age 16, Pascal had already written a treatise on projective geometry and worked with Pierre de Fermat to develop theories in probability theory. Pascal was also an accomplished physicist.

However, Pascal is most likely remembered for his thoughts (Pensées) as a philosopher and mystic.

This month, albeit roughly 360 years earlier, Pascal had a mystical experience. He wrote down the date and from that point forward, always kept it on his person. The date, November 23, 1654, was found sewn into the coat that he was wearing on his death, writes the Guttenberg Project.

This conversion profoundly influenced Pascal’s future research. And, still with logic and statistics in mind, Pascal started to argue the existence of God.

The argument, called Pascal’s Wager, posits that humans all bet with their lives either that God exists or does not exist—imagine a statistical theory and its counterfactual.

Whether God does or does not exist—and assuming the infinite gain (heaven and reward) associated with the belief in God or infinite loss (hell and damnation) with the disbelief—Pascal claims a rational person should always live as though God exists. In the end, if God does not exist, such a person will risk minimal finite losses (certain pleasures, luxuries, etc.) whereas in the counterfactual case, such a person risks infinite perdition.

So, why are we discussing Pascal’s Wager? Well, lawyers, the same logic can be applied to the question: Do workplace dating policies reduce risk?

Office romances are highly pervasive.

“According to CareerBuilder’s 2012 annual office romance survey, 38 percent of respondents have dated a co-worker at least once in their career, and one-third of them ended up married,” writes a Workforce article.

Unfortunately, these office romances can lead to sexual harassment suits, claims of nepotism, and other liabilities for your firm.

Take a lesson from Above The Law reader whose windshield was smashed in by a colleague he dated (and whose chances of employment after his legal internship are now dubious at best). Define your workplace dating expectations and follow them yourself.

Whether it’s a zero-tolerance fire-able offence policy; a “love contract” where employees sign statements admitting an office relationship is consensual; or confidential disclosure where employees alert firm HR representatives of potential complications, define a policy. Circulate it. Enforce it.

Law firm professionals know best that there are always ways to shirk contractual obligations, terms of agreement, or policy requirements. But, implementing such policies is better than nothing at all and often works as a deterrent to litigation.

Think about Pascal’s Wager. If workplace dating policies don’t reduce legal liability risk, you’ve spent a minimal amount of time and effort implementing one.

However, if the liability does exist and policies deter or reduce this risk, then hammering out dating policies can substantially lower the costs of litigation.

-WB

Gossip about office romances? Learn how to cub this toxic talk with C4CM’s guide Effective Management of Workplace Gossip.

Need help drafting workplace policies? Bonus material includs sample social media politic and case studies.

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David Beats Goliath In Patent Troll Lawsuit

Is there any hope for small start-up companies involved in patent troll litigation? Underdog company Newegg seems to think so. With a recent win against mega-giant Alcatel-Lucent, Newegg gives hope to the little guy facing large legal power in patent disputes.

“It is truly, truly tragic how the mighty have fallen,” says Chief Legal Officer Lee Cheng about the Alcatel-Lucent corporate trolling activity to ars technica.

In 2011, Alcatel-Lucent looked like it was dominating the e-commerce market. Not in market share, but in market power—the kind of muscle that beats its way to the top. After suing eight major retailers, as well as Intuit, Alcatel-Lucent had settled each suit, one by one.

Even though Kmart, QVC, Lands’ End, Zappos, Sears, and Amazon all eventually folded, Newegg (and Overstock.com) held out.

“It’s an operating company that happens to hold a patent,” said Cheng to ars. “But it does nothing at all to bring the benefit of that patent to society.”

On principle, Newegg pursued the case, and won. First at trial in Texas, then last Friday in Federal Circuit court appeal via summary affirmance. It took the judges just three days to uphold the Texas trial ruling.

Apparently Alcatel-Lucent was not earning $12 million from Newegg for nothing.

“These are the Bell Labs patents,” Cheng explains. “This company was once the pride of American innovation, a company that has roots going back to Alexander Graham Bell. And it ended up selling off its patents for a few bucks. What Alcatel-Lucent did was really offensive.”

Offensive in the strategy sense, as well as the moral stance.

Cheng refuses to let Alcatel-Lucent off the hook. He continues (via ars):

“They systematically sent thousands of letters out saying, ‘Hey, we own 27,000 patents, and here are some patents we think you infringe.’ They had a whole licensing group whose job was to monetize these patents, by threatening litigation and in some cases litigating. It didn’t actually matter if you did your own analysis and got back to them and said, ‘Hey guys, we actually think we don’t infringe.’ The response was something to the effect of, well, we have 27,000 patents—and you probably infringe something, so give us a licensing fee.”

