Carolyn Elefant

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….

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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.

But this recent post by Posse CEO Rebekah Campbell, for the New York Times You’re the Boss blog of the New York Times, has made me reconsider whether co-working space is right for everyone — particularly lawyers….

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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.

Here’s my experience with some of those tools….

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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….

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Home is where the heart business is?

Recently, a short piece in the Marshfield News Herald describing the downsides of entrepreneurship included this sad story about another solo practice that didn’t make it to the finish line, this time for geographic reasons:

“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?

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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.

What should we make of this trend?

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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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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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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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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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