Small Law Firms

After twenty years of operating my own law firm, I still answer my own phone – much to the pleasant surprise of many of my callers. Though you’d think that having the firm principal pick up would signal a one-person, fly-by-night operation, to the contrary, callers’ ability to get in touch with me directly conveys the impression that I’m an accessible, hands-on kind of lawyer.

Of course, answering the phone works for my practice because frankly, I don’t get all that many calls. Most of my clients and referrals who want to speak with me by phone will typically email me initially to determine a mutually agreeable time for a call. And because my work is so specialized and many cases come via referral, when clients reach my voice mail, they’re not likely to move on to the next lawyer on the list of internet search results. That means if I’m too busy to talk, I can let calls go through to voicemail without fear of losing a piece of business.

But what about lawyers who aren’t in such a position?

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Keith Lee

Yesterday over at Hercules and the Umpire, Judge Kopf noted an article from the Federal Judicial Center regarding social media use among jurors. Also in the article was a brief bit on social media use by attorneys during voir dire.

Most judges stated they did not know whether attorneys were using social media during voir dire, and most do not address the issue with attorneys before voir dire. Only 25 judges reported they knew attorneys had used social media in at least one of their trials, usually during voir dire. Attorneys may have used social media to look at prospective jurors’ Facebook pages, to run names through search engines, or to look at online profiles, blogs or websites. Of the 466 judges responding to this survey question, 120 do not allow attorneys to research prospective jurors online during voir dire.

Which caused Judge Kopf to ask: “So long as the use of social media by a lawyer in the courtroom picking a jury is discreet, why in the world would a federal judge interfere with a lawyer using social media to obtain information about jurors during the jury selection process? That doesn’t make any sense to me? ”

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Many people consider going to law school because they think they have no other career options after college. For most of these people, their GPA wasn’t great, and they have an average or even bad LSAT score. So they resign themselves to going to an average law school with plans to do really well in their first year and then transfer to a top school.

We warn the noobs that going to law school on a whim is a bad idea. We tell them about the many law students who don’t make it to the top of the class and are unable to get a job after graduation. So they are back to square one. But our warning does not address a fundamental problem: what alternatives do these people really have?

While that is ultimately not our problem, I want to talk about some alternatives to law school that an applicant should consider:

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The argument in favor of going paperless.

Let me start out with some harsh truth. When I talk about going paperless, it has almost nothing to do with the environment. There are maybe five lawyers in the whole country who really feel that their printing of exhibits is destroying Mother Gaia and are therefore motivated to go paperless.

For the rest of us, it is a matter of two things: (1) convenience, and (2) efficiency/billable hours. I know it’s weird to see efficiency and billable hours used in the same sentence without a negative in there somewhere, but if you have ever had three hours of time written off for looking all over the whole office for that one document that was dropped on the file clerk’s desk last week, you know what I’m talking about. Sometimes when you charge by the hour, it is good to work efficiently. So, I want to discuss whether it’s possible to go almost completely paperless and what steps we can take to get there.

Why Go Paperless?

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Whether you practice in Biglaw or a boutique, knowing how to email is a critical skill. In fact, the quality of a lawyer’s emails is an excellent indicator of that lawyer’s future career prospects (excepting those lawyers fortunate to be born with a guaranteed multimillion-dollar book of business through family connections). This should not be a surprise, considering how email is the single most used form of communication for lawyers. Yes, technology has liberated us from a full day’s work (with the help of a secretary) in order to prepare what would now be considered a routine client communication in the form of a fancy letter. But the need for a similar level of care in preparing today’s written communications has not changed. Show me an associate’s emails, and I (along with other former or current Biglaw partners) will have a very respectable success rate in guessing whether or not the associate is partnership material, even in the absence of other information about the author.

I have sent many thousands of emails in my legal career. I do not know how many of them would have been considered “good” emails, but I’d like to think that most of them were. I was fortunate, since I worked for a partner who stressed to me early on the importance of sending “good” emails.

What is a “good” email?

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Stacy Slotnick aka The Foxy Jurist

In a Huffington Post op-ed, Redefining the Female Lawyer’s Uniform, Stacy Slotnick, an entertainment lawyer and founder of the Foxy Jurist, argues that lawyers should add some color to their courtroom arguments. Literally.

Slotnick isn’t talking about injecting imagery into an opening statement or pounding on the witness box to punctuate an argument or adopting a dramatic whisper to attract the jury’s attention. Instead, Slotnick implores female lawyers to cast aside their bland Gray Lady and Black Widow personas and embrace the hot pink of Legally Blonde. Or as Helen Reddy might sing, women lawyers should go from I am Woman, Hear Me Bore to I am Woman, Hear Me Roar!

Slotnick has some colorful words for colorless dressers:

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Keith Lee

It has often been observed that litigation is war. The analogy is not perfect, but studying military strategy and tactics can prove fruitful for litigators. While many people often turn to Sun Tzu’s Art of War, for guidance in the applicability of military thought to modern business and litigation, I have a soft spot for von Clausewitz’s Vom Kriege (affiliate links).

Carl Philipp Gottfried von Clausewitz (July 1, 1780 – November 16, 1831) was a Prussian soldier and military theorist who stressed the “moral” (in modern terms, psychological) and political aspects of war. His most notable work, Vom Kriege (On War), was unfinished at his death.

While all of Vom Kriege is worth your time, I wanted to highlight one passage in particular…

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Bruce Stachenfeld

“Low overhead is great!” That is one of our sayings. We recite it all the time — yes, even out loud at meetings — as it is a powerful competitive advantage for a law firm. It seems pretty obvious, but if so, why doesn’t everyone get with this concept?

There is a term informally used to describe how overhead impacts a law firm called “Implied Overhead.” The “Implied Overhead” of a law firm is the cost of everything except the lawyers divided by the number of lawyers. So if you have 50 lawyers and the cost of “everything” except the lawyers is $10,000,000, then you have implied overhead of $200,000 per lawyer.

Our Implied Overhead for last year was about $165,000. Anecdotally I believe that Implied Overhead for major law firms averages about $300,000. (I admit I don’t really have this data for sure; it is just what I have heard.) If your firm has 100 lawyers and implied overhead of $200,000 and the average for major law firms is $300,000, then you have a $100,000 per lawyer competitive advantage over your major law firm competition. Multiply that by 100 lawyers and you just made $10,000,000! And this flows right to the bottom line! If there are, say, 30 partners at this firm, then each partner just got a check for $333,333!

Yikes — did I do that math right? Was that $333,333 per partner merely by reducing the implied overhead?  I just double checked and $10,000,000 divided by 30 partners does indeed equal $333,333. That’s a sizable number, so maybe you should read the rest of my article….

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As some of you may already know, my goal with this column is to encourage lawyers to use technology in their law firms. I do this by featuring innovative solo and small-firm lawyers who are already using new technologies in their day-to-day practices.

In today’s column you will meet Rick Georges, a solo practitioner based in Florida who handles civil cases, both general practice and litigation matters. He also maintains a popular legal technology blog, Future Lawyer, where he discusses about emerging technologies and their use in the practice of law.

In recent months, Rick has written about how he uses a smartwatch in his practice, a concept that intrigues me, since wearable technology is the next stage of mobile computing and will undoubtedly influence the practice of law. I recently caught up with Rick and asked him to share how he uses his smartwatch on a daily basis and how he envisions using it in the future as the technology improves.

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Juan Monteverde and Alexandra Marchuk

Marchuk v. Faruqi & Faruqi, the high-profile sexual harassment lawsuit filed by Alexandra Marchuk against her former firm and one of its most prominent partners, Juan Monteverde, rolls on. Back in January, we covered some of the salacious revelations contained in the summary judgment papers.

You know what would be even more juicy? A trial.

And that’s what we might be getting, in the wake of two blows just dealt to the defendants in this matter….

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