December 18, 2006

Internet Is Equalizer for Savvy Solos

While this column appeared more than a year ago, and I would update it to include blogging, the fundamentals remain the same....an internet presence is a must.  It is money well spent. If you have limited dollars to invest in a "presence" and you must choose between an actual advertisement in the yellow pages and a website/blog on the internet, you must choose the internet, first.

Now that we are securely entrenched in the Information Age there is one undeniable truth: if your practice does not have a presence on the information highway, fondly known as the Internet, you will not exist for many clients. A website in the 21st century is the equivalent of a Yellow Page ad last century.

However, there is one major difference. The Yellow Pages of the 20th century were where you primarily let clients know your telephone number and street address. When clients today go to the Internet to find contact information, consciously or unconsciously they are, in fact, looking for much more. They are looking to validate who you are by doing, what is in their minds, preliminary research; getting a leg up on who you are before the initial consultation.

Granted, a web page you've designed is well-crafted advertising; the content solely within your control. But by virtue of your website's design and the type of content you can include, it can ultimately become a brilliant interactive electronic brochure. Well designed and user-friendly, a website has the ability to sell the potential client on hiring you before or after the initial consultation. Or, it can turn them off.

Psychologically, by having a presence on the web, you've gained status with a potential client. For the client, it is the equivalent of having seen your name in the newspaper; it gives you some measure of credibility. Conversely, if they can't find anything about you on the Internet, you will lose some credibility even if you came highly recommended. The Internet has become the number one source for validation of who you are and your credentials. Not having a presence on the Internet, primarily through a website, is no longer an option if you wish to run a successful business. (And for those of you who are curious, mine is under construction at www.buildasolopractice.com.)

Will they still call if you cannot be Googled? Probably. But rather than already having been sold by first, a recommendation and second, "their own research" on the web, you have to spend more time selling yourself during the initial consultation. You are combating an unconscious negative.

Unlike the Yellow Pages, a website gives you a relatively inexpensive way to reach your potential clients with custom designed information that can be constantly updated. Just as important, it gives all those who would refer business to you the opportunity to do so simply by reciting your website address or being able to say, "Google his/her name. You'll find everything you need to know."

Your client gets an opportunity to know you before ever meeting you, see a photograph of you and/or your staff, be sold on your services and philosophy and learn about your areas of concentration. In your own website you can post your biography, a resume, testimonials, a mission statement, philosophy, prestigious awards, publications, give directions, answer e-mail inquiries, discuss current law, become an information source, create a blog, even have a potential client's computer call you directly upon reading your website to set up a consultation.

And because this advertising tool is so critical in today's competitive marketplace, it is worth having someone who understands your audience and who is truly skilled in the designing of web pages create your website. They should understand the ins and outs of the Internet.

We all have "friends" who will do it for free or very inexpensively because everyone fancies themselves a web page designer. However, while I am one who always believes in cost-cutting, this is one area I caution you to not be motivated by cost cutting. A bad web page can cost you business and send the wrong image of you and your firm into cyberspace for light-years to come. A great web page is worth every penny you will spend.

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 (2005) 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 05, 2006

Don't Let Pro Bono Work Put You Out of Business

Connecticut Law Tribune/Law.com - May 8, 2006

There is a lot of discussion about lawyers and their obligation to perform pro bono legal services. Pro bono (translation: "for the good") is a very admirable way to give back to society in the form of free or very inexpensive legal aid to those who otherwise could not afford legal services.

This column, however, is not about the morality of whether or not each and every lawyer has an obligation to give back to society in the form of free or inexpensive legal services. It is about business decisions. If the newly minted solo is inclined to do pro bono work, how does it fit into his or her business plan?

Pro bono work usually translates into, "I'm not getting paid ... by choice." It should be done as a calculated business decision. You are in the business of selling time. When you make a calculated decision to donate a certain number of hours of your time, whether in an effort to attract more business and/or to satisfy some inner moral compunction, while not taking food off your table, that's called "marketing" and/or "soul food."

