Small Law Firms

As regular readers of Lawyerly Lairs know well, some attorneys have beautiful — and expensive — homes. As we’ve just learned from the impressive submissions in our contest to find the best law firm offices in America, many attorneys’ workplaces are no less spectacular.

With the help of Mary Kate Sullivan, our wonderful intern here at Above the Law, I’ve winnowed the large and impressive field to eight finalists. There’s nice diversity here, in terms of firms (Biglaw versus non-Biglaw); decor (traditional versus modern); and geography (seven different cities, located all over the country).

Let’s check them out, shall we?

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Tom Wallerstein

Many attorneys who leave Biglaw for smaller or solo practices find themselves considering contingent fee cases, either by necessity or design. “By necessity,” because a practice may not have many paying clients when it first forms. “By design,” because an attorney working for a contingent fee has the prospect of hitting a huge payday and making many times what an attorney who bills by the hour can make.

The challenge of business development takes on a whole new meaning when applied to contingent fee lawyers. To some extent, a contingent fee attorney has the opposite problem of an attorney billing by the hour. There is no shortage of clients who want a lawyer they need pay only if they win. Thus, the contingent fee attorney always has too many potential clients whereas the hourly attorney always has too few.

Because attorneys can find themselves inundated with clients offering a contingent fee, evaluating which cases to take, and which to turn down, can be challenging. Essentially, taking a case on contingency is an investment of your time, energy, and financial resources. You need to carefully assess whether the investment is a good one….

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Hardly ever Every so often an interesting email comes across a lawyer listserv. The good ones are hard to find in the middle of, “Does anyone know a really fantastic and also really cheap lawyer in (some town no one’s heard of where there are no lawyers or courthouses) for my friend who got fired for being late 16 times but he says he was discriminated against,” or, “I know this question has been asked before (every week) but….,” or, “What is the best printer for a lawyer with no practice?”

And then there’s Solosez. This is the listserv for solo practitioners that has all the answers, except to many of the lawyers there who believe it is evidence of the end of the profession. Every once in a while I see an email from Solosez, sent by a young solo who wants to show me evidence of why they may off themselves. (Note: As a result of this disclosure, there will be an email on Solosez reminding members not to forward any evidence that what I’m saying is true emails to Brian Tannebaum anyone.)

Recently, in a moment of rare honesty by a lawyer, a solo wrote to tell fellow Sezzers (I did not make that up, they actually call themselves this) that they had failed at solo practice….

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Tom Wallerstein

Associates in both Biglaw and small should give some thought as to who is their most important client. Some might think that their most important client is their biggest or most prestigious one, or the one whose matter has the most at stake. This week at Morrison & Foerster and Quinn Emanuel, yearning associates might name Apple and Samsung, respectively.

Other associates might take a longer view, and answer that their most important client is the one with the greatest potential to offer them future business.

Still others might select the client for whom the associate has the most responsibility. For example, if you are one of three or four associates on several matters, but the primary or sole associate on another, you may view that latter client as your most important.

All these associates would be making a mistake by not understanding who is truly their most important client….

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Nepotism and small-town law practice have gone hand in hand since the invention of the shingle. Our country’s fine judicial system is littered with dynamic duos of father and son lawyers, fighting injustice one personal injury at a time.

One firm out in Ohio, however, has taken the family business concept to a whole new level. Meet Murray & Murray Co., L.P.A., where nine — count ‘em, nine — members of the Murray family are partners… in a 14-lawyer firm.

Sandusky, Ohio, known for little more than being the home of Cedar Point and sharing a name with the most prominent pedophile in the last decade, is the home turf of the Murray clan. Together, the family handles an array of personal injury matters, from auto and truck accidents to fatal auto and truck accidents.

But just what fate lies in wait for non-Murrays who dare to join the firm?

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With both law school and the law school application season about to resume, let’s return to our popular series of Law School Success Stories. While we believe it’s important to provide our readers with accurate information about the perils of law school, including data about high lawyer unemployment and crushing student debt, we like to balance out the doom and gloom with stories of successful lawyers who made winning bets on legal education.

Today’s success story comes to us via the august pages of the New York Times. Even though this young lawyer didn’t go to a top-tier law school, he’s enjoying a phenomenal legal career, marked by fame and fortune.

His story contains valuable lessons for people thinking about, or already enrolled in, law school. Let’s learn more about him, shall we?

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For those ignoring the unemployed “future of law” idiots typing away from their kitchen table in some crap city with a regional airport and instead still living in the universe where you believe practices can be built and survive on the referrals of others, I have some advice on maintaining your referral base. Some good stuff here, so keep reading if you actually practice law and have to bring in business instead of living off the originations of lawyers who people actually hire.

A referral base is sometimes, but not always, a two-way street. This is where honesty comes into the equation. There may be a lawyer who refers you business, to whom you would never refer business. There may be those lawyers who refer you business, but you have never had the opportunity to send them any. On the other hand, there are those lawyers to whom you send business, who haven’t sent you anything.

Referrals from other lawyers happen for two reasons, either the lawyer is your BFF, or because they know your reputation in the practice area. Sad news for some of you, your reputation, as I’ve said before, is not based on how many people have accepted your begging them invitation to write online testimonials about you….

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Tom Wallerstein

I’ve heard that a hungry dog hunts best. I don’t know if that’s actually true because my pugs were always hungry, and yet they could not have caught a three-legged turtle. But the saying makes sense, and I do know that staying hungry — but not desperate — is an important concept for law firms.

One way a young firm should stay hungry is to always search for new business. There are good reasons that I constantly harp on the importance of business development. Even if you are fortunate enough to be busy, you never know when your current workload may dry up. This is particularly true in litigation because any case can always settle or otherwise resolve unexpectedly. No matter how busy you are, you should constantly seek out new work and new clients.

But seeking out new work comes at a potential cost to your current cases and clients. You can’t be so desperate to grow that you spend so much time on business development that you ignore your current clients or let your current caseload suffer. Some lawyers take a churn and burn approach, trying to maximize their short-term return from every engagement, with no concern for the longer-term client relationship. To form a practice that’s built to last, you need to work hard to maintain those relationships, and that means you can’t neglect your current clients while constantly fishing for newer ones….

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* Dewey have some false expectations of success for this partner settlement agreement? Only one in four affected partners have signed on the dotted line, but advisers think the plan will win bankruptcy court approval. [Am Law Daily]

* “There comes a point where the prospects of substantially increasing your income just outweigh everything else.” Even on his $168K salary, this appellate judge wasn’t rich in New York City, so he quit his job. [New York Law Journal]

* The middle class needs lawyers, and unemployed law school graduates need jobs. The solution for both problems seems pretty obvious, but starting a firm still costs money, no matter how “prudent” you are. [National Law Journal]

* “This is a time when law schools are trying to look carefully at their expenses and not add to them.” New York’s new pro bono initiative may come at a cost for law schools, too. [Thomson Reuters News & Insight]

* Much to Great Britain’s dismay, Ecuador has announced that it will grant political asylum to Julian Assange of WikiLeaks fame. Sucks for Ecuador, because Assange is known to not flush the toilet. [New York Times]

* A smooth criminal gets a break: Michael Jackson’s father dropped a wrongful death suit against Dr. Conrad Murray. It probably would’ve been helpful if his attorneys could actually practice in California. [Washington Post]

* Did Lindsay Lohan’s lawyers plagiarize documents from internet websites in their defamation filings against Pitbull? You can deny it all you want, but his lawyer is out for blood and sanctions. [New York Daily News]

This past week, I was in Chicago for a national conference of professional responsibility lawyers. We usually meet in the same city and at the same time as the ABA, as we have many dual members (no, not at the same time as ABA toy tech show — I’m talking about the ABA meetings where real lawyers discuss law and policy). So although I don’t attend the ABA meetings, those that do come over to our conference and vice versa.

One of the benefits of attending national (real) lawyer conferences as a small-firm lawyer with a real practice (not the social media conferences where broke and unemployed non-practicing lawyers hang out in the vendor hall), is that besides learning something, you have the ability to network and develop relationships that may turn into referrals. I hear lawyers talk about not going to conferences because of the cost. The cost, including transportation, hotel, and conference tuition should usually be no more than $1,000-$1,500. If investing that amount of money in your firm is not worth it, then you are doomed to be nothing. Stop reading now and go work on your internet presence….

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