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:
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…
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:
I like to say that I went solo because I had no other options — but I chose to stay solo when I started a family.
I started my law firm at the end of 1993 because I’d been downsized for economic reasons and couldn’t find another job. Three years later, the economy picked up and job offers came my way — but I was newly pregnant, and the prospect of the 50-hour work week that one of my prospective employers described didn’t interest me at all. So I figured that at least for the time, I’d remain solo because I was certain that working for myself was the best option for raising children.
Fast forward seventeen years, and my conviction that solo practice is a family-friendly work option is no longer as black and white as it was back then before my daughter was born. That’s not to say that I regret my decision – because I don’t. But here, on the other side of child-rearing — with one daughter in high school and the other on the cusp of college — I’ve realized that there’s really no easy or perfect solution to balancing work and family — whether you’re a solo or a big-firm attorney. All you can do is evaluate the facts and make the best decision for yourself and your family based on the facts in front of you.
Of course, when it comes to research about work-life balance, that’s where things get tricky….
Earlier this week, Carolyn Elefant questioned the value of joining bar associations. Particularly their value in generating business for solo and small firm practitioners. Elefant found bar associations lacking in regards to business development, and generally seemed sour on participation in bar associations for smaller firms. Though she did note a few exceptions:
“I’m not suggesting that solos and smalls steer clear of bar membership entirely; after all, bar associations provide a myriad of practice benefits including substantive information on practice trends, affordable continuing legal education (CLE), and advice on starting and running a law practice.”
While I’m inclined to agree with Elefant regarding the operation of small firms most of the time, in this instance, I have to disagree….
Conventional wisdom says that solos and smalls should join a bar association — either the American Bar Association, a state or local bar, or a practice-specific bar (such as an association of telecommunications or criminal defense or real estate lawyers) — as a way to generate clients. Here’s but one recent article that recommends pounding the pavement at bar events to find clients.
I’m not suggesting that solos and smalls steer clear of bar membership entirely; after all, bar associations provide a myriad of practice benefits, including substantive information on practice trends, affordable continuing legal education (CLE), and advice on starting and running a law practice. But if lawyers think that they’ll find business through bar membership, most are sure to be disappointed….
For those unfamiliar with Virginia politics, Cuccinelli’s controversialpolitical views have given his critics plenty of ammunition. But politics aside, does Cuccinelli’s retainer plan hit the mark as a sustainable or ethical business model? Let’s scope it out….
Recently, a group of Harvard Law professors released the results of their survey of 124 attorneys from 11 large firms, asking what courses Harvard students ought to take to prepare for Biglaw practice. Overall, financial courses such as accounting, financial reporting, and corporate finance, topped the list, as noted by Will Baude over at the Volokh Conspiracy. But the study got me thinking: what courses should lawyers interested in starting a practice — either directly after law school or a few years down the road — study in law school?
If you ask this question of solos or consultants, most will argue that law schools need to teach business-type classes like how to write a business plan or how to market a law practice. And while law schools should certainly make those classes available to interested students, I don’t view them as imperative. Let’s face it, most of this material isn’t rocket-science (high school dropouts open successful businesses, after all), and the web offers a bottomless treasure trove of this type of information. (As an aside, one of my personal faves is Canvarise, a one-page template that pulls together all of the elements of a traditional business plan).
Nor do I believe that substantive courses — bankruptcy, family law, immigration, copyright — are all that important. Substantive law is state-specific, so it’s tough to teach and it’s always changing. What you learn as a second-year law student may no longer be valid a few years down the road. Plus, it’s not difficult to pick up the basics of a new practice area on the fly. Think about it: most students studying for the bar gain a quick understanding of as many as 25 different substantive practice areas in a summer. No reason the same isn’t true in practice.
In my view, law students should focus on studying and acquiring the kinds of skills that aren’t easily found or readily mastered in practice. With that as a guide, here’s my top five list of classes that will help prepare students for solo practice…
At the recent ReInvent Law NYC conference, one of the speakers, Abe Geiger, founder and CEO of Shake, used an apt term that I’d never heard before: “tiny law.” As I understood the phrase, “tiny law” refers to all of those day-to-day contractual arrangements consumers enter into every day – only through standardized forms or handshakes or oral agreements rather than formal written contracts. And that’s the raison d’être of Shake: to help formalize those millions of tiny law transactions in a simple but custom agreement generated on a mobile device.
Will Shake displace lawyers, particularly solos and smalls who are most likely to handle “tiny law” problems? At least one piece by William Peacock, from a few months back, suggested that Shake could pose a threat to lawyers. But from a solo or small perspective, Shake is actually a godsend….
Yet after all this time, social media still has limited traction in the legal profession, with few firms using social media for its “best and highest use”: engaging and interacting with colleagues and clients. Instead, large firms treat social media as another marketing channel to disseminate firm news and press releases, according to a recent ATL study, while solos and smalls treat social media as a poor man’s search-engine optimizer. It’s no wonder that many practicing lawyers deride social media generally as a waste of time and counsel their colleagues to focus on traditional in-person networking, like meeting colleagues for lunch or getting involved in bar associations, to generate visibility and referrals.
Still, I wouldn’t give up on social media yet. The fact that so few lawyers understand how to use social media correctly makes it a powerful tool for solo and small firm lawyers. Here are three ways to use social media to get the most out of traditional, in-person networking, and to create new opportunities for yourself:
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 six years. You can reach them by email: [email protected].
Since late last year, things have been booming in Hong Kong / China in cap markets, especially Hong Kong IPOs. M&A deal flow has recently been getting a bit stronger as well. Although one can’t predict such things with any certainty, all signs are pointing to a banner entire 2014 for the top end US corporate and cap markets practices in Hong Kong / China. This is not really new news, as its been the feeling most in the market have had for a few months now and things continue to look good.
The head of our Asia practice, Evan Jowers, has been in Hong Kong for about 10 days a month (with trips every other month to both Shanghai and Bejing) for the past 7 months (Robert Kinney and Evan Jowers will be in Hong Kong again March 15 to 23), and spending most of his time there meeting with senior US hiring partners at just about all the major US and UK firms there, as well as prospective candidates at all associate levels and partner levels, and when in the US, Evan works Asia hours and is regularly on the phone with such persons, as our the other members of our Asia team. Our Yuliya Vinokurova is in Hong Kong every other month and Robert is there about 5 times a year as well. While we have a solid Asia team of recruiters, Evan Jowers will spend at least some time with all of our candidates for Asia position. We have had long standing relationships, and good friendships in some cases, with hiring partners and other senior US partners in Asia for 8 years now.
Are you challenged by the costs and logistics of maintaining your office, distracting you from the practice of law?
Many small firms are successfully moving part—or even all—of their practice to a virtual setting. This even includes multi-jurisdictional practice spanning several states and practice areas, although solo and small partnerships are still the largest adopters of virtual law.
Can you do the same? The new article Mobile in Practice, Virtual by Design from author Jared Correia, Esq., explores how mobile technology bring real-life benefits to a small law firm. Read this new article—the next in Thomson Reuters’ Independent Thinking series for small firms—to explore how a mobile practice:
Everyone is talking about the importance of Social Media in Corporate America. But it is relatively safe to say that most law firms and lawyers are slightly behind the social curve. Most lawyers, at minimum, use LinkedIn, for networking. Some even use Twitter for pushing out short, pithy content, while many have Blogs, where they write their little hearts out. The adage “it is better to give than to receive” is not always true though in the world of Social. In the Social World – it is best to listen, give back and engage.
Social Media is a communications tool that can deeply educate you about the needs and wants of your clients and prospects when used in conjunction social media monitoring and sharing tools.
Take this quick quiz and see if you know how to use Social to help you engage more with your clients or to better service the ones you have.