April 04, 2007

Going Solo Success Stories

This original column appeared the first week of the new year, 2006.  I'm resurrecting this column and posting it now as submitted, the unedited version, because it is the time of year when newly minted lawyers are thinking about their options and this may provide some much needed inspiration.

Solo Success Stories

Connecticut Law Tribune - January 2006 (unabridged version as submitted)

It is the first week of the New Year, 2006, and everyone needs a little inspiration to pursue their dreams. Every once in a while, it’s more inspiring to read about real life solos with the same fear and anxieties as yourself, successfully venturing out on their own. Here are three favorite inspirational solo success stories.

A former student, Frank, is 36 years old, one young child, a wife who is well paid in the corporate world, and in his last year of law school discovers they are pregnant, again. He has ten years of experience in the lucrative health care market and upon graduation is offered a job with the state which he gladly takes because he is legitimately scared to be without a paycheck, even though I told him with his wife providing a steady income and insurance, with his professional experience and connections he will be profitable in no time. He, quite frankly, is too concerned about "being without a job." Within a year, he calls me and tells me due to State cutbacks he’s been let go and decides he "has no choice" but to start his own practice. With slow and deliberate care, initial lack of support by his spouse and no support from his family, he baby steps his way into opening his own practice, sweat breaking out on his brow, even afraid to tell people. Just as he is about to open his doors, his wife is laid off just three weeks after returning from her maternity leave. She receives severance which gives them a little financial breathing room. With no other options, Frank plunges full steam ahead into building his practice. His wife now joins him to help with the research, filing, telephones and calendars. Long story short, within six months Frank is on track to earn a full fifty percent more in his first year of self-employment then he did with the State. The icing on the cake? The State looks to rehire him. Once paycheck dependent, Frank tells me he could never work for someone, again. The freedom he enjoys determining his own day, the balance in his personal and professional life, the unexpected pleasure of partnering with his wife (who is now thinking of going to law school) cannot be replaced by the false security of a paycheck even though he had been repeatedly told he must first start out working for "the firm."

Another favorite student, who ventured out on his own with another fellow student and with no help from me other than my class, did so right out of law school, and just 25 years old. His attitude was, "I have nothing to lose right now and everything to gain." He understood that once passing the bar the state says he is qualified to practice law and the state doesn’t require an apprenticeship at a law firm for a number of years. He had full faith in himself and his partner and their ability to get the job done. They had no money and, are you ready for this, took free space in his father’s building, literally a cleaning supplies closet, sharing their space with shovels and brooms and detergents, setting up their computer and telephone on a folding card table which they had to supply themselves. They signed up for every court attorney’s list, met clients at the court house or the client’s home. That was five years ago. Today he is married, purchased his first home in an upscale community, is established in a spacious and more appropriately decorated office, has hired associates and administrative help to assist with their burgeoning practice all while continuing to provide internships to Quinnipiac University law students to show them they can do it, too. His one wish, teach more about opening a practice in law school.

And one last favorite story is based upon an e-mail I received June 11, 2004 from a former student, just 26 years old, who, too, hung his shingle the minute he passed the bar. This is the abridged version, but his words verbatim.

"As you may recall my original intention was always to go out on my own straight out of law school–which I did. I am doing so much better than I ever thought was possible.....I know you always told us not to harp on the money side of things, but quite frankly, that was always my true driving force. And without going into specifics, I can tell you this: I was sworn in on February 20, 2004 and I have already made more money than I would have made all year if I went to work at some private firm.....I always took the attitude that I refused to work for someone else and for some reason that attitude was always looked down upon in law school....I’ll never forget one day in class you said to us ‘after you pass the bar the state will have told you that you are qualified to practice law.’ I think of that statement every time I go into a situation which I feel may be beyond my capabilities....one example of that was when I was going to my first pre-trial. I was back in chambers waiting for my turn to speak with Judge Kavenewsky and the State’s Attorney. Waiting behind me was Mickey Sherman...he represented Michael Skakel and Judge Kavenewsky presided—so you can imagine how under qualified and out of place I felt. I was so nervous I could have thrown up...I really began thinking to myself I had gone way too far and taken on more than I was ready for. The one thought which kept running through my head was what you told us in class. That, and that alone, was what helped me keep my composure. As it turned out everything went really smoothly. When I was leaving the court I did not think I could have felt better until, get this ( and I swear this is true!), I bumped into a kid who I went to law school with. He was always cocky about everything; his connections with New York City law firms, his grades, his BMW, etc. I talked with him for a few minutes only to learn he was still a TAC!"

Be inspired. Believe in yourself. Happy New Year.

March 27, 2007

"Is the Law a Profession, a Trade or a Hybrid?