It’s not just a message to patent trolls that companies are prepared to fight for their intellectual property; it’s also a message to attorneys that firms are capable of combatting these suits successfully. With just three days for summary judgment, patent troll suits can even be defeated within a reasonable timeframe.

For companies looking to legitimately protect their patents, Newegg’s experience is also a good lesson in boilerplate legal jargon. Sometimes it’s necessary to pay your lawyers to investigate individual patent disputes and customize letters to infringers. From small to large, companies are no longer afraid of legal threats to sue. In fact, many are looking for you to do just that.

Law firms and their corporate clients should work together on an IP strategy, where an offensive policy doesn’t have to be an offensive one.

Sometimes IP litigation seems more like slinging gunfights in the Wild West, as opposed to educated businessmen deliberating on the bench. For now, Newegg’s president in patent protection should keep bandits at bay.

-WB

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Court Case To Decide Future Of FTC Regulation Of Firm Cyber Security Systems

America, in the 1800s, was filled with trusts. “Trusts” referred to giant businesses that controlled the lay of the land.

Think about the major economic drivers in the Wild West—railroads, oil steel—or other commodities—sugar, for example—and you’ll likely find a trust behind it. U.S. Steel and Standard Oil once ruled the supply, controlled the price, and generally monopolized the market in American in the nineteenth century.

The rich seemed only to get richer, which is why President Theodore Roosevelt sought to break up these trusts through legal action.

Teddy, with the help of Congress, soon passed The Sherman Act in 1890, which became the country’s oldest anti-trust law. In 1914, another anti-trust bill, the Clayton Act, was passed by Congress under President Woodrow Wilson. With it came the Federal Trade Commission, or FTC.

The FTC was an agency tasked to enforce anti-trust laws and regulate and oversee business practice to ensure fair and equitable competition.

More recently, the FTC started to work in conjunction with the Department of Justice to promote consumer protection and anti-competitive business practice.

The FTC’s professed mission, specifically, is to “prevent business practices that are anticompetitive or deceptive or unfair to consumers; to enhance informed consumer choice and public understanding of the competitive process; and to accomplish this without unduly burdening legitimate business activity.”

The key players in trust regulation in Progressivist America could never envision the lack of trust consumers face today with the evolution of e-commerce. Today, the FTC’s mission of protection is being challenged on its home turf—in court.

Adding to the U.S.’s long history of anti-trust regulation, a case pending in the federal court for the District of New Jersey will decide whether or not the FTC has the right to oversee and regulate data security services provided to consumers by private firms.

Hotel conglomerate, Wyndham Worldwide Corporation, is challenging the authority of the FTC to enforce action against Wyndham and several of its subsidiary companies. The FTC’s action alleges Wyndham failed to secure the data and privacy of its customer accounts after a hacking incident claimed more than $10.6 million from Wyndham’s customers via fraudulent charges and the loss of information belonging to 500,000 individuals, according to the Westlaw Insider.

Deciding whether or not the FTC’s authority extends to oversight and regulation of the operations and other practices of private companies will definitely change the way firms can and will business. Audits to ensure firms have incorporated sufficient security measures are on the horizon, and fines for insufficient security measures would, then, be imminent.

And, although consumer protection and privacy concerns should be considered paramount to businesses, to what extent should the government be privy to the same concerns and information? Also, to what extent are businesses liable for implementing state-of-the-art cyber-protection software in the eyes of the law?

These days, breaches of online security—from cloud computing espionage to electronic spam to broken passwords (despite the alphanumeric complexity)—are common place.

The Wyndham case should certainly prompt law firms and the clients they represent to tighten those security belts before driving down the information superhighway—not just because it’s good sense and safe, but because it may soon be the law.

In our modern world, the Wyndham case serves as a gentle reminder for firms to be wiser about their computer security hardware and software, but also for governments to implement constitutional measures to find the source of this malware without violating the same privacy they seek to protect.

For more information about how to protect your firm, read “Cyber Attacks: Why Your Firm Is At Risk & How To Prevent Them.”

-WB

Read more about the history of the FTC in a fact sheet, here.

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Law Firm Security In The Age Of Technology–Human Error & Some Things That Never Change…

Security is on the minds of Americans these days. And, it seems, at least one law firm has developed paranoia.

