Small Law Firms

Tom Wallerstein

When lawyers form a new firm, one of their first, most important projects is usually designing their website. This makes sense because the website is often the first thing that a prospective client or referral source will see. Its importance cannot be overstated.

The process of designing a website (or printed marketing material) is considerably different for a new enterprise than it is for an established one. For an established firm, the process involves trying to portray to the outside world the essence of what the firm is and emphasize what distinguishes it from its competition.

For a new firm, however, the process is very different because you must first conceptualize what you want to be before you decide how you want to present yourself to the outside world. In this way, the website of a new firm is more aspirational than it is descriptive. For example, when a new firm proclaims that it handles practice areas A, B, and C, it often means that it intends to handle those practice areas.

This dynamic plays itself out in virtually everything a new business does. When it chooses a logo, or color scheme, or even its name, it engages in a process of self-conceptualization, imagining what it wants to be. I think that’s one reason why new businesses spend so much time, and so enjoy, focusing on relatively simple things like deciding on a logo. It’s fun to imagine your potential….

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If you’re one of the few left a lawyer that believes success and enjoyment of the practice of law may involve more than just sitting at home with some computer equipment and an internet connection, here’s a list of people, yes, real live people, that have been important in my practice:

1. The Accountant.

No, not your father’s accountant, but an accountant that has a few years on you and experience with lawyers. You know, someone like you that is building a business but in another field. I know, you have Turbo Tax or some other software you can type some numbers into on April 14th, but that’s not the reason for an accountant. Your accountant should know where you are financially and where you want to be. He should be someone you meet with at least twice a year and discuss your whole financial picture. Your accountant should be listening to the details of your finances, your thoughts about business, and giving you advice — not just putting numbers in to an 1120-S or 1040.

2. The Financial Advisor.

No, not the guy calling you with a “tip.” Find someone who is a certified financial planner that has been at the same brokerage house for over five years — not just someone with over five years’ experience. (Cue the blowback from financial advisors who find this advice bad for business). Why? I like someone that knows the philosophy of their firm and has some knowledge of their money managers. And I know, you have no money to put away or invest in the market, but if you build that great LinkedIn profile to start making money, you should. Maybe some advice from a financial planner will put you in a position to have a few bucks to put away, and soon enough you’ll have a killer defined benefit program. (I learned about defined benefit programs from my financial advisor.) Oh, and my financial advisor often sets up lunches for me to meet other professionals.

Who else should be essential to your law practice?

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Kinda like this, but with an FBI uniform.

It’s hard out here for an attorney, when you’re tryin’ to get money for the loans…

Especially when your legal work forces you to make enemies with an angry ex-husband who might try to, say, blow up your car. Or when you do contract work in a city nuisance department and wind up targeted by hit men for your work on the case against a local strip club.

No, this isn’t the trailer for Taken 2, it’s just two recent cases out of Texas and St. Louis.

Luckily, no one was killed in the car bomb attack or a strip club owner’s plan to kill the Fort-Worth Mayor and a mild-mannered contract attorney, but there’s plenty of stranger-than-fiction details to these cases….

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Tom Wallerstein

Blogging is not something I expected to make part of my weekly routine as a litigator. Yet here I am, writing a post every week that relates in some way to my own experience of having moved “from Biglaw to boutique.” This post marks my 40th post on Above the Law, and for several reasons, I remain grateful and look forward to the opportunity to write a post every week, dead weeks included.

If your goal is to build credibility regarding your expertise in a certain area, then blogging — or tweeting, for that matter — about that topic is a helpful start. Blogging about a certain topic is in some ways the online equivalent of presenting a seminar or CLE course.

Generally, the benefit of presenting a seminar is greater than the sum of its parts. For example, if you give a seminar, each attendee is a prospective client. But more than that, you also help build a reputation as someone knowledgeable about your topic.

Legal blogging works the same way. If you consistently blog about a certain topic, then you have a good platform by which you can establish credibility as an expert in the field. If you tweet and re-tweet about your topic, then someone searching Twitter is more likely to come across your name and assume you have expertise in the area. I know from experience that valuable contacts and potential clients actually do consult Twitter for lawyers to hire….

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Our first-ever Lawyerly Lairs contest to find the Best Law Firm Offices in America was a huge success. We received numerous nominations, which we reduced to a field of eight finalists (and four honorable mentions).

