Small Law Firms

This weekend I was able to catch up on my favorite reality television show, Real Housewives of Atlanta. I assure you that I watch the show only because of its profile of small-firm lawyer, Phaedra Parks. The November 27, 2011 episode entitled “Jewels Be Dangled,” taught us a very important lesson for small-firm practitioners.

Phaedra brought Kandi a special present for her 35th birthday. All wrapped up in a giant box with a bow, Phaedra presented her friend with a special performance by her client, Ridiculous. For those of you unfamiliar with the Infamous Ridiculous, he is a very well-endowed stripper who will shake his business in the face of audience members and then, as an encore, his own. The performance upset at least a few party guests and, in typical Housewives fashion, drama ensued.

While the naive observer may think that Phaedra brought Ridiculous to the party because the show is, well, ridiculous, the truth is Ms. Parks was warning small-firm lawyers about an issue they must confront in running their practice….

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I hate this man's movies, but he'd make an excellent mall lawyer.

Here’s the movie pitch: Matthew McConaughey plays a slick business man with a law degree. More like his character from Tropic Thunder than Lincoln Lawyer, but with a little bit of Two for the Money thrown in, and none of the Time to Kill earnestness.

Anyway, McConaughey comes up with this idea of renting a kiosk at the mall and putting lawyers there. It’s bringing the law to the people. It’s a straight money grab, and the only way it’ll turn a profit is if he hires the cheapest lawyer available.

Enter Kevin James, a laid off autoworker who went to law school at night and still doesn’t have a job. Via chance, they meet, and McConaughey has his guy. Hilarity ensues as mall lawyers becomes insanely popular, but because James is telling regular people that they don’t need a lawyer to handle most of their issues.

Wouldn’t you watch that? I mean, I wouldn’t because I only watch good movies, but I bet I could get that script greenlighted by Paramount or somebody.

And trust me, the movie would be way more fun than “The Law Booth” at the Boynton Beach Mall in Palm Beach….

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Prior to discussing my topic this week, I’d like a moment with Mr. Big Shot what’s-his-name “Lat,” and that idiot Mystic, or whatever her name is, about my arrangement here. I would appreciate if consideration could be given to not posting my important prose on the same day that news breaks about the amount of end-of-year welfare money given to a bunch of crybaby, self-entitled, snot nosed, sit-in-your-office and overbill clients you’ve never met for work you’ve done six times on another “matter,” I hate my life Biglaw drones who couldn’t make a coherent legal argument to a meter maid.

Thank you.

Now on to more important matters….

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Tom Wallerstein

For years, it has been common knowledge that the vast majority of associates at most Biglaw firms will leave before becoming a partner. At many firms, it is not uncommon for fewer than one in ten entering associates to ultimately become a partner. As partnership tracks lengthen, the attrition rate goes even higher. The decision to leave a firm to form a private practice, for example, is becoming increasingly common.

We assume (hope?) that the high attrition is because Biglaw offers the most exit opportunities; i.e., the prospects of developing a career as in-house counsel, or joining a business unit of a company, or going into government, or joining to a small or midsize or boutique law firm, or maybe even leaving the law altogether to become a consultant, a blogger, a Lego artist, what have you. Just because you start your legal career with a law firm doesn’t mean your goal is to become a partner.

Often, associates who know that they will not become a partner seem content to just put in their time, try to keep their head down, and collect a paycheck while waiting for their firm to announce their intended bonuses. They rationalize that they know they will leave anyway, so why bend over backwards for the firm?

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There are a lot of unhappy lawyers. We all know that. Part of their discontent is due to the fact that many young people go to law school who may not want to be lawyers, or do not take the time during law school to figure out what type of practice best fits their personality and goals. It was for this reason that I was so excited to learn about Steven Harper’s class for pre-law students. Getting to potential law students before they take on an obscene amount of debt is one way to prevent accidental lawyers.

But what about those individuals who actually want to be lawyers, but due to certain biases are not able to pursue their dreams? The answer is the same: get to them in college….

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Thanks to all who participated in the Turkey Day survey. I am happy/jealous to report that an overwhelming 93.2% of small-firm respondents are able to take time off for holidays. And 76.6% do not need to do any work from home during the holidays. Half of survey respondents, however, are still required to check email during the holidays.

So, is it easier to take time off at small law firms than at Biglaw?

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Sorry to disappoint the snake-oil salesmen, but in this small post I will buck the trend, and debunk the fallacy of non-practicing lawyers who write books about social media for lawyers. Here, today my friends, I will tell you everything you need to know about the complicated and scary topic of: how to talk to people on the internet like a normal person.

Facebook

If you think Facebook is code for “high school,” you’re correct. But if you live in the same town you went to high school, why not connect with your loser friends who have some mid-level job? They need lawyers. Yes, as part of reconnecting with your past you’ll experience the joy of seeing that girl you wanted to date has moved to some small crap town and married Jim, who’s prematurely bald but “an awesome husband,” but so what?

Do not post every single picture you take of your kids, dogs, in-laws with your kids, kids with your dogs, the 189 pictures of your vacation, or “fake” complain about the first class service on some airline. You’re practicing law, not creating a family scrapbook.

Do not have a Facebook fan page for your law firm. No one should ever be a fan of a law firm. You are not a “rock star” and even if you were, rock stars do not ask people to be their fans. It just happens with good music. Asking people to be your “fan” may also violate your state bar ethics rules, if that kind of nuisance interests you — you know, ethics rules….

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Who doesn’t love Thanksgiving? What is not to love about a holiday that involves eating obscene amounts of food, lounging around, battling people at Black Friday sales, and working a short week? Unless, of course, you are Ted the Turkey.

As holiday season comes into full swing, I am reminded of my lawyer friends who are not able to celebrate because of work obligations. Many of my Biglaw friends lament the fact that they do not get to take time off for vacations or holidays. Is it any easier, however, for small firm attorneys? Indeed, with fewer attorneys, there are fewer people to share the workload. And even smaller matters have deadlines that often fall around the holidays.

If one of the reasons that Biglaw associates consider going to small firms is because of the greater flexibility to take time off for the holidays or vacation, it is my duty to prove (or disprove) this belief. Please take this survey and help us discover whether small firm practice truly means a better work/life balance, at least in this respect. Thanks!

If you’re a newly departed Biglaw lawyer, that silence you hear is the absence of the email from the firm’s office manager asking you how many Christmas, sorry, “holiday” cards you need to send out this year. And if you’re in the first year or so of your own practice, I bet you can’t wait for the prize — your first shipment of gold embossed “HAPPY HOLIDAYS FROM THE LAW OFFICES OF LOOK AT ME I HAVE MY OWN CARDS” holiday cards.

Christmas down here in solo and small firm land is much different. There are fewer meticulously planned escapes from the firm’s boring holiday “party,” and there’s no more relying on “the firm” to spend the bucks on gifts for its clients and referral sources. Now they’re your clients and referral sources, so make a list, and check it twice….

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Tom Wallerstein

Yeah, some people thought I might be nuts for leaving litigation powerhouse Quinn Emanuel. But the prospects of starting my own firm and building a practice from the ground up were too compelling to ignore. Nearly two and a half years have passed since Colt Wallerstein LLP opened its doors, and still not a day goes by when my partner and I aren’t humbled by our good fortune and our decision to “trade places”: that is, move from Biglaw to start a litigation boutique in Silicon Valley that focuses on high-tech trade secret, employment, and complex-commercial litigation.

I graduated from law school in 1999, and the legal market was very different then. Getting into a “top” law school pretty much guaranteed a job, and most of my law school friends and I had multiple offers and no real concern about landing a Biglaw job, if that’s what we wanted. Offer rates hovered around 100%, and of course the lucrative summers consisted mostly of long lunches at five-star restaurants, luxury box seats at baseball games, open bars, and very little work.

Those were the days….

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