King & Spalding announced to its employees this week that private e-mail will no longer be accessible at work. And, in the event firm network blocking measures are inadequate, employees have been advice not to open personal email accounts from a firm computer, according to a King & Spalding e-mail released by Above The Law Blog.

“The firm’s internal security experts, as well as our outside security experts, have advised us that accessing Personal Email Accounts from firm computers creates a significant security risk,” the widely-circulated e-mail states.

“The firm has installed a wireless network called ‘ksmobile’ in each office. This wireless network is reserved for K&S personnel (not clients or visitors who should be directed to the ksguest network), is a direct route to the Internet, and is appropriately sized to accommodate the many personal devices that are being used by K&S personnel.”

So, although checking personal e-mail on firm computers is prohibited, responsible and irresponsible Internet browsing is permitted on mobile devises, like smartphones. With network firewalls and digital security measures improving day-to-day, some wonder if this announcement isn’t a bit technologically too late.

However, what any number of firewalls, complex passwords, and e-mail prohibitions can’t solve is human idiocy.

Seriously.

“There’s no device known to mankind that will prevent people from being idiots,” Mark Rasch, director of network security and privacy consulting for Falls Church, Virginia-based Computer Sciences Corp. (CSC), said to Bloomberg.

Rasch is responding to an experiment conducted by The U.S. Department of Homeland Security where, in order to determine how easy it was for hackers to manipulate employees or gain access to computer systems, Homeland Security employees secretly dropped computer discs and USB thumb drives in the parking lots of government buildings and private contractors.

Not only did workers pick up those devises, but 60 percent of them plugged in the USB drives and inserted the discs into their office computers. If the devise displayed an official logo, 90 percent of workers installed the drive.

It turns out, curiosity does kill the cat—or, rather, scrambles the cat’s computer screen, steals its social security number, and swipes its confidential data through viruses, clandestine computer programming, and general digital mayhem, describes The Center For Competitive Management (C4CM)’s law blog.

“The test showed something computer security experts have long known: Humans are the weak link in the fight to secure networks against sophisticated hackers,” reports Bloomberg.

And, because 92 percent of lawyers agreed that email was the primary function of their smartphone in an ABA Legal Technology Resource Center survey, perhaps King & Spalding’s reaction isn’t as misguided as first believed. Accessing personal e-mails from a smartphone, according to participants, was more important than making a call, which goes to show how frequently lawyers rely on electronic communication, concludes an article about attorney mobile phone use.

Coupled with curiosity, perhaps law firms should consider even more stringent Internet policies.

It’s surprising how many liabilities and issues accompany Internet access in the office. And, smartphones open up an additional can of worms for curious cats.

Write a smartphone policy that addresses:

  • Handing data breeches
  • Use of company phones outside work
  • Wage and hour compliance
  • Text, talk driving issues
  • Text harassment
  • GPS tracking
  • Lost devices
  • Etiquette
  • Employee productivity
  • Photography in and out of the office

If you’re unsure how to draft a policy, including what kind of language and tone to use, take C4CM’s audio conference on crafting a bulletproof workplace policy for smartphones.

In the end, it’s important to write and implement a concrete and clear policy regarding Internet access, e-mail, and mobile phones. It’s important to highlight the security risks and repercussions for both employees and clients.

Make sure your employees know how to safely navigate the world wide web, only then will law firm managers have piece of mind when engaging in legal technology and software.

Remember, the “smart” in smartphone refers to requirements of the user, not the gadget.

-WB

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What Law Firms Need To Know About The Computer Fraud & Abuse Act

Earlier this month, during the opening day of the Austin music festival South by Southwest, an audience gathered to commemorate the life and achievements of Reddit founder Aaron Swartz, who—faced with serious computer-related charges—recently committed suicide with the weight of litigation and public pressure on his shoulders.

Aggressive prosecution under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act has become the rule rather than the exception in the U.S.

Earlier this week, a federal judge sentenced notorious hacker Andrew Auernheimer to 41 months in prison for illegally accessing email addresses and other data belonging to more than 120,000 iPad subscribers from AT&T’s networks, reports Computer World, in conjunction with the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

AT&T alleged it spent more than $73,000 for breach notifications as a result of Auernheimer’s actions. However, in addition to full restitution for damages, U.S. District Judge Susan Wigenton of the District Court in New Jersey also attached a prison term.

The breached email addresses belonged to many high-profile names: New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, New York Times CEO Janet Robinson, ABC’s Diane Sawyer, movie producer Harvey Weinstein, and former White House chief of staff Rahm Emmanuel, to name a few.