I wanted to point you in the direction of blog post at Law Blog - WSJ  and the follow-up which takes on the eternal debate as to whether the law is a Profession or a Trade?  I took on this debate myself in The Connecticut Law Tribune last year:

You Say Profession, I Say Business.  Can't We Just Get Along?

Connecticut Law Tribune - 2006

I recently met a distinguished lawyer who pronounced at a seminar that he refutes and would handily dispatch anyone who subscribes to the philosophy "when you are a solo practitioner you are a businessperson." I was a little surprised and dismayed given that he is a very successful solo and thousands of solos have heard him speak through the decades. I decided to take the very challenge in this column because that attitude is what I believe is preventing a proper law school experience and stopping lawyers from venturing forth on their own.

The following definitions are taken from "Wikipedia."

Profession: An occupation that requires expertise or a high level of skill.

Business: a specific commercial enterprise or establishment. (Commercial : a money-making endeavor that involves a corporation or other formalized group of workers and management working toward the production of goods or services to participate in an economy.)

By definition, then, isn’t a law firm a "money-making endeavor that involves a formalized group of ‘professional’ workers and management working toward the production of services to participate in the economy?" And can’t the ‘professional’ worker and the management be one and the same individual, the solo practitioner?

"Professional" and "Business" are not mutually exclusive terms. Why do most lawyers and academia have a hard time wrapping their heads around this reality? Or better yet, why is there such an aversion to being identified as both a lawyer and a businessperson? Can anyone run a business but not everyone be a lawyer and therefore we must distance ourselves from the comparison? Is the managing partner of a law firm (large or small) somehow "less of a professional" because she dirties her hands with budgets, vendors, malfunctioning equipment and office space considerations in addition to litigation? Whatever the reason for the disdain it is a harmful mindset to instill in the solo. It is elitism dressed to the nines in arrogance.

Morality, desire to do good through use of your legal education and to honor the oath you have sworn to uphold, and a passion for justice do not suddenly disappear or become diminished because you simultaneously work hard at creating a thriving profitable business that enables you to live the way you choose as well as putting your children through college. Learning how to use an accounting system or maintaining a blog in addition to creating marketing campaigns to attract new clients doesn’t make you less qualified to litigate a high profile murder trial or diminish your oath.

Therefore, in order to be a successful solo practitioner you MUST be both a highly skilled professional and a competent businessperson. I dare say you have to be even more gifted in a variety of areas than the average lawyer who becomes an employee in a mid to large-sized firm. If you are not running your "legal services" business well it will fail and you will ultimately have to work for another. You will forego all the freedoms and privileges you came to enjoy as a solo. You can continue to be a professional but shackled to someone else’s wrist for the rest of your legal career because you were not also a businessperson.

When academia does not recognize the need to teach the business side of being a lawyer, they are further encouraging employment versus entrepreneurship and failing to equip its students. Yes, this is a song I keep singing, but it is worth repeating and repeating until such time as the refrain runs in an endless and irritating loop through every Law School Dean’s head until he or she can’t hear it one more time. Maybe then the message will penetrate and every law school curriculum will finally require some form of business education prior to graduating law school.

Solos don’t need to be experts in running a business but they need to be competent. And they should at the very least be provided some knowledge of the business side of running a legal practice while in law school; the basics of what will be required should they choose to be their own management while practicing their profession. So, I ask you, "are solos professional businesspeople?" Absolutely.

Susan Cartier-Liebel is solo practitioner, adjunct professor at Quinnipiac University School of Law and a business consultant for solo and small firms. Her blog, Build A Solo Practice, is at susancartierliebel.typepad.com. She can be reached at SCartier_Liebel@comcast.net. Copyright © Susan Cartier-Liebel (2006) All Rights Reserved. No portion of this material may be copied, transmitted, posted, duplicated or otherwise used without the express written approval of Susan Cartier-Liebel.

January 23, 2007

Leveraging Friendships The First Step To Success

Connecticut Law Tribune - August 14, 2006

In my opinion, there is a major difference between a marketing plan and a leveraging plan. And the key to bringing in the most new clients at the lowest cost is knowing the difference between the two. For you, the solo, this knowledge can have a huge impact on your business plan and the manner in which you allocate funds and energies to attract new business.

While marketing in general is the method(s) by which we work to attract buyers of a product or service, for purposes of this column we are going to more narrowly define it. Marketing in the legal industry should be defined as direct efforts to attract those potential buyers of our services who have no prior knowledge of us or any connection to us in order to get them to try our services. Leveraging, on the other hand, is utilizing those who already know us to attract buyers of our product whereby the only connection the potential client has to us is the third party relationship.

