Stuart Teicher: Most Interesting Man in CLE

CLE-Performer-Stuart-Teicher

A Day in the Life

Who are you?

I’m Stuart Teicher and I am the most interesting man in CLE. In my mind, anyway. Originally from Brooklyn, but my family moved to New Jersey when I was very young—I consider myself a Jersey Boy.

What do you do?

I practiced law for 15 years and was lucky to be exposed to a variety of areas. I had a solo practice, was a municipal prosecutor, was in-house counsel for a real estate developer. I’ve done almost every area of law that exists—at least it felt that way.

But for the last 5 years I’ve carved out a career as a professional legal educator dedicated to helping aspiring and practicing attorneys survive the practice of law and thrive in the profession.

What does the career of a professional legal educator look like?

I teach professional responsibility at my alma mater, Rutgers School of Law in Camden. And I run around the country doing CLE programs on ethics and the critical lawyering skills of writing, speaking and negotiation. I teach seminars, provide in-house training to law firms and legal departments, and give keynote speeches at conventions and association meetings. [Check out: The One Time You CAN Lie? The Ethics of Negotiation.]

Why do you call yourself the CLE Performer?

Yes, I gave myself a moniker. An egotistical move, I know, but there’s a reason. In practice I remember sitting through CLEs thinking: “Okay, I’m done counting the ceiling tiles. What’s next?” Did CLE really have to be so agonizing? I began to dream of a world where we attend ethics CLE programs and we don’t feel a pressing desire to throw ourselves into traffic when they’re over.

How do you stop people from throwing themselves into traffic?

Here’s my philosophy: We need to learn important content, but wouldn’t it be nice if we could stay awake in the process? I try to help attorneys stay awake and actually learn something at CLEs. Bad jokes and silly slides are part of it, but it’s that unique blend of education and amusement that makes the difference. It’s why I call myself the CLE Performer.

Describe a typical day.

I work out every morning. A little while ago I lost 45 pounds and I’m determined to keep it off. It’s been a year and a half and I’m feeling pretty good about it. (I may boast about this several more times before we’re done.)

If I’m out of town, I head out to the venue to teach a seminar. If it’s a day where I teach at Rutgers, I head to campus, and if it’s a rare day where I don’t have a cluttered schedule, I head to my home office where I pour over my to-do list for several hours. I’m pretty sure that I spend more time arranging and rearranging the list than actually accomplishing any tasks on it, but what can I tell you, I’m a procrastinator at heart.

Why do you teach CLEs?

Because I love to teach, need to teach. I was a decent lawyer, but I’m a better teacher. I first got into it because someone I know needed a writing instructor for a professional education course. I caught the teaching bug then and there and knew I had to find a way to do it for a living.

How did you make the transition from law practice to teaching?

At first, I kept my law practice going to pay the mortgage while I built my speaking business. But it didn’t work—practicing law is a demanding job. The best advice I could give to aspiring teachers is advice my friend Sean gave me: If you want to spend all of your time doing CLEs, you’ve got to devote all your time to doing CLEs. Once I closed my law practice completely and started swinging on the CLE trapeze without a net, my speaking/teaching career took flight.

Any advice for lawyers interested in making a transition like yours?

Be relentlessly determined to succeed. There were times in the beginning when I would travel across the country for a $150 fee, but I did what I had to do. I was relentlessly determined to create my dream career. This attribute has served me well throughout my life.

Of course, I wasn’t able to do it alone. It would not have been possible without the help and support of my wife. And I owe a big thank you to my mentor and close friend Sean Carter.

OK, CLE Performer, Teach Us About Negotiation

In a CLE you recently did, you mentioned kick-ass lawyering. What does kick-ass lawyering look like?

“Kick-ass” is Jersey-speak. Tough to define, but you know it when you see it. A kick-ass lawyer is bold but controlled, acts with resolve but also with integrity. It’s about pushing boundaries without being unprofessional, unethical, or unfair. Kick-ass lawyering is not aggressive lawyering—not taking any action regardless of the consequences, not scorched earth, not the stereotypical pit bull. Kick-ass lawyering is the highly-trained K-9. Those dogs are fierce and scary as heck but they use their powers selectively.

Is kick-ass lawyering all about kick-ass negotiating?

I’d say yes. Negotiation is the most common form of battle that we do with our adversaries. Unless you’re dedicated to in-court litigation every day, the opportunity to spar with your opponent is usually in negotiation (whether it’s litigation, transactional, or otherwise).

What’s personal power?

Personal power is just what it sounds like: your individual strength. An assertive and professional negotiating style builds power. But this must be tamed with a drop of realism—is your style such that you want to get all the marbles and leave nothing on the table? If so, you’re doomed. Remember, everyone is self-interested, and that includes those on the other side of the table. Your success depends on the other side getting something too. This is not about you getting a “win.” This is about your client getting a deal they can be pleased with. If you can combine the K-9 attitude and still remain aware of the realities of the representation, then you’ve got a ton of personal power.

What’s a clean fighter?

One who stays in-bounds. You may have an insatiable thirst for winning, but at what expense? Should we be willing to accept a win if we leave destruction in our wake? Is it even necessary to leave destruction in our wake? Personally, I believe that the limits imposed upon us by our rules of ethics allow us to be kick ass lawyers. If you can be assertive, yet still stay within the ethics boundaries, you’ll be a clean fighter.

What kind of ethical limits does a lawyer face in negotiation?

Unique to negotiation is the issue of misrepresentation. We all tell some lies. It’s just part of the process: “My client will take this all the way to trial!” “My client won’t accept anything less than $10,000!” Things like that. While the rules tell us we can’t make misrepresentations, the commentary to Rule 4.1 says that statements that aren’t statements of fact are not misrepresentations. To me that’s a little ridiculous, but I understand why they wrote the rules that way. So you have to figure out for yourself how far you’re willing to go.

How can speaking to the media about your case tank a negotiation?

Publicity can hurt in a variety of ways. For instance, if you’re dealing with a politically sensitive matter, you may find that the public backlash resulting from a news report could affect the opposing party’s ability to reach a negotiated conclusion.

Other times—and I know this is going to come as a shock to some of you—the media doesn’t get the story right. And when one party reads an inaccurate depiction of a dispute, or sees themselves portrayed in a negative light, that’s like pouring gasoline on a grease fire. An already-volatile situation blows sky high.

Explain why the different approaches to negotiation won’t do anything to stop someone from rejecting the first offer.

I don’t have a lot of rules, but I do have this one: Always make the first offer.

Here’s a story:

Years ago my wife planned a birthday party for my son at a planetarium in Newark, NJ. What you need to know is that some parts of Newark aren’t the safest of places. We rented a bus and I printed directions from the web (this was pre-navigation app days). But the bus driver had his own way of getting there. There wasn’t much debate about which way we’d go. After all, he was driving the bus. And he got us lost in the heart of Newark. You see, I let the driver define where we were going. As a result, he took me to a place that made me uncomfortable. That’s exactly what happens when you let another person make the first offer in a negotiation. He who makes the first offer is driving the bus.

You want to settle at around $25,000? You’ve got an uphill battle if he starts at $3,000. Is your client’s maximum $1.5 million? It’s a tough road to hoe if the other party opens with a demand of $10 million. And so on. So make the first offer … but leave room for negotiation because the other side will reject it.

Who cares who makes the first offer if it’ll only be rejected anyway?

The first offer is just the starting point, but you’re still driving the bus. I’ve spent a lot of time trying different techniques to avoid getting rejected. The sincere approach: “Hey, this is really where my client needs to be and this is not posturing.” Didn’t work. The tough guy approach: “We’re not budging, it’s as simple as that.” Didn’t work. The bottom line is that it’s human nature for people to reject the first offer. Yeah, it’s a game. Yeah, it’s ridiculous. But it’s human nature and that’s it.

On the flip side of the coin, would you accept a first offer?

Never. The fact is, no first offer is ever the bottom line. Ever. There is always, always, always room for movement. It’s a given. Don’t try to fight it, just accept it and let it go.

Your First Negotiation

Let’s say one of our Lawyerist readers has her very first negotiation tomorrow. She needs concrete steps that she could implement in her negotiation to help improve the outcome. Can you boil those down for us?

Here are the steps I’d take, and I’ll boil it down to the essentials, since timing is an issue in the hypo: Speak with your client before you start so that you could understand their goals, expectations, and tolerance for risk. You also need to understand the parameters of your representation, so make sure you leave that conversation having understood three specific things:

  1. Understand how the client defines a “win,” because that will guide you in the negotiation.
  2. Get clear direction on what authority you have in the negotiations (i.e., what are you permitted to give away).
  3. Determine what, if anything, needs to remain confidential vs. what you’re permitted to reveal.

Regarding the negotiation itself, manage as many factors as possible:

  • Try to hold the discussions in your office. I like to be on my home turf, if possible.
  • Set some ground rules at the outset—mention the need to maintain civility and good faith and remind all of the parties that the goal is to come to some conclusion that benefits all parties, rather than let one side take advantage of the other.
  • Be proactive about tough issues. Maybe you want to specifically set them aside for later. That way you can hopefully come to some agreement on smaller issues and create a sense of trust and tackle those tough, deal-breaker issues after a bit of a relationship has developed between the parties.
  • Like I mentioned earlier, try your hardest to make the first offer.

