Solo Practitioners

Since Lat tweeted this past weekend about my UpCounsel profile, I thought I would share some thoughts about my experience with the service to date. First off, compared to leaving a Biglaw partnership to open a new firm, trying out a new legal platform was easy. I first heard about UpCounsel from a former in-house client who had struck out on his own. He happens to now be back in-house, but at the time we discussed UpCounsel, he was very enthusiastic about his experience using the site. Since I happen to like trying out new things, signing up once I left Biglaw was an easy decision.

Notice how I did not join UpCounsel while a Biglaw partner. Such things are simply not done. For all of Biglaw’s talk about encouraging partners to be “entrepreneurial” or to “try new marketing ideas,” there is a lot of resistance to using “new ways” to reach potential new clients. Couple that inertia with a general distaste towards marketing individual lawyers at the expense of “firm branding” (aside from a select group of key current rainmakers), and platforms like UpCounsel face a Tough Mudder-level set of obstacles to overcome if they want to break into the Biglaw firm marketing rotation. But I don’t think UpCounsel and their “evolution of legal services”-oriented kin want to….

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Keith Lee

One of the great, unspoken realities of being a new lawyer that is never mentioned in law school is that you are going to screw up – badly. And then you’re going to have to explain it to your client or supervising attorney.

You’re going to miss a deadline, not file an objection, miss some case law, or not contact an attorney involved in the case on a hearing. A mistake is going to be made and it will be your fault.

You may be tempted to try and shift the blame. Come up with excuses as to why something outside of your control caused the problem. That you were swamped with work and had too much on your plate. He said, she said. But if it was a task assigned to you, it is your personal responsibility to make sure it was completed on time and specification.

As the task, and subsequent mistake, are your responsibility – you must own it….

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When the world economy took a gigantic dump in 2008, among the many people whose jobs were flushed down the toilet were in-house recruiters and human resources employees of mid-size and large companies. Some of them began writing op-ed pieces on the internet advising employers how they should weed out the many résumés they received during those difficult times. By far, the most controversial advice was: Don’t hire the unemployed.

In the last few years, there were numerous news reports of employers refusing to hire the unemployed on the belief that it was the employee’s fault that he was fired. After all, if the employee worked harder by producing the extra widget or billing the extra hour, then his employer would magically generate extra business and would not have to cut staff, file bankruptcy or close up shop. And the housing market would not have collapsed. This irrational, unfair and possibly racist practice got so prevalent that some states and the federal government have enacted or proposed laws prohibiting this practice.

Now that the economy is supposedly recovering, has this practice declined? As far as law firm hiring is concerned, employers just became more covert about it….

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A few months ago, I went to an MCLE seminar on cybersecurity. The 90-minute presentation hit topics such as public wifi, cloud computing, thumb drives, and password strength. The goal of the presentation was of course to scare everyone into being more vigilant in their firm policies regarding cybersecurity. The recommendations included:

  • Never use cloud computing. Always store your data on onsite servers.
  • Don’t use thumb drives on company computers.
  • Never use any mobile devices to store firm information (including emails).

After the presentation, we ate dinner, and everyone and my table came to the same conclusion: “Screw that. We are going to use thumb drives while checking our business email on our phones while client files upload to Dropbox.” That’s because some things are just too convenient to give up. As a solo, I might not want a server that I have to maintain. And I like getting my emails on my phone and on my watch because it makes my life easier.

Now, I don’t want to make light of cybersecurity because it is a very serious issue. But, the fact remains that if your data exists in a tangible form, people can steal it and it is vulnerable….

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Home is where the heart business is?

Recently, a short piece in the Marshfield News Herald describing the downsides of entrepreneurship included this sad story about another solo practice that didn’t make it to the finish line, this time for geographic reasons:

“A few years ago, a lawyer I know had to leave her hometown where she had lived most of her life and move cross country for family reasons. And because she loved her solo practice and the flexibility it afforded her as a mother, and since she is smart and confident, she decided to re-start her solo practice in the new city, thinking it would not be too difficult. But it proved to be much more challenging than she ever thought.”

“Back here, in her hometown where she knew everyone, clients were not hard to come by. In the new city however, she had a lot fewer contacts and even fewer potential clients. And given that back here she had not really had to work too hard to get business, she never really learned about marketing, so that too was new. Eventually, between the Not-So-Great Recession and the challenges of starting from scratch, she finally had to go to work for someone else.”

The article got me thinking: How much of an edge does a lawyer’s hometown — or college or law school town, for that matter — provide in starting a successful solo practice?

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Keith Lee

It’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day life of a lawyer. And the longer you are a lawyer, the more it will come to define you – if you let it. But it is a limiting definition, even for the best and brightest of lawyers. Take Marcus Tullius Cicero, likely the most famous lawyer in history. Upon being acclaimed for his skills as a lawyer, it is said that Cicero remarked:

“And yet he often desired his friends not to call him orator, but philosopher, because he had made philosophy his business, and had only used rhetoric as an instrument for attaining his objects in public life. But the desire of glory has great power in washing the tinctures of philosophy out of the souls of men, and in imprinting the passions of the common people, by custom and conversation, in the minds of those that take a part in governing them, unless the politician be very careful so to engage in public affairs as to interest himself only in the affairs themselves, but not participate in the passions that are consequent to them.”

– Plutarch, Cicero, Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans (c. 75-100 AD), John Dryden translation

Here we have the greatest lawyer in all of Rome, insisting that he wished to be remembered as a philosopher — a thinker — not a lawyer. Being a lawyer was part of who he was; it did not define him….

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Christina Gagnier

Lawyers are not necessarily members of the most beloved profession. While an obvious statement, it is important to realize that your work may end up, despite your most ardent efforts, upsetting your own clients or any foes that you may have had in the course of a litigation matter.

One place that many lawyers overlook as a liability is intellectual property. If someone feels the need to get retribution, messing with a firm by taking advantage of “would-be” intellectual property may be a tactic employed. Make sure you are prepared by taking some common sense and low-cost precautions…

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Occasionally, someone wants me to do legal work outside of my practice area. I tend to refer the potential client to an attorney who can handle it and ask for a referral fee when appropriate. But sometimes it makes sense to work the case myself with outside help — for example, if the work is for an existing client and he cannot afford the referring attorney’s fee. So as a gesture of appreciation to the client, you want to help him for a reduced fee. Or you want to get experience in the area of law that is involved.

And let’s be anonymously honest. Sometimes the case has potential for large attorney’s fees and you want a bigger cut than the firm’s standard referral percentage. It’s hard not to feel bitter when you get a paltry referral fee up front and later learn that the attorney who handled the matter got a half-million-dollar payout.

So today, I want to write about how I typically (but not always) decide whether to refer a case out completely, or co-counsel with someone else. I assume readers are familiar with and will follow the ABA Model Rules 7.2 and 1.5(e) and your state’s versions of these rules. My first priority is to refer a client to a competent attorney, even if it means a smaller referral fee or none at all. But when there are three or more equally competent and business-savvy attorneys competing for your referrals, the size and girth of the compensation package can be appealing…

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Keith Lee

As has been discussed ad nauseam, it’s a tough time to be a lawyer right now. The legal industry is in a rut and the economy continues to limp along. With the flood of lawyers that have been forced to hang their shingle over the past few years, there has been increased competition for clients. This has led to some fairly cutthroat competition in the world of attorney advertising.

Many types of practice don’t advertise. Or rather, their advertising is of the tried-and-true “display expertise” variety. Write articles for your bar association magazine, speak at clients’ industry events, join boards and committees. Not so much talking about yourself, but showing that you are active and engaged in the legal industry. Let your reputation speak for itself; let others talk about you. Develop a reputation, not a brand.

But building a reputation is hard. Developing a brand is expensive. Wouldn’t it be easier if you could just mooch off of someone else’s hard work or money? Such was the proposition to New York attorney (and occasional ATL writer) Eric Turkewitz  this past week…

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Christina Gagnier

Cybersecurity is becoming an important issue for lawyers, whether you are a solo or working at a multinational law firm. When it is so easy and seamless from a workflow perspective to move to the cloud, many firms are pushing their operations and employees to this technology. There are many considerations to weigh when deciding to go from the file cabinet or local server to the cloud…

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