Cherry Blossoms, 2005
David Giacalone reminded me that it's cherry blossom time here in DC. Unfortunately, I have been so busy with a very important brief that I don't think I will have a chance to see them this year. But here are some photos from 2005:
The Journey to Solo Practice Begins With a Shingle Step
Update: And there's yet another one, Oklahoma Solo.
Small Time Lawyer, Big Time Impact
This article on the death of New York attorney, Joel Scelsi, will make you proud to be called a "small town lawyer." Where else can you handle such a wide array of cases and be known around town as the person to go to for help if someone finds themselves in trouble.
After reading articles like this one, I sometimes wonder why anyone winds up spending their life churning papers in a big corporate law practice.
Who Answers Your Phones: Man or Machine?
Tom Kane of Legal Marketing Blog posts on the importance of a human answering a phone. Tom is certainly right that you shouldn't regularly let phone calls go to voice mail, particularly when you're in the office. At the same time, I'm not so certain about the importance of having a receptionist pick up. As a personal matter, I'd much rather hit someone's voice mail directly, then have to speak with a receptionist or secretary, let alone leave a message with them. Also, many new solos don't have the resources to hire a receptionist to answer calls. Consequently, they're likely to use a virtual receptionist, which can sometimes be more of a disaster if the receptionist is rude or simply sends messages to voice mail without any elaboration.
Pros and Cons of Independent Practice
Doctor-Patient, Clients or Customers?
Lawyers aren't the only ones starting to focus on the importance of client relations (as evidenced by the proliferation of blogs like What About Clients and In Search of Perfect Client Service). Peter Salgo, a professor of medicine at Columbia University, has this op-ed piece The Doctor Will See You Now for Seven Minutes in today's New York Times (3/22/06) where he ponders whether pressure on health care costs has commoditized the medical profession and eroded the "doctor patient" relationship.
Salgo's article points to little, imperceptible shifts within the profession, such as a young med student referring to a patient as a "55 year old male" rather than a man, reference to patients as "customers" or duration of hospital stays as "through put." To Salvo, this jargon reduces patients to a business school financial concept or items on an assembly line, rather than humans. Salgo admits that restoring the doctor-patient relationship won't save money, but that it doesn't have to, because it can restore compassion and dignity to the medical profession.
As a lawyer, I know that serving clients is important and that clients complain that they don't get the service they deserve. But maybe the solution isn't client surveys or enhancing efficiencies or squeezing out every cent we can from clients, but little things like not charging clients every time we talk to them or taking the time to engage them in conversation or showing compassion or empathy for a client in a tough spot. There's something inherently human about the lawyer-client relationship, and for most of us, it's that human element that makes the practice of law frustrating at times, but ultimately richly rewarding.
By Price Alone?
There's been some discussion on some of the listserves that I frequent about the Brodsky Law Firm which competes, proudly and flagrantly, on price alone. Predictably, Brodsky's strategy has generated a slew of remarks like "you get what you pay for" or comments critical of this "race to the bottom," but I see things a little differently.
Moreover, I'm troubled when lawyers don't show any concern for the rapidly increasing cost of legal services. Let's face it, lawyers are expensive, hourly rates are skyrocketing and we need to recognize that many clients are simply not able to afford adequate legal services. I'm not saying that lawyers ought to perform pro bono or cut rates or work for free, but we shouldn't criticize those lawyers willing to fill a gap that we ourselves are not willing to serve. In fact, if given the choice between a lawyer or a We the People provider offering $200 bankruptcies or $99 incorporations, I'd choose the lawyer any day of the week.
Now that doesn't mean that I'm impressed with the Brodsky Law Firm site. It raises some red flags, including the absence of a lawyer bio at the site. And I'm not certain that one lawyer could offer such a diverse menu of services. But the firm is definitely targeting a need, particularly in a high priced jurisdiction like New York. I don't think we ought to be critical unless we're willing to provide those services ourselves.
Why Solo Practice is Like A Box of Chocolates
What I love most about solo practice is that, to quote Forrest Gump, it's like a box of chocolates - you never know what you're going to get. And as this article, Big Case for Fledgling Lawyer, Don Thompson, AP (3/19/06) bears out, you just might get the case of your life eighteen months out of law school. That's what's happened to Wazhma Mojaddidi, a young Muslim lawyer of Aghan descent, who's now representing Hamid Hayat, on trial in U.S. District on charges that he attended a terrorist training camp and lied about it to investigators.
From all accounts, Mojaddiddi is holding her own, though the judge "is impatient with her for her evident inexperience in cross-examinations and rules of evidence, frequently schooling her on how she should phrase questions to a government witness." But that kind of on the job experience is the best way to learn, far better, than Mojaddiddi's peers at large firms buried under stacks of documents. And Mojaddiddi isn't entirely on her own - her client's father is also standing trial for similar counts and represented by a more seasoned attorney who shares his substantive experience while Mojaddiddi brings her familiarity with cultural and Muslim issues to the table.
Arizona Makes It Easier to Check Up on Lawyers
According to this article, the Arizona State Bar now includes records of formal disciplinary action against lawyers at its website to help consumers "weed out lawyers with spotty records while searching for representation." You might think that someone like me, who constantly complains that bars unfairly target solo and small firm lawyers (as I did here) would oppose Arizona's new development, but in fact, I don't. Consumers should be able to learn whether an attorney has been formally disciplined. Doesn't mean that the consumer should not hire the lawyer, but at a minimum, the consumer is entitled to an explanation about the charge and can then make a decision about whether to give the lawyer a second chance.
More importantly, public information about formal discipline helps lawyer too. For example, I've heard of several instances where my colleagues have referred cases to lawyers whom they believed to be reputable only to discover that they'd been disbarred. Making information publicly available helps avoid this kind of situation and allows us to make better referrals. Second, when litigating a case, it always helps to know your opponent - and learning that opposing counsel has a long record of disciplinary charges can potentially inform your strategy in the case.
I realize that there's always the possibility that the bar may wrongfully discipline an attorney and forced disclosure of the sanction can harm the attorney's business. But on balance, I think the benefits of access to disciplinary records far outweigh the possible harms.
Why Do So Few Women Reach the Top At Large Firms - And Why Do We Care?
This past weekend's New York Times article Why Do So Few Women Reach the Top of Big Law Firms? (Timothy O'Brien, 3/19/06) makes me ask the question "Why Should We Care?" The article describes the oft-cited problem of why women aren't making it to the top at large firms or why they prematurely leave, blaming the usual suspects such as lack of mentoring, ingrained gender discrimination and even billable hours.
For starters, I'm not sure that I understand the problem here. Large firms are profit making entities, where billables and rainmaking count more than anything, for anyone. Large firms apply billable requirements across the board. Sure, large firms aren't willing to accomodate women who want to work part time - but they don't accomodate male attorneys who seek a more balanced lifestyle either. In fact, if male attorneys asked for the same types of schedule reductions that their female counterparts demand, they'd probably be bounced out of the firm even more quickly. If women attorneys are willing, as some of those cited in the article, to come back to work full time after 6 weeks of maternity leave, to hire full time nannies and skip dinners with their kids, the gap would shrink. Most women lawyers aren't willing to do that - and more power to them for that. Indeed, many of my solo male colleagues weren't willing to make those sacrifices either - which is why they're working for themselves as solos instead of tethered to a desk in a big fancy New York or DC or Chicago office.
The other problem I have with this genre of articles is that they make it seem as if biglaw is the "be all and end all" of a legal career. In truth, only a small percentage of lawyers practice at large firms and real law is made day by day by solo and small firm practitioners and the clients we serve. But for some reason, when a woman heads her own firm, it's still regarded as an inferior position to serving as one of dozens of partners at a large firm. In fact, these articles almost never make mention of the hundreds of women making it on their own as heads or partners of solo and small law firms. (I highlighted this problem here).
I know it's not PC to say so, but ultimately, the problem with large firms is that everyone, male and female, is held to an equal standard: generate more billables, bring in more revenue. It's an inhumane standard, sure, but it's gender neutral. The real success stories aren't the women who continue to whine for accomodations at large firms that aren't available to men, but rather, the women who go out and create their own firms so that they can have the best of both worlds, on their own terms.