What Else Can You Teach Us?

Here are my 7 secrets to success (and staying sane) as a lawyer:

  1. Believe in something greater than yourself and follow a “mission” in the practice of law throughout your career—it will keep you happy.
  2. Stay relentlessly determined to succeed.
  3. Be the best. Hone your skills throughout your career. Never rest in that regard.
  4. Stay cutting edge. Stay on top of the latest and greatest in the practice. See the new paradigms as they emerge and you’ll be a rock star.
  5. Focus on today. Plan for the future, but not at the expense of today. Live the life you’re in right now.
  6. Take care of yourself—mentally, emotionally and physically.
  7. Live a rich life outside the office. Stick with your hobbies. You need these diversions to keep your head on straight.

What are bad habits for lawyers?

There are serious pitfalls. I call these pitfalls the Evil Trilogy:

  1. Procrastination
  2. Distraction
  3. Neglect

They’re absolutely pervasive and are the basis for most of the ethics violations I’ve come across in my time as an ethics investigator.

You said that you’ve failed miserably, at times, in your legal career. How can young lawyers avoid this?

In my case there were two key problems: not having enough quality assistance and never having a genuine mentor. These two things caused me to make mistakes on several levels. I’ve said things to colleagues that I wish I could take back; I’ve filed borderline frivolous motions because a client insisted; I’ve taken ridiculous negotiating positions. Each of these things, and the myriad of other mistakes, could have been avoided if I had good people to rely on as mentors and assistants.

What do you mean by the question: Are you running from something or are you running toward something?

There’s being proactive and then there’s being reactive. People running towards something usually have a vision—they know where they want to go. Some of the greatest coaches in sports history like Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots or Phil Jackson of the Bulls/Lakers each have an understanding of the type of system they want to create. They then go and find the right players to put into their system. They have a vision, they know where they want to go, and then they execute upon it. That’s being proactive. Other coaches have, instead, identified the best players and then developed systems around them. While that does lead to success sometimes, the truly great ones (those who have built dynasties) have a more proactive approach.

How can lawyers take proactive steps to always be running toward something?

Make a plan. When my wife and I were getting our motorcycle licenses, we took the motorcycle safety foundation course and our instructor kept saying, “If you have a question run on home to MOM.” He was talking about the Motorcycle Owner’s Manual. I develop my own “MOM” and call it My Own Manual. It’s got all the elements of a medium and long-term plan. Where do I want to be six months, a year, 5 years from now? It’s amazing how many lawyers don’t do this. Keep that document handy and you can try to make every one of your actions remain consistent with your long-term plan. That’s pursuing a vision, that’s being proactive, that’s running towards something.

Miscellanea

What is life outside of work?

Life outside of work? It’s Facebook, of course … kidding

My four children take up a lot of my time (as you’d imagine), but I find time to appreciate the arts as well. I’m a big music fan (anything from Jay-Z to Japanese punk bands—if you happen to like head-banging stuff, try Red Bacteria Vacuum). My wife and I enjoy going to art museums (she got her graduate degree in Arts Administration and I’ve therefore become a lifelong student of the arts). We’re lucky to live close to New York City, so we’re often at different exhibitions. And I love design. To me it’s where art meets business. So I read a lot about architecture, fashion, and other design-related topics. Plus, I try to exercise as much as possible: light hiking in the local parks, bike rides with the kids, that sort of thing. Finally, I make a point to give back to my community: I volunteer in my synagogue and I have a pro bono appointment to the District Ethics Committee in New Jersey.

Where does a Jersey boy go to have fun?

If I could, I’d spend my entire life down the shore (that’s Jersey-speak for “at the beach”). I’d live there in the winter, summer, whatever. It’s the best place to eat, drink, relax, everything. Heck, I had my son’s Bar-Mitzvah at Martell’s Tiki Bar down the shore. That’s dedication, baby.

How can Lawyerist readers get in touch with you?

My email address is stuart.teicher@iCloud.com (I drank the Apple Kool-Aid a few years ago and I’ve been much happier … don’t judge me).

One Final Question

In your mind, what makes a lawyer great?

Lawyers who keep their skills sharp and stay on top of the law are certainly good, but I believe that the great lawyers are those who also dedicate themselves to staying cutting edge. To me, that’s all about understanding paradigms. In every professional setting there are a prevailing set of “rules” that define how we address problems. The rules change over time and the successful professional adapts to the new paradigm.

Take, for example, social media. It’s revolutionized the way we interact with people in our personal and business lives [how we read and write is one example]. Those of us who make a point of understanding and embracing the new paradigm are going to succeed. But going from good to great is not only identifying paradigms but seeing when they’re shifting. That lawyer will be a rock star.

Legal Careers