Help Wanted At My Shingle - Law or College Student
Wanted Immediately: law student or college student to assist with several upgrades to the site and restoration to its original format. Student should have blogging experience, ("plawdcasting" experience and/or abilities as well even better), rudimentary knowlege of HTML code (or ability/willingness to learn a couple of quick basics) and strong web-based research skills. Individual should be patient, a fairly quick study and enthusiastic about web logs. Responsibilities will include (a) transferring posts from current MyShingle site to the former slash based site; (b) researching and updating various MyShingle offerings and (c) assisting with development of future ideas for site offerings. Must have own computer (preferably laptop) and high speed interconnection. Location in DC metro area preferred but not required as work can be performed remotely. Tasks estimated initially at 40-50 hours, would prefer that student be able to at least one task before exams. Compensation commensurate with legal temp positions (but work is far more exciting and flexible!)
If interested, contact Carolyn Elefant at firstname.lastname@example.org
The Law School Consortium
Here's a news item about the Law School Consortium. It's a program that recognizes the role that solo and small firm lawyers play in meeting the legal needs of the poor - and provides support for those who choose that route:
[CUNY Program Director Fred] Rooney calls this Low Bono legal assistance. By joining forces, he says attorneys can save time and money – savings they can then pass on to their clients. More than 200 graduates have joined the network since it started in 1998 with private grants. They can take classes on running a small business. They get access to legal research tools over the internet which many of them couldn’t otherwise afford. And they can take their required continuing legal education courses at the law school campus in Queens.
For those starting a practice or who hope to serve low income clients, it may be worthwhile to check the Law School Consortium website to see if there's a program near you.
Being Nice Can Pay Off
Lawyers take different approaches to litigation - some believe that a threatening, aggressive demeanor produces results, some prefer a cool, professional air (think robotic!), others adopt a good old boy, blackslapping friendliness. This post by Seth Godin persuasively argues in favor of the power of being nice. (among other things, you may save your client money and avoid the embarrassment of losing to a pro se litigant).
The Most Important Marketing Advice You Can Read
Some of the most important marketing advice you can find doesn't come from law marketing gurus who counsel lawyers on what they think clients want. Rather, it comes from articles such as this one, How To Hire A Lawyer (NJ Star Ledger, 3/27/05) that advise prospective clients on what to look for in retaining a lawyer. After all, if you know that clients are out shopping for a lawyer using this kind of checklist, you'll be a step ahead if you can provide them with exactly what they're looking for.
So for starters, where should clients go shopping for a lawyer? The article recommends either asking a friend for a referral or calling the local bar. That means that lawyers' marketing efforts should focus on actively seeking referrals from existing and former clients - and also signing up for bar referrals. That's not to say that Yellow Pages or Internet listings shouldn't be considered. But if prospective clients are being advised to look to referrals to find attorneys, then lawyers are best off marketing where clients will be looking.
Next, the article tells prospective clients to investigate whether "the lawyer is any good," by checking background on a website or calling the bar to find out about disciplinary action. What does this mean for a lawyer? First off, it shows that a website is necessary - if not for advertising, than simply for establishing credibility and providing information about your credentials. Second, if clients are concerned about ethics violations, why not put their minds at ease up front and either volunteer information about your disciplinary method - or give clients a number to call to check you out for themselves. Asking about violations can be awkward for a clients - so why not help put their minds at ease and give them the information that they want?
Finally, the article encourages clients to broach the issue of fees in advance - and to negotiate fees. As an aside, I'm not sure why the article encourages clients to negotiate fees - I can't think of any other service profession where people bargain on price. In any event, it's my own opinion that lawyers should not engage in negotiation over fees with clients. Those prospective clients who question a lawyer's fee and try to bargain it down most likely do not value the lawyers' service and will persist in asking for discounts or write-offs as the case progresses or if they are unhappy with the result. A lawyer can simply offer a "take it or leave it" rate, but my preferred alternative to opening the door to client fee negotiation is to offer different fee options (hourly rate, contingency, flat fees, volume discounts) and explain them fully to clients. When clients have a choice, they are less inclined to negotiate - and when lawyers have given a choice, they're less inclined to engage in negotiation over fees.
So the next time you see an article advising folks on how to hire a lawyer, don't skip over it. Clip it, save it and use it as a blueprint for the types of service that you want to sell.
In light of the proposed bankruptcy legislation that would make credit counseling a mandatory prerequisite to a bankruptcy filing, a few of my solo colleagues have considered offering debt reduction services as part of their practice. For those considering this option, be sure to read David Giacalone's post about what can go wrong with debt reduction services. David writes about an attorney now under prosecution for fraudulent debt reduction services as well as the FTC's recent crackdown on three debt reduction businesses engaged in deceptive practices.
Unlike David, I believe that debt reduction (if done correctly) does require legal skills - lawyers can play a valuable role in using negotiating skills to bargain down debts with creditors or possibly come up with ways to challenge creditors' claims. I just hope that attorneys who enter the debt reduction business are motivated as much by a desire to help financially vulnerable individuals who have no choice but to seek credit counseling as they are to capitalize on a potentially new practice area that may soon be ripe for harvest.
Do the Gutsy Thing
What's the nerviest thing that you've ever done to bring in clients? For me, I suppose it's been cold calls, though I've always longed to do more. For example, every time I attend a dull alumni lunch or bar event, I yearn to stand up, ting my glass and introduce myself and my practice. What harm could it bring? And yet I hold back.
But I'm reconsidering after reading this post from the blog.inc.com describing how one man's gutsy announcement at jury selection yielded a job:
When [Ben] arrived at the lower Manhattan court house, he was directed to a large waiting room and given instructions to sit and wait until his name was called. He looked around and saw at least a hundred people, and he was immediately frustrated. He was the only one who had forgotten reading material. Rather than dwell on his minor oversight or beginning to recount his to-do list in his head, Ben had a different idea. "Out of all these people, someone's got to be involved with pharmaceutical sales or at least know someone who is."
