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Solo In Chicago

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

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Ah the local bar association "secret handshakes"...

Great story in the Trib. about one lawyers attempt to fight the Will County Bar Association regarding lawyer ID cards used to get into the courthouse more quickly. It sounds like he hasn't been too successful in his legal attempts to overturn the policy but I feel his pain.

I took on a DuPage County dissolution of marriage case recently and I found myself waiting in line at the metal detectors out in Wheaton...they have a similar policy to Will County. Frankly this is a rare instance where I think Cook's doing a better job than the collar counties. There's no bar association membership requirement...any lawyer can pay a minimal charge and get an ID card from the Cook County Sheriff and I think it's good for 3-4 years. The charge is minimal...maybe $25.

The Will County policy must not be that old...I had job some 4 years ago that had me appearing in Joliet quite a bit and I think they used to let attorneys through by just showing your ARDC card.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Lawyer hiring market

I am not a media celebrity so it just must show the weakness of the lawyer hiring market because I keep getting interviewed in the Chicago legal media about the pros/cons about starting a solo practice.

Get clients at the courthouse

I landed another client while in court the other day. This has happened enough now that I think it's blog-worthy. This particular situation was I was standing in line at the Cook County Circuit Clerk's office filing some things, ect. and this pro-se landlord was lamenting his frustrations as he attempted to do his evictions by himself. Well, I gave him a card and we've discussed representation going forward...he has a nice little portfolio of rental properties.

This might be the third new "court" client. We work in some areas (evictions and domestic relations come readily to mind) where many people have lawyers but then many people are pro se. Quite frequently you'll be in the courtroom and observe a pro se client not knowing what he or she is doing and becoming ever more frustrated. Oftentimes these sorts of people will ask me about their case or just something basic about a pleading or filing. These can often be perfect opportunities to give out your card or make your verbal pitch about how you can help the person.

What I don't recommend is taking a new client on the spot...I've seen people do this and it's usually a nightmare. You just don't have enough time to do your due diligence.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Small firm economics survey...

Here's a link to Minnesota Lawyers' Mutual's annual small firm economics survey. They happen to be our malpractice insurance carrier. Some interesting findings:

  • Practice areas - no surprise the top three are domestic relations, estate/probate and real estate. Although to some degree I think this is inevitable, I think you need one strong niche where you're unique and different that this non-descript group of small firm lawyers.
  • Net Income - it's eye opening that 28% of respondents had net income under $50,000 annually.
  • Advertising - largest group, 58%, still said Yellow Pages are their primary advertising investment...I guess Foonberg's right about this.
  • Non-lawyer assistants - only half of respondents have an hourly billable fee for assistants.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Introverts: Start Writing

The above was the title of an interesting news piece here. I think the concept is very applicable for lawyers...essentially the issue is how should introverts sell themselves.

Some of it is a mindset change and some of it should be a change in perspective. At some level us introverts (I lean this way...although I do enjoy public speaking, I have some hermit tendencies) need to know that when we're "bragging" to someone quite often the recipient is saying/thinking, "boy that's useful information that I'm glad I now have."

Also play to your strengths:

If you’re like most introverts, you’re much better at communicating via the written word rather than orally. So when you want to make your accomplishments known to your colleagues and/or supervisor(s), play to your strength and use the written word, be it by an e-mail message or a formal written letter.

You’ll have all the time you need to put together your thoughts, and in most cases the words you ultimately choose will be much more compelling and persuasive than they will be if you talk person to person. Moreover, you’ll be better able to control your emotions by using the written word, and you’ll take nerves and hesitancy out of the equation.

So this is why "they" say never sue clients...

There was an interesting appellate ruling out of the First District Appellate court last week...Wolf v. Wolf. Take a read, essentially a lawyer had represented a wife in a dissolution of marriage proceeding, and lawyer filed suit against client for unpaid fees. And the clients response: lawsuit for legal malpractice! Trial court had dismissed the legal malpractice suit but the appellate court reversed.

Take a read through it, it's a critical read for those of you (me included) in the domestic relations field. Essentially the plaintiff/wife entered into a marital settlement agreement to settle the dissolution of marriage case. It sounds like the wife testified at a prove-up that she was satisfied with the agreement and the representation by the attorney. After the dissolution was over apparently the now ex-wife discovered assets of the husband that were not known to her when she entered into the marital settlement agreement.

What I'd like to know and what isn't in the appellate court case is whether or not the marital settlement agreement (MSA) contained waiver language saying that I client know that we didn't do as much discovery as would be ideal because I client wanted to settle the case and get it over with quickly...this is often included in MSAs. Because this general situation arises all the time in divorce cases that settle fairly quickly and you as lawyer know you haven't uncovered everything you'd like to but the client wants the case over. So you throw some of this "waiver" language in the MSA. If the "waiver" language doesn't do the trick do we have to extend cases for discovery purposes merely to protect ourselves??

