Small Law Firms

When I started my law firm twenty years ago, there were just five things that I knew.

I knew I didn’t have any clients. I knew that my husband and I could scarcely afford the loss of my paycheck, let alone come up capital for me to invest in my practice. I knew that I was way too mortified at having been laid off from my former firm to share the real reason for starting my own firm.  I knew that when I finally opened for business, in truth, I was just putting on a game face every day, biding my time until something else came along or until I got pregnant and could, like some of my other law school classmates, gracefully exit the law.  But I also knew, somewhere deep down, that I had it in me to be a good lawyer.

Those five things are all that I knew for sure when I started my law firm. Clearly I had a lot to learn.  And while there was plenty of information on the black-letter, nuts-and-bolts aspects of starting a firm, the kind of advice that I really wanted to know to jump-start my practice — specifically, whether the solo option was actually feasible — was in short supply.  Moreover, as an attorney with a traditionally big-firm practice (energy regulatory law and litigation), I was even worse off because attorneys familiar with my field and doing what I hoped to were particularly rare.

So to spare those of you starting out from what I went through, here are five things that I wish someone would have told me when I started out:

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Keith Lee

As I’ve mentioned previously in this column, it’s tough starting out as a new lawyer – particularly in today’s economic climate. Many lawyers have been forced into small firms or into hanging their own shingle. While many people seek out these avenues of practice, many are forced into them. Either way, it’s difficult to do so straight out of law school. On top of that, most new lawyers have mounds of non-dischargable student loan debt, are unprepared for actual practice (thanks law school!), and are potentially going up against lawyers with much more experience.

Most new lawyers who want to find success in these times devote themselves to working hard, building relationships, and developing a reputation for honesty and integrity. But if you’re determined to shoot yourself in the foot, repeatedly, then I offer The 12 Steps To Ruining Your Reputation….

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Ed. note: Gaston Kroub is on vacation this week. Today’s column is written by one of his partners, Zachary Silbersher.

When my partners and I sat down to form our new law firm, I savored the opportunity to string our names together and add the letters “LLP” at their end — for so long, “LLP” has been the quiet emblem of the professionalism and studied judgment embodied in law firms throughout the country (whether that is true or not). To my chagrin, albeit for tax reasons, we decided to forego forming a limited-liability partnership in lieu of a PLLC. In structure, we would be a corporation rather than a partnership. Yet, corporate structure aside, our experiences so far have embodied the ups and downs of working together as a real partnership.

True partnership is not something that many associates, counsel or even junior partners have likely experienced at Biglaw. Be it corporate or litigation, real estate or tax, matters are typically staffed hierarchically. Having practiced litigation for several years, I have undoubtedly felt extraordinary camaraderie with the attorneys on the cases on which I have been staffed. Yet, there are always clear lines. Lines between the attorneys to whom I was delegating work, and those from whom I was assigned work. Those lines demarcate disparities in income, responsibility, work, expectation. I am not saying that the system does not work. However, except for select senior partners, the idea of working in a partnership is not typically a sentiment shared among most Biglaw attorneys.

Being part of a partnership has already changed the way I think about my work….

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Keith Lee

An easy and lazy habit that you can have as a lawyer is only seeing things from the perspective of a lawyer. Lawyers are trained to deconstruct problems and look for weakness, to approach situations with a critical perspective. But that does not mean that it is the only perspective that you need to have. One of the most voiced complaints from clients is that their lawyer doesn’t understand their view or their perspective on a case or matter.

This is likely due to a breakdown of communication between the lawyer and the client, and more than likely it is the lawyer’s fault. As a lawyer, it is very easy to fall into entrenched patterns and lines of thought — so easy that it is often difficult to step back from your role as a lawyer, and look at a case or a problem as a layperson or client. Harvard professor Theodore Levitt most aptly summed up this problem with his famous observation: “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole!”

A lawyer is often apt to think of the law as the drill — how to use it, apply it, and make it work in any particular situation. But a client does not really care about the law, they care about the solution to their problem — the quarter-inch hole…

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Sometimes, there is a baby in the room. A real one, usually in the arms of a nervous mother. Because it is Brooklyn, still as diverse a place as there is in the world, the baby might be black, brown, white or yellow. It does not matter. What matters is that there is a freaking baby in the room. I am blessed with four children, all ten and younger, and am the oldest of five, so I am not one of those people for whom children are curiosities best viewed at distance. Even so, there is something surreal about having a baby in the room while I am manning an office at the Brooklyn Family Court for a few hours once a month, trying to help a beleaguered parent make sense of the chaos inherent in their involvement in an adversarial proceeding involving their child. But I, like my fellow volunteers from in-house legal departments, Biglaw firms, and solo practices around New York City, soldier on. And come back, month after month, in the hopes of helping one more person deal with their (literally) intimate and emotional legal issues. In my case, I have been coming back since late 2006. I plan on continuing for as long as I have the strength and the program remains in place.

I am not looking for recognition. If this column motivates someone to dedicate themselves to a pro bono project that they can believe in, that would be great. To be honest, I did not even think about doing pro bono for many years, for all the typical reasons. I was still too junior, too busy, too unable to commit myself to a project that could potentially conflict with my billable matters. While I respected my fellow Biglaw associates who involved themselves in the usual Biglaw pro bono fare — e.g., asylum issues, wrongful convictions, and the like — I was never moved to action. But that changed in 2006, when Greenberg Traurig, in conjunction with some large corporations and other Biglaw firms, announced that it was partnering with the New York City Family Court to start a volunteer-attorney driven program to assist self-represented litigants trying to navigate the hectic, crowded, and extremely fast-paced Family Court system. A system that is challenging for even the most hardened attorneys, but where 95% of the litigants choose, mostly because of financial reasons, to go without a lawyer until one is provided for them. Put simply, help was (and continues to be) needed….

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A few months back at my home blog, MyShingle, I wrote about a small Michigan law firm that sued a legal marketing company for fraud and RICO violations, alleging that the company created a “bogus Internet marketing program, supposedly designed for small law firms and sole practitioners” and duped firms into participating in the program through a series of misrepresentations about the company’s ability to boost law firms’ Google rankings. The lawsuit is still pending in federal district court in Arizona (Docket No. 2:13-cv-01502).

Though few expressed sympathy for the firm, suggesting that it was greedy or foolish to fall for the marketing company’s “infomercial-like” sales pitch, in my view the lawsuit raised a valid question: Should law firm marketers, practice management advisers, and other vendors pitching services to improve law firm performance remain accountable, at least to some degree, for the results?

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Keith Lee

I was sitting in my office yesterday afternoon when my phone dinged. It was one of my law partners. He had sent me a picture of our other partner standing in front of an auditorium with about seventy-five people in it. They had gone to one of the local law schools here to speak about dealing with clients. Like many other law schools, this law school is focusing on providing their students some manner of real-world experiential education in the elusive hopes of making students “practice-ready.” An impossible task, but at least students are exposed to practicing lawyers, even if just for a day. I mean, it’s better than a seminar on Harry Potter and the Law.

After speaking for a bit, they took questions from the students. Eventually, someone asked what to do about a difficult client. The response?

“Double the retainer.”

After the crowd chuckled, he added: “In all seriousness, double the retainer.”

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Until last month, my entire legal career had been spent at large law firms. With a pretty specialized practice focusing on intellectual property, mainly patent litigation. And until last month, I never really needed to hire a lawyer, with one exception. Thankfully, it was for a good reason, to help me close on my house.

Which my lawyer handled with aplomb, so I am happy to recommend him if someone needs a good generalist solo based out of New York City. Even though my general tendency is to try and learn everything I can about something, when it came to buying a house, I really wanted nothing more than to have someone else deal with all the legal stuff. The fact that I was up for partner, and working pretty hard at my Biglaw firm that year, contributed to making me a “just get it done” type of client. Because I trusted my lawyer, and he demonstrated competence and responsiveness, I never needed to get out of that mode. We closed, I paid, and life went on.

I paid happily, and very quickly, because I had engaged someone to provide a service, and saw the results in a timely manner. Even though it was not a complicated transaction by any means, and I probably could have handled it myself, I valued my lawyer’s contribution and thus was happy to pay. I appreciated the small touches — like being handed a binder with copies of all the signed closing documents right after the closing. At the same time, I never really got engaged in the process enough to care to learn about it.

Comparing the experience I had then to my typical patent matter, the difference is stark….

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The past year or so has been an epic period for snarky responses to cease and desist letters. We’ve seen hilariously irreverent responses to C&D letters telling off the likes of Starbucks, the American Bankers Association, and the Township of West Orange.

And now Hollywood celebrities are throwing themselves into the mix. Which “seriously out of control” young actor just got saucy over Twitter in response to a lawyer’s letter?

Here’s a hint: Is this kid Lawless?

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Our ten nominees for 2013 Lawyer of the Year honors were a distinguished and diverse group. They included a Supreme Court justice, a U.S. Attorney, a governor, a law school dean, and some of Biglaw’s brightest stars. They also included a plaintiffs’ lawyer accused of awful acts, a shameless self-promoter fond of letting it all hang out, and a young attorney with a problematic sideline. We cover it all here at Above the Law.

Our prior winners have come from the savory rather than salacious side of the ledger. Here are ATL’s past Lawyers of the Year:

For 2013, who will join their distinguished ranks? Let’s find out….

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