When designing a business plan you should have a two-tier plan for attracting clients......

Continue reading "Leveraging Friendships The First Step To Success" »

January 09, 2007

Solos In Charge of What They Charge

Connecticut Law Tribune - December 18, 2006

Others blogs have discussed these cases.  However, my perspective is a little different.

Recently, there were two very interesting court cases involving solos and the fees they both charged and received.

One took place in New York. In McDonald v Pension Plan, 450 F. 3d (2nd Circuit, 2006), solo Edgar Pauk represented James McDonald in a suit against the longshoreman’s union pension plan for improperly calculating the number of years in which he accrued benefits. Pauk prevailed and valued his work at $425 per hour. But the presiding judges (each presiding over different segments of the case) reduced Pauk’s hourly rate to $325 and $390 respectively. The court applied a “blended hourly rate” which considers a law firm model of different level attorneys working on the case at different hourly rates.

Applying such a model to a solo was a first. Even though Pauk performed all the work, the District Court “analogized Pauk’s situation to that of a large law firm” and “created the hypothetical ‘Pauk and Associates’—comprised of one experienced ERISA litigation attorney ($500 per hour) and a hypothetical group of inexperienced associates (less than $300 per hour)—and decided on [his] own which tasks should have been done by respective members of the hypothetical firm.”

This fiction was vacated by the 2nd Circuit for an incorrect application of a blended rate. In an unsigned opinion, the federal appeals court said, “there is simply no support for the proposition that a district court can decide what legal tasks could have been done by a hypothetical associate attorney working for or with Pauk in order to calculate a blended hourly rate of $390.”

The panel, however, still approved the fee award with the hourly rate reduction, based on the trial judge’s finding that Pauk was inefficient and “occasionally vexatious,” and his performance, “though effective, was less than stellar.”

Most interesting, though, was the 2nd Circuit noting that the lower court felt it was “of great significance” that Pauk was a solo practitioner, the implication being that he had much lower overhead. Even though the panel did not reject the trial judge’s finding, it did state in a footnote “that district courts should not treat an attorney’s status as a solo practitioner as grounds for an automatic reduction in the reasonable hourly rate.”

“Indeed, it may be that in certain niche practice areas, attorneys of the highest ‘skill, expertise and reputation’ have decided to maintain a solo practice instead of affiliating themselves with a firm. The reasons for doing so may be numerous, including the inherent problems of high overhead, fee-sharing and imputed conflicts of interest,” that footnote stated.

Which leads me to the next case, that of Curtis Kennedy, a solo in Denver, Colo. Kennedy, who has been practicing out of his modest home for 16 years, takes on the giants and has won scores of huge, sometimes multi-million-dollar, settlements on behalf of those who have been discriminated against in the workplace.

In the underlying case, Kennedy challenged one of the country’s largest class action law firms, California-based Lerach Coughlin, and won. He successfully got Lerach’s fees in a $400 million shareholder securities fraud case against Qwest Communications reduced from $96 million to $60 million. It would have been more than fair for Kennedy to take a reasonable percentage of the $36 million savings. No one would have batted an eyelash, whether he was a solo or not. However, he chose to take just $40,000 in fees and $23,000 for his expert witness.

It is not for anyone, including the judiciary, to say Pauk isn’t entitled to his fees simply because he is a solo. The court applying a blended rate to Pauk’s work by creating a fictional law firm and distributing tasks to hypothetical associates is inappropriate. Nor is it for anyone to say Kennedy is foolish for not taking more. No one is telling solos not to charge prevailing rates or to give their services away. But by not having the overhead, the choice remains theirs to make.

The moral of this column is: freedom from crushing overhead gives the lawyer the flexibility to do what he or she wants.

Susan Cartier-Liebel is solo practitioner, adjunct professor at Quinnipiac University School of Law and a business consultant for solo and small firms. She can be reached at SCartier_Liebel@comcast.net. Copyright © Susan Cartier-Liebel (2006) All Rights Reserved. No portion of this material may be copied, transmitted, posted, duplicated or otherwise used without the express written approval of Susan Cartier-Liebel.

January 05, 2007

The Bare Truth About Solo's Office Budgets

Connecticut Law Tribune - June 28, 2006

My husband and I, in our never-ending quest to trim the budget to accommodate the rising costs of gas, home heating oil, and property taxes, invariably ask each other the question, "what do we actually need?" We know our "needs" never change but the manner in which we fulfill those needs will either increase or decrease our expenses and determine our budget. The same is true for the startup solo.

