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Solo In Chicago

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

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

How to go international as a solo/small firm?

It seems like there's a new story each week about many of the mega-law firms and their different attempts to break into various international markets, notably China. Here's today's bit about McDermott Will & Emery.

I'm actually set to begin a Chinese language class this week and it just got me to thinking...should little old me with my family/real estate practice be thinking internationally at all? What should drive my decision-making here...size of firm? Practice areas?

To be frank the only extent to which I've considered this market is through a number of the Realtor associations that have strong foreign connections...there's a Hispanic group and probably some other connections to potential foreign buyers. That's the limit to which I've looked at this...possibly some advertising on their Website or something like that. My wife and I are taking this Chinese language class because we've been paired up with a young Chinese couple from Northwestern for some outreach through our church. But it starts ya thinking...you start to have these "social" relationships that potentially become business relationships, and then...are you ready?

I had lunch recently with a small firm colleague (here's his firm...http://www.wagneruslaw.com/) who strangly (or not) had two offices, one in Des Plaines, IL and one in Austria. Long story short one of the firm members had some diplomatic background and had married an Austrian woman. I think their practice has an international business and immigration emphasis. But you need to be ready with the interconnectedness of our world...are you ready?

Friday, January 26, 2007

Are you a lawyer?

Funny nugget here from today's Sun-Times about a non-lawyer who had been representing various clients numerous times in Cook County Courts. I wonder how often this really happens? I bet they're many, many lawyers who aren't "really" licensed for a few weeks at the start of each year simply due to slow ARDC registration.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Firm billing policy change

Learn from us...

Just for anyone's edification and education, I wanted to mention a policy change that our firm's making in the client billing/collection area. I mention it because client billing/collection is critical. If there's no income, soon, there's no business. (Of course this issue is never spoken of in CLEs but it's critical to our survivial).

Current policy: With some exceptions, most of our client work is pure hourly billing. We'll take a retainer up front and then bill monthly. When someone got behind, we've been using a 3rd-party collector (not collection agency) to make calls to clients to remind them to catch-up and make payments. She kept 10% of whatever she recovered. This policy was effective to a degree, but I've found that a group of 5ish clients have become intransigent...so something had to be done.

New policy: The change is partially driven by the fact that we've added some new administrative staff so it's no longer necessary to outsource the "reminder" calls. So there will still be "reminder" calls every month if someone's slow on their payment. However, we will start charging interest on bills not paid within 30 days. We've always had the interest language in our retainer agreements but we haven't enforced it. Second, if no payments after two months, then either withdrawal (if a current case) or collection agency (if a former client).

I'm still leary to file suit; I'd like to avoid that route. But collection must be hard-core. We lawyers can't be the softies. I know I missed a payment once on a cell phone bill and they're after you QUICKLY! Isn't my own livelihood as important?

Any other learning tales to share out there?

What's in a name?

How should you name your Firm?

Law.com had an interesting piece on the issue here. As you might notice, many of the larger firms are going to shorter names. The piece mentioned a CA firm that's just going by "O." Sort of like Prince and just going by a symbol hah.

What should drive law firm naming? The article seems to focus on being easy to remember. Further discussion was had about a larger marketing strategy including Website and logo issues. The piece suggests that smaller firms are slowest to change. I've never liked the super long names with tons of partner names listed.

I actually spent a good bit of time thinking about this issue prior to our launch in '05. What I wanted to do was create the appearance of competency and largesse while remaining ethical. In other words to "look big" even if we weren't big yet. I'd wanted to call us The Olson Law Group, Ltd. Upon review of the Rules of Professional Responsibility I dropped this name believing that using "Group" would potentially mislead clients because when we started we were just 1 no Group. Search engine rankings are very important these days too I suppose.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

A case that won't die

I really am involved in a case right now where the judge continued the case on his/her motion 3 times causing the case to last about 1 year. Now, we await judgment, and at the first two "judgment dates" the case has been continued on his/her motion because "I'm not ready with my decision."

Ah valuable public servants...

Fee setting

A good statement from a recent luncheon speaker. I absolutely made this error too much when I started by solo practice...we're slowly but surely recovering.

Don’t fall victim to the trap of lowering your fees. When you cut your fees, you undermine your credibility and you attract clients who want only low fees. These clients are usually the worst clients you can attract. When you accept clients who nitpick about fees, they will needle you to death and then jump to another lawyer when he offers a fee $1 less than yours.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

How to use paralegals in your practice...

