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Solo In Chicago

...empowering the Second City's entrepreneurial legal community

Friday, November 28, 2008

Warning Signs of Law Firm Failure

Here’s the full article and the 3 shared characteristics shared by failing firms:

  • Below average financial performances that included excessive leverage, significant deferred obligations, low productivity and poor realization was one main category.

  • Internal dynamics involving leadership problems, incompatible goals among partners, differences in compensation philosophies and a lack of succession planning was the second common theme.

  • External dynamics dealing with competitive pressures over a historical client base, access to new clients or an ability to recruit was the third major component shared by failed firms.

Cinderella “pull-ups” and Painted Toe-Nails (on a 3-year old)

Question, are we really going to hear about the next 20 years of child custody battles of Brian Urlacher? I hope not. I’d guess it will slow down once ‘ole Brian retires from the Bears. If you’re looking for the issue in the case, the question is, are Cinderalla pull-ups and painted toenails a “serious endangerment” to the child (750 ILCS 5/607)?

I think not.

Pricing in a Recession

Well, I'm not running for office right now so I don't mind using the "R" word or bagel as Josh Lyman used to call it on The West Wing. We're trying to deal with the real issues facing legal professionals here at SIC and reality suggests we're nearing a recession.

How should that impact your business? Saw this interesting post including advice from many places entitled, Not a Bad Time for Small Businesses to Raise Prices. Is the title true?

I'm not sure. I've generally kept rates steady on flat fee stuff like some estate planning or residential real estate transactions. I feel like the profit margin on these sorts of things are too thin already to cut prices. However, on things that are generally billed hourly I've been more flexible to drop hourly rates. A good hourly divorce or other litigation matter could be too big of a fee case to let 10-20 dollars per hour lose a client. This was good advice from the article:

If you are going to raise your prices, set them higher than you have to, suggests Karen E. Klein, writing on businessweek.com. That way, if your customers balk, you can reduce the price increase a bit and still end up with the increase you need.

I thought the best piece of advice from the article was this:

“If your competition is busy nursing their recessionary wounds, then you should become aggressive in marketing yourself and your products,” argues Morebusiness.com, a Web site that describes itself as a “one-stop resource Web site for entrepreneurs.”

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Book Review: The Servant

By James C. Hunter

Reviewed by Peter R. Olson

In “The Servant” James Hunter uses the biblical concept of servant hood as exemplified by Jesus Christ to teach ethical business leadership principals based on the premise of serving others. “The Servant” takes readers on a fictional journey to a Michigan monastery where six people of varying backgrounds end up together in a leadership seminar taught by former Fortune 500 executive Leonard Hoffman n/k/a Brother Simeon (fictional).

“The Servant” is a fast and easy read at 187 pages with most of the story allowing readers to pull up a chair and view a group discussion lead by Brother Simeon on the topic of leadership. The story advocates an accountable if simplistic form of leadership seemingly absent in most of our business leaders today.

“The Servant” reflects on the awesome responsibility which leadership entails: employees spending up to half of their waking hours working and living in the environment created by the leader. Mr. Hunter defines leadership as the skill of influencing people to work enthusiastically toward goals identified as being for the common good.

“The Servant” makes an important distinction between power and authority. Power is identified as the ability to force someone to do your will while authority is the skill of willingly getting people to do your will because of your personal influence. Sure, power works for a little while but eventually it erodes relationships and can be very damaging. Think about the difference between Mother Theresa and Bob Knight.

I found this discussion to be the most useful in the story.

Wants versus needs are also compared. Leaders should identify and meet the needs not the wants of their people, and serve them. Slaves do what others want, servants do what others need. A want is a desire without any regard for the physical or psychological consequences whereas a need is a legitimate physical or psychological requirement for the well-being of the human being.

“The Servant” discusses a unique perspective on honesty as it relates to accountability. Honesty is about clarifying expectations for people, holding people accountable, being willing to give the bad news as well as the good news, giving people feedback, being consistent, predictable, and fair. In short, behavior must be free from deception and dedicated to truth at all costs.

And commitment means sticking by your choices. True commitment is a vision about individual and group growth along with continuous improvement. The committed leader is dedicated to growing, stretching, and continuously improving—committed to becoming the best leader they can be and that the people they lead deserve. It’s also a passion for your people, pushing them to become the best they can be.

And the verb love is analyzed not as the feeling that we typically associate with it but rather love as a behavior and choice. Agabe love and leadership are synonymous. When Jesus spoke of love in the New Testament the Greek agape is used, a love of behavior and choice, not a love of feeling. We can’t always control how we feel about other people but we can control how we behave towards others.

Finally, the story includes an interesting discussion about the many messages that lateness sends. First, someone who’s late is saying that their time is more important than your time. Second, it conveys the message that you must not be very important to them because he would surely be on time for an important person. It also communicates that he isn’t honest because honest people stick to their word, even time commitments. Being late is extremely disrespectful behavior and also habit forming. I can surely learn from this type of disrespect.

