Verto Solutions Goes Sailing

Verto Solutions, with friends and families, went sailing today on the Chesapeake Bay.  The conditions were perfect with clear skies, a brisk wind, and great company.

Verto Solutions Summer Outing on the Chesapeake

Verto Solutions Summer Outing on the Chesapeake

Captain Lila has the wheel

Captain Lila has the wheel

 

 

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Advice for New Lawyers

I’m speaking again this week to University of Alabama law students about career opportunities for lawyers working in government relations.  It’s not an easy time for new lawyers to get started, so I’ve been thinking about what I can say to help them in their searches.

University of Alabama Law School - Tuscaloosa

University of Alabama Law School – Tuscaloosa

Last year my presentation to these students focused on the association world, explaining what we do at Verto Solutions and Verto Legal Solutions.  But entry level legal positions aren’t typical in the association world and so this year I’m expanding my remarks to discuss  what it takes to find that first job out of law school.  The recession and the profound changes in the market for legal services have made it more challenging than ever for new lawyers to get started.

It took me a while to get started after graduating from law school and I was pretty anxious about it.  I clerked for a small general practice in Alexandria, Virginia and worked as a waiter in the mall near the Pentagon.  When I finally landed my first “real job” after law school, it wasn’t even a legal job.

The good news is that by spending a semester in DC these students are demonstrating that they have the nerve and flexibility to make it in spite of the challenging market that they face.

There’s more good news; these students are graduating from an excellent law school.  The rankings and reputation of the University of Alabama School of Law have steadily increased over the last quarter century.  I think much of the credit belongs to Dean Ken Randall who retired last year.  For more information on Alabama’s ranking and value see Mark Kogan’s article, “5 Top Law Schools Just as Great as Harvard, Yale, and Stanford.”

In trying to give advice to these new lawyers I turned to friends and colleagues to see what ideas or observations they might have for graduating law students.  I put the following questions to lawyers that have been out of school for awhile and that have found success, although not always working as lawyers:

  • What do you know now about working in the legal profession that you wish you had known when you graduated from law school?
  • Are you using your law degree in a way that you anticipated when you were a third year law student?
  • Did you get any lucky breaks in finding your first job after law school and what’s the most important thing to do to find such a break?
  • What’s the biggest change that you’ve seen in the legal profession since you graduated from law school?

CHANGES IN THE MARKET FOR LEGAL SERVICES
All of my respondents commented on the rapid and unprecedented changes in the legal marketplace over the past 20 years.  More than one person said it’s just plain harder to make a living practicing law than before and it’s even harder to find that first position.

Changes in the market for legal services are being caused by two big and related forces: transparency and technology.  Legal information used to be available exclusively to law firms through expensive subscriptions to volumes of case law and regulatory rulings.  This has all changed, first with on-line services like Lexis and Westlaw, and then simply the Internet and free on-line government publications.

Transparency has also increased awareness of how lawyers charge for their services and given customers the tools to shop around.  Finding a good lawyer used to require a personal network; now just use Google and you can read all about a lawyer, their work, and their fees.

Technology is the other area where there’s been dramatic change.  Of course, technology has enabled the explosion of new information, but it’s also changed the way lawyers work.  One friend asked, can you imagine not having email when consulting with clients?  No, I can’t, and email is wonderful tool, but it also means that getting back to someone within 24 hours isn’t always good enough; make it an hour or less or they might wonder if they have the best lawyer.

So what do you get when you combine the experiences of my friends with the significant changes in the market for legal services? They came back with lots of interesting insights with most of their comments falling into four general categories of advice.

ADVICE #1: PRIORTIZE YOUR HAPPINESS
Early in my career I was told to focus on what I like doing and not to worry about the money or the prestige.  But it’s easy to ignore this suggestion when you’re just trying to get started.  You feel like you need to take pretty much whatever you can find, preferably a “real legal job.”  Many lawyers dive into something because it’s the first thing that comes along or because they think it’s what they want to do.  Then they get frustrated and realize that there’s a conflict between what they enjoy or find rewarding, and what they do on a day to day basis.

More than one of my friends pointed out that our society attaches implied satisfaction and happiness to the traditional progression from first year associate to big law firm partner.  This route has always been available to just a minority of each graduating class, and that minority is shrinking further.

Of the dozen or so lawyers I contacted only one has followed the supposedly traditional progression to big law firm partner.  He graduated from Harvard Law School, clerked for a Federal judge and was hired by a big law firm where he has remained through at least one merger.  We were speaking as The Washington Post reported merger talks between Patton Boggs and Squire Sanders.  These mergers are bad news for young lawyers and as the traditional law firm partner said to me, “nobody’s safe.”

In some cases, getting on the traditional track helps lawyers figure out what kind of work they don’t enjoy and the lucky and flexible ones are then able to transition to something different and more in line with their emerging preferences.  These transitions lead to a million different places but not generally to traditional law firms.

Figuring out what makes you happy at work isn’t easy.  I had been out of law school for more than 15 years when I first worked with an executive coach and took a Myers Briggs personality type test.  I’m not aware that the typical law school puts much time into helping students use these kinds of tools to identify what kind of work or environment is best for them.

ADVICE #2: YOU’LL HAVE TO SPECIALIZE EVENTUALLY, BUT DON’T RUSH IT
If you know what you want to do, then be like a dog with a bone.  If you’ve decided that you want to be a food lawyer then immerse yourself in that area through outside reading and networking.  Employers will appreciate your passion for a particular area, but be sure to explain why you’re passionate about it.

As I explained in this space last year I stumbled into association law & management.  I’m still figuring it out, but right now I enjoy all aspects of managing associations, including the legal work, and I’m hopefully becoming a subject matter expert in association corporate governance and food policy.

In the information age it’s important to remember that to be successful you have to provide knowledge, not just information.  Attaining knowledge about any particular area requires time and effort.  To really succeed you will need to become an expert in something, but there’s plenty of time for this.

ADVICE #3: WORK HARD, AT EVERYTHING
One friend made the point that law schools don’t normally help lawyers translate their education into jobs that might fall outside of traditional law practices.  The Washington, D.C. program is a great example of a law school creating an interesting and practical program to help students become professsionals.

It’s a little cruel to recommend outside reading to law students, but there’s an interesting book called Reinventing Professional Services: Building Your Business in the Digital Marketplace by Ari Kaplan.  Ari’s book includes many observations about changes to the market for legal services along with suggestions for succeeding in the new market.   He says the key to success is that you simply have to out hustle the competition; there’s no reason to wait until you get a job to start hustling.

I attended a workshop at the DC bar association last week.  The bar calendar is loaded with affordable workshops and lectures.  These events are intended for lawyers, but the secret is that they are happy to have a law student/potential bar member attend.  So look at the calendar and find something that interests you and be sure to raise your hand and ask a question.  Imagine the impact on an audience of lawyers when a student raises their hand to ask a question and says “I just wanted to attend today because I’m interested in ____ law.”  This is how to get noticed.

A word about networking.  I remember being told how important it was to network before I really knew what it meant.  Ari Kaplan even says he remembers thinking it sounded a little sleazy.

Here’s my definition of networking:

Offering to get involved or help someone without any expectation that you will receive a return on the favor. 

Networking is something you will have to continue after you get a job as well.  Many lawyers get so tied up in their first few jobs that they ignore their networks from schools, previous jobs, neighborhoods, etc., until they are older.  Don’t make this mistake.  Don’t forget that your friends are your best network.  Almost all jobs come through connections, but this doesn’t just mean friends in high places.  Several of my friends heard about jobs through their friends.

ADVICE #4: BE FLEXIBLE AND ACCEPT THE JOURNEY
Very few of my friends are using their law degree in ways that they anticipated when graduating.  I’m not a futurist, but I’m confident in saying that many students graduating today will find fulfilling work in fields that don’t even exist today.  The changes in our society are that profound.

One of my friends suggested that law students look for a chance to take a finance course if they haven’t already.  Again, perhaps it’s gotten better, but traditionally law schools fall short at providing a practical education.  The days are gone when you could just be a lawyer.  Success today will eventually require business and finance skills that they don’t teach in law school; find a way to get them on your own.  It’s rarely possible to “just be a lawyer” anymore.

Understand that even when you do find your first job you won’t know what you’re doing.  Society places value on a law degree and that feels nice at least right after you pass the bar, but what you learned in those three years is just the beginning.  Be prepared to be a life-long learner.

Another friend recommended The Start-up of You: Adapt to the Future, Invest in Yourself, and Transform Your Career by Reid Hoffman.  LinkedIn cofounder Hoffman gives great advice on how to succeed in the hyper-competitive business world, it’s great advice for any professional.

Having met the students in the Alabama program I can say with confidence that they will all eventually find interesting and rewarding positions.  They are the lucky ones, because they’ve got the drive and they’re coming out of a great school.  The critical thinking and organizational skills that they learned in law school will help them regardless of where they land.  And by participating in the Washington program they’re growing their network.

I’m grateful to Mike House at Hogan Lovells for including me on the program.  Mike and the University of Alabama have created a great environment for new lawyers interested in government relations, now it’s up to them.

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Chuck Spurlock: An Appreciation

I went to Montgomery, Alabama today to be with the friends and family of Charles Hughes Spurlock, Jr.  Chuck Spurlock passed away Tuesday evening after a year fighting cancer.  Chuck was one of the smartest, sweetest, and most interesting people I have ever met.  I admired Chuck enormously and today I learned some things about him I didn’t know.

Chuck is originally from Clifton, Tennessee.  Over his 60 years he lived in many places, but all in the South.  He taught religion, history, and Greek and Roman mythology to high school students in Savannah and Atlanta, Georgia.  He also led successive debate teams in regional and national competitions.

While teaching in Savannah he began managing Congressional campaigns.  He went on to manage gubernatorial and Senatorial campaigns in Tennessee and Alabama.  Chuck managed Senator Jeff Sessions’ successful races for Alabama Attorney General and U.S. Senator.  Chuck was appointed as Sessions’ State Director, and served in that position for 17 years, taking a leave of absence twice to manage successful re-election campaigns.

Thinking about Chuck today made me realize that although I may not always love politics, I am fascinated by people that do, and Chuck was one of those people.  He was practical about politics, but he was also extremely competitive.  Because Chuck was involved in so many races he must have made an enemy or two.  But only from a distance.  Anyone that really knew Chuck admired and respected him, regardless of their politics.

I met Chuck when I joined the Senator’s staff in 1997.  This was also when he married his warm, beautiful and funny wife Phyllis.  Chuck and I traveled with the Senator for three years and I got to know Chuck, and the state of Alabama, better.  The usual arrangement had the Senator in a car with his local field representative; Chuck and I would be in the following car.  We would plan the day’s events and hopefully some media coverage.  In those conversations I learned how much Chuck loved history and politics, but I didn’t realize until today that he was so accomplished in them.  What I would give for one more ride with Chuck.

Al.com has a story about Chuck’s passing that includes a good picture and the Senator’s heartfelt statement.

Chuck had a wonderful sense of humor and a happiness about him at all times.  As Dr. Bryan said today in the benediction, “I could hear his smile over the telephone.”  We could all hear your smile Chuck, I still hear it now.

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Spring Hill College Alumni Board and New Offices for the Verto Solutions Companies

The Association Navigator Blog is back.  It’s been nearly three months since my last post, Spring_Hill_College_220435but I’m back and I’m picking up the tempo.  I’m getting re-started with updates about Spring Hill College and our new offices at Verto Solutions.

First, Spring Hill College.  I was appointed last week to Spring Hill College’s National Alumni Association Board (NAAB).  The Alumni Board includes alumni leaders from around the country who serve as advocates for the College in their communities.  I received a BA in English from Spring Hill in 1987.  I try to be an active alumnus, but until now this just meant attending DC receptions.  I’ve been looking for a way to increase my involvement and hopefully this is it.  Monde Donaldson with the Alumni office recognized that I was a good candidate to put some energy into helping this great school.

Spring Hill College is a liberal arts school located in my hometown, Mobile, Alabama. It’s the oldest college in Alabama, the first Catholic college in the Southeast, and the third oldest Jesuit college in the United States.  There are about 1,300 students – more than half of them are from outside Alabama, and the current freshman class is the largest first year class in the school’s history.  It is fast becoming the premiere Jesuit college in the South.

The challenges faced by small schools like Spring Hill were highlighted this weekend in the Wall Street Journal.

I’m looking forward to getting reacquainted with the school and helping them with their recruiting efforts.  I attended Spring Hill initially because of a leadership scholarship awarded to local student leaders; I stayed at Spring Hill because of the environment – great students and dedicated teachers.

Verto1Verto Solutions and Verto Legal Solutions moved into brand new offices in Washington just two weeks ago.  The new suite at 1101 17th Street N.W. is 2 blocks north of the old space, and it’s larger, more comfortable, more modern, and hopefully more inspiring to the team.  We now have more than 10,000 square feet of offices and conference facilities.  The new space gives us room to grow.

Verto2The office move was a huge effort and the entire process took more than a year.  Finding the new location, negotiating the lease, designing, furnishing, wiring the space, and moving, was an enormous project.  Everyone at Verto worked extra hard over the past month, with incredible efforts from my partners, Christie Harman and Sean Taylor, and our Director of Finance & Administration Sue Knudsen.  Critical support from outside Verto was provided by the brokers from CBRE, the design architects from Wingate Hughes, the construction management team at James G. Davis Construction, and technology support from Ntiva.  We’re planning a holiday open house, but please let me know whenever you can stop by for a visit.

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What Does the Sale of The Washington Post Mean to Your Association?

We’re just back from a great family vacation in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. We RoadtoRelevanceplayed golf and tennis, went swimming, hiking, wine tasting, and visited Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello. I spent most of the week off the computer, only looking at email once or twice.

I’ve been thinking about what Jeff Bezos’ purchase of The Washington Post means for trade associations?

We heard the news a couple of weeks ago that Jeff Bezos, founder and chief executive of Amazon is buying The Washington Post and there have been many articles about what this means for the newspaper business.

Yesterday’s New York Times article, “He’s Going to Break Some Eggs” is certainly worth reading.

The connection to associations is Competition. Like newspapers, associations face an “onslaught of unprecedented, ubiquitous, and relentless competition in the space that once belonged exclusively to associations.” This quote is from Road to Relevance by Harrison Coerver and Mary Byers, the most valuable book out there right now for association professionals. I think this book is so good that I’ll be featuring quotes in future posts. One of the themes of Road to Relevance is that associations are facing competition from multiple sources. Key areas where associations used to hold an advantage – information sharing, professional networking and education are now served by lots of new competitors. Information comes from the Internet, networking is done best via social media, and workshops are hosted by just about everyone.

We’re being told that the reason the Graham family is selling The Washington Post is because it’s been losing money for years and they need someone that can afford to continue losing money while he innovates the way the model operates. No one knows what Bezos will do with The Post. There’s lots of speculation about the changes that he might make. Whatever he does, it will become a journalism distribution system, not a newspaper. I’m sad about the end of newspapers, but these are powerful market forces that can’t be stopped.

For a thoughtful discussion of the weaknesses of most business models in today’s environment read Geoff Colvin’s “Your Business Model Doesn’t Work Anymore” in the February 25, 2013 Fortune.

I’m not saying that the business model of trade associations is broken; but associations face incredible competition from the for-profit world. Being a tax exempt organization doesn’t exempt your organization from competition for your members’ time and money. Association members are inundated with offers of information and opportunities to join groups and events. This space used to be reserved for the association.

