Solo Practitioners

Keith Lee

What do you need when starting a solo practice or a small firm? A huge office in the middle of downtown? The most cutting edge computer? A paralegal and an associate?

You don’t actually need any of those things, but the one that often costs small firms the most headaches in terms of time and money is hiring staff. Many times, new solos or small firms feel the need to staff up right away — they’re lawyers! They have to have a secretary, an assistant, a paralegal, etc. It’s expected. Clients won’t feel comfortable coming into an office without a secretary. But after six months of a low volume caseload, becoming familiar with case management software, and discovering that clients don’t particularly care if you have a secretary, lawyers realize they are wasting money on unnecessary people. Even worse, lawyers might find they hired the wrong people. In a rush to get their office started, they took on whoever first came in the door. Or they only spend a cursory time with the interview process, relying on people’s résumé or referrals. After which they discover hiring the wrong person pulls everyone else down.

So when is the right time to hire someone? And how do you know if they are the right fit?

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Whenever I talk to fellow solo practitioners at a conference, a mixer or book club gathering, they tend to brag about the benefits of running their own business. One told me about how he regularly conducts a four-hour “client meeting” at the local golf course. Another tells me how she attends a CLE seminar via Skype in her living room wearing pajamas and bunny slippers. And someone else is elated that she is able to work while having time to attend her daughter’s piano recital.

A big draw of being a solo practitioner or a member of a small partnership is the freedom. The freedom to call the shots. The freedom to bill whatever and however you want. The freedom to pick and choose clients and practice areas. The problem is that these freedoms come with responsibilities and additional work, which made me wonder whether these freedoms were real or mythical…

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These days, fixed fees (also known as flat fees) are all the rage in the legal profession. Long employed by solos and smalls for practice areas as diverse as estate planning, business incorporation, trademarks, bankruptcy, and criminal defense, today, flat fees are gaining traction  even with the big boys at Biglaw.

While the benefits of flat-fee billing, including cost certainty, increased efficiency, and administrative simplicity are well documented, there’s not much guidance on how lawyers can implement fixed fees in practice. As a result, many lawyers shy away from fixed-fee billing, fearing that if they charge too little, they’ll be stuck working for free if the case winds up taking more time to resolve than originally anticipated.  Meanwhile, many lawyers who experiment with fixed-fee billing claim that it doesn’t work — largely because they haven’t implemented it in a way that benefits the lawyer as well as the client.

So below are a half-dozen tips to help solo and small-firm lawyers implement fixed-fee billing without paying the price. Though not exhaustive, these suggestions may help lawyers currently contemplating fixed-fee billing get started, or convince those who’ve tried flat fees unsuccessfully to reconsider…

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Ed. note: Please welcome Shannon Achimalbe to Above the Law. Shannon will be writing about the journey from solo practice to a larger law firm.

Since my last post, the ATL editors have been busy covering multiple layoff stories. That, along with news that hiring will not return to pre-recession levels, is scaring the crap out of me discouraging. But as every lawyer and law school graduate since 1950 knows, finding any lawyer job is a Herculean ordeal – whether boom or bust. And finding the right lawyer job is like finding a needle in a stack of needles.

Because of my non-peer pedigree and the continuing economic malaise, the traditional method of job searching is not going to work, and I’ll end up getting either nothing or a dead-end temporary job. In order to get the job I want, I’ll need to create and execute a long-term career plan.

I’m sure most of you are familiar with the “shotgun” method of job hunting. Towards the end of my third year of law school, I sent at least 500 unsolicited cover letters and résumés to every law firm, recruiter, in-house, out-house and temp agency my career counselor and I can think of. I must have spent hours customizing each cover letter and résumé for each firm explaining why I should be hired without sounding like a blowhard or a wimp. I took advantage of the free law student bar memberships and went to every networking event I could.

How did this turn out?

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Ed. note: Please welcome Shannon Achimalbe to Above the Law. Shannon will be writing about the journey from solo practice to a larger law firm.

Some time ago, I met with a consultant to discuss how I could improve and expand my solo practice. I told him my future goals: to be recognized as an expert in my areas of practice, make lots of money, and have free time for my personal life. He said I could accomplish these goals, but it would depend on how much time and effort I put in. He then told me that I would need to “invest” money in marketing, blogging, networking events, and joining various organizations. I would also need to make plans to upgrade my office and get a staff. Finally, he told me to pick a religion, because I’d be praying often.

But when I looked at the projected costs to accomplish my goals along with the non-guarantee of success, I hesitated. A flurry of questions went through my head: Who do I need to connect with and hire? What niches are marketable and enjoyable? When would I start to see a return on my investment? Where are my potential clients?  How many more networking events do I have to attend? Why am I doing this? Am I going to enjoy doing this? When I found myself asking that last question, I knew it was time to look at other options…

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* Never text angry. A New York judge just put the kibosh on a man’s suit to secure the return of a $53,000 engagement ring from his jilted would-be wife because he sent an ill-advised angry text. [MyFoxNY]

* A German judge allegedly sold thousands of answers to law exams. When authorities closed in, the judge went on the run before being caught with “€30,000 in cash, a loaded pistol and… a 26-year-old Romanian woman.” Who knew bar exam answer keys were the new Blue Sky. [The Local]

* Here’s the 50 Most Comfortable Prisons in the World. Hopefully the judge above will land in JVA Fuhlsbuettel Prison. [Arrest Records]

* Judge lambasts the Bronx DA’s office after an ADA failed to reveal evidence that would have freed a man held at Rikers Island on bogus rape charges. Unfortunately, this isn’t surprising. [New York Daily News]

* Elie says stuff about bullying. [ATL Redline]

* “Kosher hot dog case presents a real constitutional pickle.” *Rim shot* [Reuters]

* Ever wonder how much it costs to open a solo practice? A new solo practitioner opens his financials. [Associate's Mind]

* Don’t call tuition cuts “bold.” [Law School Tuition Bubble]

* Here’s a 30 for 30 spoof about the history of gunners. Embedded after the jump… [TaxProf Blog]

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Most days, I’m proud of owning my own small law firm. And while technically, I’m not a solo — I’ve had an assistant for over eight years now as well as a revolving crew of of counsel, part-time associates and independent contractors — many of my colleagues lump me and most very small law firms into that category nonetheless. So when other solos act foolishly or unprofessionally, it reflects poorly on the rest of us.

Understand, I’m not picking on solos.  Let’s face it — large law firms are hardly paragons of upstanding conduct; one needn’t look further than the recent Dewey & LeBoeuf scandal as proof. But for whatever reason, when Biglaw behaves badly, that conduct doesn’t diminish the reputation of Biglaw in the eyes of judges and other lawyers as it does for solos.  

So that’s why it bugs me when solos do stupid — and often avoidable — things. Here are my top three peeves:

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Ed. note: Please welcome Shannon Achimalbe to Above the Law. Shannon will be writing about the journey from solo practice to a larger law firm.

Five years ago, I started my own practice. I thought it would get me out of my comfort zone, nurture my entrepreneurial skills, give me the flexibility to choose my hours and clients, and eventually become the type of lawyer I wanted to be. But over time, it became clear that solo practice was not going to help me achieve my goals and had even created some new problems. After heavy soul searching and consultation with others, I decided to search for a job and eventually shut down my practice.

I plan to do two things with this column. First, I want to document my job search. I am writing anonymously because I don’t want anyone interfering and helping me. I want my experience to be no different than anyone else doing the same…

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Let’s say that you started your law firm a year ago, and your business is finally humming along. Meaning that while you’re not taking home a six-figure income, you’re no longer terrified of not making rent.  But lately, you’ve noticed that you’re working more late nights and weekends than you’d like, just to keep pace with the steady influx of cases, law firm administration, and ongoing marketing efforts needed to feed the beast.  Or, perhaps you’ve let your marketing efforts (like networking events, lunches, and blogging) slide because you can’t fit them into your schedule — but you fear that you’ll pay the price later when business slows. Or maybe you wind up working after hours simply because you’re too distracted by client calls and emails during the workday.

Back in the day when I started out, most solos who found themselves in this situation would either (1) suck it up and work more or (2) hire a newbie lawyer, paralegal, or receptionist, even though they might not have the revenues to cover a full-time employee. And in an extreme situation, some overworked solos simply stop returning client phone calls or timely filing motions due to lack of time and got hit with bar grievances. Today, however, solos experiencing growing pains have far more options to manage workflow and help transition to the next level. I’ll explore some of those options, along with the respective pros and cons, in this post…

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It’s one thing to say that you bill at $200 or $500 or $1,000 an hour; it’s another to actually collect those fees. Every time a client fails to pay a bill, you’re effectively discounting your overall rate. And while writing off $500 here or there may not seem like much, over the course of the year it can amount to several thousand dollars – which doesn’t take into account the added cost of chasing down clients to collect from them.

Of course, the best way to avoid getting stiffed is to obey Foonberg’s Rule: Get the money up front. Unfortunately, sometimes, you can’t predict the full cost upfront – and if the expected bill is mid-five figures or more, a client simply may not have that kind of money all in one place. Moreover, taking payment up front won’t guard against a client asking for a refund down the line if you haven’t vetted the client properly. So beyond upfront payment, here’s a list of tips to avoid getting stiffed:

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