Which leads me to the most frequently asked question by those who want to strike out on their own,"What do I actually "need" to open an office?" I always find this an interesting question. It is interesting because what every solo "needs" is absolutely the same. What separates Solo A from Solo B is the manner in which those needs are fulfilled. No two lawyers’ personalities or situations are the same. Yet, when the question is invariably posed, my answer remains the same; " Whatever you feel you really need is what you need." You may think I’m playing a game of semantics, but I’m not. An example would be the following: you need a place to interview potential clients. That remains an absolute. Do you "need" to interview that client in a fully appointed private office across from the court house in downtown New Haven or are you comfortable meeting at a law library? Your need remains constant, a place to meet potential clients. How you ultimately decide to fulfill that requirement will be driven by your budget and personality.

The purpose of establishing your basic needs for startup is to help you construct a budget. Every decision a new lawyer makes is predicated on their seed money and projected income and expenses, both personal and professional, for the first two years. Therefore, no two solos’ budgets will ever be the same.That being said, what does a solo need to get started. (And this is just a short list.) A solo needs the following: 1) A place to do work with relative privacy; 2) a means of creating, printing, saving, copying, and storing work product; 3) a means of communicating confidentially; 4) a means of receiving as well as sending faxes, e-mails, regular mail; 5) a place or places to meet with clients; 6) a voice messaging system whether mechanical or human; 7) a means of doing research; 8) a means of keeping an accounting of your business and a system for time management; 9) business cards and letterhead; 10) internet service and an internet presence; 11) a paper shredder and office supplies; 12) reliable transportation and; 13) a million dollar suit. Your budget and psychological mindset will determine your comfort zone in each category when getting started. As your practice grows how you fulfill your continuing needs will evolve. Are you shocked? The reality is all you need to run a practice is a means by which to satisfy these thirteen requirements. The "how" is totally individual and predicated on your budget.

Two examples of the thirteen needs fulfilled are illustrated as follows: Example A: 1) a home office; 2) computer, 4-in-1 copier, fax, scanner, laser printer, offsite safety deposit box for computer backup files; 3) landline and/or cellphone; 4) PO Box; 5) meeting at court houses, law libraries, other attorney’s offices; 6) voice mail on land line and cell phone; 7) law libraries for research; 8) Quickbooks and/or TimeSlips; 9) business cards & letter head computer designed and printed on your computer; 10)Internet Service and website; 11) paper shredder and office supplies; 12) car, and; 13) million dollar suit.Example B: 1) a home office; 2) computer, 4 in 1 copier, fax, scanner, laser printer, offsite safety deposit box for computer backup files; 3,4,5,6) cell phone/Virtual Office for client meetings, mail, voice messaging live and mechanical, and a la carte professional secretarial/paralegal services; 7) Lexis/Nexis; 8) part-time bookkeeper and Time Slips; 9) professionally designed and printed business cards and letter head; 10) Internet Service and Website; 11) paper shredder and office supplies; 12) car, and; 13) two million dollar suits.

You can mix and match, substitute in multiple virtual offices for statewide presence, allow for a secretary and/or full or part time paralegal service, budget for an accountant, an associate and so on. Remember, what you "need" to start your solo practice remains constant. The manner in which you fulfill those needs will vary with each individual based upon personal skill set, personality and budget.

Susan Cartier-Liebel is solo practitioner, adjunct professor at Quinnipiac University School of Law and a business consultant for solo and small firms. She can be reached at SCartier_Liebel@comcast.net. Copyright © Susan Cartier-Liebel (2006) All Rights Reserved. No portion of this material may be copied, transmitted, posted, duplicated or otherwise used without the express written approval of Susan Cartier-Liebel.

January 02, 2007

Solos Made to Feel Like Endangered Species

Connecticut Law Tribune - July 24, 2006

My June 26th column, "Real Estate Certification A Death Knell to Solos," really struck a nerve among members of the bar. I have received a flood of responses voicing very real concerns over the certification proposal put forth by the Connecticut Bar Association’s Real Property Section and the impact it would have on both new and established solo attorneys.

What surprised me, however, was their unwillingness to go public with their feelings. Not one of the lawyers would allow me to forward his or her comments to be printed in The Law Tribune, which is why I’m writing on the subject again.

Those who chose to write me primarily reiterated the concerns I expressed. At the worst, they were still undecided about the benefits of certification and questioned whether my column helped the debate.

When such a fundamental change is being contemplated wouldn’t a simple written survey mailed to the entire bar be appropriate? I’d have happily reimbursed them the cost of the stamp. But as a member of the Connecticut bar I received nothing.

Regardless, here are some of the opinions taken verbatim from e-mails I received.

