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PD Profile

PD in a Lean World: Q&A with Jose Ancer of Egan Nelson

By Katie Walter

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In this PD Profile, we talk with Jose Ancer, partner in the Emerging Companies Group at Egan Nelson. Jose tells us about his lean law firm and how the firm handles professional development and attorney hiring.

Thanks for speaking with us! Please tell us about your firm.

Thanks for giving me the opportunity to share a bit about who we are! We’ve been huge fans of Hotshot for several years now. Egan Nelson LLP (E/N) is a corporate/securities & commercial boutique law firm, with a particular emphasis on Emerging Companies and M&A outside of Silicon Valley (Austin, Seattle, NYC, etc.). We recruit Corporate, M&A, and Commercial/Tech Transactions lawyers from Am Law 100 firms and use both technology and other “leaner” infrastructure to drop their rates by hundreds of dollars an hour, while improving their quality of life substantially.

What does PD and training look like at a firm of your size and structure?

Boutiques really can’t afford to have teams devoted exclusively to professional development and training, and that’s one of the reasons boutiques often just forgo having juniors entirely. The reality is that if you’re of a personality type that really needs a lot of in-person, real-time instruction and guidance, boutiques are probably not for you.

But what we’ve found is that there’s a particular kind of junior lawyer who can really thrive as long as the right “leaner” resources are put in place: templates with instructions, checklists, playbooks, recorded internal training sessions for asynchronous learning, and more “polished” third-party resources like Hotshot as well. Of course, we provide “on the deal” training, but boutiques by necessity do less hand-holding.

Smart juniors can be surprisingly resourceful in learning what they need to learn, if they actually have the time to do it and aren’t having to bill crazy hours.

I love the straightforward approach of your blog. You’re clearly passionate about doing right by your clients and about the legal industry in general –Tell me a little more about your blog and your views on client service.

Silicon Hills Lawyer is targeted at entrepreneurs building companies outside of California. Because of how dominant Silicon Valley has been for so long in the tech industry, the vast majority of the “startup” content accessible online is geared toward companies there. I offer insights on legal and strategic issues, like fundraising, to entrepreneurs in, say, Austin, Seattle, or Denver, for whom a $100 million or $200 million exit is a “win.” They’re not trying to be the next billion-dollar “unicorn” company. That means they’re building a distinct kind of company, and they need a distinct kind of guidance.

Your firm's practice sounds really sharp and focused. What do you look for in the lawyers you hire?

First and foremost, extremely sharp legal skills: both in terms of drafting but also in verbal communication. Along with other high-end boutiques, we’re very much about proving that boutique law is not about lower-skilled lawyers; it’s about lower overhead.

Aside from legal skills, our lawyers tend to really care about personal autonomy and work-life balance, and they don’t see that as in conflict with building a serious practice. Some of our most successful partners and other attorneys work remotely some of the time, or even all of the time. They see no need to come into the office when videoconferencing, phone calls, and e-mail work perfectly fine, along with other software tools.

It’s very much a personality thing. If you love the watercooler chatter, the “cake breaks,” and everything that comes with conventional face-time driven office culture, we’re probably not a good place. Our lawyers love working on interesting, complex deals, but they also love doing lots of other things that have nothing to do with work. While many firms try to begrudgingly accommodate that kind of lawyer, often into a 2nd-tier track that ensures they’ll never fully thrive, we’ve built the entire firm culture around those lawyers, from juniors to Partners.

Are there any skills or knowledge areas that lawyers need today that they may not have needed a few years ago?

Without a doubt, being somewhat of a “digital native” is far more valuable today than it was a decade ago. Lawyers are spending a lot more time interacting with software, and so obviously being comfortable with software tools is important.

I would also say that, much like with doctors, “emotional intelligence” is more important today. While the extent to which technology is “disrupting” lawyers has, in my opinion, been over-hyped, it’s true that high-volume, formulaic work that once kept many lawyers busy is being streamlined.

What’s left over is much more heavily tilted toward the advisory side of legal work, and that requires a level of very human-oriented judgment that a purely cerebral lawyer will struggle with. I think you’re seeing this dynamic play out the most with junior lawyers. Traditional junior work is by far the most systematized and formulaic, and therefore the most exposed to being replaced with software. The juniors who succeed in the future will be able to quickly move past simple rules and formulaic approaches to thinking creatively and flexibly.

It sounds like a lot of your team comes from bigger law firms. Do you see any particular issues they face as they transition to a smaller, leaner law firms?

Sometimes we’ll see ex-BigLaw lawyers take a little time to really grasp what being “lean” means in a boutique. It means you can work fewer hours, charge lower rates, and still make a great living because a larger % of revenue goes to lawyers and not “other stuff.” But, mathematically, it means forgoing certain things that sometimes are nice to have. No one here has a secretary, for example, though we do have word processing, IT support, and operations support. In recruiting, we try to be extremely transparent, to minimize surprises when someone arrives.

A lot of our readers are professional development leaders at large firms. What are some insights you’ve learned from onboarding their alums that they could consider as they continue to evolve their own professional development programs?

Take more advantage of asynchronous training. Lawyers are usually not going to fully take advantage of scheduled, programmed training that may not be relevant to what they see as their most urgent need. Ensuring they have access to broad sets of on-demand training resources, but able to personally decide when to use them, I think goes a long way. I think training needs to be more trainee-driven and bottom-up than inflexibly top-down.

We also have a lot of readers from law schools – any advice to law school faculty that are preparing students to enter a firm like yours and practice in general?

Help students figure out their career paths earlier on so that law school can be a place to go deeper into the fundamentals of the work they will actually be doing on the job.

Without question any law firm’s favorite and most successful hire is the person who by 2L or 3L knew what practice area they were pursuing, and spent that time deepening their skillset for exactly what being a junior lawyer will require of them.

We like to include in these posts a game of two truths and a lie. Can you share two truths and a lie about yourself? Our readers will guess which one is the lie on our LinkedIn post!

  • I’m a kidney donor.
  • I live in Texas.
  • I’m a Masterpiece Theatre fanatic.