When you let a client take your time because you were incapable of charging them or steal your time because you are incapable of collecting your fee and there's no hope of referred clients, all while struggling to pay your rent, that's called "stupid," or, "I'm not getting paid ... but not by choice."

You must learn the difference between pro bono work and bad business. One will help you prosper financially and emotionally. The other will put you under.

While you are starting out, pro bono work needs to be very thoughtful in terms of your business plan because if you are a bleeding heart you will help a few, go out of business, and not be able to help a lot more in the future.

There are pretty much two times in your career cycle when pro bono work is a win/win situation for you and the client. When you are first starting out, the likelihood of your billing 40 to 50 hours per week is small. You will be in a learning curve. During this learning curve you will have time to take on a case others won't because the client can't pay. It can be a tremendous learning experience, a basis for referrals in the future and provide a lot of exposure to colleagues and the courts.

And most importantly, it's not taking away from you earning money to support your business. It beats sitting around waiting for the telephone to ring.

The second time in your career cycle when pro bono work is a win/win situation is when you are well-seasoned, you're financially comfortable and you genuinely feel the need to work on a case for a client without counting the nickels. The desire to help is great, the injustice of a situation strikes a chord or the substantive legal issues compel you. And because of your experience, what might have taken you 30 hours years ago now takes 10.

One very successful attorney who does a lot of pro bono work now that she can afford to told me "there are a lot of barking dogs out there. You can't feed them all." This was very wise advice for a new attorney. There is no shortage of people who will look to take your time for free.

However, you are not in the business of extending credit or giving away your services. Unless someone is paying your student loan, mortgage and car payment, you are under no moral obligation to give away your time. There are only so many hours in a day.

You must grow your business first, keep yourself afloat and meet your obligations to yourself and your family.  You will know if and when the time is righ to take on pro bono work.  At that time you will calculate how many hours per year you can donate to those in need.  Remember, your goal is to create a thriving business that will provide for your future.  Only then will you be able to help others.

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 01, 2006

To Solos: Don't Discount Your Worth

Connecticut Law Tribune/Law.com  -    June 5, 2006

Setting fees for your legal services is a two-fold proposition. It isn’t just learning what the going rate for legal services is and positioning yourself within a reasonable range based upon your experience. It is also confidently being able to convey to the client the cost of your services.

To be competitive in the legal services marketplace you must properly price those services based upon both your demographic area and the practice area. Your fees are basically pre-determined by what the market/clientele can comfortably sustain.

If you ask a twenty-year family law veteran the going rate in Stamford and she replies "$450 per hour against a $20,000 retainer," will that fly for a two-year attorney in New Britain? Probably not.

The most efficient way to learn what the market can sustain is to talk to other attorneys about the going rate for services and to check statutory restrictions and limitations for services. There are many reasons to charge market rates for your skills even if you are fresh out of law school. First and foremost, today’s client is savvy and has knowledge and expectation of what they should pay for quality legal representation. If you undercharge, you risk making the knowledgeable client suspicious of why you are cheaper. Are they getting "lesser" quality services? You also run the very real risk of alienating your brethren because you are dropping the overall price for services which ultimately impacts every other lawyer. Alienating other lawyers is never a smart practice. Your professional peers play a very important role in the success of your solo practice on many levels. You may feel that by charging less than the market can bear you are doing the client a favor but in the long run you are doing more harm than good all around by diminishing the value of your services. Generally, it is not the fee that will dissuade a client from hiring you. It is failure to provide payment terms the client can live with. If you are uncomfortable charging the same as those who are more "experienced" there is no harm reducing your hourly or flat fee marginally but it should be within a reasonable range of the going rate.

Conveying to the client the cost of your services with confidence is the other component. Clients, as a whole, are market savvy consumers and are generally aware of the legal costs for services. How many people have you met who are shocked a personal injury lawyer takes a contingency fee of one third on a case? Not many. Most people know hourly fees are in the $200 ballpark. So, if you present a fee of $100 per hour, chances are the client will be suspicious. If you present an hourly fee of $200 and the client tries to negotiate your fee downwards and you say, "OK," now the client feels you were overcharging him to begin with and will distrust you.

Think of it this way. You own a convenience store. A customer brings to the counter a package of Twinkies. The price rings up at $.69. The customer knows the price is $.69 because it is marked on the package. He asks you if you will sell it at $.49. You would easily say, "the price is $.69." He says, "but I only have $.49." You would have no problem saying, "I’m sorry. But that is the price. The package is clearly marked $.69." The customer says, "but I can buy these Twinkies for $.49 at the convenience store down the street." Would you then lower the price of the Twinkies in order to keep his business with the future hope he will come back to buy more Twinkies even though you will take a $.20 loss?" I think you would tell him very nicely to go buy his Twinkies down the street and feel no loss for not having sold the Twinkies to him at the discounted rate. However, when it comes to sticking to our guns about the cost of our legal services most starting out (and some of us who have been practicing for years) can’t seem to recognize that even though the price is not stamped on our foreheads we still have a relatively fixed value and must convey that with the same confidence to our clients. The reality is if the convenience store owner sold the Twinkies for $.49 the customer would have felt he pulled one over on the owner, told all his buddies the guy was a sucker and to not pay more than $.49 for Twinkies at that convenience store. ( I assure you if the store owner now tried to charge $.69 customers would say, "but you only charged so and so $.49.") Pretty soon customers would start negotiating the price down for other product, too. Old customers would feel taken advantage of. Well, you get the gist of it.

Never negotiate the fee. Convey those fees with confidence because you know you are worth it. Offer terms of payment if appropriate but do not get in the habit of extending "credit." An IOU never put food in your children’s mouths, filled your gas tank or paid your student loan.

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.

November 28, 2006

Certification Push Won't Cure Profession's Ills

Connecticut Law Tribune - October 23, 2006

My head nearly exploded when I read this newspaper's Aug. 28 "Advice of Counsel" column.

Why? The first two paragraphs of this column tells us, "Three years of law school no longer cuts the mustard." The public, it maintains, "needs to evaluate the lawyer they are planning to hire and trust. If a potential client engages a lawyer with little or no experience in the field of a client's issue, there is a possible difference in the level of service that will be provided and possibly the chances of success," it says. "This can lead to client disappointment and less trust in the profession as a whole."

We in essence have a column that says three years of law school is not an adequate education and everyone should already know this. It further claims, by extension, fresh graduates who choose to go solo or start small firms are not equipped to represent their clients and the public can be harmed. This is the only conclusion one can draw from this statement because the alternative for a graduate with a half-baked education is to be hired by a private law firm or government agency. Hermetically sealed in the law firm or governmental womb, the unsuspecting public is protected from these newly minted incompetents by the oversight of more experienced attorneys and the profession's image remains unsullied.

The Law Tribune's Advisory Board claims these prefatory comments were made to justify its conclusion that the remedy for this huge educational failing is specialization certification. In addition, it is our job as practicing lawyers to support specialization certification because it enables the certified lawyer to advertise their expertise to the public, which will in turn protect these unsuspecting lumps from dangerously inexperienced lawyers.

No, oh sage advice-givers, your premise is flawed and your antidote is snake oil. You can't suggest a cure if you've misdiagnosed the cause of the illness. The remedy is not to create certifications. The remedy is to find out why "three years of law school no longer cuts the mustard" and then correct it. Why are the law schools no longer doing their job? Or are they being prevented from doing their job by anachronistic ABA criteria and academic thinking? Should we establish a Bush-type initiative called "No Law Student Left Behind?"

Maybe certification programs should be part of the law school curriculum so law students and new solos have a fighting chance in this certification-crazed world. Create an educational experience where potential new solos who don't want to work for "the firm" or government don't suffer a premature professional death.

By the way, I've never stated that law schools fail their students with black letter law knowledge. I've consistently maintained they have failed the students by not mandating skills and business training and have failed to support their students' entrepreneurial ambitions. Certification doesn't cure that sad state of affairs.

Accelerated specialization certification doesn't fix the foundational problems. The suggestion of certification to protect the public from inexperienced lawyers and protect the profession's image is analogous to putting a band-aid on a broken bone.

If the medical community is to be lauded as the brass ring to be reached for by the legal community, the column's "benefits of specialization certification" analysis should be taken to the next level. What is happening now in the medical community from the public's perspective? The internist (read general practitioner) is going the way of the dodo bird, functioning simply as a traffic manager funneling patients to specialists while they pimp the latest advertised pharmaceuticals as an appetizer. John Q. Public is sick of fragmented healthcare and needing 15 different over-priced specialists.

Lawyers aren't being left behind. But they are being hoodwinked into believing they should give up their right to practice one or 20 areas of law by being wedged into a specialty in order to compete. Once certification takes hold, especially in the most basic legal areas, the new graduate who wishes to go solo won't have a fighting chance to hang a shingle. Maybe that's what this push for certification is really about.

Susan Cartier-Liebel is a 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.

November 27, 2006

For The Brave, There Is Life After Big Law

Connecticut Law Tribune/Law.com - August, 2006

If opening your own practice was portrayed as a MasterCard commercial, it would go something like this: Virtual Office: $150.00, Cell Phone: $49.99 per month; WiFi laptop $799; taking your five-year-old to his first Mets opening day at Shea Stadium (without derailing the partnership track): Priceless.

Solos work very hard, 24/7 but this is the reason most will tell you they work so hard. Freedom. Not having to apologize for, nor feel guilt about decisions that put their family first. Not having to risk their promotion or job because life means more to them than eighty hour work weeks. Not having to ask anyone’s permission to live their life the way they choose.

One of the most amazing benefits of being a lawyer is the ability to be an entrepreneur and all the rights and privileges that go with the professional title of lawyer. And most who have done so will never turn back. Some recent statistic states there are over one million lawyers in this country; 74 percent are in firms of four or fewer lawyers. (The 2003 Census states four or fewer "employees.") However, the statistic is powerful in that it shows the personality of the lawyer is predominantly one of less, rather than more, supervision and reliance upon corporate life; greater autonomy over their work schedule and income. There is less dependence upon employers "promoting" them and more reliance upon themselves. They prefer to take a greater share of the dollar they work so hard to earn. They prefer more interaction with clients and more control over their working lives which in turn gives them more freedom in their personal lives.

However, we also live in a culture of fear. Fear we won’t meet our student loans, fear we won’t be able to pay our living expenses, fear we won’t have clients, fear we won’t know what we are doing, fear of not having a steady paycheck and health insurance, and so on. And then there is fear of what others will think if we try to go out there and make a go of it. We absorb all that fear to our detriment. And in turn, we sell ourselves to anyone who will hire us rather than trust ourselves. We sell out because of fear and usually too cheaply. I say, "No deal."

I recently met a lawyer who has been out one year. He received a full scholarship to an Ivy League undergraduate school, the first college graduate in his immigrant family. He then received a substantial scholarship to a mid-level law school. His ethnicity made him attractive to a law firm who, in his words, "hired me to fill their quota." He makes $45,000 or so per year traveling to a city to which he has no attachment, feels isolated from the law firm "click" while practicing the type of law he really does not enjoy. Why? He was too fearful not to take the job. Yet, everyday he returns home to a culturally vibrant community filled with a large family, friends, previous co-workers all begging him to take on their legal work because they trust him as one of their own. He has potentially built-in success and the lure of real freedom to design his life as he chooses, to create the balance that will allow him to work and raise a family and be an active contributing part of the community he loves without selling his soul to the highest ( or lowest) bidder. And he is selling his soul if every day he dreads going to work and sees no future. Instead, he caters to his fear rather than venturing forth. And noone will disabuse him of the fear. The legal community, from law school right through to big law, feeds the fear.

Balance of life and quality of life issues are major pluses for the solo and small firm practitioner and it is impossible to put a price tag on the freedoms enjoyed as well as all the other psychological bank accounts that get hefty deposits every day. Apparently, seventy four percent of all private practice attorneys have done Ben Franklin lists when making the decision to work for themselves. If the statistics tell the tale then independence, autonomy and a day at the ball park is winning by a long shot.

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.

November 21, 2006

Watch The Overhead

Connecticut Law Tribune, January 23, 2006

When I graduated from college, I accepted a job with one of the top national advertising agencies located in New York City. I commuted four hours round trip every day from Orange. It was a glamorous job and looked great on my resume. However, in that year I learned one very important lesson which has never left me--your gross salary matters much less than what you actually take home.

Back then I negotiated a whopping $14,000 a year. (Can you guess how old I am?) It was about 25 percent more than my counterparts who worked in Connecticut. However, when I deducted my monthly commuting costs, New York City income taxes and the like, I actually netted less than my peers. When I left New York and took a lower paying job in Connecticut, I, too, actually netted more with the bonus of saving four hours a day of commuting.

It is a very simplistic concept but one that never seems to actually be put into practice. To realize more income in your legal practice, you have to take home more of every dollar you earn. If you gross $150,000 a year but spend $75,000 to $97,500 on overhead and your peer earns $125,000 but only spends $31,000 to $43,000 on overhead who is really taking home more money.

The firms I have talked to spend 50-65 percent of each dollar on overhead. Most of the newer solos spend 25-35 percent of each dollar on overhead. Newer lawyers can charge less per hour and actually take home as much as, if not more than, lawyers charging more per hour but with greater overhead expenses.

How does one reduce their percentage of expense per dollar earned? It's a philosophical decision. If you understand that you are the product, you will make decisions which reinforce this philosophy. You will look to keep your monthly debt service to a minimum. You will not lease the priciest real estate. Your office will not be lavishly appointed. (This can actually be off-putting to most clients who pay on an hourly basis because they see their dollars paying for Italian leather instead of your expertise and time.) The one possible exception is if you are a personal injury lawyer and your fees are paid contingently. Only then can a well-appointed office in a pricey setting send the message, "I will get you money and it won't cost you a penny."

You have to start by asking yourself a very practical question: How often, if ever, will clients come to my office? Therefore, are an actual office and the attendant maintenance costs really necessary? Based upon the type of law you practice, can you meet clients elsewhere, such as their office or home? (What a novel concept.) One very high priced lawyer I've talked with has clients across the country who have never been to his office, nor will they ever. So does it matter if his physical office is established in his home? Not if he travels to his clients and at their cost. I can tell you from attorneys canvassed who meet their clients outside of a traditional office setting, not only has this proven cost-effective, but it is very appreciated by clients.

The newest phenomenon amongst solos is the virtual office. This provides the solo an address in an office building to receive mail, a telephone number with a live answering service, the ability to rent the conference room on an hourly basis to meet clients at "your office" as well as the option to contract for administrative services as needed on a project basis. You simply do not have office space to work at on a daily basis. All of this at a fraction of the cost of a fully appointed private office or generally a shared suite. Doesn't $150 a month sound better than $900 or $1,200 per month plus insurance, utility costs, parking and more?

But let's not forget personality considerations. Do you need a place to go each morning? Is it not feasible or impractical to have an office in your home? Would you prefer to share space, barter services for space or simply establish your own private office? The answers may be all of these at one point or another in your legal journey. It all turns on finances, and at what point in your career you are making the transition to practicing on your own.

If you want to be financially more successful without having to commit 65 cents of each dollar to office expenses, or you simply don't want to work as many hours to net the same income as your peers, make sure your overhead is no more than 25 to 35 cents per dollar earned.

 

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.

November 20, 2006

'Branding' Campaign Can Benefit Solos Too

Connecticut Law Tribune/Law.com - July 10, 2006

'Branding' Campaign Can Benefit Solos Too

"Branding" is creating name recognition through a carefully crafted plan of integrated marketing.  That's quite a mouthful.  But what does it really mean?

It's not unlike the brand on the behind of a cow.  A fellow rancher or townsperson sees the "OK" on the backside of the cow and knows it belongs to the "OK Corral."  But more importantly, when they see the "OK" brand, are they making the association that the cow represents quality beef or mad cow disease?  In a nutshell, that is the importance of branding.

In order to be heard in this age of never-ending advertising, your voice has to mean something to its intended audience.  And your voice has to speak consistently year after year in your chosen mediums.  It then has to be backed up with quality.  This is how reputations are built or destroyed.

The key to quality branding is staying true to who you are and your vision of where you want to be 20 or 30 years down the road, both professionally and personally.  If you fail to determine your vision first and simply follow the pack with a "one-size-fits-all" marketing plan, you will remain an indistinguishable part of the herd.

How do you distinguish yourself? If you've been following my column this past year, you know that just by being who you are already distinguishes you from the solo down the street and the larger firm on the hill because you are a unique product.  Your "branding" will naturally flow from determining the characteristics that set you apart and amplifying these traits through various mediums.  And the characteristics are not just the curl in your hair.  They have everything to do with community ties, ethnicity, religious affiliations, non-legal endeavors, education and previous work history.  Once you combine your vision for your professional and personal future with your "characteristics," the best media for you will become clearer, and the message you will deliver more succinct.

Hypothetically, Joyce wants to go back to her hometown.  Her parents had a bakery there for 35 years.  Everyone remembers Joyce as a pig-tailed 5-year old who climbed on the stool behind the counter to help her father butter the rolls.  "Gee, Joyce, you're such a hard worker," they would smile.

Everyone also remembers it was her parents who brought the best tasting brownies for all the school bake sales and only charged a quarter.  They sold coffee with real cream at the high school football games and had a kiosk selling baked goods at the local country fair where Joyce would work tirelessly.  And Joyce was always the first to volunteer to raise funds for local charities.

Now Joyce wants to raise her family and open her law practice in town.  Her parents are still alive and still run the bakery.  Joyce wants to concentrate in elder care law, wills, trusts and estates, and family dissolutions.  Her personal history  and vision for her future will establish the foundation for her "branding."  The "tag" she creates for her letterhead, business card, e-mail signature, web site design and advertisement in the local penny saver will reflect her history and vision of her personal and professional future.

How she reconnects will match her personality and the habits of her potential client base.  The legal practice she builds from there for decades to come, all future expansion into other communities and areas of law, will be predicated on the strength of these solid footings.

For every single one of the one million lawyers in the United States, there is a unique "branding" campaign that will allow those who choose to go solo or join a small firm the opportunity to combine their personal and professional visions in a seamless "branding" package.  If [solos] are successful in branding, they will not be able to separate where their personal life ends and their working life begins.  They are the product 24/7.  Every day, every person they meet is a potential client.

This is the epitome of successful "branding" for the solo or small firm lawyer and an integral element of a professional career.

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.

With Foresight, Solos Can Ride Out Economic Downturns

Connecticut Law Tribune - November 20, 2006

When I consult with students and clients interested in going solo, I’m often surprised by the fact that those considering going into business for themselves seldom consider the economic health of this country and how it fits into the design of their business plans. The economy should not deter them from starting their own practices, quite the opposite. But failure to consider the economic direction of this country and demographic trends prevents smart business planning when choosing both practice areas and physical location.

First, it is irrelevant what conditions lead you to solo practice. Whether by design or lack of choice, a gift, even wrapped in the "big firm" rejection letter or pink slip, is still a gift.

However, in this time of economic uncertainties it will be a challenge to sustain oneself in business without understanding how to make the right choices.

The smart solo needs to develop competency in more than one practice area and then develop strategies to maintain and grow those practice areas as the economy changes.

With every demographic trend and economic shift large firms will reevaluate their business plan. They follow the money. They will merge, increase or decrease in size, and/or alter their focus. Well, the economy is seriously downshifting. If you are considering opening your own practice what areas should you consider? Recently, large law firms have been increasing their bankruptcy divisions. Why? This country is fueled on debt. Never before in our history have so many created a lifestyle built on the delusion of wealth called credit. Their party is almost over. Did you think it was coincidence sweeping bankruptcy reform passed making it harder to discharge debt? Bankruptcy lawyers will be in demand for both individuals and corporations. Foreclosure lawyers will be needed in increasing numbers to represent not just those who took out ARMs to buy overpriced real estate but to also represent the mortgage lenders. Elder Law is very fertile ground. Mull over this statistic. It is projected in twenty years Connecticut will have the same percentage of over fifty-fives as Florida. Is it just another coincidence that fifty-five plus communities are proliferating?

What about immigration? The point remains; cultivate practice areas that support demographic trends and the direction of the economy.

Then there are those practice areas which do well in any economy. Family Law; long-term economic hardship fractures fragile families. Criminal Law; criminal behavior will rise as the "have nots" take from the "haves."

Personal Injury; people will always suffer injuries and seek redress. Landlord/Tenant; when people lose their homes they have to live somewhere. Business Incorporations;

those who are laid off tend to become entrepreneurs in order to feed their families. Wills, Trusts & Estate Planning; in good times or bad people protect what they have; Tax law; if people can’t pay for their homes, can they pay their taxes? And, of course, Debt Collection will be big. This list is not exhaustive but you get the drift.

The huge difference, no matter the practice area, will be how much clients can afford to pay you in a down economy. As a solo, your livelihood will turn on your flexibility; your flexibility will turn on your overhead. If you haven’t economized and downsized, your operating costs will sink you. By maintaining a virtual office or a high-tech home office, you will be able to ride out a reduction in clients and fees, be able to offer payment terms and write off unpaid receivables. If you practice exclusively in an area that will be hit hardest by an economic downturn, you need to diversify while you still have an opportunity to reeducate yourself and implement strategies to attract a different client base.

Please don’t confuse me with the grim reaper. Forewarned is forearmed. Too many people stick their head in the sand to avoid harsh realities. Do not marry a practice area (unless you are already ensconced and recognized for your niche and that niche will survive regardless of the economy). Talented lawyers are trained to collect information, process information, and reformat that information to benefit a client. Apply this training to those areas of law that will enable you to keep your livelihood. Smart business people don’t fight the tide. They find a way to stay afloat and survive, while the truly savvy profit.

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.

November 19, 2006

For Solos, YouTube is Marketing Genius

Connecticut Law Tribune - October 30, 2006

Your Internet presence just got more exciting. Imagine, potential clients can click on your web site and be linked to your personal video introducing them to your services, philosophies and mission, all for free? Imagine your own infomercial without the cost of running it on television, more targeted to your potential client base and all available for just the cost of creating it?

YouTube.com (recently purchased by the geniuses at Google for $1.65 billion, copyright infringement issues and all) offers this free service by allowing you to upload your video to its web site. You can link to the YouTube site through your own site, permitting you an "in person" introduction to potential clients.

One very ingenious young lawyer out of California did just that to give herself a competitive edge. Allison Margolin, a newly minted Harvard Law School graduate, who concentrates in criminal law, is very passionate about the decriminalization of marijuana. Her video highlights not just her criminal practice, but has testimonials of her and a client on the courthouse steps. The video allows her to showcase her mission through a medium her client base would most likely use.

Now, this might not be for everyone, but YouTube lets you take the concept of an electronic brochure, your web site, to a whole new level. When I did a YouTube search of lawyer videos, I found 81; at least 10 were from one law firm, 30-second spots each highlighting a particular practice area within the law firm. Others were amateur videos mocking "late night cheesy lawyers." The upshot is, this is virgin territory for clever marketers.

Whether this type of advertising comports with the ethics rules in California is between Attorney Margolin and the California Grievance Committee. However, based upon the proposed new rules in New York (1200-5-a), Attorney Margolin would be in violation for: (1) having a current client give a testimonial; and (2) having it done in front of the courtroom he is about to enter. That's a real shame. By going to http://youtube.com and searching for "Allison Margolin," you can decide for yourself if her advertisement is misleading to the public, and whether or not the legal profession's image suffers indignities.

The wonderful benefit of an Internet video is it can be as long as you would like and plays for free on the computer for each individual who specifically goes to your web site to do some preliminary research on you. Therefore, with each hit to your web site, you are getting the opportunity to present your own infomercial over and over again. This laser-focused advertising is powerful and cost effective.

Getting this type of targeted advertising for minimal investment is an amazing opportunity for the entrepreneur who is smart enough to grab the horns of this bull and ride it until the "legal advertising police" come with sirens blaring. And you know they are coming. The right to advertise is to the American Bar Association what the right to have an abortion is to the Republicans. It's a hot button issue that remains very divisive.