"I am a civil litigator, and as a solo I naturally have a lot of contingency matters. I rely on my closing business for needed cash flow so I can continue to invest my time in these other matters that don’t pay unless and until I obtain a successful result. You are exactly right: "real estate lawyers" want to grab all the business for themselves to the exclusion of others who do not "specialize" in this most routine of legal processes. How much do you want to bet that if/when a specialty is recognized for real estate lawyers, closing fees of the "specialists" will go way up (in addition to the other effects you astutely predict.)"

"While I think you hit it right on the head, there is more. The CBA is also pushing for appellate certification, and other "specialties" will soon follow. Most of these are driven by the larger firms and would only provide an advertising edge against small firms (who don’t have the resources to limit their specialization.)"

"Good lawyers keep up to date with the law regardless or they can’t stay competitive or competent. I don’t need Big Brother forcing me to take continuing education and exams to do what I already do voluntarily to stay professional."

"I have been practicing law for 20 years and some day I hope to go solo in the small town where I live. Having real estate certifications would effectively eliminate any possibility that I might ever occasionally conduct a closing to make a living."

"I generally like reading your columns; however I think you’re off base with your criticisms of certification. Not that you are wrong to oppose it necessarily. There are probably good reasons to oppose the proposal....Rather it looks to me like you see real estate only as a place for new members of the Bar to get their feet wet before starting to do "real" legal work. Actually, I would prefer to see a lot of the new attorneys and for that matter a lot of the old attorneys get out of real estate all together. It would improve our practice and the quality of services our clients receive. If certification will move things in that direction then I would support it."

"As a solo practitioner I offer a panoply of legal services. I don’t see certification leveling the playing field. That’s pure propaganda, not when a requirement of being certified is to already be heavily weighted in real estate. First, real estate, then family law, then wills? Will practicing law become so fragmented through certifications that the days of hanging a shingle are history?"

These solos feel their professional integrity would be impugned by mandating continuing education. Furthermore, they feel their options of how to practice and run their business are about to be effectively destroyed. Those who were leaning towards it confirmed certification may be a good way to prevent new attorneys from getting into the area of real estate and disposing of the elders in the field misguidedly equating "new" and "old" with poor client service.

No matter how this proposal is marketed, a real estate certification remains a death knell to the majority of solos, particularly new lawyers looking to open their own practice.

Susan Cartier-Liebel is solo practitioner, adjunct professor at Quinnipiac University School of Law and a business consultant for solo and small firms. She can be reached at SCartier_Liebel@comcast.net. Copyright © Susan Cartier-Liebel (2006) All Rights Reserved. No portion of this material may be copied, transmitted, posted, duplicated or otherwise used without the express written approval of Susan Cartier-Liebel.

Real Estate Certification A Death Knell To Solos

This column set off a firestorm of responses from those who agreed and disagreed with my opinion.  Please read and then reread before you make any comments. I strongly believe certification in the areas traditionally reserved for the generalists and young solos will make starting your own practice at anytime in your career virtually impossible.

Connecticut Law Tribune - June 26, 2006

Eugenics is a social philosophy which advocates the improvement of human hereditary traits through various forms of intervention. The purported goals have variously been to create healthier, more intelligent people and lessen human suffering. Earlier proposed means of achieving these goals focused on selective breeding while modern ones focus on genetic engineering. Historically, eugenics has been used as a justification for coercive state-sponsored discrimination and severe human rights violations, such as forced sterilization (e.g., of those perceived to have mental or social defects) and even genocide.

Why am I writing about state-sponsored discrimination, genetically engineered weeding out of the perceived "less desirables" and genocide? It was the first thing that came to mind when I read the recent article in the Connecticut Law Tribune discussing the newest Connecticut Bar Association Real Property Section’s efforts to create a certification in residential Real Estate. Eugenics is unconscionable in its worst form, genocide, and ethically questionable in its purported loftiest goals, selection of gender and traits when creating a new life. The end result is the same, it is thinning out of the herd but by a small group’s definition of "defective" and "desirable."

Applying "specialization" status to real estate law is just ludicrous, discriminatory and serves no higher purpose than protecting those currently overweighted in their practice from new lawyers entering the field. Since when has "I’ve been doing this forever" a suggestion of expertise and a guarantee of consumer protection?

This quote says it all. "We think, with the increase in competition to get on approved attorneys lists, that (a certification program) is going to make a difference. We just want to demonstrate to the public how committed we are to consumer protection." Well, here is the reality. Banks will start marketing, "we only use lawyer’s certified in real estate." Realtors are going to want to align themselves with certified lawyers to make themselves look good to their clients and will have to have a short list of certified lawyers. So now all buyers will be shifted to "certified" attorneys. Consumers will be stripped of their choice of lawyer under the guise of "protection."

