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January 2005

December 2004

One Year Blog Survival Plan

Dennis Kennedy  has an interesting new article out  in Law Practice Today. Mr. Kennedy has distinguished himself as a leading source for forward thinking.   He always has solid link lists and his blog is one of the most visited on the web. Mr. Kennedy -- unwittingly no doubt but complicit without doubt -- is one of the true non-solo resources who make you aware and empowered that you are not alone, and thus not solo.

Here is the link : Crystal Ball Resources for Looking into the Future of the Practice of Law    

And in response to Dennis Kennedy's call for a one year plan for new legal blogs with ‘too sharp’ names like this one, I offer the following Kennedy observation and response to his call for action ...

A shocking percentage of legal blogs do not last longer than a month or two. Blogging is hard work, especially if you don't have a good understanding of what you are getting into. I'd like to see more blogs launched with at least a one-year survival plan.

Here is My One Year Blog Survival Plan:

  1. Commit and, after inevitable periods of hiatus, re-commit to publishing. It is possible to write down 1  new idea a day and hit post.  Get a laptop and write while watching a basketball game.  Four quarters is   a lot of time. Remember to think long term.  It is not what you can write in a week, but a year.
  2. Understand that value can be clients (real lawyers have blogs) or simply feeling the freedom which is the first amendment.
  3. Value is: 
    • Value is providing you a voice, a podium (which all lawyers like anyway) and constant guideposts for practice.
    • Value is respect for ideas.
    • Value is a grass roots movement about change. 
    • Value is intangibles.
  1. Remain Anonymous: Any idea can be written without the shade of the writer’s ego or the concern for    consequence.  Despite recent controversy about blogging anonymously, I embrace it.  It gives me additional freedoms which is important for the things I have to say.

Dennis Kennedy would certainly play the smart money and bet this anonymous blog will be gone in a few months including its too cute name.

The second trend I'd like to see more people avoid is the "cleverly named" blog approach, often where it is difficult to determine who is the author or how to contact the author. For better or worse, people know who is the author of my blog. I occasionally have exchanges of email with people who I only later learn are the authors of blogs I read. Blog naming reminds me of the early days of Compuserve, AOL and the Internet where people used nicknames for email addresses. Using a clever name can cause all kinds of issues as time goes on.

Such is the plight of the aspiring non-solo. Many think he’s crazy. Many predict his demise.  But only he enters into battle ... His blog lives or dies by the stroke of his keyboard and the tolerance of his peers and family in competition with the computer.

The most important person who needs to listen to me is me. Jump Jump Jump

Clearing Cash To Start Business

Today is home refinancing day.  I have spent some time arranging to drastically reduce the payment so on my house to reduce my monthly overhead.  I have a $83k line of credit which I also need to preserve. 

I am opting for a total mortgage payoff by opening a single line of credit in excess of the value of my house.  The credit line available above my home mortgage payoff should be pretty close to my current home equity line.  Thus, I should reserve my $80k line, but reduce my monthly payment from about $1,800/month to $800/month at the current prime interest rate.

In short, I will have about $70 to get this plane off the ground.  If the plane fails to take off, we lose the house.  Don't wish me luck!  Skill will be the fuel which launches this plane skyward....

Technology Wish List

I have a $10k budget for technology which I view as perhaps my second most important investment at start-up. [the first being the person who who fill the roles of office manager/secretary/client relations manager].  I won't be able to buy everything below right of the gate, but I should get close. 

Technology is critical since it will allow me to turn around work product more efficiently, allow me remote access to everything, ensure no deadlines or dates are missed and allow me to provide value to my clients at a level equal with or better than most larger firms.

Wherever there is no hyperlink, I am still gathering information.  If you ave any ideas, please leave a comment. Here is my wish list [too bad Santa has come and gone]: --I'll fill in prices as I go so future non-solos can know base cost --

  1. Basic Windows network set-up
    1. Server, 1 desktop and 1 laptop.
    2. AppRiver spam filtering for email
    3. Office Professional  Edition
    4. Powerpoint for presentations
    5. 4 hubbed flat screen monitors for courtroom presentations.
  2. DSL Connection
  3. Paperless office.
    1. Multi-function printer, scanner, fax. [undecided]
    2. Adobe® Acrobat® 7.0 Standard

    3. Adobe® Acrobat® Capture® 3.0 software

    4. Document Management Software[unknown]

  4. Case management

    1. Amicus Attorney X Standard Edition. [$600 for me and my secretary]

  5. File Hand Search Software

  6. Billing and Accounting Software [unknown]

  7. Desktop Access From Remote Locations

    1. subscription [$20/month]

  8. Digital Transcription System

    1. QuickScribe Recorder and Player [$900 for recorder and player for me and my secretary].
    2. QuickScribe transcription service as secretarial backup. [per line charge]

  9. Simple home wireless network

    1. DSL

    2. 1 desktop

    3. 1 laptop (already own)

  10. Blawg Tools

    1. Typepad [$12.50/month]
    2. Pluck RSS Aggregator [free]
  11. Research Tools
    1. Lexis Nexis

Why am I waiting?

That is the question I think about most right now. I am waiting for next week, but at this point, I am not quite sure why. I thought I had to set a date. I did. But now, it seems fait accompli.

It is hard to see the people at work now. I find myself avoiding it. I had thought that a long transition might be convenient. But now I know that it will be the 'in between' which will be the most challenging. I need to make the in-between as short as possible. For me, the clients and the firm, I am assuming that means 6 weeks. I have a trial that starts January 15. Then I have six more trials scheduled between now and May 15. Three will probably go to verdict. Timing is going to be challenging.

If you believe what 'they' say, there is no good time to … [leave a law firm]. Jump jump jump.

Re-Defining Legal Value

If most people can't afford a lawyer, are we to accept that our American Justice System is only for the rich? 

Dennis Kennedy - a true voice in the area of alternative billing and delivering value to clients -- comments on a   Law Practice Today interview of Jeff Carr concerning alternative billing which could not be more 'right on.'.

On forming his own firm: "I thought I was fed up with being a lawyer. What I learned was I didn’t hate the practice of law, I hated the business of law as it was being practiced at law firms. What brought me back to in-house practice after this little five-year experiment was the fact that at my core I’m a lawyer. I worry about our profession and I worry about the failing of lawyers in law firms to understand that they are in a business and to understand that it is a customer service business, and understand what customer service means."

On the great attorney / client "disconnect": "If you think of the law firm model, the economic model is based upon total revenue brought in the door. And that’s a function of hourly rate times the number of hours that you actually bill for and can collect for. That has absolutely no relationship, whatsoever, to the value that the corporate client places on the services."

On what has been called the "latent market for legal services": "I think quite frankly legal services have gotten too expensive in this country. Look at the rise of things like Nolo Press and Willmaker, software packages, that essentially permit people to do a lot of what would have been done by a lawyer on their own. Let’s face it, most legal work, about eighty percent of it, in any context, whether it’s your personal stuff, or whether it’s in a corporate world, is commodity type of practice. It’s really that only twenty percent are high value, high risk, bet the company, go to jail, lose your house matters. Those are the things that you really need the specialized service for. I think, in general, legal services have been priced out of the market for the general

Law Practice today has some great articles on alternative billing, one of the pillars which will support my new law firm. 

The question presented is can lawyers provide legal value to clients in fewer hours and thus less cost? Anyone who has worked in a law firm knows the answer is a resounding 'yes' in many types of cases and matters.  Lawyers must,  however, commit to find legal solutions for clients as opposed to creating problems which 'front' for an excuse to bill (or allowing an angry client to make poor decisions which provide little value but drive costs up), (2) to handle cases and matters which are within your core talents and (3) farm out issues and matters to other 'value billing lawyers who specialize in such matters.

All the incentives of hourly billing are to hold a file until the client has spent substantial funds.  Hourly billing contains literally no incentives to solve problems.

Dennis Kennedy scores again with his great link page for resources concerning alternative billing strategies and controversies.

And yes Dennis, I have read Arthur G. Greene's article on alternative billing which I agree is a must read for anyone interested in this important topic. As Mr Greene notes:

Lawyers have to understand value.
Lawyers have to deliver value.
Lawyers have to communicate value.

