January 30, 2009

"You Ask...I Answer" - Should I Leave My Six Figure Job for Solo Practice?

http://www.safebabyshop.com/confusion_1.jpg>Question:

I am a prosecutor with the Department of Justice. I've been at it for 6 years, and prior to that was at the state AG's office for 6 yrs … and the list goes on.

Basically I have been practicing for about 16 1/2 years. I've considered going out on my own off and on for many years but fear has held me back. I have a very decent salary well over $100,000 and the thought of starting my own practice in this economy scares the heck out of me. But.. I am really unhappy working on somebody else's schedule and just really not caring or being passionate about my job.  I feel completely removed from the reason that I went in to law - which is to help people. 

I'm just wondering is it really a foolish idea to consider opening my own practice in this economy? I'm interested in domestic law and wills and estates. 

Thank you.

Right now every lawyer who is looking for a job and terrified of their student loans and this economy is screaming, "NO! What I wouldn't do for a job like this! You're crazy!"

Well, that's like a group of larger sized women looking at a size four woman who used to be a size two and not understanding she still feels uncomfortable and miserable in her clothes even if a size four is still considered small by all standards.  Although she is slender compared to someone who is larger than a size four the discomfort that comes from not being comfortable in your skin still impacts your self-esteem, how you feel every morning when you wake up and your overall health on a daily basis. (This was not meant to be a sexist statement, just an analogy maybe some can relate to.)

So, how to answer this question?  This person is employed but miserable in her job.  Regardless the economy, my advice would be the same and what I have counseled others to do.  If you are employed, stay employed but with the goal of working towards a different type of employment - self employment  - if that is what you have your heart set on because no one can understand your angst at working in your chosen profession in a way which leaves you feeling empty regardless the size of the paycheck.

Therefore, is it foolish? It's your life, your risks and your rewards. You have to listen to your gut..  I don't know all your particulars such as whether or not you have a spouse and that person has steady employment? Do you currently live at the edge of your income?  Do you provide the benefits for your household?  Nor do I know your skill sets and whether you have built a reserve to cover you while you are getting your feet wet. But you do make a decent salary and probably work 9-5. And this economy is undeniably in a tailspin.

However, imagine if you constructed your business plan, started a VLO and did trusts & estates outside of your traditional work hours providing you are permitted to moonlight.  There is no litigation so you are not limited to traditional work hours and depending upon how you construct your VLO, meeting clients can be limited.  You work to build your client base as well as get a feel for whether or not you truly like what you envision is the greener pasture. You develop your network through blogging and other social media sites such as LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook.  You build a cash reserve to cover your expenses. Once you feel comfortable doing this and having planned financially...then decide if 1) you like working on your own and the pasture is in fact greener and 2) are really ready to get rid of the paycheck and benefits.

It seems to me if you are miserable in your job or feel unfulfilled for some reason, you should explore the opportunities and learn about being out there on your own without jeopardizing your current situation. Just planning for self-employment can make your current situation more palatable.  (However, it has also been known to make people very anxious to jump into solo practice sooner then they are ready.) This is a luxury many new solos don't have.  You at least have a safety net and practice area interests which permit you to work non-traditionally. And the added bonus, no one is really secure in their job.  Creating a plan B, even if you don't use it voluntarily, gives you some comfort. You know it is there if you if you need to use it because of an involuntarily layoff.  In today's economy, I think every employed lawyer should have a plan B which doesn't include getting another comparable legal job.  Why? The odds of getting a seat in today's legal jobs musical chairs game are getting slimmer and slimmer....as more and more chairs disappear.

I would also like to throw this question out to my readers.  What advice do you have?  What have been your experiences or feelings on the subject?

(And in case you didn't see, check out our recent faculty announcements at Solo Practice University.

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June 06, 2008

"You Ask....I Answer" - If I Know I'm Going Solo, What Should I Be Doing During the Summer Breaks While In Law School?

(It's that time of year...so I resurrected a post from last year for all those law students who want to know what to do this summer to further their solo ambitions.)

The question this week comes from the gifted Anastasia Pryanikova who writes Lawsagna , a blog which provides very valuable information to law students currently navigating through law school, the practical, the spiritual, and the inspirational.

Question: I saw your category of "You Ask...I Answer" posts and thought I'd ask a question on behalf of my readers.  Summer time is when many students try to get practical experience by interning at a firm, government or non-profit.  If students know they would like to go solo after graduation, what would you recommend they do during their summers to prepare for their solo practice?

Answer:

Anastasia, this is a difficult yet easy answer at the same time. So, where to begin.  If you know you are going to become a solo practitioner upon passing the bar then everything you do, from your course selection to your extracurricular activities to your summer internships should be geared towards two things, networking/building professional relationships and gaining 'practical' experience that mirrors the life of a solo practitioner.

Therefore, and I know some will give me flack for this....does it make sense to spend your time on Moot Court and taking courses in Entertainment Law, or getting practical experience interviewing clients and working on real cases through your internship and externship programs as well as taking courses in the basic practice areas the average consumer will hire you for?  Should you be burning credits taking philosophical courses or business management courses?  Should you be learning how to interview, negotiate and mediate with your extra credits or just taking irrelevant gut courses?  Should your extra time be devoted to volunteering in a solo's office (unpaid) or competing for Law Review (unpaid.) You have to map out the course in the law school which serves your ultimate goal.  Some may argue you can't really know. I say most students do know if they want to be an employee or an entrepreneur

In your three years of law school everything you do should be laying the foundation for your solo practice.  Everything.  And here comes the blasphemy.  If you KNOW you are going out on your own, do not put the extra energy into getting A's in all your classes.   No client you get is going to ask your class rank or what your grade was in torts.  Only an employer will during the screening process.  Spend your extra energy and time learning the business of law in the trenches.