Ten minutes later, Ben finally mustered up his courage and walked up to the front of the room and stepped up onto the stage. He cleared his throat and said, "Excuse me! Is anyone here involved in pharmaceutical sales or pharmacology?" He paused. "Could you please raise your hand?" (Today Ben jokes about how the potential jurors might have thought he was asking those questions in the capacity of a court-appointed official. Regardless�)
One man raised his hand, and Ben said, "Thank you. I will be right down to talk with you." Ben approached the respondent, introduced himself, shared his interest in pharmaceutical sales, and asked if the man knew anyone in the field. The man was a pharmacist, knew many pharmaceutical sales representatives, and, even more fortunately, was going to a meeting that night that was hosted by a pharmaceutical company. Ben went to the meeting and had a few great conversations with representatives of two major two major pharmaceutical companies. They both asked Ben to contact them about beginning an application and interview process. One thing led to another, and several months later, Ben started working as a pharmaceutical sales representative.
There was no cost to Ben's marketing effort, except guts. And there's no reason why it can't work for any of us lawyers as well.
Re-energize Your Practice
Solo practice keeps a lawyer so hopping, what with networking lunches, new client consultations, sending out bills and studying up on new areas of law that it's hard to believe in those early years that it can ever turn dull or boring. But it does. And if that's how you're feeling about your practice now, Reid Trautz has some tips at his blog on How To Energize Your Professional Life. Some ideas include exploring new practice areas, changing your mix of clients and changing your attitude.
For those inclined to simply suck up boredom as an unavoidable fact of practice, think again. Because as Reid points out, boredom can breed carelessness which in turn can lead to career ending mistakes. So if you're feeling bored and uninspired now, take some action. The boredom you're experiencing now is nothing compared to how bored you might feel if your license is revoked and you can't practice law at all.
Getting Knocked Down, Getting Back Up
Any lawyer who's been in practice more than a week has been there, on the losing side. It may be losing a massive multi-million dollar trial or simply being bested by an opponent in a heated negotiation. But while getting clobbered is never enjoyable, we've got to get back up and ready ourselves for more. This article, Getting Clobbered - and How to Deal With It, Raymond Dowd, NY Law Journal (3/28/05) offers up both a little bit of empathy and some short bits of advice on how to react when a set back knocks you off your feet. Not surprisingly, most of Dowd's tips counsel a change in attitude or perception, such as recognizing that the worst thing that could have happened didn't, using the loss to motivate yourself to do better next time and recognizing that in the long run, a loss can teach some good lessons.
Legal Ethics - Answers Wanted
Thanks to David Giacalone for alerting readers to another legal ethics weblog, Ben Cowgill's Legal Ethics Blog. Cowgill points out that his legal ethics blog is third on the Internet, joining David's f/k/a ethical esq? and The Legal Ethics Forum. Actually, that's not quite right. Because here at MyShingle, we've been blogging about legal ethics and malpractice issues for solo and small firm lawyers since our inception in December 2002 (one day, our archives will reappear so we can prove it!), covering topics like whether the bar disparately targets solo and small firm lawyers for discipline, ways to avoid the plight of other attorneys who became the subject of grievances and whether certain disciplinary actions were warranted.
Of course, I'm no expert on legal ethics - so I welcome the voices of those who know far more about ethics than I do. At the same time, the proliferation of separate sites devoted to legal ethics brings to mind one of my peeves about the way that we lawyers approach legal ethics, starting in law school. Because instead of integrating ethical discussion into each subject matter we teach, we ghettoize it, relegating it to a separate bar exam topic with the MPRE (multiple choice no less!) and teaching it separately as a course and as CLE. Even the bar's Law Practice Management offices are segregated from the ethics office.
Sure, I aspire to carry out my professional obligations and all those noble goals that our Code of Professional Responsibility set out. But as a real life practicing attorney, what I want to do most of all is serve my clients as best as I'm able and stay out of trouble. We solo and small firm attorneys are walking hypotheticals, living ethics questions every time we meet a client, every time we embark on a marketing campaign. For example, can I market my clout to clients - or does that constitute an impermissible guarantee of results? Can bankruptcy attorneys recommend that our clients file for bankruptcy now before pending legislation makes it more costly or complicated? Or are we conflicted from that advice because when bankruptcy is more expensive, the client may not be able to afford our service. Can estates attorneys use the recent Schiavo story to sell clients on the notion of living wills and advance directives - or is that an undignified practice that takes advantage of others' tragedy? Can we take a client who we know can't afford to pay and offer less than first rate service that we'd extend to one with more resources? Or is the client better off without representation at all? More and more, large firms are hiring general counsel, whose goals, among others, is to
rationalize away - ah, no - address conflicts of interest and other ethical questions. All we solos have is bar counsel to call - and as I've discovered, some offices are responsive while others, not at all. Unfortunate that the same offices that are all too eager to go after lawyers for what are often just innocent or unintended mistakes aren't there to provide guidance to lawyer to begin with. So it's my hope that all of these new ethics sites can serve as a substitute, so that we solos and small firms can finally start getting what's most valuable to us about legal ethics: not discussion or debate, and certainly not more discipline, but just some really good answers.
Law Lessons From Mom
As I've always understood, one of the premises underlying the Socratic Method is that much of the knowledge of a subject (like law) lies within us and can be teased out through questioning and dialogue. So too, many of us already hold within us the basics for starting or running a law practice as Jim Calloway points out in this straight-talking essay, Everthing I Need to Know About Practicing Law, I Learned From My Mom.