Practice Pointers, Small Law Firms

The Practice: ‘I Don’t Do That Work’

With a struggling legal economy, lawyers are doing everything they can do to stay afloat. It’s understandable — homes have been bought, cars you can’t afford have been leased, and Taco Bell doesn’t taste as good as it did in school at 3 a.m.

I’ve met with lawyers over the past few years who have told me to send them anything that comes my way that I don’t want. These are real estate lawyers that will now draft employment contracts, and civil litigators who are ready to draft a Will for the asking. (By the way, random question: do you capitalize “Will” when referring to the document? I know I can look it up, but many of you have nothing else to do, so let me know.) I see criminal defense lawyers taking on matters so far out of their practice area that I fear for the clients. Actually, I fear for all these clients.

Back in the day, the so called “country” or “neighborhood” lawyer did what today we pejoratively call “Door Law” (whatever walks in the door). There’s a difference between a lawyer who handles several types of practice areas, and the lawyer who doesn’t, but will in order to make rent. The latter is dangerous…

This is not to say that a lawyer who specializes in one area can’t become competent in another, but what I’m seeing are lawyers just taking fees first, and then worrying about whether they can do the work. You see it — it’s that lawyer on your listserv who handles wage and hour cases who is asking, “Does anyone has a sample complaint for a construction defect case?” You, well, maybe not you, just shake your head.

This problem is not getting any better, mainly because of the “everyone’s got to make a living” mentality that has permeated our profession. Why shouldn’t you take on a case you know nothing about when you can just send emails to lawyers, some who will laugh at you, others who will ignore you, but one who will help you? Those doing this type of “I’ll take anything” practice don’t realize, and don’t care, that their public pronouncements of incompetence are the talk of their colleagues.

Recently, I’ve been joking about doing a CLE seminar titled “I Don’t Do That Work.” What is so terrible about telling a prospective client you don’t handle their type of legal issue? Afraid of losing the client? That will be the least of your problems if you take on something you don’t do and don’t seek competent assistance.

I was just asked about amending corporate documents. Do I know how to do that? Yeah, it’s easy. Is there anything that could happen as a result of amending corporate documents? Are there tax or other issues? I have no idea. That’s why I sent it to a corporate lawyer. He took care of it in a couple hours, made the client happy, which in turn… well, I don’t need to explain it. Could I have charged the client and done the work and taken the chance that what I did was okay? Sure. But I would never do that. I’d rather lose the money than wind up having an unhappy client, even if it was not because of malpractice or ethical issues.

So there are a couple things I want to highlight on this topic. One is obvious; don’t take on work for the money. I know, easy for me to say, but that few grand you take for some “small” matter where you read how to handle it on the internet or got a copy of a pleading from your listserv will haunt you forever if you screw it up.

Two is something I see few lawyers do: tell your referral sources what you don’t do. I do this all the time. When you concentrate in a certain area, referral sources, even if they are other lawyers, may not know exactly what you do. They may think that because you’re a tax lawyer, you handle international tax issues, audits, criminal tax investigations and prosecutions, and negotiations with the IRS on tax debt.

Finally, for those of you still in the dark ages of building relationships to build your practice, never forget that the work you don’t do is a path to getting work that you do handle. That tax lawyer that only handles offers in compromise definitely has a network of tax lawyers that handle other types of matters. Can he handle the others? Maybe. But he’s in a better place being “the guy” for what he does and having a circle of those that do things similar, as those lawyers get calls for what they don’t do as well.

I know when you’re young or just starting out in private practice you are hoping to keep the lights on, or the tall double shot lattes flowing, but short term thinking is for losers. Pick one or two practice areas, learn everything about them, and even when things are slow, consider that “I don’t do that work” is the best thing you can say to a client if you’re in this for the long term.


Brian Tannebaum will never “get on board” at the advice of failed lawyers who were never a part of the past but claim to know “the future of law.” He represents clients, every day, in criminal and lawyer discipline cases without the assistance of an Apple device, and usually gets to work (in an office, not a coffee shop) by 9 a.m. No client has ever asked if he’s on Twitter. He can be reached at bt@tannebaumweiss.com.

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