“The Servant” is an allegory that teaches the timeless principles of servant leadership. The use of allegory and the various personalities of the seminar participants makes “The Servant” both easy to understand and also easy to identify with, traits often lacking in so-called business leadership books.

It Would be Nice to have the Court File

I'm going to try NOT to talk about the low-tech, paper court filing system in Cook County...at least for most of this post because it's actually a slightly different issue I want to raise. The issue that bothers me is within the Cook County Domestic Relations Division (I think this is division-wide although nearly all of my domestic practice these days is at Daley so this my be a Daley specific issue) when your case is court, your case file is not actually brought to the courtroom. Whether your case is set for an almost meaningless "status report" to the start of a 2 week trial, your case is listed on a docket sheet but all of the past case orders are not at your or the judge's fingertips. This can be a big problem.

I was in court this week on a case I had just gotten retained on a few days before a status hearing. So my client and I were essentially going to meet for the first time in court and he was going to give me some of the recent orders (he hadn't been able to e-mail or fax them to us). Well, at the last minute he can't show-up so now I'm in court with no previous court orders, the opposing party is pro-se and has no orders, and because the file doesn't come to court at Daley Center, the Judge has no orders. So then the judge is looking at her scribbled minutes/notes that she keeps but those aren't really court orders and so it's a big mess.

Of the 2-3 sorts of matters that bring me to court, the domestic relations division is the only division where there's not a court file in court when your case is up. Why? My guess, and now I must hark back to the poor Cook filing system, is that the problem is related to the fact that only '05 files to the present are kept on-site at Daley. The rest are off-site in the "warehouse."

I'm starting to see more than a handful of judges I'm in front of at both Daley and 32 W. Randolph us computers right on the bench, would it be too hard to have some intranet that they could access to view the case file online??

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Profile: Jeffrey Steinback

If you didn't see this, take a read of the nice profile from November's Chicago Lawyer. He's a sole practitioner with a very niche practice...

For Steinback — a veteran criminal defense attorney who is considered one of Chicago’s leading experts on federal sentencing guidelines, as well as a master plea bargainer whose practice focuses largely on resolving white-collar criminal matters short of trial — it is the whole person, rather than a mere description contained within the four corners of an indictment, that is at the heart of his work...

For the better half of his 32-year-long law career, Steinback, 57, has focused his practice on three areas: negotiating plea deals, almost exclusively for clients charged with federal crimes; working to secure the lightest possible sentence for clients charged with or convicted of such crimes; and aiming to convince prosecuting authorities not to indict a client who has become the target of a federal probe, or to bring lesser charges.

Take a look at the full piece. It's great advice to find your very own selective little niche. I think that's similar to Mr. Newton's practice.

3 Posts in 1...What a Deal!

Watch me seamlessly interweave three separate topics into one post:

  • Supreme Court Rule 711 Abuse;

  • The Importance of Being Detail-Oriented; and,

  • Sloppy, Hand-written, Last-Minute changes to a final Judgment.
The above are mostly all tied to the same incident with one exception. The incident was at its core a simple, dissolution of marriage prove-up hearing. For you non-domestic relations lawyers out there this is the last hearing of a settled dissolution of marriage proceeding (divorce). The hearing itself is some 15 minutes typically where the petitioning party must "prove-up" the grounds or basis for his/her petition and then you walk the judge through the terms of the final Judgment. So although the hearing is quite brief the documents that get entered are very substantive and very important dealing with property division and parenting issues that might be relevant for the next 20 years or so.

First, the Supreme Court Rule 711 Abuse.

Let me say up front that no one's a bigger advocate of clinical experience during law school than I am. My experience at SIU's Elder Law clinic was the most useful part of my legal education and I to this day reference documents and other aspects of that experience. If you have aspirations of building a law practice shortly after law school, get some good clinical experience during law school. BUT, I was very turned off recently when I had one of my appointed contempt clients who was incarcerated and the opposing "lawyer" from the State's Attorney's office was a 711 student. I mean we're talking about a persons very freedom here and I'm dealing with a non-lawyer opposite me. The other situation leads me back to the divorce prove-up. There's a 711 student drafting the final Joint Parenting Agreement in the case. And no surprise when I finally got it sent to me the afternoon before the hearing there are probably 10 things that weren't covered that should have been. Great, have your 711 student come into court and into judge's chambers on pretrial conferences but when we're talking about documents that have critical impact on litigants' lives, how 'bout using the real lawyer.

Second and Third: Be detail-oriented and avoid having sloppy, hand-written judgments entered.

Nothing adds to your value as an attorney more than being EXTREMELY detail-oriented. And ya don't really need law school or any further CLE for this trait. You need to be more thorough and spend more time reviewing documents than your opposing counsel. And it's worth your while. Believe me, I'm not saying to inflate your bills but I am saying to bill more because you're being more thorough. The Joint Parenting Agreement I referenced above gets sent to me late afternoon before a 9am prove-up hearing the next day. So I'm doing a final read on the train heading down to Daley. I must have caught 10 errors and omissions. You must thoroughly scour final judgments!

