Business Models

Keith Lee

It’s always struck me as odd how isolated law schools tend to be. They often seem to be the loftiest towers in the ivory towers of higher education. Far removed from the day-to-day grind of their graduates and unconcerned with any sort of practicality as it relates to their instruction. Not only that, they seem to exist separately from the other enclaves of education within their university. For instance, at a university which contains both a law school and a business school, it would seem a natural conclusion for the two schools to work together and provide students with opportunities for cross-pollination of ideas and education. Particularly given law schools’ new found fetishization of “experiential education” and a focus on practical education for law students.

I mean, given the choice to learn how to run a business, would you rather learn from a law professor who spent a year or two as an associate in Biglaw before hitting the life-long professor track, or a MBA who spent 20 years in business before semi-retiring to teach a class or two in business school?

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I’m one of those lawyers that goes on vacation. Not just long weekends, real vacations. I pity those of you that pride yourselves in announcing, “I don’t take vacations.” Good for you, you pathetic drone. I didn’t take vacations at first, as I was always fearful that someone would call to hire me on a non-emergency basis and wouldn’t wait until I came back. Now I don’t care. If you can’t wait until I come back, there are plenty of lawyers on the internet to hire that can take your PayPal payment online and send you whatever documents you think you need to handle your case.

When was I able to take my first two-week vacation and not worry about business? After 14 years in private practice. I say that because I know how patient all of you are out there.

First, let me congratulate the commentariat, who I found in San Francisco had turned their child-like recurring comments into a t-shirt business. See, there’s all kinds of ways to make money as an unemployed lawyer, not to worry. (For those of you that tell me you don’t read the comments, it’s okay, just look at the picture and imagine those phrases being said over and over again, anonymously.)

Anyway, when I’m on vacation, I think about my business. I think about what I love, what I hate, and what I want to change. There is nothing like thinking about your business (not the cases or the clients) while you are away from the phone calls (if your phone is ringing), other interruptions, the deadlines, and all the trappings of a lawyer’s day. (That was tip number one of today’s column for those of you shallow folks that can’t comprehend messages that aren’t in your face with drawings.)

One of the things I do a lot while I’m away is watch other businesses. I try to figure out how they make their money, why their employees are happy, or unhappy, why their customers patronize the store, restaurant, tour company, and how they handle problems. You’re an idiot if you are trying to build your law practice solely by watching how other lawyers run their practices. Client dynamics can be found in many places, and ideas come from everywhere. Most lawyers are doing it wrong anyway. (Enter tip number two — see how that works?)

Here’s what I saw over two weeks in California….

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So Lat calls me up all excited about some Biglaw Midsummer Bonus or something, which I totally ignore, and also about some hysterical dicta that Judge Kozinski wrote, which I also ignore (although it probably was pretty funny), and then he starts asking me about my law career. Which, you know, ended. And he points out that I failed to get ATL approval of my decision to close my small firm, which means technically, my column should just be called “Big Lawyers,” which is a whole other kettle of fish.

Then Lat says he knows how we can fix it. “Go on,” I say. Lat says that I can tell our readers exactly how to start pricing their legal services instead of just billing their time. “But Lat,” I plead, “I can’t give away my secrets. I have a whole new consulting firm to tell people these secrets in exchange for scads of dollars.”

Lat is quick to admonish me. “We don’t keep secrets from our readers, Jay. That’s why our readers know all about my obsession with all things Sophia Chua-Rubenfeld and why they all know that Elie is as jovial as an Ewok in real life.” Then his tone sharpened: “Plus we can always get Staci to write your column in a tenth of the time it takes you. And we can even have her use your name as a pseudonym.”

Well played, Mr. Lat, well played. So here then are the secrets to pricing your legal wares in eight easy(ish) steps.…

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What did you do yesterday? I’m assuming you went to work. Did you put in a full day? Great. Let’s assume you got started around 9:00, took about an hour for lunch, and signed off at 7:00. Maybe for you that’s a light day, or maybe that’s a long day. Doesn’t matter. So that means you worked nine hours. OK.

Let’s further assume that you frittered away an hour, mostly spent reading Above the Law or wondering why they’re still playing hockey in the summertime (I’d make a Bruins reference here, but it would be strictly from the bandwagon). So that leaves eight hours of bona fide work. Eighty point-ones. Four hundred eighty minutes.

Now look over your timesheet from yesterday, and think about how you spent those 480 minutes. Were they all the same? Were they all of equal value to solving your clients’ problems?

Of course not. But if your minutes aren’t all the same, why are you counting them as being the same? What are the real reasons that lawyers track their time?

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Start her up. People are always telling laid off or unemployed lawyer to “hang out a shingle” and start their own firm. They say this like it is comparatively easy for young lawyers to just go out there and drum up enough business to support themselves. It’s not, but some people are at least trying.

Today, the Washington Post profiles (gavel bang: ABA Journal) a group of lawyers that aren’t just trying to start their own firm, they’re also trying to kill the billable hour while they do it:

When clients call Washington attorney Sue Wang, the clock doesn’t start ticking.

Phone calls aren’t billed in six-minute intervals and each hour of work won’t cost several hundred dollars.

Wang and the four other lawyers in Clarity Law Group aim to reconfigure the billable-hour business model at law firms that she said tends to shut out small and start-up companies with shallow pockets.

Yeah, yeah, nobody likes the billable hour — Clarity Law Group purportedly has a “timeshare” business model. Does this mean that potential clients will get a free meal while the lawyers lock them in a room and try to sell themselves?

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