May 01, 2007

The Secrets of Successful Solos

Connecticut Law Tribune/National Law Journal - April 30, 2007

Every semester, to drive home the point that law school students can hang a shingle successfully upon graduation, I invite a panel of recent Quinnipiac University School of Law grads to speak to my Law Office Management class. They bring a fresh reality of the very real possibilities that await newly minted solos in today's legal and economic climate.

One graduate, who I did not have the pleasure of knowing in law school, asked me if he could participate. His story is uplifting.

Having graduated in 2003, he knew he did not want to work for anyone but himself. However, for the first seven months, he opted to work as a temporary assistant clerk in the Norwalk courthouse to get the lay of the land, learn the ropes, meet the players and get face time with those he deemed important to his advancement.

After the seven months, just as he was going to get his health benefits, and even though he was offered a job with an attorney of some prominence, he chose to barter his services for space, getting a tiny round table in that same attorney's office near the courthouse. When it came time to meet clients at "his office," he went into the other attorney's well-appointed office, hung up his diploma and "Voila."

His work ethic was so strong, not only did he get free rent but he was earning money from the other attorney as well. But what struck me most about this young attorney, who has only been practicing on his own for 14 months, is how he instinctively understood that he is the product. His clients are buying him, not his surroundings.

His family name is well known in Fairfield County and he capitalized on the association. He practices criminal law so he took his established name, his very nice giveaway pens, his catchy slogan and made sure every person he ever met had this pen, including judges, clerks and janitors in the courthouse, the tellers at his bank, even the McDonald's drive-through attendant.

Most importantly, he understands his clients' need to feel valued. Without fail, the single most important statement he made and drove home to the class was "my clients will have a return telephone call within four hours. Even if I have 100 cases which will result in the same disposition, each client's situation, embarrassment, pain, sadness is unique and I respect that. They will get my time."

Two or three times a week he is at the jails seeing his clients even if only for a few moments, giving them face-time. Does he have 20 years of experience and pricey real estate? No. His clients don't care about that. He is giving them what they need, his individualized attention.

One student asked the panel, "Do you establish yourself where the business is or establish the business where you want to live." Each and every panel member said, "Establish the business where you want to live." And this young attorney did just that for all the right reasons.

Did he spend a lot of capital on marketing? Other than a million-dollar suit, a web site, his laptop, cell phone, business cards and hundreds of pens, I think not. He does, however, run a small business card-sized ad each day in the local paper. For those of you wondering how successful is he? Well, in his words, "I may not be able to buy that mansion in Greenwich, but I'm closing in on that small cottage."

On a closing note, each attorney was asked to define success. One said: "I have to admit it, I'm in it for the money. It was always my driving force." Second attorney: "The money comes, but I love the feeling I get knowing I got a great disposition for my client." Third attorney: "Never in my life have I enjoyed getting up in the morning and going to work ... until now." And in unison, they proclaimed, "We will never work for someone else, ever again." •

Susan Cartier-Liebel is solo practitioner, adjunct professor at Quinnipiac University School of Law and a business consultant for solo and small firms. Her blog, Build A Solo Practice, is at susancartierliebel.typepad.com. She can be reached at SCartier_Liebel@comcast.net. Copyright © Susan Cartier-Liebel (2007) 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.

April 02, 2007

National Law Journal Discusses How Law Schools Fail The Entrepreneur

The National Law Journal interviewed me a few weeks ago regarding an article on how law schools are failing the entrepreneur, "When Hanging A Shingle, Solos Are Reluctantly Solo". And I also suggested they speak with Melanie Jester and Bill Conger at Oklahoma City University School of Law who teach a course called Introduction to Legal Practice. (Melanie and I had e-met as well as talked on the telephone a few years ago discussing our frustrations as well as (dis)similarities in course content.) 

What I'm proud about (please indulge me one Cheshire cat grin) is the mention of Temple University's Career Counseling Office's ridiculous postings regarding solo practice right out of law school.  I had posted about this earlier here (without mentioning their name) and as a result the NLJ interviewed the school and they are going to change their current 'presentation' regarding solo practice as an option, claiming they were unaware of the website's content." Huh?

