Small Law Firms

Bruce Stachenfeld

I guess at heart I am a competitor. I want my law firm to be the absolute top law firm in the world – at least in our niche of being The Pure Play in Real Estate Law.

I would like us to be loved by clients — loved by lawyers — incredibly profitable — the greatest law firm that ever hit the legal world. And to do this I need to crush my competition — right?

Or maybe not right. Let’s think about this a bit and see what happens….

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As you know, in this column I examine how individual solo and small-firm lawyers are using new technologies in their day-to-day practices. Hopefully, my columns will encourage and help other lawyers to do the same.

In today’s column you will meet Mitch Jackson, a California personal injury attorney, and will learn how he uses the wearable technology Google Glass in his law firm. Mitch founded his law firm, Jackson & Wilson, Inc., with his wife in 1988. Since then they’ve dedicated their practice to representing victims of personal injury and wrongful death.

It’s entirely possible that you’ve already heard of Mitch. Whether on Twitter, LinkedInFacebook, or YouTube, he has an incredibly strong social media presence. Most recently, part of his online focus has been on his use of Google Glass in his law practice. So of course he immediately came to mind when I conceived of the idea for the column. I knew I had to reach out to Mitch and explore how he uses Google Glass in his practice — and whether the technology is actually useful or whether it’s too nascent to be particularly helpful for lawyers.

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Soon after I started my solo practice, I realized that I needed to develop and execute a plan for getting new clients. At first, I did it the old-fashioned way: networking, joining organizations, giving elevator speeches, passing out business cards, and doing contract work for other attorneys. This method took time and cost money and it didn’t work to the extent I had hoped. So I asked a few colleagues whether I should hire someone to help me improve my business.

I received the names of consultants, SEO experts, and coaches. Someone even suggested I talk to Tony Robbins. Some people swore by them while others said that the “advice” they provided was a bunch of hooey and can be found on the internet or at the library for free.

Over the last few years, I have become very skeptical of business development professionals (sometimes known as “marketeers”) who claim that they know the “secret technique” for improving my solo practice. A number of them are lawyers or ex-lawyers who — for one reason or another — decided to go into consulting and coaching. Also, some of these “experts” have questionable backgrounds and may not understand the professional rules that we lawyers have to follow.

I should point out that the purpose of this post is not to badmouth any particular person or the legal business development industry. This guy covered that already. But click onwards to find out the reasons for my skepticism and my thoughts on when it might make sense to retain a business development professional….

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The first question people usually ask me when they find out I am a lawyer is: “What kind of lawyer are you?” My response is usually: “I am a story teller.” A good deal of my practice involves helping lawyers tell stories, because no juror ever said, “Well… I’m not really sure that I understand the plaintiff’s point of view completely. Let’s give him $10 million.” I usually advocate for the cyborg approach: part human and part machine. I think you can tell an effective story without a computer, but from my experience, jurors are a reflective part of the population that consciously moved out of the radio era and into CGI-laden-movies era.

I use neat hardware (sometimes cheap hardware), I use neat software, and I almost always use a whole lot of custom graphics. Talking about how to make a great graphic is almost impossible. Most of the good ones are good for unique reasons. Most of the bad ones are bad because they fall into a few general categories. Here are a couple of those categories:

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Patent litigators travel frequently. I addressed the topic back in early March. Travel can be tiring, or fun, or a combination of the two. And travel episodes are sometimes good for a laugh afterwards. Sometimes, you can even learn a business lesson or two from a travel experience. On a recent trip, I was reminded that trying to save some money can be costly in other ways. And while it is nice to be running a firm that is a cheaper alternative to Biglaw, there is no excuse for letting that price differential compromise the quality of our services. We don’t, and never will, but reminders of that principle do not hurt either.

A few months ago, Zach and I needed to make a trip to meet with a client and separately deal with an issue in one of our cases. When I was in Biglaw, both of the firms I worked for had in-house travel agents, and because of the nature of my practice, I got to know the actual agents pretty well. If I had a business trip, all it took was an email or phone call, and everything would be arranged based on my travel profile and preferences. The occasional “can you get me an earlier flight” or “flight cancelled, get me home” situation was often handled seamlessly as well. And while I was never in the “client is paying for it, so it’s first class for me” camp, I also never hesitated while at Biglaw to incur additional travel cost when there was a compelling business reason for it.

So if it cost a bit more to take a flight at a certain time of day, so be it — especially if flying at those times would make me more productive, i.e., capable of generating billable hours. Or if an upgrade that would allow me to get some much-needed rest was available for a moderate cost, I would take it. But I could not stomach employing some well-worn Biglaw travel tricks, such as always booking refundable full-fare tickets in coach to pretty much guarantee an upgrade. As the years went by, of course, increased client focus on expenses cut out some of the marginally abusive practices. It is hard to worry about securing an upgrade — when you are trying to get the client to pay for the trip in the first place.

Things are different now that I have my own boutique firm….

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The Am Law 100 average spread is 11.1 to 1.

* If you’ve been dying to know what the partner compensation spread looks like at your firm, then we’ve got your fix. Check out the insane 23 to 1 spread over at Perkins Coie. [Am Law Daily]

* “It’s a complete structural change, and it’s not going away. The end result is fewer graduates, and fewer law schools.” With enrollment still dropping, the end seems near. [Boston Globe]

* “I predicted the collapse of legal education, but I didn’t quite predict how bad it would be.” Dean Frank Wu of UC Hastings Law is fighting his way out of a rankings slump. Good luck. [The Recorder]

* Widener is the latest law school to roll out a solo / small firm incubator. Only grads from the class of 2014 may apply. Earlier grads are ineligible because they presumably have jobs… maybe. [PennLive.com]

* You may think Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Scalia are “stuck in the past” and “disconnected from the real world,” but you may be wrong. You can read Uncertain Justice (affiliate link), by Laurence Tribe and Joshua Matz, to find out why. [New York Times]

* A judge has denied bail for the Georgia man accused of sending sext messages during his seven-hour work day while his 22-month-old son was left to die in his hot car. Ugh, this is terribly sad news. :( [CNN]

Of course I took an interest in Jordan Weissmann’s Slate articles saying that now could be the best time to go to law school. He argues that because of the continuing drop in law school applicants and the supposed increase or stabilization in law school recruiting, future graduates have a good chance of getting entry-level positions in law firms or those “corporate positions of distinction.” Despite this, Weissmann warns readers that “most people should not attend law school,” and that “some lower-ranked schools will continue to deliver miserable job prospects for their students.

But Weissmann’s articles — as well as Elie Mystal’s and Joe Patrice’s excellent responses to them — did not adequately address one question that was important to me: How seriously do employers consider experienced attorneys for entry-level legal positions?

Click onwards to read about my personal experience applying to one of these entry-level positions, and my thoughts about the advantages and disadvantages of hiring a newbie versus a veteran….

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On Monday, we noted the surprising news of a young partner leaving Wachtell Lipton to start his own boutique firm. Given the rarity of partner departures from the super-lucrative Wachtell, my colleague Staci Zaretsky described the news as “basically like seeing a unicorn.”

Why did Jeremy Goldstein, a 40-year-old partner in the firm’s executive-compensation practice, leave WLRK? The American Lawyer piece about Goldstein’s move painted a happy picture of a lawyer striking out on his own to be more entrepreneurial and to run his own business.

But we wonder if there’s more to this story than meets the eye….

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I didn’t know what Prezi was at the beginning of the year. I first heard about it at LegalTech New York in February. Since then, I’ve seen it all over the place and heard of lawyers using it in trial. I have since used it a couple of times, so I am going to explain the benefits and the drawbacks and how to use it effectively.

What Is Prezi?

When you start a Prezi presentation, you begin with a big blank slate. You place pictures and text boxes on your blank slate and pan and zoom into them. Instead of going from slide to slide, you pan from focal point to focal point on your big canvas. The cool part about it is the zooming. You can zoom way into something. So, say you are doing a case about blood clotting and you want to show what it looks like on a cellular level, you would do it like this:

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Biglaw associates are used to the “black hole” effect when it comes to their assignments. Sure the work is important and valuable, but because of the disconnect between a typical Biglaw attorney and an actual client, it can feel like any given assignment is destined for a “black hole,” rather than serving as a building block for solving a client’s problem. The further removed the lawyer is from the client, the more pronounced the effect. It can be a morale drainer, especially if it looks like the lawyer will never get the chance to work directly with a client on a matter of significance.

Working at a boutique or smaller firm, where there is more direct client contact by necessity, presents a different challenge to a lawyer’s motivation than the “black hole” effect. Because at a smaller firm, or even for partners in Biglaw firm lucky enough to make the adjustment from service partner to a true “counselor,” the lawyer in close contact with a client must confront the inherent limits in the attorney-client relationship. Yes, it can be much more rewarding to have a practice where you feel like you are partnering with your client to get things done. But it becomes all the more frustrating when you give advice, even good advice, that goes unheeded by that same client….

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