So, how do you spend your summers?  By getting in the trenches.  Let me preface this, however.  In the trenches is not a summer associate position doing document review at a mid-sized firm where you have no client contact, no opportunity to visit the court house, no exposure to rainmaking or the business end of running a law practice.  You gain nothing in furtherance of your solo practice.  In the trenches is not worrying about getting paid for your legal work...bartend at night if you have to earn money because you can't get a paid legal position that gets you in the trenches. But, you HAVE to get in the trenches.

Be prepared to give away your time....call it a marketing expense...and then follow these three steps.

Find solos/small firms who do the type of work you are interested in doing.  Ask for a job.

If they are not hiring, tell them you would like to work for free shadowing the attorney and be given the opportunity to learn about the business of running a law firm as well as doing the legal work. 

THEN tell them you would like to practice your rain making skills (that will perk up their ears) and if you bring business to the firm, you would like to work on that case and get paid an hourly rate for the work you do on this particular case.

This three step approach is very important to your solo success.  You will learn the following important lesson:  "If you are not bringing in money, you are overhead.  And overhead is expendable."

As a solo you have to be first and foremost a rainmaker.  You have to learn to bring in business.  And 62% of all your business will be directed to you from your friends, family and co-workers.  So, whether you realize it now or not, you already have a huge pool of people ready to be leveraged. These same people are very anxious for you to graduate so they can refer business to you.  If you let them know you are working for Attorney XXXX and, although you are not a lawyer yet, you will be able to work on the case and gain experience for your solo practice, they will send business your way.  You will be able to start meeting other practicing attorneys and develop professional relationships.  You will be able to hone your interviewing skills, see how to 'close' clients on retaining your services and then be able to do the actual legal work.  It will closely mirror your experiences as a solo.

And you bring value to the attorney without being overhead. This is very important. Having you in their office presents a no lose situation for the accommodating attorney.  The business you bring in is business they would not otherwise have gotten and it is gained at no marketing cost to them.  And if you prove your worth bringing in business and producing quality product, you may be able to parlay this into a regularly paying gig until you graduate and pass the bar.  You bring value to the law office...it is "what you can do for them."  This is the real selling feature.  And if you can advocate for yourself in this way, you can effectively advocate for others when you've passed the bar.

If you can't get a paid legal job or a position as described above, and you are not working or working part time and have hours left, start acting like a lawyer.  What does that mean?  Spend time at the court house.  Get to know the players meaning the top lawyers, law firms in the area of law you want to practice.  Watch them in court.  Watch the procedures in court.  Learn about court-appointed lists attorneys can get on for appointments to do legal work.  Go to the criminal courts, the family courts, the bankruptcy court, the probate court and watch and learn.  If you find a lawyer who is doing a trial or an interesting case, get a copy of the motions in the file to start building your form file.  Be seen.  Be heard if it is appropriate by introducing yourself as a law student who enjoyed watching the lawyer.  Now for something interesting:

Make up calling cards.  That's right.  Calling cards.  You are not a lawyer but you can have a card with your name, contact information including e-mail and expected date of graduation to use for introduction.  This is not pretentious. This is smart.  Imagine you meet a lawyer you would like to work with as described above.  You are talking with him about his case and hand him a calling card and say, "I would love to shadow you some time, maybe bring some business your way while I'm in law school. I'm not a lawyer yet but I have a lot people anxious for me to get my degree.  I'd like to be able to refer them to a great lawyer."  Remember, you have to learn to make rain for yourself, too.  Great way to practice.

I hope this answers your readers' questions.  And if others have ideas about how to get practical experience during the summer which will help their solo practice efforts, please share.  I know this has just skimmed the surface.

May 29, 2008

"You Ask...I Answer" - What Role Does A Spouse Play in Going Solo?

Question: Let me start by introducing myself to you. I am a paralegal student. I love your weblog and it has truly been a source of inspiration to me.

My husband is an attorney. I came to the United States as a student from India, completed The image “http://www.shaadidirect.org/wp-content/uploads/2007/08/married-couple.jpg” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.my Masters in Computer Sciences, worked for roughly 2 years in the software industry until last fall and now I am enrolled in the paralegal program due to a keen interest in law and thanks to my husband's encouragement that I could potentially be a lawyer myself. We got married last year. He moved to my part of the country to be with me while I finish my paralegal degree, but now we intend to move back where he is from and hang a shingle. I come from a family of entrepreneurs and the idea of a solo practice is very appealing to me as well (my aunt in India has been a succesful solo practitioner for many years).

I am also currently doing some IT-related work as I finish my paralegal certificate program part-time. However we hope to be able to move in a couple of months and I am unsure and concerned as to what my role should be. I am trying to help my husband out as much as possible by helping set-up a website etc., for his firm, but I am afraid if I will hurt more than help by not having a steady job as he sets out on his own. My husband however wants me to help out and thinks that he will need all the help he can get from me. We do have some capital saved up to keep us going hopefully until his practice gains momentum.

I however would love to hear your 2 cents on what you think a spouse's role should be while setting up a solo practice.

Answer: This is a great question and I'm sure of interest to many.  I will answer this scenario only, though, as it is unique but it will give others what to think about when considering the role of the spouse in this context.

So much turns on the level of support you feel you can offer your husband and how desirous he is of that support.

Most importantly, your husband wants your support and you want to support your husband.  This is the crucial ingredient. Now you both need to determine what he means by support and decide if you can fill that role and if that role is right for you...and your marriage.

You both have an entrepreneurial spirit as he wants to start a solo practice and you love the idea of being an entrepreneur and maybe even a lawyer.  Given you are newly married and you make no mention of children, you just have the two of you to take care of at a time in your life when you will be laying important foundations for your professional and personal growth AND have the time and energy and desire to do so.

These are very compelling arguments.

In addition, given your IT background and your paralegal background you will be actually contributing significantly in a tangible way to your husband's practice.  Without your assistance, he may have to do the paralegal work himself thereby taking away from important marketing/networking duties or higher rate billable hours.  In the alternative, he will have to hire a paralegal or administrative help, both which cost money.

When you do your cost/benefit analysis, any other type of job you take on will have to compensate for this expense.

From an emotional perspective, you have to decide if you can work well together; do you have the personality to work in away which allows him to thrive in his practice; do you want to eventually get your legal degree and become a partner?  All these thoughts and ideas and goals must be clarified as they play a very important role in both your futures as a business partnership and a married couple.  If you decide to have children how will this impact your working relationship?

In the final analysis, if everything else fits....from the description you provided, it might be very wise to devote your considerable talents and energies to helping the practice grow.

There are many successful husband and wife law firm partnerships as well as spouses who work within the law office of their lawyer-spouse.  It turns on mutual goals and respect and the talents each one brings to the practice.

I know many of my readers are practicing with their spouses or have their spouses in their law offices. If you would like to help this reader and others with your experiences, please share.

April 10, 2008

"You Ask...I Answer" - I Know I Want To Go Solo. What Can I Do To Prepare While In Law School?

Question: I will be starting law school in Atlanta this fall. I'll be 34 when I start law school, and 37 when I pass the bar. I'm going to law school to become a criminal defense attorney, and want to start my own firm upon passing the bar. I already subscribe to Solo Practice University E-zine. What, if anything, can I do between now and the time school starts? Could I start on my business plan? Start a blog? Twiddle my thumbs?

First, congratulations on your pre-law school decision to go solo.  Given you wll be a non-traditional law student you clearly have some background behind you from the work world so I'm assuming you went to law school with your eyes wide open.  But not fully knowing your background I wonder if your career counseling office has given you any advice about how to navigate through law school given your solo ambitions?  We'd all be curious to know if you got any direction and/or advice and what it was.

That being said, there are many things I would do while in law school to prepare for solo practice. First, you have three (or four) years to put together a very thoughtful business plan.  Here is a link to some basic elements. Location plays a key role.  There is also some reading you should do: How To Start and Build A Law Practice by Jay Foonberg (as a student you should get a discount through the ABA) and Solo By Choice by Carolyn Elefant. In addition, although I haven't read it yet, there is a new book out by Ed Poll called Law Firm Fees and Compensation. Also, join Solosez.

As far as your law school experience, if I was your advisor and knew you wanted to go solo upon graduation, I would navigate you accordingly:

After your core courses, I would take every possible practical course offered and taught by adjuncts.  Why adjuncts, because they are currently practicing and already connected in the community.  Thus, your professional networking begins and your professional reputation starts.

Absolutely do clinical work at your school. Get accustomed to case flow, court room experience if possible. (My best experience came from doing an actual trial, preparing the case, examining witnesses.)  This will give you as a close a flavor to practice as any if your clinic is good.

I would get my self involved in any internship or externship programs (hopefully placed with a solo) so you can actually see how a solo operation runs and will have a better chance to actually DO work which will simulate your future work, getting into court, reading and writing pleadings, meeting clients.  Even if the solo or small firm you work for turns out to be an example of the type of solo practice you DON'T want to create, it remains a valuable lesson for that reason alone.

Since you want criminal work, try volunteering at the PD's office. Strive for any internships the school can arrange or create your own.  Yes, try to create your own on your own time even if it is for a week of shadowing a PD or local criminal defense attorney.  Make it your own non-credit, non-paid creation if you must.  And if all else fails, go to the school itself...that's right, the court room and sit in on as much as you can, note the players.  Every court has a core group of 'lawyer celebrities' both famous and infamous and you should know who they are and watch their style, learn the language.  The biggest intimidator for most solos is is believing 'they won't know what to do.' (And many colleagues will feed this fear.) Imitation (with a little knowledge) is a beginning.  You won't be the first to do it, trust me.  Learn the rhythm of the court house.  Get to know the marshalls.  Be seen in your million dollar suit.  Just having people see your face is big.  Once you pass the bar, most people won't know why they know you. They just will.

And if you know you are going solo, unless you have extra energies to spare after doing all the above, skip moot court and law review.  They are great if you want to pad your resume and get a job.  Their value is marginal if you are going solo because appellate work is NOT the norm when you first get out of law school.  Every day experiences takes top priority if this is your course of action and if you need to take a course which will give you practice, take trial practice.  Learn how to define and then try a case.  And if you are lucky, the course will be taught by an adjunct from the PD's office or a practicing plaintiff's trial lawyer.

Create a blog.  If you have to do so anonymously because you are not ready to have your name out there yet, that's fine. The most important goal of blogging while you are in law school is to become familiar with the blogging platforms, technologies and techniques, learning how to connect with others and understanding it will be a powerful marketing tool upon hanging a shingle.  If you master the skills now, understand you need to put aside 'marketing' time to do this, develop good blogging habits, it will stand you in good stead when you open your doors.

And you should follow the construction progress of Solo Practice University as it will be in full session while you are in law school and definitely give you the 'how-to-tools' you will need to comfortably go forward with solo practice upon passing the bar.

I hope this helps.  If others would like to add points I may have missed or share their own experiences, please join the discussion.

February 06, 2008

"You Ask....I Answer" - I Want to Fire A Pro Bono Client. What Say You?

Question: Thank you so much for your website. I hung out a shingle, scared to DEATH, and then I found you. You have helped me draw many deep breaths since I went solo as a brand new attorney, and I am so grateful for your help.

If you have any time to share some thoughts with me, I would appreciate it. I am struggling with my decision to fire a pro bono client. I’m sure I’m not the only new attorney/solo who takes on pro bono clients because I 1) have the time and 2) want to help. How do I fire a pro bono client who is resisting my best efforts at client control? I represent a domestic violence survivor pro bono and she’s disrespectful and hard to work with. I’ve gone from feeling really good about what I’ve been able to do for her to dreading her calls. I’ve finally grown a spine and started strongly defining (to her) what I can and cannot help her with, but I’m not getting anywhere. I’m starting to get resentful, and I know this makes me a less effective advocate for her. I know there are many low income DV victims in my community who need my help and who will not be as difficult. But I just plain feel guilty contemplating firing this client because I know she has a very small chance of replacing me, and opposing counsel will take full advantage of her pro se status. I also fully anticipate some very ugly words if I fire her in person or over the phone. She’s started taking her frustration out on me.

Any thoughts?

Answer:

Thank you for your kind words about my blog.  I'm glad I give you the kind of support you need.

Whether this woman is paying you or not doesn't change your exposure to malpractice, doesn't change your professional obligations to her OR her obligations to you as a client.  You are entitled to respect and cooperation. Whether pro bono or not, I'm sure you have a clause in your retainer agreement which states you have the right to terminate representation pursuant to the Rules of Professional Conduct in your state and/or any local customs of your courts IF the client does not cooperate or makes it difficult for you to represent her.  She needs to be reminded that just because she isn't paying for your services doesn't mean that your services are not worth paying for.  And you need to remember this, too.  This type of client, although you sympathize with her plight, is:

  • dragging you down professionally;
  • eating up your time which you could be using to market your services and educating yourself on how to get paying clients;
  • making you regret your generosity;
  • In making you regret your generosity, you may feel disinclined to do pro bono work for "many low income DV victims in my community who need my help."

Do not turn over your "power" to one bad client regardless their personal situation.  Pro bono work poorly handled from a business perspective could very well put you out of business. (It would be interesting to see how many hours you could have billed to see the dollar value of the time you generously donated.)Pro bono work is a gift you give back to the community and it is part of a well-designed business plan.  Understand its place in the worklife of a solo practitioner. 

If you need to fire her, make sure you do it properly (get advice from a more seasoned lawyer) and for your safety, make sure you have someone present.  Let her understand she has created this situation, and while you sympathize with her plight, she has made it impossible for you to work with her.  If she is indigent, find out if there are other legal aid services or other attorneys who do similar pro bono work and provide the names of the agencies and the attorneys with telephone numbers so she has some direction.

Again, just because no money has changed hands does not mean you should treat her any differently than a paying client who is disruptive or uncooperative.  If you make a mistake, your license to practice is still on the line.

Let us know how it works out.  And if others have a suggestion, please add to the discussion.

Links of Interest:

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

If Your Clients Don't Add Value To Your Legal Services Business...Fire Them!

December 17, 2007

'You Ask...I Answer' - How Does One Start a Solo Practice in the Midst of Seeming Economic Crisis?

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(Not the cheeriest post but it needs to be said..and it's long.)

Question: I'm a 1L who's interested in going solo when I graduate or shortly after. Something that's been on my mind recently is how the approaching recession and/or limitations on credit will affect those of us who are starting from scratch.I came across this article in the L.A. Times (see below), which confirms for me that other people are at least thinking this might be a problem.

It seems reasonable to assume that, given the subprime mortgage mess, the credit market will tighten as lenders become more risk-adverse, whether or not we have an accompanying recession. I wonder if you can bring some experience to bear on how solo practitioners can deal with tight credit markets in terms of preparing to open a practice, building a business plan, and maybe even choosing a practice area. They've been tight before, so that information has to be out there.

Just throwing it out there. Thanks again for all your time and effort in providing so many people this valuable blog!

(Here is the L.A. Times Article in snippets but you should read the whole article....)

By Steve Fraser
December 9, 2007
No one wants to utter the word "depression." But the truth of the matter is that the American economy may be entering a state of free fall. Every day brings more bad news about the sub-prime mortgage debacle, about home foreclosures, construction industry slowdowns, a credit drought for consumers and businesses, oil price shocks and the open-ended devaluation of the dollar. Where is it all leading?

What makes Wall Street's latest crisis so portentous, however, is the way it is interacting with, and infecting, healthier parts of the economy. When the dot-com bubble burst, many innocents were hurt, not just denizens of the Street. Still, its effect turned out to be limited. Now, because of the sub-prime mortgage meltdown, Main Street is under the gun.

It is not only a matter of mass foreclosures. It is not merely a question of collapsing home prices. It is not simply the shutting down of large portions of the construction industry (which is inspiring some of the doom-and-gloom prognostications). It is not just the born-again skittishness of financial institutions that have, all of a sudden, gotten religion, rediscovered the word "prudence" and won't lend to anybody. It is all of this, taken together, that points ominously to a general collapse of the credit structure that has shored up consumer capitalism for decades.


The equity built up during the long housing boom has been the main fallback position for ordinary people financing their big-ticket-item expenses, from college educations to consumer durables, from trading up in the housing market to vacationing abroad. Much of that equity has suddenly vanished, and more of it soon will. Also drying up fast are the lifelines of credit that allow all sorts of small and medium-size businesses to function and hire people. Whole communities, industries and regional economies are in jeopardy.

**********************

All of that might be considered enough, but there's more. Oil, of course. Here the connection to Iraq is clear; but, arguably, the wild escalation of petroleum prices might have happened anyway. Certainly the energy price explosion exacerbates the general economic crisis, in part by raising the costs of production all across the economy and so abetting the forces of economic contraction. In the same way, each increase in the price of oil further contributes to what most now agree is a nearly insupportable level in the U.S. balance-of-payments deficit. That, in turn, is contributing to the steady withering away of the value of the dollar.

Finally, it is vital to recall that this tsunami of bad business is about to wash over an already very sick economy. While the old regime, the Reagan-Bush counterrevolution, has lived off the heady vapors of the FIRE sector, it has left in its wake a deindustrialized nation, full of super-exploited immigrants and millions of families whose earnings have suffered steady erosion. Two wage-earners, working longer hours, are now needed to (barely) sustain a standard of living once earned by one. And that doesn't count the melting away of health insurance, pensions and other forms of protection against the vicissitudes of the free market or natural calamities.

This perfect storm will be upon us just as the election season heats up.......
This topic is near and dear to my heart as frequent readers of my blog know I am very involved with and try to stay on top of global economics and U.S. economics.  And for one very simple reason:  I am a U.S. citizen, a parent, a land owner and I, like you, have to be able to objectively view economic realities as I navigate through life, not just for myself today, but for my family and future.
Lesson #3 in my newsletter, Solo Practice University E-zine (you might want to sign up today if you haven't already), is called 'The Economy and the Solo' because this topic is so critical when considering the solo option.  And you can read many previous posts on this blog relating to the economy in the category Demographic/Economic Trends.
First, buried in this LA Times article is the reality of what practice areas will proliferate in challenging times and solos are much more capable of handling them, primarily because they can function lean and mean and create greater profit margins while keeping client's costs lower than overhead-laden larger firms.
  • Bankruptcy
  • Debt Collection
  • Foreclosures
  • Immigration

In any economy you will always have:

  • Criminal
  • Personal injury
  • Divorce

However, in difficult economic times you will find an increase in criminal activity.  Money is the number one reason for divorce so in an economy where money stresses will be great it's sad but fair to say there could be an increase in dissolutions.  This could also give rise to an increase in mediation, arbitration, collaborative divorce, etc.

When you consider we live in a rapidly aging society this creates opportunity in Wills, Trusts and Estates, Elder Law and all practice areas catering to the over 55 crowd.  An aging demographic and delays in starting families give rise to opportunities in adoption and surrogacy law.

As more people get laid off from jobs and become entrepreneurs and Home Office Warriors one can be an independent General Counsel to numerous small businesses doing everything from small business incorporations to helping them take their businesses global.

What about rising emmigration?

How does credit-tightening impact ones ability to open a law practice?  Whether the economy is flourishing or not, you should be taking home at minimum $.70 of every dollar.  That's right.  How?  Technology, low-cost highly effective marketing, home or virtual office and outsourced help as needed.  My friend, Chuck Newton has brilliantly described the Third Wave of Lawyering in his signature piece.  So, if done correctly, credit is not an issue because your expenses will be minimal.

Remember, I am a realistic optimist.  Tell me the truth and I will find a way to make it work.  Forewarned is forearmed...and profitable.

One other point I would like to make.  People will advise you to 'follow' your passion.  If your passion intersects with the demographic and economic realities in which you are trying to grow your practice, go for it.  However, if you want to earn the right to follow your passion which may be different then the economic realities, start by practicing profitability and using good business sense.  Use your profits as seed money to grow the practice areas you are passionate about.  Going solo doesn't mean you don't pay dues.  But you are paying dues to yourself and this can be very gratifying.

October 11, 2007

"You Ask...I Answer" - I'm Still In Law School. Should I Be Blogging?

This question fresh in from a law student who wonders the following:

What if you're not practicing yet?  I'll be taking the bar in Feb, and although I kinda like the idea of a blog (I just started one, but I'm still playing around with it), are there any advantages to having one if you haven't started practicing?  I can't get clients at this point, and I can't really call myself a specialist of anything, either (although I have an idea as to what I want to do)...

I've been meaning to post on this for quite some time because it is an important question.  Should you be blogging while you are in law school?  Because this question was asked of me I'm assuming the author wants to know the value if she is going to open a solo practice.  On the other hand, should you be blogging if you know you want to work for another?  So, I'm going to give the answer to all law students regardless their ambitions.  In one word..... 

YES!  And the sooner the better!

And here is why.  Blogging is the least expensive, most productive and powerful marketing tool available to law students today to market...you guessed it....themselves! 

Through blogging you get a variety of benefits at low to no cost which were unavailable to law students years ago.  You can self-publish and market who you are long before you try to get that job or look to be hired by clients as you open your own solo practice.

Imagine, you are a student interested in criminal law. But clearly you are not a lawyer so you are not going to positioning yourself as such. As a lay person and a law student and a human being functioning in this society you have the absolute right to comment on criminal cases posing thoughtful questions from the position of analysis.  For example: Britney Spears (oh, g-d..I'm using her as an example!).  She is in a custody battle for her children.  You have a gut reaction but can try to view it from an analytical point of view if you are interested in family law and have some externship or internship experience, or even personal experience.  Comment on the news, like the Jena 6 not just as a law student but a human being in this country impacted by the same.  You can blog from a passion other than the law to get practice on the art of blogging. And here is what will happen.

  • You will be developing a skill (blogging), learning the platform, developing comfort with the latest technologies, and building community all without the pressure of earning a living simultaneously.
  • You will have created an 'about' page with your photo describing who you are, your undergraduate degree, your work history, hobbies, etc. and your expected date of graduation from law school as well as when you anticipate passing the bar
  • With proper SEO (Search Engine Optimization) you will hopefully have relegated any indiscretions you might have circulating on the web to the 97th page on Google and controlled your internet presence long before you seek out that all important summer or post-graduation job.
  • You show potential employers your internet savvyiness PLUS
  • When you circulate your resumes and the HR department or practitioner searches you out, they see a blog, a personality, a well-connected young man or woman AND
  • Someone who could probably teach them how to blog for success themselves.
  • You will be light years ahead of your peers in the job search because you will have already shown your authenticity, likeability, intelligence, thoughtfullness, progressiveness and smiling face to your potential employers.

