My Shingle: Inspiring Solo and Small Firm Lawyers

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A Solo Extravaganza

The January 2005 DC Bar's Washington Lawyer Magazine has this article Going Solo by Joan Rigdon.  I'm profiled in it, briefly (though not much but a passing mention of MyShingle), as are many of my DC solo colleagues.  The article reflects a great cross section of solo practice, with old timers like Joel Bennett (editor of Flying Solo, in which I have a chapter on "How Not to Be Lonely") and Linda Ravdin, biglaw converts and former government attorneys.  There's also lots of good quotes from fellow blogger Reid Trautz.   The article's a good read for anyone, but especially for DC area practitioners to give a sense of the kinds of opportunities out there (by the way, if you get the hard copy edition, you'll see that my photo even includes my deaf puppy, Francesca, who was cut out of the online picture)

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on December 29, 2005 at 01:08 PM in Solo Practice Trends | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

The Blackberry: A Short Leash or Liberation?

It's interesting how mobile technologies, like the cell phone or Blackberry, pager or laptop can serve as a leash or as liberation, depending on context.  This article, Blackberry:  High tech Ball and Chain for Lawyers, Boston Globe (12/22/05) reveals that law firm Burns & Levinson uses Blackberries to keep lawyers on a tight leash, always tethered to the law firm.  At least, that's according to a memo from Bill Bixby, one of the firm's partner's to firm attorneys:

''[Blackberries]  are not just accessories or collectors' items," Brian D. Bixby, cochairman of the firm's private clients group, wrote in his memo, which became public after being sent anonymously to Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly. ''They are not to be used only when you feel like sending an e-mail. They are supposed to make you more accessible for receiving e-mails after hours and on weekends."

Bixby's memo perfectly captures the abyss-like gap between how large firms and solos and small practitioners view and rely on technology.  For me, wireless internet access and cell phones don't tie me down - instead, they liberate me.  Technology enables me to pack up my practice and take it to my daughters' school so that I can meet the teachers but still talk to clients on break.   Back in 2001, technology let me spend the summer with my husband and daughters in Birmingham, Alabama, where my husband was working on a contract - and allowed me to continue my law practice without my clients ever knowing that I'd left town.

For solos and small firm lawyers, technology is always a means to an end, to serving clients or to giving us more flexibility.  Technology like blogs helped us reach out to the world, gave us more exposure.  In short, technology empowers us solos and small firms and expands our world.  By contrast, for big firm lawyers, technology at worst, de-powers, by keeping associates on a tight string or giving them tools like LEXIS so that they can endlessly research a project to death.  And even at best - when used for static websites or billing records, technology simply reinforces large firm practices, like the glossy brochure or hourly rate practices.  As GAL frequently points out, large firms don't use technology to transcend and to change, but simply to hold course. 

I guess I always realized that difference myself, but it took something as small as a Blackberry and a controlling partner's memo to really drive it home.

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on December 28, 2005 at 10:44 AM in Trends | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

A Great Pro Se Idea

This article from the Sacramento Bee (12/26/05) reports on a new service by Legal Zoom:  online preparation of a small claims case.  According to the article, for $99.00, the company will draft up a small claims complaint based on an online questionnaire and for $60 more, will serve the defendant as well. 

So why would an attorney support this service?  Because, I sometimes get calls from clients who want to sue for a small home improvement matter or wages owed and from an economic perspective, it's not worth it for them to have to pay even $300 (which is two hours of almost any attorney's time) to recover maybe $800.  But they might be willing to pay $150 to bring the suit themselves and not have to wrestle with legal forms and figuring out service of process.

Of course, that's not to say that services like Legal Zoom should only be provided by non-attorneys.  Is there some way that you can make this concept work for your firm?  Can you use small claims cases as a loss leader or as cases that law clerks can handle?  My feeling is that if someone is able to make money off low end legal services, why shouldn't it just as well be us attorneys?

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on December 28, 2005 at 10:19 AM in Trends | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Declining Representation Without Peril

I've posted quite a bit on the importance of retainer letters, here and here, but not as much on a declination letter which informs prospective clients that you've declined to take their case.  This post from Day on Torts discusses the perils of misinforming clients about the applicable statute of limitations in a declination letter.  Jon Stein picks up the conversation at this post, explaining why you shouldn't pin yourself down to specifics when giving statute of limitation information.

Day on Torts and Jon highlight the dangers of telling a client that a statute of limitations is longer than it actually is; for example, that a client has 2 years left to sue when it's really one year.  But the flip side can burn you as well. Say, you advise a client that he only has six months left to sue when in reality, he has a year.  He may give up trying to find an attorney after six months, thinking that the deadline has passed - and then learn later that he actually had six months left. 

So much as I like to educate clients and provide as much information as possible, I've got to admit, that it's simply too risky to do it when a statute of limitations is involved.  As Jon and Day on Torts suggest, the best advice to a client is that time is always short and you risk claims if you delay, so they need to move as quickly as possible to find another attorney if they're interested in bringing an action.

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on December 28, 2005 at 10:10 AM in Ethics & Malpractice Issues | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Second Career for Disbarred Lawyer

Here's an interesting profile, Ex-lawyer on the case with biting court report, Kentucky Courier-Journal (Dec. 26, 2005) about Shannon Ragland, a disbarred attorney who publishes a popular newsletter/monthly verdict reporter covering Kentucky courts.  What sets Ragland's report apart from others is that he does it himself, adding insights, analysis, wit and sometime biting criticisms of the players involved.  Being disbarred gives Ragland this freedom, because after all, as he puts it, "What are they going to do?  Disbar me?"

