Solo Practitioners

Recently, a group of Harvard Law professors released the results of their survey of 124 attorneys from 11 large firms, asking what courses Harvard students ought to take to prepare for Biglaw practice. Overall, financial courses such as accounting, financial reporting, and corporate finance, topped the list, as noted by Will Baude over at the Volokh Conspiracy. But the study got me thinking: what courses should lawyers interested in starting a practice — either directly after law school or a few years down the road — study in law school?

If you ask this question of solos or consultants, most will argue that law schools need to teach business-type classes like how to write a business plan or how to market a law practice. And while law schools should certainly make those classes available to interested students, I don’t view them as imperative. Let’s face it, most of this material isn’t rocket-science (high school dropouts open successful businesses, after all), and the web offers a bottomless treasure trove of this type of information. (As an aside, one of my personal faves is Canvarise, a one-page template that pulls together all of the elements of a traditional business plan).

Nor do I believe that substantive courses — bankruptcy, family law, immigration, copyright — are all that important. Substantive law is state-specific, so it’s tough to teach and it’s always changing. What you learn as a second-year law student may no longer be valid a few years down the road. Plus, it’s not difficult to pick up the basics of a new practice area on the fly. Think about it: most students studying for the bar gain a quick understanding of as many as 25 different substantive practice areas in a summer. No reason the same isn’t true in practice.

In my view, law students should focus on studying and acquiring the kinds of skills that aren’t easily found or readily mastered in practice. With that as a guide, here’s my top five list of classes that will help prepare students for solo practice…

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Keith Lee

It’s often incredibly difficult to let things go in today’s always on, always connected world. There is a desire to multitask and switch gears at all times.

Check Twitter, check email, review a letter. Write a couple paragraphs in brief, get phone call. While on phone, pull up Facebook. Phone call ends, check Twitter, back to brief. Another lawyer sticks head in office, wants to talk about an issue in a different case. Finish conversation, back to brief, an urgent email notification pops up. Read email, not really that urgent. Reply anyway. Couple more paragraphs into brief, calendar notification goes off. Lunch scheduled with another lawyer in 25 minutes.

What are the chances that any of the work you just produced was actually of high quality?

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At the recent ReInvent Law NYC conference, one of the speakers, Abe Geiger, founder and CEO of Shake, used an apt term that I’d never heard before: “tiny law.” As I understood the phrase, “tiny law” refers to all of those day-to-day contractual arrangements consumers enter into every day – only through standardized forms or handshakes or oral agreements rather than formal written contracts. And that’s the raison d’être of Shake: to help formalize those millions of tiny law transactions in a simple but custom agreement generated on a mobile device.

Will Shake displace lawyers, particularly solos and smalls who are most likely to handle “tiny law” problems? At least one piece by William Peacock, from a few months back, suggested that Shake could pose a threat to lawyers. But from a solo or small perspective, Shake is actually a godsend….

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Keith Lee

Imagine you are in the audience at a majestic Broadway play. The theater full, stage set, lighting dim. The curtains part and the play begins. Drama and tragedy unfold over the next two hours. The performance compels an ovation. Done with the play, you and your company depart for dinner.

You’re in Las Vegas at the latest Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) event. It’s time for the main event. The lights dim and the crowd roars. Two fighters enter the cage. The championship belt is on the line. The chain link door is locked shut and a grueling battle of wills commences. In the third round, the champion knocks out his opponent. You and your friends slowly make your way out of the arena, heading towards the Strip for a night of fun.

Both the actor and the fighter spend weeks and months in preparation for their brief time under the lights and scrutiny of the crowd. The actor memorizes her positioning, recites her lines, studies her character. The fighter drills techniques for years, conditions his body for months, and studies tape on his opponent for hours. All for one night….

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Keith Lee

Everyone is familiar with the saying that you only get one chance to make a first impression. We size people up at a glance. People like to think that they take time to adequately weigh decisions, but in reality we often rely on “thin-slicing,” as popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in Blink (affiliate link):

“Thin-slicing refers to the ability of our unconscious mind to find patterns in situations and behavior based on very narrow slices of experience. The unconscious works by sifting through the situation in front of you, parsing out irrelevant data and homing in on what really matters.”

What this means is that we are constantly making micro-decisions at a subconscious level about the world around us all the time. Now, that doesn’t mean we are always making good decisions or judgments, but we are making them. Which is why lawyers need to care about how they appear — in person and in print.

And from a filed Answer in a lawsuit that a reader sent me, it’s a lesson that one lawyer needs to learn….

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Social media is no longer new. This month, Facebook turns ten, joining LinkedIn, which hit the decade mark back in May. Lawyers have been blogging even longer than that, with the earliest lawyer blogs launched fifteen years ago. Even the book on Social Media for Lawyers that I co-authored with Nicole Black has been out for nearly four years.

Yet after all this time, social media still has limited traction in the legal profession, with few firms using social media for its “best and highest use”: engaging and interacting with colleagues and clients. Instead, large firms treat social media as another marketing channel to disseminate firm news and press releases, according to a recent ATL study, while solos and smalls treat social media as a poor man’s search-engine optimizer.  It’s no wonder that many practicing lawyers deride social media generally as a waste of time and counsel their colleagues to focus on traditional in-person networking, like meeting colleagues for lunch or getting involved in bar associations, to generate visibility and referrals.

Still, I wouldn’t give up on social media yet. The fact that so few lawyers understand how to use social media correctly makes it a powerful tool for solo and small firm lawyers. Here are three ways to use social media to get the most out of traditional, in-person networking, and to create new opportunities for yourself:

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Keith Lee

As I’m sure many of you heard, the southern part of the United States was blanketed with snow this past week. In particular, Georgia and Alabama (where I live) were hit particularly hard. This being the Deep South, people and municipalities were not prepared for the quantity of snow and ice that came down so quickly. This led to widespread disaster and lots of Walking Dead jokes.

Some people have attempted to explain why 2-3 inches of snow was capable of crippling cities. While many people have scoffed at such explanations, they are true to some extent. But of course, that doesn’t relieve people of responsibility of behaving and driving like morons. As things settle down and return to normal, finger pointing and blaming will likely continue to go on for sometime.

But the most interesting aspect of the “Southern Snowpocalypse” is the reaction of people in the aftermath of the storm….

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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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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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