Small Law Firms

The other day, I was at dinner with some Biglaw friends. While I prefer to associate only with my small-firm kin, I needed someone to pick up the check. And, I thought I could do some missionary work and convert my friends in to small-firm lawyers (so I could mine them for story ideas, obviously).

Something unexpected happened during dinner. One of my friends asked me why I believe small-firm life is so different from Biglaw. I went through my standard list of reasons: quality of life, money, autonomy, mentoring, etc. I even cited Tom Wallerstein’s Top Ten.

That was where things took an unexpected turn: my friend did not buy it. Indeed, by the end of our dinner he had me questioning my beliefs. Does size matter, I thought? Needless to say, as a woman who has devoted her “career” to writing about small-firm life, this experience shook me to my core.

Let’s see if you can help me make sense of that night….

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Like most of you, I spend my free time trying to come up with a plot idea for Miss Congeniality 3. Indeed, Miss Congeniality and Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous were just not enough. It is hard, however, to mess with perfection.

Having reached the limits of my creativity, I decided to look to actual events (and, of course, small law firm news) to serve as the inspiration for my movie plot. And I found just what I was looking for, thanks to a real-life Miss Congeniality and Mr. Social Security.

Intrigued? Check out photos of a certified hottie, after the break….

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Johnathan Perkins

When it comes to the protagonists of 2011′s biggest legal stories, our readers want to know: Where are they now? Last week, for example, we brought you an update on Casey Anthony, which generated keen interest (and traffic).

The recent alleged misadventures of certain UVA Law School students — students accused of breaking and entering, students accused of bothering bikers (to be fair, some bikers are obnoxious and deserve what they get) — have caused commentators to wonder: Whatever happened to Johnathan Perkins?

Johnathan Perkins was the then-3L at UVA Law who confessed to fabricating a tale of racial harassment by university police. As a result of his dishonesty, did he have to go before UVA’s famously strict Honor Committee? Did he end up getting his law degree? There was some ambiguity over whether he would graduate.

We have an update, based on a statement from the dean of the law school….

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Yeah, I’m back.

And I want to know when lawyers will stop using opportunities to give referrals as a panicked strategy of covering their asses.

You know what I’m talking about — the “three names” idiocy?

Whether you’re on a list-serv and the 27th “I’m looking for an excellent, aggressive, and inexpensive lawyer” request of the day has donned your computer screen, or someone actually thinks you are worthy of a phone call or email requesting a lawyer to save their life or fortune, let’s just agree to stop being wimps and meaninglessly passing along names, and start giving real referrals.

I know, you were taught this. You never give one name. Why? Because what if it doesn’t work out? Then you’re going to have some sort of imagined problem that someone told you could be very, very bad.

And yes, I know, people like choices. You feel like you’re doing them a service by giving them lawyers from which to choose. But you’re not. You’re just uselessly giving out names.

One of the deep, deep dark secrets (shh) of being successful in small-firm world is your ability to be more than just a paper-pushing, time-keeping drone. The ability to be a “connector” is just as — or more — important than your ability to practice your trade. If you are in a niche practice, there are more people who won’t need your services than will, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have a reason to call you — like the reason that you are the one person who always gives them the best referrals.

Have you received those emails? “I know you don’t do this work, but you always seem to put me in touch with the best people, so I’m now looking for _______.”

No?

Let me, as usual, help you….

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Tom Wallerstein

When I started my firm, several mentors gave me the same advice: Don’t work for free. It’s easy to see the problem with working for free. Giving away what you’re trying to sell isn’t exactly in the business plan. Unfortunately, this sage advice can only really be learned the hard way, through experience.

Working for free can arise in many different ways. The most obvious example is a client who wants you to represent him but can only promise to pay you later.

Even if your gut tells you that taking on that client is a bad idea, this can be surprisingly tempting to a new firm or solo practice. For starters, there is such a thrill with getting your first client, or your first “real” client, or your first big client, or your first whatever client, that the excitement can cloud your better judgment. You will be tempted to overlook the red flags that you will not be paid for your work….

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Many law firms send out rather lame holiday cards, cards that marketing guru Ross Fishman would describe as “boring pieces of crap.” Thankfully that wasn’t the case for the eleven finalists in our third annual law firm holiday card contest.

