Last week, at Minnesota’s Strategic Solutions for Solo and Small Firms Conference, I shared a panel with Lawyerist’s Sam Glover and an innovational speaker, Matt Homann. The panel focused on the future of solo and small-firm practice over the next ten years. Although we all agreed that the solos and smalls — and, indeed, lawyers in general — will face challenges over the next decade, I still believe that opportunities remain for solos who understand these challenges and figure out ways to overcome them.
So, no great surprise there. But all of us on the panel agreed that technology is changing the face of law practice in a way that may expand access to justice but that may also take work from solos and smalls….
After twenty years of operating my own law firm, I still answer my own phone – much to the pleasant surprise of many of my callers. Though you’d think that having the firm principal pick up would signal a one-person, fly-by-night operation, to the contrary, callers’ ability to get in touch with me directly conveys the impression that I’m an accessible, hands-on kind of lawyer.
Of course, answering the phone works for my practice because frankly, I don’t get all that many calls. Most of my clients and referrals who want to speak with me by phone will typically email me initially to determine a mutually agreeable time for a call. And because my work is so specialized and many cases come via referral, when clients reach my voice mail, they’re not likely to move on to the next lawyer on the list of internet search results. That means if I’m too busy to talk, I can let calls go through to voicemail without fear of losing a piece of business.
But what about lawyers who aren’t in such a position?
Slotnick isn’t talking about injecting imagery into an opening statement or pounding on the witness box to punctuate an argument or adopting a dramatic whisper to attract the jury’s attention. Instead, Slotnick implores female lawyers to cast aside their bland Gray Lady and Black Widow personas and embrace the hot pink of Legally Blonde. Or as Helen Reddy might sing, women lawyers should go from I am Woman, Hear Me Bore to I am Woman, Hear Me Roar!
Slotnick has some colorful words for colorless dressers:
Listen to Bill Alverson and this tiara could be yours.
Small-firm lawyer Bill Alverson doesn’t show up on the first page of Google if you search for “lawyer in Andalusia, Alabama,” where Alverson’s firm is based. Which might be a problem for a lawyer relying on Google to generate clients. After all, Andalusia has a population of only 9,078, so if you can’t make it onto the first page of Google there, can you make it anywhere?
But Alverson needn’t worry because his law practice isn’t an all-encompassing jealous mistress. Instead, Alverson has another kind of mistress on the side of his day job at his small father/son firm, Alverson & Alverson — dozens of them, really. As noted in this past weekend’s New York Times magazine (and today’s Quote of the Day), aspiring beauty queens retain Alverson to coach them to victory at state and national pageants.
Turns out, working with statutes and the statuesque have more in common than one might think….
For several years, I’ve enthusiastically supported co-working as an attractive office option for solos. Working alongside others not only mitigates the isolation of solo practice but offers demonstrated financial benefits: bar studies show that lawyers in shared space earn more than lawyers who work from home or in stand-alone offices. At the same time, co-working is more affordable than traditional full-time office space or many corporate virtual office arrangements and thus enables newer or cash-strapped solos to enjoy the benefits of shared space without substantial overhead.
Are you tired of getting the same questions over and over again from prospective or existing clients? Should I choose an LLC or incorporation? Will I lose my house in bankruptcy? What is a power of attorney? How long will my divorce take? Rather than respond to these same questions over and over, why not school your clients instead?
These days, schooling clients is easy. With the rise of online training and college courses, a broader segment of the population is now familiar with online education. Plus, there are a variety of powerful free tools to create online educational programs to educate clients so that they’ll have a grasp of the basics.
Not surprisingly, most small business owners rarely take vacation. According to a 2013 Sage Reinvention of Business Study, 43 percent of small business owners take less vacation time than they did five years ago. And from what I’ve observed among my fellow solos, vacations are even fewer and farther between. In fact, it’s not uncommon to find many solo and small firm attorneys who haven’t taken more than an extended three-day weekend as vacation in five years or more.
Solos’ reluctance to take vacation isn’t surprising. Some feel that they may miss out on a major client if they’re away from the office more than a couple of days, while others are so overwhelmed with work that they feel that they can’t make the time. Of course, cost is a factor as well, and it’s a veritable triple whammy what with the cost of the trip itself, lost revenues with fewer billable hours and the cost of bringing in an assistant or backup lawyer to cover cases.
Still, there are also costs to skipping vacation for years on end. Solos who never take a break experience burnout, reduced productivity and loss of time with family. Moreover, without vacation (and somewhat counter-intuitively), solos miss out on an opportunity to improve their practices….
“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?
With unemployment rates still high for new law school grads, incubator programs sponsored by law schools and bar associations are gaining traction. Not to be confused with the profit-generating incubators common in the business and start-up world, the law school incubator concept, conceived by Fred Rooney at CUNY Law School, subsidizes new law school grads to start their own practices to provide “low bono” legal services.
In exchange for deeply discounting their fees, grads receive low-cost rent and training from more experienced attorneys. After 12-18 months in the incubator, these now practice-ready lawyers can move on to a position at a non-profit or continue to operate their firms on their own. Since the first law school incubator launched back in 2007, nearly two dozen others have cropped up at law schools and bar associations across the country.
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….
The legal industry is being disrupted at every level by technological advances. While legal tech entrepreneurs and innovators are racing to create a more efficient and productive future, there is widespread indifference on the part of attorneys toward these emerging technologies.
Ed. note: The Asia Chronicles column is authored by Kinney Recruiting. Kinney has made more placements of U.S. associates, counsels and partners in Asia than any other recruiting firm in each of the past seven years. You can reach them by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
We at Kinney Asia have made a number of FCPA / White Collar US associate placements in Hong Kong / China thus far in 2014. Most of such placements have been commercial litigation associates from major US markets, fluent in Mandarin, switching to FCPA / White Collar litigation. Some have already had FCPA experience, but those are difficult candidates for firms to find (this will change in coming years as US firms are now promoting FCPA / White Collar to their 2L summers who are fluent in Mandarin and have an interest in transferring to China at some point).
Legal Week quoted Kinney’s Head of Asia, Evan Jowers, extensively in the following relevant article here.
There is a new trend in the market, though, where mid-level transactional US associates, fluent in spoken Mandarin and written Chinese, are interviewing for and in some cases landing junior FCPA / White Collar spots in Hong Kong / China at very top tier US firms.
When the LexisNexis Cloud Technology Survey results were reported earlier this year, it showed that attorneys were starting to peer less skeptically into the future, and slowly but surely leaning more toward all the benefits the law cloud has to offer.
Because let’s face it, plenty of attorneys are perhaps a bit too comfortable with their “system” of practice management, which may or may not include neon highlighters, sticky notes, dog-eared file folders, and a word processing program that was last updated when the term “raise the roof” was still de rigueur.