Small Law Firms

Keith Lee

For years now, there have been cries for more affordable “Access To Justice.” That is, to find ways to provide legal representation to those with low to modest income. From the federal government,  to the states, and all the way down to individual counties, there have been a variety of initiatives bandied about that seek to bridge the access to justice gap. Sure there are public defenders, but they are overworked and legal aid is spread thin. So people continue to try new ways to provide affordable legal services. And a few lawyers in Utah think they have an idea to solve the problem…

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I’m sitting in a Vancouver, BC coffee shop with Gerry Riskin, author of the Amazing Firms, Amazing Practices blog. We’re talking about leadership and the differing mindsets of lawyers and business people. Our conversation was prompted by Gerry’s mindset slide:

The Professional's Mindset and the Slight Edge Theory

I can relate. Early in my legal career, I worked with lawyers in leadership roles who wore this mindset like body armor. They did not inspire. They did not act in ways that moved people closer to a common goal. They often left a bad wake. They lacked awareness. They were not good leaders….

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Bruce Stachenfeld

I am famous for a saying. Actually I am not really famous, but I have a saying that I have been, well, saying for years, as follows:

“Lawyers are only happy when they’re miserable.”

What I mean is this: You are working round-the-clock so much you haven’t even been home for a full day and hardly at all for a month on a doozie of a deal. You are completely sick of it. All you can think of is when the deal will be “over.” You are clearly “miserable.” If only you could have your personal life back! Then, finally, the deal closes — at last. Your client is wiring out the funds. As the transfer of funds is happening, a (terrible) thought races through your mind. You hate yourself for the thought — you try not to have the thought — but you simply can’t help it… and the thought is that you are kind of worried because you have nothing to do now and that is disquieting… gee, what if work has really slowed… at some point this will be a real problem. You’ve had your personal life back for maybe a second — you haven’t even taken a shower — and you are worrying where your next deal will come from.

Or the other way around. Work has been slow — very slow — for a couple of months. You have enjoyed some rounds of golf and gone out to a bunch of dinners and lunches, but you really would like a nice tricky and challenging deal to sink your teeth into. And of course you are mindful of the fact that like it or not lawyers just have to bill hours. That is how we make a living, and you just aren’t billing hours. Not a good thing. You are edgy — if only you could have a big deal to work on….

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It used to be that the world of corporate transactions was the sole province of Biglaw. After all, handling complex matters like mergers and acquisitions required manpower and overhead — and lots of it. Well-paid junior associates were an integral part of the process, and the costs of doing business were driven by corporate clients’ expectations of grandiose reception areas and white-glove treatment as proof of both commitment and excellence.

These days, however, technology has leveled the playing field, making it possible for boutique law firms to compete with Biglaw in ways never before possible. Many of these boutique firms, comprised of Biglaw lawyers seeking to practice law on their own terms, have sprung up in the wake of large-firm mergers and dissolutions. Creative thinking and the innovative use of technology have been the keys to their success, allowing these boutiques to reduce overhead costs and run their practices more effectively and efficiently, saving their clients time and money.

Don’t believe me? Well, look no further than Bailey Duquette, a Manhattan-based boutique law firm….

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For the past few weeks, I’ve been writing about law school hoping that it would help would-be law students make an informed decision. I exposed some misperceptions about law school that no one discussed. I also suggested some cost-effective and possibly lucrative alternatives to a legal education. And I wrote about some last-minute things to consider before going to law school.

But some of you will still go to law school for the wrong reasons and pay rip-off prices. Ego, familial expectations, and peer pressure may play a role in your decision. So I want to finish the law-school-themed posts by issuing a warning to students and their parents about the consequences of graduating without a meaningful job and with six figure, nearly nondischargeable student loan debt….

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Making people think you are not horrible is a full-time job for lawyers. Gallup did a poll on the most trustworthy professions in the United States and, you guessed it, lawyers are near the bottom. You know who’s the most trusted profession? Doctors and nurses, and they are the number 3 cause of death in the United States. Even historically, two hundred years ago, lawyers were drafting and signing the Declaration of Independence and doctors were using leeches to heal people. I’m pretty sure that, on top of killing fewer people, the average person will be overcharged in their life more by doctors and nurses than by lawyers, but whatever. So, again, making people think we are not horrible is an uphill battle for us.

The Internet is helping some of us tip the scales in one way or the other. Each one of these topics could be their own article, but for now, I wanted to give you a short primer on how to shrug off the shroud of horribleness we have as lawyers.

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Let’s start with a definition. Merriam-Webster defines “autonomy” as “the state of existing or acting separately from others.” Meaning you have the proverbial “control over your own destiny,” or put another way, are not dependent on others. In many respects, complete autonomy is a fiction for a lawyer. We are all dependent — on our clients, our partners, our firms. But lawyers still value autonomy. It may be elusive, particularly in Biglaw, but it is an important contributor to career satisfaction and performance.

In fact, earning a significant degree of autonomy was among the leading factors in making my Biglaw experience a positive one. Yes, I said earned, rather than “being granted” or “given.” In Biglaw, you need to carve out personal space for yourself. It is not something that is given. Nor does anyone tell you what you need to do to earn your measure of independence. At a very high level, it is necessary to project both confidence and competence — to your clients, peers, and superiors, at all times. If you are successful, and earn some autonomy, there is a higher likelihood that you will be happy in your Biglaw job. Imagine that.

Perhaps surprisingly, your Biglaw firm actually wants you to have a degree of autonomy….

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After twenty years of operating my own law firm, I still answer my own phone – much to the pleasant surprise of many of my callers. Though you’d think that having the firm principal pick up would signal a one-person, fly-by-night operation, to the contrary, callers’ ability to get in touch with me directly conveys the impression that I’m an accessible, hands-on kind of lawyer.

Of course, answering the phone works for my practice because frankly, I don’t get all that many calls. Most of my clients and referrals who want to speak with me by phone will typically email me initially to determine a mutually agreeable time for a call. And because my work is so specialized and many cases come via referral, when clients reach my voice mail, they’re not likely to move on to the next lawyer on the list of internet search results. That means if I’m too busy to talk, I can let calls go through to voicemail without fear of losing a piece of business.

But what about lawyers who aren’t in such a position?

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Keith Lee

Yesterday over at Hercules and the Umpire, Judge Kopf noted an article from the Federal Judicial Center regarding social media use among jurors. Also in the article was a brief bit on social media use by attorneys during voir dire.

Most judges stated they did not know whether attorneys were using social media during voir dire, and most do not address the issue with attorneys before voir dire. Only 25 judges reported they knew attorneys had used social media in at least one of their trials, usually during voir dire. Attorneys may have used social media to look at prospective jurors’ Facebook pages, to run names through search engines, or to look at online profiles, blogs or websites. Of the 466 judges responding to this survey question, 120 do not allow attorneys to research prospective jurors online during voir dire.

Which caused Judge Kopf to ask: “So long as the use of social media by a lawyer in the courtroom picking a jury is discreet, why in the world would a federal judge interfere with a lawyer using social media to obtain information about jurors during the jury selection process? That doesn’t make any sense to me? ”

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Many people consider going to law school because they think they have no other career options after college. For most of these people, their GPA wasn’t great, and they have an average or even bad LSAT score. So they resign themselves to going to an average law school with plans to do really well in their first year and then transfer to a top school.

We warn the noobs that going to law school on a whim is a bad idea. We tell them about the many law students who don’t make it to the top of the class and are unable to get a job after graduation. So they are back to square one. But our warning does not address a fundamental problem: what alternatives do these people really have?

While that is ultimately not our problem, I want to talk about some alternatives to law school that an applicant should consider:

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