Then we opened the polls. Voter turnout ran high, with more than 4,500 votes cast in the contest.

Now, the moment you’ve been waiting for. It’s time to announce our winner….

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Before I provide some advice on client relations that will be deemed “totally wrong” by some and “good advice” by me pretending to be anonymous, I wanted you all to know that I bought a wireless printer that allows me to send documents from my phone, wherever I am, to my printer at my office. Although I currently have no use for this feature in my law practice, and haven’t in 17 years, I hope this puts me in better stead with those of you that think I hate tech.

Now let’s talk about clients, for those of you that have some.

The core of running a practice is machines and toys clients. That you are able to do competent work for clients doesn’t matter if you are not versed in the retaining and retention of them. The retention of any client starts at the initial contact, not when they come to your coffee shop office with a check. For those of you who have practices where you never meet with clients, your initial contact with them (unless it’s them using your website as an ATM to buy documents) is even more important.

While you may be in a position where the client is only calling you, most clients are calling several lawyers. Regardless, you are now auditioning for the job. That audition begins at the very moment you first speak to the client, or the person calling for the client….

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Our favorite lawyers in Las Vegas are at it again. You may recall last winter when we presented you with one of the most fantastically horrible legal commercials ever, involving exploding animated ham, a guy in a Cosby sweater, and death metal.

Well, my good friends over at Hamilton Law have offered up not just another wacky commercial, but a series of ridiculous billboards advertising the services of the Sin City bankruptcy and personal injury firm.

This time around, we get more awesome porcine puns, cheesy acting, and ugly sweaters. If there’s anything I can respect, it’s an undaunted commitment to crazy….

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The polls remain open in our Lawyerly Lairs contest to find the Best Law Offices in America. If you haven’t done so already, you can review the eight finalists and cast your vote here.

The Georgia boutique of Bouhan, Williams & Levy took an early lead, thanks to their amazing offices in a restored Southern mansion. Right now, though, 1-800-LAW-FIRM is in first place. How many law firms have “walking tracks” and exercise rooms?

Due to the overwhelming response to our call for submissions, we were unable to include all of the great spaces that you shared with us. Today we’d like to recognize our “Honorable Mentions” — four firms that narrowly missed the final cut….

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Tom Wallerstein

I’ve been known to quip, “I thought I was wrong, once, but I was mistaken.” But I realize that my column here on Above the Law has often been “wrong” in at least one important way: I’ve compared apples to oranges.

For example, I authored a “top ten” list of differences between working in a big firm and working in a boutique. But many of the items focused on differences between employee and owner. I compared working where “you get paid either a salary or an hourly rate” with “running your own shop.” I compared “making all the decisions in my cases” with “waiting for a partner to act on my recommendations.” I compared doing the grunt work with making the important decisions.

That strikes me as comparing apples to oranges because all those comparisons actually contrasted being an employee with being an owner. That fundamental distinction accounts for many of the supposed differences between working in Biglaw and working in a small firm or boutique.

But what about associates who are considering becoming associates at a small firm or boutique? That’s the true apples to apples comparison. If you’re not starting your own business, but will instead remain an associate, what are the real differences when moving “From Biglaw to Boutique”?

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An article came out this week musing on solo practice from resident tech tweeter Niki Black. I felt bad there were no comments, so I thought I would write one.

From Black’s article: “Nowadays, however, it’s much easier to launch a solo practice with a minimal up front investment. All that’s really needed is a small amount of savings, a laptop, a smart phone, and an Internet connection.”

There you have it. We’re done here. All you basement-dwelling “my law school screwed me over by lying to me” bitter and broke lawyers now have the golden ticket: a few bucks in the bank, a quick trip to Best Buy, and voila — a solo practice is born. You heard it here — “[a]ll that’s really needed” is… tech!

And let’s not get into other necessities, like opening an operating and trust account, incorporating, learning the proper way to pay yourself and the IRS, securing appropriate insurances (life, health, disability), maybe having an address to receive mail that isn’t your parents’ house, figuring out how to properly organize and store client files that aren’t in the precious “cloud,” and understanding your state bar’s advertising rules.

I’m sure there are a few dozen other things I’ve missed, but hey, you can only handle so much, right?

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