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Strategic thinking from The Greatest

Short but sweet post from GAL here...here's the snippet I think is extremely wise:

Instead of cases just meandering forward, each day the lawyer’s required to think strategically. The lawyer has to anticipate what moves on offense need to occur in order to achieve the result. The lawyer has tremendous incentive to achieve that result sooner, rather than later. This is because hours of time now count against him/her in contrast to the hourly billing approach where hours count against the client.

Isn't that true? "Meandering" is a great adjective to describe hourly billing; I'm guilty sometimes.

Clients who don't listen...

What should we do with these?

At a basic level it just seems stupid that this individual has hired you and now is completely failing to take your advice. This past week has been quite trying because I'd say the 2-3 clients we have that are most guilty of this "listening problem" had activity regarding their cases. It's a tough issue because I think the cause of this "problem" varies so greatly...there's not one answer to the question.

At one extreme which I think was at the core of my problem this week were just some individuals who were/are extremely anxious people...and I don't know the clients that well personally but I suspect the problem(s) I've dealt with in how to proceed regarding a couple of real estate transactions are probably evident in even more basic decisions in their lives (where to eat lunch, ect.). Due to some contractual deadlines in a couple of these scenarios I think my mindset was just sort of to do my best, suck it up, and know that it's all going to be over in a couple days either in way that I think proper and advantageous to my client or not, end of story. I really don't have a problem being objective and thick-skinned when clients are wacko. But what I need to do better and encourage others to do is to not let these wackos control your days/weeks with never-ending calls and make sure they're PAYING for the extra time to air their frustrations to me.

I think the tougher call is the court case where there isn't necessarily an end in sight (many divorces really are 30 years cases by the time people battle over their kids/finances until the kiddos are out of college). If there's a reasonable disagreement between you and a client it's likely in every ones best interest to part ways. Further, obviously if clients are suggesting you take a course that has you heading toward ethical violations you must withdraw. I see this not too infrequently in the domestic relations area where clients want to harass their spouse/ex in discovery regarding items that are totally not relevant to the case.

Finally, how do we get clients to listen to us as the one voice or the expert in the case/transaction? Remember the old Bill Parcells "one voice" rule...assistance coaches aren't allowed to speak with the media (football season kicks off next week right?). I hate the: "my friends lawyer said this"..."I've never heard of such a thing in my previous real estate deals"...ect. I don't think this is totally avoidable. Actually as I dwell on it I really think this tendency is an out-cropping of peoples desire to not face tough decisions and bad situations. We as lawyers should make it our goal to advise and encourage clients to face harsh realities when they exist. That said...I think a lot of people are always going to look for other "experts" for the simple fact that they don't want to face the tough situations and someone always has another answer that sounds better/easier.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Blogging for business

The Times had a nice overview regarding 4-5 people who had transitioned from blog hobbyists to blog business people including our old friend Jeremy Blachman.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Pricing for Maximum Profit

Here's the link to Michael Sherman's eBook on the above. I'm going to scour this myself...I know we're leaving money on the table and I think most lawyers are!

Law firm staffing...

This is another critical area I've been "puzzling" on lately as sort of our The Olson Law Firm, LLC 2.0 re-launch and I had a long session with my off-site legal assistant earlier this week on the subject. Our current set-up is I have one off-site legal assistant who works through our computer network over the Internet for some 10 hours per week and handles the phones during the 2-3 mornings per week that she works. I think the off-site employee is the way to go (especially since I'm transitioning to a home office set-up) but there are times/tasks that I miss having someone here/there in-person...there still is some administrative/garbage work that I do that I wouldn't do if there was an on site staff person. Broadly, my assistant works on residential real estate closings, billing/collections, daily as needed tasks (lots of basic follow-up calls, ect.). FYI, our assistant is paid $15 per hour.

What's next?

Most importantly improvement and further delegation in her primary work areas: residential real estate and billing/collection. Those of you who work in the residential real estate field know this...it can't be a profitable practice area if you as lawyer are "touching" these files too much. I think it's appropriate for me to do an initial, thorough contract/inspection review with a client and likely draft/dictate an attorney modification - property inspection letter. I'd say that's the "practice of law". And obviously I'm going to attend a closing. But unless there's something unusual I shouldn't be doing anything else on a residential real estate file. If I'm calling about pure logistics issues I'm trading billable time for a nonbillable usage. And similar tweaking on billing/collections. I'm going to get a PO Box near my legal assistant so that monthly payments go right to her...only $20 per year. We're probably going to transition to PayPal for credit card transactions. And, maybe most importantly, we're going to utilize a software consultant to get better usage from our billing package. We're making the common error of letting our ignorance limit how we use the program when so much more in terms of business planning and budgeting can be done.

The biggest addition to her work load will be utilization of digital dictation equipment. This is the one area that I'd planned on when she was hired that we haven't done at all. Essentially I was waiting to incur the cost for the dictation equipment until I crossed certain bridges...i.e. I knew I'd be in this set-up beyond six months or so. This will allow me to utilize our assistant for longer letters, pleadings and just general better communication/instruction. They always say you speak significantly faster than you type.

She's going to create a firm pricing schedule. This obviously isn't going to take long but I want to have it. We do get calls about pricing and I think this will be a net positive...simply having a pricing schedule for our core practice areas.