What this means for associations is that they must focus on their unique advantage, whatever that may be. What does your association do for its members that they can’t get anywhere else? Is it a certification program, advocacy, a trade show? Whatever it is, as an association executive it is your responsibility to identify it and protect it. Don’t let the competition harm your association.

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Something I Didn’t Know About Hotel WiFi

WebI just learned something new about hotels and WiFi.  The current system isn’t just a money grab, it’s also a capacity issue.

I’m annoyed when hotels charge high fees for WiFi in conference meeting rooms.  I’m not talking about guest room or lobby access, I’m referring to a strong WiFi signal during meetings so that attendees can research and multitask during sessions.

I have a sense that things are changing quickly in this area.  I hope the current system of sometimes making groups pay for meeting room WiFi access is on the way out.  I wonder what it was like in the early days of tap water.  Did the hotels charge extra?  WiFi is so essential for traveling professionals that I think it is silly to charge groups extra for it.

It’s considered a requirement now in the dozens of meeting contracts that Verto Solutions negotiates for our client associations every year.  Times have changed; most meeting attendees now bring laptops or tablets to meetings and they need WiFi access.

I had the chance to discuss this issue with representatives of two major hotel chains recently.  I asked them about the state of complimentary WiFi under hotel meeting contracts.  My friend who’s a senior facilities and infrastructure executive with one of the large chains surprised me when he said the current system isn’t just about revenue, it’s also about capacity.  He said most hotels are racing to upgrade their bandwidth and that the current systems in most hotels would be overwhelmed if meeting WiFi access was free.  In other words, the current system of making groups pay has the effect of reducing the number of people using the system.

For a better explanation of the technical side of this issue, (“bonded T1 vs. 10 meg symmetrical pipe”) see Andy Abramson’s post at MuniWireless.com.

Both of my hotel friends said that WiFi in meeting rooms included in the contract without additional charges is only a matter of time.  But for now, and until the infrastructure is upgraded, we need to continue to negotiate the best deal that we can.  This is another example of The Association Management Advantage, because association management companies negotiate so many hotel contracts we have the knowledge, experience and leverage to get the best deal possible for your association.

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Association Management and Board Reports: “Done is Better Than Perfect”

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The Beautiful Trees at Highlands Swim and Tennis Club – McLean, VA

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s recent book Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead is in my stack to read.  My wife was inspired by it and quickly passed it on to a friend.  Doug Conant, former CEO of Campbell’s and now head of ConantLeadership recently shared one of Sandberg’s simple yet powerful suggestions – “done is better than perfect.”

Good regular communication between quarterly in-person meetings with your board is critical to the success of any association executive.  Board communications come in a variety of forms and titles.  The association executives at Verto Solutions even have different names for them.  One association receives a “Monthly Board Report” while another gets a “Headquarters Update.”  Whatever you call it, it is critical to publish a regular (monthly is best) update on association activities for your board to review.

I have learned the hard way what can happen when an association executive doesn’t adequately communicate with their governing board or board chair.  I once believed that my board chair was too busy for detailed updates on what the staff was doing for the association; big mistake.

Always remember – It’s not possible to over communicate with your board.  If you under communicate it can cause lots of problems.

Writing a good report – well written and focused on the proper depth – is a critical requirements of association leadership.

Regular Board Communications Should Be:

  • Well written – The sentences should be short and error free.  Use lists and bullets whenever you can.
  • Concise – Be brief, too much detail discourages your board when they’re deciding whether or not to read something.  Let’s be honest, your board members are busy professionals, this report must be succinct to get and hold their attention.  They can always call you if they want more detail.
  • Be complete – Make sure every department is covered in the report.  Some staff are inclined to share more/less than others; it’s your job as the association executive to produce a consistent snapshot of activities across departments and projects.
  • Be honest, if a project is running behind say so, your directors will appreciate your honesty and if you don’t report on your progress then they might assume the situation is worse than it really is.

Just remember – “done is better than perfect.”

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