December 28, 2006

Insuring Your Success

Connecticut Law Tribune - 2005

When starting your own practice one of the most daunting challenges is knowing what type of insurance to get, how much and when. This column will not be able to take you down all the twist and turns in the insurance maze but will try to address insurances a solo or small firm must consider. After that, your pocketbook and risk-tolerance will dictate what insurance you buy, and when, if ever. When seeking out insurance agents, you should always check with your local or state bar associations for recommendations. Quite often insurers will present special "group"policy coverages to get endorsements from associations.

Errors and Omissions Insurance (Malpractice Insurance): Some states require you have malpractice insurance and others don’t. In states where malpractice insurance is not required, some attorneys "go bare," meaning no malpractice insurance. They are playing the odds when first starting out that they will not be sued because they will have few clients and probably not taking on anything tremendously complicated. This is not an unreasonable assumption. In addition, if you understand how policies work you know that if you are practicing for a year, for example, and then buy a policy, you can purchase that policy with "prior acts coverage" which will be additional coverage retroactive to a designated date; the further you go back, the more costly. There is a premium for this coverage in addition to your regular insurance costs but you are deferring the bill until you hopefully have greater income. Newly minted attorneys or attorneys with part-time practices can also buy part-time insurance which is generally working (billing) twenty hours or less. You can get coverage from day one at a reduced rate because you’ve cut the malpractice risk in half. You can also finance most policies.

When determining the cost of your malpractice insurance, generally the insurer will look at full-time/part-time practicing status, years of practice, areas of practice, deductible, defense responsibilities and whether you want "prior acts coverage." It is safe to say while there might be both cheaper and more expensive policies out there, a new attorney starting out can expect to pay between $1,000 and $1,500 the first year for full time coverage.

Other coverage you should consider, especially if you have office space, is a basic liability policy for the premises. As you grow you will want valuable papers’ coverage and business interruption insurance. If you take on a paralegal or secretary, you are mandated by law to have workers’ compensation insurance. If you don’t get this and there is a valid claim you run the risk of being held personally responsible depending upon the structure of your entity.

Separately, the one insurance most solos fail to get enough of, or even at all, is disability insurance. Right now, if it is a choice between life insurance and disability insurance, as a solo you should choose disability. Disability insurance is for the living. It has become increasingly difficult to find a good policy that isn’t prohibitive, but as a solo practitioner, should you become disabled, without disability income to pay for your ongoing business and personal debts you can financially cripple both your business and yourself for years to come. For a young solo, in good health to ensure a few thousand a month in disability income, you can expect to pay about $1,000 per year. Unless the tax laws have changed, take the premium expense as a personal expense in order to receive disability payments tax free. Check with your accountant. Attorneys are considered an excellent risk for disability insurance but you must first be able to show income.

Health insurance for the solo who is not already covered under a spouse’s health plan, is also a challenge but must be gotten. Generally, a small business with less than three employees requires medical underwriting per individual. This makes health coverage more expensive. In Connecticut check with http://www.ct.gov/cid and look for companies who market "blue ribbon" policies for self-employed and small groups. Also, look at Health Reinsurance for coverage if you have a prior existing condition. It is not well known that it is mandated by a Connecticut Public Policy Act to make health insurance available to all who apply regardless of any prior existing condition, at an age-based premium, of course. Health Reinsurance offers such a health insurance program. However, income is a consideration, too. So, as a newly minted solo, your income will not generally be high and can impact your premium. In general, when applying for health insurance, if you are an individual in their late twenties in excellent health without a prior existing condition you can expect to pay around $300 a month depending upon the deductible.

Be intelligent and understand insurances and your insurance priorities when first starting out. As your business and income grows, so will your insurance needs. Eventually, you will be able to afford the various insurances needed at the correct coverage amounts.

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 11, 2006

Who Will Take Care Of My Clients When I Can't?

Connecticut Law Tribune - 2006

You’re a solo practitioner. You want to take a well deserved vacation or you need surgery or you’ve just had your first child and want to be home for the first eight weeks. Who will take care of your clients?

