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April 2005

Who Am I Really?

I have updated my profile page .  Click here to learn more about the man behind the mask.   By the way, I wonder if Scheherazade Fowler @ StayOfExecution (one of the most prolific and well written personal blogs on the net) knows that I taught sailing for over 12 years, and grew up on a Formosa 51 which my lawyer dad owned?  Having met Ms Fowler at LexThink where she seamlessly performed the difficult task of 'facilitator', I bet she looks great in a blue blazer, hanging out at the yacht club sipping rum and coke.

And yes, I shall remain anonymous.  Even though it is probably no longer necessary, it feels better that no one in my town knows that this blog exists.  Medium-sized towns chew people up and spit them out when they step outside the norm.  "Out of line" is essentially anyone who challenges the way things are being done.  There are a lot of very powerful and wealthy people who have a vested interest in status quo.  Plus, I  work hard to make sure that there are no impediments to the things I can and must say here.

Let me put it to you this way.  I wouldn't jump on the table at a dinner party and scream obscenities.  I would feel comfortable doing that here. That freedom feels good.

It is also liberating to know that only a relatively few people in the blogosphere know who I am.  It is always easier being a stranger.


FileCenter: Another Piece of the Puzzle

I just had a very interesting product demo of a product called FileCenter by Authoritative.net.  They received major Kudos in a TechnoLawyer.com piece written by Jim Garrison, Legal Computing Services, The HotDocs.com, www.hotdocs.info.   

FileCenter software potentially solves two pieces to my technology puzzle, file management and remote access. I have found Woldox to simply be way too much for my small office needs.  I tried Filenotes but was not impressed enough to purchase (it really seemed to slow down my computer).

Here is what the manufacturer says about their File Center Software:

More than document management. More than a paperless office. With FileCenter, small offices can finally enjoy the intra-office harmony of a complete file management suite. ...

A picture does really speak a thousand words.  Here is a schematic which shows the file management functionality:

Diagram_fc_1

I am beta testing next week and will let you know how it goes.  It looks like a natural for my virtual paralegal/law clerk program and file management needs (Thanks Todd for the demo!).   


No Non-Solo Is An Island ...

Carolyn Elefant offers a preview at the chapter she's contributing to an upcoming edition of the ABA's book, "Flying Solo." In "How Not to Be Lonely," Elefant writes,

Ironically, one of the greatest benefits of starting a law firm - being able to work alone - may actually be one of the greatest hazards of solo practices, as this Q&A from the Massachusetts Bar Association website points out (thanks to my fellow blogger David Giacalone for sending this article my way). 

I appreciate Carolyn's point.  There is a sense of isolation away from the superficial hustle and bustle of a large law firm.  I don't know why I should feel any less involved now as an independent as I did before, but in honesty I do feel less 'in the loop.' It doesn't really make sense.  I have no problem being alone.  I can be social, and have all the right skills.  But I don't need other people around.

I was so busy billing hours at my old 10 lawyer 40 person law firm, I rarely socialized during business hours or thereafter.  I felt a subtle guilt in talking to friends and family on the phone while at work [when I could be billing clients], and neither visited me except in rare circumstances.  Yet, there was more of a sense of 'invovlement.'

Today, I sit in MY office doing things MY way under MY rules [or lack thereof].  Friends and family stop by regularly.  Clients visit more often.  I love this lifestyle as well as my practice.  But if I don't make it a point to schedule lunch dates and activities with other lawyers, I start to get a little unsettled and disconnected.

A small firm or non-solo independent practitioner needs certain qualities to succeed:

  1. be self-motivated;
  2. be  steady and efficient worker;
  3. be motivated to get out of the office and mix among peers. 

Marketing Your Firm With Alternative Billing

Larry Bodine's PROFESSIONAL MARKETING Blog reprints an article from the April 18 issue of the Chicago Tribune titled "Hourly legal fees under attack, Traditional billing by time spent is standard at most big law firms, but McGuireWoods is advertising alternatives." 

One of the more interesting things about entering the blogosphere has been the realization that I am not the only person who (1) believes hourly billing is bad for clients and bad for the profession of law and (2) is trying to change the way law is practiced.   In the above noted article, there are several references to large law firms which offer innovative and service-oriented billing alternatives to their clients.  Here are some of my favorite quotes:

  • Survey after survey of in-house law departments shows that their top priority is reducing the money they spend on outside law firms.  Some of the growth in legal expenses is out of their control, as companies deal with more lawsuits and regulations and turn to outside lawyers to handle these matters.
  • One Chicago firm has found that alternative arrangements work in handling large, complex lawsuits. Bartlit Beck Herman Palenchar & Scott, a boutique litigation firm, typically charges a flat fee, payable in monthly installments. The client retains a percentage that it pays only if the firm is successful. Otherwise, the client keeps the money.
  • "We like to get paid for results rather than the hours," said Sidney "Skip" Herman, Bartlit Beck's managing partner.
  • McGuireWoods has been offering alternatives to hourly bills for years. About 35 percent of the firm's annual revenue of about $300 million comes from alternative billing arrangements.

I have always believed that alternative billing offers a tremendous marketing advantage, since so few firms do it.  Virtually every client hates paying by the hour.  But most have no idea there are alternatives. 

I am about to launch my own advertising campaign.  I have selected the most upscale restaurants in my county, where business owners and managers are most likely to dine.  My "Johnny Ads" displayed in restroom will play on client discontent with hourly bills by attorneys.  It will then introduce them to the fact our firm bills for results, not hours. I have purchased a four-month run from June through September. I'll let you know how it goes.


Not Yet Announcing ... My Law Firm

When you open a new business, there is a temptation to want to tell the world right away.  I would recommend anyone opening a new law firm to be careful not to send announcements too soon. Here I sit some 2+ months after starting my new firm.  I still have not sent announcement letters to attorneys or clients despite my initial plans to do so right away.  And it has worked out much better.

I was initially delayed by the fact that our plan to rely exclusively on cell phones for business was hampered by the fact that reception proved to be spotty in my office and non-existent in Jenny's office.  Once we got our ISP phone through lingo.com hooked up, we were already swamped with business.  We couldn't imagine taking in any more cases and did not want to provoke referrals until we could handle the load.  We then set out to hire virtual law clerks and paralegals.  Now that we have two law clerks on board part time, and one part-time paralegal, we are confident we can handle additional litigation any matter that comes through our announcement and coordinated marketing campaign.

The delays have been to our benefit.  We will now coordinate our mailing to about 500 people, with our summer advertisement campaign through Johnny Advertising (yes, rest room ads which I will post about in the near future) and a coordinated press release.  From a  marketing point of view, we want people to see us three or more times over a short period.  Also, our physical offices are in better shape to receive visitors.  And I will be in a much better position to handle the calls, many of which which will be congratulatory, than I was my first two months in business where I spent a lot of time putting out fires. 


The 'Real World' of Independent Practioners

My Shingle posts on two "solo" experiences which are instructive and interesting.  My favorite is "Hanging Out a Shingle: Following the Dream of Starting Your Own Firm"
by JAIME LEVY PESSIN posted here at LegalMatch Marketing.

Here is some wisdom to live by if you are an independent practitioner:

''You get a lot of great publicity from doing something good. If you're going to do it, be committed to it. These groups have seen a lot of phonies come in, try to network with everyone and be out the door in six months,'' said Bernard Wysocki of Wysocki & Smith in Waukegan. ''Clients and other attorneys aren't necessarily looking for the best lawyer. They're looking for the lawyer they feel is going to care about them.''

It is true.  Being good helps, but other attorneys are looking for a comfort level with the person, as much as the lawyer, when they refer out cases. 

I also agree that marketing to the larger law firms in town is critical in generating referrals.  A large percentage of referrals come as a result of a conflict of interest with another attorney, who then advises the prospective client where they should go next.  Larger firms obviously have more conflicts and are a great source of referral business.


Billable Hour Obsession Born Of Firm Manager Laziness?

Here is an interesting article about the the difficulties of our profession.   It is written by Hillary Mantis, republished by the Vault.com with permission of The Princeton Review.  It cites some old data from interviews of new lawyers back in the early 1990s.  The findings were as follows:

The 3,000-plus "young lawyers" (defined as under age 36 or less than three years in practice) interviewed cited three major problems causing job dissatisfaction:

  1. Lack of time for self and family, due to billable hours requirement
  2. Failure to communicate and isolation within the firm
  3. Lack of training or mentoring within the firm

If these were the findings back in the early 1990s, I can only imagine what the results would be in 2005.   

I would suggest that unhappiness is a function of lack of purpose.  People who go to work with vision and purpose are rarely unhappy because of work. Going to work with the primary purpose of billing 10 hours to a paying client before you go home is hardly fulfilling. 

What I never understood is why firms didn't motivate their associates with a purpose of delivering quality and value.   A  lawyer motivated to deliver results would work just as hard, and likely even harder.  And providing a deeper purpose to associates would further instill pride, self-worth and other job satisfaction metrics.