If you are going solo upon graduation:

  • You will have developed the number one all important marketing tool for your solo practice;
  • Depending upon the blogging content you chose you could conceivably immediately change a few words next to your name, add the Law Offices of and ESQ.
  • Change your About page to include Date of Admission to the Bar (or not)
  • Put your URL on your business cards...all within 10 minutes of being sworn in.
  • Just purchase your domain names (if you haven't already parked them in anticipation of) and forward your URLs to your blog...and VOILA!  You are up and running the number one tool to reaching clients and establishing your authority in your chosen areas of practice.

In any endeavor, getting employment, getting clients, building relationships of any type, you need to cultivate the trifecta.  What is the trifecta?  Relationships are based upon three things.  People need to  1) know you; 2) like you, and; 3) trust you.  And studies show after six or seven exposures to you they feel like they do know you.

So, how does this work with blogging?  Well, if you are writing consistent quality content on topics of your choice and you have gained some readership you are creating exposures.  Whether they get to 'know you' in the true sense is a philosophical matter but let's assume for business purposes they do know you because of the persona you are projecting.  Your content attracts others to link to you.  Then readers start to comment.  You thank them for their comment and encourage conversation.  Some do so through direct e-mail to the reader, others create the dialogue in the commentary on their blog and still others do both.  Now they are starting to like you because they feel valued.  And when your content remains consistent, your message consistent, readers start to trust what you have to say.  It's that simple and that challenging.  (But there is so much more on this particular topic...we'll stop here.)

I can't tell you how many long time solos are struggling to get their blogs up and running while practicing and after throwing hard-earned money at traditional advertising and marketing that no longer cuts it.  You could have this powerful tool functional and recognized the minute your admitted to the bar, ready to go.

An internet presence is no longer an option when it comes to reaching clients or potential referrers of clients.  Blogging is inexpensive in terms of dollars; a little more investment in terms of time.  But when you are talking about running lean and mean, maximizing return on all your investments blogging is the way to go for all the reasons described above.  Learn it while you are in school.  There are several well known student bloggers who are doing quite well and showing their industriousness while understanding the time and energy they are expending now will give them a leg up professionally.

We all know how competitive the job market is.  Everyone could use an advantage whether getting that all important summer associate's position or post-graduation job or opening their own solo practice.  This is the advantage you've been looking for.  And if you are student blogger, please share your experiences.

September 27, 2007

"You Ask...I Answer - Should I Hire Law Students?

This question has come from a gainfully employed lawyer who is looking to start his/her own practice soon so I will not disclose his/her name.  They write:

Hi Susan, 

You may have blogged about this in the past, but I was wondering what your thoughts are about using law students as part-time help (either paid or unpaid) for a solo practice?  Of course, it depends on the quality and commitment of the particular law student.  But, in general, do you think this could be an effective way to get help with cases (especially investigation, research, and document discovery) before one's practice has grown enough to be able to hire a full-time paralegal or associate?  Any thoughts and reactions would be very much appreciated.

This is a great question for many reaons.  First, from an experiential perspective for students, I would like to see more solos and small firms step up and look to these soon-to-be lawyers as a resource.  You develop a mentor/mentee relationship; the attorney can test their management skills and their ability to delegate work while still being responsible for the student's work product. 

If it is in the context of an actual externship program from a law school, the student will be committed to a certain number of hours and the attorney will be responsible to the school for providing enrichment to the student based upon the school's externship criteria.  There will be site visits by the supervisor and paperwork to complete.  The school works with the student as they are representing the law school within the community so they will be more involved with the student's success and, thusly, you benefit from their selection process.

One caveat, the law schools have a big public relations agenda, pro bono work.  What this means to the solo and small firm is they don't want their students working on billable hour work because they perceive they are providing 'slave labor' as the solo/small firm is profiting off their students.  In addition, they further believe this will not position their students for paying jobs in these firms upon graduation if the practitioners can get a steady stream of 'free' labor from the law school each semester.

However, I disagree with law schools on this point.  Solos seldom can afford to have someone around the office who is not producing work for paying clients.  This creates a catch-22.  You can look to these externship programs but have to delegate time and energy to students who are not permitted to work on those matters which generate income for you.  So, how likely are you to want to do this?

And if you are not likely to do this, the student who has a sincere interest in going solo or be able to work on a case from start to finish will not otherwise have a chance to see how a solo practice works unless you are willing to go outside the school externship program and pay the student for his/her time.  Given students are generally strapped for cash this could be a very good situation all around.  Imagine paying someone $15-$20 per hour which you can bill out for whatever is appropriate in your jurisdiction (there are some ethical rules on what you can bill out for time associated with a non-lawyer especially if you are suing for fees.)  You have no restrictions regarding the type of work they can perform and all the other benefits remain intact with one huge extra benefit, you can free up your more valuable time for more profitable work while still having your paying work done by another. 

There are many ways you can approach this. You have to decide which is the best business decision for you.  When you utilize an externship program check out your responsibilities regarding worker's compensation, etc. even though they are not paid employees. When you hire a student, even part time, employment (and unemployment) laws kick in.   You have to decide if you are ready to be an employer.

There is no free lunch whether you are paying for the law student or not.  I would also recommend you read some very thoughtful answers by fellow practitioners in these posts:  "I'm A Solo Growing By Leaps and Bounds...." and the follow up post here.

And for those who have had experiences utilizing students through externship programs or paying law students for their time as employees, I'm sure the writer of the question would love to hear other opinions.

July 30, 2007

"You Ask...I Answer" - I"m a Solo Growing By Leaps and Bounds. Should I Hire an Associate?