Has anyone read, The Bottom Line, it's the IL Bar Assoc. Newsletter for the Section Council on Law Office Management and Economics. I'm not a member of the section council but as an editor of another newsletter I get all the newsletters. I must not look at it regularly, but it's filled with financial/management nuggets...all the stuff I'm screwin' up on in my practice.

There was a particularly good piece in this month's issue regarding paralegal utilization in law firms. Some very eye-opening ideas about better paralegal useage for cost-savings.

GWB and lawyers

I'm an activist Republican, but, has there been an administration more opposed to lawyers and the rule of law generally than our current administration? Here's a piece from today's NYTimes regarding the "outing" of various major law firms by the administration who are involved in defending prisoners at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Are you marketing to this business segment?

Another reminded illustrated through a piece in today's Sun-Times regarding DePaul's new concentration on Hispanic marketing. Supposedly it's one of only two such college majors in the country.

I'm failing in this area and missing-out on potential clients everyday by not being more Hispanic friendly.

Learn from my mistakes...

Knock on wood, everything turned out okay (assuming the client pays us), but I made a foolish client decision recently that I regret. I took on a fairly simple criminal case over the last 6 months. It was a deceptive practices allegation down in Bridgeview. Yesterday the client entered into a plea agreement repaying the money and it's done.

It was foolish of me to take on a criminal case of any kind. As many of you know, I do a fair amount of litigation in the real estate, family and probate areas so I do know my way around a courtroom. But criminal law is just a different beast. I'm in that court room like it's my first day as a lawyer hearing the Court and State's Attorneys use these different acronyms...IBond, DBond, SOL, ect. Don't have a clue what they mean. The likelihood of me making a mistake in that setting was 10 times as high as some dissolution of marriage that I'm involved with multiple times each day.

My way...wrong way.

I must remember what The Practice told us about the right way to add a new practice area:

1. I obtained a mentor. My friend, classmate from law school, and all around good person, Margaret Broussard, is going to mentor me. She currently handles these cases exclusively.

2. I have decided to do limited marketing. I am going to sponsor a program that helps kids who qualify for special education services.

3. I have spoken with a few attorneys and asked for referrals. Since most attorneys do not handle these cases and it is not an area you can really handle unless you are going to devote some time to it, they were receptive to having someone to refer cases to.

4. I am reading, reading, and doing more reading. I am reading everything I can get my hands on to figure this out. It is a whole different world.

Friday, January 05, 2007


The Practice alerted me to this Website. It's a free sign-up for lawyers. It looks like part list serv and part q/a with potential clients. I'm joining. I'd think it would be particularly helpful for those of you with fairly national or international practices.

Another great idea from Carolyn over at MyShingle

Here is Carolyn Elefant's post over at My Shingle regarding her efforts to start a Solo and Small Firm Energy Network. I believe her law practice focuses a good bit on federal regulatory matters in the energy law field.

One of my big goals for '07 is similar to this but more along the lines of creating a closely knit group of small firm and solos to create a "firm" without a firm. In other words, have a very formal network of lawyers in different practice areas where in-house referrals are made and direct support is given. The idea hasn't totally come to fruition, but essentially I want to stop the random referral searches for a lawyer when our clients need something outside my specialty areas. Rather, I want to be able to serve that client through this "firm."

Care to join me?

Pro bono in 2007

Well, since we know the IL Supremes are inching closer and closer to requiring us to fulfill "X" numbers of pro bono hours, I took on a pro bono client yesterday (Did you report your hours on your ARDC renewal?). Admittedly I'm required to fulfill a pro bono obligation I've made to the Alliance Defense Fund as well.

But shouldn't you nearly always have a pro bono case going too? Why?

1. Learn a practice area that can become a "billable" practice area. My experience has been that many of the legal service providers have very good mentor networks to access and I think the mentors are a bit more willing help on pro bono matters.

2. They produce fee-generating cases. This could be true at many levels...everyone has a network of people they know, right? I think some discernment is wise. Importantly, I've found many of the pro bono providers for seniors are particularly effective. Because, although a typical retiree many have a fairly low income, they're often asset rich and thus may have additional paid legal needs and/or be more apt to have family/friends for whom private counsel is appropriate.