In furtherance of this failing, at the Ms. JD conference this weekend, an assembly of women from every corner of the legal profession, a few 'in the know' little birdies whispered in my ear something I know they would never admit publically.  There were many Career Counsel Officers present, having flown in from across the country.  When one was questioned 'why the resistance to providing support for solos within law school?"  The answer, "you will always have an uphill battle because our agenda is driven by ranking with U.S. News & World Reports.  If we turn out too many solos instead of placing within employment it impacts our all-important ranking." (Yes, sodium pentathol was flowing freely at this conference.) 

So, it will take a lot of chutzpah, blogosphere amplified conversation and a conscious decision by the law schools to toss out the U.S. News & World Reports ranking in order to create a curriculum that addresses the paying customer's real needs. In some bizarro way I understand the reason for the enslavement to a magazine's annual 'list' but I don't applaud it, I rebel against it and this sacrifice of multiple thousands of students on the altar of the false god of artifical lists. I would strongly suggest other magazines start creating more informative rather than competitive lists tailored to students' individual successes based upon quality of their education combined with after-graduation success as practitioners which would give rise to intelligent and thoughtful lists that actually matter in the real world.

Regardless, if you are unable to read the whole article (as it is by subscription), here it is:

When Hanging a Shingle, Solos Are Reluctantly Solo

Lack of business training in law school is decried.

Sandhya Bathija/Staff reporter
April 2, 2007

When
Luz Hererra opened her solo practice in Compton, Calif., she had no idea how to bill or create a retainer agreement, what to charge clients for consultation, where to drum up business — or who to ask for help.

"It took me two years before I felt comfortable running my practice," said the Harvard Law School graduate. "It shouldn't take that long, and I don't think it does for people who have support from their law schools."

It's a complaint of many solo practitioners, who claim their law schools failed to prepare them to "hang a shingle."

And while some law schools are beginning to address the problem with courses on law practice management, most schools aren't catching on, said Susan Cartier-Liebel, a solo practitioner in Northford, Conn., who teaches a course called "Law Office Management" at Quinnipiac University School of Law in Hamden, Conn.

Solo practitioners make up 48% of the private-practice lawyers, according to the American Bar Foundation's Lawyer Statistical Report. But only 5% of graduating law students immediately go into solo practice following graduation, according to a separate 2004 American Bar Foundation study. This is because schools aren't encouraging students to believe they're capable, Cartier-Liebel said.

"Law schools aren't preparing their students to take the bar and immediately hang a shingle," she said. "That's a significant portion of people in law school who are not recognized for their ambitions."

Discouraging words

On the career Web site of Temple University James E. Beasley School of Law in Philadelphia, students are told that solo practice means lawyers who are "generalists or practice in the personal injury area. It is difficult for someone to establish a solo practice immediately upon graduation after law school."

Louis Thompson, assistant dean for career planning for Temple's law school, said he was unaware that this was on the Web site and that the school will change it because it wants to encourage students to go into solo practice. The school introduced a course this year called "The Business of Law," he said.

" 'Difficult' may not be the right word to describe it," Thompson said. "But realistically, going into solo practice requires thought and planning, more than just doing a passive job search."

Which is why students are starving for help from their law schools, said Bill Conger, a professor at Oklahoma City University School of Law who teaches the course "Introduction to Legal Practice."

Students in Conger's class create a business plan, where they create a law firm, a Web site, lease office space and draft a lease agreement.

The course also addresses malpractice insurance, how to enter into a fee agreement with a client and how to set up trust accounts.

Tim McKinney, a solo practitioner in Guthrie, Okla., took Conger's class in law school and opened up his solo practice in 2005, immediately after graduating.

"The class helped me know what to expect," he said. "And it helped me refine some of the business."

Yet career development offices at most first-tier law schools only cater to students who want big-firm jobs,
Herrera said, explaining that she approached her alma mater, Harvard, to set up a program for students wanting information on going into solo practice.

"They told me students weren't interested in that," she said. "But then I worked with several student organizations to plan a session on it, and at least 40 students came."

Mike Armini, a spokesman for the school, said that when Herrera contacted the career services department, the school was very interested in working with her but the schedule was booked.

"It was a timing issue," Armini said.

