Why I Hate Hourly Billing – My Column from the Nashua Telegraph – January 15, 2014

For years I have said that if someone had told me about hourly billing before I decided to go to law school, I might not have gone. Now, after over 28 years tracking my time by tenths of an hour for billing purposes, I can say it with certainty: had I known about hourly billing in 1982, I would never have become a lawyer. Why do I hate hourly billing so much? With apologies to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, let me count the ways.

            I hate hourly billing because it defies economic reality. Too often, there is little or no correlation between the hours a lawyer spends on a matter and the value of the services provided to the client. When hourly billing is the payment mechanism, the practice of law becomes that rarest of industries where one can charge $500.00 for a $59.00 toaster because it took a lot of time to build it. Read More »

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The Silna Brothers: Makers of the Greatest Sports Deal of All Time – My Column, Nashua Telegraph, November 20, 2013

            Last week one of my colleagues emailed me an amazing article from www.celebritynetworth.com, of all places. The article was written by a gentleman named Brian Warner, and was titled “The Greatest Sports Business Deal of All Time.” Since then the story has popped up on other sports outlets, and I have not stopped thinking about it since I first read it.

            The article recounted the tale of brothers Daniel and Ozzie Silna. The Silna brothers’ saga reads like the classic American success story. Children of immigrants, they took over their parents’ textile business and parlayed that into enough money to buy their way into the professional basketball industry in the late 1960’s. When their bid to acquire an NBA franchise failed, they purchased the St. Louis Spirit, a franchise in the upstart American Basketball Association. Read More »

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My Column from the Nashua Telegraph – October 15, 2013

             Every once in a while I read a news story that jars me, that causes the jumbled thoughts ringing around in my head to organize. I had one of those moments this week when I read that students at Nashua’s Charlotte Avenue School would no longer be permitted to play tag during recess. In a flash, the jigsaw puzzle came together. I knew  banning tag at recess was destroying America.

            When I was a kid, hazardous playground activity was a way of life. Tag? Tag was for wimps. We played Kill the Guy with the Ball. One kid would pick up the football and run around with it as long as he could, until he was gang-tackled in a particularly violent fashion. He would then cough up the ball, and someone else would take off with it. No sidelines, no end zones, no time limits. Sometimes kids got hurt, but that’s why we had a school nurse.

            We liked to swing on the swings at recess too. But we turned it into a competition. We used them as swinging catapults, in a game where the winner was the kid who flew the farthest off the swing. Jumping extraordinarily high was admirable, adding as it did to the danger element, but our game was about who could fly past the line in the sand drawn to mark the longest landing point. Like most of our games, it was physical, and it was about beating the other guy. Pardon the pun, but it never would fly today. Read More »

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My Column from the Nashua Telegraph – August 21, 2013

Customer Loyalty Stands Test of Time

When was the last time you experienced truly amazing customer service?

We all know it when we see it. It makes a huge impression on us. But great customer service is rare. Despite all the stuff you read about how important it is, and how it helps create brand loyalty, very few businesses are able to attain it, let alone maintain it.

I experienced amazing customer service a couple of weeks ago at one of Nashua’s landmark local stores, where management and staff went above and beyond the call to take care of me as a customer.

It happened at Jeannotte’s Market, the little white grocery store that has been a fixture on the corner of Courtland and Manchester streets in Nashua for decades. Read More »

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Our Free Press Needs Help – My Column from the Nashua Telegraph, June 19, 2013

From the Nashua Telegraph, June 19, 2013

Keeping the press alive important to keep government in check

Two weeks ago, the news broke that the Chicago Sun-Times had fired its entire staff of photographers. In the future, the newspaper will rely on a combination of freelancers and staff reporters to take pictures for the paper with their cellphones. It is only the latest step in the dumbing down of that great institution, the American newspaper. It makes me sad.

I confess to being an unabashed newspaper guy. I grew up near Saratoga, N.Y., but my parents were Bostonians. So I was raised a Boston sports fan. We got The Boston Globe in the mail a day late so we could follow the Boston teams. This may be hard to understand now that we’re in the Internet era, but I remember spreading that newspaper out on the living room floor every day and scrutinizing box scores and standings. That was how I learned about the previous day’s Red Sox game.

The photographs in those sports sections were huge for me, too. Baseball games were only televised Saturdays, and the game of the week in our region rarely involved the Red Sox. Black-and-white photos in the Globe provided me with just about all of the visual evidence I had as to what Yaz and Fred Lynn and Jim Rice actually looked like. Those photos, together with my memories from our annual trek to Fenway, comprised my vision of my favorite team. For me, a newspaper without great photos really isn’t a newspaper at all.

I know I am dating myself, and I know times have changed. But the decline of the news business in America isn’t just a personal issue that affects me. It affects all of us. Without reliable information, how can we meet our civic responsibilities? Without a strong, independent press, how can we keep the power in Washington in check? Unfortunately, we can’t. Without a healthy and vigorous and free press, we are at the mercy of rumor, innuendo and paid-for partisan hysteria.

Casting aside whatever libertarian underpinnings my own political philosophy might entail, I am now asking the question: Do we need to use more of our public assets to make sure that responsible journalism survives?

The founders were not believers in big government, but they realized that without an informed population, democracy would not be effective. Washington and Madison were deeply concerned with the challenge posed by getting news to all regions of such a large country. They made sure that our fledgling federal government heavily subsidized mailing costs to encourage its delivery to everyone. Support of that nature has in fact continued at the federal and state levels. But it is declining.

There remain tax breaks for the print, broadcast, cable and Internet industries. The large media companies have been able to use their financial muscle to lobby against the closing of some of these loopholes, but not all of them. Changes in the tax code have been particularly tough on small news organizations. Reductions in mail subsidies have killed much of the magazine industry. While the federal government continues to financially support the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, it does so under increasing pressure to do away with it.

Reductions in government subsidies are not the only things hurting the news business. The Internet and digital publishing also have contributed to its downfall. For example, local newspapers continue to be damaged by the transition of the legal notice business from print to a digital format. Those foreclosure and other statutory notices you see in The Telegraph are an important revenue source for the newspaper. But how much longer will publication in a physical newspaper be legally required when digital publication is so much cheaper and arguably just as effective as print?

Between the declining public support for journalism and the impact of the Internet and related technology, we don’t need Nostradamus to tell us where the industry is headed. It is headed down the tubes.

This reality should have the attention of responsible citizens in a democracy. It is questionable whether a democratic government can even function, let alone flourish, without a well-informed populace. Washington and Madison knew this. We can scream all we want about media bias and sensational journalism, but the burning question remains: if journalism continues to decline, where will we go for serious, balanced reporting of the news?

Many in the news business convincingly argue that if we had a higher quality of investigative journalism, the scandals that currently plague the Obama administration might have been nipped in the bud. Perhaps they would have been ferreted out even before substantive damage was done. The scandals could be viewed as symptomatic of across-the-board reductions in government accountability reporting. History proves that with nobody watching, the corruptive influence of power can overwhelm even good intentions. The news industry needs help, and we need to pressure the government to do more to insure that it survives.

I am not typically an advocate for increased government spending, particularly at the federal level. But this should be a priority item. Ensuring that citizens have access to quality news and information needs is vital. If the news industry fails, it will take a toll on our great republic. Washington and Madison could have told us so.

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Trust – My Column from the Nashua Telegraph, May 15, 2013

My Column from the Nashua Telegraph – May 15, 2013

The late business author and guru Stephen Covey used to talk and write about a concept he called the “speed of trust.” It was his way of describing the impact that mutual trust has on communications and relationships. When a relationship had the speed of trust, he said, communication is effortless and incredibly fast. Decision-making is enabled, and outcomes are improved.

On the other hand, when trust is lacking in a relationship, communication can get bogged down. Decision-making processes can be hostile and painful. Good outcomes can be hard to come by. This, of course, is as true in our personal lives as it is in our business lives. But not every relationship is best served by mutual trust.

Take, for example, our relationship with the federal government. When it comes to that relationship, history continues to demonstrate that citizens are better served by a certain level of distrust in federal government. Distrust of centralized government is, of course, at the very roots of our history as a nation. Thankfully, the framers of our Constitution harbored this distrust, and it is largely what drove them to draft that document in the fashion they did. The Constitution is nothing if not a framework for protecting us from the very people we elect to represent us.

Individual citizens are not the only ones best served by a healthy distrust of the federal government. Businesses operate in the same fashion. Most, for instance, harbor a substantial level of distrust for the IRS. They know that many businesses in our economy are periodically singled out for particularly harsh treatment. We might like to think that such “special” treatment is merely revenue driven, but it isn’t. The IRS sometimes discriminates against businesses because of certain characteristics. It is wrong, and unconstitutional, but it happens.

That is one reason why we should not be surprised by the allegations that the IRS singled out individual taxpayers whose returns indicated ties to the Tea Party. This is what the absolute power of large, centralized government begets. The behavior is only encouraged in an intensely partisan system where so much influence is for sale. Businesses harbor a healthy distrust of the IRS, and there is nothing wrong with that.

We also should harbor a healthy distrust of the Justice Department. Most recently, the Justice Department covertly obtained the records for more than 20 Associated Press office and journalist telephone lines. Some of the records included home phones and cell phones.

The exercise, apparently, was in furtherance of an investigation into an intelligence leak.

The Justice Department, perhaps drunk with power, determined that, in this case, its right to information trumped not only the first amendment and privacy rights of those reporters, but of our right to information from a free press as citizens in a democracy. Most folks view a press that operates without government interference as an essential element of our democracy. The Justice Department will not always share that view. Some distrust is healthy.

Do not misunderstand me. I am not one of those conspiracy nuts. My level of distrust has not advanced anywhere near that far. But I must admit, it is growing. Online communication has given the federal government an unprecedented ability to monitor us. It seems more than willing to do so. That is a bad combination.

My client and friend Gary Miliefsky, a renowned cyber-security expert and the principal of a Nashua-based cyber-security company called SnoopWall LLC, tells me that the National Security Administration is currently at work on building the world’s largest data eavesdropping and storage repository. It will be fully operational in the fall of this year and will be able to store “trillions and trillions of bytes of information.” Needless to say, the NSA is the latest addition to my healthy distrust list.

Ironically, just as technology has gotten us into this mess, it may get us out. San Francisco-based Wickr has a mission to provide secure communications that “Leave No Trace.” They claim to have created a protocol, which when integrated with other communications platforms, will result in a unified mobile-messaging platform that is “private, encrypted and anonymous.” In other words, it will render your online communications untraceable.

Given the recent actions of the Justice Department and the IRS, don’t be surprised if the mainstream begins to find its way to Wickr.

Its early adopters, not surprisingly, have been students and young people. They are online all the time, and do not want their information viewed, monitored, sold or shared. I keep asking myself how that makes them any different from the rest of us.

In any event, I have to believe that given the Justice Department’s recent actions, many of our writers and journalists are going to want what Wickr has to offer. It is, after all, what healthy mistrust begets. Read More »

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My Column on the Marathon Bombing – Nashua Telegraph, April 17, 2013

This time, it was personal.

On 9/11, when the towers at the World Trade Center crashed into the street, it felt surreal. It was grandiose and spectacular, albeit in the most macabre sense imaginable. It was the ultimate outlier. It was what author, philosopher and economist Nassim Nicholas Taleb called a “black swan.”

A black swan is Taleb’s metaphor for random, unexpected events that have an enormous impact on society. To qualify as a Black Swan the event must be capable of being rationalized in hindsight, as if it could have been predicted. Events like these, Taleb’s theory goes, are what truly impact society and have the greatest impact on history. The bombing of the World Trade Center was without a doubt a Black Swan. Read More »

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My Column from the Nashua Telegraph on Hourly Billing and an Innovative New iPhone App from a UK Law Firm – March 27, 2013

UK legal firm has novel way to meet clients

My office is at ground level on Main Street in Nashua. When I look out my window, I see all the usual sights: traffic, pedestrians and pigeons on the roof of the Main Street Methodist church. I also see lots of small businesses.

Recently, I found myself thinking about those businesses and wondering whether any had a lawyer. When I say “lawyer,” I’m not talking about the lawyer who prepared the owners’ wills 15 years ago, or the one that handled a divorce for one of the owner a few years back. I’m talking about an honest to goodness business lawyer they can call their own. I’m talking about the person they would name if I asked them a simple question: “Who’s your lawyer?” Read More »

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My column on the Pope and knowing when to quit from the Nashua Telegraph, Feburary 20, 2013

Knowing when to quit can be good business tool

My column from the Nashua Telegraph, February 20, 2013

I am not a Catholic. Nevertheless, I am fascinated by Pope Benedict’s decision to resign. To say the announcement came as a complete surprise is an understatement. After all, the last pope to resign voluntarily was Celestine V in 1294. At that time, his resignation was called “the great refusal,” and it was even condemned by the poet Dante in his famous work, “The Divine Comedy.”

