Solo At 75
I was about to post on this article from the Washington Post on former federal judge and biglaw partner Stanley Sporkin, who's just started his own law firm, but I saw that Susan Cartier Liebel beat me to the scoop. Though Sporkin expressed enthusiasm about his new venture, I wonder whether seventy five year old Sporkin was a victim of the mandatory retirement programs that I blogged about at Legal Blogwatch. If that's the case, it's just further evidence that solo practice provides us with a soft landing or a second chance at the law, no matter what our backgrounds.
Technolawyer Ad: A Tip for Solo Law Firms, But Is This Fair Advertising
Via Denise Howell comes word of this well done ad by Neil Squillante of Technolawyer. The ad, entitled "When Google Fails You," is set up with a new solo is looking for reviews on case management, but has no luck on Google, so he follows a lead to the Technolawyer archives. However, as Denise points out, Google doesn't "make you be a member" to pull results, nor does it charge for access, as Technolawyer does for the archives (which I discovered for myself by following the links at the site). Still, the ad is worth watching, if only to remind yourself of what life was like back when you were setting up your office.
Don't Slash and Burn, Just Slash
Used to be that career advice tended towards the absolute. Women at biglaw were basically advised that if they weren't willing to work 80 hour weeks after having kids that they'd have no future at the firm. So many left entirely, not recognizing the possibility for a happy medium. And on the listserves that I frequent, lawyers who have another career and want to keep their day job for a few days a week while they build a solo practice are told that if you don't commit 100 percent to starting a firm, then you won't succeed.
But these days, this "slash and burn" approach to careers is fast growing outdated. Instead, it's being replaced by what Marci Alboher's book, One Person, Multiple Careers aptly describes as the "slash phenomenon" of engaging in simultaneous, multiple careers.
As a slash herself (former lawyer/author/speaker/coach), Alboher concludes that:
I believe we are all slashes by necessity. After all, who can answer the question "What do you do?" with a singular response? And why would we want to?
Alboher's book profiles dozens of slashes, most highly successful in both professions, like a neurosurgeon/TV Commentator, realtor/musician and lawyer/actor. Alboher also offers lots of practical tips on how to transition from single to slash status, including use of websites and multiple business cards, leveraging synergies between different areas and overcoming overload, naysayers and other stumbling blocks. Alboher also recognizes that being a parent is a unique type of slash. You can tell that Alboher is a genuine "/writer" as One Person, Multiple Careers is extremely well written and tightly organized, particularly for a book of the "career how to genre."
So how does Alboher's book help solos and lawyers contemplating solo practice? First, as I described earlier, many lawyers who dream of solo practice want to start by dipping their toes in the water rather than taking the full plunge. Alboher's book helps you realize that you can embark on a new career venture while keeping a day job. Second, solos, more than any other class of lawyers I know, are slashers at heart. I know solos who are legal research and writing expert/business owner; bankruptcy lawyer/software developers; lawyer/mediator/journalist/author, not to mention the dozens of solos (some still practicing, some not) who are consultants on starting a law practice. Alboher's book will speak to those solos who multi-task.
I found Alboher's book flawed in one respect. She profiles such successful slashers that the book is at times intimidating, even for someone like me who is already slashing to some degree (I slash both within the legal profession, where I split my time between energy regulatory work and general litigation, as well as outside, where I blog professionally and write on solo practice). And in that same vein, the book glossed over the issue that I find most difficult in slashing, which is that for most of us, slashing means accepting less than perfection not just in one field, but two. For example, I'll never be one of the top energy regulatory lawyers in the country, not because I lack the ability, but because unlike my competitors, I'm not working on energy cases 24-7. Ultimately, though, being good at many things rather than great at one may be the price that I pay for a slash existence. And as Alboher's book makes clear, even with some trade-offs, for many the slash career still comes out on top in the end.
Attention: RFP FOR PRO BONO SERVICE BY SMALL LAW FIRM. Honestly, do you think a large firm would respond?
Imagine that your law firm issues the following Request for Proposals:
Busy solo practitioner seeking large firm to partner on pro bono matters for small, walk in clients with no funds to retain an attorney at full rates. Firm must turn these clients down in the absence of pro bono support. Matters include messy family law and custody battles, eviction proceedings, Fair Debt Collection Act matters, bankruptcy and lawsuits against small business without insurance coverage. Benefits include court time before sometimes unqualified, nasty judges, (as opposed to civilized federal practice) and learning to prioritize issues, cut corners due to cost constraints and practice law at less than your full ability due to lack of resources.