But, the true high-profile matter at hand is neither the fame of the hacker nor the celebrity of his victims. It’s the law regulating Internet use and its huge consequences for all world-wide-web users today.

Both private and public lawyers, including the Department of Justice, have been using the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act to prosecute computer hackers and laypersons alike. Anybody who violates the “terms of service” policy is at risk.

These days, a terms of service policy is more prevalent on websites than legal disclaimers, which only increases your risks of being in violation. Unfortuntately, people are unaware of the law, as well as the fine print it’s regulating.

“When judges or academics say that it is wrong to interpret a law in such a way that everyone is a felon, the Justice Department has usually replied by saying, roughly, that federal prosecutors don’t bother with minor cases—they only go after the really bad guys,” writes Tim Wu in an op-ed for The New Yorker.

“That has always been a lame excuse—repulsive to anyone who takes seriously the idea of a ‘a government of laws, not men.’ After Aaron Swartz’s suicide, the era of trusting prosecutors with unlimited power in this area should officially be over.”

Although the constitutional implications of this law are vast, it’s really the pragmatic ones that are of concern for law firms.

Law firms should take the time to understand this law before creating internal Internet policies. For example, what is your law firm policy on Internet use on company time? What about for desktop computers in the office vs. laptops that employees take home?

Under the Computer Abuse and Fraud Act, employees potentially face criminal sanctions by merely checking the latest Facebook posting or sporting events scores at work when it is not “authorized” by the firm (although more recent cases of litigation are going the other way).

Who is liable for potential breaches of the “terms of service” under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act when employees use firm laptop computers out of the office?

Furthermore, are your clients aware of all the implications of this law for their business and home life?

In light of Aaron Swartz’s suicide, law firms should start to consider providing counseling for those clients who are being prosecuted. Swartz’s suicide is an apt reminder that while you—as a lawyer—may be comfortable with the progress and success of a case, your client may feel uncertain about both its future and his own.

What routines and practices has your law firm put in place to put at ease the minds of its clients?

Whatever your view on the legitimacy of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, it’s important to keep up with its most recent developments. The Volokh Conspiracy Blog provides occasional updates on its status in courts and Congress here.

Some argue, like Wu for The New Yorker, that America’s Common Law ancestry leads to a “rule of a lenity”, where ambiguous criminal laws should (de jure and de facto) favor the defendant.

The Supreme Court states, “When choice has to be made between two readings of what conduct Congress has made a crime, it is appropriate, before we choose the harsher alternative, to require that Congress should have spoken in language that is clear and definite,” (via The New Yorker).

However, if this week’s events surrounding iPad hacker Andrew Auernheimer and his 41 months in prison is any indication, a rule of lenity doesn’t seem to be much of a rule these days at all.

For more information on the Computer Fraud And Abuse Act, and its implications for your law firms, click here.

In 2011, over 100 employers were accused of improper social media practices or policies, according to The Center For Competitive Management. If not to protect your employees from strict law enforcement, protect your firm.

If you’re unsure where to start, try research and a round-table discussion with a mix of junior and senior attorneys. Along with administrators, ask the group to create a social media policy that reflects their own opinions on the matter. Most likely, your employees will know best what types of social media uses actually constitute abuses.

A round-table discussion will also ensure your employees take the time to read workplace policy; after all, they helped write it.

Finally, if you’re still stuck finding solutions, start by attending C4CM’s course on audio CD, Developing a Social Media Policy: Clear Guidelines to Prevent or Reduce Employment-Related Problems.

-WB

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Too Fashion-forward Taking Your Firm Two Steps Back? How Lawyers Dress For Success


Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, and Oscar de la Renta may not be names that law firm professionals recognize. They’re not famous attorneys, judges, or law enforcement. Instead, these are names of a few of the world’s elite fashion police.

Right now, Paris, France, is abound with models, designers, celebrities, and those photographers who capture them all. It’s called Fashion Week. But, why should we be concerned?

One reason is that Americans make up the world’s worst-dressed society.

Among the hello-kitty clad Japanese and the Birkenstock-sporting Germans, it’s the constantly-too-casual Americans who are our chief culprits. The United States tops the world rankings for the worst-dressed tourists.

But, more importantly, Paris fashion week is a reminder that diversity in style, appropriate attire, and cultural differences affect every workplace and profession.

We don’t all strut the catwalk, but we do walk the office corridor. And, it turns out, the way we dress has an impact on both employee morale and productivity.