This resignation is news.

Depending on whom you ask, Pope Benedict’s announcement is either completely selfish and wrong or a courageous decision made with the best interests of the Catholic Church in mind. I am inclined to view it as the latter. Recognizing that he no longer has the physical and mental stamina to do his job, and for caring enough about the Catholic Church to step down despite the heat he will take for it, I believe Pope Benedict ought to be commended.

Leaders in most fields typically have a difficult time recognizing when it is time to step down. Part of this is due to their competitive nature. Vince Lombardi, the legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers, once told his team at halftime of a game that “winners never quit, and quitters never win.” To a degree, many Americans have been brainwashed by Lombardi, because the reality is there are many instances where quitting really is the right decision.

Quitting can be especially hard for entrepreneurs. Most entrepreneurs pour their lives into their business ideas. They work tirelessly to make their concepts a success. Unfortunately, despite all their dedication and hard work, many of them do not succeed. Many would have been well-served by reading the tea leaves differently and abandoning their dream sooner than they did.

Americans are taught at a young age that if at first we do not succeed, we try, try again. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that we have to fly the airplane all the way into the ground.

I often share a story with entrepreneurs about a friend of mine who was able to quit at the right time. He was developing an online auction website for a specific industry back in the mid-’90s, when the Internet was just emerging. He worked for two years out of his garage with two software developers who happened to be brothers, writing the code for the site. Then, he spent a year traveling all over the world, meeting with angel investors and venture capital firms.

I’ll never forget the phone call I got from him during which he told me some great news. He had obtained a commitment for $5 million from a group of investors. I was absolutely thrilled for him and began to congratulate him. But what he told me next stopped me in my tracks. He told me he was going to turn the money down, break up the technology they had developed, and sell it off in pieces to recoup at least some of his investment.

That decision actually wound up working pretty well. But why did he turn down the investors? How could he do it after the investment of so much time and money?

He explained to me that over the past year, he met with many smart people all over the world to discuss his plan. Too many of them, he felt, had zeroed in on one potential problem. It had been eating at him. At the same time, his sibling software coders were having trouble getting along.

Quitting permitted him to salvage some of his investment, preserve the relationship with his developers and move on. It seemed to him like the smart thing to do, and it was.

Sometimes lawyers have to gently remind clients that in some respects, deciding to quit is harder than deciding to continue.

Many entrepreneurs are born leaders and are naturally competitive. They don’t like to lose. Most are endowed with a powerful cognitive bias in favor of continuing to try to win, despite overwhelming odds against them. For people of this nature, to decide that quitting is the right decision takes a lot of courage.

I think the same thing must have been true for Pope Benedict.

It might have been much easier for him to fade out of public life until his life expired, peacefully, as so many other popes before him had done. But the challenges faced by the Catholic Church, combined with the increasing realization that he was no longer physically or mentally up to the task, must have weighed heavily upon him. So despite the fact that some in the church will view him as having abandoned his flock and despite the risk that poses for his legacy, he placed the interests of the Catholic Church first. Quitting, in this instance, seems to me to be the most courageous thing he could have done.

So much of success in life, whether personal or in the business world, comes down to good decision-making. We must compete, we must win, but we also must lose.

That reality, to a degree, flies in the face of Vince Lombardi’s mantra.

At times, we might be better served by ignoring Lombardi and heeding the words of W.C. Fields, who once poignantly observed, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. There’s no point in being a damn fool about it.”

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Where Would We Be Without Deadlines

My column from the Nashua Telegraph on January 16, 2013

Deadlines can be a good way to get what you want in negotiations

Did you ever stop and wonder what life would be like without deadlines?

We don’t necessarily like them, but without them, I’m not sure any of us would ever get anything done.

Even now, as I write this column, I do so with my deadline hanging over my head like the sword of Damocles.

Why is that the case? I know what my deadline is every month. I know it isn’t fun to write under the kind of pressure I feel right now. I certainly had plenty of time over the past couple of weeks to get to work on this. And yet, here I sit, between appointments, frantically pecking away at the keys. It really makes no sense. I enjoy writing this column. So why is it that so often I seem to be bumping up against my deadline when I write it? Read More »

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