More on the Ethics of Leaving A Law Firm
As more lawyers depart large firms to strike out on their own, the ethical issues relating to departing attorneys gains more attention. Here's another article on the topic, Practicing Ethics: Switching Jobs, NY Lawyer (5/26/06). The article focuses on the following three issues:
• When and what can be told to clients? Most lawyers have a long-standing, close professional relationships with their clients. An attorney and his prospective new firm hope these ties translate into decisions to follow the lawyer. What are the lawyer's duties to the client in this situation, and when can she inform the client she is leaving?
• What can be told to partners and employees, and when can they be told?
• What files are available to clients and what files can be taken to the new firm?
If you're currently at a firm, thinking of leaving, you ought to find the answers to these questions (many of which are jurisdiction specific) before you hit the road. It's hard enough starting a law practice; don't make it tougher by inviting disciplinary complaints against you by your former employer through actions you take when you leave.
Another Biglaw Attorney Headed for Smaller Pastures
For many lawyers, reaching the top of biglaw is enough. But not Corliss Scorggins Lawson, former chief of biglaw firm Lord, Bissell & Brook's Atlanta office, who's just left her post to strike out on her own, as reported in Lord, Bissell's Top Atlanta Attorney Leaves to Start Her Own Shop, Fulton County Daily Report (5/25/06). From the article
Lawson, 43, caused a splash two years ago when she became the first African-American woman to head a large law firm office. But she resigned from the firm on May 9, ending her career-long tenure at the firm. She said she's starting her own firm because she wants the freedom to chart her own course -- a desire that seems reflected in her decision to use her given name for the firm, which will open June 1 in the Fayetteville, Ga., historic district, near her home.
Lawson now knows what most of us solos have realized for a while: biglaw may be a big place, but it's not big enough to fit your name on the door. Here's to the addition of another distinguished lawyer to shingling.
What GCs Don't Like About Their Lawyers
Even if you don't deal with corporate counsel as part of your law practice, this article, GCs Vent Their Frustrations About Outside Counsel (Recorder, 5/23/06) is worth reading, because it can help improve your relationship with any clients. The article lists what corporate counsel don't like about their outside counsel. Unpopular practices include (1) surprising clients with large bills; failing to call; raising rates (or not cutting back on costs) during economic downturns and sending a large document without some kind of summary. ermine the GC's position in the company.
Take a look at the article and think about whether you're guilty of some of these practices, and what you can do to change.
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Solo Wins a $4.7 Million Verdict
Last months, one of our readers, solo Scott P. Schomer of Schomer Law in Torrance, California won an amazing $4.7 million dollar verdict for his client, a grandmother who'd been left homeless after being defrauded of her Beverly Hills home by her former attorney who along with his wife moved into his former client's house after stealing it out from under her. To win the case, Schomer went up against four attorneys who represented his client's former lawyers. Details on the case can be viewed here in an article from the Los Angeles Daily Record.
Schomer was generous enough to submit to an interview with MyShingle by email, which I've posted below.
My Shingle: How long have you been in solo practice?
Schomer: I started my solo practice in January 2002. Prior to that time I had spent 8 years at big firms and then 3 years at in-house positions and felt I preferred creating an entrepreneurial atmosphere over returning to corporate life. I found another solo attorney in need of assistance and practiced for approximately two years under his umbrella, although essentially operating my own practice. In April 2005 I officially unveiled my own professional corporation although I continue to share space and other resources with this same solo. I had an extensive real estate litigation background and focused my practice on probate and real estate litigation, particularly in the area of financial frauds against elders. Elder abuse is a growing problem and an area where I enjoy helping those who are really in need of my services.
MyShingle: Was this your biggest verdict?
The Lederman is my biggest verdict to date; my next largest award was a $1.5 mil. elder\abuse verdict I obtained in March 2005. When Ms. Lederman arrived in my office, I initially found the story hard to believe—I was shocked that an\nattorney could have so mistreated his client. After I reviewed the facts, I was certain that defendants would settle quickly because the allegations (which I believe were all proven true) were so outrageous. Instead, defendants fought me tooth and nail through the entire procedure. It was not until after the jury verdict that they offered to settle for anything more than a small percentage of their potential liability. I took the case in December 2003 and we only obtained our jury award in March 2005. Unfortunately, the case is still going because on May 10th, defendants filed a petition with the US bankruptcy courts.
MyShingle: Did you handle the case on your own?
Schomer: I have a paralegal I share with another attorney who helps with office support (answering phones, ordering supplies, filing, service, etc.) but in terms of substantive work\non the case, I did everything from soup to nuts—trial & exhibit binders, briefs, witness preparation, opening & closing statements.
MyShingle: What advice do you have for other solos who find themselves up against a larger team of lawyers
spent enough time in big firms and fighting big firms to realize that at the
end of the day, you are still matching wits against individual attorneys.
