Small Law Firms

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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So a guy hurt himself doing something that most of us would consider stupid. Then filed a lawsuit. It’s all hilarious.

Spreading stories about frivolous injury claims poses a moral quandary. While snicker-worthy suits like those often chronicled at Overlawyered are highly entertaining, the thinly veiled motivation behind circulating these tales is eroding confidence in the courts and promoting the dangerous assumption that all plaintiffs are crazy people trying to get rich quick. It’s all about using wacky outliers to convince everyone that the system is “out of control” before the next time some company poisons a water supply or something like that.

But there are some wacky lawsuits that need to be discussed because they ask something more fundamental. Like this one where a physical trainer decided — for no real reason — to do something EXTREME, got an EXTREME injury, and filed an EXTREME lawsuit.

And the fundamental question posed by this case is why we’re seeing more and more people with all of the sense of entitlement to do “whatever they want, whenever they want,” yet simultaneously possessing none of the commitment to personal responsibility for the consequences…

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Christina Gagnier

Once you have a lead on a potential client, the next step is to engage this individual or company in some way so that they decide to go with you and your firm for their legal matters. In some cases, you get a “slam dunk”, where they chat with you for a few minutes and it is a go. Other client engagements take a little more finessing, but at the end of the day, both you and the client are comfortable moving forward.

With others, the challenge is figuring out who is trying to get a freebie and just walk away with some free services and advice…

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Ed. note: Please welcome Shannon Achimalbe to Above the Law. She’ll be writing about her journey from a solo practice to a larger law firm.

Five years ago, I started my own practice. I thought it would get me out of my comfort zone, nurture my entrepreneurial skills, give me the flexibility to choose my hours and clients, and eventually become the type of lawyer I wanted to be. But over time, it became clear that solo practice was not going to help me achieve my goals and had even created some new problems. After heavy soul searching and consultation with others, I decided to search for a job and eventually shut down my practice.

I plan to do two things with this column. First, I want to document my job search. I am writing anonymously because I don’t want anyone interfering and helping me. I want my experience to be no different than anyone else doing the same…

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One of Biglaw’s calling cards is the ability to marshal resources quickly to handle nearly any kind of legal issue. Going to trial and need some immediate help with responding to a host of motions in limine filed by your adversary? Even in these days of reduced associate classes, at most firms it would be no problem roping in the necessary support. Need to put a team together on short notice to respond to a preliminary injunction motion? Not a problem. An email or two to the head of the group and a fellow partner or two, and you can have all the resources you need.

With some luck, you can even benefit from assistance in multiple time zones, always a plus when dealing with court deadlines in “foreign” jurisdictions, as is commonly the case in patent matters. Just ask any East Coast-based patent litigator whether they appreciate the extra hour for filing they get in their Eastern District of Texas matters. I know everyone is super-organized and never files at the last minute, but sometimes “unexpected delays” can result in a litigator making full use of the allotted response time for a filing or two.

While the Biglaw beast can be roused to quick action on occasion, it often prefers to move very deliberately towards a target. Patent cases are a good example. While there may be a flurry of activity surrounding an important hearing, or the close of discovery, or trial, there is also a lot of “preparing the case” time. Cases that take years just to get to trial are normal, and when you factor in appeals, it is not unusual for a Biglaw patent lawyer to go from associate, to counsel, to partner during the pendency of a single case. I speak from personal experience on that point….

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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…

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Keith Lee

I recently noticed a post by James Levy over at the Legal Skills Prof Blog about LexisNexis’s new “Think Like A Lawyer” program. The program aims to help law students be more prepared to work at a firm while they are summer associates. But as Levy points out:

“Apparently some employers have hired summer law clerks chiefly for the purpose of taking advantage of their free computer research access which until now has been a violation of the end user agreement.  But Lexis is changing that with the announcement this week of a new training program called ‘Think Like a Lawyer’ that, among other features, gives 1Ls and 2Ls free, unlimited access to computer research over the summer which they can use in their jobs.  That’s going to make it easier for at least some students to find summer clerkships especially with smaller firms where free Lexis access will add value.”

Firms using summer associates purely for free legal research?!? Say it ain’t so. But if that’s the case, just call it the “Free Legal Research Monkey” program and not “Think Like a Lawyer.” Because my knee-jerk reaction was: “Ugh, law school graduates actually need to think less like a lawyer….”

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Christina Gagnier

The inevitable part of being a lawyer is that you need to work with other lawyers. If you thought you would be able to avoid this or have nightmares about law school classmates, then perhaps the practice of law that necessarily includes working with attorneys may not be for you.

As a small shop, it is important to evaluate how you work with other attorneys. Business is often referral-based and your reputation, which is gold if you are making your own way, will be based on how well you work with others. This does not mean being a doormat, but it does mean starting to understand how to build relationships or, in the least, be collegial with “opposing counsel.”

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The patent world can at times seem very small. The same firms, representing the same group of technology companies, pursuing the same strategies, both to maximize profits for their firms and to deliver results for their clients. Sure people move around, but the players in the larger sense are pretty static. Most patent cases are of limited importance to everyone but the parties involved as well. Sometimes a case has a broader scope, and becomes of interest to industry competitors or even investors. Every once in a while a patent case captures the public fancy, as Apple v. Samsung undoubtedly has, usually because of the nature of the parties involved or the ubiquity of the technology at issue. When that happens, the patent world can seem very big — global in scope, even.

Sometimes a little case can actually turn into a huge deal. When the Supreme Court gets involved, for example. Especially when the issue in the case has far-reaching economic implications for society at large, and not just for the litigants involved. I have seen a number of “big” patent cases during my career, but none has the disruptive potential of a case that is set for oral argument next week in the Supreme Court. From humble beginnings as a declaratory judgment action filed in an unusual forum for patent cases (District of D.C.,) the dispute between Alice Corp. and CLS Bank has grown into one of the most closely-watched and debated patent cases — ever. And deservedly so, because the viability of software patents is on the line. With major ramifications possible: for technology companies of all sizes, IP firms and lawyers, the courts, and the good old global economy as well….

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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:

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