Small Law Firms

Summer in Japan; Beautiful cherry blossoms; Radiation low.

Some of you are just getting back today after a nice summer vacation. Others are working in half-empty offices because their colleagues left for vacation this week.

But few of you will bring the kind of poetic grace to your out-of-office replies as one of my friends did. This elegant lawyer conveyed all the information anybody needed to know in two haikus….

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Tom Wallerstein

Some of you may already know that I don’t believe in dead weeks, so you can imagine the fits I’m having this year when the Fourth of July falls on a Wednesday. You know I’m out of sorts when a holiday that is supposed to be a single day off is turned into a five-day weekend in the middle of summer. Honestly, I was happy to give my associates and staff some much-deserved time off. But I’m pounding out this post anyway, and only after putting some finishing touches on a motion for summary judgment.

And I found time for reflective celebration. The Fourth of July has become a day when the powerful United States revels in its glory, and its citizens delight in colorful pyrotechnics that emulate the more beautiful aspect of warfare. Personally, I’ve always favored the disenfranchised, the underdog. And Independence Day is their day, too. The Fourth of July commemorates the victory of revolutionary insurgents who didn’t obey the traditional rules, and who triumphed over their more powerful adversaries. Good stuff.

Some people see the growing resurgence of regional, midsize and small firms as a revolution. Some people see alternative billing arrangements as a revolution. I tend to think that both those trends are somewhat overstated. I see them less as “revolutions” than as subtle “evolutions,” with important but limited long-term effect.

Still, Fourth of July week is a particularly appropriate time for this column.

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Tom Wallerstein

Anyone who has been around children is familiar with the challenge of getting them to eat what you want them to eat. “My daughter won’t eat vegetables.” “My son only eats cheetos.” Like a lot of parents, I find myself frustrated by this dynamic. But I also have to laugh, because I know the solution is so simple. If someone is hungry enough, they will easily overcome their aversion to whatever particular food they think they don’t like.

For example, you might not like broccoli, and you swear you would never eat broccoli under any circumstances. But if you were on a desert island with nothing to eat except broccoli, it would not take very long for you to overcome, or at least overpower, your distaste. So, if you really want your kid to eat X, then just don’t allow them to fill up on not-X. Nature will take care of the rest. We’ve all got to eat, and a child won’t die from voluntary starvation any more than someone can kill themselves by holding their breath.

Like a lot of kids, mine have a very narrow range of food that they profess to like. Dinner, therefore, has a familiar refrain. The kids insist they don’t like X, and I tell them, “That’s fine. I understand you don’t like X. No one can tell you what you should like, and what you shouldn’t. You don’t need to like X if you don’t want to. Now shut up and eat it.”

Thus, “You Don’t Have to Like It” has become something of a mantra to me.

What does this have to do with succeeding in a small law firm?

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Unless you have been living under a rock — or do not have female Facebook friends with mommy complexes — you have heard about Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Atlantic article, Why Women Still Can’t Have It All. It is apparently the most read article in the Atlantic’s history of online publication. And people are talking about it.

Most of my friend’s who have posted about the article are the demographic discussed in the piece — “younger” women who can’t have it all. They consistently proclaim the article to be our generation’s manifesto on work-life balance for women. The timing is perfect because I have almost outgrown my current manifesto, Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret.

One of the reasons that woman can’t have it all, says Slaughter, is because we have not come close to closing the gender gap in leadership. “Only when women wield power in sufficient numbers will we create a society that genuinely works for all women. That will be a society that works for everyone,” she wrote.” So true.

The article explains other reasons why we can’t have it all, offers some ideas for ways that we can get closer, and then does some other stuff. Truthfully, the article was too long, and I had to get back to my real work of trying to have it all.

So, what does these mean for small-firm female attorneys? What would having it all even look like at a small firm?