Now honestly, do you think you'd receive even a single response? Yet when large corporation Intel posted an RFP for lawyers to partner on pro bono firms, biglaw came running, according to this article, Intel Recruits Firms for Pro Bono Partnering. But don't think for even a second that the firms had thoughts of winning a plum client through working side by side with Intel lawyers on pro bono matters:
Similarly, Nixon Peabody pro bono partner Stacey Slater said her firm was motivated by the opportunity to do a good deed, not the chance of winning a new client. "That's not at all why we're doing this," she said. "This partnership will help increase pro bono on both ends."
Do these people even believe what they are saying?
Is Small the New Big: A Reprisal, Two Years Later
If you hang around the blogosphere long enough, you'll bump against the same themes but with a different spin. Back in June 2005, I first posted on whether small is the new big, applying some of the themes from Seth Godin's book of the same name. This week the discussion on small as the new big has re-emerged, with plenty of new voices and insights, but the same old optimism about what small firms have to offer even in the face of the ever expanding large firms.
In this post from the Virtual Lawyer, Roger Glovsky predicts that small firms will continue to succeed because they can leverage technology to reduce costs. Glovsky predicts that the changes will squeeze mid sized firms:
What this means is that the legal industry is undergoing a massive transition, which may take years to settle out. My prediction is that the number mid-sized firms will shrink. There will be big firms and small firms, but few in the middle.
I have worked at one of Texas' largest firms in one of the nation's largest cities and I now work at one of Austin's premier litigation boutiques. I have witnessed the added value a small law firm provides its clients as well as how small firms are using technology to compete with the big firms.
Another recent bigfirm to solo Texas lawyer, Todd Smith is happy to hear about the possibilities for small firms, which validates his career choice. And he is also optimistic that technology "will present an opportunity to work with an even broader network of lawyers than I do now." (in Todd's case, technology enabled a recent connection; while on travel last week, I had lunch with Todd and some of his Austin colleagues whom I'd met through one of our listserves. My in person connections with other solos always exceed my expectations and this lunch was no exception).
May it inspire others to stop emulating what you’re not, and start emphasizing the unique value and service that you can and do offer your clients.
As for me, I'm still as committed to independent practice as I was back in June 2005 when I first posted on the benefits of staying small. Since then, I've had my own personal setbacks with my firm, including losing to two prospective clients to major firms that cut their rates to compete. I've not lost faith in the small firm model, but I've realized that it isn't suited for all situations. The beauty of being small, however, is that I'm nimble enough to regroup, reanalyze and build a new business model. In contrast to working in a large institution where bureaucracy can suffocate new ideas, my only limits are my spirit (and yes, like most people, I do get discouraged by setbacks) and the bounds of my imagination. So stay small, but think as big as you can!
A Handbook on the Risks of e-Lawyering
Over at my beat at Legal Blogwatch, I posted a link to a free online handbook created by Chubb Insurance on the Risks of e-Lawyering. The handbook, available here offers lots of tips to avoid running afoul of ethics rules in the age of technology, such as how to guard against inadvertently creating an attorney-client relationship or how to preserve electronic documents for discovery. Plus, if you advise other businesses or corporations, Chubb has a number of other publications on a range of topics like avoiding slip and falls, preventing workplace fraud and IP checklists that might be a useful resource to pass on to clients.
Share Your PowerPoint Online: A Cool New Tool
A decade ago, back in the dark ages of the Internet, I'd often put presentations that I delivered at conferences into HTML so that I could readily display them on my website (check out this old chestnut on using the Internet for legal research, circa 1997 - it predated Google!). Posting a PowerPoint presentation online proved cumbersome with the tools then in place, and listing it as a link for users to download wasn't really an effective option.
So imagine my delight at discovering SlideShare (www.slideshare.net), a site that allows users to upload Power Point presentations and embed them in a blog or website, in a manner similar to YouTube. Last week, I spoke at a Symposium sponsored by the Texas Journal of Oil, Gas and Energy Law and in a matter of minutes, I posted my presentation
online here in a user friendly format. And I envision uses for this tool beyond just creating a virtual paper trail of past presentations: bloggers might put together a 4-5 Power Point "how to" on one topic or another and post it online for users to flip through or download.
Word of caution: be sure to copyright your slides. I can't tell you how many times I've sat through my own presentations, delivered by other attorneys with no attribution. I'm a huge supporter of free information, but my support ends where other lawyers appropriate my work for their advantage without giving me credit.
