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Solo In Chicago

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

Thursday, February 28, 2008

March Madness and "Solo In Chicago"

Or "Solo" anywhere else for that matter. So we're about to enter the best run of sporting events for the entire year (this is just one person's humble opinion of course). From about next weekend when some of the college conferences start to have their conference BB tournaments through the Masters, is the best run of sporting events for the year. The NCAA tournament is unmatched for drama and the elegance of the Masters (patrons NOT customers...the pimento cheese sandwiches, ect.) is outstanding. Why the PGA moved the Players Championship out of its slot from 3 weeks before the Masters I don't know.

All that to say...the side benefits of a practice that you contol are significant.

I saw this piece yesterday about a solo in New Jersey who's on a trek to see every Division I NCAA basketball team play; he's seen 222 of 341. I've watched my fair share of hoops but I think I'm short of that myself.

But the bigger point: the hobbies and quality of life issues should be part of your thought process when thinking about going solo. Longer term this should be a motivating factor. I remember my first boss out of law school who had a pretty developed solo practice and a great staff going to play basketball for 2-3 hours twice a week.

What's your real love?

Monday, February 25, 2008

Targeted Direct Mail to Referral Sources

Chuck Newton has a great step-by-step explanation of his use of direct mail with his potential referral sources. You can apply much of what he's using to many, many practice areas.

The House on the Rock & Your Legal Services Business

Have ya ever been to the House on the Rock in Spring Green, WI??

I think I've read that it's the most popular tourist destination in Wisconsin. Against my will I visited it a couple summers ago (we were camping with friends and it was sort of "group" decision). Brutal!! My wife describes it as evil. I'd describe it as sort of a large haunted house filled with knick-knacks that some wealthy gentleman collected. Seriously, if you're ever in Spring Green, it's a nice town about 30 miles west of Madison on the Wisconsin River, go to Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin NOT House on the Rock. My wife and I just kick ourselves about our poor decision.

And how does this relate to the legal services business?? MARKETING!

I took a trip to Southeast Minnesota this weekend...I'll leave it at that or this is close to becoming my travel blog. So we're just shooting up I-90 from Chicago to Winona, MN, through Rockford, Madison, ect. And boy are you bombarded with House on the Rock advertisements. And if you didn't know any better the name sounds intriquing. It's sort of the Wisconsin equivalent of Wall Drug in South Dakota...although my recollection is that Wall Drug is far better.

All that to say, marketing trumps substance in business success. Whether we're talking Taliesin v. House on the Rock or Mac v. PC, I think I could argue pretty well that the less successful (based on income generated) location/product is superior.

Lawyers constantly miss this one. And what's sort of funny is that I hear so much criticism from the non-marketing lawyers of the lawyers who do market effectively. Lets be honest, I think it's jealousy. I think if I weren't a practicing attorney, the Law Offices of Jeffery Leving (father's rights) and Peter Francis Geraci are the two best known firms to the law public. Why? Marketing. I see those guys on television regularly and the Father's Rights billboards are throughout the Chicago area.

The Store Manager's Sick So Wal-Mart is NOT Opening Today

That's the sort of unbelievable thought I had late last week when I appeared in a local courtroom and a particular judge was out that day so the clerk was just "giving new dates," i.e. nothing substantive was getting done that day.

Are you kidding me?

And my criticism would not lay too much with the particular judge who was out...he/she's a human. People get sick and miss work. But there are probably 10 other judges in that building...could ya send one over. I'm probably one of the least hassled, it's my job to be there and frankly my client's going to get billed regardless. But think of the clients or the pro se folks, they took their day off and maybe gave up a days wages and now they're likely going to have to do it again.

Okay, so the value lost probably was not the equivalent of one day's sales at Wal-Mart, BUT, between the attorneys fees for an additional court date and missing additional days from work that missed court day is costly.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

BIG LAW Says: Blog is Not "Appropriate"

Did ya see some of the coverage about Skadden's "Hot Associate" contest on a blog, Skadden Insider. From "above:"

The Firm recognizes that blogs are prevalent in today's culture and that blogs about Skadden are to be expected. Nonetheless, we believe that the "contests" on one of these blogs is inappropriate and does not reflect our values and standards of behavior. Numerous attorneys at the Firm have expressed their concern and, in some cases, embarrassment at such contests. We urge the authors of the blog to consider both the privacy and feelings of the affected attorneys and to discontinue the contests.

Good luck puting the blog genie back in the bottle.

The "Experience Question"

So we're hearing this all the time from Sens. Clinton and McCain regarding Sen. Obama. Of course whenever I hear Hillary talk about her 35 years of experience I about want to throw up...yeah and I have "experience" as a flight attendant and as a children's book author (through my wife).

But back on point...

How do you overcome the "experience question" in lawyerland?

Personally, I think this is more of a perception question than a real substantive problem. At times I've felt that it's an advantage. At a substantive level, generally each case is fact specific. There can be similarities to past cases but each case often "falls" on its own specific circumstances. On a case-by-case basis I think the more important question is, "what's your experience with this specific case?" The example I've had where lack of experience can be an advantage is overconfidence on the part of the opposing more experienced lawyer and not keeping current on case law thinking the issues haven't changed in 40 years or whatever.

As for perception, what I mean here is a client looking at your bio. and relative youth and year of law school graduation (don't volunteer this info.) and thinking she has no experience and therefore I won't retain her. This is a more difficult hurdle to clear. One point might be is that the solo route can be particularly effective for older law school grads....yeah you just graduated from law school in '06 but you're older and have all this "other" background. I advise loading up on "Of Counsel" lawyers with your firm. Then the response is, "you're hiring this Firm" not just me individually. As a last resort (actually probably before "last") start a blog or get published or actually GET SOME experience through pro bono cases...my response if I was asked about so-called experience would be to bridge to all these things I have done: write, speak, ect. You define experience.

Small Firms and Recession

Ah the dreaded "R" Word. Hey I'm not running for public office this cycle (there is that ISBA Board of Governors seat though), I can say it. But I've been reading several articles about law firm "adjustments" to a slowing economy. Saw this today about DLA Piper (yikes its organge Website is blinding) hiring a bankruptcy/reorganization group.

How should little (but growing) guys react?

I remember a survey from The Economist a couple years back on this subject suggesting: Be Honest, Be Frugal, Be Prepared. And it went on to reference Wal-Mart executives who shared hotel rooms on the road and were encouraged to take pens/paper from conferences (the author follows this mantra as well).

I think the above advice surely applies to legal service businesses (i.e. law firms). Another item that comes to mind is the danger of over-specialization. Clearly some practice areas are getting hit pretty hard right now, i.e. real estate. If you're a one hit real estate wonder, you're struggling right now. I was speaking with a small firm partner from suburban Chicago a couple weeks back who's heavy in the residential real estate business and they had to layoff an attorney.

From personal experience, beyond bankruptcy, I've felt that domestic relations work and our condo/townhome/HOA work actually increases during economic downturns.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

It's Not Free CLE; But it is a Free Resource

A little birdie tipped me off to MentorCLE.com, "Online video CLE courses for Illinois attorneys."

Essentially you can view their courses free but if you want MCLE credit then you need to buy them. Lots of very relevant topics, except, "Pro Bono for the Soul." Seriously if that qualifies for MCLE credit we need to get rid of the whole darn concept.

The Stroger Family & Cook County Justice...

Ah the one-party system of Cook County. I saw this in today's Tribune:

As recently as last week, 26 juveniles who might have been sent home with monitoring bracelets on their ankles were held at the detention center (Cook County Temporary Juvenile Detention Center), officials said. The center acts as a jail for those under 17 who are awaiting trial in criminal cases.

County budget shortfalls and a bureaucratic purchasing process slowed replacement of the devices, which can cost $2,400 each, officials say. The juvenile probation department has been trying to get 200 new bracelets since early last year, said Michael Rohan, the director. The first 70 arrived Friday and officials started distributing them almost immediately, he said.

Or as has been previously reported, the center, where top employees were relatives or friends of John Stroger, then the Cook County Board President, was filthy, violent and scary.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Innovative Old Microsoft...

Serious...anyone taken a peek at the new Office Live Small Business 2.0 MSFT unveiled this past week? Here's a piece with a video clip. Lots of freebies...it seems like the place to go if you don't have a Website.

Health Insurance Options

The Shifting Careers blog over at The Times had some ideas on health insurance for the self-employed...

Have a look at Anne Zelenka’s health insurance primer for solo workers at Web Worker Daily in which she comes down strongly in favor of the high deductible plan for those who can afford it. I tend to agree that this makes sense for many people.

ehealthinsurance.com appears to be a good place to get a quick price quote on a variety of plans (which they sell) catering to individuals and small business owners. It is searchable by ZIP code. Has anyone used this site? If so, I’d like to hear about your experiences.

The Freelancers Union offers a variety of plans for independent workers. You have to join the union, but membership is free. Has anyone had any experience with these policies?

New York’s Department of Insurance has a useful site, Healthy New York, where individuals and small businesses can compare and purchase a variety of plans. If you don’t live in New York, check out State Coverage Initiatives, which offers a state-by-state chart listing different programs. You can also try your state’s insurance department to learn if there is a program similar to Healthy New York.

Law is Fun? Hmmm...

An interesting new law-oriented Website. Law.com had a interesting interview with the founder...his thoughts on creating the site and the many, many facets to the site.

The Key for Any Start-Up Solo

From Chicago Lawyer...

When civil rights attorney Jon Loevy ­decided to go on his own after less than two years at Sidley Austin, he opened up shop without an office, let alone a legal pad.

In 1997 it was just Loevy, with a computer and a phone, he said, working out of his garden apartment in Lakeview.

“My business model was to keep my overhead very, very low. That way, if I made a little money I could pay the rent,” Loevy said.

Don't Over-Specialize Too Early

Among the advice from Sandy Lourie of Barack Ferrazzano in Chicago Lawyer's Q/A...

I think I would advise new lawyers to make sure they don’t over-specialize too early. I think that clients, at least on the transaction side, are looking for general advice. It is a shame, but it is interesting how quickly new lawyers are willing to say, “You need to talk to the specialist,” and really hand things off …

In my practice, where I am a general corporate lawyer, it is important to really know what’s going on with all aspects of the transactions.

My second favorite business book is Clients for Life and it uses the phrase "deep generalist" for professionals.

My $.02 on the subject, this is critical for professionals representing businesses and perhaps a bit less so for individuals. With businesses there are sooo many factors in play beyond this smallish legal problem right before your eyes...marketing, media, bottomline.

The Free CLE Just Keeps on Coming

Clifford Law Offices getting in on the "accredited CLE provider in Illinois" action:

Clifford Law Offices, an approved continuing legal education provider in Illinois, is hosting its first webinar 3-5 p.m., Feb. 21.

“The Ethics of Trial Work” presented by Northwestern University School of Law Professor Robert P. Burns offers two hours of professionalism credit in Illinois. The program will be interactive via the web and is free to all Illinois attorneys who register. Click here to register.

Interesting...I understand the law schools and pro bono places giving it away; but why does a private firm do free CLE??

Friday, February 15, 2008

Free CLE: February 18th

Yeah so Monday's another one of those dead President court holidays so instead of spending your morning slugging it out at Daley, come and break bread at the Loyola School of Law, Protecting the Rights of Chicago Tenants - 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Seriously, you've got to know your Chicago Residential Landlord and Tenant Ordinance if you practice in this field and that's the gist of what this about.

I'll see you there.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Don't Tell Clients Where You Live!

Did you see this about the Rockford attorney who it seems was gunned down in his own driveway by an unhappy client? Sad, sad story:

A Rockford lawyer slain while clearing snow outside his home may have been gunned down by a man he had represented in a criminal case, authorities said Friday.

Of course that's very similar to what happend to the patent lawyer at the Ogilvie Transportation Center downtown in '06.

In the Rockford case, my advice is never, never tell clients where you live. Who knows how the gunman there found the lawyer...but go to some means to protect that info. The Ogilvie case might be more scary...I mean we want people to know where and come to our offices right?

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Is Health Insurance a Reason to Stay at a Job you Hate?

Oh my answer would be, "it depends." The Anti 9-to-5 Guide provides its answer...a new "blog" to me.

Student Loan Options

Saw this piece recently from the Baltimore Sun's Eileen Ambrose...or as we get here in the Chicago paper, "a Tribune Co. Newspaper." She outlines several options in the piece, including some that have been recently enacted by Congress. If possible keep or get your loan from the federal government, not a private lender. Take a look here if you need to consolidate private loans into a federal, direct lending loan. Also, a new student loan resource from the National Consumer Law Center.

Four options from the piece:

• Income-contingent repayment

Once you're in the direct lending program, you can ask for this borrower-friendly plan. Lower-income borrowers can reduce their monthly payments and debt remaining after 25 years of payments is erased. Payments are 20 percent of discretionary income. That's defined as the amount of your adjusted gross income that exceeds the poverty level. For a single person in Maryland and most other states, the poverty level was $10,210 in 2007. If you're at the poverty level or below, your payment is zero, Kantrowitz says. And if your income stays at the poverty level for 25 years and you never make a payment, the balance would be forgiven, he says.

• Income-based repayment

This new option, which takes effect in July 2009, is more generous. Payments are 15 percent of discretionary income. And in this case, discretionary income is income exceeding 150 percent of the poverty level. Again, you don't have to make a payment if your income falls below that. Unpaid balances after 25 years are forgiven.
You don't have to be in the direct lending program to be eligible.

• Public service forgiveness

This new program helps those entering fields that we value in society, but underpay. That includes police, school librarians, social workers and government and nonprofit employees.
You must make 10 year's worth of on-time payments while working in public service. After that, remaining debt is forgiven. The clock starts with payments made as of last October. Your loans must be in the direct lending program to qualify. Under the standard schedule, student loans are repaid in 10 years. This benefits those making smaller payments using income-contingent or income-based repayment plans.

• State help

Check your home state for programs that help reduce student loans.

Is it Colorful? Does it list your Practice Areas? And,

what's on the back? I speak of business cards of course. This post was triggered by this recent piece here but even more so by a personal experience a couple days back.

I attended a planning meeting for a fundraiser conducted by our local Rotary Chapter and our public library. Nothing too unusual, but of the 10 or so people at the meeting, a handful of them I didn't know and we exchanged pleasantries AND business cards. And the follow-up question I got from one person was, "so what areas of law do you work in?" And I answered. But, is she likely to remember what I said down the road when she needs a lawyer or has a potential referral? Likely not. A task for '08: new business cards with practice areas specifics and blogs URLs included.

Ivan Misner, founder of BNI, is quoted in the article. He's written a book on effective use of business cards as advertising.

Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow...

Oh, the weather outside is frightful...

So we here in the Chicago area have been getting wacked pretty hard recently with snow, slush, rain, ect. 6-12 inches predicted for today. But for me, no worries!

I'm a home office lawyer; a veritable Third Waver...another great reason to drop that commute and just enjoy the pretty white stuff w/o sitting in traffic, getting bundled up or suffering on a train platform. Plus I live in a condominium so no shoveling either.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Are you Failing Enough?

If not you're probably not taking enough risks. I'm sure Churchill, Lincoln and Nixon had some quotes on this topic over the years or just look at their careers...read here.

Why isn't failure a bad thing?

Failure underscores the need to take chances. The cliché is right: If you take no risks, there will be no rewards. And if you are taking risks, almost by definition, you are going to fail at some point.

Success can breed complacency.” If everything goes right all the time, you are less likely to try something new.

Failure can force you to rethink every assumption. “When something goes wrong, not only do you consider the various means of fixing that particular problem, you notch up your thinking to identify those broader elements that may have led to the snafu and others like it. And down the line, that can mean solutions and adjustments before any further problems even crop up.”

Law Firm "Has Joined the Firm" Announcements...

Do you get these? I sure do (not always sure why but...). Why are these sent? Are they useful? Should they be done differently?

I know when I joined one of the firms that I previously worked for that the principle lawyer sent out an announcement that I had joined the firm. We sent the announcements generally to clients and other referal sources.

Why do so many firms send these announcements out to essentially every lawyer in the City of Chicago? I probably get one a week and it's virtually always from a lawyer or firm I've never heard of and have no relationship with.

I think another error with these mailings (and Firm Websites too) is they're lawyer/firm focused; NOT client focused. I'm looking at one I just got this week. This one is actually more than an announcement. It's approximately a 20 page pamphlet...the cover is an announcement. The rest of the pamphlet includes attorney biographies and one page with "reported" cases. Does a potential client care about "reported" cases (would a layperson even know what that means?), law school attended and bar association membership? If your potential client is an individual the answer is NO. How might you help a client? Answer that question; you're not running for President.

Finally, include a "personal" biography of yourself not the blah, lawyer-norm, irrelevent bio. Here's mine. I suppose it can be improved but I think you should have a picture on your Website and some "personal" stuff in your bio. Many clients have made small talk with me about my semi-serious participation in triathlons...we never discuss the meaning of "Order of the Coif."