If consumer protection were really the heart of this push for certification then there would be no prequalifier of "having been admitted to the bar for at least five years and devoted a substantial percentage of their practice to real estate." Certification would be comprised of continuing legal education and possibly an examination to ensure you have a certain skill set beyond your law degree. If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck.

Once you start applying certification or specialty status to areas of law which were once the province of a small town lawyer you are attempting to lock out new lawyers, period. It is the proverbial "certification" slippery slope. And the lawyer who typically starts out offering a panoply of legal services is the solo.

Representing a client in a residential real estate closing is not brain surgery. If it was, most of the "detail" work could not be done by a paralegal while the lawyer shows up in his tennis whites on a Friday afternoon to sign the papers. (I've already been chastised on my choice of words...please do not comment further.) This is exactly what happened at our closing. We hired a new solo for the purchase. The seller hired an "established" real estate firm. Our lawyer showed up in his fresh-pressed suit, painstakingly went through every document with us to our level of understanding while the other lawyer, who was late and dressed in shorts and a polo shirt, drummed his fingers on the conference table. My lawyer was thorough; the "experienced" lawyer was yawning and looking at his watch. We, the buyers, understood all the documents we were signing thanks to this "inexperienced" lawyer who was not heavily weighted in real estate law. The bank representative was so impressed she asked him to submit his credentials right then and there while she sought a waiver to their own requirement a lawyer be admitted to the bar for at least five years. And there is the rub. Most lenders already require a minimum amount of time after admission to the bar in order to get on their approved attorneys lists so the consumer has protections.

This particular "certification" in residential real estate, is nothing more than a ploy to lock up the playing field. It will toll a death knell to the new attorney and solo who is no less committed to his clients and no less talented. And because solos tend to do the work themselves, the client is getting the lawyer’s time and work product. You do the math. The real estate bubble has burst. There are fewer clients per lawyer. If you are overweighted in real estate and that’s all you’ve been doing (to your own detriment), you are going to take a massive hit.

How do you save yourself besides learning new areas of law to expand your business? Get the Connecticut Bar Association and the judiciary to go along with your plan to close out the competition by playing the "consumer protection" card. And to assuage other members of the bar say, "but it’s totally voluntary." Whatever happened to competing for business on integrity, professionalism and good customer service?

Susan Cartier-Liebel is solo practitioner, adjunct professor at Quinnipiac University School of Law and a business consultant for solo and small firms. She can be reached at SCartier_Liebel@comcast.net. Copyright © Susan Cartier-Liebel (2006) All Rights Reserved. No portion of this material may be copied, transmitted, posted, duplicated or otherwise used without the express written approval of Susan Cartier-Liebel

December 26, 2006

The Many Virtues of the Virtual Office

Connecticut Law Tribune - December 25, 2006

Most people don't truly understand what a virtual office is and the amazing benefits it can offer all businesses. The uninformed legal professional could be missing out on one of the greatest opportunities available, not just for the solo or small firm, but for law firms of all sizes.

For the sake of argument, let's say you are an immigration lawyer. Your potential client base generally seeks out local counsel. You don't want to limit your opportunities to just one city and would like a presence in every major city in your state. The idea, however, of actually having multiple offices — security deposits, utilities, insurances, staffing and the like — is financially daunting. Plus, you are not sure it will prove demographically sensible or profitable to be in multiple cities. This is where the virtual office makes the decision easier, by offering tremendous flexibility while mitigating financial risk-taking.

A virtual office is a local professional business address, usually in a prestigious building conveniently situated with ample parking, fully furnished, and professionally staffed with receptionists, paralegals and technical staff. They provide fully equipped business centers, video conferencing centers, onsite security, lockable rooms, data storage rooms and lobby signage. These virtual offices are meant to be either an extension of your currently existing permanent office, or your permanent office presence in each of your chosen locations. Just walk in with your laptop and get to work.

Depending upon your needs, you can include a few hours or multiple days of on-site office time at each of your addresses each month. If you require a "virtual assistant," you can purchase paralegal or administrative help on an "as needed" basis. You can test drive your selected location and services on a month-to-month basis with a "terms agreement," instead of committing to a lease which locks you into unnecessary financial obligations.

If you want to commit for longer tenancy, you get a rate reduction. There is usually a one-time set up fee of around $99. Normal monthly fees range from $150 per month and up, depending upon the services selected and price of real estate in your chosen market. You can experiment with multiple locations while you work on a daily basis from your home for generally less than the cost of a single traditional private office rental. There are no utility, maintenance, equipment or salary costs. There is also no need for premises liability, workers' compensation and unemployment insurance. There is a minimal financial risk versus a maximum business advantage.