A Solo Who Inspired
Many people dream of starting a law firm to make money or achieve work-life balance, but for me, it's always been about immortality: finding a way to leave my own little, but indelible mark on the law. I'm still working hard on that goal, but if you want to get a sense of the heights that you can reach by starting a law firm, take a look at the legacy of this trailblazing, independent African American lawyer, Mahala Ashely Dickerson, who ran her own firm for over 40 years and just passed away at the age of 94 according to this article, Pioneer Alaska Lawyer Dickerson Dies at 94.
According to the article, Mahala was divorced and already had young children (6 year old triplets!) when she went to Howard Law School, graduating in 1936. She worked in Indiana and Alabama before moving to Alaska with her sons, where she opened a law practice in 1959. According to the article:
Dickerson had a reputation as an advocate for the poor and underprivileged. She argued many cases involving racial and gender discrimination, taking on the Anchorage Police Department and the University of Alaska, among other institutions.
According to the article, Dickerson was still working twelve hour days at age 71 and finally retired from her practice at 91. She mentored young lawyers and represented clients who didn't have the means to pay and for whom she fought aggressively. Said one attorney quoted in the article:
I remember one lawyer telling me one time, he said, 'Rex, you see those mountains out there?' He said, 'Those mountains are littered with the bones of lawyers who underestimated M. Ashley Dickerson.'
The article concludes:
Dickerson's legacy will be the way she overcame obstacles, giving back to the community, said Celeste Hodge, former local head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, who now runs Mayor Mark Begich's office of equal opportunity.
What legacy do you want to leave?
Real Life Marketing and Client Service Lessons, Courtesy of Jet Blue
Even after practicing law for 18 years, underneath my general air of confidence and my excess precaution with much of what I do lies a deep fear that at any minute, I could screw up in a major, big time way. But now, courtesy of Jet Blue, there's a lesson from the school of real life marketing on how to you can begin to deal with the fallout from those inevitable gaffes (or not).
This article, Jet Blue's Survival School offers a run down on some of whatJet Blue's done right since everything went so terribly wrong with its Valentines' Day Meltdown. Most significantly, Jet Blue's CEO, David Neeleman has stepped up to the plate to take responsibility and apologize:
But rather than hide behind his desk and speak through a flunky, Neeleman stepped up. He assessed the situation early on and spoke to the press. He explained exactly what went wrong and apologized. He said he felt "mortified" and "humiliated." That culminated Tuesday when he appeared on CNN's American Morning, Today, Fox and Friends and Squawk Box before most people arrived at work. He's been so visible, appearing live on so many media outlets, that it's a quasi-miracle he's been able to traverse New York City traffic to make the appointments.
I've read that good bedside matter often spares doctors, and other professionals from malpractice. So Neeleman's apology, as well as the compensation (free flights and refunds) and a Passenger Bill of Rights put him on the right track to making amends. Still, Jet Blue's efforts may not suffice to win back the affections of customers such as the one who started the blog, Jet Blue Hostage and has collected at least 150 stories from other passengers seriously inconvenienced by Jet Blue.
At this point, it's not clear whether Jet Blue can avert a class action lawsuit, along the lines of this type of false imprisonment and breach of contract action filed against Northwest in 1999. And sadly, that's part of the lesson here as well. Sometimes, no matter how much good will you build (as Jet Blue did), one huge screw up can spoil your your reputation until you can find a way to rebuild trust.
For lawyers, we need to continue plugging away at good customer service, both because it's the right thing to do, but also as a prophylactic against the adverse consequences of screwing up. And when good customer service doesn't cut it, we have malpractice insurance to fall back on.
GAL - I Knew Him When....And So Did Many Others
Finally, Enrico Schaefer has revealed himself as the Greatest American Lawyer. I've known Enrico for a while now, ever since he sent me an email in the early days of My Shingle before he launched his successful law firm and blog. And in April 2005, I met Enrico at the first LexThink conference and had a chance to speak with him for a while at the conference dinner. Enrico is a terrific person and a real visionary.
What both amazes and gratifies me, however, is the discretion of lawyer bloggers. So many people knew Enrico's identity, but no one shared it, even inadvertently. We all talk about how the Internet and blogging make connections, but it goes beyond that: these tools build trust, lasting bonds and personal community. I'm just glad that with his unveiling, Enrico Schaefer can now participate fully in this online community as well.