There will come a point in your solo career when you will feel the pinch of too much work and not enough hours in the day.  You begin thinking, "I can't service my clients properly, this is impacting my profitability, and I don't want to turn away business."  In my experience this happens anywhere between the three to six year benchmark, the time most solos are comfortable with their flow of business, their reputation has grown, they've networked well and referrals keep coming in. (Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus!)  And this is when the million dollar question gets asked, "Should I hire an associate." 

The following question is a composite of several questions, the answers come from myself, two respected fellow entrepreneurs, Carolyn Elefant of My Shingle and Lisa Solomon of Question of Law . and a 38 year verteran lawyer, Dick Howland who offers his valuable insights.

Question:

I have been a solo practitioner since 2003. This year I have experienced a tremendous surge in referrals as well as an increase in my 'ideal clients.,  As a result I am consistently
inundated with more work than I find myself able to handle while still maintaining the level of excellent service I am known to provide. 

The hallmark of my success turns on quick turn-around times and rapid response to my clients' needs.

I know this is defined as a good problem to have. It appears I may need to obtain the services of another lawyer to assist me. I need someone who can cover routine motion hearings and can do high-caliber legal and research writing.

Should I hire an associate? The conventional wisdom from my peers is 'yes,'
that I would profit off of an associate, I would not be chained to my office and
my overall well-being would improve.

Will  I really be able to afford to pay an associate, can I really count on an associate to increase my firm's profits or will it be a net drain on profits?, what about providing benefits like health care, unemployment, worker's compensation and the like?

First Answer:  Lisa Solomon, Esq.

"There are many lawyers who work as independent contractors.  There are many benefits to this kind of relationship.

One benefit is cost. Hiring an associate requires a significant investment in both time and money. When you outsource to a contract lawyer, you pay only for the time it takes to complete the project, but when you hire an employee, you immediately add to your fixed expenses. Searching for and training a new associate (particularly a junior-level associate) is time-consuming. Your practice may be busy enough to benefit from project-based outsourcing, but not busy enough to support another employee. 

Hiring an associate has other downsides that can be avoided by retaining one or more contract lawyers. An employee adds to your administrative burdens, especially if you are a sole practitioner. Your malpractice rates will rise, and you will be subject to all the financial and legal responsibilities that accompany "employer" status. Retaining an independent contractor is much less complicated, both initially and on an ongoing basis.

In fact, outsourcing to other lawyers can help your firm's bottom line. With one exception, all of the bar associations that have addressed the issue - including, most notably, the ABA - have determined that an attorney may charge the client a premium or reasonable measure of profit in excess of the contract lawyer's cost to the attorney, as long as the total charges to the client are reasonable. (The sole exception is the Maryland Bar Association, which did not give any reason or cite any rule in support of its position). Regardless of whether or not you choose to charge your client more than you pay for the services of a contract lawyer, outsourcing is still cost-effective for your client, since even a rate that includes a reasonable profit to you will generally be lower than your own hourly rate.

You could hire a local lawyer to handle routine motion hearings, and a legal research and writing specialist to handle those tasks (the research and writing specialist can be located anywhere in the country). Many lawyers on this list do contract work.

I'll be speaking on this subject, on a panel moderated by Carolyn Elefant, at the ABA 2nd Annual Solo & Small Firm Conference, on October 6 held in Philadelphia."

Lisa
Lisa Solomon, Esq.
Concentrating exclusively in legal research and writing, including appeals
Located in New York | Serving attorneys in all jurisdictions
Read Lisa's Article, "Taking an Appeal," at www.QuestionOfLaw.net
e-mail: Lisa@QuestionOfLaw.net | phone: 914-674-8573 | fax: 815-346-3468

Second Answer:  Carolyn Elefant, Esq.

As Lisa has already commented, you can find highly qualified 
attorneys to use on an independent contract basis.  In addition to 
all of the benefits that Lisa listed, you can also use independent 
contractors to assess your need for a full time employee.  If you 
hire an IC lawyer and it turns out that you're still understaffed and 
scrambling, at the time, you could ramp up.

If you are looking for someone local, one tremendous source of talent that you can tap are female attorneys who've left the practice of law and want to return.   
At a contract panel that I hosted here in DC, I met at least 20 
female attorneys who'd left jobs at BigLaw to stay home with kids and 
now that their kids were older, were looking to find some part time 
work or a way back into the law.  These women are incredibly smart, 
will have the kind of experience with complex issues that you need 
and are very motivated.  So you might try that as a potential source 
of steady work - perhaps two attorneys on a part time basis.

Third Answer:  Dick Howland, Esq.

Over some 38 years in practice I hired over a dozen associates, all of whom
(save two) I was very fortunate.  This is reminder that colleagues are more than mere employees.  They have their own careers and aspirations.

You need to do your home work if you accept an associate much more, a partner.
An associate should never be viewed as a revenue source for about three
years.  The cost of supplying, teaching, coaching, correcting, reviewing,
the individual takes considerable time.  I have always felt that hiring a
young lawyer needed special handling.

Today's young men and women hunger for praise and recognition as much as
income.  Many will not think they are paid what they are worth if below Wall
Street salaries and benefits.  Many will not know much, if anything, about
practicing law day by day without frequent recourse to Constitutional
issues.  If law school is their only legal experience they need more
attention and guidance. 

One other point, numerous restaurants in my area have enjoyed lines out the
door, back up and superb reviews.  They doubled their dining area and
offerings.  Most closed within a year or two.  Having too much business is a
pleasure indeed and rewarding.  If I were doing it again, I would prefer to
do my job for my clients and new clients I could not assist reasonably for
any form of space/time problems, I would refer.  When you add another lawyer
in any fashion it is your practice and what the new lawyer does is your
reputation one way or the other. 