Most cases are won and lost on the facts and the preparation work. The
best advice I can give other solos is the importance of community—developing
a network of other solos. The Lederman trial lasted almost three weeks
and without being able to call on the services of other attorneys to cover some
of my other cases, I would have been in serious trouble. I also find
these folks are a great source of business. By building a good network,
you are in essence creating your own virtual law firm; you get the intellectual
resources of a big firm without the administrative or political headaches that
accompany a more fixed partnership arrangement.
If you have any other questions about the case, feel free to post them in the comments section and perhaps Scott will follow up. Also, if you have a recent victory and would like to be featured at MyShingle, drop me a line at email@example.com
A Law Professor Recognizes the Value of Marketing
Lawyerpreneur and marketing guru Nader Anise provided me with an article by one of his former law professors who recognizes the value of marketing. It's an interesting article though most readers here may already recognize the basic lessons. My own question is whether law schools are equipped to teach courses on how to start a law firm and lawyer marketing and whether they should.
was invited to observe a former student, Nader Anise, who was the featured
speaker at a Continuing Legal Education seminar. The roomful of approximately
100 attorneys was unusually engaged and attentive, particularly for
a full-day seminar. Interestingly, Mr. Anise did not dissect a
single case, administrative regulation, constitutional provision or
statute. Instead, he told the audience,
“Yes, you’re lawyers who practice in a profession... but you’re
also entrepreneurs who have to run a business and ethically maximize
your profits. There’s nothing wrong with that. You’re
lawyers who have to be entrepreneurial. You know what that makes
And the audience took copious notes, seemingly oblivious of the fact
that they were not being graded or tested on the lecture.
Mr. Anise, it turns out, is one of the leaders in the nascent field of lawyer marketing. While strategic marketing was once nonexistent in “professions” such as law and medicine, many attorneys have become eager to learn more about marketing and business. The facts are difficult to ignore. Based on ABA figures, approximately two-thirds of the total number of lawyers in this country either own a solo practice or are part of a small law firm. These solo practitioners and small firms, or “lawyerpreneurs” to borrow from Nader Anise, have as much in common with “traditional” small businesses as they do big law firms.
Yet, there are more than a few pockets of resistance to recognizing and celebrating the similarities between the profession of law and the business of law, creating a catch-22. On the one hand, legal purists scowl at the emphasis on the “bottom-line,” preferring that lawyers take a more dignified and reserved approach, eschewing the more traditional business routes of advertising and marketing. On the other hand, the harsh realities of modern business require lawyers to aggressively market their services to stay in business and compete against the streams of new attorneys being graduated each year. While it is not taught in law school, it is a clear business axiom that passively awaiting business is not always the best strategy. For attorneys in solo practice and small firms, they simply cannot afford to hang around and wait for the law to “take care of them” – whether they were on law review or last in their class.
It would seem at first glance that the practice of law is on the downhill side of the mountain top. The level of competition and the dissatisfaction in the legal profession are alarmingly high. Some areas of practice appear saturated at the very same time newly minted attorneys join the lot. Yet, despite a ready prognosis of “gloom and doom,” lawyers in a business environment apparently sense something not taught in law schools – opportunity.
According to Joanne Martin of the American Bar Foundation, in 1988 there
were almost 750,000 attorneys in the United States, approximately one
lawyer for every 340 people. Today, estimates suggest there are
1,000,000 attorneys in the United States, or one attorney for every
260 people. While an increase in numbers signals increased competition,
there is also in some respects rising opportunity. One particular
avenue of opportunity is the creation of new practice niches.
Internet law, gaming law and pet law, for example, are just some of
the new niches that are expanding in the current business climate.
Marketing experts suggest that these niches have been supplemented by
attorneys who mine their own practice niches. These self-created
niches are often narrow, secondary niches, rather than general practice
ones – a focus on a special kind of construction litigation or child
custody case or commercial property conveyance, for example.
Attorney Dissatisfaction: The number of lawyers unhappy with their career selection is staggering. A 1992 poll conducted by California Lawyer found that 70% of lawyers said they would start a new career if they could. The New York Times, in 1990, reported that 40,000 lawyers left the practice of law that year alone. Possible reasons for the startling dissatisfaction rate include increased stress, income disappointments, career disillusionment, a lack of marketing/business know-how and increased competition. As some lawyers exit the profession, however, others find opportunity. The opportunity they find in a formidable business climate is the chance to carve out “happy jobs” – those jobs providing people with satisfaction and rewards, those jobs people look forward to going to (almost) each and every day. This ability to rise above the mainstream experience to obtain a satisfying legal job is but another form of strategic advancement as much associated with treating law as a business as it is a component of the traditional practice of law.
Technology: Not many years ago, waiting for an important phone
call meant being tied to a desk containing a phone with a cord.
An incoming fax was an “event” people huddled to watch. The
hidden opportunity in technology is something that is now widely known
-- technology gives anyone in business freedom, including attorneys.
“Practicing” from a remote location can mean working in a spare
bedroom or on a beach in Jamaica. Practicing law with technology
has helped small firms compete with the large national and international
firms. But technology has proven to be a double-edged sword.
While revolutionizing law practice, it comes at a price, promoting endless
emails, voice mails, fax mails, software tools and upgrades as well.
