21 December 2010

Two Practices, One Life: Why Your Life Outside The Law Matters

My practice is important to me. I am up just about everyday at 5 AM working to build that practice. Get better at it. Take it further. It’s a solo practice in case you were wondering. No partners – and I like it that way. Yes, I practice yoga for a solid hour every morning, rain or shine, barring the usual scheduling problems of life.

You don’t need to practice yoga – that’s not the point of this blog post. But if you practice law (and if you are reading this…), you need a counterforce, an antidote, a release valve. You need some time every day that has nothing to do with law.

Some might say you need balance.

But balance is an overused term in my view, and I think it is impossible to achieve true balance if you have the drive and desire to be the best at what you do. It’s hard to be “best” and “balanced” at the same time, unless you are striving to be the best at balance. But you are a lawyer, so I’m guessing that’s not your ambition, right?

Its not balance you need but an antidote. The hours, the stress, the competition, the constant demands by everyone that you meet their needs, and the inescapable sense that too much hangs in the balance too often can make the practice of law physically, emotionally and spiritually crushing – if you let it. And it is a choice, believe it or not.

You can choose to be crushed by the overwhelming demands of the law or you can decide to take care of yourself (your senior partner won’t) and develop your antidote - your life outside your legal practice.

In athletic activities, cross-training has become a standard way of preventing injuries, burnout, and also increasing success. You need to cross-train for the law for the very same reasons. You can’t really be the best at what you do if that is all you do. Cross-training for the law means doing things that are as far away from the office, the courthouse and pro bono as possible. Sort of like weight lifting is for runners. For me this means a non-competitive activity that forces me to focus on that activity rather than ruminate on my latest challenging contract negotiation.

Lots of lawyers I know, run. I like to run too but running still lets me think about the law – it’s a problem solving tool since I actually can obsess on my client’s latest issue as the miles roll by. And since I can and do think about the law when I run, its not focused enough. Its not true cross-training. Plus its sort of competitive for me – on the running trail I always want to catch the person in front of me…

Enter yoga.

You can’t practice yoga and think about the law or anything outside the very practice you are engaged in – you will tip over in any yoga pose (asana) involving balance if you are not totally focused. Believe me, I fell over a lot when I first started practicing yoga. It’s not competitive either – unless you are in a class, where it’s easy to make it competitive – which is why I like to practice in the morning and at home most of the time. It’s just you, your yoga mat and the sunrise.

For me, yoga is an antidote, an immunization and a shot of Red Bull® all in one. An antidote because when I am stressed, the flow and focus of yoga relaxes my body and takes my mind off the law, an immunization shot because the practice helps me build physical and emotional strength, endurance and discipline so that I am less stressed to begin with on a day to day basis and find I can more easily recover from stress, and it’s a Red Bull® because I emerge from my daily morning practice with more energy and drive than I started with. And, last but not least, if you practice routinely, you’ll look great as you lose weight and tone every muscle in your body! Less stressed, stronger and looking great. It’s a three for one deal – and for any lawyer who’s short on time (all of us?), that’s great deal. Plus it improves my running so I can catch you when you pass me on the trail…

So what’s your antidote? Everyone is different; everyone will have a different answer to that question. The important thing is to have an answer, because if you don’t have an antidote, than the law, as remarkable, wonderful and rewarding a profession as it is, will likely be very, very tough on you.

It's pretty common knowledge that depression occurs four times more often with lawyers than any other profession. According to an ABA study, stress is so high in the profession that it actually impairs the ability of 20-25% of all lawyers to practice effectively. Alcoholism among lawyers (13%) is twice the average in the general US population.

In yoga, one of the key ethical principles is ahimsa, which calls for non-violence towards all living things. And the first place you must apply this ethical tenet is to yourself! A depressed, stressed out lawyer isn’t doing her clients any favors, isn’t doing his family any favors, isn’t doing her firm any favors - isn’t doing himself or those around him, anything but harm.

The antidotes are as diverse as people who practice law. I know a fellow who, with his wife, has taken up salsa (the dance not the condiment), another who is a back country skier in Colorado, another who is an ultramarathoner, another is a chess master, another is a history buff and another who writes poetry (OK, that’s me) and the list could go on and on. The point being that my antidote is just that, mine. My rules of 1) noncompetitive and 2) highly focused are also just mine. Your antidote will no doubt be different.

Don’t let yourself become a statistic. Find your antidote.

It’s a matter of life.

19 October 2010

Drive Your Own Car

I can’t tell you how often in my life I have instructed other drivers in the error of their ways from the high and mighty vantage point of my car.   From turn signals to stop signs to speeding to not speeding, others rarely drove how I would wish them to do.  “Traffic would flow so much better,” I’d think, “if people would just drive with the greater good in mind rather than their own selfish interests of just getting someplace fast.”  Certainly it seemed to me that if the greater good were as I saw it then at least I’d get someplace faster. One super-power I really, really wanted was the ability to make all four tires go flat on any transgressor’s car – oh, not right there on the highway, but sometime later when it’s parked and the flat tires would simply be an unbelievably annoying karmic payback for cutting me off.

Suffice to say other drivers rarely heeded my unspoken but strongly thought and recommended instructions. This in turn led to endless frustration for yours truly until one day  while sitting in traffic, I realized in a flash of perhaps obvious insight that I can’t change any of those other drivers – most especially when I am behind the wheel of my car. I realized that I can only drive my car.  Inner peace ensued. Now whenever anyone cuts me off, zooms by me on an icy Colorado interstate or flips me off, my mantra is “Drive Your Own Car.” I still get a little angry but I find it goes away much quicker and  best of all, I don't have that guy tailgating my thoughts for the rest of my drive.

This would seem an obvious insight and yet the incidents of road rage we hear and read about, the frustrations I hear from co-workers after the long drive in, or the general consensus that everyone else is a lousy driver would appear to indicate otherwise.

Not just in the car, I am finding that this mantra applies to my entire life – anytime I am becoming angry with what someone else says, does or doesn’t do, their opinion or lack thereof or  when I feel my pride coming to the fore, I remind myself to “Drive My Own Car.”  Because that’s all we can ever really do isn’t it?

We can only live our lives and nothing makes life harder than trying to make others live up to our expectations or failing to live up to theirs - either way, it only disappoints us and makes them angry.

So drive your own car - I guarantee you'll be happier and, as a result, those around you will be too.

But would it kill you to use your turn signals?

Thanks for reading.

Richard Russeth

12 October 2010

Haste Makes Waste (The Tao of Law Series)

This is a series of short posts (they have to be short given how few words Lao Tzu needed to lay out the Tao) showing how the Tao te Ching can help improve your practice of law – and life.

“Do you have the patience to wait until your mud settles and the water is clear?” (No. 15)

So often as lawyers we are called upon by our clients to ACT. And act NOW. And sometimes we must do so as when a restraining order or TRO is needed or the persistent clock of the Statute of Limitations is ticking loudly. But most often, there is no need for haste on our part or to demand the same of opposing counsel. Haste is the enemy of reason. And so no real friend to the practice of law.

The desire for speed is almost an illness in our society. From overnight packages to PDFs sent by email to teleconferences to save travel time to clients wishing their deal, their lawsuit, their negotiations to be done the day before yesterday – where yesterday used to be fast enough – we place more value on speed than accuracy, propriety, or even right decisions. Speed looks for the shortcut, the easy win, the fast buck. In the end, making a virtue of speed reduces the legitimacy of our profession.

“Haste makes waste,” my grandfather often said in his unknowing translation of Lao Tzu.

Wisdom about the right course of action, solid counsel and understanding of options rarely arises out of speed. I’m not talking about procrastination, overworked lawyers just trying not to drown, dragging out litigation as a tactical matter or delay for the sake of delay, I’m talking about prudence, careful consideration and deliberate action. Once a course of action is decided, then - BOOM! - move decisively. Often times more time on careful deliberation simply means you can act faster thereafter and it really doesn’t even take more time in total because you have marked your destination, clearly mapped out your route and so can move rapidly down your path.

If you wait for “your mud” or your client’s mud to settle before acting you might discover that there is more or less to your client’s claims or your concerns, and that knowledge can make all the difference, not only in determining your destination, but whether it is even worth the journey.

Thanks for reading.

Richard Russeth

5 Things My Son's Stay In The Hospital Taught Me About The Practice Of Law

Last week I was unexpectedly in New York City at Beth Israel Hospital for five days to be with my son who underwent emergency abdominal surgery. In the course of watching the care he received I noted a few points that seemed applicable to us lawyers.
  1. Make Sure Your Instructions Are Being Followed. Every day my son’s surgeon would come around. Let’s call him Dr. Gabe (not real name). He was knowledgeable, smart and compassionate. He’d leave orders for the folks providing the daily care to my son. “Take off the IV.” “Change to this painkiller.” Whatever. Inevitably he’d come back later in the day or the next morning and discover that the staff had ignored him. “Why do you still have that IV?” He’d say the next morning, and then storm off to make sure it got done or even do it himself. It was frustrating for him but even more frustrating for my son. I think he ended up staying in the hospital an extra day out of six because of this pattern. What instructions of yours are being ignored?
  2. Explain Why. Nothing drove my son nuts more than someone doing some medical thing to him when that person couldn’t or wouldn’t explain why it was being done. He was happy to be a good patient when he understood the reason for things. Have you explained “why” to your clients lately?
  3. Never Forget Why You Are There. A friend who is a lawyer for a major hospital chain once joked, “Rich, the practice of hospital law would be so much easier if there were no patients.” While the majority of the caregivers we dealt with were solid and compassionate, there were those who had clearly taken my friend’s joke to heart in terms of the practice of medicine. Do your associates and fellow partners understand why you are practicing law?
  4. Tell The Truth. One thing the hospital got right was not sugar coating the situation. It was serious and they told my son, me and my ex exactly what they really thought was going on. But guess what, when it turned out not to be so bad, we were so relieved and happy. When you tell someone they are likely to wake up from surgery with a colostomy bag, and they wake up and they don’t have one – great. If you don’t tell them about that possibility or down play it, and they do wake up with one, guess what... I hate it when doctors sugarcoat it. BTW, telling the truth is not the same as managing expectations; managing expectations is form of lying. What are you telling your clients?
  5. Just Do It. Sometimes the nurses or doctors or whoever would say. “Sure, we’ll do [insert procedure]. I’ll be right back.” And then they’d disappear. Sometimes for hours. When you promise something, deliver it when you promised you would. Period. No excuses. Unless, of course, your son is undergoing emergency abdominal surgery... Do you need to get back to your client about something?
BTW, my son is out of the hospital and doing fine though he won’t be doing sit-ups anytime soon!

Thanks for reading.

Richard Russeth

26 September 2010

No Bucket List for Me

It seems a fad to have a Bucket List.  You know. That list of things you want to do, indeed, must do, before you die. 

There are books called 100 Things To Do Before You Die, “1000 Place To See Before You Die” (apparently different from the book “1000 Places to See In the USA and Canada Before You Die”). The most recent one I’ve seen is 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. Seriously? I’m 54, according to this website I could live to be 99 (not sure I believe this BTW).  So I  would need to read about 18 books a year to get it done. Not going to do it.

For me, life is not a “to do list.” Collecting experiences like trophies does so very little for me. I am not an “experiential materialist.” I cannot measure my life in terms of items crossed off a list.   I do not believe that my life will be better if I have accomplished one hundred things on a list.  A t-shirt I used to own said it best: “He who dies with the most toys, still dies.”

To me, what I understand and learn from the few books I’ve read,  how I use that learning, is far more important than how many books I’ve read.  Reading War and Peace slowly, and but once, and getting it beats a hundred books any day. I’ve read the Tao te Ching a hundred times and I’m still working out the understanding. Would I have been better off to read one hundred different books or just that one? 

Ditto for the New Testament.

How I see, how deeply, is more important to me than the sheer number of things I’ve seen. I live on one acre of mountainside. I think I could spend a lifetime seeing this one acre anew each day,  discovering something about it each day.

Do you really see the sky where you live? Do you really see your children around your feet? Do you really see the suffering/joy in the world?  Do you really taste the food you eat?  Or is it all in a hurry?  All one big "to do" list?

Perhaps the best story of truly seeing is the Flower Story.  The story goes that Buddha had his disciples gather by a pond. Normally he would start to lecture or give what’s called a dharma talk, but he did not. He just stood silently.  For a long time.  Then he either pulled a lotus flower out of the pond or someone gave it to him as a gift but in any case, he held it aloft so that all of his disciples could physically see it. They all looked at it. They all  saw the flower and sat passively. "What could the Buddha mean by this," they all, no doubt, thought. 

But out of that sea of faces, one face cracked in a little smile and then perhaps a gentle laugh. It was Buddha’s disciple, Mahakashyapa. 

Buddha held the flower higher and spoke:  “What can be said I have said, what cannot be said, has been seen by Mahakashyapa.” From then on, Mahakashyapa was known as the Buddha's successor.

So, which is it for you?  Do you look at your life or do you see it?

Thanks for reading.

Richard Russeth

21 September 2010

Be A Person Who Practices Law

This is a series of short posts (they have to be short given the few words Lao Tzu needed in the first place) about how the Tao te Ching can help improve your practice of law – and life.

"Do your work and step back, the only way to serenity.” (No. 9) says the Tao.

Nothing wrong with working hard, enjoying our achievements and the recognition of our peers and clients.  But how often do we confuse our self-worth with our work?  I think this is a real problem in the legal field, and, IMHO is one of the reasons that alcoholism among lawyers is TWICE that of the general American population. Twice.  In that same vein, it says, sagely: “Chase after money and security and your heart will never unclench.”

I don't define myself as a lawyer - I am a person who practices law.  That is an important emotional distinction for me and helps me keep things in perspective.

This section of the Tao also has some very sage advice for writing a brief, making a closing argument and proceeding in negotiations:

“Keep sharpening your knife, and it will blunt.”

Thanks for reading.

Richard Russeth

08 September 2010

Ricky Nelson on the Tao of Law (Statement No. 1)

This is a series of short posts (they have to be short given how few words Lao Tzu needed to lay out the Tao) showing how the Tao te Ching can help improve your practice of law. I am working from the translation by Stephen Mitchell.

“When you are content to simply be yourself, and don’t compete or compare, everyone will respect you.” (No. 8)

And if you “are content to simply be yourself” you will be a much better lawyer. Because, if you are content, comfortable in your own skin, you will give advice based on the facts and the law – not tailoring your advice to get someone’s approval. Not telling the client what he wants to hear. Not doing whatever it takes to win even when you know damn well your case stinks and so does your client.

This same section of the Tao te Ching says:

“In thinking, keep to the simple.
In conflict, be fair and generous.”

Neither of those is possible if you are trying to please others.

As that great Taoist, Ricky Nelson, sang so long ago in "Garden Party":

“But it's all right now, I learned my lesson well.
 You see, ya can't please everyone, so ya got to please yourself.”

Thanks for reading.

Richard Russeth

31 August 2010

In Memoriam: Jim and Jo's

since 1946,
from a trailer hard by the midway,
jim & jo’s
have proudly sold their chili dogs
at the minnesota state fair.

limeade is the only drink served – and is
“made with spring water”.

while the midway has lost its burlesque, its freak show, and even it's fat lady –
jim and jo’s have soldiered on
in a crusade against… bad chili dogs.

this may be more noble than it sounds.

foot longs with everything: chili, cheese, onions.
you may add ketchup and mustard
if you must-
but jim & jo won’t.

in the same way a
London barkeep once refused me a “black and tan”
years ago – “take your bleedin’ tourist ass else-a-where’s.”

there is only condiment proudly offered is Tabasco;
the one and only god worshiped here at jim & jo’s.
one god that has not abandoned us -
that revels in pain as pleasure,
that knows Eve
knew not
and doesn’t care.

Oh Tabasco! you bastard, you
sideshow shill, you huckster extraordinaire,
bless this frank.

Jim, grinning through a fat cloud of foul cigar smoke,
perched in his aluminum rig,
surveys his supplicants,
and, wiping his greasy hands on his pants,
counts all the chili stains
bleeding down our t-shirts

as tithes.

- richard russeth

30 August 2010

The Tao Of Law: Ten Statements

One book that I have turned to again and again to inform my leadership, practice of law and life is the Tao te Ching.

It’s a small book. And its title means, essentially, “The Book Of The Way.” About its author, Lao-tzu, little can be said because less than little is known. For more on him, the Wikipedia entry is not terrible. My favorite translation (by Stephen Mitchell) is about 81 pages all told.

The Tao te Ching is so short that it can fit in a tiny book that fits in your palm. But its affect on the world has been vast. As Stephen Mitchell tells us, “it is one of the wonders of the world.”

It can be read as a spiritual, practical, religious, philosophical, and/or ethical treatise on life. A series of pithy statements that are more than the sum of their words. Over the next ten weeks I will focus on ten practical statements of Lao-tzu that I think, applied properly, can immeasurably improve your leadership skills, practice of law and your quality of life for that matter.

These ten statements are (using Stephen Mitchell’s translation):

  1. “When you are content to simply be yourself, and don’t compete or compare, everyone will respect you.” (No. 8)
  2. “Do your work and step back, the only way to serenity.” (No. 9)
  3. “Do you have the patience to wait until the mud settles and the water is clear?” (No. 15)
  4. “The Master doesn’t talk, he acts.” (No. 17)
  5. “Express yourself completely, then keep quiet.” (No. 23)
  6. “He who tries to shine, dims his own light.” (No. 24)
  7. “Soft overcomes the hard.” (No. 36)
  8. “The more prohibitions you have, the less virtuous people will be.” (No. 57)
  9. “The simplest pattern is the clearest.” (No. 65)
  10. “All streams flow to the sea because it is lower than they are. Humility gives it power.” (No. 66)

Thanks for reading!

