Small Law Firms

Some have compared the world of large law firms to a gilded cage. The lawyers who toil for Biglaw may earn big bucks, but in exchange for the pay, they spend thousands of hours stuck in the office, shackled to their desks, deriving all their sustenance from Seamless.

So whose gilded cage is the most golden, the most elegant, the most comfortable? Welcome to Above the Law’s first-ever Lawyerly Lairs contest: a quest to discover the best law firm offices in America.

What do mean by “best”? Who is eligible to enter? How can entries be submitted?

Read on for the official contest rules and nomination guidelines….

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Quick! I’m an in-house lawyer! How are my legal skills?

Admit it: You just thought to yourself, “So-so. The guy couldn’t hack it at a law firm and wanted a 9 to 5 lifestyle, so he took his mediocre skills and moved in-house. I’ll try not to be transparently condescending when I talk to him on the phone.”

I believed that, too, until I went in-house. (That was a joke. How do you put a smiley face on a blog post?)

A moment’s thought reveals that I’m a bundle of legal prejudices, and I suspected that others were, too. So I did a Rorschach test of some lawyer-friends. I named categories of lawyers, and I asked my friends to give their immediate reactions to those categories.

So what are our legal prejudices?

Quick! I’m a partner at a big firm! What do you think of me?

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Living in the San Francisco Bay Area, we are well accustomed to the concept of diversity. San Franciscans embrace it. They live among and celebrate people of every race, ethnicity and nationality. They embrace every sexual orientation. And they welcome political persuasions spanning the gamut from socialist to liberal. Ah, life’s infinite diversity.

I’ve mentioned before that when I snorkeled in the Cayman Islands, I was amazed at the vast number of different species of fish. When I go to a favorite deli or café, I’m reluctant to order “the usual,” however much I might enjoy it, because I’ve always believed that variety is good. The concepts of variety and diversity present themselves to us every day.

Diversity is also an important concept for law firms, especially smaller law firms and boutiques. And this is true of “diversity” in a variety of contexts, some of which are not so obvious….

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In the late 90’s, lawyers taking credit cards was not the norm.

Stores took credit cards. Restaurants took credit cards. Lawyers took checks and wire transfers, and yes, cash in rubber bands. It was typical lawyer arrogance and ego – taking credit cards turned the lawyer in to a merchant, and paying a portion of the fee (because if you check your state ethics rules and opinions you may find you cannot charge the client for the percentage you pay the credit card company… oops) for the convenience of the client being able to “charge it” was seen as unattractive.

I didn’t take credit cards at first, a couple years later I started, and now I take them under certain conditions. One, I don’t advertise that I take credit cards. No signs on my door, no indication on invoices. If the client asks, the answer is yes, but like many places, there is a minimum amount (and no, it’s not $20). For volume-type lawyers who charge small fees, credit cards are a great way to sign up clients and maintain a good cash flow. For those with bigger fees and smaller practices, it’s a last resort for that client that you believe may have an issue paying, or who just can’t come up with the retainer unless it’s charged on a credit card.

Visa and Mastercard rates are lower than AMEX, but in the end, you’re looking at getting about 96% of the fee once the percentage and transaction fees are paid. If you can’t survive on that, I can’t help you.

What about house calls?

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Tom Wallerstein

I recently had a client ask me about asset protection strategies. Having read The Firm (affiliate link) before I ever went to law school, and mindful of the classic Tom Cruise movie of the same name, of course I did what any diligent attorney devoted to client-service would do: I headed off to the Cayman Islands to investigate.

Due to an unfortunate series of strange boating accidents which I am not at liberty to discuss, my trip ended up lasting a bit longer than I expected. My email and telephone conversations also became compromised, hence my extended ATL hiatus.

Alas, the good guys prevailed, I am back safe and sound, and I’m happy to write about some of my reflections from beautiful Cayman (pronounced, as I learned from the locals, “Cay-Man,” with two distinct, equally prominent syllables, almost rhyming with “Cave-Man;” not “Cay-min” rhyming with “layman”)….

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“We’re dinosaurs, Brian,” said the 12-year lawyer in my office last week.

We were discussing the way we get cases as opposed to the way “they do it today.”

I never thought I would be called a dinosaur at 43, after 17 years in practice, but the tech hacks and non-practicing lawyers who claim to know how to build successful practices have tagged me one. They say I’m a “dying breed,” and that “lawyers like me” will be extinct very very very very soon. I try to pay attention to them, as those who have failed at law, or have never run a law practice but can predict the future of the profession with a keyboard from their kitchen table in some crap town are always worthy of my time. Unfortunately, I am usually interrupted by yet another new client calling my office.

So my colleague, the 12-year lawyer, says we’re dinosaurs. Neither of us pays an internet marketer, or buy lists of prospective “leads” to contact. Our way of getting cases isn’t as interesting. It’s usually: “Remember that guy I represented seven years ago on that thing? The referral came from him,” or, “Remember that lawyer we had that case against who we hated? He referred the client.” Our way took a while, but it was worth the long while.

Ask some “old” curmudgeon lawyer like me what “reputation management” is, and I will tell you it’s managing your reputation. It’s conducting yourself in a way that won’t cause you to have a “bad reputation,” or a “questionable reputation.” It’s about showing up to places on time, not chronically canceling, being honest, not looking like a slob, not filing documents that are nonsensical or full of typos, being professional with opposing counsel, being a zealous advocate in front of judges trying to silence you, and being asked to speak, write, and give opinions on important issues. That’s reputation management….

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A lot of legal work is decidedly uncool. Sadly, there’s just not much sexiness in talking about your latest corporate bankruptcy case or major document review project.

But there are exceptions. Case in point: entertainment lawyers. How sweet would it be to represent celebrities? (Except if you had to work for train wrecks veteran rock stars like Courtney Love).

So, that being said, let’s take a look at the Hollywood Reporter’s newly released Power Lawyers 2012 list, which rounds up the top 100 entertainment attorneys in America.

Maybe you know someone on the list?

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About a year and a half ago, I was just a small-firm girl with a dream: to find the truth about small-firm life. After writing this column, and speaking to a wide range of fellow small-firm attorneys, I learned that small firms are all different. Some are mini-sweatshops with small-firm attorneys who have Biglaw egos (and pedigrees), while some are small groups of like-minded, hard-working, intelligent attorneys.

While I never discovered the whole truth about small-firm life, I did pick up a few worthwhile lessons….

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One of the main differences between small law firms and Biglaw is who hires the lawyer. While both receive calls from the actual individual (person) client, general counsel, or corporate representative, the consumer-type disciplines (personal injury, criminal, divorce, employment (plaintiff), and immigration) are usually smaller shops, and usually get the call from the actual person needing representation.

Most of the time this person has never hired a lawyer. So the conversation will be much different than the call from a general counsel who understands typical billing formats, or an insurance company agent, who tells you what you’re going to bill and not bill.

I’m writing today for those who’ve been in small law firms for less than five years. The rest of you know the drill, you’ve heard the buzzwords and phrases, and (hopefully) you’ve taken control of your time in a way that shortcuts the worthless conversations from potential clients. From a business perspective, small law firm practice is an exercise in cash flow. While lines of credit are available, many small law firms don’t like to go that route. So every potential client is important, especially when you haven’t reached that stride where you can claim a “book of business.”

Saying “no” before the client makes it clear that it’s “no,” is tough. Did you just give up money? Was there another way to get the client “signed up?”

I draw lines. I am criticized for that, but it’s my practice and it’s worked for me. Normally when I don’t get the case these days, I hear about who got the case, which vindicates my choice to shortcut the conversation.

A recurring theme here is that what works for me may not work for you. OK. Did I ever indicate I give a crap?

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I’m one of those lawyers that goes on vacation. Not just long weekends, real vacations. I pity those of you that pride yourselves in announcing, “I don’t take vacations.” Good for you, you pathetic drone. I didn’t take vacations at first, as I was always fearful that someone would call to hire me on a non-emergency basis and wouldn’t wait until I came back. Now I don’t care. If you can’t wait until I come back, there are plenty of lawyers on the internet to hire that can take your PayPal payment online and send you whatever documents you think you need to handle your case.

When was I able to take my first two-week vacation and not worry about business? After 14 years in private practice. I say that because I know how patient all of you are out there.

First, let me congratulate the commentariat, who I found in San Francisco had turned their child-like recurring comments into a t-shirt business. See, there’s all kinds of ways to make money as an unemployed lawyer, not to worry. (For those of you that tell me you don’t read the comments, it’s okay, just look at the picture and imagine those phrases being said over and over again, anonymously.)

Anyway, when I’m on vacation, I think about my business. I think about what I love, what I hate, and what I want to change. There is nothing like thinking about your business (not the cases or the clients) while you are away from the phone calls (if your phone is ringing), other interruptions, the deadlines, and all the trappings of a lawyer’s day. (That was tip number one of today’s column for those of you shallow folks that can’t comprehend messages that aren’t in your face with drawings.)

One of the things I do a lot while I’m away is watch other businesses. I try to figure out how they make their money, why their employees are happy, or unhappy, why their customers patronize the store, restaurant, tour company, and how they handle problems. You’re an idiot if you are trying to build your law practice solely by watching how other lawyers run their practices. Client dynamics can be found in many places, and ideas come from everywhere. Most lawyers are doing it wrong anyway. (Enter tip number two — see how that works?)

Here’s what I saw over two weeks in California….

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