I sometimes wonder if the near obsessive focus on the billable hour by firm managers was born of a mixture  of mathematical simplicity and laziness.  Why try to quantify value and quality if you can get away with simply adding hours a the end of each day? I also conclude that that billable hour obsession by firm managers has, over the long term, worked against their own business interests.

One of the benefits of this blog is that I renew my purpose each time I post.  If I feel a lack of focus coming on, I can always go back and re-read what I have written.


Thin Skinned Solos

My previous post and follow-up about rethinking the label of solo-practitioners drew numerous comments, both on this blog, and on the MyShingle blog (where my post was again referenced by the Legal Blog Watch hosted by Law.com).

Some more pointed comments suggested that I should toughen up and ignore any stereotypes about solos in my own practice.  But that approach misses the point.  I could  care less what people think of me personally.  That much should be clear from my bio.   But I do care about perceptions since they tend to perpetuate the current systems and business models which dominate our profession. And if we simply say "who cares," we can expect more of the same for many years to come.

I am grateful for the discussion however, and the feedback.  I do agree with one comment made Dave who hosts the South Carolin Trial Law Blog:  He commented to my post on MyShingle; "Let your life be the proselytizer and attitudes will change."  I had to look up "proselytizer" but after doing so could not agree more. Actions do speak louder than words. Words, however, have a place in this as well  Words provoke discussion and, together with actions, give great potential for change.


Silence Perpetuates the Status Quo

Here is an interesting article written by Daniel B. Evans in 1993 which discusses in detail "Why Lawyers Can't Manage."

Some interesting observations made by Mr. Evans:

I have read too many articles and commentaries which lament the extent to which law has become a "business". The implicit assumption is that if a lawyer acts like a greedy, unprincipled, and insensitive pig, he is acting like a businessman. The truth is that a successful service business strives to provide useful and attractive services at reasonable prices, promote customer satisfaction, and earn a profit. Why are those concepts so offensive to the legal profession? ...

At a partnership meeting, most lawyers will be better at raising issues than at resolving them. They will not be happy until they have dissected every aspect of the situation, raised every possible problem or consideration, and voiced every possible argument for and against every issue. Trained to identify problems, they do so at every opportunity, whether or not it is appropriate, often blocking any managerial action by the firm.

Because they raise (or create) so many problems in business transactions, lawyers have a reputation for being "deal killers". What is often overlooked is that lawyers can also be "law firm killers"....

Recording time spent of behalf of clients was originally supposed to help law firms bill clients and allocate resources more intelligently. ... However, law firms today do not use recorded time as one factor to consider in billing clients, but use recorded time as the sole factor in billing clients. This has so many adverse effects that the "billable hour" has become a Frankenstein monster, now threatening to destroy the lawyers who have nourished it.

After a long day (or a long week) of arguing with opponents in court or negotiating with the other parties in a commercial transaction, a lawyer will return to the office to meet with his or her partners. Unable to psychologically "shift gears" or "shift roles", the lawyer will continue to think and act like an adversary, and will proceed to argue with his or her partners or negotiate with them instead of cooperating with them.

There clearly are significant institutional issues working against significant improvements in the legal system, and especially the business practices of law firms.  That is why I believe that the most immediate and important goals for innovative lawyers include offering market alternatives to clients and educating other lawyers, clients, law schools and associates about the problems and alternatives to traditional hourly billing business models.  We can make a difference but we can not do so silently.  Silence merely perpetuates the status quo and leaves people with the impression that (1) the current system is appropriate and (2) there are no alternatives.


Hurricane Force Winds Destroy Legal System

I am vacationing in Punta Gorda, Florida which took the brunt of Hurricane Charlie on Friday, August 13, 2004.  Most of downtown will eventually be demolished and rebuilt. Many parts of the city still look like a war zone.

Old out-dated buildings were the first ones to be decimated by the hurricane.  Those with poor foundations and weak roofs did not stand a chance against Charlie's force.

Ten years from now, this will be a brand new city, with brand new buildings and numerous hurricane induced improvements. The brand new roofs completed thus far already give the community an air of progress, renovation and improvement. Out of destruction comes rebirth.

Will the legal system have to be destroyed before true innovations and improvements are seen?  Or do blogs have enough force to knock down the pillars which hold up the current iteration of the billable hour law firms? 

One thing is for sure.  It would be nice to see some shiny new roofs on the old structures which dominate the legal landscape.