Richard Russeth

12 August 2010

Urban Servant Corps Charity Dinner


The executive director of the Urban Servant Corps made the high bid for a dinner with Charlotte and I in a charity auction to benefit Urban Servant Corps. here in Denver (I'm on the Board).  

 Here's what we are serving them this Saturday:


Fruit And Fresh Herb Carafe
(fresh fruit, herbs, vodka and prosecco)
Roasted Peppers Stuffed With Feta
Goat Cheese With Sun-Dried Tomatoes
Country Bread


Chilled Avocado Soup

Orange Fennel Salad
Arugula Salad With Shaved Parmesan

Lemon Risotto Cakes
Grilled Asparagus with Ladolemono


Creme Brulee
Bellini Sorbet

Hope you bid next year!!

11 August 2010

If You Are Making Rain, Don't Carry An Umbrella (or, No Impression Is Better Than A Bad One)

I'm a member of the Association of Corporate Counsel. And every day into my in-box flies an update called the ACC Daily Docket or something like that. It has a list by topic of articles on topics of interest. Almost all by lawyers as big law firms. You know, updates about what the OFCCP's enforcement agenda is, what the latest SEC deal is or why you should worry about the Interstate Rafting Liability Act. I skim it every day. Sometimes I actually click through to read an article.

On this particular day, I read an article that was great. About the EEOC, pay equity and affirmative action. Short. Insightful. To the point. Great stuff. So great that I made the effort to find out the author. Find his email on the firm website. And send him an email saying "This was really great..."
    What do you suppose happened as a result of this email I sent?
    1. I got a call within a few hours trying to chat me up for business;
    2. I got an email within a few minutes trying to arrange a time to chat me up for business;
    3. I got an email sending me more information on the topic and asking me to chat sometime about the topic; or,
    4. I got an email a day later than said, simply: "thanks."
    If you guessed 4, you are correct (I was actually hoping for 3). That's it? No follow-up? No more sharing of knowledge? No more interaction?  Nada. Nothing. For god's sake I didn't even get put on the firm's mailing list!

    Really? You go to all that trouble to use social media as a rainmaking tool and then when you feel a drop of rain you open your umbrella?

    Seems to me that if you are out there on social media, you should really be out there on social media. No dilly dallying. No "I'm too busy" to respond to people who react to my social media. No "this is a bad" time to deal with social media. 

    If you're out there, you need to commit. Because if you're out there and you don't follow through... it's worse then if you'd never been on social media at all.  

    After all, no impression is better than a bad one.

    Thanks for reading.

    Richard Russeth

    01 August 2010

    If Nordstrom's Was A Law Firm, I'd Give Them All My Business: 7 Mistakes To Avoid With Your In-House Client

    For all the hoopla over social media as the future of legal practice, its amazing to me just how many lawyers make mistakes about the absolute basics of customer service – let alone Twitter or LinkedIn. Here are the seven mistakes I think outside counsel should avoid at all costs in their dealings with in-house counsel:

    1) Email Signature Line I cannot tell you how many times I think to myself: “I should give Bill a call.” And I search for Bill on my email account, get a bunch of hits, open one at random and... nothing. No address. No phone(s). No website. Nothing. It is such a simple thing. Or, worse yet, I get an email from someone, open it, and decide I should call them and...nothing. So I have to look up the firm, look up the lawyer and then call. Sure, I should probably have everyone’s number immediately available on my cell or my office phone - but really, wouldn’t you like to make it just as easy as possible for me to call you?

    2) Call Me Back We all like email. We can pose and respond to questions in “email time.” Which is to say, in our own good time. But guess what, when your client actually phones you, its safe to say she’s not operating on Internet Time. She’s operating on “I’ve Got A Problem, Pick Up Your Damn Phone” Time. Or it may be one of those issues that takes too long to write about or is too nebulous or whatever. In any case, if your client leaves you a message, call him back ASAP. Around my office we have a two hour rule. Any email and any phone call must get returned within two hours - unless its clear from the email or the voice mail that the two hour rule need not apply.

    3) Keep Your Promises I met with the senior partner of BIG, LABOR & FIRM, a very large and famous US law firm that focuses almost exclusively on employment law issues to see what they could do for me on a very specific topic that was of some importance to me, and for which they claimed not a little experience. “We’ll be back to you next week with a proposal laying out the work to be done, a time line and a budget estimate,” said well-dressed partner. Shook hands. Exchanged pleasantries. He left. That was a month ago. Suffice to say that even if I ever actually get the proposal, its unlikely that BIG, LABOR & FIRM will ever get a billable hour from my company.

    4) Bill, Bills and Disagreements Two different scenarios for your consideration. Scenario A: I get a bill from the firm of INCREDIBLY, EXPENSIVE & SMART. Its a very large bill. Really large. Seven figures big. I find what I consider to be an error, an inappropriate charge or too many lawyers or something. Maybe five figures. I call you. The senior partner. We talk. You get all defensive. Really defensive. And we finish our call without resolution. I get an email a week later offering to split the difference. Now Scenario B. I buy a pair of really, really expensive shoes at Nordstrom. After wearing them for three weeks, I take them back because they hurt my feet. They give me my money back and don’t even ask why I’m returning the shoes. But they do so because they want me to buy another pair of shoes later that I probably won’t return. And to do that again and again and again. You see, they want to sell me all the shoes I will ever buy and take back the very occasional one I don’t like.

    If Nordstrom was a law firm, I’d give them my business. All of it.

    5) Smart, Fast and Pleasant I once asked a NY lawyer, to whom I gave much business, what the secret to his success was: “Well,” he said. “I find that if you’re smart and know a lot about the law, give your client’s really fast turnaround on their issues, and are pleasant to work with, you get and keep lots of clients.” He paused for a moment and then said with a twinkle in his eye: “And if you are really fast and really pleasant, you don’t really have to be all that smart.”

    6) We’re Your Customers, Not Your Clients You are not doing us a favor by being our legal counsel. You might think you are, but then I probably wouldn’t hire you in the first place or ever use you again, as the case may be. Oh, sure, for all your professional responsibility analysis and conflict analysis and for referring to us in court, please say: “my client.” But you should think, “my customer.” Because that’s what we are. You might be smarter than us in many ways, but we were smart enough to hire you. And we’ll be smart enough to fire you, if it comes to that.