In focus groups, the few issues that did surface were more psychological for the attorney rather than actual road blocks. As a group, lawyers tended to feel a lack of permanence with virtual offices. They analogized the virtual office experience to long-term residence at a high-quality hotel. All their needs were attended to at a fixed price. It was great, but it wasn't home. In addition, signage is limited to the lobby, and it is a challenge to limit building tenancy to other professionals.

Having a business presence in numerous locations in order to penetrate new markets and meet clients' needs used to be a luxury only afforded the largest law firms.

Virtual offices are the future and there are numerous ways to incorporate the advantages they pose into your business plan. They can be especially beneficial for solos or small-firm lawyers starting out with a smaller budget. If you are in flux about where to position yourself geographically and/or with limited funds, the virtual office is an option you should explore. •

Susan Cartier-Liebel is solo practitioner, adjunct professor at Quinnipiac University School of Law and a business consultant for solo and small firms. She can be reached at SCartier_Liebel@comcast.net. Copyright © Susan Cartier-Liebel (2006) All Rights Reserved. No portion of this material may be copied, transmitted, posted, duplicated or otherwise used without the express written approval of Susan Cartier-Liebel.

December 23, 2006

Solosez - The Virtual Mega Law Firm

Connecticut Law Tribune - March, 2006

One of the biggest fears facing those who wish to go out on their own is the idea of being by themselves. Perceived Isolation from other attorneys is a great disincentive and could ultimately impact the choice we make whether to be a solo. Humans are by nature social animals. We like to discuss our ideas, share problems and successes, adventures, and chit chat around the proverbial water cooler. We want the comfort of a professional shoulder to lean on for advice and direction when we need help with a problem. Most believe that professional mentoring and collegiality can only come from being part of "the firm." Well, not surprisingly, technology, combined with a few brilliant minds, has, once, again, answered the prayers of the solo. For free, the solo or small firm lawyer can become part of a virtual law firm consisting of more than eighteen hundred lawyers from across the country and the world.

Solosez, now under the protective umbrella of the ABA General Practice, Solo and Small Firms Section, is the brain child of Bruce Dorner, a solo in Londonderry, New Hampshire. It was started more than 10 years ago as an e-mail discussion group between a few lawyers intended as a forum in which exchange ideas on substantive issues of law. Solosez has since evolved into a community of more than eighteen hundred "partners" willing to share their legal minds, experience and good will all for free. In addition, you get secondary expertise in that some lawyers are also policemen, firefighters, engineers, electricians, insurance agents, pilots, carpenters and so on. Even law students post asking for recommendations or guidance for when they graduate. E-mail messages between members are surpassing more than 150 per day on a variety of topics pertinent to solos and small firms. They can be received in digest form so as not to clog your in box. You simply provide your e-mail address and you can always unsubscribe.

All discussion threads are archived by month and year for research. Popular threads are made available for quick access. E-mailing of messages or responses are to the individual, the Solosez member list or both.

I have seen threads ranging from "Help, I got my first PI case and I need some guidance" to "what is the best way to attract immigration business" to "can anyone tell me the best software to use" or "should I advertise with this legal referral service?" Sometimes the questions asked of other Sezzers are more personal in nature, how to deal with their own wills, a call to anyone who has had experience with a terminal diagnosis. Other times it is shameless advertising and chest thumping pride over publication of a first fiction novel. Regardless the topic, within a day the thread will have blossomed to twenty or thirty responses giving responsible information, guidance and experience. There is no limit to the type of question but if the threads go too far afield and you’ve been asked to cease, you can have your privileges suspended for 10 days if you don’t comply. Politics is generally a Bozo No No.

By offering your expertise in an area, you are also in effect marketing to fellow lawyers which, in turn, can generate future referrals. Quite often the "Sezzers" will meet in person or have Sezzer conventions. You can establish comradery and lasting friendship but most importantly feel that at any given moment an e-mail can be sent into cyberspace and within no time a discussion will be generated providing information on any topic twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

An added feature, Solosez411, provides an e-mail listing of attorneys by state or by area of practice. For example, if you needed to refer a patent case (or just want advice on your own case) you could go to Solosez411 and look under "patent law" and see which fellow Sezzer could help. The same for a specific state referral. It is also an excellent, free marketing tool. Imagine having your law firm’s name listed in front of more than eighteen hundred potential referrers of clients every day for free.

SoloMarketing is another branch off the Solosez tree offering a discussion group which brainstorms marketing ideas for solos and small firms.

Whether through an altruistic nature or just ego it has been my experience that lawyers like to help other lawyers. Regardless of the motivation, the recipient benefits. The lawyers who participate on a regular basis take pride in their reputation and legal advice. Clearly, you accept the legal guidance and opinions on this or any other website at your own risk. However, over time you will learn to trust certain Sezzers. At the very least you will get food for thought or be launched in the right direction for your own research. As a whole, the Solosez community is top shelf. Trust seems to be the unspoken catalyst for it’s success and growth.