Harvard Law School will start a course in professional services in spring 2008, which focuses on how to run law firms and law practices, Armini added.

It's seems when schools are called on the carpet and there is negative publicity afoot, they sing a different song.  Quite frankly, I don't care why they change as long as they change!

(Update:  You can see the whole article on Law.com where it was picked up.)

March 13, 2007

MySpace or Yours, It's a New World Out There

Connecticut Law Tribune - March 5, 2007;  National Law Journal on Line - March 7, 2007

Recently, a former student of mine who hung his shingle right out of law school asked me a loaded question: "What do you think about my putting a page on MySpace.com?"

I immediately started thinking about all the negative news out there: false representations, predators lurking for impressionable minors, parents looking to protect their children and so on. My knee-jerk reaction was, "Be careful about the image you are trying to present."

The question, of course, triggered a full investigation so I could form a much more considered opinion. Here goes.

There is a lot of conversation about www.MySpace.com and its use as a marketing tool for lawyers to attract new clients. Based upon an informal poll, a majority of practitioners have reservations about it. Most only knew what they've heard in the news, or nothing at all, about MySpace. Then again, many of them had never seen a blog, and are just getting around to constructing their own web sites. These same people also are still paying through the nose for Yellow Page ads.

For those who are negative, this strikes me as provincial, but typical. They are the same people who would still be sitting in the belly of the overturned S.S. Poseidon because the captain told them to stay put, even while younger, more open minds with nimbler bodies understood the ship had turned upside down and that they would drown if they conformed to the status quo.

The principles of marketing — communication of a message to your target audience — are as old as the birth of man. The method of delivery is what keeps changing. And if one doesn't change with the times, they are either deliberately choosing to wind down their business or will be among those people who close up shop claiming there are just too many lawyers. But deep down, they know they just didn't want to do what was needed to be done.

MySpace has been around for 10 years. It has more than 43,000 uploads a day. According to Alexa.com, MySpace ranks sixth, behind Yahoo, MSN, Google, Baidu and YouTube, in terms of global users. Within the U.S., it ranks third behind Yahoo then Google. MySpace is accessed nearly 40 million times a day! And it's FREE!

These previously named search engines and venues are a very different means of advertising/marketing. In a traditional advertisement, like television, viewers are looking to watch a show, and advertisements interfere with that goal, which is why we have gadgets like TiVo. It is why marketers started negotiating deals with the networks to have their products used by the television stars within the program itself so it couldn't be fast forwarded. These product placements started on TV with shows like "Survivor," when a reward for a victorious player was a bag of Doritos and a can of Mountain Dew. (Of course, product use within the movies started as early as the black and white movies when cigarette manufacturers paid stars to smoke on screen.)

With MySpace.com, the purpose of going on the site is to seek out information, establish networks, make friends, find lovers, whatever. In order to find any information, you have to participate by setting up a MySpace site. That is, "in order to see theirs, you have to be willing to show them yours." You are not viewed as an interference by the people you're targeting, you are the reason why they are going to the site. This is very different than traditional advertising/marketing. And that means it is constantly evolving as the audience evolves, grows and changes its demands.

To be most effective, MySpace is where you want to actively participate as one of the crowd, not place ads. There may be some who disagree with me on that point. But if you follow my logic, it makes much more sense. Again, be part of the purpose, not a distracting annoyance from that purpose.

Remember, with these new venues, the only thing that really works is authenticity. How you present yourself — whether in a blog, or on a web site, MySpace or YouTube — needs to genuinely and honestly reflect you and your goals as a practitioner. Audiences today are very smart and very savvy. Anything less than authenticity in any form, once caught and outed, will stay with you forever on the internet. •

Susan Cartier-Liebel is solo practitioner, adjunct professor at Quinnipiac University School of Law and a business consultant for solo and small firms. Her blog, Build A Solo Practice, is at susancartierliebel.typepad.com. She can be reached at SCartier_Liebel@comcast.net. Copyright © Susan Cartier-Liebel (2007) All Rights Reserved. No portion of this material may be copied, transmitted, posted, duplicated or otherwise used without the express written approval of Susan Cartier-Liebel.

December 21, 2006

CBA Proposal Enables Elitist Law Schools

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

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

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

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

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

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

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