My Shingle: Inspiring Solo and Small Firm Lawyers

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GAL Does the Decent Thing

The Greatest American Lawyer has been on the greatest of blog-posting frenzies this past week, with a number of must-read posts.  But the one I've selected to focus on is this, which asks Have you ever considered waiving fees even when you did nothing wrong?   There, GAL describes his decision to forego several thousand dollars in fees when his client suffered summary disposition as a result of a court's completely unanticipated reversal of longstanding precedent, which it then applied retroactively to pending suits.   As GAL points out, he wasn't to blame for the state's highest court overruling precedent nor did his retainer absolve the client from paying if he received an adverse result.  But GAL felt:

it was the right thing to do given our constant push to share a level of risk with the client. Many firms would be shocked by an approach which penalized the firm for essentially doing nothing wrong. I think that it is critical that attorneys always have some skin in the game, as they would if the matter was being handled purely on a contingency fee. The goal is not simply to collect as much money from the client as possible. The goal is to deliver results. When those results are not achieved, even when the lawyer has done their very best, there ought to be some sharing of the risk.

Under most professional codes of conduct, GAL would have acted perfectly ethically had he charged full fare.  But there's more to good client relations than just professional ethics - and I think sometimes that we lawyers cling so tightly to our ethics code so that we can avoid thinking about what's fair or what's decent.  If we want to improve the image of our profession, it's not enough that we do what's professionally ethical; that's just a starting point.   Beyond that, we still need to make sure that what we're doing is right by our clients.  Seems to me that GAL is doing just that.

Are you?

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on November 30, 2005 at 08:10 PM in Ideas & Tips | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

A Really Nice Thing - And A Blog To Check

I've been having a lousy week, with one matter continuing to generate all kinds of knotty issues.  So it was a real pick-me-up to get a call from the editors over at Lawyer and Business Executives in the News to inform me that I'd been selected  Person of the Week.  And even though as Person of the Week (and a Brandeisian, just like one of the editors), the Lawyer and Business Executives in the News looks like a really interesting blog that covers a bunch of different law, business and political topics. 

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on November 29, 2005 at 07:32 PM in MyShingle Solo | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Client Expenses - Not Whether They Pay, But How Much

Over at The Practice, Jonathan Stein ponders whether clients should be billed for smaller incidental costs like photocopying or faxing.  Jon falls on the side of rolling these incidentals into overhead rather than reflecting them on a client bill.

I agree with Jon.  But for me, the much trickier question when it comes to billing clients for expenses is what our obligation is, as attorneys to seek out the lowest cost options when we're passing the costs on to our clients.  The question is more timely now than ever because with the advent of the Internet, we're able to gain access to so much more price information and more readily obtain lower prices than a decade ago.

So for example, if I'm traveling for a client on business - and my client has agreed to pay the expense - can I just go and book whatever hotel and airfare I feel like?  Or do I have a duty to save my client money and look into whatever discounts might be available on Hotwire or Travelocity.  What about when it comes to deposition transcripts?  Do I have a duty to find the lowest cost provider (in my area, there's substantial variation in the per page costs) - or just use whomever is convenient?

From an ethics perspective, I know that my only obligation is that my overall fee be reasonable or "not excessive."  But from my perspective, I don't know if the ethical perspective provides the right answer here.  I know that no matter how much my financial situation improves, I'll always be shopping around on price, looking for the best balance between cost and quality.  In other words, while I no longer stay in $35/night hostels, I don't see the need to pay top dollar when nice places can be found online for lower rates.  Don't I owe my clients the same courtesy when I'm  spending their money?

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on November 28, 2005 at 09:22 PM in Law Practice Management | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Biglaw's Got the View But Not Much Worthwhile to Do

Yet another article, Smaller Can Be Beautiful for Some Lawyers, (bizjournal, 11/2005) on biglaw attorneys leaving their firms for smaller - or in this case, mid-sized pastures.   But what I found so sad about this piece is the reason that some folks stay on at biglaw:  not because they prefer the work but rather, they love the view.  Here's a quote:

Jenkins, the lawyer who joined Jeffer Mangels, said that while she has fond memories of Littler Mendelson, she thinks she is a good fit with her new firm. She even finds she doesn't miss some old creature comforts. "I used to be on the 27th floor of the Littler building," which offered sweeping views of San Francisco Bay. "I used to think 'How am I going to get up in the morning?' without that view.

Seems to me that if the only reason that you're going to work is to stare out the window, that doesn't sound like reason to stay...but reason to leave.

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on November 28, 2005 at 08:59 PM in Trends | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

US AGs Decide to Shingle

It's not just biglaw attorneys who are hanging shingles these days.  This article,  AUSAs to Start New Trial Firm, Justin Scheck, the Recorder 11/23/2005 reports on a pair of former US Attorneys who'll be hanging a shingle in Northern California and foregoing biglaw practice.  The reason?  These guys want to be trial lawyers.   And they're probably  going to  be darn successful ones for sticking to their dream - welcome Ramsey and Erlich to shingle-dom!

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on November 27, 2005 at 05:56 PM in Solo Practice Trends | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Small Firms Fighting Big Companies

I loved Jonathan Harr's A Civil Action and so I was happy to come across this article, Two Person Firm Wrestles Oil Giant  (November 26, 2005) about another small firm doing battle with a major corporation, albeit with better results.   But it's still an uphill fight.  From the lead of the article:

It’s the old tale of David and Goliath.  A tiny law firm in Kansas City’s River Market took on one of the big five oil giants and won a multimillion-dollar personal injury lawsuit.  That was in September. But attorney Lon Walters still has 24 more cases against BP Amoco involving people who say they became ill or saw loved ones die after being exposed to massive oil spills from a refinery in Sugar Creek.  The cases are being watched by lawyers across the country to see how the firm of Walters and associate Christin Cipolla beats the odds, and if it can continue to do so.

“These cases are very costly and very time-consuming,” said Michael B. Leh, a tort attorney in Philadelphia. “In many cases, it is very comparable to A Civil Action,” a book and film about a small law firm’s uphill battle against W.R. Grace & Co.

But the real question is:  if a case like that showed up at your door, would you take it?

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on November 27, 2005 at 05:48 PM in Practice Areas | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

What David Swanner's Giving Away, and Not Just for Holiday Gifts

A few weeks ago at Blawgthink, I met David Swanner, who blogs at  South Carolina Trial Law Blog.  David was giving out copies of his Winning With Powerpoint CD that you can get from him through his blog as described here.   From David's perspective, the payment is possible referrals, but more importantly, an opportunity to help improve litigation practice.

It's taken me a while to put up this post because I actually wanted to take a look at the CD.  David has put the presentations together in a professional and organized manner.  As for the quality of the examples, some presentations are quite good while others don't seem that they'd be very effective with a jury.  But you can learn from the good and the bad about what to do and what not to do.  Also, seeing some of the poorer quality stuff made me a little less intimidated since I'm still trying to improve my own power point presentation skills.  Anyway, go over to David's site and learn more about him and his CD and maybe you'll come up with a marketing idea that's similarly cool.

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on November 27, 2005 at 05:43 PM in Litigation & Courts: Policy and Practice | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Big Companies Starting To Pin Point Small Firms

Finally - it's happening.  Big companies are started to wonder why they should pay $600 an hour to fly their regular biglaw counsel from New York or L.A. out to Buffalo or Kalamazoo to litigate a case, when they can just as well retain local counsel for a fraction of the price - and better service to boot.  This trend of large corporations broadening the pool of law firms that they retain, instead of just hiring from a select few is called pinpointing and Larry Bodine of Legal Marketing Blog blogs about it here.

