Small Law Firms

Tom Wallerstein

I was talking to a friend who is a junior partner in a large firm, and who is thinking of starting her own firm. She knew what practice area she would focus on, and she had at least one client who she felt sure would go with her. But she still had two critical questions to resolve. First, she wasn’t sure if she wanted to open a solo practice, or if she would try to recruit someone to form a partnership. Second, she wasn’t sure if she would form a “virtual” office, or try to start a traditional “brick and mortar” shop.

With regard to her “solo versus group” decision, we talked about the differences in tax treatment, liability exposure, etc. But I offered her my opinion that another important consideration is the practical, day-to-day differences between running your own shop and being in a partnership….

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There are only two weeks remaining before New Year’s Eve. That means that my small-firm singles only have a short window to secure their New Year’s Eve date. And according to our survey, none of you will be working on the holiday, so you better get your act together.

Luckily for you, I am an expert at finding love. If you can believe it, this skill outshines my genius at doling out small-firm advice. And since I write under a pseudonym, none of you know that I am a 46-year-old spinster who has eggs in the freezer. Oh, well I guess you do now, but let’s get on with my tips for a successful small-firm seduction….

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What do you get when you combine pig products, a sketchy guy in a mustache, and death metal? One colossally horrendous law firm commercial.

The folks at Hamilton Law in Las Vegas were presumably late to the domain-name-grabbing game and had to settle for being called “ham legal.” Rather than fight their unfortunate web address, the firm has apparently opted to embrace it and go whole hog into swine-themed advertising.

If you’ve ever wondered what a pig-centric legal commercial looks like, you’re in luck. The answer is a bad Saturday Night Live skit with a voice-over by a circa mid-2000s Jack Black promoting Tenacious D. Check out the horror, after the jump….

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We are pleased and proud to announce Above the Law’s third annual law firm holiday card contest. This happy, heartwarming feature is a Christmastime favorite, as beloved as figgy pudding. It’s the perfect cure for the bonus season blues.

For the past two years, Biglaw and small firms have duked it out for the distinction of having the best Christmas card. Last year’s honors went to a small firm: Proctor Heyman, the Delaware corporate litigation and counseling boutique. In the inaugural holiday card contest, a large firm prevailed: Akin Gump (which recently announced its bonuses, at least in New York).

We’ve already received several emails asking about when this year’s contest would start. The answer is: it starts today!

Read on — and read carefully — for the official contest rules….

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After graduating from college, I had a job interview with Mars. The interviewer asked me, “If you could be a candy bar, which one would you be and why?” I was not prepared for such a difficult question. First, I had to try to recall which candy bars were manufactured by Mars. Second, deciding which candy bar was my favorite was like choosing a favorite child. After a little thought, I responded, “I would be a Twix bar because there are two of them.” In addition to making no sense, my answer revealed a personality flaw that is best not disclosed up front: I am indecisive. And I guess I have a split personality? Unsurprisingly, I did not get the job.

There are a few other issues, beyond choosing my favorite candy bar, that I have difficulty resolving. The issue du jour is whether or not it is worth getting more education to get a (better) job. And I am not just talking about a J.D., I am talking about the Small Business LLM from Concord Law School.

Concord Law School launched its Small Business LLM program in the fall of 2010. Designed to be completed part-time online in two years, the program offers hands-on practical education to equip practitioners or recent law grads with the skills needed to serve small business clients. Tuition is $600 per credit hour, or $14,400 for the program. While Concord does not offer scholarships, there are opportunities for students to obtain outside financial aid and private loans.

Is it worth it? Let’s discuss the pros and cons….

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Being a small firm lawyer usually means that you’re not a cog in the wheel of some multi-national corporation while enjoying their stream of business sent to your firm because of someone on another floor. Small firm lawyers either have to blow their brains out on ads featuring their angry mugs (arms crossed in aggressive, “fight-for-you” anger), direct mail, or the art and science of talking to people and developing relationships, otherwise known as networking.

In this arena, there are two types of lawyers: Those that “don’t do networking,” and those that do it because it is required to establish a word of mouth practice. I know you think there’s a third — those that love networking, but those lawyers are to be avoided at all costs. Lawyers that love going out after work and eating bar food, drinking low-level vodka, and asking “so, where’s your office,” are rejects. Ignore them. They just want to give you their business card the minute they lay eyes on you and tell you to “call (me) whenever you have a (usually PI or real estate) matter.”

For those that want the word of mouth practice, and the reputation in the community as a go-to person (assuming you are a competent lawyer, and these days, that’s a big assumption), here are some things to consider….

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Tom Wallerstein

Success in Biglaw often is measured by the size of an attorney’s “book of business.” Not surprisingly, having a book of business is also the best way to ensure the success of a private practice. The bigger the book, the greater your exit options. So whether your goal is to make partner or to open your own firm, everyone knows that the key is to develop a book of business.

That is easy to say, but virtually impossible to do in a big firm setting. Many big firms handle only matters in which the amount at stake is in the millions of dollars. This means that the prospect of an associate landing such a case is slim; a client would never entrust a multi-million dollar dispute to an un-tested associate. Associates are told to attend networking events, but what is the prospect of meeting someone who just so happens to have a ten million dollar dispute laying around, and who has not yet staffed the matter, and who is willing to entrust the matter to a junior associate he just met?

Once upon a time, mentoring relationships were strong, and firms were loyal to their associates. A loyal associate could hope that the partner for whom he or she worked would encourage clients to develop a relationship with the associate and allow the associate to claim ownership of future engagements from that client. If nothing else, a loyal associate could expect to inherit clients from a retiring partner.

Alas, the traditional method of building a book of business no longer works for most associates. Firms now sometimes go so far as to actively discourage associates from forming too-strong relationships with clients, lest the associate leave and take the client with them. And even if an associate is fortunate enough to get client contact, clients are likely to develop loyalties to the partner on the matter, even if the associate is doing most of the work. Unfortunately, just because you do good work doesn’t mean that over time you will magically develop that elusive book of business.

To make matters worse, it’s often impossible to predict future business, especially for litigators. If a client hires you for a patent dispute and pays you $1 million in fees in 2011 before the case settles, does that mean you have a $1 million book of business, even if you have no reason to expect any business from that client in 2012? How can you guarantee repeat business from any client, especially in litigation? Do you need a three or five year average? Those are long time frames for associates.

With all these challenges, how can an associate ever hope to make the rain they will need if they want to open their own firm?

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Last week in Non-Sequiturs, we pointed you to a photo essay of some of the sketchiest lawyer billboards out there. From dogs, to eye patches, to crazy nicknames, these billboards are the epitome of what makes local lawyer advertising so painfully bad.

It’s tough to say which is worse — these misguided attempts at originality, or the overly earnest types who make lofty promises to fight for you and protect your rights. The serious advertisements are equally subject to mockery.

One Florida solo practitioner may have discovered the perfect approach. No over-the-top gimmicks, no vows to fight injustice. Just the simple, honest truth….

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This weekend I was able to catch up on my favorite reality television show, Real Housewives of Atlanta. I assure you that I watch the show only because of its profile of small-firm lawyer, Phaedra Parks. The November 27, 2011 episode entitled “Jewels Be Dangled,” taught us a very important lesson for small-firm practitioners.

Phaedra brought Kandi a special present for her 35th birthday. All wrapped up in a giant box with a bow, Phaedra presented her friend with a special performance by her client, Ridiculous. For those of you unfamiliar with the Infamous Ridiculous, he is a very well-endowed stripper who will shake his business in the face of audience members and then, as an encore, his own. The performance upset at least a few party guests and, in typical Housewives fashion, drama ensued.

While the naive observer may think that Phaedra brought Ridiculous to the party because the show is, well, ridiculous, the truth is Ms. Parks was warning small-firm lawyers about an issue they must confront in running their practice….

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I hate this man's movies, but he'd make an excellent mall lawyer.

Here’s the movie pitch: Matthew McConaughey plays a slick business man with a law degree. More like his character from Tropic Thunder than Lincoln Lawyer, but with a little bit of Two for the Money thrown in, and none of the Time to Kill earnestness.

Anyway, McConaughey comes up with this idea of renting a kiosk at the mall and putting lawyers there. It’s bringing the law to the people. It’s a straight money grab, and the only way it’ll turn a profit is if he hires the cheapest lawyer available.

Enter Kevin James, a laid off autoworker who went to law school at night and still doesn’t have a job. Via chance, they meet, and McConaughey has his guy. Hilarity ensues as mall lawyers becomes insanely popular, but because James is telling regular people that they don’t need a lawyer to handle most of their issues.

Wouldn’t you watch that? I mean, I wouldn’t because I only watch good movies, but I bet I could get that script greenlighted by Paramount or somebody.

And trust me, the movie would be way more fun than “The Law Booth” at the Boynton Beach Mall in Palm Beach….

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