Small Law Firms

It is funny how our kids can reawaken old interests for us. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, my eldest son started playing organized roller hockey this year. Aside from becoming a quite loud vocal presence at his games, I was also inspired to buy some gear and start practicing with him. I have already addressed the interplay between the Biglaw and boutique “lifestyle” regarding the latter. This week, I want to address another “side effect” of my rekindled interest in hockey. Because you are forced to confront where you stand when something happens in your current reality that sparks memories of an earlier time.

So after a long-hiatus, I have been watching a fair amount of playoff hockey lately. Especially Rangers games, like a good number of my fellow New Yorkers. And when the Rangers made the Stanley Cup by beating the Canadiens a few nights ago, my thought process went like this: “Wow, the Rangers made the Cup!” followed by “This is great, if they win it will be their first Cup since ‘94!” followed by “Hey, I remember senior year in high school when the Rangers winning the Cup was a huge deal” followed by “No way, I graduated high school TWENTY years ago!”

That feels like a very long time. But despite the passage of time, I can also remember certain things from back then as if they just happened….

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Home is where the heart business is?

Recently, a short piece in the Marshfield News Herald describing the downsides of entrepreneurship included this sad story about another solo practice that didn’t make it to the finish line, this time for geographic reasons:

“A few years ago, a lawyer I know had to leave her hometown where she had lived most of her life and move cross country for family reasons. And because she loved her solo practice and the flexibility it afforded her as a mother, and since she is smart and confident, she decided to re-start her solo practice in the new city, thinking it would not be too difficult. But it proved to be much more challenging than she ever thought.”

“Back here, in her hometown where she knew everyone, clients were not hard to come by. In the new city however, she had a lot fewer contacts and even fewer potential clients. And given that back here she had not really had to work too hard to get business, she never really learned about marketing, so that too was new. Eventually, between the Not-So-Great Recession and the challenges of starting from scratch, she finally had to go to work for someone else.”

The article got me thinking: How much of an edge does a lawyer’s hometown — or college or law school town, for that matter — provide in starting a successful solo practice?

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Keith Lee

It’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day life of a lawyer. And the longer you are a lawyer, the more it will come to define you – if you let it. But it is a limiting definition, even for the best and brightest of lawyers. Take Marcus Tullius Cicero, likely the most famous lawyer in history. Upon being acclaimed for his skills as a lawyer, it is said that Cicero remarked:

“And yet he often desired his friends not to call him orator, but philosopher, because he had made philosophy his business, and had only used rhetoric as an instrument for attaining his objects in public life. But the desire of glory has great power in washing the tinctures of philosophy out of the souls of men, and in imprinting the passions of the common people, by custom and conversation, in the minds of those that take a part in governing them, unless the politician be very careful so to engage in public affairs as to interest himself only in the affairs themselves, but not participate in the passions that are consequent to them.”

– Plutarch, Cicero, Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans (c. 75-100 AD), John Dryden translation

Here we have the greatest lawyer in all of Rome, insisting that he wished to be remembered as a philosopher — a thinker — not a lawyer. Being a lawyer was part of who he was; it did not define him….

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Christina Gagnier

Lawyers are not necessarily members of the most beloved profession. While an obvious statement, it is important to realize that your work may end up, despite your most ardent efforts, upsetting your own clients or any foes that you may have had in the course of a litigation matter.

One place that many lawyers overlook as a liability is intellectual property. If someone feels the need to get retribution, messing with a firm by taking advantage of “would-be” intellectual property may be a tactic employed. Make sure you are prepared by taking some common sense and low-cost precautions…

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Occasionally, someone wants me to do legal work outside of my practice area. I tend to refer the potential client to an attorney who can handle it and ask for a referral fee when appropriate. But sometimes it makes sense to work the case myself with outside help — for example, if the work is for an existing client and he cannot afford the referring attorney’s fee. So as a gesture of appreciation to the client, you want to help him for a reduced fee. Or you want to get experience in the area of law that is involved.

And let’s be anonymously honest. Sometimes the case has potential for large attorney’s fees and you want a bigger cut than the firm’s standard referral percentage. It’s hard not to feel bitter when you get a paltry referral fee up front and later learn that the attorney who handled the matter got a half-million-dollar payout.

So today, I want to write about how I typically (but not always) decide whether to refer a case out completely, or co-counsel with someone else. I assume readers are familiar with and will follow the ABA Model Rules 7.2 and 1.5(e) and your state’s versions of these rules. My first priority is to refer a client to a competent attorney, even if it means a smaller referral fee or none at all. But when there are three or more equally competent and business-savvy attorneys competing for your referrals, the size and girth of the compensation package can be appealing…

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Astute Biglaw associates, and their fellow associates at boutiques and smaller firms, share an understanding with Tyrion Lannister. For those who don’t watch Game of Thrones, nor read the books upon which the popular series is based, Tyrion (played by the Emmy-winning actor Peter Dinklage) is the proverbial “second son,” whose father serves as the de facto ruler of the kingdom. His sister is the Queen Regent whose taste for wine matches only her disdain for her younger brother.

At this point in the series (spoiler alert — skip down two paragraphs if you are not up to date with the show), Tyrion stands on trial for alleged regicide. Rightfully skeptical of his chances of exoneration by the tribunal standing in judgment of him, Tyrion elects for “trial by combat” as a means of proving his innocence. While a smart choice, Tyrion is far from capable of physically defeating the literal “Mountain” man that his sister and accuser has selected to represent the “State” in Westeros v. Lannister. He needs a champion.

And he finds one, in the form of a visiting Prince who nurses a longstanding grudge against both Tyrion’s family members, and the man who will be his co-combatant — lucky for Tyrion, as his previous attempts to recruit others to stand as his champion had failed. When we see him at his moment of salvation, he is a desperate man, jailed, facing capital punishment at the hands of a blood-starved beast who disembowels malnourished slaves for sport. The appearance of a champion may not improve his situation all that much. But it gives him hope, and with hope comes the will to carry on.

Law firm associates may not have it quite as bad as Tyrion, but they share in common with him the need for a champion to secure their future….

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Keith Lee

As has been discussed ad nauseam, it’s a tough time to be a lawyer right now. The legal industry is in a rut and the economy continues to limp along. With the flood of lawyers that have been forced to hang their shingle over the past few years, there has been increased competition for clients. This has led to some fairly cutthroat competition in the world of attorney advertising.

Many types of practice don’t advertise. Or rather, their advertising is of the tried-and-true “display expertise” variety. Write articles for your bar association magazine, speak at clients’ industry events, join boards and committees. Not so much talking about yourself, but showing that you are active and engaged in the legal industry. Let your reputation speak for itself; let others talk about you. Develop a reputation, not a brand.

But building a reputation is hard. Developing a brand is expensive. Wouldn’t it be easier if you could just mooch off of someone else’s hard work or money? Such was the proposition to New York attorney (and occasional ATL writer) Eric Turkewitz  this past week…

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Christina Gagnier

Cybersecurity is becoming an important issue for lawyers, whether you are a solo or working at a multinational law firm. When it is so easy and seamless from a workflow perspective to move to the cloud, many firms are pushing their operations and employees to this technology. There are many considerations to weigh when deciding to go from the file cabinet or local server to the cloud…

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Partners think that they have all the power in the world, and when they want something, they try to get it — no matter what the cost. From new toys, to new clients, to new women, their voracious appetites for more are simply insatiable. If these playthings are unattainable, partners will become acutely aggressive in their pursuit, especially when it comes to potential sexual conquests.

Take, for example, the case of a prominent partner who recently found himself on the receiving end of a sexual harassment lawsuit. He allegedly sent a first-year associate videos about sexual techniques and engaged her in discussions about that literary classic, Fifty Shades of Grey (affiliate link).

Did we mention this alleged tour de force of sexual harassment culminated with the partner purportedly sending the associate emails describing his workplace sexual fantasies in great detail?

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Bruce Stachenfeld

In my article of two weeks ago, I threw out the proposition that if you are running a law firm — or a department or practice group in a law firm — the critical mission is to “attract, train, retain and inspire talent.” If you can do this, you are probably going to accomplish great things — and the converse. So the question now is, how do you do it?

Below is the best I have been able to come up with. It is (mostly) from a speech I gave at an IMN conference in 2011. (You can read the original speech here.)

First — and foremost — Talent wants to be with other talented people. They crave it in their souls. They will put up with major “not nice people” and even poor working conditions, if they are convinced that other very talented people are doing it with them in the trenches. Consider Apple and Steve Jobs. He wasn’t thought of as a nice guy; indeed, quite the opposite. But when people looked around the room, they were awed at the skill sets of those in the room with them, and boy did they want to stay in that room, in the worst way. So they put up with Jobs’s not–niceness. (Of course, I do not advocate being this way as a boss — far from it.)

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