Small Law Firms

“We’re dinosaurs, Brian,” said the 12-year lawyer in my office last week.

We were discussing the way we get cases as opposed to the way “they do it today.”

I never thought I would be called a dinosaur at 43, after 17 years in practice, but the tech hacks and non-practicing lawyers who claim to know how to build successful practices have tagged me one. They say I’m a “dying breed,” and that “lawyers like me” will be extinct very very very very soon. I try to pay attention to them, as those who have failed at law, or have never run a law practice but can predict the future of the profession with a keyboard from their kitchen table in some crap town are always worthy of my time. Unfortunately, I am usually interrupted by yet another new client calling my office.

So my colleague, the 12-year lawyer, says we’re dinosaurs. Neither of us pays an internet marketer, or buy lists of prospective “leads” to contact. Our way of getting cases isn’t as interesting. It’s usually: “Remember that guy I represented seven years ago on that thing? The referral came from him,” or, “Remember that lawyer we had that case against who we hated? He referred the client.” Our way took a while, but it was worth the long while.

Ask some “old” curmudgeon lawyer like me what “reputation management” is, and I will tell you it’s managing your reputation. It’s conducting yourself in a way that won’t cause you to have a “bad reputation,” or a “questionable reputation.” It’s about showing up to places on time, not chronically canceling, being honest, not looking like a slob, not filing documents that are nonsensical or full of typos, being professional with opposing counsel, being a zealous advocate in front of judges trying to silence you, and being asked to speak, write, and give opinions on important issues. That’s reputation management….

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A lot of legal work is decidedly uncool. Sadly, there’s just not much sexiness in talking about your latest corporate bankruptcy case or major document review project.

But there are exceptions. Case in point: entertainment lawyers. How sweet would it be to represent celebrities? (Except if you had to work for train wrecks veteran rock stars like Courtney Love).

So, that being said, let’s take a look at the Hollywood Reporter’s newly released Power Lawyers 2012 list, which rounds up the top 100 entertainment attorneys in America.

Maybe you know someone on the list?

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About a year and a half ago, I was just a small-firm girl with a dream: to find the truth about small-firm life. After writing this column, and speaking to a wide range of fellow small-firm attorneys, I learned that small firms are all different. Some are mini-sweatshops with small-firm attorneys who have Biglaw egos (and pedigrees), while some are small groups of like-minded, hard-working, intelligent attorneys.

While I never discovered the whole truth about small-firm life, I did pick up a few worthwhile lessons….

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One of the main differences between small law firms and Biglaw is who hires the lawyer. While both receive calls from the actual individual (person) client, general counsel, or corporate representative, the consumer-type disciplines (personal injury, criminal, divorce, employment (plaintiff), and immigration) are usually smaller shops, and usually get the call from the actual person needing representation.

Most of the time this person has never hired a lawyer. So the conversation will be much different than the call from a general counsel who understands typical billing formats, or an insurance company agent, who tells you what you’re going to bill and not bill.

I’m writing today for those who’ve been in small law firms for less than five years. The rest of you know the drill, you’ve heard the buzzwords and phrases, and (hopefully) you’ve taken control of your time in a way that shortcuts the worthless conversations from potential clients. From a business perspective, small law firm practice is an exercise in cash flow. While lines of credit are available, many small law firms don’t like to go that route. So every potential client is important, especially when you haven’t reached that stride where you can claim a “book of business.”

Saying “no” before the client makes it clear that it’s “no,” is tough. Did you just give up money? Was there another way to get the client “signed up?”

I draw lines. I am criticized for that, but it’s my practice and it’s worked for me. Normally when I don’t get the case these days, I hear about who got the case, which vindicates my choice to shortcut the conversation.

A recurring theme here is that what works for me may not work for you. OK. Did I ever indicate I give a crap?

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I’m one of those lawyers that goes on vacation. Not just long weekends, real vacations. I pity those of you that pride yourselves in announcing, “I don’t take vacations.” Good for you, you pathetic drone. I didn’t take vacations at first, as I was always fearful that someone would call to hire me on a non-emergency basis and wouldn’t wait until I came back. Now I don’t care. If you can’t wait until I come back, there are plenty of lawyers on the internet to hire that can take your PayPal payment online and send you whatever documents you think you need to handle your case.

When was I able to take my first two-week vacation and not worry about business? After 14 years in private practice. I say that because I know how patient all of you are out there.

First, let me congratulate the commentariat, who I found in San Francisco had turned their child-like recurring comments into a t-shirt business. See, there’s all kinds of ways to make money as an unemployed lawyer, not to worry. (For those of you that tell me you don’t read the comments, it’s okay, just look at the picture and imagine those phrases being said over and over again, anonymously.)

Anyway, when I’m on vacation, I think about my business. I think about what I love, what I hate, and what I want to change. There is nothing like thinking about your business (not the cases or the clients) while you are away from the phone calls (if your phone is ringing), other interruptions, the deadlines, and all the trappings of a lawyer’s day. (That was tip number one of today’s column for those of you shallow folks that can’t comprehend messages that aren’t in your face with drawings.)

One of the things I do a lot while I’m away is watch other businesses. I try to figure out how they make their money, why their employees are happy, or unhappy, why their customers patronize the store, restaurant, tour company, and how they handle problems. You’re an idiot if you are trying to build your law practice solely by watching how other lawyers run their practices. Client dynamics can be found in many places, and ideas come from everywhere. Most lawyers are doing it wrong anyway. (Enter tip number two — see how that works?)

Here’s what I saw over two weeks in California….

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Summer in Japan; Beautiful cherry blossoms; Radiation low.

Some of you are just getting back today after a nice summer vacation. Others are working in half-empty offices because their colleagues left for vacation this week.

But few of you will bring the kind of poetic grace to your out-of-office replies as one of my friends did. This elegant lawyer conveyed all the information anybody needed to know in two haikus….

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Tom Wallerstein

Some of you may already know that I don’t believe in dead weeks, so you can imagine the fits I’m having this year when the Fourth of July falls on a Wednesday. You know I’m out of sorts when a holiday that is supposed to be a single day off is turned into a five-day weekend in the middle of summer. Honestly, I was happy to give my associates and staff some much-deserved time off. But I’m pounding out this post anyway, and only after putting some finishing touches on a motion for summary judgment.

And I found time for reflective celebration. The Fourth of July has become a day when the powerful United States revels in its glory, and its citizens delight in colorful pyrotechnics that emulate the more beautiful aspect of warfare. Personally, I’ve always favored the disenfranchised, the underdog. And Independence Day is their day, too. The Fourth of July commemorates the victory of revolutionary insurgents who didn’t obey the traditional rules, and who triumphed over their more powerful adversaries. Good stuff.

Some people see the growing resurgence of regional, midsize and small firms as a revolution. Some people see alternative billing arrangements as a revolution. I tend to think that both those trends are somewhat overstated. I see them less as “revolutions” than as subtle “evolutions,” with important but limited long-term effect.

Still, Fourth of July week is a particularly appropriate time for this column.

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Tom Wallerstein

Anyone who has been around children is familiar with the challenge of getting them to eat what you want them to eat. “My daughter won’t eat vegetables.” “My son only eats cheetos.” Like a lot of parents, I find myself frustrated by this dynamic. But I also have to laugh, because I know the solution is so simple. If someone is hungry enough, they will easily overcome their aversion to whatever particular food they think they don’t like.

For example, you might not like broccoli, and you swear you would never eat broccoli under any circumstances. But if you were on a desert island with nothing to eat except broccoli, it would not take very long for you to overcome, or at least overpower, your distaste. So, if you really want your kid to eat X, then just don’t allow them to fill up on not-X. Nature will take care of the rest. We’ve all got to eat, and a child won’t die from voluntary starvation any more than someone can kill themselves by holding their breath.

Like a lot of kids, mine have a very narrow range of food that they profess to like. Dinner, therefore, has a familiar refrain. The kids insist they don’t like X, and I tell them, “That’s fine. I understand you don’t like X. No one can tell you what you should like, and what you shouldn’t. You don’t need to like X if you don’t want to. Now shut up and eat it.”

Thus, “You Don’t Have to Like It” has become something of a mantra to me.

What does this have to do with succeeding in a small law firm?

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Unless you have been living under a rock — or do not have female Facebook friends with mommy complexes — you have heard about Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Atlantic article, Why Women Still Can’t Have It All. It is apparently the most read article in the Atlantic’s history of online publication. And people are talking about it.

Most of my friend’s who have posted about the article are the demographic discussed in the piece — “younger” women who can’t have it all. They consistently proclaim the article to be our generation’s manifesto on work-life balance for women. The timing is perfect because I have almost outgrown my current manifesto, Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret.

One of the reasons that woman can’t have it all, says Slaughter, is because we have not come close to closing the gender gap in leadership. “Only when women wield power in sufficient numbers will we create a society that genuinely works for all women. That will be a society that works for everyone,” she wrote.” So true.

The article explains other reasons why we can’t have it all, offers some ideas for ways that we can get closer, and then does some other stuff. Truthfully, the article was too long, and I had to get back to my real work of trying to have it all.

So, what does these mean for small-firm female attorneys? What would having it all even look like at a small firm?

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Yep, born and raised right here in Miami, Florida. I know, you hate me more now. Shucks. When I was a kid though, the only people who took their talents to South Beach were drug dealers, prostitutes, and movie producers depicting the place through the eyes of Tony Montana.

And now we are NBA Champions. We deserve it. We’ve waited a whole six years for this.

And you hate us. We love it, watching all of you whine and moan about how much you hate the Heat, hate Lebron, how Miami “bought” their championship. Yep, we bought it – cost a fortune too, you petty jealous nothings. We are the best, we are having a parade, probably right at the moment you sit in your miserable office, or Starbucks, and read this.

No surprise that I am a big fan of divisive people. I love watching the hate, the squirming when these people are successful, the “yeah, but…” commentary. I love watching losers nip at the feet of winners.

Lawyers love to do this…

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