Solo Practitioners

Keith Lee

As I’m sure many of you heard, the southern part of the United States was blanketed with snow this past week. In particular, Georgia and Alabama (where I live) were hit particularly hard. This being the Deep South, people and municipalities were not prepared for the quantity of snow and ice that came down so quickly. This led to widespread disaster and lots of Walking Dead jokes.

Some people have attempted to explain why 2-3 inches of snow was capable of crippling cities. While many people have scoffed at such explanations, they are true to some extent. But of course, that doesn’t relieve people of responsibility of behaving and driving like morons. As things settle down and return to normal, finger pointing and blaming will likely continue to go on for sometime.

But the most interesting aspect of the “Southern Snowpocalypse” is the reaction of people in the aftermath of the storm….

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When I started my law firm twenty years ago, there were just five things that I knew.

I knew I didn’t have any clients. I knew that my husband and I could scarcely afford the loss of my paycheck, let alone come up capital for me to invest in my practice. I knew that I was way too mortified at having been laid off from my former firm to share the real reason for starting my own firm.  I knew that when I finally opened for business, in truth, I was just putting on a game face every day, biding my time until something else came along or until I got pregnant and could, like some of my other law school classmates, gracefully exit the law.  But I also knew, somewhere deep down, that I had it in me to be a good lawyer.

Those five things are all that I knew for sure when I started my law firm. Clearly I had a lot to learn.  And while there was plenty of information on the black-letter, nuts-and-bolts aspects of starting a firm, the kind of advice that I really wanted to know to jump-start my practice — specifically, whether the solo option was actually feasible — was in short supply.  Moreover, as an attorney with a traditionally big-firm practice (energy regulatory law and litigation), I was even worse off because attorneys familiar with my field and doing what I hoped to were particularly rare.

So to spare those of you starting out from what I went through, here are five things that I wish someone would have told me when I started out:

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Keith Lee

As I’ve mentioned previously in this column, it’s tough starting out as a new lawyer – particularly in today’s economic climate. Many lawyers have been forced into small firms or into hanging their own shingle. While many people seek out these avenues of practice, many are forced into them. Either way, it’s difficult to do so straight out of law school. On top of that, most new lawyers have mounds of non-dischargable student loan debt, are unprepared for actual practice (thanks law school!), and are potentially going up against lawyers with much more experience.

Most new lawyers who want to find success in these times devote themselves to working hard, building relationships, and developing a reputation for honesty and integrity. But if you’re determined to shoot yourself in the foot, repeatedly, then I offer The 12 Steps To Ruining Your Reputation….

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Keith Lee

An easy and lazy habit that you can have as a lawyer is only seeing things from the perspective of a lawyer. Lawyers are trained to deconstruct problems and look for weakness, to approach situations with a critical perspective. But that does not mean that it is the only perspective that you need to have. One of the most voiced complaints from clients is that their lawyer doesn’t understand their view or their perspective on a case or matter.

This is likely due to a breakdown of communication between the lawyer and the client, and more than likely it is the lawyer’s fault. As a lawyer, it is very easy to fall into entrenched patterns and lines of thought — so easy that it is often difficult to step back from your role as a lawyer, and look at a case or a problem as a layperson or client. Harvard professor Theodore Levitt most aptly summed up this problem with his famous observation: “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole!”

A lawyer is often apt to think of the law as the drill — how to use it, apply it, and make it work in any particular situation. But a client does not really care about the law, they care about the solution to their problem — the quarter-inch hole…

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Sometimes, there is a baby in the room. A real one, usually in the arms of a nervous mother. Because it is Brooklyn, still as diverse a place as there is in the world, the baby might be black, brown, white or yellow. It does not matter. What matters is that there is a freaking baby in the room. I am blessed with four children, all ten and younger, and am the oldest of five, so I am not one of those people for whom children are curiosities best viewed at distance. Even so, there is something surreal about having a baby in the room while I am manning an office at the Brooklyn Family Court for a few hours once a month, trying to help a beleaguered parent make sense of the chaos inherent in their involvement in an adversarial proceeding involving their child. But I, like my fellow volunteers from in-house legal departments, Biglaw firms, and solo practices around New York City, soldier on. And come back, month after month, in the hopes of helping one more person deal with their (literally) intimate and emotional legal issues. In my case, I have been coming back since late 2006. I plan on continuing for as long as I have the strength and the program remains in place.

I am not looking for recognition. If this column motivates someone to dedicate themselves to a pro bono project that they can believe in, that would be great. To be honest, I did not even think about doing pro bono for many years, for all the typical reasons. I was still too junior, too busy, too unable to commit myself to a project that could potentially conflict with my billable matters. While I respected my fellow Biglaw associates who involved themselves in the usual Biglaw pro bono fare — e.g., asylum issues, wrongful convictions, and the like — I was never moved to action. But that changed in 2006, when Greenberg Traurig, in conjunction with some large corporations and other Biglaw firms, announced that it was partnering with the New York City Family Court to start a volunteer-attorney driven program to assist self-represented litigants trying to navigate the hectic, crowded, and extremely fast-paced Family Court system. A system that is challenging for even the most hardened attorneys, but where 95% of the litigants choose, mostly because of financial reasons, to go without a lawyer until one is provided for them. Put simply, help was (and continues to be) needed….

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A few months back at my home blog, MyShingle, I wrote about a small Michigan law firm that sued a legal marketing company for fraud and RICO violations, alleging that the company created a “bogus Internet marketing program, supposedly designed for small law firms and sole practitioners” and duped firms into participating in the program through a series of misrepresentations about the company’s ability to boost law firms’ Google rankings. The lawsuit is still pending in federal district court in Arizona (Docket No. 2:13-cv-01502).

Though few expressed sympathy for the firm, suggesting that it was greedy or foolish to fall for the marketing company’s “infomercial-like” sales pitch, in my view the lawsuit raised a valid question: Should law firm marketers, practice management advisers, and other vendors pitching services to improve law firm performance remain accountable, at least to some degree, for the results?

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Keith Lee

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.”

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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…

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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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