Given all the fuss recently about lawyer advertising, Internet communications, pop-ups and now blogs, video advertising like YouTube will certainly raise more than a few paternalistic graying eyebrows. But why? If it is a commercial like any other commercial, should it matter where it is played? As long as it passes muster like regular TV and radio "commercials," it shouldn't.

We've got to stop hog-tying every lawyer when it comes to competitive and creative presentation of their skills and philosophies under the ever-broadening (some would say suffocating) umbrella of public protection. If the judiciary and anti-lawyer advertising crusaders really want to protect the public, make them the gatekeepers of pharmaceutical advertising. With their zealousness I may, once again, be able to watch the evening news without 20 commercials encouraging me to become a prescription drug addict. •

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.

Carpet Commuter Rejoice. A New Wave Has Arrived.

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with a prolific, self proclaimed "Carpet Commuting Third Wave Lawyer" who's given me permission to use quotes from his blog, at  stayviolation.com, in this column.

I encourage anyone to read the writings of Texas soloist Chuck Newton, as this down-home country boy has a turn of phrase that truly needs to be experienced firsthand.

"Third Wave Law Practices" is a term coined by Newton, his epiphany having occurred after reading Alvin Toffler's The Third Wave, the sequel to his bestselling Future Shock. Toffler spoke of our culture and society evolving in three waves, the second wave pushing the first society and culture aside; the third wave pushing aside the second.

The First Wave, the agrarian society (which replaced the hunter-gather society) was pushed aside by the Second Wave, what we call the "Industrial Revolution," and "in which many Americans are still floundering," Toffler noted.

"The main components of the Second Wave are nuclear family, factory-type education, and the corporation, all which are based upon standardization, centralization, concentration, synchronization, and bureaucracy," Toffler wrote. Many lawyers can relate to this.

The "Information Age" or "post-industrial society" is the Third Wave. This society and culture is "represented by 'subcults' or diverse lifestyles, 'adhocracies' or fluid organizations that adapt quickly to change, and where information begins to substitute for most material resources ... information becomes the main material for workers ... mass production is replaced by mass customization offering personalized and cheaper goods and services. Most importantly," Toffler wrote, "the gap between producers and consumers begins to be bridged by technology creating a class of 'prosumers' that can fill their own needs."

The Third Wave, as Newton points out, is exemplified in the practice of law. Third-Wave lawyers have broken free from the main components of Second Wave cultural norms. They're carpet commuters. Their commute is from the bedroom to the home office in their slippers.

Indeed, home and virtual offices are proliferating as solos and small firms shed the conventional trappings of Second-Wave law firms, their expensive staff and showplace offices, which all make for massive overhead costs. Freed from this burden, "we can do what attorneys are programmed to do," Newton proclaims. "We collect information, process information, analyze information, repackage information, and sell it in packages or in a means to make the lives of ordinary people and organizations better ... . Third Wave law firms and lawyers," he says, "provide personalization and mass customization of the law for the consumer or prosumer in a more cost effective manner."

Before the Information Age, a solo could not as effectively compete with larger law firms because of the tremendous costs associated with obtaining information, and then analyzing, repackaging and disseminating that information. But technology is the great equalizer. It enables solos or small firms to compete cost-effectively while being completely self-sufficient. Technology allows fully functioning offices to exist wherever solo and small-firm lawyers happen to be. Once they are no longer psychologically or physically tied to a fixed location, they can comfortably position themselves where they are most effective.

The Third Wave is upon us, folks. If law firms would start to work with, instead of against, Third-Wave thinking, there would be less professional unrest amongst the natives and less dissatisfaction with the profession overall. Services could be reasonably priced, consumer-friendly and profitable for the business owner because of the dramatic reduction in overhead.

Thanks to Chuck Newton's turn of phrase, those who have ventured forth into the professional unknown, armed with their legal education, experience and laptop, can now refer to themselves as carpet-commuting pioneers, the first to ride the Third Wave into the new millennium.•

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.