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Yep, born and raised right here in Miami, Florida. I know, you hate me more now. Shucks. When I was a kid though, the only people who took their talents to South Beach were drug dealers, prostitutes, and movie producers depicting the place through the eyes of Tony Montana.

And now we are NBA Champions. We deserve it. We’ve waited a whole six years for this.

And you hate us. We love it, watching all of you whine and moan about how much you hate the Heat, hate Lebron, how Miami “bought” their championship. Yep, we bought it – cost a fortune too, you petty jealous nothings. We are the best, we are having a parade, probably right at the moment you sit in your miserable office, or Starbucks, and read this.

No surprise that I am a big fan of divisive people. I love watching the hate, the squirming when these people are successful, the “yeah, but…” commentary. I love watching losers nip at the feet of winners.

Lawyers love to do this…

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Partners love to emphasize to candidates who are interviewing that their firm provides not only “early responsibility,” but also abundant “client contact.” Associates who interview eat that stuff up. “Client contact” sounds like the epitome of what being a lawyer is all about.

But sometimes client contact might not be all it’s cracked up to be. For an associate, talking to a client often has little short term upside and lots of potential downside. If you give good advice, the partner is likely to take the credit for it. If you give bad advice, you better believe you will take the blame.

Once an attorney is blessed with significant client contact, they learn rather quickly that the much-vaunted experience can be rather overrated. More times than not, a ringing phone does not a happy lawyer make. Just consider some of the reasons why clients are likely to be calling….

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As we reported yesterday, the comely young Reema Bajaj, a 26-year-old Illinois solo practitioner charged with prostitution, has pleaded guilty to a single misdemeanor prostitution count. I previously expressed my favorable opinions of Bajaj and my belief in her innocence (despite the existence of nude pictures of her floating around the internet). Alas, it seems that my confidence may have been misplaced.

As a matter of legal ethics and attorney discipline, what will happen to Bajaj’s law license in the wake of her conviction for prostitution? As a matter of human interest, how did a promising young lawyer wind up in such a compromising situation?

We have some answers. A law professor who teaches ethics addresses the first question, and a friend of Reema speaks to the second….

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(Including revelations about Reema from a friend.)

It appears the case of Reema Bajaj has reached a climax. The Illinois attorney who was charged with prostitution has pleaded guilty.

Let’s look at some details….

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In my humble opinion, there is nothing worse than billing time. Just think of the feeling you get when you’ve spent a day doing a million random tasks in your sad beige office, and you have no ten-minute entries to account for that day (i.e., you get no credit for a day spent at work doing work things). Not only is billing a pain, the practice of accounting for your time is even worse. While I was no better at it when I was at my Biglaw firm than at the small firm, the former had some software that would send me mean emails if I did not get my hours in on time. Oh, and there were scarier partners that would come after if me if I had a delinquent time report.

At the small firm, on the other hand, I was instructed to fill out time entries by hand, give them to my assistant to type into a billing program, review the print-out of the hours inputted by my assistant, and then send them off to the partner to review and approve.

I was less efficient at billing at the small firm than at my Biglaw firm. Not only did I lose precious ten-minute increments working with my assistant to bill hours, but I also worked on a minimum of four matters, and switching between matters meant less efficiency. And I suppose there are other things people do at small firms that they cannot bill for — like go get business or something?

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I rarely follow up on potential clients anymore. You want to hire me — you’ll let me know. I’m not playing your game of calling you back after the initial interview so you can tell me you’re “thinking about it,” but “the fee is really big.” Yeah, the fee is really big; so is your problem. You want to take your big problem to a bargain basement lawyer — knock yourself out. I don’t run a booth at the Straw Market in the Bahamas. If I’m going to negotiate, it’s going to be with opposing counsel, not you.

It’s killing you, though. You spoke with the client, they seemed interested, they asked all the right questions, and you gave all the right answers. They told you “money is no issue” (first clue they have no money.) It’s been a day or two, and nothing. No call, no email, and no questions about the retainer agreement you gave them.

What to do?

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