Brian Tannebaum

For those that have clients and spend their days surrounded by real people, I have some advice about year-end planning. I don’t care if you do or do not do any of this stuff, I can only tell you that it’s what I do and have done for years. Obviously, if you are part of the (“man, I hope all these idiot consultants are right”) future of law, much of it won’t apply to you.

If you’ve made some money this year, meet with your accountant.

One of my recent posts here was about my relationship with my accountant. I hope you have one, and I hope you set a lunch or meeting in your office or coffee shop in the next two weeks to discuss year-end tax planning. Next spring is a bad time to learn that you could have done some things to save yourself having to pay Uncle Sam more money. (By the way, for those of you getting a refund, you have bigger problems.)

If you’re not desperate for cash and you have clients that owe you money, consider telling them to pay in January.

What lawyer does this? You Biglaw folks have to try and collect before year’s end, so that leaves us small guys to give early Christmas gifts to our clients by telling them, yes, you will have money for that flat-screen you can’t afford, just pay your bill by January 15. Trying to get money out of clients during the holidays (read: after Thanksgiving) just makes you the one that is crushing the client’s mellow. Plus, relevant to point one here, you’ll be able to decrease your income for 2012….

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I’m often tagged as someone who hates young lawyers. I write about the whiners, the entitled, the ones who buy in to the notion that a law practice is a little square box with cool apps. Because I am critical of some, the narrow-minded tunnel vision types that troll the internet have assured themselves that I, in fact, hate all young lawyers.

None of these people were at the seminar I hosted last week for young lawyers interested in building, growing, and managing a private practice. Because I hate all young lawyers, I took a day and a half away from my practice to host a seminar, buy a few drinks, and help out a few that couldn’t afford to go.

The seminar was a mix of topics. Yes, there was tech — two hours, in fact. One hour on toys and apps, and one on internet marketing. We had a panel of women giving advice to women looking to build a private practice, and we had a panel to discuss the issues facing niche practitioners.

Casey Anthony defense lawyer Jose Baez spoke on how a high profile case can affect a lawyer’s practice. You know, high profile cases are always super awesome. Jose is now getting lots of calls, signing lots of autographs, and trying to recoup his life savings and resolve the foreclosure of his home. His new baby, a baby that was born in a hospital where his wife had to sneak in a back door and use an alias to keep the media and angry mobs away, is doing great.

The crowd was a mix — some experienced lawyers wanting to revamp their marketing or try a new software program — but mostly young lawyers, those that the hucksters and scammers try to convince the future of law is mostly virtual, and nothing like it was just a few years ago. I still laugh at those that don’t realize those touting “the future of law” are trying to sell their vision of “the future.” They don’t know what the future will bring, they just know that they need to make money, and just like fortune tellers, if they can convince you their “future” is reality, you’ll pay. Idiots….

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Please don’t riot.

I have turned down a job at Biglaw.

Three times.

The recruitment began about eight years ago. I had been a lawyer for ten years. A big firm was opening an office in my city. The managing partner came to see me. Nah, I just put my name on the door of this new office. We shook hands and kept in touch.

Then it was the big firm starting a new department. I wasn’t really interested, and after a few years, I read the firm lost interest in the department as well.

The third time was different.

It wasn’t just an offer, it was an offer for a leadership position. There wasn’t one meeting, there were five. We didn’t just talk about law and family and futures, I submitted tax returns. It got really close. The managing partner and I became fast friends, and with the excitement, came an equal amount of anxiety.

And so there are two things I want to tell you here: why I turned it down, and why, if the opportunity arises, you shouldn’t….

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I went to vote Saturday at 7:20 a.m. I left with my “I voted” sticker at 12:39 p.m. When you stand in line for five hours, even a person like me has to pass the time by speaking to someone. After skimming through the morning paper and making a futile attempt to find something interesting on Twitter or Facebook, Jeff asked me a simple question: “What do you do?”

In the backdrop was typical polling place activity. There were signs everywhere. Many candidates had a half-dozen signs in a row at the entrance to the polling place. Apparently one sign isn’t enough anymore. The candidates were in all smiles, “asking” for votes, while the candidates’ shills designees were begging for votes by lying to everyone about everything saying they were a “mom,” or “not a politician.” People who didn’t even know the candidate were wearing their t-shirts and shoving palm cards in voters hands, and a long line of voters — some knowledgeable about the issues, and others not having a clue — were just waiting make their decision official.

It was like the internet, live.

On one side, there were people looking to make a decision, on the other, a bunch of people wanting to be “hired.” The one common thread was that the candidates wanted to make sure each person in line knew they, and their campaign, were there. The difference was how they did it….

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I know that having people answer your phone or type documents for you is part of the past and a sure path to extinction, but for those that actually employ people and are looking for ways to better that relationship, read on.

Like many lawyers, I’ve been through receptionists and secretaries. Some left for school, or other jobs, and some left because they had a different concept of the truth, or the meaning of “9:00 a.m.”

I have three rules for office staff: never lie to me, never try to fix a problem without telling me about it, and be on time. When I hire a receptionist, I put a telephone on the conference table and say that “this is the most important thing in this office.”

The relationship between lawyers and staff has a built-in tension — they help you make money, but are usually paid a very small percentage of what you make. They know that. Yes, they aren’t as educated, they’re not licensed, and they shouldn’t expect to make what you make, but the premise remains. Your secretary or receptionist opens the mail and sees the checks, takes the credit card information, gives out the wire transfer information and gets the confirmations, and knows what kind of money is coming in. They are helping you run your practice so you can make money, and they need to be treated that way….

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Last week, I focused on the stupidity of competing on price as opposed to competing on quality and service. And I understand, young lawyers believe all they have is the ability to compete on price. More experienced lawyers believe they have to compete on price because today’s clients don’t care about anything but price.

You can convince yourself of anything. As for price, convince yourself of this — continue to compete on price and you’ll spend your career becoming the cheapest lawyer in town.

Now let’s talk about using the competition as a resource….

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A plumber once told me, “There’s price, quality, and service — I can only give two. Pick which ones you want.”

In the service business there are those that focus on beating the competition the easy way — price. Quality and service are often assumed by unknowing clients who believe that a $500 lawyer is going to offer the quality and service of the $5,000 lawyer (sometimes that’s true). You find out your “competition” quoted a flat fee of $10,000 for the representation, so you’ll do it for $7,500.00. You’ve determined the client is only hiring on price, and you’re good at price. You would never think to tell the client that your fee is $15,000.00. You don’t feel confident in your quality or service, nor that the client cares. You’re just trying to compete at the lowest common denominator.

Focusing on the competition is a waste of time. I see it over and over again. A group of lawyers start a niche and there is a standard fee no matter who you hire. Then some young broke stud jumps in and charges $20 less. A few years later, everyone is charging 60 percent less. No one is making money, except those that aren’t focused on the competition….

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As lawyers, we often look past obvious signals when we’re about to get a new client. The client comes in, decides to hire “me” (yes, me!), and pays. What could be bad?

That the client showed up an hour late with no excuse or apology, or spent the hour with you talking about how his friend’s case worked out, or the opinion of his cousin who is a lawyer in another state is of no matter. We have a new client, a new check, and that’s all that we need.

I believe in the philosophy that sometimes the best client is the one you turn down. I’ll end a meeting after 10 minutes because the client’s expectations are only met through unethical behavior or by going to see the wizard. Or after meeting with the client, I’ll decline representation because even though the client can pay, I believe I’m not a good fit in terms of the client’s needs as far as time outside of the representation. Of course, then there’s the high fee you quote a client you just don’t want to represent who says (oops) “OK.”

Then there’s the client where everything seems great, until the day after you are retained….

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From the time of my first column here, I’ve received emails from readers. Thoughtful people, both lawyers and non-lawyers, critical and yes, thankful, have offered (even using their real names) their suggestions, comments, lists of typos and grammar issues, and questions.

Questions like these:

1. Is it worth going into the field of law right now, or has the oversaturation of the market made building a solo practice or finding a decent firm position an almost impossible goal? Many of the writers on legal blogs (names of legal blogs deleted as not to upset my boss Lat) make it sound as though one would be foolish to enter the profession in any capacity.

and

2. If you had to make a decision between a tier three school with a full tuition scholarship, or $100k of debt to attend a “top 14″ law school, which would you choose?

Happy to answer….

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If you’re one of the few left a lawyer that believes success and enjoyment of the practice of law may involve more than just sitting at home with some computer equipment and an internet connection, here’s a list of people, yes, real live people, that have been important in my practice:

1. The Accountant.

No, not your father’s accountant, but an accountant that has a few years on you and experience with lawyers. You know, someone like you that is building a business but in another field. I know, you have Turbo Tax or some other software you can type some numbers into on April 14th, but that’s not the reason for an accountant. Your accountant should know where you are financially and where you want to be. He should be someone you meet with at least twice a year and discuss your whole financial picture. Your accountant should be listening to the details of your finances, your thoughts about business, and giving you advice — not just putting numbers in to an 1120-S or 1040.

2. The Financial Advisor.

No, not the guy calling you with a “tip.” Find someone who is a certified financial planner that has been at the same brokerage house for over five years — not just someone with over five years’ experience. (Cue the blowback from financial advisors who find this advice bad for business). Why? I like someone that knows the philosophy of their firm and has some knowledge of their money managers. And I know, you have no money to put away or invest in the market, but if you build that great LinkedIn profile to start making money, you should. Maybe some advice from a financial planner will put you in a position to have a few bucks to put away, and soon enough you’ll have a killer defined benefit program. (I learned about defined benefit programs from my financial advisor.) Oh, and my financial advisor often sets up lunches for me to meet other professionals.

Who else should be essential to your law practice?

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