Here are some excerpts from the article:

Twelve years ago, [Ragland] was a promising young attorney in Marion County who had graduated in the top quarter of his University of Kentucky class and was president of the Lebanon Rotary Club.

But then, addicted to sports and casino gambling, Ragland began pocketing fees owed to his law firm. He admitted stealing about $70,000, pleaded guilty to two counts of theft and was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

"I admitted everything and withdrew from the bar," he said in an interview. "Not that I had much choice." [...]

Starting in Jefferson County with 75 subscribers, he launched his verdict report and eventually took it statewide. A yearly subscription is $175, and he now publishes similar newsletters in three other states and one on the federal courts, grossing about $150,000 a year in Kentucky alone.

He employs a staff of five, including a licensed lawyer he pays to write squibs about verdicts in Indiana and Alabama, and lives with his wife and two daughters in a $300,000 house in Northfield.

He said his unique status has given him the freedom to zing judges and lawyers without fear of being sanctioned. "What are they going to do," he asks, "disbar me?"

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on December 26, 2005 at 06:36 AM in Profiles | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

If Williston Could Wobble Back, Maybe There's Hope for All of Us

Someone on the Solosez listserve posted a link to this article from the Harvard  magazine on Samuel Williston, 20th century legal scholar, Harvard law professor and author of an authoratative contracts treatise.   But though Williston worked late into his life, he suffered a nervous breakdown in his mid thirties that almost derailed his career.  The article describes how Williston worked his way back and more poignantly, how he paid it forward, encouraging others through similarly dark times.  From the article:

Nonetheless, [Williston] understood that his breakdown had been a central event in his life and hoped his recovery might show those with similar problems that “some achievement may still be possible after years of incapacity.” His sense of having overcome a potentially career-ending illness probably contributed to the serenity and compassion that people so often remarked on. “Having had much trouble himself,” one faculty friend wrote in 1951, “he is quick to share and lighten the trouble of others. More than one colleague in a tough time has received an early visit from him and benefited from his encouragement and understanding.” Williston himself liked to tell people that his own career had been like the path of a wobbling planet: he was proof that, however far off course one went, one could “wobble back.”

Maybe your practice has hit a rough patch recently or you're suffering from malaise or serious depression.  We can never avoid the bumps in the road, all we can do, like Williston (or Weebles) is keep on wobbling back.

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on December 26, 2005 at 06:25 AM in Features | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

A Forty Year Small Firm Career

This article, Lincoln Lawyer Balances Business, Passion (12/25/05 - Lincoln Journal Star) profiles Lincoln, Nebraska lawyer Herb Friedman's forty years of small firm practice, which included arguing a case before the United States Supreme Court and pioneering television advertising in his state.  Now 70, Friedman has no plans to retire and reflects on his career as follows:

“I’ve really enjoyed what I’ve done. I’ve tried to be a credit to the profession. I’ve tried to make a good living.“Won some. Lost some. But being a trial lawyer is an exhilarating way to make a living. You’re kind of a modern-day warrior.”

And equally inspiring, Friedman apparently has managed to raise his children to discover passion for what they do - even if it doesn't involve law.  Says his son:

“[My father would] say, ‘You can do whatever you want, but you have to love what you do.’ Like my dad, I’m going to the tune of my own drummer.”

Yet another solo inspiration.

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on December 25, 2005 at 11:09 AM in Profiles | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

The Never-a-Dull-Moment Legal Practice

This article, The Spice of Solo Life, (Recorder, 12/27/05) profiles San Francisco solo Michael Blacksburg's law practice, which has run the gamut from drafting animal trusts to preparing 
contracts for a triad relationship between two women and a man.  Actually, the bulk of Blacksburg's practice is trusts and estates and landlord tenant law, but he manages to intersperse that bread and butter work with more unusual cases.  Blacksburg's comment on solo practice:

It might not be the quickest route toward paying off your student loans, he said, but "it's a lot easier to be a solo than to be in a job you hate."

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on December 25, 2005 at 11:01 AM in Practice Areas | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Outsourcing to India, Three Years Later

One of the best things about a weblog is that it gives you proof that you said something first or spotted a trend way back when.  In my case, I first blogged about the outsourcing to India trend in this January 2003 post.  Now, almost three years later, outsourcing continues to grow.  As this article  from an Indian newspaper (December 25, 2005) reports:

The revenue from outsourcing of legal services from India is growing every year and is estimated to grow ten times in the next five years from the current level of US dollar 61 million.  In a recently released report 'Offshoring Legal Services to India', ValueNotes, a leading provider of intelligence and research services, estimated that the sector employs around 1,800 professionals and expects this to grow to 24,000 by 2010.

The increasing interest in offshore services shows that firms are pressured to keep costs low - and that should be good news for us solo and small firm lawyers, because it may open up new opportunities.

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on December 25, 2005 at 09:54 AM in Trends | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Give Yourself The Gift of A Website

It's still not too late to buy yourself and your law firm a holiday gift (not to mention a 2005 tax deduction) - so why not a website?  Jim Calloway explains why every firm needs a little website now in this post.

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on December 24, 2005 at 09:29 AM in Tech & Web | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack