Small Law Firms

Tom Wallerstein

I’ve heard that a hungry dog hunts best. I don’t know if that’s actually true because my pugs were always hungry, and yet they could not have caught a three-legged turtle. But the saying makes sense, and I do know that staying hungry — but not desperate — is an important concept for law firms.

One way a young firm should stay hungry is to always search for new business. There are good reasons that I constantly harp on the importance of business development. Even if you are fortunate enough to be busy, you never know when your current workload may dry up. This is particularly true in litigation because any case can always settle or otherwise resolve unexpectedly. No matter how busy you are, you should constantly seek out new work and new clients.

But seeking out new work comes at a potential cost to your current cases and clients. You can’t be so desperate to grow that you spend so much time on business development that you ignore your current clients or let your current caseload suffer. Some lawyers take a churn and burn approach, trying to maximize their short-term return from every engagement, with no concern for the longer-term client relationship. To form a practice that’s built to last, you need to work hard to maintain those relationships, and that means you can’t neglect your current clients while constantly fishing for newer ones….

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* Dewey have some false expectations of success for this partner settlement agreement? Only one in four affected partners have signed on the dotted line, but advisers think the plan will win bankruptcy court approval. [Am Law Daily]

* “There comes a point where the prospects of substantially increasing your income just outweigh everything else.” Even on his $168K salary, this appellate judge wasn’t rich in New York City, so he quit his job. [New York Law Journal]

* The middle class needs lawyers, and unemployed law school graduates need jobs. The solution for both problems seems pretty obvious, but starting a firm still costs money, no matter how “prudent” you are. [National Law Journal]

* “This is a time when law schools are trying to look carefully at their expenses and not add to them.” New York’s new pro bono initiative may come at a cost for law schools, too. [Thomson Reuters News & Insight]

* Much to Great Britain’s dismay, Ecuador has announced that it will grant political asylum to Julian Assange of WikiLeaks fame. Sucks for Ecuador, because Assange is known to not flush the toilet. [New York Times]

* A smooth criminal gets a break: Michael Jackson’s father dropped a wrongful death suit against Dr. Conrad Murray. It probably would’ve been helpful if his attorneys could actually practice in California. [Washington Post]

* Did Lindsay Lohan’s lawyers plagiarize documents from internet websites in their defamation filings against Pitbull? You can deny it all you want, but his lawyer is out for blood and sanctions. [New York Daily News]

This past week, I was in Chicago for a national conference of professional responsibility lawyers. We usually meet in the same city and at the same time as the ABA, as we have many dual members (no, not at the same time as ABA toy tech show — I’m talking about the ABA meetings where real lawyers discuss law and policy). So although I don’t attend the ABA meetings, those that do come over to our conference and vice versa.

One of the benefits of attending national (real) lawyer conferences as a small-firm lawyer with a real practice (not the social media conferences where broke and unemployed non-practicing lawyers hang out in the vendor hall), is that besides learning something, you have the ability to network and develop relationships that may turn into referrals. I hear lawyers talk about not going to conferences because of the cost. The cost, including transportation, hotel, and conference tuition should usually be no more than $1,000-$1,500. If investing that amount of money in your firm is not worth it, then you are doomed to be nothing. Stop reading now and go work on your internet presence….

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Tom Wallerstein

For attorneys starting their own firms, one of the more difficult things to learn is how much time to spend on a prospective client. Attorneys take various approaches. Some attorneys say, reasonably enough, I don’t work for free, and will do little more than quote their rates. Attorneys who employ mass marketing will offer a “free consultation,” but that generally amounts to little more than a way to encourage unsophisticated clients to call them as opposed to someone else.

If your business model depends on high volume of a particular type of case, it probably doesn’t make sense to devote too much effort to soliciting any one particular client. But if you are pursuing fewer, higher-stakes or more complex matters, then you very well could struggle with how to strike the proper balance….

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Some have compared the world of large law firms to a gilded cage. The lawyers who toil for Biglaw may earn big bucks, but in exchange for the pay, they spend thousands of hours stuck in the office, shackled to their desks, deriving all their sustenance from Seamless.

So whose gilded cage is the most golden, the most elegant, the most comfortable? Welcome to Above the Law’s first-ever Lawyerly Lairs contest: a quest to discover the best law firm offices in America.

What do mean by “best”? Who is eligible to enter? How can entries be submitted?

Read on for the official contest rules and nomination guidelines….

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Quick! I’m an in-house lawyer! How are my legal skills?

Admit it: You just thought to yourself, “So-so. The guy couldn’t hack it at a law firm and wanted a 9 to 5 lifestyle, so he took his mediocre skills and moved in-house. I’ll try not to be transparently condescending when I talk to him on the phone.”

I believed that, too, until I went in-house. (That was a joke. How do you put a smiley face on a blog post?)

A moment’s thought reveals that I’m a bundle of legal prejudices, and I suspected that others were, too. So I did a Rorschach test of some lawyer-friends. I named categories of lawyers, and I asked my friends to give their immediate reactions to those categories.

So what are our legal prejudices?

Quick! I’m a partner at a big firm! What do you think of me?

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Living in the San Francisco Bay Area, we are well accustomed to the concept of diversity. San Franciscans embrace it. They live among and celebrate people of every race, ethnicity and nationality. They embrace every sexual orientation. And they welcome political persuasions spanning the gamut from socialist to liberal. Ah, life’s infinite diversity.

I’ve mentioned before that when I snorkeled in the Cayman Islands, I was amazed at the vast number of different species of fish. When I go to a favorite deli or café, I’m reluctant to order “the usual,” however much I might enjoy it, because I’ve always believed that variety is good. The concepts of variety and diversity present themselves to us every day.

Diversity is also an important concept for law firms, especially smaller law firms and boutiques. And this is true of “diversity” in a variety of contexts, some of which are not so obvious….

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Back in April, we began covering Twitter’s aggressive litigation against alleged online spammers. The company’s decision to initiate the case made waves, as Twitter declared it was going “straight to the source” of those who provided tools to spam Twitter and worsen its users’ experiences on the site.

In the months since, the case has taken a couple interesting turns. And one of the defendants won’t go down without a fight…

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In the late 90’s, lawyers taking credit cards was not the norm.

Stores took credit cards. Restaurants took credit cards. Lawyers took checks and wire transfers, and yes, cash in rubber bands. It was typical lawyer arrogance and ego – taking credit cards turned the lawyer in to a merchant, and paying a portion of the fee (because if you check your state ethics rules and opinions you may find you cannot charge the client for the percentage you pay the credit card company… oops) for the convenience of the client being able to “charge it” was seen as unattractive.

I didn’t take credit cards at first, a couple years later I started, and now I take them under certain conditions. One, I don’t advertise that I take credit cards. No signs on my door, no indication on invoices. If the client asks, the answer is yes, but like many places, there is a minimum amount (and no, it’s not $20). For volume-type lawyers who charge small fees, credit cards are a great way to sign up clients and maintain a good cash flow. For those with bigger fees and smaller practices, it’s a last resort for that client that you believe may have an issue paying, or who just can’t come up with the retainer unless it’s charged on a credit card.

Visa and Mastercard rates are lower than AMEX, but in the end, you’re looking at getting about 96% of the fee once the percentage and transaction fees are paid. If you can’t survive on that, I can’t help you.

What about house calls?

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Tom Wallerstein

I recently had a client ask me about asset protection strategies. Having read The Firm (affiliate link) before I ever went to law school, and mindful of the classic Tom Cruise movie of the same name, of course I did what any diligent attorney devoted to client-service would do: I headed off to the Cayman Islands to investigate.

Due to an unfortunate series of strange boating accidents which I am not at liberty to discuss, my trip ended up lasting a bit longer than I expected. My email and telephone conversations also became compromised, hence my extended ATL hiatus.

Alas, the good guys prevailed, I am back safe and sound, and I’m happy to write about some of my reflections from beautiful Cayman (pronounced, as I learned from the locals, “Cay-Man,” with two distinct, equally prominent syllables, almost rhyming with “Cave-Man;” not “Cay-min” rhyming with “layman”)….

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