Solo Practitioners

Keith Lee

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….

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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….

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Keith Lee

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:

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Keith Lee

Ed. note: Please welcome Keith Lee of Associate’s Mind, one of our new columnists covering the world of small law firms.

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….

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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…

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Keith Lee

Ed. note: Please welcome Keith Lee of Associate’s Mind, one of our new columnists covering the world of small law firms.

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….

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One is the loneliest number that you’ll ever do. Two can be as bad as one, it’s the loneliest number since number one.

Three Dog Night

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….

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Keith Lee

Ed. note: Please welcome Keith Lee of Associate’s Mind, our newest columnist covering the world of small law firms.

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….

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Today’s Wall Street Journal reports on the growing new crop of online matchmaking services designed to help small and mid-sized business clients connect with qualified and affordably priced lawyers.  The sites profiled include UpCounsel, which allows clients to bid projects, handles payments, and collects feedback (sort of like Elance for legal services); Priori Legal, which provides clients a list of pre-vetted attorneys with 5+ years of experience and negotiates discount rates; and IP SmartUp, which also charges discount rates for patent services.

From what I can tell, in the short term, these sites make money through various ethically permissible transaction fees (read: no referral fees, though some of the models tread dangerously close). My guess is that in the long run, these sites’ greater value will derive from big data gleaned from transactions that may shed insight on the factors that inform lawyer hiring (and in turn may hold value for lawyer marketing operations).

No doubt, from a small business perspective, these sites are golden. With their clean modern look and easy navigation, these platforms give prospective small business clients a far better user experience than any bar referral or local chamber of commerce site I’ve ever seen. Plus, many of the lawyers registered for the sites so far boast stellar credentials.  And the price is right — the WSJ piece shares the experience of one happy user who procured legal services at a price of between $100 and $600 per project (though the average cost of a transaction on UpCounsel is around $1000, the story notes).

Still, do these sites work for solos and smalls?

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For lawyers considering solo practice who are married or otherwise paired up, your partner can play a significant role in determining the future success — or failure — of your firm.  Yet the role of a solo’s “silent partner” is rarely acknowledged or discussed. Here are some of the ways that a spouse, domestic partner or significant other can help make or break a solo practice.

First, the positives. Most obviously, a gainfully employed spouse can provide financial support to help get your practice off the ground.   Even if your spouse’s income doesn’t cover start-up costs like fancy office space or state-of-the-art computers, not having to worry about health insurance or a place to live while starting out will spare you from the financial pressures that force many new solos into poor choices (like accepting an unsavory client or dipping into the trust account).

Still, while your spouse’s or partner’s ability to cover family living expenses can provide some breathing room for new solos, it doesn’t mean that you’ll be living on easy street. For example, if you have substantial student loans that your spouse’s income doesn’t cover, you’ll still have to hustle to earn enough to make repayment if you’ve taken a deferral.  And if you were employed prior to starting your law firm and your lifestyle reflected your dual-income status, you’ll still have to scramble for a couple of years to attain the same earnings level that you enjoyed at your earlier position….

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