Small Law Firms

The experience of leaving a Biglaw partnership to start a boutique law firm did not allow me to stop thinking about Biglaw. If anything, I think about Biglaw now more than ever. Because the very nesting grounds that I flew away from, IP litigation departments at national and international law firms, are some of my upstart boutique’s biggest competition for new business. And considering our experience with the first five or so cases that our firm has brought, our adversaries as well. Of course, I continue to work with Biglaw firms as co-counsel on some cases as well.

So I think about Biglaw. How it works, and most often how it fights patent cases. For over a decade I was a Biglaw-branded pugilist, and now that I am on the other side of the ring, I am forced to respect but try and beat the Mike Tyson’s Punchout-worthy cast of characters that Biglaw rolls out on behalf of its clients. There are not many Glass Joe’s in the bunch. Which makes it fun.

I would not have left unless I thought that my partners and I would be competitive — both with Biglaw and with the many quality IP boutiques that have come before us and continue to thrive. But as I think back on how IP litigation practice has changed just in the short amount of time that I have been practicing, I take comfort in the fact that the playing field between Biglaw and boutiques has been leveled across a number of fronts. Two areas in particular deserve focus….

double red triangle arrows Continue reading “Beyond Biglaw: Biglaw’s Eroding Edge (Part 1)”

If you ask a bunch of solos and smalls of their opinion about automated legal-form fillers like LegalZoom, you’re likely to hear one of the following reactions:

Reaction #1: Legal Zoom doesn’t worry me at all. Let’s face it, consumers have always had the option of buying forms – if not from Legal Zoom, then from an office supply store or Nolo. But the clients who come to me want more than a form – they want someone to advise them on options or strategize about their business or to work through a stressful family situation or personal matter. In fact, some of my best clients simply want an ongoing relationship with a lawyer whom they can call with questions in advance of a decision to stay out of trouble to begin with. LegalZoom can’t provide those services.

Reaction #2: LegalZoom? What’s the big deal? I use it all the time. What I mean is that if I get a call from a small entrepreneur – like a mom planning to start a web design business out of her house, or a group of students running a lawn mowing service – who can’t pay for much and really only want an LLC or a basic contract, I’ll direct them to resources online where they can find free forms or contracts – and I might mention automated services like LegalZoom if clients don’t want to take the time to fill out the documents themselves. Sometimes, if clients are on the fence about using forms or hiring me, I’ll walk them through the LegalZoom site and explain that for many services, LegalZoom pricing isn’t that much less expensive when they consider the amount of time that LegalZoom requires to complete the documents, as well as the fact that the fees don’t include attorney advice, an assurance of confidentiality through attorney-client privilege or malpractice protection….

double red triangle arrows Continue reading “How Should Solos and Smalls Respond to The Rise of Automated Self-Help Services? Not Like This…”

Keith Lee

What do you need when starting a solo practice or a small firm? A huge office in the middle of downtown? The most cutting edge computer? A paralegal and an associate?

You don’t actually need any of those things, but the one that often costs small firms the most headaches in terms of time and money is hiring staff. Many times, new solos or small firms feel the need to staff up right away — they’re lawyers! They have to have a secretary, an assistant, a paralegal, etc. It’s expected. Clients won’t feel comfortable coming into an office without a secretary. But after six months of a low volume caseload, becoming familiar with case management software, and discovering that clients don’t particularly care if you have a secretary, lawyers realize they are wasting money on unnecessary people. Even worse, lawyers might find they hired the wrong people. In a rush to get their office started, they took on whoever first came in the door. Or they only spend a cursory time with the interview process, relying on people’s résumé or referrals. After which they discover hiring the wrong person pulls everyone else down.

So when is the right time to hire someone? And how do you know if they are the right fit?

double red triangle arrows Continue reading “Hire For Culture”

* Mmm, the taste of money. Kirkland & Ellis and Ropes & Gray are assisting in TPG Capital’s $750M investment in Chobani, a Greek yogurt everyone (except me) absolutely loves. [Am Law Daily]

* A partner from the DebtStoppers law firm was arrested earlier this week after he was accused of refusing to pay a $950 bar tab. Well, we guess that’s one way to stop debt. [RedEye Chicago]

* The FBI raided an Ohio law firm this week, possibly in connection with a client’s murder outside its doors and one of its attorneys calling in a courthouse bomb threat. [Northeast Ohio Media Group]

* Canadian karma: As it turns out, graduates of the newly approved Trinity Western University Law School won’t be able to practice law in Ontario because of the school’s “abhorrent” anti-gay policies. [GlobalPost]

* Tony Buzbee, regent of the Texas A&M System, donated $1M to Texas A&M Law to fund the Johnny Football Endowed Chair. Okay, not really, but it’d be a lot cooler if he did. [Fort Worth Star-Telegram]

Bruce Stachenfeld

Ed. note: Please welcome our newest columnist, Bruce Stachenfeld of Duval & Stachenfeld LLP.

By way of introduction, I am the founder and managing partner of Duval & Stachenfeld LLP. We are a 70-ish lawyer law firm in midtown NYC that focuses strongly on real estate; indeed, we refer to ourselves as “The Pure Play in Real Estate Law.”

As managing partner I have spearheaded numerous unique initiatives that have distinguished us from other law firms. Many of these ideas were very scary when we tried them out — there was always a fear that we would not only fail but, worse yet, be laughed at. Some of these ideas did not work out so well, I admit; however, the ones that succeeded have been the fulcrum to attract both lawyers and clients to our firm and indeed been the bedrock of our success.

As a relatively small firm playing with the big boys and girls, one would think that our size could be a disadvantage. But that would be incorrect. Smaller players can be flexible and move in different directions. We can take risks and seize opportunities that large law firms cannot logically capitalize on….

double red triangle arrows Continue reading “Reinventing The Law Business: An Introduction”

Whenever I talk to fellow solo practitioners at a conference, a mixer or book club gathering, they tend to brag about the benefits of running their own business. One told me about how he regularly conducts a four-hour “client meeting” at the local golf course. Another tells me how she attends a CLE seminar via Skype in her living room wearing pajamas and bunny slippers. And someone else is elated that she is able to work while having time to attend her daughter’s piano recital.

A big draw of being a solo practitioner or a member of a small partnership is the freedom. The freedom to call the shots. The freedom to bill whatever and however you want. The freedom to pick and choose clients and practice areas. The problem is that these freedoms come with responsibilities and additional work, which made me wonder whether these freedoms were real or mythical…

double red triangle arrows Continue reading “Back In The Race: The Freedom Myth”

This is not a column about getting bloated Biglaw partners into running shape, as much as many of them need the exercise. Instead, let’s focus on another 10K milestone, one that Biglaw associates chase after, spurred on by a number of incentives, ranging from a simple desire to keep their hard-earned jobs to the burning ambition necessary to even aim for partnership: reaching 10,000 billable hours.

In the popular conception, 10,000 hours of practice at any skill is a critical hurdle to achieving mastery. It does not work that way for lawyers, especially those that start out in Biglaw.

As anyone who has started their career in Biglaw knows, the early years are more about survival than anything else. The most critical skill is adaptability, both in terms of being able to handle the lifestyle stresses presented by the Biglaw junior associate experience, and recognizing just how little law school has prepared one for Biglaw legal practice. In fact, I would say that for purposes of tracking personal progress towards the 10K mark, the first year of Biglaw practice (and maybe two or three depending on whether one is in a firm that “rotates” their juniors to expose them to different practices areas) should be thrown out. Consider that time as the foundation that allows for future productive lawyering if it makes you feel better. And first-years would do well to disabuse themselves of the notion that they will be “contributing” or doing “quality” work. Obviously they need to do their best, and perform up to Biglaw standards, but the hard truth is that the first-year in Biglaw is there to force high-flying and well-credentialed aspiring lawyers to humbly confront two uncomfortable questions. First, do you even want to be doing this? And second, even if you want to, are you good enough?

double red triangle arrows Continue reading “Beyond Biglaw: The Biglaw 10K”

These days, fixed fees (also known as flat fees) are all the rage in the legal profession. Long employed by solos and smalls for practice areas as diverse as estate planning, business incorporation, trademarks, bankruptcy, and criminal defense, today, flat fees are gaining traction  even with the big boys at Biglaw.

While the benefits of flat-fee billing, including cost certainty, increased efficiency, and administrative simplicity are well documented, there’s not much guidance on how lawyers can implement fixed fees in practice. As a result, many lawyers shy away from fixed-fee billing, fearing that if they charge too little, they’ll be stuck working for free if the case winds up taking more time to resolve than originally anticipated.  Meanwhile, many lawyers who experiment with fixed-fee billing claim that it doesn’t work — largely because they haven’t implemented it in a way that benefits the lawyer as well as the client.

So below are a half-dozen tips to help solo and small-firm lawyers implement fixed-fee billing without paying the price. Though not exhaustive, these suggestions may help lawyers currently contemplating fixed-fee billing get started, or convince those who’ve tried flat fees unsuccessfully to reconsider…

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Keith Lee

Email sucks.

Actually, let me clarify that. Email is a fast, open platform that has universal adoption and has changed the world. It’s convenient and probably how 99% of the people reading this conduct their client communications. But email client programs suck. Most of them are horribly designed and have morphed into unwieldy, user-interface nightmares, mostly due to the broken way most people use them.

If you’re like the vast majority of people, your inbox is a source of work. It’s also highly likely that you also treat it as a storage/repository of work. You begin to attempt to organize it. You start flagging things, creating folders, and soon you’re using your inbox as a task management system. Which is horribly inefficient, and not at all what your inbox is designed for. Furthermore, you’ve likely got your email client set to fetch and notify you on some ridiculous schedule, like every five minutes. Meaning that it’s quite possible that you never get more than five minutes into a task before being interrupted!

Stop. Just stop it….

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Christina Gagnier

If you are a solo or small firm who is looking to work with startup companies, you have probably been asked to take equity in lieu of compensation or to set up a deferred payment plan. When you are talking to companies who sound like they may be doing the next big thing, you may believe you are taking an educated gamble.

Yet, when you turn to the economics of being a solo or small firm, the numbers often do not pan out…

double red triangle arrows Continue reading “Episode 10: Will Work For… Free?”

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