I was sitting in my office yesterday afternoon when my phone dinged. It was one of my law partners. He had sent me a picture of our other partner standing in front of an auditorium with about seventy-five people in it. They had gone to one of the local law schools here to speak about dealing with clients. Like many other law schools, this law school is focusing on providing their students some manner of real-world experiential education in the elusive hopes of making students “practice-ready.” An impossible task, but at least students are exposed to practicing lawyers, even if just for a day. I mean, it’s better than a seminar on Harry Potter and the Law.
After speaking for a bit, they took questions from the students. Eventually, someone asked what to do about a difficult client. The response?
“Double the retainer.”
After the crowd chuckled, he added: “In all seriousness, double the retainer.”
The New York City Bar Association’s recent report, The Cloud and the Small Law Firm: Business, Ethics and Privilege Considerations (November 2013) offers reasonable enough advice to solo and small law firms contemplating a move to the cloud. Evaluate the vendor. Review and understand the terms of the service agreement, including the level of security promised, the ability to access data and data breach notification policies. Assess the risks associated with housing certain types of data against the benefits of convenience and accessibility that the cloud provides. Understand that lawyers have a unique ethics obligation to protect and preserve client data. In short, nothing that lawyers haven’t already heard in the more than fourteen state ethics decisions of the past five years addressing the cloud (though the Report has value in that it summarizes these opinions all in one place).
Still, while the Report offers solid advice to lawyers considering the cloud, I take issue with the proposed solutions. We’ve reached a point where solo and small firm lawyers need more than just advice on evaluating the cloud. Rather, we need the bar associations to actually take action to facilitate adoption of the cloud in those situations where it is appropriate…
A new year means new beginnings, new goals, new ideas. There is a desire to hit the reset button on well-tread patterns of behavior. This can often lead to uprooting worn methods of doing things and casting aside old habits. This can be just as true in a firm as it is in your personal life. Especially if you are new to a firm.
But of course, the problem is that law firms, big and small, are bastions of doing things “the way they’ve always been done.” Change is often not welcome. For example, look at the continuous stream of complaints about legal writing (Hereunto, wherefore, premises considered, three (3) forms…). If you’re a square peg, you’re going to be hammered into a round peg whether you like it or not. The same can be true for the manner in which matters are handled within your firm. Perhaps there is a set process for handling a routine matter, something that was put in place ten years ago and does not take advantage of modern workflow procedures. Coming in with a fresh set of eyes and understanding of computers and technology, perhaps you see a way in which to improve and build on it.
Or the firm uses a standard template for certain motions, or they give you a boilerplate contract for a certain type of real estate deal that they’ve done before. You look over the contract and find some arcane phrasing and a seemingly unnecessary clause. You see the incongruities and think you can fix them.
The problem is that you are likely falling victim to the fallacy of Chesterton’s fence….
Meet Ludo. A graduate of a top-50 law school now living in Chicago, Ludo was no-offered after his stint as a summer associate in Biglaw. Unable to to find employment with this black mark on his record, Ludo was forced to take a job in retail, losing his last shred of dignity in the process. But Ludo’s job selling cologne hasn’t completely taken him off the legal market. As Ludo shares on his blog, his coworkers pepper him with questions about “peoples law” (in other words, the stuff you don’t learn in law school or practice at Biglaw) — like how to beat a traffic ticket, or whether a hospital can turn an uninsured patient away at an emergency room. But instead of offering up answers, Ludo simply shrugs off questions, explaining that “he didn’t learn anything practical in law school.”
Meanwhile, eight hundred miles east of the Chicago department store where Ludo works, meet Lou Cambria. Lou’s a Philadelphia solo who typically represents small-business clients and individuals who need help writing wills. But on weekends, you won’t find Lou in the office….
About three years ago, a case caught my eye that still sits in the the back of my mind when looking at our firm calendar or speaking with opposing counsel on a matter. It highlights something that should be self-evident to most attorneys. Yet, as this case illustrates, even routine matters can cause extreme problems.
Booher v. Sheeram LLC was a fairly standard slip-and-fall case. A hotel had been receiving a number of complaints about its slippery bathtubs. The hotel subsequently placed non-skid material in the tubs. Regardless, Mary Booher slipped and fell after the non-skid material had been placed. She and her husband sought to recover damages from the hotel and retained an attorney. Things proceeded along as they do in these matters — discovery plus more discovery — and eventually the hotel filed a motion for summary judgment. After an extension was granted, the deadline for a response from the Boohers’ attorney was set for November 7, 2008.
But Booher’s expert was missing a key document, and was going to be out of the country during the deadline for the motion. And her attorney was about to undergo major surgery. He needed more time in order to properly prepare his brief in opposition. Opposing counsel didn’t mind an extension; these things happen. No one wants to be a jerk regarding scheduling matters.
But Booher’s attorney didn’t follow the rules, so it didn’t matter. And he lost his clients their case, not on the substance, but on a technicality:
Being in a small firm has repercussions on your existing activities and relationships. Going out, hobbies, spending time with friends and family and the like are often going to have to take a back seat to maintaining your practice. You simply won’t have the time for people that you had in the past. If you aren’t careful, this shift in priorities can cause resentment and ill will.
And despite lawyers complaining that they feel as though they can’t start families, I would imagine that most people do desire to start families or already have a family. Is it hard to balance time spent with family and friends while maintaining and growing a practice? Absolutely. Are you going to be able to have some vague, idyllic “work/life balance”? Nope. But can you have a family and be a lawyer? Of course; it’s ridiculous to suggest otherwise.
It comes with some caveats and difficulties, but it can be done. It’s important that the people in your life understand these difficulties — and it begins with managing expectations….
Once upon a time, starting a law firm meant reading Jay Foonberg’s classic, How to Start and Build A Law Practice (affiliate link). From 1976, when the ABA published the first edition, until very recently, Foonberg pretty much owned the law firm startup space, with over 300,000 copies sold — an unheard of accomplishment for a niche-market book.
What’s even more remarkable is that most lawyers of that generation who sought to hang a shingle never even purchased Foonberg’s hefty tome, which cost around $79. Instead, you either skimmed it in a law school library (surreptitiously, if you happened to be there researching for your day job at a law firm). Or maybe — as was the case for me, after the firm where I worked gave me six months’ notice – a colleague pressed a copy into your hand and whispered, “You have to read this.”
And Foonberg covered all of it — from Foonberg’s Rule (get the money upfront!) to a pricing scheme that advised setting hourly rates with reference to the cost of a Big Mac at the local McDonald’s (I don’t remember the ratio — maybe 10 or 20 times the cost of the burger?). But Foonberg had other decrees also: a year of savings up front before starting out. Renting an office. Never let the sun set on an unreturned phone call. Family comes first…
If you are a new lawyer in a small firm, you need to be prepared to have fear as a companion at times. Fear of missing deadlines, screwing up a discovery response, pissing off a partner. Fear of not having enough clients, being unable to make payroll, disappointing your family. From substantive case matters to interpersonal relationships, a dozen different challenges arise daily in a small firm that can cause stress, anxiety, and fear.
If you’re not careful, it can be crippling. Everyone is going to be afraid at times. Whether it is fear of a cranky old judge or looking like an idiot in front of your clients. What matters is how you deal with that fear.
Fear can also be fuel. Fear can motivate you to research an issue to exhaustion in order to ensure that you are absolutely correct in your position. Fear can cause you to to beat the streets, get in front of people, and land new clients. Fear encourages hard work, due diligence, and skill development.
Perhaps most importantly for new lawyers, fear should beget caution. As a new lawyer, you need to know what you don’t know. That some clients are too much for you to handle, no matter how much you try to research and learn about the issues. Experience matters. As a new lawyer, you don’t have it. And fear can help you check yourself and reflect on whether or not you are prepared to handle certain matters. But whether it be through hubris or ignorance, young lawyers continue to bite off more than they can chew….
Even for those who’ve always fantasized about hanging a shingle, the reality is that going solo can be a tough, lonely experience. From bringing in business, handling clients’ matters and paying rent and other bills, you’re completely and entirely on your own. No one else around to share the burden or expenses, to have your back, to listen to your complaints, or to blame. Still, as challenging as it is for a lawyer to start a firm solo, as the song goes, two can be as bad as one.
On the surface, partnering up to start a firm seems like a no-brainer. Partners can share costs for office space, legal research, fancy stationery, and maybe even an assistant or an associate, so you can start out in style, with much more than you might be able to afford on your own. Plus, firms are often able to get better bulk deals from vendors and thus, avoid the solo tax. On the practice side, a partner may contribute strengths that you may lack. For instance, you may be a legal genius, but also an introvert who’s afraid to ask a colleague to lunch. A partner with marketing or networking skills can compensate for your deficiencies. And a partner can also be a selling point for a small firm since you can also assure clients that you have back-up who can cover if something happens to you.
Finally, starting a firm with someone else to share the experience can be more fun. All of the cool kids in the start-up world have partners — though in that universe, partners go by the hipper title of “co-founder.” Apparently 2.09 team members is the ideal number for a start-up — and, in fact, co-foundership is so popular in the start-up world that there are several websites that function solely as matchmakers for entrepreneurs looking for to team up.
Still, just as partnerships don’t work all the time for entrepreneurs — in fact, 62 percent of businesses fail due to co-founder conflicts — the same is true for lawyers. And often for the same reasons….
Since Brian Tannebaum got too busy and important to keep feeding the trolls writing columns here, and Above the Law needed someone else to write a column about small law firms, I got asked last tapped for the job. Sure, Carolyn Elefant is writing a small-firm column as well, but Carolyn is much too nice and experienced, and knows what she’s talking about from years of practice. No way the typical ATL reader is going to listen to her. Far better to listen to me blather on about what it’s like to practice in a small-firm setting.
I practice law in Birmingham, Alabama. That’s deep in red state, flyover country, for you folks on the coasts. Yes, people and businesses actually have needs for lawyers in flyover country too. Next thing you know we’ll manage to get indoor plumbing.
I graduated from law school in 2010, right into the quagmire of the worst legal employment environment ever, but still managed to get a job. I was there for a year before I was downsized, cast off, s**t-canned. I ended up partnering up with two lawyers I went to law school with. We started off with three lawyers, no clients, crammed into a spartan 350-square-foot office. Two years later, there’s still just the three of us, but we’ve moved into an 1800-square-foot office and have steady, reliable business….
Ed. note: The Asia Chronicles column is authored by Kinney Recruiting. Kinney has made more placements of U.S. associates, counsels and partners in Asia than any other recruiting firm in each of the past seven years. You can reach them by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Please note that Evan Jowers and Robert Kinney are still in Hong Kong and will stay FOR THE REMAINDER OF THIS WEEK. We still have a handful of available slots for meetings with our Asia Chronicles fans. If we have not been in touch lately, reach out and let us know when we could meet! There is no need for an agenda at all. Most of our in-person meetings on these trips are with folks who understand that improving a legal practice through lateral hiring is an information-driven process that takes time to handle correctly.
Regarding trends in lateral US associate hiring in Hong Kong, we of course keep much of what we know off of this blog. Based on placement revenue, though, Kinney is having one of our most successful years ever in Asia. We are helping a number of our law firm clients with M&A, fund formation, cap markets, project finance, FCPA and disputes openings. These are very specific needs in many cases, so a conversation with us before jumping in may be helpful. As always, we like to be sure to get the maximum number of interviews per submission, using a well-informed, highly targeted, and selective approach, taking into account short, medium and long-term career aims.
Making a well informed decision during a job search is easier said than done – the information we provide comes from 10 years of being the market leader in US attorney placements at the top tier firms in Asia. There is no substitute for having known a hiring partner since he/she was an associate or for having helped a partner grow his or her practice from zip to zooming, and this is happily where we stand today – with years of background information on just about every relevant person in all the markets we serve, and most especially in Hong Kong/China/Greater Asia. So get in touch and get a download from us this week if we can fit it in, or soon in any case!
The legal industry is being disrupted at every level by technological advances. While legal tech entrepreneurs and innovators are racing to create a more efficient and productive future, there is widespread indifference on the part of attorneys toward these emerging technologies.
When the LexisNexis Cloud Technology Survey results were reported earlier this year, it showed that attorneys were starting to peer less skeptically into the future, and slowly but surely leaning more toward all the benefits the law cloud has to offer.
Because let’s face it, plenty of attorneys are perhaps a bit too comfortable with their “system” of practice management, which may or may not include neon highlighters, sticky notes, dog-eared file folders, and a word processing program that was last updated when the term “raise the roof” was still de rigueur.