My Shingle: Inspiring Solo and Small Firm Lawyers

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Make 2008 The Year You Start Your Law Firm

As another year draws to a close, do you find yourself thinking about hanging out your own shingle? Perhaps the thought occurred to you the other night while you were polishing up a brief, wishing that you -- not the partner who isn't at all familiar with the case -- were going to argue it.

Or maybe after a year of working the temp circuit, using your Ivy League law degree to perform paralegal work, it occurred to you that you couldn't be any worse off if you started your own practice.

So what's holding you back?

I wrote these words three years ago in this article, Make 2005 the Year You Start Your Own Law Firm. But my advice still rings true today. Take a look and see if I've convinced you to make this year the one that you start your firm.

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on December 27, 2007 at 08:57 PM in MyShingle Solo | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

A Great Video Ad To End the Year:

I posted on this video here. In my view and for the reasons I described in that post, it's hands down the best and most effective lawyer ad that I've seen this year, rivalling my favorite ad of 2006, by criminal defense attorney Allison Margolin, that I wrote about here.

Lights, camera, action - are you video-ready for 2008?

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on December 26, 2007 at 12:20 PM in Ethics & Malpractice Issues | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

This Solo Has No Problem With Avvo

For a few days now, the blogosphere has been abuzz with news of the dismissal of a class action lawsuit against lawyer directory and rating service, Avvo and the subsequent Wall Street Journal's endorsement of Avvo. These events evoked an impassioned post by respected solo-centric blogger Susan Cartier Liebel, who argues that Avvo's rating system harms solos, does not help consumers and unfairly generates investor profits off the backs of lawyers who never asked for a ratings system. As such, Cartier Liebel urges lawyers not to participate in Avvo's system. Since then, commenters to Scott Greenfield's Avvo posthave launched a debate over Avvo's benefit to consumers and its impact on solos. Though I'm a little late to this party (having been away and off the grid for two days), I wanted to chime in to make clear that not all of us solos oppose Avvo, nor should we. Here's why.

First, the numerical ranking component of Avvo that accounts for most of the site's controversy, quite honestly, has the least significance. Generally speaking, numerical rankings have less meaning where there's other information available on which to base a decision. For example, consider decision making process for selecting a hotel online, at aggregator sites like or Travelocity. First, I'll narrow my choices based solely on location, price and amenities offered without any regard to ratings. Then, for those hotels that meet my initial criteria, I'll review visitors' comments, discounting those with different preferences from mine. Thus, even if a commenter criticizes a hotel room as overly shabby, I'd still choose it over the competition if it's right on the beach, because I value convenience more than decor. And even if the hotel received a numerical ranking of 1 out of 5, I'd assume that the ranking reflected the poor decor (which doesn't matter to me), so the low score wouldn't deter me. By contrast, the 1 out of 5 rating might drive a neat freak to another hotel - not because of the number itself, but the information behind it.

I don't think that my decision making methodology is particularly unique. Just as I choose my hotel room, when consumers choose a lawyer through a site like Avvo, most will look at the ratings number only after they've screened prospects to identify a lawyer with the appropriate specialty and and location. Thereafter, they'll look at comments and perhaps after that, they'll consider the numerical ranking. Moreover, as Avvo itself says here, the numerical ranking is merely one piece of information that may feed into a client's calculus in choosing a lawyer. But for most people, a ranking is not at all dispositive, and indeed, as I've already shown, in many cases, it's not even relevant. I'm willing to trust prospective clients to give ratings the weight that they do, or more accurately, don't deserve. Also, while some solos may fear the odd case a disgruntled clients could post negative information and lower a lawyer's score, the truth is, that clients can already do plenty of damage to a lawyer's reputation, in a far less controlled environment.

Where I see the value of Avvo to solos isn't so much in rankings (which again, most consumers disregard) but in serving as an aggregator of information about lawyers. Avvo lets lawyers upload links to their websites and articles they've authored and include favorable endorsements from colleagues and clients, without any charge. It's this information, far more than the ratings, that provides consumers with a tool to make decisions. (Incidentally, I'd object if Avvo forced lawyers to pay to enhance their profiles or upload additional information without allowing them to opt out of a listing entirely).

And because Avvo gives lawyers control over their entries, at no charge, it equalizes the playing field for solos. Right now, individual consumers who want to find lawyers (and who don't know anyone who can make a personal referral) have limited resources: Yellow Pages, search engine or online directories. For individual solos, Yellow Pages are prohibitively expensive, not to mention, increasingly less effective as more consumers turn to the Internet to find service providers. And search engines won't help solos "get found" unless they invest in costly SEO (search engine optimization) or develop a pervasive Internet presence through blogging - which quite simply, isn't for everyone. A robust online directory that doesn't charge solos an admission price provides a way for clients to find solos and small firms with the expertise they need who don't have Internet presence and can't afford the Yellow Pages. Seems to me that's a win-win for consumers and solos.

Finally, I don't understand the objection to Avvo's profit motive, particularly from solos, who are, after all, the most entrepreneurial of lawyers. As I see it, Avvo is stepping in and filling a need for an easily searchable and aggregated source of information about lawyers, a need that our bar associations could have satisfied, but didn't. How many bar associations publish as much as an online list of lawyers organized by specialty and links to their websites? Perhaps a handful at best, and those are local bar associations that charge a fee for the service. How many bar associations keep lawyers' articles and resumes on file, for distribution to prospective clients calling for referrals? Zero. The only reason that Avvo's business model has any viability at all is because our bar associations, who by all rights, had first dibs on the kind of information that could be used to establish a lawyer directory, didn't do it themselves. More power to Avvo for filling a gap, just like more power to those solos who identify niche markets and develop innovative services to satisfy them.

I don't much care whether Avvo succeeds or not; Avvo isn't the first venture to list and rank lawyers, nor will it be the last. But if Avvo fails, it should fail because consumers don't get value from the service, and not because lawyers don't like it.

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on December 25, 2007 at 10:57 PM in Marketing & Making Money | Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack

Lawyers Appreciate...Passion, Baby, Passion!

Yes, you read my headline correctly - lawyers appreciate passion. At least, that's my official response to the Second Annual what do lawyers appreciate meme , for which I've been tagged by my friend Sheryl Schelin.

My answer may surprise you. After all, we generally, we don't associate staid lawyers with passion - unless it's kind of carnal passion like thisthat keeps bar disciplinary committees in business. But lawyers appreciate the another kind of passion: the inspired committment that the best lawyers bring to bear in representing clients, running their practices and participating in the blawgosphere. In fact, if you think about it, passion lies at the core of our profession, formally codified in our duty to zealously represent clients. What is zeal, after all, if not passion?

So how do I know that lawyers appreciate passion? Well, first and most obvious, because even though in our profession passion is in short supply, either squeezed dry by the rigorous demands of a job we don't like or the monotony of the same cases over and over again, many of us lawyers yearn to restore passion to our own practices. Second, because passion accounts for the public success and personal satisfaction of those lawyers at biglaw or their own solo practice, who practice law with joy and purpose, and in doing so, evoke our admiration. And finally, because passion drives the success of our beloved blawgosphere, home to memes such as this one. The blawgosphere depends upon the participation of hundreds of lawyers who blog their hearts out for audiences of ten or ten thousand simply out of sheer passion for exchanging and sharing ideas. And silly contests aside, for those laywers who passionately and genuinely captivate and inspire their readers, the blawgosphere bestows a wealth of riches like complimentary comments, mutual respect, intellectual satisfaction and, as Sheryl said, friendship.

That said, while I may appreciate passion in the practice of law, I don't have much passion, just patience, for memes. But I'll dutifully tag Scott Greenfield, Nathan Dosch, Bob Kraft and Ed Poll and Greatest American Lawyer. And of course, you don't need to wait for an invite - feel free to jump in and join the party as I did last year (lawyers appreciate...clients).

Update 12/24/07 made a few stylistic edits.

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on December 24, 2007 at 07:52 AM in Announcements | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Another Contest: Law Is Stranger Than Fiction

My sister sent me this notice about a legal fiction writing contest sponsored by SEAK, a company that provides seminars and training for expert witnesses, lawyers and medical professionals. Either short stories or a novel excerpt of 2500 words or less qualify for submission. Entries are due March 31, 2008.

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on December 22, 2007 at 05:08 PM in Announcements | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Get Yourself Noticed: Go Forth and Comment!

So, guess who won the Wall Street Journal Law Blog's Lawyer of the Year contest? No, it wasn't Alberto Gonzales (the ABA's first choice , until it changed its mind, or Clarence Thomas or even the overly litigious Roy Pearson who spawned dozens of bad puns about lawyers suing the pants off businesses. Nope. As I posted here, a pseudonymous second year law student who goes by "Loyola 2L" took the prize, for his constant commentary that spotlighted the poor job prospects for graduates from lower tier law schools.

Here's why you should care about Loyola 2L's victory: because it shows the power of commenting at a highly trafficked website. And while blogs like Above the Law or WSJ Law Blog, with their immature and often frivolous remarks may not be appropriate for practicing lawyers, these blogs are far from the only game in town. For example, the WSJ also has blogs on health care issues or Business Technology. Each post lists commenters in the side bar, so if you post under your real name, you'll get some mention right on the web page itself. Plus, when readers email story links to others, recipients will view your comments as well. Most other major news outlets also have an unmoderated comment section, where you can post on a story.

Posting comments at popular blogs can give your recognition beyond the actual blog site. Your comments will show up in search engines and the reporters who've authored the posts will come to regard you as an expert for future stories.

Here are some quick tips on writing comments that will generate visibility:

  1. Offer a valuable insight about the subject of the article or blog post. Don't simply write "great article." Instead, identify an issue that the post may have overlooked or offer constructive criticism.
  2. Put your blog and website in your signature line or at the end of the post, but don't force people to visit by directing them to a link saying "see my comments at my site." If your post impressed people sufficiently, they'll come to your site on their own.
  3. Follow up on comments. If other commenters have addressed your comments, go back and add a follow up to reinforce your presence.
  4. Comment regularly. Bloggers and journalists love getting feedback in comments, and they'll notice and reward those who offer substance to the conversations.

For other ideas (not related to comments) that will help you build your presence online, check out this free e-book entitled SEO for Bloggers and also Bob Ambrogi's Legal Technology column on new websites like JD Supra and Docstoc where you can show what you know by uploading samples of pleadings, briefs and forms.

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on December 22, 2007 at 12:15 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

A Round Up of Opportunities for Solo and Small Firms

Here's a quick round up of some opportunities for solo and small firm lawyers.

Check out Susan Cartier-Liebel's contest, So You Want to Fly Solo. The contest, which is open to all lawyers - "newly minted or well seasoned," and current and/or wannabe solos, offers a two hour consult (value: priceless) with Susan as the grand prize. Visit the link for details on how to enter.

If you're part of what has been dubbed the Practical Blawgosphere (someone tell me who's responsible for coining this term for future accreditation), sign up to join the Wiki of the Practical Blawgosphere, described in more detail by Scott Greenfield in this post.

Though it's a bit early (and I'll be reposting this), mark your calendars for a blockbuster event that I've organized for the DC Bar's Law Practice Management Steering Committee, entitled Practicing Law in the E-Court of Public Opinion: How the Internet Can Make Or Break Your Reputation and What You Can Do About. In a profession where a negative image can harm our clients or hurt us financially, all lawyers - from solos to partners at ginormous law firms - owe it to ourselves to understand how the Internet affects our reputation. The panel features a star studded cast, with David Lat at Above the Law and Mark Britton, CEO of Avvo who will discuss both the positive and negative effects of their popular websites on lawyers' images. And the panel will also include two D.C. attorneys Andrew Mirsky and Jonathan Frieden who will respectively provide expert advice on the role of First Amendment and libel law in protecting reputation and practical ways that you can guard and enhance your image. I'll be moderating the panel. The event will be held at the D.C. Bar on January 24, 2008, and best of all, even if you're not physically in DC, you can listen in via teleconference. Here's the sign up form for this not to be missed event.

Finally, if you know of any other events, conferences or activities that might prove useful to solo and small firm lawyers, email the information to me at

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on December 22, 2007 at 09:41 AM in Announcements | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Talk About Hypocrisy: Doesn't the Bar Have Anything Better To Do Than Go After a $35/Hr. Contract Attorney?

With billing fraud rampant at major law firms, guess who the Illinois disciplinary committee decided to prosecute? Was it the the partners at a
Chicago office of a national firm, whose own colleague shined a light on overbilling? Nah - that's too large a target. Why not go after the smallest possible potato instead - like a $35 an hour contract attorney who allegedly overbilled by $2913.75 for work performed on a month long document review gig for Mayer Brown (a firm whose own rap sheet includes firing 45 equity partners to preserve the firm's $1 million profits-per-partner ratio and a partner just indicted on charges of criminal fraud).

According to the bar complaint, the contract attorney, who'd been assigned to the document review position through a staffing agency, worked 51.75 hours over the course of two weeks, but submitted a timesheet for 135 hours. Based on the timesheet, Ajilon paid the contract attorney $4,725 for his work - $2,913.75 more than he should have received. The complaint charges the expected laundry list of misconduct: fraud, dishonesty, deceipt, misrepresentation and that old pompous favorite, "conduct which is prejudicial to the administration of justice or which tends to defeat the administration of justice or to bring the courts or the legal profession into disrepute."

The bar's complaint doesn't say who filed the charges - the staffing agency or the law firm. But the identity of the complainant wouldn't change my view that this case isn't about a breach of ethics, but a breach of contract. The contract attorney had a contract with the staffing agency to provide document review service and receive compensation for those hours worked, while the staffing agency had a contract with Mayer Brown to staff projects with contract lawyers. Assuming that the contract attorney billed for 84 hours that he never worked, then sue the guy for breach of contract or unjust enrichment. Why convert an ordinary complaint for $2913 into a ginormous ethics matter? Bringing a claim before a disciplinary committee that properly belongs in small claims court is not only disproportionately punitive to the contract attorney, but it opens up the grievance process for gamesmanship and abuse, a concern that I voiced here.

What's most outrageous, however, is the hypocrisy of all of this. In our present-day legal caste system, contract attorneys are viewed as the untouchables of the profession, migrant lawyers who don't qualify for as much as an interview for, let alone an associate position at Biglaw. (Note- this isn't my view, I'm just bluntly describing current realities). Yet while treated as "glorified paralegals" in the legal work force, contract attorneys are, apparently, still bound to abide by all of the ethics obligations that apply to full fledged attorneys who actually receive the benefits of self-regulation of the legal profession provided by the code.

Moreover, while the Illinois bar screams bloody murder over a $2913.75 overcharge by a guy making $35/hr, it's one of virtually every bars nationwide that allows law firms to mark up rates paid to contract attorneys, without disclosing the premium to clients. In this case, I would guess that Mayer, Brown paid Ajilon around $60 for this $35/hr contract lawyer (to reflect the staffing agency's cut) then turned around and charged clients $150 an hour for his time. But in the vernacular of the bar, that's not billing fraud, just smart business.

Mike Frisch of the Legal Profession Blog (the source for this story) predicts that the bar won't show much sympathy for the accused because "he's a contract lawyer, rather than a highly compensated partner in a major firm." That comment sums it up for me as well.

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on December 22, 2007 at 07:43 AM in Ethics & Malpractice Issues | Permalink | Comments (14) | TrackBack

Lombardi's Response to My Post on Listserves

Earlier today in this post, I described my disagreement with Iowa personal injury attorney Steve Lombardi's complaints about misuse of listserves. Lombardi has now weighed in with a responsehere.

Lombardi raises one issue to which I gave short shrift: that lawyers should not blindly rely on advice offered on listserves without conducting their own independent verification. However, those lawyers who willingly accept advice from other lawyers (e.g., "The statute says X") without checking the source are the same lawyers who, in the absense of the listserve, probably wouldn't even bother to research a question to begin with (For example, I know one lawyer who will file a motion without any caselaw and then let his opponent "do the work for him" by researching and citing applicable cases in the response. Let's just say that this lawyer's clients wouldn't be any worse off if this lawyer relied on unverified advice from a listserve).

Lombardi also mentions the problem of too much listserve garbage that he claims don't interest experienced attorneys - the endless stream of "me too's" and political discussion and posts by lawyers in way over their heads. However, information overload isn't unique to listserves; it's a product of the Internet era where we're regularly inundated with a constant stream of information from listserves, blogs, news sources and RSS feeds. As lawyers, we need to find ways to manage that information, to cull the wheat from the chaff in an efficient and proactive manner. Yes, many listserves do benefit from moderators, but we lawyers must take responsibility for moderating information for ourselves. This means liberal use of mail filters, search tools and most of all, the "delete key."

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on December 17, 2007 at 06:35 PM in Solo Practice Trends | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

...and this is how it looks....


It's not going to be available until January 7, 2008, but you can preorder and get some more details here. In the meantime, this is how it looks!

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on December 17, 2007 at 05:52 PM in book | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack