Solo Practitioners

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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Last week, the New York City Bar released a report, Developing Legal Careers and Delivering Justice in the 21st Century. To the bar’s credit, it acknowledged the role that starting a firm can play in addressing joblessness in the profession.  To this end, the bar proposes to create a New Lawyer Institute that will provide training and advice to potential small firm and solo practitioners.  And while I realize the concept of starting a firm as a way to launch or continue a legal career in the absence of other options is hardly revolutionary (I’ve been blogging about it almost eleven years), in a universe where many law school placement offices direct students to unpaid internships or non-legal positions, the renewed focus on the startup option is refreshing.

But as I read more about the program, I began to wonder if the goal is to teach lawyers to start firms as an end in and of itself or as a means to expand access to justice. According to the Report, the program includes the standard “Starting A Law Firm 101″ fare – obtaining insurance, business forms, technical needs and “benefits and cautions of cloud computing” (but nothing about the benefits and cautions of housing files on site in a physical office).  Meanwhile, substantive classes focus on “Divorce Law 101, Handling Cases in Family Court, Estate Planning Basics, New York Civil Practice, Introduction to Land Use and Zoning in NY, Basics Residential Real Estate Closing, and Everything You Wanted to Know About Landlord/Tenant. NLI participants will be required to take a set number of credits in both practical skills and substantive law areas” (page 113).

Herein lies my beef with the New York City Bar program….

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Ed. note: This post is sponsored by NexFirm.

So you’ve decided to make the jump. Persuaded by the 10 reasons to leave Biglaw, and aware of the 10 common mistakes made by lawyers who launch their own firms, you have decided to hang your shingle.

What can you expect in your first few years running your own law firm? Here are 10 things that might surprise you….

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Legal and industry conferences can provide great educational and networking opportunities for solo and small firm lawyers, particularly those just starting out. Sure, there are some conferences that are a complete waste of time, but in some fields, simply doing face time at conferences year after year is critical to keep business flowing. And in other practices, conferences may offer high-level, substantive training on new legal developments.

Of course, back in law school, you could take advantage of your student i.d. card to access almost any conference you wanted to attend. And if you ever worked for a firm, your employer willingly footed the bill for conference attendance.

But now, as a solo or small-firm lawyer, conferences are on your dime. And as many solos quickly learn, conferences can take a toll on your wallet….

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Ed. note: Say hello to our newest columnist covering the world of small law firms, Carolyn Elefant of MyShingle.

Two weeks ago, Greenberg Traurig announced a lawyer residency program — one-year positions where lawyers spend a third of their time on training, are paid “considerably less than associates,” and billed out at lower rates. When the program concludes, residents may be offered a position as an associate, become a non-partnership track “practice group attorney,” or get shown the door. The program has elicited a range of reactions over its implications for Biglaw, ranging from potentially promising (David Lat and Toby Brown), to shortsighted and risky (Jordan Furlong), to a mixed bag for associates (Adam Ziegler).

But from the perspective of lawyers who want to start their own firms and have the option of handling traditionally “big firm” matters, residency programs like that offered by Greenberg Traurig are a boon. Imagine being paid to do little more than spend a year learning the ins and outs of big firm practice and practice areas by observing depositions and trials and accessing unlimited PLI content. Plus, residents have a chance to meet and network with other lawyers at GT and throughout the legal community; presumably, fewer billable hours means more time to hobnob.  At the end of the residency, lawyers could move on to start their own firms — but with the benefit of a year of student loan debt repaid and a big firm credential on the résumé — which can be a selling point for certain types of clients (usually the kinds of clients who won’t experience sticker shock at your $250/hour rates because they’re accustomed to paying double that at a large firm)….

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Ed. note: Please join us in welcoming our newest columnist covering the world of small law firms, Carolyn Elefant of MyShingle.

Although clients are a law firm’s raison d’être, believe it or not, having a roster of clients on opening day isn’t indispensable to, or even a predictor of a firm’s future success.   Many lawyers — whether they are new graduates, or seasoned government attorneys, or moms re-entering the work force, or low level associates and non-equity partners unceremoniously and unexpectedly given the boot — launch law firms without a single client to their name and do quite well, thank you very much.

Still, wouldn’t it be a whole lot easier to start a law firm with one or two clients already locked in?  Not necessarily….

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Ed. note: This post is sponsored by NexFirm. At NexFirm, we see dozens of new firms launch each year, and we seem to bond with both the people and the practice every time around. Their accomplishments feel like our success, and their disappointments, our failures. It makes for a great professional relationship, but it can also be painful when we see them repeat the same, predictable, new firm mistakes — especially ones that can be avoided with some guidance and forethought.

Attorneys who are launching their own firms tend to wring their hands over every small decision and miss the big picture. You feel overwhelmed, so you want to work feverishly to tackle your to-do list. After a long day full of “doing” without much “thinking,” you feel like you’ve really accomplished something. It’s an easy trap to fall into. It’s crucial to be thoughtful about the big things, set time aside to think about them, and treat them like the other action items on your list.

Start with these, the low hanging (albeit important) fruit:

1. Leave, Don’t Quit.

Focused on the unpleasant task of giving notice, worrying that you might piss someone off or — worse yet — be impeded from transitioning matters, you can easily miss the best marketing opportunity you will ever get. Use your resignation to ask your employer to give you business. Beg them, guilt them, scare them, do whatever you need to do, but make it happen. There is no one that knows you and your work better. If you can’t convince them to help you, in at least some small way, you are in trouble…

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Ed. note: Please join us in welcoming our newest columnist covering the world of small law firms, Carolyn Elefant of MyShingle.

Let me start my inaugural column here at Above the Law with a question: Why not start your own law firm?

To be clear, I’m not directing this question at those of you who are gainfully employed in a legal job, however tenuous or intolerable. Over the course of this column, I’ll discuss whether and in what circumstances it makes sense to jump ship — but for now, I’ll assume that your risk aversion is reasonable.

Likewise, my question isn’t targeted at those of you who have no choice but to work at menial jobs just to survive and simply don’t have the time or energy to get a firm off the ground. Again, there are ways that you can make starting a firm work, but it may take a lot more effort than you have to give.

No — for now, I’m just asking those of you who really have no choice. For example, if you graduated from law school more than a year ago and you’ve been sending out résumés constantly and haven’t had a nibble. Or those of you who have had a doc review job here and there, but nothing steady — but at the same time, you’re fortunate enough to have a spouse or partner or family who can at least cover your living expenses while you get a firm off the ground. Or maybe you’re more experienced — perhaps your law firm pushed you out as you were nearing 65 and you’re not ready or can’t afford to stop working yet, but nothing else has presented itself.

In these kinds of back-against-the-wall, nowhere-to-go-but-leave-the-law-entirely cases, is the horror or shame of starting a law firm worse than being unemployed or junking your JD?

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* The lawyer who shot himself in the back and lied about it has pleaded guilty since his defense was full of self-inflicted holes. [WBIW]

* Do you want to be a partner? These 12 simple rules are a good start. (Not featured: Rule 13. Have incriminating pictures of the other partners.) [At Counsel Table]

* The University of Vermont and Vermont Law School are considering a joint “3-2″ degree program. So if you’re 18 years old and positive you want to grow up to be a lawyer, you may soon have a lower cost option. You’re also probably a tool. [AP via Boston.com]

* Can introverts be solo practitioners? It’s an interesting question, but since Growth is Dead (affiliate link) notes that even rainmakers are tragically lacking in sociability, it’s likely that most lawyers across firms are introverted. [Lawpolis]

* St. Louis University Law School has taken over and refurbished an old building in downtown St. Louis. See, it’s possible to run a law school without spending money on MOAR BUILDINGS! [Urban Review STL]

* A poem about CLE. Wait, are there people not doing their CLE online? [Poetic Justice]

* How to pick a good divorce lawyer. Done. [Huffington Post]

* Matthew Martens, the senior SEC attorney who ran the “Fabulous Fab” trial, is leaving the agency. Possible landing spots for Martens include Kirkland & Ellis; Paul Weiss; WilmerHale; Latham & Watkins; and Cleary Gottlieb. [Wealth Management]

* A judge in Kentucky moonlights as the PA announcer for high school football games. He’s also blind. Eschewing the obvious “he still sees better than the refs” joke, my question is why isn’t it just more efficient to make his spotter the PA announcer? Video after the jump…

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