As Larry describes, the trend amongst big corporations had been "convergence" - to try to consolidate all of their work in a handful of full service biglaw firms, usually located in large cities.  But the large firms weren't getting any cost savings; instead, they found that big firms were charging blended rates for all services provided, which could still amount to $500 or $600 an hour. 

But that's changing now.  As Larry writes:

So corporations in 2005 began seeking out litigation boutiques in Buffalo, rather than fly their [pricy] megafirm lawyer up from New York City.  Big Companies began hiring local specialists, who charged local rates, to handle local problems in Baton Rouge.  After a while, I began to notice that lots of little firms everywhere are getting work from titanic publicly-held companies.

A general counsel can save a lot of money with Pinpointing, and get nice personal service to boot from a little firm.   Those little firms give the big companies the red carpet treatment.  And the mega law firms will always be fat and happy (the rich always get richer) because the federal government will always do something like sue IBM for 10 years, or break up ATT and cause the Baby Bells to wage legal warfare ad infinitum.

This is great news for small firms with local litigation practice.  But not everyone agrees with Larry that pinpointing is happening - and he takes up the opposing view here.

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on November 20, 2005 at 08:20 PM in Marketing & Making Money | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Announcing "The Billable Hour" Timepieces

BillablehourAs Thanksgiving and winter holidays approach, like me, many of you are probably scrambling to find the perfect gift for lawyer-friends and colleagues who've helped you throughout the year.  This year, you don't need to waste any more billable hours looking for gifts because fellow solo Lisa Solomon and her attorney husband Mark have come up with a great idea:  really elegant and reasonably priced watches and desk clocks that divide the hour into six minute increments.   They're available for purchase online at The Billable Hour (www.thebillablehour.com). 

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on November 19, 2005 at 06:55 PM in Announcements | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Solos Can Profit From Blogs

When it comes to blogs, the question on almost every solo or small firm lawyer's lips is  "Will a blog get me business?"   Once my answer to that question was a qualified "possibly," - I felt that that blogs wouldn't necessarily generate clients directly, but nonetheless, could help diversity a solo's overall marketing portfolio.  Now, I'm wondering whether perhaps I was too conservative.  Because as Kevin O'Keefe of Lex Blog reports, solos are getting clients from their blogs  - and the example he's used is my blogging colleague, Kansas Family Law Attorney (and Home Office Lawyer), Grant Griffiths.

So I decided to try to figure out the reasons for Grant's success.  I visited his blog and it's a great example of a practice-focused blog, a mix of helpful information for clients and links to current events and news stories.  Then, I put myself in the shoes of a prospective client using the Internet to find a divorce lawyer in Kansas and ran a couple of searches like this and this and this.  No surprise that Grant's firm comes in top five under any of these combinations. 

But not all blogs will generate those results.  For example, I applied the same test to Andrew Ewalt's Law Blog which is a test case for the ABA's Law Practice Magazine and law marketing guru Larry Bodine. Ewalt's blog isn't bad; he offers lots of good client tips - and it probably helps him reel in clients who have already located him.  But because Ewalt doesn't post or link as much as Grant - or have his practice specialty in his blog title, it's hard to find his blog running searches.  In fact, the only search (besides a name search) that generated any links to Ewalt was this one - and that located his Findlaw listing, not his firm website or his blog.  (question for Larry or anyone else familiar with the study - what results is it generating so far?)

These days, more and more people are using the Internet to find legal services.  Moreover, Google has become so pervasive, that potential clients are using it to run searches, rather than relying on portal sites like Lawyers.com.   So a properly targeted and expertly executed blog will get you at the top of the search engine for your specialty - and will enable you to make a top notch impression the first time a prospective client visits.  And if that's the case, then yes, maybe blogs can serve as a static and measurable source of business just like the Yellow Pages or a newspaper ad.




Posted by Carolyn Elefant on November 19, 2005 at 02:37 PM in Marketing & Making Money | Permalink | Comments (35) | TrackBack