This is a very real concern for most solos and for the clients who hire these solos. According to the 2003 Census, 73.7% of all private practice attorneys in the United States are in law firms of " 1 - 4 employees."

More than 52% are solo practitioners. There is obviously a workable solution to these very real life situations or more than half of all attorneys in private practice would be unable to take a vacation, have surgery or be home for their newborn.

When you made the decision to be a solo practitioner you made the conscious decision to own and operate your own business. You deliberately opted out of receiving the few remaining fringe benefits of being an employee. As your own boss you realized you have to network with other attorneys for a variety of reasons, referral work, peer-taught legal education and comradery. Another significant reason to network is to create a coterie of other solos or small firm practitioners who will cover for you should you need to be away from your office for personal reasons.

In the instance of a planned vacation for a finite period of time, you will have advised your clients of your absence, rescheduled any courts appearances, any crises will be directed to a fellow lawyer you trust to handle your clients in your absence (because, naturally, you will have offered reciprocal coverage to this lawyer). But most importantly, when you first took on any of your clients you will have advised them, whether they asked or not, (because it will always be in the back of their mind), that should you, for whatever reason be unable to attend to their matter, you keep a meticulous file documenting everything pertinent to their case which will be entrusted to a fellow lawyer whom you work with on a regular basis. This understanding between you and your client will have been established at the time of your being retained so there will be no surprises.

Should you have an extended absence due to an emergency you will have created the same relationship with another lawyer for this type of event. The difference, however, is I recommend you have a written agreement with this lawyer regarding handling your clients, any payment of fees for coverage, and/or permanently transferring of files if needed depending upon the length of your absence or incapacity, (remembering that clients are "at will" and could leave you for this lawyer permanently, regardless or any arrangement). Any other terms of "temporary" representation you and the other attorney agree upon should be incorporated as well. Yes, there are many details and considerations but they are too numerous for this column.

You will also have to expect to lose some new business. I went into labor with my son two weeks earlier than expected and it happened so quickly (thank goodness) there was no opportunity to make arrangements over the next twenty-four hours. On the unplanned day of delivery I received two new client calls. I returned the calls the day I came home from the hospital but the potential clients had moved on. Had they called when I was supposed to deliver I had coverage. You will lose some business. That’s life.

When a client wants you this is their thought process, "I need an attorney now." "I called you." "You weren’t available or you didn’t call me back quickly enough" (or give me a satisfactory reason to wait.) "So, I called the next attorney on my list." "I don’t need you anymore." Therefore, you have to be able to address your client’s sense of urgency even when you are not available.

I have a relationship with one fellow solo whereby I interview her new clients at her office while she is away or on trial and secure the representation for her when she returns. I collect the consultation fee for my time and she retains the client. Why miss out on new business or disappoint a potential client who came as a referral simply because you are away or unavailable? You don’t have to lose business or eliminate a vacation if you are smart about it and respect the urgency your client feels. Once you have your system in place, you can, as a solo, take time to enjoy life, too. This is why networking with other solos and small firms is key to your success both personally and professionally. It allows you to maintain your business, integrate with your peers and keep your sanity.

We are in a service business. If your client’s are serviced without compromise it doesn’t matter if you are a solo or office of 1000 lawyers. With smarts and creativity you can function in the eyes of your client and the legal community as a larger firm without all the complications of a professional marriage while still enjoying time away from the office.

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 03, 2006

Don't Try To Wing It When You're A Solo

Connecticut Law Tribune/Law.Com - August 1, 2005

When you open your own law practice you go from wearing the singular hat of "lawyer" to wearing the many hats of a small business owner: lawyer, office manager, accountant, and marketing public relations executive. You are a business person first and foremost and have to approach everything you do as a business person. You are selling you, the lawyer, as your product. And you have to market the product. And no successful business is run without first constructing a business plan.

You don't have to have an MBA or be an accountant to run a business or be able to write a formal business plan. Whatever shortcomings you perceive, trust me, they are surmountable. You simply analyze these "shortcomings," then manage them. And whatever your fears, they are certainly no excuse to stay an employee somewhere else.

Most people manage their lives well and practice managerial skills every day. Think about this. You are planning a two-week vacation to Italy. You select your travel dates. Based upon your traveling style you are either hitchhiking into the wind with a backpack, staying put in a villa with paid help, renting a car, reserving hotels in advance and mapping out your own trip, or taking a guided bus tour completely organized and prearranged before you even get on the plane. Your decisions are based upon your own personality, risk-tolerance, skill level, and budget when traveling. Or, you may be skilled enough to do it all yourself but have the budget to pay someone to handle the work for you. But, whatever your skill level, you are going to go to Italy for two weeks.

Putting together a business plan is no different from planning a vacation. Bottom line: know what is required to run your business, assess your skills in the various areas, and budget accordingly. If you can't add two and two, budget for an independent bookkeeper; if you are computer illiterate, budget for someone who can initially set you up then help you back up when your system goes down. You're going to open your own practice, how you are going to do it depends upon your plan.

What is a business plan? It is as individual as you are. It can be detailed or general. Unless you are looking for a small business loan and require something in a specific format, don't sweat the design. As long as it speaks to you and your ambition, it's fine. However, it should contain essential elements such as:

Long-Range Goals--You need to project 5, 10, 15 years down the road and it needs to include not just your business goals but your personal goals. The two are intertwined and to forget this is a recipe for personal and professional disappointment. The more specific you are, the better. Goals have specific achievements and a time line for success; without a time line it's not a goal, just a dream.

Mission Statements--Personal: why you wake up each morning and what motivates you to do what you do on those days you need an extra push; Professional: a commitment to your clients and staff.

Location Statement--Where do you want to locate, the rationale, the actual physical space required and decided upon, associated costs to set up, and the time frame for getting into the space.

Marketing/Leveraging Plan--What image do you want to present to your potential client base, what vehicles will you choose to project this image, what are the associated initial costs and fixed monthly costs.

Insurance Analysis--What types of insurance do you require, how much does it cost and when to purchase each.

Cash Flow Expectations--Two year, month-by-month debt service/income projection; Your projected expenses and anticipated income on a month-by-month basis.

Sunset Clause--At what point financially, if you are not meeting your goals, will you decide to no longer operate a business.

Continuing Education--Schedule and costs associated with continued learning.

Grievance and Ethical Violation Avoidance Plan--What steps will you take to make sure you avoid grievances and ethical violations.

If you've ever planned a vacation, you can write a business plan and map out your future, a future with you running your very own business. The key is to commit to doing it, then understanding in what areas you will need help, and budget accordingly.

Play to your strengths and pay someone else to compensate for your "weaknesses."

Enjoy Italy.

Susan Cartier-Liebel is solo practitioner, adjunct professor at Quinnipiac University School of Law and a business consultant for solo and small firms. Build A Solo Practice, LLC www.susancartierliebel.typepad.com. 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.

November 29, 2006

Location! Location! Location! It's Not Just About Real Estate

Connecticut Law Tribune/Law.Com - August, 2005

One of my very first law students was a New York policewoman who left the police force on a disability pension. She was from a rural town in upstate New York, owned property in a small blue collar community with a declining population due to the loss of manufacturing jobs by the largest area employer. She was committed to caring for an elderly aunt and had to go back to her hometown. When we did a situational analysis it was actually an ideal environment for her to open a law practice. She took what would appear to some as lemons and made lemonade. She converted an old barn on her property into an office. The lone other attorney in town was older and close to retirement. Clearly, he couldn’t take on all business in town. By establishing a collegial relationship with him and becoming someone to whom he could refer cases, upon his retirement she may buy out his business. She is in her hometown, near her relatives, friends and those who know her best. This is where she has chosen to make a life. For her, this real estate is "prime" because it satisfies both her personal and professional needs for decades to come.

Before you can even make a decision about location, you have to fully digest and totally internalize three very important concepts:

First: You are the product. Clients are buying you, your personality, integrity, enthusiasm, compassion and commitment to advocacy. Once you truly understand the importance of the statement "You are the product" only then will you realize everything else is overhead, changeable, expandable, portable but most importantly, expendable. Your product and business travel with you, are an integral part of your persona and therefore, by definition, not tied to a physical location.

Second: 62% percent of your business will be referrals from friends, relatives and coworkers. Whether you realize it or not, all your life you have been conducting a marketing campaign. The people who know you best want you to succeed. They are proud to say they know a really great lawyer. They are the people who will forever be marketing the "product", you. They are your family, friends and coworkers past and present. The qualities which have attracted your friends, spouses, business partners to you and helped foster familial relationships are the very qualities which will encourage your friends, relatives and coworkers to refer their friends, relatives and coworkers to you when a lawyer is needed. Understand where your business comes from and market you, the "product" to this receptive and supportive referral base. You are marketing yourself twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Never forget this

Therefore, in the legal business it naturally follows location has little to do with securing the priciest real estate to impress people you have yet to meet. It has more to do with being in close proximity to those who already know you best.

Third: Successfully locating your practice has everything to do with achieving balance in both your professional and personal life. You need to select a location where you want to build a personal life or where you already have an established lifestyle for you and your family.

If you are like most people, you will ultimately choose to build this life close to those you have grown up with, whether relatives or friends. Start your practice close to your support system, emotional comforts, recreations, and pleasures.

If you don’t create balance and stay true to your definition of professional and personal success you will be like the 50 percent of all lawyers who leave the profession. The huge bonus you get working for yourself is being able to carefully create this balance.

Not everyone will have the freedom to choose the perfect location. Commitments, financial or familial, may force you to a location less than your ideal but no less workable for your overall goals. The rewards, however, of being your own boss will certainly outweigh any perceived shortfall in location selection. Remember, the key to selecting the right location for you is fully embracing the three concepts outlined above.

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.

To Partner or Not To Partner. That Is The Question.

Connecticut Law Tribune - November, 2005

I remember reading years ago about a marriage prenuptial agreement that was so specific as to each spouse’s responsibilities, right down to the husband’s obligation to put the toothpaste cap back on the toothpaste tube, that most people thought it was a prenup on steroids. The spouses, however, clearly loved it because it laid out all the expectations each had of the other so neither one was in the dark about their responsibilities in the marriage.

Well, partnerships are like marriages. Half will last a lifetime, the whole being greater then the sum of it’s parts; growing together, getting stronger through adversity and filled with compromise. The other half will end up in a bitter and nasty separation and dissolution fighting over assets and the custody of the children (read "clients"). Therefore the burning question that’s always asked and must be answered is, "to partner or not to partner?"

Like marriage, partnering should be for the right reasons. However, most lawyers enter partnerships for the wrong reasons borne out of fear of the unknown, doubt about their own capabilities and a lack of understanding about what partnership truly means. Do you really need a partner and all of the emotional and financial entanglements it entails in order to assuage those fears? The answer is a resounding "no."

These are the wrong reasons to partner with another lawyer:

"I want someone to bounce ideas off of." As a rule, most lawyers are very generous with their knowledge and will give invaluable guidance if asked. It is important to maintain relationships with your peers, law school alumni, your bar associations and the like and you will get all the guidance and mentoring you need. Continuing legal education will provide a great base for practical knowledge and an opportunity to network with others in your area of concentration. Depending upon your office selection, should you choose a shared suite, you will have a built-in sounding board without the financial intimacy.

"I want to be able to take a vacation and know my clients are being taken care of." (And from the client’s perspective, "who will take care of my case if you are not available?") Any solo will tell you they have strong reciprocal relationships with other solos and cover for one another when necessary. It is very important you have a dialogue with your clients about a planned or unplanned absence even if the client never asks because it is a legitimate concern of clients who hire solos.

"I don’t want to take all the financial risk." If you are going out on your own, you are taking a calculated risk, period. If you wish to defray cost, how you set up your office, whether working in a suite of other lawyers with shared services or setting up shop by yourself, will determine your cash outlay and financial risk. If you’ve already invested nearly $100,000 in your education is a few more thousand any riskier?

"I’m not very good at (fill in the blank)" Sharing your profits with someone simply because they have an accounting background while you can’t balance a checkbook is not a reason to take on a partner. It is a reason to hire an accountant. If they don’t work out you get another. Not so easy with a partner.

"I want to partner with someone who can teach me." Again, sharing the profits in exchange for guidance you can pretty much get for free if you are properly networked, belong to the right associations and taking continuing legal education, is just giving away your hard-earned dollars.

Do not take on a partner out of fear. You will be living and breathing this partner morning, noon and night. You are depending upon this person for your livelihood while making them the caretaker of your professional reputation.

The short list of the right reasons to take on a partner is: You share a similar vision of where you want to go with your law practice and how you want to get there and are committed to being in it for the long haul. You respect each other’s ability as a lawyer and trust the other to make decisions in your absence which will be binding upon you. Each of you has something of comparable value to bring to the partnership, skill sets which compliment and enhance each other. Both of you recognize your equal responsibility to develop business and bring in clients. You share a work ethic and morals. (Partnership brings both benefits and liabilities and you do not want to be vulnerable to the ethical missteps of a partner who does not necessarily share your values). You work well together.

Partnerships can be a wonderful experience when entered into for all the rights reasons and with the right partner. If you decide to partner, make sure you have a partnership agreement that clearly spells out all the financial agreements between the partners not just while you are together but also should you part company....right down to who puts the toothpaste cap back on the toothpaste tube.

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.

November 26, 2006

Be A Brilliant Salesperson To Be a Successful Lawyer

Connecticut Law Tribune - September 5, 2005

There is a wonderful joke out there which rings true for lawyers as well. What do you call a leader without any followers? Just someone walking. So what do you call a lawyer without any clients? Just someone with a J.D.

I've always maintained being a lawyer is the ultimate sales job, a noble sales job, but a sales job nonetheless. When I've said this to others in my profession, they bristle and act as if there is an offensive smell in the room. Well, the emperor has no clothes. We are, brace ourselves, somewhat revered and highly paid professional sales people. Let me explain. My mother is a brilliant salesperson. She's brilliant not because she can get you to buy something you don't need or because she can talk circles around a square (even though she could). She is brilliant because she has internalized to the level of her DNA the essence of salesmanship. She, along with every other truly gifted and successful salesperson, will tell you the key to the art of selling is to identify the client's need and then satisfy the client's need. The key to making money is to satisfy the client's need before the next salesperson does.

If you can understand the logic behind the idea of identifying then satisfying the need, you will realize salesmanship is a skill highly prized in this profession. We just call  these much-sought-after lawyers rainmakers. And we not only don't hold these rainmakers in disdain, we secretly envy them because we also know  in business those who don't bring in the money are just overhead, and therefore dispensable.

When you start your own practice, you have to be a rainmaker right out of the chute. While that sounds like a tall order, it's really not. Yet it's the number one fear voiced by my students and clients, alike. "How will I get clients? I'm a lawyer, not a salesperson." Most lawyers tend to distance themselves from the very skills required to get clients and they don't even realize it.

As a solo or small firm practitioner, you have to be a salesperson first, or you will have no one to buy your legal services. If you are opening your practice, as most do, where you are already a part of the community,  through family or friends, previous employment and affiliations, 62 percent of your business will be referred to you by your friends, relatives  and coworkers and affiliations. This means half of your sales job is already  done because you've already been marketing to this audience just by being  who you are.

Therefore, reaching out to that referral base is critical to getting nearly two thirds of your clients. By extension, this means much of your marketing/advertising budget should be geared toward those who already know you. How do you do that? You give them the tools they need to promote you. You leverage your relationships. Leveraging relationships means at every opportunity you must let your circle know what you are doing. Let them know you count on their support, and arm them with what they need to promote you. Bombard them with information as to what type of law you are practicing, announcements of your achievements, memberships, send Christmas cards, supply pens with your name, give them business cards. The list is endless. But this column is not meant to be a generic one-size-fits-all marketing plan.

The important concept is this: let your very valuable referral base know how important they are to you by both sharing your information and by remaining actively interested and connected to their lives. After you have contacted and leveraged the people you already know, contact--then start leveraging--the people you would like to know. The key to reaching out effectively to your target audience is doing what is most comfortable for you.

Someone can tell you all the strategies which have worked for them,  but if you are not comfortable with it you will feel awkward, not do it passionately and waste your time and money. For instance, if you are interested in elder law and are comfortable giving seminars to your targeted client base, let your referral base know you are giving seminars and even invite a few to participate. You hand out relevant literature which will have a readership of at least 2.5 potential clients. You have impressed both new potential clients and your referral base with one fell swoop.

Each plan to reach out to a potential  client base is as unique as you are, and therefore you have to start  identifying meaningful venues that work for you. Your job now is to start letting people know you are a lawyer and available to help them with legal matters which may arise. Remember, "sales" is not a dirty word or a necessary evil or the job of lessers. It is the one skill, separate and apart from your lawyering, which needs to be honed to perfection, the one skill guaranteed to keep a steady stream of clients coming through your doors.

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

November 21, 2006

Practice Dead President's Law

Connecticut Law Tribune , 10/03/2005

Dead Presidents' Law Is Way To Build Firm. 

When I first started my practice, someone asked the inevitable question, "what kind of law do you practice?" One of my partners immediately quipped, "Dead Presidents' Law. Anyone who comes through that door willing to pay me in Washingtons, Jeffersons, Lincolns and the like, the law they need is the law I'll practice."

There is a lot of wisdom in practicing Dead Presidents' Law. It is how you will initially grow your business and how you will become experienced and diversified in the legal services you offer. When you go to law school there is an encouragement to "specialize"even though in some states you are not allowed to call it a specialty, ergo, the euphemism, "concentration." And we all have an idea of the kind of law we would like to practice: entertainment, patent law, criminal, corporate.

The reality is, though, when you first start out, unless you've developed a reputation in a niche area at another firm and are taking clients with you, you have to earn the right to "specialize." In order to keep your doors open you need paying clients, the bread-and-butter clients. The clients who will be referred to you right out of the chute, generally, are not coming to you with patent issues or class action suits. They need a divorce, a will, defense in a DUI, bankruptcy or a real estate closing. It is incumbent upon you to develop your proficiencies in most everyday areas so you can support your fledgling operation, create cash flow to cover your monthly expenses and work toward establishing yourself in the practice area you ultimately choose.

Diversification in your legal services is a very important aspect of developing a solo practice, especially in the early years of building your business. Practice Dead Presidents' Law. But don't forget that the other critical area is Traffic Managing.

Traffic Managing is the art of getting clients through your door, holding their hand while you walk them to another lawyer more capable than you, collecting a referral fee for bringing them to the other lawyer, and still maintaining that client for all other legal matters. Traffic Managing keeps you profitable and gives you the appearance of being a larger firm than you are, all without the attendant overhead. It is very smart business.

A perfect example of what would have been appropriate Traffic Managing is told in John Grisham's book, "The Rainmaker." A once-in-a-lifetime contingency case involving an insurance company who took premiums but would not pay to save a young man's life lands on the desk of an idealistic, impoverished young lawyer fresh out of law school. If he wins for his client, his cut is millions. It's every lawyer's dream settlement. It makes for a great book and movie, but it has no place in reality.

In the real world, a smart young lawyer would have referred the case to a firm financially competent and staffed to handle a case of this magnitude, signed an agreement for a referral fee and requested a role in the prosecution of the case as a once-in-a-lifetime learning experience; continued to build her firm with business she is currently capable of handling and which pays her expenses today and waits for the big pay day. You get a smaller payout if the case is resolved in the client's favor but all the financial risk and expenditure of time is on the larger firm. Smart business. You get to stay in business while demonstrating to other larger firms you have a personal reputation which attracts clients. They would be smart to take your referrals seriously and treat you respectfully because it is profitable to them as well.

This leads me to a favorite referral case traffic managed through our office. There was a multi-million dollar class action case which was brought to one of my partners years ago, not because it was a case we could handle as a firm, but because my partner was a personal trusted friend of the "whistleblower." He knew we would bring it to another firm but was comfortable my partner would do what was best by him. I contacted a childhood friend who worked at one of the largest class action law firms in the country and out of the state of Connecticut. When I asked to have the referral fee agreement in writing I was told, "Our reputation is such in the industry we don't have to commit in writing." Needless to say, they didn't get the case.

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.

November 19, 2006

Law School Learning Leaves Solo In Cold

Connecticut Law Tribune/Law.com - June, 2005

Recently, I met a young female lawyer at an awards dinner. She had been working for a large firm for the past seven years as a litigator. She was ready to start a family, but her employer was not amenable to her cutting back her hours. When I asked what she would do, her response amazed me. "I guess I will have to leave the profession," she said.

My jaw dropped. Here was an intelligent, sophisticated, experienced litigator who had graduated at the top of her class from a reputed school and she assumed if she couldn’t work for someone she would have to sacrifice her $90,000-plus educational investment in herself; lose her seven years of litigation experience, not to mention her self-esteem.

Starting her own practice on her own terms, orchestrating her own professional future was an alien concept. It should have been one of the many options outlined for her in law school. For law schools not to celebrate the financial and emotional independence a law degree provides; not to honor the 51 percent of all private attorneys who have struck out on their own, is diminishing to those who have and short-sighted.

If more than half of all lawyers in private practice are solos, why don’t law schools teach how to hang a shingle? If 72 percent of all lawyers in private practice are in firms of four people or fewer, why don’t law schools show how to run a business? When a candidate passes the Bar, the state says, "you are now qualified to practice law." Then why do most grads feel as if they are barely qualified to take the bar exam, never mind creating a rich professional and personal future of their own design?

I teach a course at Quinnipiac University School of Law geared towards helping those with the ambition and drive to open their own law practices--a nuts and bolts course on exactly how to get started. And I do so for a personal reason. When I went to law school I knew being my own boss was my loftiest ambition. A J.D. was my ticket to personal and financial freedom. But I never understood how the school treated my ambition: when I voiced what I was going to do I was met with, well, incredulity.

Why? Most law schools have a different agenda. Their aim is to attract students with the lure of landing a job with a prestigious firm. It satisfies their much scrutinized placement requirements. Look at their marketing tools, glossy photos of a handful of students who have landed the coveted clerkship, or have become an associate with a mega firm. Soon-to-be lawyers are not encouraged to define what professional success means to them.

Career counselors will spend hours teaching law students how to conduct a proper job search, counseling on writing the perfect resume; prepping on successful interviewing techniques; courting firms to visit the campus and look at their shining stars. Yet no time--never mind equal time--is given to discussing the risks and rewards of self-employment.

This flies directly in the face of reality, since most graduates don’t get these much lauded jobs. But more importantly, by designing their curriculum and counseling around the minority, they are denying the needs of the majority.

There are isolated courses on Law Office Management, or Accounting for Law Firms, or even clinics that give training on being a lawyer. The clinics, especially, are vital in that they provide actual "skills training." (Why, by the way, is "skills training" a dirty word in law schools?) But there remains an unspoken attitude, a non-recognition of those who want to venture forth on their own; a conspicuous absence of a truly proactive curriculum encouraging private enterprise.

Remember, there was once a lawyer named Day. There was a Berry and a Howard and a Wiggin and a Dana, who didn’t buy into working for someone else, but believed their future lay within themselves. Armed with their law degrees and an overwhelming desire to be their own boss, they defined success on their terms and created their own legacy.

Yet their heritage is no more impressive than the lawyer who has defined his success as a low-key one-person shop, catering to a small town population, who leaves his in-home office at 3 p.m. to cheer in the bleachers for his son’s first homerun. Riches come in many forms.

The formula for success is a personal equation. A law degree offers professional and personal freedoms other degrees can’t offer. Law schools should recognize and honor this and all those who have followed the road most traveled.

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.