Solo Practitioners

Ed. note: Please welcome our new legal technology columnist, Jeff Bennion.

My name is Jeff Bennion, and I am a new columnist here. I’m going to write all about how we should and shouldn’t use technology in our law practices.

I am a solo practicing out of San Diego. On top of my lawyerly duties, I get asked by lawyers to advise on all matters technical – from e-discovery to trial technology to law practice management. Usually I get brought in after people have tried and failed at something. I worked in a 200-lawyer firm, a midsized firm, and a three-person firm before going solo. I’ve written for Cracked.com on such topics as whether it’s a good idea for Amazon to sell books about knife fighting for beginners, the problems with the jury system, and, of course, the Batcave. I teach college paralegal classes.

One of the most common questions I get asked is, “How do I make my PowerPoints awesome for openings/closings/whatever?” Now, I’m a big fan of using technology in trial. I had a whole article written about all of my trial gadgets that compared me to Tony Stark. I remember how boring those hour-and-a-half classes were in law school, so I wouldn’t want jurors to sit through six hours of watching lawyers talk to witnesses for four days a week for several weeks at a time without breaking it up with some graphics or something.

But PowerPoint is just the worst….

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Ever since December 9, 2002, when I launched my first blog, MyShingle.com, I’ve extolled the virtues of blogging for lawyers all over the Internet, every chance I’d get. Way back in 2003, before the term “blog” entered the vernacular, I created a comprehensive presentation on the 13 benefits of blogging (in blog format, naturally) that’s largely still relevant today.  I also published dozens of articles and blog posts about blogging, spoke about blogging, and produced a short video on blogging as the centerpiece of social media campaign.  My blogging has lead to a couple of clients and many professional opportunities; most recently, a  blog post  that I penned right here at ATL earned me a twenty-second spot  on the Daily Show. Heck, I’ve even been sued for blogging!

Yet in spite of my love affair blogging, these days, I no longer believe as ardently as I once did that solo and small firm lawyers should take up blogging to market their practice or to show what they know to prospective clients.  Sure, there are exceptions. For lawyers who’ve already taken up blogging in law school or who have a unique viewpoint about practice area that they yearn to share, starting a blog is a no-brainer. Likewise, blogging makes sense if writing about the challenges of practicing law or handling particular types of cases offers a pleasurable release from the stress. If mind and computer keyboard operate as a seamless unit, with thoughts effortlessly transforming into cogent and compelling prose, then blogging makes sense as well.

But let’s face it: most lawyers aren’t built that way….

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I assume that a typical law student reader of Above the Law is attending an elite law school, has awesome grades, and is being groomed to be the next SCOTUS clerk or equity partner of a Vault 20 firm. If this describes you, then don’t waste your time reading the rest of this nonsensical piece. But if you are one of the rare outliers who has a few B pluses staining his résumé, you will have to make some strategic moves during your 2L and 3L years or you are likely to be jobless after graduation.

Since another law school year is almost over, I want to interrupt my regularly scheduled Back in the Race programming to give some advice to law students that I wish someone had shared with me. The advice I provide is time-consuming and stress-inducing because it will require working, studying, and more. To make things worse, as post-graduation employment numbers remain bleak, following my advice will not guarantee employment. But I hope it will make the reader a more competitive candidate for employment in this challenging job market.

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There are plenty of good reasons why a solo lawyer should, and indeed must, refer a case to another firm. For example, if a particular case isn’t compatible with your business – either because it falls outside of your firm’s practice area or it’s not economical for your firm to handle – there’s no reason to hang on to it.  And notwithstanding the advance conflict waivers that large firms foist on clients, in my view, conflicts of interest are a non-negotiable grounds for referral, because they “spawn an alarming number of ethics complaints.”

But there are other situations where a solo shouldn’t be so quick to send a case packing, notwithstanding conventional wisdom to the contrary. Here’s a list of examples where you might want to think twice before referring a case:

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Keith Lee

I was on Facebook the other day (no, I don’t want to be your friend), and a status update from a lawyer I’m friends with caught my eye. She was walking into the courthouse and was confronted by a “protester” who was yelling at everyone, proclaiming that attorneys are liars, are not to be trusted, are scum, etc. The usual.

Lots of people just don’t like lawyers. It’s a common trope. See yesterday’s post about a lawyer asking a teacher what he makes. Lawyers have become the punching bag for much of society. The butt of jokes, the target of scorn. Why is it that people dislike lawyers so much? Has it been the race to the bottom in lawyer advertising? Manipulative conduct in court? Taking advantage of “the little guy?” Personally, I think it comes down to one thing:

Lawyers are professional a-holes….

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Q: You can’t just have a bunch of clients with preexisting intentions to kill someone?

A: Yeah, that would certainly make things more risky for the firm.

– An exchange between Above the Law columnist Carolyn Elefant and Daily Show correspondent Jordan Klepper, in a segment about the trend of small law firms offering “self-defense retainer plans” for gun owners.

(Read more and watch the full, funny clip, after the jump.)

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Every once in a while, I would run a Google search on myself. On the first page, I would see my LinkedIn profile, an article I wrote a few years ago on an obscure topic, and my five-star Yelp rating. Thankfully, no drunken college pictures appeared. So my Google footprint was clean — which is supposed to be good. But then I ran a search on two other attorneys I highly respect and saw pages showing their accomplishments, their connections, and newspaper articles featuring their names. That’s when I realized that I was a nobody.

But now that I am looking for a job, it is very important that my internet image is clean and wholesome. So I did a more detailed search. I tried using different search engines, like Yahoo and Bing. I also used more detailed search terms. Unfortunately, I discovered an old rant on a message board which I think some employers might find offensive. So now I had to find a way to remove it before someone sees it….

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If you ask a bunch of solos and smalls of their opinion about automated legal-form fillers like LegalZoom, you’re likely to hear one of the following reactions:

Reaction #1: Legal Zoom doesn’t worry me at all. Let’s face it, consumers have always had the option of buying forms – if not from Legal Zoom, then from an office supply store or Nolo. But the clients who come to me want more than a form – they want someone to advise them on options or strategize about their business or to work through a stressful family situation or personal matter. In fact, some of my best clients simply want an ongoing relationship with a lawyer whom they can call with questions in advance of a decision to stay out of trouble to begin with. LegalZoom can’t provide those services.

Reaction #2: LegalZoom? What’s the big deal? I use it all the time. What I mean is that if I get a call from a small entrepreneur – like a mom planning to start a web design business out of her house, or a group of students running a lawn mowing service – who can’t pay for much and really only want an LLC or a basic contract, I’ll direct them to resources online where they can find free forms or contracts – and I might mention automated services like LegalZoom if clients don’t want to take the time to fill out the documents themselves. Sometimes, if clients are on the fence about using forms or hiring me, I’ll walk them through the LegalZoom site and explain that for many services, LegalZoom pricing isn’t that much less expensive when they consider the amount of time that LegalZoom requires to complete the documents, as well as the fact that the fees don’t include attorney advice, an assurance of confidentiality through attorney-client privilege or malpractice protection….

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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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