Some of these cards were clever, some were beautiful, and some were funny. All of them were excellent, deserving of recognition and praise for the thoughtfulness and creativity that went into them.

Okay, enough with the sentimental and sappy stuff — you’re lawyers, and you’re competitive. You want to know who won….

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I would bet that at least half of you resolved to find a new job in 2012. And, for many, that new job means going out on your own. As with most New Year’s resolutions, however, such a measure may seem overwhelming.

Lucky for you, Carolyn Elefant has updated her book, Solo by Choice: How to Be the Lawyer You Always Wanted to Be (affiliate link). The book provides a thorough road map for lawyers looking to make the leap to solo practice.

Solo By Choice is divided into five parts: (1) The Decision; (2) Planning the Launch; (3) The Practice; (4) Solo Marketing; and (5) Solos in Transition. The sections offer information and advice designed for lawyers at all levels of experience, from new graduate to partner. A large portion of the book discusses new technology and social media. And to bring the message home, Elefant profiles successful solos and provides tips they learned in starting and running their own firms….

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Tom Wallerstein

This is the time of year when everyone pulls out a Top Ten list of one thing or another. I don’t mind; a Top Ten list is a convenient format for reflection and New Year’s Eve has always been a time of reflection for me, whether that involves setting goals or just thinking about the ups and downs of the past year. So I thought I would use the opportunity to offer my perspective of the Top Ten Differences Between Biglaw and Boutique. So without further ado, let’s push in the button and let the top ten play:

10. Money, Money

When you work at a firm, you get paid either a salary or an hourly rate. You get employer-paid benefits and you might even get a bonus. But you know the firm is billing you out at hundreds of dollars an hour, and your hourly wage comes nowhere near that. When you run your own shop, you don’t get a salary but you keep all the money paid by your clients, or recovered in a contingent fee agreement. Of course, you’re also responsible for all the expenses.

Whether that is a good or bad thing depends on a lot of factors and varies by individual, but no one can deny that the economics between working in Biglaw and working for yourself are very different.

Read on after the jump for the rest of the Top Ten Differences Between Biglaw and Boutique….

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I know why the caged bird tweets.

* Here’s a nice round-up of some of the most controversial laws that will be enacted in 2012. Looks like California is going to have some fabulously multicultural litigation. [Associated Press]

* What do you get when you cross an artist with a penchant for Rastafarians with the son of a Boies Schiller name partner? The biggest copyright fair use appeal ever. [New York Times]

* A Massachusetts town paid Phoebe Prince’s family only $225K to settle. With lawyer’s fees, it’s almost not even worth suing if your kid gets bullied to death. [ABC News]

* Everyone is going cuckoo over Iowa’s conservatives, even the Eighth Circuit. Iowa Law’s former dean is facing a political discrimination suit. [WSJ Law Blog]

* Apparently, this PhoneDog Twitter account case is a pretty big deal in the world of social media law. I’ll turn discussion of this issue over to our social media expert, Brian Tannebaum. [CNN]

* An employee at a presumably small law firm in New York had her jaw shattered while a thief ransacked the office. Give this woman a bonus. Hell, give her a raise, too. [New York Post]

Tom Wallerstein

Recently, someone remarked to me that the week after Christmas is a “dead week.” He meant that many people take the week off, many companies are short staffed, and business generally is light.

When I was in Biglaw, I always worked the week after Christmas. Even though most partners wouldn’t be around, I figured that left it up to me to make sure my cases were being handled properly. With hindsight, I know that I probably wasn’t quite as essential as I thought, but that was my attitude at the time.

Now that I am a partner in my own firm, you might think that I can finally relax and let my associates mind the store. Negative. First, I care about my associates’ quality of (work) life. Having spent years in Biglaw, I am committed to trying to lessen at least some of the unpleasantness that often entails. So I want my employees to be able to take time off, or at least work a lighter schedule, during a week that is traditionally light. Second, running my own firm just raises the stakes. Now I really do have ultimate responsibility for all my cases, so I feel even more pressure to work harder and better than ever before.

So much for a dead week. Still, the comment got me thinking about what it means to be “swamped” with work versus having a “dead week,” and how those concepts differ when applied to Biglaw versus a running a solo or small firm practice….

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