Other additions to her work-load:

--Create legal information pamphlets.

--Create Survey Monkey client surveys.

--Change our client forms to fillable PDF forms (currently just Word-based).

--Purchase monthly office supplies.

If you're not using any administrative staff I'd encourage you to do so. Personally I think it makes the practice of law much more enjoyable. If you're a "pure" solo I've found you're just stuck doing way too much in terms of administrative work and it's not fun. You're too tied to your desk if it's just you. Building a business and seeing another person grow is fun and rewarding.

How to sell clients on peripheral services...

More of a question than an answer here...but it came up lately in our office. Here's my posting related to the incident.

The recent situation with me was simply a post-decree divorce matter where we represented a woman regarding some child support modifications and defended her in various contempt of court proceedings. Near the end of these proceedings the woman needs to sell her home and doesn't utilize our firm for the real estate transaction. Why? How can we change this? Should we want to change this?

The obvious answer could be I suppose that she wasn't happy with our representation...knowing the client and this particular instance that wasn't the case here. And at some level I think it's a good thing that this client put us in her "family law expert" box...I want our clients to think that we're family law experts and indeed it's likely our largest practice area. But on the flip side, we do work in real estate extensively too.

How to bridge this gap?

Actually we also have had the opposite result in the last few months too where a former family law client retained us for a real estate transaction. With this individual she had learned of our real estate prowess through our quarterly client newsletter...so some of our marketing is paying off.

The only other direct thing we do in terms of client education about the breadth of our practice is sort of a "close file marketing letter" explaining the breadth of our services.

What more should be done? My staff and I actually just met about two things I think that will address this to some degree. First, we're going to create some subject-matter specific pamphlets whether as PDFs or hard-copy pamphlets for distribution...this might go out with our quarterly newsletter, our monthly billing and/or sent to prospective clients upon an initial cold call. Second, we're going to start finishing client representation with a Survey Monkey survey and somehow breadth of service will be addressed in the survey questions.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Are you taking advantage of all of your networks?

I bet you're not. I've always been pretty well networked...I'm social, right? And I do love the story about Bill Clinton collecting names in a shoebox for years...but I digress.

But are you doing everything you can to promote yourself through this age of great and active Internet networks? Yes on some level I'm talking MySpace and Facebook. Do you have your page? Just got mine both up and running a week ago.

Beyond that though I'm talking about how the Internet is being used by such things as innocuous as your college and high school Alma maters. My high school, college, and law school now all have Internet-based networks where I can look up fellow graduates and their profiles. Might someone, sometime need a lawyer in Chicago? I know I look through these listings sometimes when I need an out-of-area referral. Make sure your profile is updated.

The Alliance Defense Fund, Rotary International, and even my landlord also provide similar set-ups for listing profiles/practice areas, ect. Those are some of my obvious ones. I've updated my profile in all these sectors so that I'm "open for business." Are there other associations you might be a passive member of but they might have extensive online member profiles/postings?

Not too many years ago the only contact you might have with these large national and international social networks might have been for these people to be on your Christmas card list. Today you can be socializing with folks and generating potential business everyday through your Internet networks.

I'd love to start my own practice...is it possible?

Great posting from Rjon over at How to Make it Rain responding to a law student asking about going solo right out of law school...a great list of what to do and what to read. Some new items to add to my reading list.

Facebook how-to

I'm a Facebook "newbie" myself...but I'm learning. Good read from Web Worker Daily.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Get paid a lot faster

A comment too important not too post by Steve Imparl:

I used PayPal and I really like it. Using it, I get paid a lot faster and clients like the convenience. If you decide to use it, I hope you'll have great success with it, too.

This likely should drive your Firm's payment process...I'm always amazed when I still hear the lawyer debates about using credit cards...duh!

Blawgworld 2007 guide...

Technolawyer's Blawgworld 2007 available here.

Entrepreneurial Characteristics

NYTimes has another good piece from their Small Business section...a dentist who wanted to "scratch" his entrepreneurial itch and moved to the States from South Africa and started a financial planning business. A take-away from reading it and I'd saying very applicable to the lawyer entrepreneur: the small business/entrepreneur skills are very separate and unique from the skills of the specific profession/business that you're starting. In other words lets just assume that to start a law practice you need to be a competent lawyer in some practice area but that alone wouldn't be a good reason to start your own practice. The separate entrepreneurial skills are things like: focus, self-discipline, schmoozing, ability to read people, and organizational know-how.

A blurb from the article:

How to know whether you should go out on your own? Everybody has a personal list of entrepreneurial characteristics. Mr. Altmann’s includes focus, discipline, a knack for schmoozing and the gift of sizing people up.

John Challenger, chief executive of Challenger Gray, says it is important to analyze your underlying strengths, like organizational know-how or people skills, that can be exploited no matter where you land. “Explore your passions and fundamental talents that might be buried or underutilized for some reason,” Mr. Challenger said.

The learning point, make sure you have the entrepreneur "basket of skills" before making the jump in any field. Just being the great lawyer/engineer/doctor isn't enough.