So in the same case as where there was sloppy 711 abuse, the opposing counsel doesn't complete the case's Judgment and Marital Settlement Agreement until the morning of the hearing. I get my first view of the Judgment at probably 855am for a 9am hearing (no surprise the hearing didn't happen until 11am). And then we're stuck making last-minute hand-written changes. If the case weren't set for trial I would have just said forget it...we'll do this another day and get a proper judgment drafted. I'd estimate that this happens in maybe 25% of final dissolution of marriage judgments. And it causes them to be rife with errors and inconsistencies.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Don't Hide Assets in Real Estate!

Namely because real estate is the most public of assets so it won't be hidden long! If you're in family law at all you're going to have cases in a dissolution of marriage setting or child support collection setting where a litigant wants to hide her/his assets. I'm not here to judge this action but rather to gasp and shake my head at some recent cases where litigants were attempting to hide assets and as part of the "hiding" bought Cook County real estate.

Well, the real estate wasn't hidden for long and a quick signature on a Judicial Deed and now the "Ex" has the real estate.

Getting your Fees in Divorce Proceedings

Mary Umberger included this snippet in a recent column which is informing...

Thinking about a divorce? These days, the real estate market may be a third party in an already-sticky situation.

Some family-law attorneys say the condition of the housing market is causing them to rethink the way they get paid for their counsel in divorce cases. Used to be, according to the Wisconsin Law Journal, many such lawyers would receive their fees when the splitting couple came up with cash at the sale of their house—typically 90 days or so after the divorce.

Now, the journal reported, such lawyers may demand larger upfront retainer fees because there's no telling when that home sale could happen. And even then, it added, there's no guarantee there will be any money to spread around because of the possibility of foreclosure or because the couple had no equity remaining in the house.

Take it from someone who's got attorney fees in more than one house around the Chicago area and has for going on more than two years, heed the above! You need to eat!

Dick Cheney and Opposing Counsel

Leaving his politics aside, I have great admiration for the Vice-President as a political infighter. If you've read any of the books that have come out regarding the Bush administration or there are a couple Cheney biographies as well (I'd personally recommend either of these here or here), the power Cheney's office yielded was quite impressive. And not to be too simplistic, but oftentimes he'd win the policy battles by simply being the last person to talk with the President. There would be different executive departments and committees and such analyzing issues and then just as the President was walking out to Marine I to go out of town Cheney would get a few minutes and a signature and bam...he wins!

The analogy with opposing counsel in some of my cases has been an annoying tendency of late for this sort of thing to occur...we're in court on a status hearing with no motions pending and I've spoken with the other side and our case has been called and now we're just drafting an order and everything is done for the day. Then, opposing counsel raises a brand new issue just as we're about to be done. If the issue is something we can do by agreement great but usually it's not and that's why they wait until the last minute. My general response if my client disagrees is to just say no. Then opposing counsel will have the case re-heard, ect., ect. Fine. The real problem is that oftentimes judges will listen to these non-written, non-notice motions. They shouldn't!

Saturday, November 08, 2008

How Many Billables do You Bring?

That's the subject written about here at Law.com. The above or some question regarding your "book of business" is a question you must be able to answer for several reasons.

Not to be blasphemous since right now I'm a passionate sole practitioner but the reality is that there's a great chance that one day I won't be and really shouldn't be. There are many directions that this ship may head in...continue to build a great legal services business (which would require us to add additional attorneys), merge with another firm, or possibly take my book of business to another firm. And for the second two of those three alternatives direct knowledge of income/book of business/billables is critical.

I've had job interviews over the last couple years myself and this question is very relevant and always asked and indeed it's probably your biggest selling point as a potential job candidate...unlike Jane Doe who has been an Associate at law firm X, you've built your practice up to $200k (or whatever) in billables over the last three years and thus the potential new firm is getting not only a competent attorney but also someone who brings immediate new income to the firm.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Obama the Olympian

We try not to be too partisan here at SIC, but there's one thing we're surely in favor of and that's sports! So if Obama's win gives Chicago 2016 a nudge I can't complain. More people and time on the international stage is bound to help us Chicago, entrepreneurs/lawyers, right? And I know one lawyer who's got $20k in attorney fees in a house down there near the proposed Olympic Village that could use a little marketing nudge.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Client Meetings for the Home Office Lawyer

Two wonderfully enlightening posts recently on the above from two of my favorite blogs: MyShingle and Chuck Newton. Carolyn deals with the nitty gritty of using "virtual" offices (like Regus) for client meetings while Chuck provides an expansive tome that deals with where to meet and much more.

As for my $.02, over the last year-and-a-half I've officed in a way that sounds very similar to Carolyn Elefant. Myself and my legal assistant both work from home on a typical day and when the need for a client meeting comes up 90% of the time we'll use a "day" office from Regus for an hour or two. I agree with the five points Carolyn makes in her posting and would say generally this set-up works well. The offices I'm now using for meetings are nearly identical to the ones I used to use when I had a full-time lease with a Regus-like place. I haven't found a client yet who doesn't appreciate the potential convenience offered by a Regus-type place where there are some 20 meeting locations in the Chicago area compared to me having my own, single office location where my potential client must come.