My Shingle: Inspiring Solo and Small Firm Lawyers

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I'm Heading Off to Blogher

I'll be catching a flight out to the West Coast tomorrow, headed for the Blogher conference where I'll be on one of the panels.  This is all very new for someone like me who attends  conferences predominated by lawyers.  At Blogher, while I'll be in the gender majority, seems that I may be in the professional minority (i.e., few lawyers!) - which is fine by me. 

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on July 28, 2005 at 09:03 PM in MyShingle Solo | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Steve Jobs Advice Works for Solos Too

Thanks so much to Ernie the Attorney for this link to a commencement speech by Steve Jobs.  In his speech, Jobs describes a rocky path to different types of success, beginnings and endings and new opportunities.  It's worthwhile reading for us solos who many times, find ourselves dead-ended or uninspired in our practice and need to pick ourselves up and recreate.  It's nice to know that we're in good company.

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on July 26, 2005 at 06:40 AM in Ideas & Tips | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Is It Ever Too Soon to Go Solo?

Ann Israel, a biglaw recruitment attorney who writes a column for New York Lawyer typically responds to questions about how to make partner or what's the best law school to choose.  It's rare that she gets a question like  this one from an attorney wondering whether he should go solo after his first year out of school.   Ms. Israel is biased against solo practice, so predictably, she advised against the move - but I was surprised to find that I don't disagree with all of her advice.

Israel first asked the writer if he'd thought about the costs of malpractice insurance, computer equipment and office space, which she regards as prohibitive.  Maybe so, if you're replicating biglaw on a small scale, but these days, it's not that expensive to set up the basics of a practice and with technology, new solos can work from home until they get their practice off the ground.

Where I do agree is Israel's point about taking a salary for a year or two and getting training while you're being paid.  Though many people do start firms right after law school and succeed, to me, the optimal time to start is after a couple of years of work. By then, you've not just had training but a chance to make contacts and acquire a reputation in your field, both of which can help generate clients.

Israel suggests erring on the side of a steady law firm job rather than leaping to solo practice - and that's where I depart from her way of thinking.  Israel makes mention of many attorneys who she knows who went solo too early, never got their practice off the ground and could not return to a law firm after being on their own.  Frankly, I don't believe that - I have always been convinced that when you go solo, there's always a way back to a law firm job or other permanent job should you choose that route.  And  what Israel doesn't mention are all the attorneys who dreamed of going solo while they were young but hedged, then found themselves married, supporting a family, saving for college - in short, in a situation where it was no longer feasible to go solo.  The regrets they have about not doing something are often the strongest.

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on July 26, 2005 at 05:02 AM in Questions & Advice | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Free Legal Research Hits Florida

Add Florida to the list of jurisdictions with free legal research services, as reported in this  article.  Florida is using Fast Case for its service which provides access to US Supreme Court Cases, Florida Supreme Court cases and Florida statutes and regulations.  I've always thought that free legal research is one of the most valuable tools that the bar can provide to improve the quality of legal service.   Isn't it time that all bars made some online legal research available for for free?

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on July 26, 2005 at 04:43 AM in Legal Research and Writing | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Lawyer Sues Clients for Money; Not Sure of What to Make of All of This

I'm not sure what to make of the story described in this article, Law Firm Sues Couple Over Past Legal Fees (7/23/05).  Seems that a couple spent three years fighting to keep a large subdivision from being built near their home, racking up $92,000 in legal fees in the process (in addition to which, they are $370,000 in debt).  Apparently, they won their battle and received $16,000 in court costs, but not the $225,000 they requested in legal fees (the article's not clear on the difference between the amount of fees requested and amount that the couple seeks to recover).  In any event, now the firm that represented the couple is trying to recover roughly $12,000 in unpaid fees, in monthly installments of $500, which they claim they can't pay.

Not sure what the right result is here, without further facts.  I think that so long as legal fees are reasonable and incurred pursuant to a retainer, clients should pay.  The fact that they incurred $92,000 in fees and have only $12,000 more left isn't an excuse for waiving the fee, though some might argue that lawyers are better off eating the cost than filing suit and inviting a malpractice claim (I don't agree with that position if the lawyer's done a good job). 

At the same time, $92,000 seems like an awful lot of money for a lawsuit to fight a development.  I wonder whether the attorneys ever discussed the growing bill with the clients or whether their decision to pursue this claim made sense give the increasing costs.  And do attorneys have that duty anyway or are they bound to pursue what the client wants, without any suggestion to the contrary.

Again, there's not much in the story to go by, just a large bill, a lawsuit for fees and a winning result that doesn't seem that it's worth the cost.  The main question in my mind  is whether the clients realized that and proceeded anyway - or whether their attorney could have made them think about whether their desired result justified the cost - and didn't.

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on July 22, 2005 at 03:40 PM in Client Relations | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

A Day in the Life of a Solo Blogger

Via Legal Underground, I learned about this neat ABA sponsored experiment whereby marketer Larry Bodine helped solo Andrew Ewalt set up this weblog  and will be monitoring his business growth throughout the year.  I'm predicting that Ewalt's blog will improve his search engine rankings, may get him some interviews or speaking engagements but as with most blogs, isn't going to contribute directly to an influx of new clients (meaning people who see the blog and call to retain him).  I'll be happy, though, if I'm wrong about that.

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on July 22, 2005 at 12:37 PM in Marketing & Making Money | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Court Appointed Work Is Not Supposed To Be A Full Time Job!

Well after all of the controversy, looks like the Massachusetts legislature will raise rates for court appointed attorneys as reported here in State House OK's Raises for Lawyers for the Poor, David Abel (July 22, 2005).  According to the article, lawmakers will increase court appointed rates to $100 an hour from $61.50 for homicide cases; to $60 per hour from $46.50 for nonhomicide Superior Court cases, including sexually dangerous persons cases; and to $50 per hour from $37.50 for district court cases and children in need of services cases, as well as children and family law cases, sex offender registry, and mental health cases.  However, the plan also caps the number of hours that each attorney can bill, to 1400 annually.  Thus, the maximum that attorneys can earn from court appointed work annually would range from $70,000 (handling lower end cases) to $84,500 (at the upper end).

You'd think that the Massachusetts lawyers would be grateful for the generous pay increase, but they're still complaining:

''In order to do this work well, you have to do it a lot," said Joss Filiault, an attorney from Concord who worked about 1,800 hours as a bar advocate during the last fiscal year. ''It's difficult work that requires expertise. There seems to be an attitude in the Legislature that it's bad to do this work as your primary work. I don't understand that."

But here's the thing:  no one is stopping attorneys like Filiault from handling other cases that might pay $200/hour.  And even if lawyers believe that they need to focus full time on criminal work to keep skills intact, well, hello - there are many clients who will actually pay lawyers, quite generously, for representation in criminal matters. Think the late Johnnie Cochran or Thomas Mesereau.  They handled criminal work and certainly weren't getting $60 an hour for it.

Court appointed lawyers can't expect a guaranteed stream of revenue at private rates.  It's a trade off.  If lawyers want the security of a flow of cases for which they don't have to advertise or market, then they can settle for court appointed work at a lower rate.  If they want to make more, then they need to go out and find the clients who are going to pay - and stop asking the captive ones to fork up even more money.

And as I've always said, court appointed work is interesting and a good way to pay the rent early on or even a way to do work that's got a pro bono element without working entirely for free.  But if you want to step up to a successful practice, your plan has got to include weaning yourself from court appointed work.  After all, why limit yourself to $84,000 a year when you could possibly make ten times that much?

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on July 22, 2005 at 12:13 PM in Criminal Law, Practice & Policy | Permalink | Comments (17) | TrackBack

When a Client's Right to Access Counsel Hangs by A Hook...Of A Bra

Donna Thompson-Schneider is a solo criminal defense attorney who hasn't visited her incarcerated clients.  Lest you think that this is another story about an irresponsible attorney giving her clients ground for an ineffective assistance of counsel claim, read on.  The reason that Donna hasn't visited her clients is because the prison has a practice of  requiring women visitors to remove their bras  to clear the metal detectors (apparently, not just underwires but even hooks will set them off).  Except...that many other law enforcement personnel, including district attorneys and employees of the public defenders' office can bypass security entirely.  Moreover, as Donna discusses here, she was willing to accede to a security wand or even a pat down, but prison personnel rejected both options.  After trying for amicable resolution, Donna decided to send this letter to the Wisconsin Department of Corrections.

There's so much wrong with the prison's policies it's hard to know where to begin to attack it.  First, there's the obvious intrusiveness of a search policy that requires women to remove articles of clothing, even in privacy (and this assumes that a woman is wearing a shirt that provides adequate coverage without a bra). 

Second, the policy jeopardizes security more than protecting it.  As Donna describes in her letter, prison personnel were willing to allow her to enter the prison and go up to the restroom to remove her bra. Surely, if she had hidden con-bra-band, she could extract it, leave it in the restroom and retrieve it after passing through security.  Seems that the more sensible option would be to simply wand her at the door and be done with it.   

Finally - and near to MyShingle's own heart - why should private attorneys handling court appointed work have a more difficult time accessing incarcerated clients or witnesses than prosecutors or public defenders?  Court appointed attorneys get so much criticism for being incompetent and irresponsible.  And yet when a court appointed actually tries to satisfy professional obligations, she's prevented from doing so.   

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on July 14, 2005 at 11:16 PM in Criminal Law, Practice & Policy | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Our Stratified Legal Profession: How Blogging Will Change It

From this Press Release, I learned about a new book, Urban Lawyers, by John Heinz and University of Chicago Professor Edward Laumann, that examines Chicago's legal profession using data gathered as part of an American Bar Foundation study conducted in 1994/95.  That's too bad, because while the book sounds intriguiging and confirms much of what I've observed about the legal profession here in D.C., it's also on the verge of being outdated because of the way that blogs are changing the practice of law.

One of the book's primary findings is that:

that lawyers serving corporate clients and those working for individuals and small businesses inhabited two distinct hemispheres. The lawyers from the two hemispheres seldom, if ever, crossed the equator, the researchers concluded from their 1975 survey of Chicago lawyers....The book concludes that the divide between the two sets of lawyers continues to widen -- to an extent that the two-hemispheres metaphor doesn’t even work any more.

Because I went to a top law school and worked at large firms, I've had the luxury of crossing over the divide in the profession.  But few of my colleagues share this experience.   About a year ago, when I saw two college friends who are now partners at biglaw firms in Boston, I asked if either of them knew any solos personally.  They did not.  Likewise, many of my solo colleagues have never worked with - or even opposed lawyers - from an AmLaw Top 100 firm. 

In many ways, I blame the large firms for the divide.  The firms go out of their way to segregate themselves even where not warranted.  For example, I've always thought that pro bono projects provide a terrific avenue for large and small firms to work together.  Large firms bring the manpower and resources while solos often have experience that's more related to a pro bono client, not to mention, a knack for handling cases on a shoe string.  But rather than try to coordinate efforts, most large firms staff an evening at the legal clinic by themselves, rather than working intake with lawyers from government and small firms.  In fact, the large firms have even set up their own Pro Bono Institute where they can collaborate on pro bono projects indepedently, without coordinating with the bar or solo lawyers.

But that type of segregation is changing, abeit slowly.  First, more and more, large firm lawyers are crossing the line from biglaw to small practice, helping to mix things up.  But even more, blogging is responsible for opening doors - because the blogosphere is one of the few places in the profession where big firm attorneys, academics and solos interact on equal footing.  Look at the composition of Between Lawyers. You've got one attorney from one of the largest firms in the country, two others from fairly sizeable firms and two solos.  And that type of discourse is replicated between biglaw and small law and academic bloggers in posts and comments and off-blog correspondence. 

Of course, there's another finding of the book, that's also going to change through blogging.  The book found that:

Among lawyers in private practice, solo practitioners have the lowest average prestige score.

That's such a funny finding of course, because when you talk to people in outside the profession, they often express more admiration for lawyers who run their own shop than someone who works for a large firm, even as a partner. 

But in any event, one of my goals at MyShingle has been to change the negative perceptions of solo practice held by other lawyers and the bar associations themselves.   I'm hopeful that by the book's next edition, I'll have made a significant dent.

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on July 12, 2005 at 08:34 AM in Trends | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Need Help Compiling Top Ten Reasons to Shingle

Hello, readers!  I'd like to put together a Top Ten List for my sidebar of reasons that lawyers should consider hanging out a shingle.  GAL posted something similar here, a list of the benefits of being an independent practitioner.  For me, the reasons for going solo include autonomy, flexibility to achieve balance with family, an opportunity to learn about different fields of law and the ever present possibility that you'll stumble across the case that might catapult you from obscurity into the limelight.

But that's just me.  I'd like to gather ideas from readers as well.  You can send your contributions to me at elefant@myshingle.com or post them as comments below.  Submissions can be anonymous, but I'd be interested in learning whether you're a solo (and if so, for how long), large firm or government attorney, academic, student or not an attorney at all.

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on July 9, 2005 at 08:29 PM in MyShingle Solo | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack