What Solos Can Learn From The Recent Obesity Study
As you've probably heard on the news by now, turns out that obesity isn't exclusively hereditary; it's also socially contagious (US News, 7/25/07). A recent study to be published in the New England Journal of Medicine suggests that if you're close friends with people who are obese, you're more likely to gain weight yourself either because you adopt the same unhealthful lifestyle, you don't feel as much pressure to stay thin in front of an obese friend or you alter your perception of acceptable appearance when you see that your friends have gained weight.
All very interesting, but what does a study about obesity have to do with solos? Plenty. The study reinforces a basic concept: that our behavior, action and self-worth are affected significantly by those around us - even to the point where we compromise our health and well being. And we solos and aspiring solos, independent and bold as we may like to believer, are not impervious to this phenomenon. Thus, much as we believe in our ability to start and run a successful practice, if we surround ourselves with naysayers, we may begin to have doubts. And if we've already got a pretty decent practice up and running, we're more likely to look down on our accomplishments when colleagues belittle solos.
So just as you may want to seek out fit people if you're trying to lose weight, you need to seek out supportive, go-getting, self-starters if you're thinking about starting a practice or if you already run one. Doesn't matter if they share your practice area or if they're 20 years older or younger than you, but just that they share your drive and optimism. And fortunately, with blogs and listserves, this kind of supportive crowd is only an internet connection away.
Building Relationships as a Way to Market
At my Legal Blogwatch beat, I posted here about marketing through building relationships with other lawyers and prospective and existing clients. As I discuss, one tool that is faciliating relationship building is Face Book - so maybe it's time that you got yourself an account.
The ABA Gets It Right
Under the leadership of reasonably new ABA Journal editor Ed Abrams, the ABA has finally provided a really useful product with the newly launched, online ABA Journal. The site makes ABA Journal articles and legal news available, and also contains one of the best topical blawg directories that I've ever seen. I realize that the ABA wasn't a front runner in this turf - Bill Gratch as Blawg.org has been indexing blawgs for nearly half a decade, while Law.com (where I blog for Legal Blogwatch started its blog network back in November 2004. Still, the ABA is better late than never - and perhaps in some regards, better for having been late because it was able to build on and improve earlier works and avoid some of the problems.
As most of you know, I'm not a member of the ABA, mostly because I can't stomach some of the political positions that the ABA takes and because philosophically, I don't believe that it's the place of a professional organization to play politics. But I have to admit that between Solosez, some of the work that the ABA energy groups are doing on renewables (relevant to my practice area) and the new ABA Journal, I may be reconsidering...
The Problem With the Billable Hour...Or the Problem With Lawyers?
Novelist and lawyer Scott Turow takes aim at the billable hour in this provocative piece, The Billable Hour Must Die, featured as (of all places!) the cover story of this month's ABA Journal (more on the redesign in another post). Turow acknowleges the usual litany of criticisms of the billable hour: the toll that the billable hour takes on our lives and the inefficiencies created. But he also goes a step further, and makes the case that the billable hour is downright unethical because it creates a conflict between the lawyer's interest in earning more money and the client's interest in a reasonable fee and quick resolution of a matter. And Turow offers good evidence to support his case, pointing out:
More tellingly, who among us can say he or she has never accused the lawyer on the other side of “running the meter”—of doing unnecessary discovery, filing frivolous motions or foot-dragging before engaging in meaningful settlement talks—all to pad the fee. And that’s not just to make excuses to the client. When we say it, we mean it. Looking at the lawyer on the other side of the v., we can see clearly how the temptation to earn more might impact a representation. If we can see the effects of the dollars-times-hours system so clearly when we look across the courtroom, how can we be so fully confident about ourselves?
While Turow's view on the billable hour is accurate, his diagnosis makes me wonder whether any nilling system can ever align the lawyer's interest and the clients if lawyers are most interested in maximizing profits rather than protecting their client's financial interest. In my own case, I have billed by the hour and I have billed through use of flat fees and alternate billing. Yet even billing by the hour, I've never once recommended that a client undertake an unnecessary task or use a more complicated process when a simpler one was available just to increase my bill. If lawyers are driven by maximizing revenue, then any system - be it the billable hour or alternative fees won't bring relief, because lawyers will simply find another way to squeeze more money out of clients.
Perhaps the better way to resolve the ethical problems that arise when lawyers bill clients is through reference to another ethical obligation that we lawyers have: our fiduciary duty to our clients. Basically, in a fiduciary relationship, our client's interests come before our own. Until lawyers start realizing that we owe special duties to our clients because of our fiduciary relationship, not to mention our ethical responsibility, there isn't a billing practice in the world that will produce reasonable and fair fees - and let us sleep guilt free at night.
The Three Year Rule - er, Guidepost
When it comes to building a law practice, I don't like to use the word "rule," because for every rule - e.g., "You must never work for free" or "You must commit to building a firm full time," there are always plenty of exceptions. Still, based on others' experience, you can glean certain guideposts or observations to help guide your practice and make decisions. And based on my own experience and those of a number of colleague, I've always regarded the three year mark as the time that most solo practices - even those that begin with the utmost success - truly begin to soar.
I'd always believed that the three year guidepost was merely a product of timing: You spend most of Year One simply scrambling to get the practice up and running and pull in whatever matters you can to generate cash flow. Year Two, you start to reap the benefits of Year One marketing so that more profitable cases find their way through the door. And by Year Two/early Year Three, you gain enough confidence to shed practice areas and/or clients that consume your time and energy but don't produce much revenue. So by the middle to end of Year Three, you've finally got a good sense of where your firm is going and you can truly take off for the stars. And in fact, many solos I know who've started a practice after leaving a firm report a drop in income for Year One, steady growth in Year Two and meeting or surpassing earlier income from previous employment by Year Three.
I've found some confirmation of the three year guidepost in another, seemingly unrelated source: this post Tips for Succeeding as a TV Writer in Hollywood by Gretchen Rubin (a former lawyer), of the Happiness Project Rubin writes:
You have to live in L.A. for three years before anything much happens.”
People told my sister this when she moved out there, and indeed, after she’d been there for three years, her career really picked up speed. This is largely because relationships are so important in L.A., and it takes about three years to work up a serious network.
Rubin's advice made me re-examine the three year guidepost in a different light. Maybe the three years aren't really a matter of timing, but a matter of relationship building. And in law, networking is just as important as it is in L.A. Yet, many lawyers don't bother to network and build relationships until they turn solo and thus, need the full three years to get a practice up and running because that's the time it takes for them to establish relationships.
The lesson here? If you're thinking of starting a law practice - today or five years down the line, start building relationships with other lawyers and potential clients right now before you start your firm. In that way, you can ensure that you're an exception to the three year guidepost for law firm success.
Building an Innovative Law Firm: A How To With An Innovative Power Point
I haven't been checking in to Matt Homann's Non-Billable Hour site recently, which is a shame, because I nearly missed this amazing presentation on Building An Innovative Law Firm. Matt makes the presentation available using Slideshare, a very cool tool that I recommended back here back in February that allows you to embed a Power Point presentation at your website or blog.
The Other Side of Solo Practice
It's difficult to fully respond to an article like this one,
The Snark: Flying solothat discusses the drawbacks of solo practice because I can't decide whether the author is trying to be funny or is truly pathetic, and pathetically uninformed.
Basically, the article is intended to discourage unhappy associates from making the mistake of starting their own firms. Fair enough. Leaping from biglaw to yourlaw is a major step, one that shouldn't be taken lightly. In fact, if an associate left a large firm to open his own shop and didn't feel apprehensive, I'd be worried that he hand'nt given much thought to the move.
But this article goes beyond highlighting some of the drawbacks of solo practice: it screams about them, loud and clear. Unfortunately, the article is rife with the sorts of stereotypes that I'd assumed that my blog and at least a dozen other solo practice related blogs had put to rest. Consider a few:
Tech Support From the article: But when you go to log in to your new laptop, and it can�t detect your wireless Internet because your router is improperly configured, you can�t just dial the IT Hotline folks, who will solve your problem in five minutes or rush up to your office with a new computer.
The truth: Hello?! Ever hear of outsourcing? Many solos outsource tech support functions. And computers are so inexpensive, that they often have two machines, so that if one goes down, they can keep working.
Client Developemnt From the article: "But without partners to delegate document reviews, memos and revisions to contracts, you�re on your own to find clients and convince them that your skills are worth your freshly discounted $175 rate: Big Firm Lawyer, Small Firm Price!� But convincing people you�re worth that rate is harder when all knowledge and networking and rainmaking must come from you alone. No more team for you."
The truth: When did the firm team ever try to sell anyone's experience but that of the senior partner?
Getting Information From the article: "If a client called with some random question, one little firmwide email later you had the answer." Apparently, this author has never heard of Solosezwhere a network of 2000 solos can find a response just as quickly as a colleague at biglaw - and they won't bill you for it!
Practice AreasFrom the article: So when your old Big Firm clients don�t follow you and hire you to draft their employee handbooks anymore�your particular sub-specialty in the Big Firm days�you better quickly learn how to draft a will, apply for a trademark, and cross-examine a cop on the calibration of the Breathalyzer 2000. The truth: More and more clients are leaving biglaw to for smaller firms because of poor client service and bloated fees. And guess what? Lots of lawyers actually want time in a court room and before a jury - it's experience many so-called litigators at large firms don't have.
Getting PaidThis is the most hilarious of all. From the article: The same is true when you try to collect your own fees from your new clients. Sadly, your letterhead doesn�t scream, �I Am Part of a Firm of 1,000 Lawyers Who Will Hunt You Down Until You Pay.�" The truth: Hello? Ever heard of money up front? Evergreen retainers? Withdrawing if clients don't pay? Is this Cog-Author really a lawyer?
There are plenty of legitimate reasons to stay at a large firm. Maybe you're at a point in your life where you'd really be struggling without the money and fear that you'll risk your large salary if you leave. Maybe you've finally found a comfort spot after a bumpy ride through law school and other jobs. Maybe you truly enjoy working on complex pieces of a case with other people and don't mind the long hours. I don't denigrate the choices that biglaw attorneys make. But you've got to be honest with yourself - and that's something this article isn't. It's one big, sad and uninformed rationalization of why lawyers at large firms should suck up the downside of large firm life, to toil in obscurity and loan your talent for the rest of your life when you should be owning it instead.