    7) Don’t Be Busy The best outside counsel I ever had always made me feel like I was his only client. Clearly, since he was a partner in a major NY firm, that was not the case. But I felt like I was and that was pretty great. He understood items 1 – 6 of this blog post. I guarantee that nothing grates worse for a client than “I am totally swamped right now, I could get to this in a couple of days – would that be OK?” No, its not. Trust me, there’s a firm down the street or across the country (doesn’t much matter anymore where the firm is, does it?) that will do it for me TODAY.

    Thanks for reading.

    Richard Russeth

    20 July 2010

    Why I'm Running Again

    Life and age are funny things. They creep up on you. Ever since I stopped running with any regularity or goal two years  ago, they seem to be creeping up on me ever faster.

    My last hurrah as a runner was training for and running the Helen Klein 50K(32 miles)  in California.  Right after that event  I dropped out of running again.  "Not fun anymore," I said. But lately I've been missing the running itself, the feeling of it, the sense of accomplishment - the "fun."  I've been wondering if its time to lace up the shoes again. 

    I remember a run that I had perhaps ten years ago, running through Rockefeller State Park Preserve just outside Tarrytown, NY  on the Hudson River. It was a sunny, chilly October afternoon. It was my last long training run before the New York Marathon. Now the preserve is really quite hilly from a mellow meadow to a steep pitch you swear you should have a safety line to run down or up. The only semi-flat path is the one around the lake in the middle of the Park (a lake the Rockefellers built so they would have one to picnic by...) and even then the path slopes and rolls up and down around the duck filled waters.
    On this day I ran and ran and ran. Up those hills, across little fast flowing streams, leaves scrunching under my running shoes, sweat pouring off me. There was one hill in particular, that I'd always had trouble making it up. I always ended up huffing and puffing. Oh, I'd make it but it was a "just barely" and "I think I can, I think I can" kind of thing. If I'd owned a heart rate monitor in back then I probably would have scared myself into having a heart attack by the time I got to the top.
    But this day, at the end of two hours, I soared. I reached the top in a smooth segue of heart, soul and breath, and as I rounded the top and made the crest of the hill, the Hudson River lay glittering before me. The wind and the sun and the river all clapped their hands and twinkled with the glitter of sun and swirling red, yellow and orange leaves. I can still smell how the wind was, the smell of earth, and decaying leaves and season more beautiful for its fading.

    I don't know that I have ever felt so alive as I did in that moment. That sense of connection between body, mind, soul and world. A bit of what the Buddhist call "Big Mind" (not other than who you are at this very moment) I suspect. I've missed that connection since I stopped running regularly, that feeling one's mortality pumping strongly in your chest. Of knowing its strength and weakness. That it can carry you to the top of the hill but not beyond your numbered days. Its a good thing to know. Life that is. That's what "running for your life" really means. That's why I've started running again through the trails around my house here in Evergreen. Its a tough slog right now, I'll be honest. It's not much fun. The altitude is a killer, the extra ten pounds are a knap sack I'd rather not carry. Nor the years for that matter. But its coming back a bit.
    Yesterday when I ran across the Elk Meadow and up into the Bergen Hills, the sun flitted from pine branch to pine branch, here and there I could see it, that Big Mind. Once or twice I felt it poke my soul. "Big Mind happy to have this old runner back chasing it", it laughed deeply and silently.
    And this old runner, well, this old runner is glad to be running for his life again.

    Thanks for reading.

    Richard Russeth

    PS: A video explaining the concept for those with the inclination to pursue this topic in greater depth.

    16 July 2010

    A Contract Is Not A Kegger

    Anecdotal warning. This post is all unsupportable anecdotal observation. Your results and opinion may vary enormously. And probably will.

    Now that we have that out of the way, here’s the premise: verbal contracts cause more trouble than short contracts. Medium length contracts cause more trouble than short contracts. But long contracts and exceedingly short contracts are almost equally lacking in controversy. That is to say, verbal contracts and medium contracts generate more work for me than short or long contracts. 

    And extremely long contracts generate as many, if not more, problems than verbal contracts.

    Why? I’m glad you asked!

    Verbal Contracts

    Verbal contracts (a/k/a “handshake deal") are a problem because, as we know, eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable. And the scene of the contractual crime is no exception. Everyone saw something different and there is no record, however short, to help refresh people’s recollection. Hence, verbal contracts are bad news and the source of endless line-ups of the alleged perps.

    Exceedingly Short Contracts

    The haiku of contracts.  Back of the cocktail napkin sort of contracts up to a two or three page letter agreement. Just enough details to refresh the recollection of the party. Like a photo of a party where you can only see a couple of people but it causes you to remember most folks you saw at the party and the great time you had.

    Medium Length Contracts

    The short story of contracts. Much like short stories in The New Yorker, they seem to be going somewhere and then don’t. I blame the plain English movement. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for straight-shootin’, plain as day kind of writing. But plain English folks often seem to mistake brevity for clarity. So there are just enough details to frame the dispute but not enough details to solve it, if you catch my drift. Medium length contracts are a no man’s land of 8 – 10 pages – you can see the white’s of their eyes and everyone starts firing.

    Long Contracts

    The novella. Here everyone thought of everything, wrote it down and threw in the kitchen sink. The Crime and Punishment of contracts. But with a good editor... It's the difference between catering a sophisticated party and throwing a kegger. Both have a large number of people in attendance but the first is governed by the rules of etiquette the second by the rules of the fraternity. Folks, no contract should be a kegger.

    Extremely Long Contracts.

    The novel with literary aspirations. These appear to have been written by Thomas Pynchon. The are very sophisticated and erudite. They make a great doorstop. They make the drafting lawyers feel like members of MENSA. The problem is most clients, judges and juries have never heard of MENSA. These contracts only make sense while being written by those writing them.  A day later and a new set of lawyers and they are subject to not just several but hundreds of interpretations. They are the Bible of contracts. They are the kind of contracts that gave rise to the plain English movement.  Contracts like this contain lots of semi-colons (and sub-sub-paragraphs) which are my favorite punctuation mark, but, as with tequila shots, results do not improve with more.  The line between too much and not enough is a fine line indeed.

    Questions? That’s what the comments section is for.

    Thanks for reading.

    Richard Russeth

    07 July 2010

    Why Your GC Shouldn't Be An Atheist

    So here we are at the end of a long series of blog posts on what I believe to be the six characteristics of a great General Counsel (I started with seven but decided that I didn't like one of them). 

    We’ve covered five so far:
    1. More Sheriff Andy Taylor, less Wyatt Earp.
    2. A businessman who knows a lot about the law, not a lawyer who knows a little about business.
    3. Manages real risks, not theoretical ones.
    4. Knows the best legal solution is not always the best business resolution.
    5. Realizes that over-lawyering and under-lawyering are equally expensive.
    But the sixth characteristic may be the most important of them all:

    Actually believes that an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure.

    The key phrase here are “actually believes.”

    There are whole industries out there preaching the gospel of preventative law – and almost all of us do it in some form or another – preach that is. But at the end of the day, it is unfortunately easier to get your number crunchers and C-suite people to pony up for actual litigation than it is to budget a smaller number of dollars to teach and train to avoid “theoretical” risks (the ounce of prevention).

    I’ve never totally understood this other than to apply the old maxim that there are no atheists in foxholes; i.e., it’s easy to put off spending on prevention when there’s no complaint sitting on the CEO’s desk.

    But of course an ounce of prevention really is cheaper than a pound of cure. A GC who believes in the practice of preventative law and is willing to fight for the dollars to actually do it is going to serve your company’s best interests in the long run.

    This is why none of my six characteristics involve being a great litigator – not that a GC can’t or shouldn’t be a great litigator – but that can’t be the focus. 

    You cannot be an atheist and a true believer at the same time...

    That’s why the great GC already has already got religion. A little revival tent, a little legal philosophy and a ton of commonsense to bring the sheep into the fold.  She's willing to go door to door, department by department, budget by budget, VP by VP - ringing doorbells and preaching the gospel to those atheist number crunchers on the fifth floor and the godless CEO on executive row.

     So go ahead and ask.  This is one question on religious belief that doesn't violate Title VII!

    Thanks for reading.

    Richard Russeth

    01 July 2010

    Why I Love TED!

    My favorite TV show is still the Big Bang Theory on CBS.

    But my favorite TV channel these days isn’t CNN, CBS, NBC or even the Comedy Channel (sorry, Jon and Stephen), it’s TED -  TED is a website. TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design. It got it’s start as a conference on those very subjects but it long ago left for bigger territory with bigger dreams. TED has become a “clearinghouse that offers free knowledge and inspiration from the world's most inspired thinkers” and believes in “the power of ideas to change attitudes, lives and ultimately, the world.”

    TED provides access to hundreds and hundreds of short videos (usually 20 minutes or less) of brilliant (and sometimes famous) people, giving amazingly clever (and often humorous) lectures about challenging, thought provoking ideas that at the very least push you to reconsider your preconceptions, prejudices and weltanschauung.

    If that all sounds Utopian, left-wing and boring, its not; at least, not as far as I can tell. And let me assure you in particular on that boring point. Yes, it may sometimes be a little quixotic, but the world could use a little dose of Don Quixote’s approach to life from time to time. Cynicism is one virtue I have yet to see expressed by anyone on TED.

    Watching TED makes you want to go do something in the world, rather than buy something at the mall.  Just this week, I’ve had Dan Pink shake my faith in the power of rewards to motivate (i.e., corporate bonuses don’t necessarily drive the best results), learned that architecture helped drive the evolution of music (thanks to David Byrne) and found out about how a growing “cognitive surplus” might drive change in the world.

    TED is the professor you wished for in college because TED makes you want to come back for more, do your own research and talk to other people about what you’ve learned (which usually scares the hell out of them: “you want to talk about ideas...?).
    As you can tell, I love TED.  Give TED some of your cognitive surplus, just 20 minutes on the subject of your choice, and I think you will too.

    Thanks for reading.

    Richard Russeth

    28 June 2010

    US Postal Service To Inaugurate New Alternative Billing

    In a hastily called news conference that was sparsely attended due to all news media being focused on the Kagen hearing, the US Postmaster General announced that “...in order to make ends meet, the US Postal Service will have to move away from our current flat fee arrangements for first class delivery and move to an alternative billing model based on actual costs of delivery.”

    He went on to state that “the hourly billing model that works so well for law firms will be our model. We know that this innovation might get some folks upset but we can’t live in the past – the 21st century is here and hourly billing for mail delivery is the future!”

    When asked whether this approach would further reduce usage of the US Postal Service, the Postmaster said: “We will allocate our overhead across our client base so the actual number of people using our services won’t really matter all that much.”

    When asked what it would cost to have a letter delivered, for example, from New York City to Bismarck, ND, the Postmaster said:

    “That’s hard to say. We’ll deliver it and then send you a bill.”

    Thanks for reading.
    Richard Russeth

    24 June 2010

    My Top Ten Rules For Job Search Success


    Don't be whiny, needy, pushy, petty, annoyed or irritated in your dealings with anyone who could help your job search; in other words, not with ANYONE.  Remember they are helping you...

    2) SPEAK NO EVIL.  

    NEVER speak ill of your former employer or co-workers to anyone EVER; at least not until you have your next job, then they are all fair game - though you'll probably just sound petty at that point.


    A job search is a job. Treat it like one. Get up and go to work every morning (the italics are for a reason) for a set period M-F. That set period should be at least three hours.  It doesn't count if you are multitasking all kinds of personal stuff at the same time.


    Always carry resumes with you so you can hand them to anyone at any time. Get some business cards too. Nice ones please. Not that cheap paper stock.


    Develop, practice and memorize your "elevator pitch" - see the book Rites of Passage by John Lucht and other resources. You need a 30, 60 and 180 second version. Practice until they don't sound like you practiced.


    Add everyone to your Linkedin profile. Join some groups on Linkedin.  Read about how to maximize Linkedin. Get involved in some law job chats on Twitter. Make sure the profile is spot on and perfect just like your resume presumably is. Track folks on Gist and give feedback. Try to build your network on Linkedin and Twitter before you actually, you know, need them. Facebook is fine, in my view, for actual friends. A blog never hurts.


    Do some volunteer work not related to your job search or the law at least once a week. It will help put your situation in perspective and give you a sense of accomplishment that may be otherwise lacking when you enter your third week without so much as a nibble.  Give thanks you have the ability to do volunteer work for someone else instead of being the deserving recipient.

    8) DON'T BE A BORE. 

    Your being out of work is boring to other people. Don't overplay your hand.   Sometimes even ask other people how they are doing...


    Always always always send a handwritten snail mail thank you note to anyone who grants you some of their precious time in person or on the phone re an interview. Mail it the same day that they help you. Retweet them.  #ff them.  Keep them in mind.  See #10.  Its really not possible to say thank you too much.  And if they do something really really out of the line of duty, send them a little something.

    10) GIVE IT AWAY. 

    Nothing gets other peoples' attention more than not going after a job you know you don't have a prayer of getting but instead actually recommending or telling someone who actually has a shot. Give it away. What goes around, comes around - good and bad.  Recruiters remember people who help them. Get some good karma.

    Bonus Rule: "Be silly. Be honest. Be kind." ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

    Thanks for reading.

    Richard Russeth

    21 June 2010

    Joe Torrre, General Counsel

    Joe Torre would have made a great General Counsel. George Steinbrenner would have made a terrible GC. One makes it about the game, the other makes it about himself. The owner has that uxury but the manager does not.

    When I lived in the New York area, the Yankees were on a roll and Joe Torre was the coach of the century. But I was always struck by how little he actually seemed to do in the dugout. This was especially true when I watched a game on TV. A nod. A finger to the side of his nose. Pick up the phone. Walk to the mound. Talk. Walk back to the dugout. Scratch. But each move seemed to have a purpose, a meaning, a goal. I doubt if Joe Torre even spit without meaning something - whatever he had in his mouth night after night.

    Joe probably knew more about baseball than anyone in Yankee Stadium on any given night, but he never flaunted it. He just got it done. Time after time after time.

    And what is a GC on any deal? A manager. And if he's going to manage the team effectively, he better know more than anyone else about doing deals or he's not going to have the respect of his team. This doesn't mean he's can pinch hit, be the DH or even throw a good slider. It does mean he knows when each of those skills are needed in the deal, and which of his people can deliver on it in the bottom of the ninth and down a run.

    That's what a great GC does - he doesn't make the game or the team about him. He just gets it done. Like Joe, he knows who to put in and who to take out...

    And when its time to curse out the umpire.

    Thanks for reading.

    Richard Russeth

    [This is Pt. 6 of "Good GC or Great GC: The Seven Characteristics That Make The Difference", a series of seven weekly blog posts discussing what makes a great GC]

    17 June 2010

    Sorry, I'll Never Do It Again

    I am always struck by people who wish they had more authority or responsibility in their jobs. They want someone to give it to them, but the secret is to take it.  Claim it. Put a flag in it. Give it a name and call it your own. When I tell people this, they say, well, then I'll have more responsibility, more stress and no more pay.  Believe me, a good employer will reward the person who takes on more without being asked. If they don't reward you, wrong employer, move on with all the good experience you just gathered!

    One of my best mentors, Jerry Jenko, taught me the age old truism that "It's easier to say I'm sorry I'll never do it again, than it is to get permission in the first place."

    I recall hiring my first lawyer to work for me when I was General Counsel at Haagen-Dazs Ice Cream HQ in NJ in 1993. I had no authority to hire anyone. Jerry was the GC of our parent company based out of MN. He called me up and said, "Who said you could hire a lawyer?" Me: "No one, I just decided." Jerry: "You don't have that authority." Me: "I'm sorry, I'll never do it again." Long pause. Jerry: "Right, don't do it again." Dial tone on phone. 

    To celebrate, I ate some ice cream in our HQ Haagen-Dazs ice cream store mock-up. 

    Butter Pecan, I think.

    Thanks for reading.


    14 June 2010

    The Two Types of GCs That "BIg, Local and Firm" Absolutely Loves

    There are two very expensive types of General Counsels out there. The ones who think they can do everything and the ones who think they need help to do anything. In my view, in the long run, this kind of over-lawyering and under-lawyering are equally expensive.

    The “Everything Calls For A Specialist” GC is known by the speed dial on his mobile phone: #1 Big, Local and Firm, #2 Eye, Pee and Property, #3 We, Seu and Settle, #4 Findem, Buyem and Sellum, and of course #5 See, Em and Ay.

    Firms love this guy.

    The “I Can Do It All” GC is known by her speed dial to #1 Westlaw representative, #2 NexisLexis rep, #3 Practical Law rep and #4 her third husband.

    Firms love this GC too.

    Despite my over-lawyering and under-lawyering crack at the start, this GC might actually cost more than the “Everything Calls For A Specialist” GC. At least the “Everything Calls For A Specialist” GC usually gets the job done correctly, albeit expensively.  We all know its much harder (read: expensive) to fix a mistake than do it right in the first place.

    I may be The Last Generalist, but I am neither of these GCs. I can fix a broken leg, do an appendectomy, deliver a baby in a pinch, tell you to lose some weight and prescribe Xanax. 

    But I won’t perform neurosurgery or a triple by-pass.

    Even The Last Generalist knows when to call a specialist.

    Thanks for reading.

    Richard Russeth

    [This is Pt. 5 of "Good GC or Great GC: The Seven Characteristics That Make The Difference", a series of seven weekly blog posts discussing what makes a great GC]

    09 June 2010

    Get Fired With Class

    I am always surprised when people tell me that they were surprised when they got fired. “Really?” I want to say. “Maybe that’s one of the reasons they fired you.”