As in your practice, only you can judge which make sense in your practice and life.  Don't forget the quality of life component -- schedule it.

Fourth Answer: Susan Cartier Liebel, Esq.

You are in an interesting place in your growth.  The most important
question was eluded to in a previous reply.  "Do you want to grow beyond
your current position of one attorney/one paralegal?"  This isn't a trick
question.  You are apparently very good at what you do and whether your
business is growing through word of mouth or a strong marketing effort or
both you have to figure out what you want to be 'when you grow up? :^)
Is all this new business 'equal' in terms of revenue and personal reward?
Are these all your 'ideal' clients, the ones you have actively sought
out?  If you sifted through the business you are getting does it match
your overall short and long term goals for your professional (and
personal) life?
If the answer is no, you need to establish a referral relationships (if allowed in your jurisdiction) with other comparable attorneys and keep the cream.  If you
have not achieved your financial or personal goals for your practice and
envisioned more attorneys working in your firm with you to elevate you to
where you want to be both professionally and personally, then you need to
consider all the discussion previously about expansion...slowly with
contracted work to determine the needs you really have and limiting your overhead
costs PLUS learning your capability to supervise contract lawyers.
If you then decide to go the associate route are you ready to supervise and
mentor/massage new associates and willing to financially support these
individuals with the hope of creating an environment they want to continue
in so you get some longevity from your investment?
These are all critical decisions and you've gotten some great input
from those who responded before me.
But you have to decide first, how big (or small) you want to be, why, and
if you are truly capable of handling growing your legal practice beyond 'solo'and all this entails.
If you have suffered growing pains or can offer advice on this common predicament, please contribute to the discussion.

July 16, 2007

"You Ask.....I Answer." Aren't New Lawyers Better Off Working First Before Hanging A Shingle?

This question was posed by a student on a listserv I frequent in response to my recent post regarding the misinformation given to students regarding employment options and salaries available to new lawyers upon graduation.

Question:

Ms. Liebel,

I think this is an informative post. I agree with the basic thrust of the post (and the comments below) that there are too many law schools and too many law school grads chasing too few jobs. I think this can be traced, in part, to the overly-optimistic employment prospects that many schools give applicants.

That said, I was wondering if you would apply the same level of bracing realism to your posts on becoming a solo practitioner. While working in the legal community where I am at during the summer, I have been told that it is an incredibly poor idea to become a solo practitioner straight out of law school. In addition to the business difficulties (lack of ties to the legal community, no client list), many view it as a disservice to the clients as the newly-minted practitioner is often  learning (and making errors) on the fly. While I have seen incredibly poor lawyering from all types of lawyers with all sorts of experience, the very lowest levels of lawyering hell that I have seen were occupied by fresh-faced solo practioners.

An opinion expressed by a judge, which I agree with, is that a new lawyer should work for a few years in a firm / state's attorney / PD before hanging out their shingle in order to gain some practical real-world experience and hopefully some mentoring. Thoughts?

Answer:

Your opinion is well-considered and you ask a valid question. And it is the same perspective/opinion many lawyers/professors/judges share. In the premise, however, is the assumption when one gets a job at a firm or any other legal entity they are getting mentoring which will enable them to come out at the other end better for it and better qualified to service clients.  The other assumption is the new attorney has no clients.

First, there are very few organized 'training programs' out there. And they are generally in the Big Law firms (think mega firms) where most attorneys will not gain employment. If mentoring is the key and learning from the expertise of another is the most important element in preventing a new solo from getting in over their heads and avoiding harm to the client, new solos fresh out of the chute generally will have a safety net of experienced attorneys they can call upon to assist them.  But now they are functioning as peers.  The mentoring attorney gets many benefits beyond altruism.  This new attorney will bring them business they would not otherwise get.  And therein lies assumption number two.  Getting your law license doesn't mean you didn't exist before passing the bar.  Most business an attorney will get (62%) will come as referrals from friends, family and co-workers who already know, like and trust this individual.  The law license is a bonus.  Understanding how one gets clients initially, by leveraging current relationships, is key.  And a smart mentoring attorney knows this.  So there is profit to be made in addition to being altruistic for attorneys to mentor new attorneys.  And these mentoring attorneys will advise the new attorney on the full spectrum of legal knowledge as well as the nuances of running a legal services business.  So, a new solo can have multiple mentors treating him as a peer in the legal community.  In addition, there are invaluable resources through legal associations, CLE, Solosez and more.

If one is to take the attitude solos have to get a job first and the jobs are not there, isn't it better to address what the new attorney is presumed to gain from the job and find the solution within the legal community so they can create their own opportunity?  The economy is not pretty and will be less pretty in the not too distant future (a whole other topic.)  New attorneys need to be educated on multiple options upon graduation, whether by design or lack of gainful employment.  The legal community and law schools do a grave injustice to new graduates by perpetuating the 'myth' of how impossible it is to start a solo practice upon passing the bar and declining to offer help.  Malpractice will never be lower then when you first graduate.  Did you ever wonder why?  Because the statistical likelihood of a new attorney committing malpracticing or getting a high ticket case and causing serious financial harm is minimal.  The greatest number of malpractice claims are made against those who have been practicing for 8 - 15 years.  And the only reason solos/small firms are singled out is because larger firms have the clout to finesse themselves out of it...solos/small firms have less resources as they are running their businesses.  So, first thing we need to do is stop perpetuating myths....not you, but the legal profession as a whole.  The majority of lawyers are solos...shouldn't this message be broadcast to law students?  And then shouldn't colleagues, judges, professors and asosciations help them to achieve success whenever an attorney, newly minted or well seasoned, chooses to go solo?
I know there are many who read this blog who agree with the writer of the e-mail I answered.  Please join in the conversation. Let's talk!