“Continually relaxed dress leads to relaxed manners, relaxed morals and relaxed productivity,” and “leads to a decrease in company loyalty and increase in tardiness,” writes Stephen Goode in his article, “Clothes do make the man, after all,” for Insight on the News. Goode is summarizing the findings of research psychologist, Jeffery L. Magee, who surveyed 500 firms in 1997 and 1998 about workplace attire.

Psychologically, the way a person dresses affects how they feel. So, if a person is more comfortable in his clothes, he may feel a boost in morale or increased satisfaction at his job.

At the same time, if a person is dressed causally, he may exhibit more informal behavior at work, including slower response time, lower productivity, or a less professional attitude.

Berryman-Fink (1989) found that workplace attire possessed a signaling effect, whereby casual dress signaled incompetency and decreased perceived credibility on the part of an employer and client about his employee.

Furthermore, in a 1999 Jackson Lewis poll, firms who had “dress-down days” at their offices also had higher rates of absenteeism and tardiness.

The majority of firms adopt casual workplace attire as a way to attract new employees and retain old ones. However, in today’s economic environment, are such kitschy additions to employee benefits packages really necessary? Might they be detrimental, even?

Attorneys are part of a service-oriented profession. They see clients frequently, attend depositions, and go to court. Formal dress—like passing the bar or possessing computer skills—is simply part of the job.

If your firm already has a casual-dress day, Paul J. Siegel, a Jackson Lewis partner, advises:

“Employers should monitor workplace behavior to ensure that a more casual manner of dress does not lead to reduced professionalism. Workplace standards must be maintained or there will be an increase in the perception or incidence of harassment or discrimination.”

With this in mind, ask yourself whether or not your firm’s current workplace dress code (or the de facto choice of attire in your office) needs a makeover.

Even Paris Fashion Week would agree that timeless style is far better than risking a passing fad. In law, wearing a classic suit and tie will never be considered a faux pas.

-WB

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Patent Lawyers Happier Than Most?

Lawyers are happy in the Springtime. The months approaching April mean higher billable hours as tax season approaches. The smell of green abounds as lawyers help balance the books of their corporate clients.

What else makes attorneys happy? Going home early on a Friday or—surprisingly—staying late on Friday to work, if it’s for a rewarding case.

Lawyers, like other employees, are happier and more productive in their jobs when they’re intellectually engaged. A 2010 study by James K. Harter and colleagues showed that lower job satisfaction led to poorer performance in companies, according to the New York Times article, “Do Happier People Work Harder?”

Gallup estimates that the cost disgruntled American workers is a staggering $300 billion in lost productivity each year (via NYT).

We’ve already discussed that law firms can combat the too-unhappy-to-work blues by offering a legal issue roundtable.

A forum for discussion and learning surrounding legal issues or news will increase firm-wide happiness. A quick conversation in the morning can lead to higher levels of productivity all afternoon.

Even the U.S. government realizes the economic value of happiness. They’ve proposed incorporating an official Happiness Index alongside more traditional economic measures, like GDP.

But, if your firm is not ready to adopt more innovative approaches to workplace happiness levels, you’re in luck. This month, your firm should be busy with more than just double-checking tax returns.

This month, patent lawyers are especially happy.

On March 15, 2013, the new First-To-File patent system takes effect. For your clients, this could have important consequences and require immediate action.

Based on their patent strategies, your clients may want to get in that provisional application before the new system rolls out. In fact, some firms strongly believe the changeover will have detrimental impacts on inventors—which could be the end of your key engineering client.

Morrison & Foerster LLP recommends the following to inventors for the first-to-file changeover:

  1. Work with your scientists, engineers, or other inventors now to determine if they have new inventions that are ready or will soon be ready to file patent applications upon so that you can file any patent applications on March 15, 2013 or earlier.
  2. Accelerate research and development on commercially important inventions so you can file patent applications on them by March 15, 2013.
  3. Ensure that any new U.S. provisional patent applications that you file between now and March 15, 2013 are as complete and well drafted as any non-provisional patent application that you would expect a patent examiner to examine. If you add any new material when converting to a non-provisional application after March 15, 2013, you risk your invention being subject to the first-to-file system.
  4. File a second U.S. provisional application or foreign priority application or file a non-provisional conversion application on March 15, 2013, if you have additional material to add when converting to any U.S. provisional applications or foreign priority applications you filed on March 16, 2012 or later.

Read more about the downsides to the First-To-File system here.

Whatever your beliefs about the new patent system, however, one fact remains. Law firms should prepare notes on the regulatory changes and circulate them to clients.

The clock is ticking, and the litigation strategies of your law firm should be marching in time with it.

