Small Law Firms

An actual greyhound wouldn't have been so destructive.

Hey, don’t look at me, I spent my weekend planting Mountain Fire andromedas in my garden.

A man in Nashville allegedly went on an epic rampage, and he used somebody’s desk at a local law office as a restroom.

Like a boss….

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There are a lot of different definitions of success. Especially in this economy. For instance, some people think I’m not “successful” because I’m a 33-year-old man with two Harvard degrees making a blogger’s salary with no savings or assets while being mired in debt. On the other hand, I’m judgment proof, bitches.

People value different things differently.

In this weekend’s caption contest, we see a lawyer who doesn’t value having eyes quite the way most people do, and he wants an entire interstate to know it….

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Jason Smiekel

When we last checked in with Illinois attorney, Jason W. Smiekel, the man accused of taking out a hit on a former client (who also happened to be the ex-husband of Smiekel’s fiancée), he was busy trying to convince a judge to release him on bail. Apparently he didn’t think murder for hire was a “crime of violence.” Needless to say, that was an exercise in futility.

In August, Smiekel pleaded not guilty to seven counts of using interstate facilities in his alleged murder-for-hire scheme. At the time, readers who knew Smiekel assured us that we would “see in the end that he is the victim in this whole fiasco.” They believed that the divorce lawyer’s fiancée — otherwise known as the “hot hot hot blonde” (HHHB) — was to blame.

But based on the plea deal that Smiekel took yesterday, that doesn’t seem to be the case….

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Tom Wallerstein

I’ve known some lawyers to proudly proclaim that in litigation, they leave no stone unturned. They boast that they will pursue every defense, review every document, and raise every argument. In doing so, presumably, they assure victory. They strive to win at any cost.

This approach makes sense when a well-funded client faces bet-the-company litigation. In that case, of course, a lawyer should pursue every possible path to victory, even if a particular path seems like a long shot. It may cost a lot to win, but even more to lose. In these cases, the economic interest of the attorney and the client are aligned. If the amount at stake warrants it, the lawyer can work the case to the max, and the client is happy to pay for it.

But smaller firms handling smaller matters know that many times, winning in litigation is relative to the amount at stake and the fees incurred. Every client is initially delighted to receive a favorable verdict at trial. But when the heat cools down, and only the bill remains, even the winning client may resent his lawyer when he reflects on the price he paid for his “victory”….

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I have spent many hours talking to others about the future of the legal profession. My Biglaw friends (at least the one who remains) proclaim that the future of legal practice is not that different from the past — by which she means that Biglaw is the future. The attorneys I meet from small law firms, in contrast, predict that Biglaw is out and small firms will prevail. My unemployed lawyer friends believe that they, along with a bunch of other unemployed lawyers, will toil away as hourly document review attorneys in the future. I believe that the children are our future, teach them well and let them lead the way. Oh, sorry, that is Whitney. RIP.

Corporate Counsel recently published an article, Bye Bye Big Firm, that predicts that while small law firms will not overtake Biglaw, they will be a major part of the future of legal practice. The article offers several reasons for predicting this future trend:

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Lawyers don’t like to be honest about not making money. (Unless you’re Jordan Rushie.)

I went out on my own in March of 1998. I did no advertising. The first month, I made three times what I was making monthly at the small firm I worked at for nine months. I was well on my way.

April was about the same, and so was May.

This was awesome. No looking back. Who said starting your own firm would be hard?

Then came June.

Nothing. No new cases, no money. The phone didn’t ring.

It was over. Three good months, and now I was done. I, of course, freaked out.

A few days into July the phone rang, and I was back. Whew. So I had one slow month. Now it would all be fine.

Then it happened again, and again, and again….

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Well, the economy keeps getting better, so we’re sure to see the Presidential election start to take on a more absurdist flair. Romney will attack the president for listening to Romney’s ideas on health care. Obama will attack Romney for being marvelous. And somebody will write a big time article about how political discourse in the 24/7 cable news and blogging world has hit a new nadir (oh, please let it be me).

But as the economy steadily improves, the election will be more about framing than substance. We’re coming out of a terrible recession, we’re recovering slowly because of the changing nature of the global economy. It’ll continue like this for a while regardless of who is president — unless we take away a woman’s right to choose, because only then will God love us and bring all of our manufacturing jobs back from China.

Or something like that.

That’s how it’s going to be unless the lawyers get involved. Because while the economy is slowly recovering for the rest of America, it seems like the economy is still stagnantly sucking for a bunch of attorneys and people with legal skills….

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Tom Wallerstein

If you’re trying to grow a solo or small firm practice, you generally shouldn’t work for free unless you have a deliberate business development objective in mind. Conversely, if you have a client willing to pay, you generally should prefer to scale up your headcount instead of turning down work due to lack of bandwidth.

Does this mean you should never turn down a client who is willing and able to pay your fees?

No. There are lots of reasons it might make sense to turn down a paying client….

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While self-anointed law futurists are competing for who can give the best advice on having a practice-from-laptop-sans-office and remain as small as possible (because happiness practicing law is being alone all day in front of a screen), some lawyers are still considering adding a lawyer as an associate, partner, or of counsel.

The question is, how?

Hiring a lawyer can be expensive, and there’s not always an extra chair next to you at Starbucks, so you’ll probably have to put them somewhere with a wall and a desk. Bottom line is that even when you get too busy to handle everything yourself, the cost/benefit analysis of adding another lawyer can be scary. You’re not just talking salary – but also benefits. And what about if that lawyer brings in business, how should they be compensated?

There’s no one way to do this, so here’s some considerations for those that are contemplating adding on…

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Tom Wallerstein

There comes a time in all associates’ careers when they stop and do the math. They think about their salary, bonus, and benefits. They think about their billable hours. They multiply their billable hours by their billable rate and suddenly they think, hey, WAITAMINUTE. My firm makes three four five times what it pays me!

Like any other salaried employee, the more hours an associate works, the less they make per hour, bonuses notwithstanding. They might not mind so much if they’re also bucking for promotion, i.e., up for partner. Regardless, at some point, every associate thinks, “if only I were paid as much per hour as I bill per hour . . . .”

That moment for me was the epiphany that ultimately led to helping form my own firm. But since that time, I’ve also been able to see the other side of the fence, so to speak. There are a lot of reasons — some obvious, and some less so — why the math isn’t quite as simple as it seems….

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