Technology, like a jealous mistress, demands more and more of the time
it purports to save. Even though an attorney now can run away
on a quick vacation, technology makes it unusually difficult to hide
at the same time. Attorneys who succeed learn to manage their
technology, not let their technology manage them.
Marketing/Business Training: One of the biggest challenges lawyers face in running a law practice is learning how to build it – mastering the marketing and business sides of the practice. An astute and savvy lawyer these days not only means someone who knows what to do in the courtroom once she gets there, but someone who can get the clients to send her there in the first place. Although chiropractors, for example, receive a heavy dose of marketing training as part of their chiropractic schooling, lawyers are left to basically fend for themselves in the real world. Law schools are interested mainly in teaching substantive law, not marketing, and state and local bar associations usually offer some version of “marketing lite.” But tips on networking and joining associations only go so far.
To learn about marketing, instead of returning to business school, attorneys are turning in greater numbers to marketing experts to teach them the secrets of building a law practice. Some marketing experts bill by the hour, some by the day. A few write newsletters, others conduct seminars. Marketing experts are not hard to find, but there is a short list of those who specialize in the practice of law. As one might expect, “gurus” who have a law degree and have practiced law often have an inside track.
In a sense, these experts are similar to personal trainers, making sure their clients not only discover the secrets of business acumen, but also how to maintain one’s focus on the path to success. People like Nader Anise and Ed Poll, attorneys in Florida and California respectively, have authored articles, spoken about the business of law nationwide, and plied their services to both small and large firms. They are attempting to show lawyers what chiropractors and gym goers already know – a personal trainer can help them reach their goals, no matter what their intelligence levels. The marketing experts use a range of strategies to get there, most of which were never taught in law school.
Of course, marketing is just one piece of the puzzle in building a law practice. Lawyers still have to know how to manage personnel, use technology properly, manage cash flow, get paid on time, keep accurate records and maintain a smooth office operation. But marketing in today’s truly “free for all” market is a pretty big piece of the puzzle – getting the word out that an attorney offers a good “product” matters a lot.
After watching Nader Anise discuss strategies for lawyer marketing, I realized that, rather than being an observer, I was now the student. Our roles had switched. While marketing strategists such as Nader do not yet have a niche in the world of American legal education, they have established a firm foundation in the education of nascent and veteran lawyers alike. The strategists are aligned with growing groups from inside the academy and the legal profession pushing the larger questions of how to achieve balance, success and job satisfaction. These are questions that law professors, as well as market strategists, can well address. Indeed, these larger issues are becoming as difficult to ignore as cell phones and Google searches. Perhaps, having a personal trainer outside of the gym is an idea whose time has come.
Steven I. Friedland, J.D., LL.M., J.S.D., is a Professor of Law at Nova Southeastern University, Shepard Broad Law Center in Fort Lauderdale, FL. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org
Small Firm Lawyer Has Big Ideas for The WV Bar
A small firm lawyer, Rob Fisher, has taken the helm at the West Virginia Bar as reported in this article. Based on what he has planned for his state, I sure wish they'd find more like him to lead the ABA. According to the article, Fisher plans to focus on small firms and solos and to address lawyer malpractice by devising a mentoring program. He also
wwants to create a handbook on starting a law firm, something I hope that MyShingle can help with. Also on Fisher's to do list is to create a "lawyer liason" system to elp people find out who does what, encourage small firms to develop succession plans for when they close their practices and consider offering unbundled service.
Are you Fully Paperless?
There's a discussion at Evan Schaeffer'sIllinois Trial Practice Blog over the feasibility of a fully paperless office. Evan admits, and many commenters agree, that he has some difficulty relying exclusively on electronic documents, particularly when he's trying to get up to speed on a new, paper-laden matter.
What do you think? Do you still print out documents to read them - or are you fully adept at absorbing material on screen?
South Carolina Makes Discipline Records Available Online
According to this article, the South Carolina Bar moved to electronically post disciplines of lawyers on its webstie for 75 years (of course, who knows if the web in its present form will be around by then). Some lawyers oppose this decision, arguing that it "creates a Scarlet Letter" for anyone who makes a mistake. But another lawyer argued that technical violations would not show because they don't "go all the way."
While I do believe that the bars often unfairly target solos, on balance, I support the online disclosure system. I do believe, however, that if the disciplinary action is posted that it should be accompanied by all of the attorney's filings in his or her defense so that clients and other lawyers can arrive at their own judgment of whether the sanction was warranted. I've heard too many stories from colleagues who've referred cases to other lawyers only to discover that those lawyers had been suspended or disbarred. Making this information available can also spare lawyers from making negligent referrals.
Finding Networking Possibilities in Everything You Do
Great story in this Amy Joyce column from today's Washington Post, entitled Job Connections Start as Social Connections. Joyce describes how a blind date spawned by match.com went awry romantically, but worked out professionally for the guy when his date helped him to score a job at her company. The lesson - you never know where any connection you make will lead so don't minimize the importance of social connections to your business.