If you don’t want a happiness and productivity-boosting roundtable, why not a strategy session for your litigation department regarding patent cases. Now is definitely the moment to seize.

“I decided it would be fun to do patent trials,” said Richard Posner, former judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, to the NY Times. Surely, with all the new changes in patent law, the fun has only begun.

Never fear, patent lawyers—you’re happiness levels (and billables) have never been higher!

-WB

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How Fear Collapses An Economy & Employee Morale In An Instant

You may have lived through the great global rice crisis of 2008 without even knowing it.

For Americans, rice is not the key to cuisine. In fact, in the land of beef and bread, a lack of rice may not have seemed like a crisis at all.

But, for many people in Asia and Africa, a four-month spike in the price of rice from $300 a ton to $1,200 a ton was something to lose your lunch over (literally).

“Before that, I used to eat rice every morning,” Ben Flores, a janitor in the Philippines, told NPR Planet Money.

“I really lost weight because of [the rice crisis].”

So why this sudden increase in commodity price? It comes down to rumor and fear.

See, in an effort to keep rice cheap for its government food-distribution programs, India blocked all exports of non-Basmati rice. In October 2007, just one day after the Indian decision, the market (over)reacted.

The stop of all exports of rice from India signaled the potential for a global shortage.

In economics, a shortage of a product results in an increase in price. Although there was never actually a shortage in the production of rice, the Indian policy decision triggered a chain reaction purely from the fear that a shortage might occur.

Soon, people started hoarding. Even countries started hoarding. Panicked government officials in the Philippines went so far as to tell its citizens in a televised announcement to eat less rice.

National reactions like this one only exacerbated fears about the future availability of this food source.

The price of rice continued to rise. Egypt, Pakistan, and Vietnam started limiting exports.

An underground market for rice emerged, where government officials of import nations made bargains with export nations to get “sweetheart deals” for exclusive rights to its rice, explains NPR.

“People panicked everywhere,” Peter Timmer, an emeritus professor of economics at Harvard who is one of the world’s leading experts on the rice trade, said to NPR.

“In Ho Chi Minh City, for heaven’s sake, the center of the second-largest rice exporting surplus in the world, supermarkets and rice markets got cleaned out in two days.”

Keep in mind, this crisis had nothing to do with bad crops. The crisis was not due to unexpected or even expected shortages. The only thing that spurred hoarding was fear. And, the only thing to cure the crisis would be a signal of  restored security.

That’s exactly what two American economists did.

It turns out, that due to a complicated mandate by the World Trade Organization, Japan has been stockpiling rice.

So, economists Peter Timmer and Tom Slayton create a lobbying campaign that put Japan at the negotiating table. Once the country announced it would release this stockpile of rise, the price of rice dropped.

In fact, Japan never distributed its rise stockpile. The simple assurancethat it would, however, was enough to stabilize markets, according to NPR.

Law firm professionals should heed the many morals of this geo-political story (and not just for the benefit of your next sushi lunch). Like in any business, law firm managers are responsible for the signals that a firm sends to its employees.

Rumors about upcoming firings, whispers in the hallways about the next partner nomination, or the general, circulating belief that a firm is making cutbacks on salaries or bonuses can derail the productivity of an office.

One isolated incident—misworded memo or internal e-mail—is enough to trigger a firm-wide frenzy.

To avoid a rapid and possibly instantaneous decline of morale,

  1. Monitor workplace gossip closely
  2. Respond to workplace rumors immediately in a firm and confident manner
  3. Create a management-level policy that outlines steps to address workplace gossip
  4. Make hiring and firing a transparent process
  5. Implement frequent and consistent employee performance reviews

When employees know where they stand and what managers think of the quality of their work product, they’re less prone to panic. In addition, as firms implement consistent and transparent workplace policies and habits, employees will trust in the formal mechanisms in place more than the rumors that question them.

Put an end to fear in order to boost morale at your firm.

-WB

Effective Management of Workplace Gossip: Guide to Handling and Minimizing Toxic Talk is a no-fluff, plain-English report by The Center For Competitive Management that you can use to take control of toxic workplace situations and end negative gossip and rumors circulating within your firm.

This report includes the following BONUS material:

  1. Sample Social Media Policy
  2. Case Studies:
    • A Smiling Backstabber
    • Whose Collection of WHAT?!
    • The Athlete & The Commentary
  3. Sample No Gossip Policy
    • Individual
    • Corporate
  4. Sample Written Warning for Gossip
  5. Ways to Avoid or Deflect Gossip in the Workplace

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For Higher Growth & Revenue— Don’t Hire New Employees, Get To Know The Ones You Have

Year-end growth results for the legal industry are the best Wells Fargo has reported since 2008, according to Jeff Grossman, head of the bank’s legal specialty group, reported by Thomson Reuters.

The bank confidentially surveyed 100 law firms, which reported a five-percent increase in gross revenue in 2012. In addition, net income rose by six percent. For managers, the good news continues as profits per partner rose five percent, reports Thomson Reuters.

What changed in our downturn economy? Policy.

“Grossman cited the fiscal cliff negotiations between the Obama administration and the U.S. Congress over automatic tax hikes scheduled for Jan. 1, as one possible driver of the revenue growth,” says Thomson Reuters.

In late 2012 and early 2013, some law firm said their mergers and acquisition, tax and trust and estates practices received extra work in the fourth quarter as their clients prepared for tax hikes, according to the Wells Fargo report.

Nevertheless, don’t stop penny-pinching quite yet

“Top law firms are getting what little premium business there is,” Grossman said to Thomason Reuters in an email.

Luckily, with a new year comes new ideas for revenue generating. The following tools will help your firm keep up the good growth, without growing in numbers.

Don’t hire new associates when you can just make better use of the ones already hired. Here’s how.

Firm Competency Database

If you were a baseball coach, you would be sure of the home-run and strike-out averages of a player before putting him up to bat.

Likewise, as a law firm manager, you should be aware of the capabilities and experience—both pre-hire and post-hire—of all your employees. This is not just a list of cases won or lost, however.

When hired, associates bring in a certain set of skills. But, once working, these same employees develop new ones. CVs may be updated, but current employers are often left in the dark.

Develop a sophisticated model for tracking employee competencies. For example, include number of years experience both at the firm and outside, create a rating system for computer skills (and provide a standardized test for it, if necessary), and record area-specific knowledge, from patents to accounting to foreign languages (and if they worked on cases requiring these skills).

Most importantly, keep this list standardized, up to date, and eyes-only. There’s no need to circulate this database outside managing powers-that-be. Nevertheless, when assigning projects or cases, you’ll have a better idea of who among you is best suited for the job.

A competency database will increase your efficieny in assigning cases and the productivity of those assigned to them.

You were already wondering how lawyers use Excel. Consider this your first chance to try out new technology. You’re at bat!

Career Leadership Opportunities

You don’t need to hire another administrator to balance the budget, write internal policies, or manage social media for your law firm. Why? It’s likely your firm already has these competencies, but just doesn’t know it yet.

Chris Smith, partner and co-founder at the management consulting firm ARRYVE, helped develop career leadership opportunities or CLOs at his company. He explains in the Harvard Business Review Blog that CLOs are mini-projects given to employees.

The projects address a specific need of the business while allowing employees to develop new skills and competencies.

“Similar to 3M’s or Google’s innovation time, CLOs give employees a way to try out their ideas in a less risky environment—but in the context of the company’s needs, as well. Some of our marketing-oriented consultants, for instance, jumped at the chance to develop our firm’s social media strategy,” explains Smith.

“This helped them build new skills, reduced the cost we incurred on outside agencies, and created a great case study for the strategy work we sell as a service.”

Lawyers have diverse backgrounds—whether it be in technology or accounting—so it’s natural that a firm would exploit these talents. In turn, it provides a little variety what can be a monotonous workday for lawyers and fodder for annual bonuses at the firm.

Furthermore, lawyers can seize this chance to build their arsenal of competencies. For example, a senior associate can learn the ins and outs of social media by taking charge of a CLO project aimed to increase a firm’s online presence.

CLOs don’t have to be assigned. In fact, they will be more effective if the projects are voluntary. So, create a list of your various firm needs: Twitter account, website content editing, social media policy, short-term strategic plan, year-end budget goals, fantasy football organizer, pro-bono work, etc.

Create a “catchy” pitch for the task, and watch employees sign up!

With the right incentives, every associate can exploit his or her creativity and satisfy his or her secret entrepreneurship ambitions. Associates are waiting for an opportunity to impress their superiors, break up a stagnant workday, and increase their chances for promotion by being a team-player. Put me in coach!

Public Awareness Committee

If you don’t already have an in-house public relations representative, consider creating a “public awareness committee” at your firm. This group should be responsible for proofreading press-releases, organizing benefits, and generally ensuring a positive image on the world-wide-web.

In this economy, it’s never enough to trust word-of-mouth referrals or equity partners to bring in new clients. Even the legendary Babe Ruth needed a publicist.