    I’m not talking about being laid off, downsized or restructured out of a job here. I’m talking plain, old and boring “it isn’t working out.” Maybe you got a new boss (same as the old boss), maybe you got an attitude somewhere along the way, or maybe you just put it on cruise control and starting texting (illegal in Colorado, FYI). Whatever the reason, good, bad or indifferent you are now terminated, fired, pursuing other interests, or “let go.”

    There are a million and one legal briefs telling employers how to handle the firing of employees; especially what not to do. I’m not sure I’ve ever read what the employee should do in such a situation. Here’s my very simple but usually hard to take advice: stay classy.

    Class is such an underrated virtue these days. I think its actually been underrated as long as I’ve known what the word means. What does the word mean, you ask? Webster’s defines “classy” as having or reflecting high standards of personal behavior, admirably skillful and graceful.

    An easy example of what is not classy: entering the My Bad Boss Contest or engaging in similar sniping, complaining or whining. Here’s the deal, we’ve all been there. We’ve all had terrible bosses. Many of us have been fired or else quit when we saw the writing on the wall (see paragraph 1).

    I’m not so concerned about why someone was fired as how they dealt with it.

    Here’s what I think you should do if you get fired:

    1. Own it. Right or wrong, don’t blame anyone else. Period.
    2. Stay Classy. Even if they don’t. This is number two because if you don’t “Own It” you can’t possibly “Stay Classy.”
    3. Tell Everyone The Truth. Don’t come up with a “too clever” explanation or an explanation that violates Rule 1.
    4. Send A Thank You Note. Individual, snail mail, thank you notes to all the people with whom you had regular interaction. Tell each person something about them that you liked or something you learned from them. Keep it short. Cynicism, irony or sarcasm is not allowed. Use a nice pen. Buy some nice blank note cards. Crane’s comes to mind.
    Why the thank you notes? So that you can learn what you learned and who you learned it from. So that you can come to understand what went wrong – writing twenty or thirty thank you notes can give you a lot of insight. So that you can improve.

    So that you can stay classy.

    Thanks for reading.

    Richard Russeth

    06 June 2010

    What The Big Bang Theory TV Show Teaches Us About Being Great Lawyers

    Lawyers tend to be smart; this makes sense. Lawyers tend to want to show off how smart they are; this also makes sense. Lawyers tend to like complicated legal solutions; this makes no sense at all.

    I am reminded of a complicated solution to a simple problem in a recent episode of the The Big Bang Theory (great show BTW) in which our clever gang of geeks is thrilled that they have managed to switch on a common table lamp:

    Howard: Gentlemen, I am now about to send a signal from this laptop through our local ISP, racing down fiber optic cable at the speed of light to San Francisco, bouncing off a satellite in geosynchronous orbit to Lisbon, Portugal, where the data packets will be handed off to submerged transatlantic cables terminating in Halifax, Nova-Scotia, and transferred across the continent via microwave relays back to our ISP and the X10 receiver attached to this ... (he clicks the mouse and watches as the lamp lights up) ... lamp.”

    At which point they all cheer.

    I have met many Howards in my legal career who draft documents, complaints, demand letters (e.g., a recent famous demand letter from NYT to WSJ), severance agreements, M&A documents in what can only be called Rube Goldberg legalese. This desire for complication also shows up in a preference for clever legal solutions rather than really useful business resolutions.

    A preference that doesn’t help the client one whit. It tends to breed costs, alienate everyone from the President and CEO on down, and create more problems where there was only one to solve.

    A great general counsel knows that the best legal solution is not always the best business resolution.

    This whole NYT/WSJ demand letter drama might be a case in point,. No doubt there are facts of which I am not aware, but IMHO there has to be a better business resolution to the issue underlying that NYT/WSJ dispute over the slogan “NOT Just Wall Street. Every street.”

    My answer would have included a phone call, jujitsu marketing, new ads and a sense of humor.

    Thanks for reading.

    Richard Russeth

    [This is Pt. 4 of "Good GC or Great GC: The Seven Characteristics That Make The Difference", a series of seven weekly blog posts discussing what makes a great GC]  

    03 June 2010

    How To Pick A Great Litigator

    • "There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories."— Ursula K. LeGuin 
    • “Scratch the surface in a typical boardroom and we’re all just cavemen with briefcases, hungry for a wise person to tell us stories.” - Alan Kay, Vice President at Walt Disney
    Telling stories is as old as society itself - from bragging about a dangerous hunt 5,000 years ago to tweeting about the hunt for angel funding 30 seconds ago, its all in the telling.

    A trial is nothing more or less than ritualized story-telling. Both sides have essentially the same facts to work with but must apply very different nuances, emphasis and perspectives to them; i.e., they each tell a very different story. In the end, in a close or even not so close case, my money is always on the side that tells the best story with those common facts. 
    • “If you tell me, it’s an essay. If you show me, it’s a story.” — Barbara Greene
    Think about a dry textbook version of an important historical event that your dry by the book teacher read to you in 12th grade while you stared out the window at a beautiful spring day. Now think about a masterful piece of historical fiction (or “non-fiction novel”) about that same event that you just couldn’t stop reading even though you were sitting a beautiful beach on a perfect summer day with warm ocean waters lapping at your feet. Most lawyers are great at writing essays, but I am pretty confident that no one ever won a trial based on a good essay. Trials are won with stories; well told.
    • “Stories are the creative conversion of life itself into a more powerful, clearer, more meaningful experience. They are the currency of human contact”. — Robert McKee (emphasis added)
    I’m sure you can guess where I am going with this: can your prospective litigator tell you a good story over coffee? Over a beer? Walking down the street?

    Can she keep you laughing about or riveted to a narrative you wouldn't otherwise pay two cents to hear about at all? Does she make you care about the people in her story so that you wished you’d been there in person?

    If yes, congratulations, you have just exponentially improved your odds of winning your case.

    No? Keep the number of a good appellate lawyer handy.

    Or, better yet, go out and find a litigator you could listen to all day long, because after all, your jury will have to do just that.

    Thanks for reading.

    Richard Russeth