Imagine, being part of an eighteen hundred plus partner global mega law firm with all those resources available to you with the click of a mouse. And you don’t even need to be a member of the ABA or Section to join. Isn’t technology grand?

Susan Cartier-Liebel is solo practitioner, adjunct professor at Quinnipiac University School of Law and a business consultant for solo and small firms. She can be reached at SCartier_Liebel@comcast.net. Copyright © Susan Cartier-Liebel (2006) All Rights Reserved. No portion of this material may be copied, transmitted, posted, duplicated or otherwise used without the express written approval of Susan Cartier-Liebel.

December 21, 2006

CBA Proposal Enables Elitist Law Schools

Connecticut Law Tribune - May 22, 2006, Rev. version April 10, 2007, National Law Journal April 10, 2007

Centuries ago, one became a lawyer by apprenticing with a practicing lawyer. By watching the lawyer in action, learning the law through research and practical application, learning the fundamentals of dealing with clients, they then flew from the nest and went on to practice themselves. But somewhere along the way, how to "practice" law has gotten lost in the corporation known as "law school" and now the Connecticut Bar Association believes they have to pick up the slack to make up for the law school’s shortcomings.

There are two primary components to becoming a lawyer; knowledge and application. One without the other is pointless. Today law schools emphasize knowledge only. Application is left to the employer if one manages to find a position upon graduation. When the application component is left to the employer, implicit in that is the assumption "one must work for another" first, in order to complete their legal education and before they can open up their own practice competently. If I’ve paid upwards of $100,000 for a legal education, I want it to be a complete legal education upon graduation. I don’t want to then be mandated to take an agency-sponsored, state sanctioned post-graduate prep course on lawyering or be suspended. Therefore, a good law school should teach both knowledge and application in a well-designed curriculum where both primary components of becoming a complete lawyer are regarded with equal value. Upon graduation and passing the bar, I should be good to go.

Unfortunately, for most of today’s law students this is not the norm. Students are paying a premium for the whole pie but getting only half. The pervasive attitude amongst academia is "that’s not our job. We are not technicians. We are academicians." And quite frankly, true academicians should not teach the reality of working in the trenches if they haven’t been there recently. Therefore, law schools should integrate into their professorial ranks those who are proud of their war wounds obtained in the real legal world. And they should have input into the curriculum as their real world experience plays an important role in the law student’s education. It’s what the students want. And, they are the paying customer. Without them, the law school ceases to exist.

Some laws schools are heeding the wake up call. Quinnipiac University School of Law is reading the tea leaves. Oklahoma’s law schools all have some offerings. Well established programs exist at Campbell University in North Carolina. Yet Campbell University stands alone in that they actually take pride in their legal business programs and celebrate their solo alumni. Deans who are progressive and are looking towards the future of the legal profession are realizing they have a greater obligation to their students. They understand there is a need to go back to the basics, to teach skills along with knowledge in order to go forward into the future. If one were to honestly contemplate the future of the legal profession they would have to acknowledge it mirrors the division of classes in our society. The mid-sized firm is disappearing and being absorbed into the mega firms or fracturing off into one to four "person" law firms. One to four "person" firms are home to almost 74% of all private practice lawyers in this country today. This mandates knowledge on how to operate your own legal practice. To preclude teaching students how to function as business people in the practice of law when this is the trend in the legal profession is tantamount to educational malpractice.

Education has to change with the times and legal educators need to acknowledge their paying customers. Law schools need to stop concentrating on "placing" their graduates in "jobs" and start helping them to build a career for themselves by equipping them for any eventuality or shift in economic trend. Give students their full education. Educate them in all the options their degree affords. Clinics, internships and externships should be mandatory, not optional. Schools should be establishing centers for solo and small firm practice, or at the very least providing information, guidance and support as standard fare. Give your students a leg up on what they can expect in the real world and let them say they were able to succeed because they got a complete education, the whole pie. If the CBA is allowed to construct this additional hoop for recent graduates to jump through, all it’s succeeded in giving all law schools is a free pass on providing students a complete legal education.

Susan Cartier-Liebel is solo practitioner, adjunct professor at Quinnipiac University School of Law and a business consultant for solo and small firms. She can be reached at SCartier_Liebel@comcast.net. Copyright © Susan Cartier-Liebel (2006) All Rights Reserved. No portion of this material may be copied, transmitted, posted, duplicated or otherwise used without the express written approval of Susan Cartier-Liebel.