Proactive firms are also aware of their public image. Do you know yours?

-WB

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Client Services: How To Kill Your Competitors With Kindness

During a commencement ceremony, which celebrated the talent and achievement of Princeton University’s 2010 graduating class, all eyes were on Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. The invited speaker had just minutes to impart generations of wisdom and business savvy responsible for bestowing riches upon riches to his grandfather and millions of dollars upon himself.

“What made this family of entrepreneurs so successful?” wondered the clever young minds of the current graduating class. And, Bezos would tell them what his grandfather had told him years ago.

“It’s harder to be kind than clever,” he said.

Now, kindness—in the business world—is often overlooked. More frequently leaders are associated with traits such as shrewdness, higher education, or preparedness.

Bezo’s point—rather, his grandfather’s—was that it’s possible for any individual to obtain or develop a keen intellect. However, learning to be kind, and leveraging that kindness to a business advantage, is key to success and harder to master.

Take, for example, the following anecdotal story as referred to by Bill Taylor in his article for the Harvard Business Review Blog.

“The story, as told in AdWeek, goes like this: Brandon Cook, from Wilton, New Hampshire, was visiting his grandmother in the hospital. Terribly ill with cancer, she complained to her grandson that she desperately wanted a bowl of soup, and that the hospital’s soup was inedible (she used saltier language). If only she could get a bowl of her favorite clam chowder from Panera Bread! Trouble was, Panera only sells clam chowder on Friday. So Brandon called the nearby Panera and talked to store manager Suzanne Fortier. Not only did Sue make clam chowder specially for Brandon’s grandmother, she included a box of cookies as a gift from the staff.”

“It was a small act of kindness that would not normally make headlines. Except that Brandon told the story on his Facebook page, and Brandon’s mother, Gail Cook, retold the story on Panera’s fan page. The rest, as they say, is social-media history. Gail’s post generated 500,000 (and counting) “likes” and more than 22,000 comments on Panera’s Facebook page. Panera, meanwhile, got something that no amount of traditional advertising can buy—a genuine sense of affiliation and appreciation from customers around the world.”

Marketing experts will agree that the above story emphasizes the importance of customer service to a company’s survival and bourgeoning reputation.

But law firms don’t have “customer service,” per se. They have client services. And, how exactly does the above tale reach the customers of legal services?

Unlike Panera, law firms don’t bank on repeat customers for business. Jordan Furlong for Slaw explains, “Many clients [of law firms] are one-offs—most people don’t need to immigrate twice or get multiple divorces—so the lawyer has little motivation to encourage repeat business.”

In addition, lawyers by nature are much more interested in the product and process—finding a creative solution to a case or winning in court—than the person behind it. Once out in the real world, attorneys are eager to make a name for themselves, create legal precedent, or earn partnership.

And, partnership is rarely the product of previous client satisfaction. Rather, it’s a product of attracting additional business from new clients.

All of these reasons (and more) explain why law firm managers deprioritize customer service. Certainly—even when aware of its importance—law firm managers generally do not have a client services strategic plan or policy.

In the end, it’s easier to ask first what benefits the firm, as opposed to what most benefits the client. But, pure kindness pays in unforeseen ways. So, in the spirit of Panera—take steps to earn your bread and butter with kindness through the following changes:

  1. Don’t charge clients for their monthly status report phone calls. Welcome lengthy discussions and questions about the case. Put your customer at ease by easing off the billable-hour clock. Furthermore, lengthy meeting minutes are often discounted off invoices during billing anyway.
  2. Furlong suggests, for valued clients, install a 24/7 “hot line” (phone or email) at which a responsible and competent firm professional can be reached for and will respond to urgent issues—the law firm equivalent of “roadside assistance.” After-hours inquiries could be fielded by part-time lawyers or those employed with an offshore legal services provider affiliated with the firm.
  3. Write a formal client services policy for employees. The policy should explain firm expectations for high-quality service, including a detail description for how to interact with clients. Include an “emergency procedure” for especially disgruntled customers.
  4. Furlong also suggests creating a referral incentive program for clients. Provide a discount for future services, which encourages repeat business, each time a client refers another person to your firm.
  5. In addition, create a referral incentive program for employees. Provide a percentage of winnings to any employee or associate (not just partners) who referred friends or family as a client. Not only will this garner more business, it will also bolster the relationships between and feelings of trust among members of the firm.

This year, learn what the most success CEOs, businessmen, and mothers already know. Kill (and bill) with kindness.

-WB

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