From the client’s perspective, a fair fee is often described as being both predictable and providing value commensurate with the dollars spent. In many situations, hourly billing does neither. And from the lawyer’s perspective, a fair fee is one that rewards the lawyer’s efficiency and expertise, and provides a return on the lawyer’s investment in technology and related systems. Hourly billing provides none of these benefits.

Value-based billing serves the client's interest and provides access to justice for many who could not otherwise afford it.  Value-based billing serves the lawyers business interest in that it creates opportunities to provide legal services to a broader market and to build relationships with clients which result in repeat business and referrals.  A good lawyer becomes a low cost resource for people with all sorts of legal problems.  'Word of mouth' brings people to the law office's front door, not the yellow pages.

The ‘I Quit’ Conundrum

Every story about law firms who lost someone to the words ‘I quit’ centered not on the question of why the quitter quit, but on the behavior of the person departing; the so-called ‘how they left’ issue.  Typically, the offending lawyer has done little more than try to cover their ass on the way out the door.  That means calling on rental space, telling other attorneys and contacting clients. It is the first question I find myself addressing as I get closer to giving my firm notice. 

I can appreciate why many lawyers want more certainty about where they are going to land before they jump out of the plane.  This usually involves looking for shared office space or your own rental space. Do you tell other members of the local bar under illusion of confidentiality or other potential resources that you are leaving before telling your law firm?

I have to laugh at the thought that just popped into my head, “What would the Greatest American Lawyer (“GAL”) do?”   

I have had numerous employment cases dealing with issues of unfair competition, breach of fiduciary duty and customer lists.  Many lawyers and some judges laugh off the actionable conduct simply because they have seen so many lawyers leave law firms in the middle of the night, taking files with them.  The clients have already signed letters to leave with the quitting lawyer before notice is given to the firm.  If lawyers do it, then how can it be unlawful? [more laughs from the balcony please].

The pressure to launch a sneak attack in order to leave yourself a more predictable landing and, of course, increase the odds of ‘success’ are significant.  The prospect of loosing your house, the impact on your family of financial stress and the ego gratification of beating your former co-lawyers - now perceived competitors - has defined many law firm start-ups. 

A law firm built on such a foundation is destined end up looking like any other law firm.   Such an approach, although not uncommon, would hardly be ‘changing the way law is practiced. ‘

I decided long ago to tell my firm first (except immediate family of course) and thereafter others.  I have always believed that there is a right way to leave a firm.  The GAL would compete fairly and honestly with all involved.   He would not let others govern his decisions, or impact his behavior. The GAL would understand that the means are as important as the end.  I have decided to follow his lead. 

Because of my choice to tell my law firm first, I have lists of completely unaddressed practical issues.  I do need office space.  I do need to identify a bookkeeper, tax accountant, malpractice insurance, less expensive health insurance and on.  I am feeling the desire to give notice, if for no other reason, than to identify options and resources.

At the end of the day, I understand that these first steps are very important for me since they will set the path and direction of my new practice. I take them very carefully and very deliberately.  We will see if it lands me a TV sit-com or a viable law practice. 

Stay tuned …..

Who Is The Greatest American Lawyer?

I have already been asked the question, “Why did you call this blog “The Greatest American Lawyer?”  No, I am not referring to myself (I shun egos and refuse to include my own name in my firm name, as I did back in the mid-1990s when I founded my first firm out of the trunk of my fancy car), but to an ideal.  The Greatest American Lawyer is a set of standards which I aspire to, which standards I will share with you as I embark on my new non-solo practice.  These ideals fly in the face of what many of us have come to understand as the common methods of legal practice. These standards focus on both the “professional” aspect of what we do without compromising our right to receive value for value delivered. 

As I was thinking about the name of this web site, I figured it had to be something inspiring.  I knew that it had to be anonymous since (1) I  have not told my partners I am quitting yet, and, (2) I am focused on helping and inspiring others to 'jump' into non-solo practice and do not want to make this effort about me.  I started thinking of songs which might capture the spirit of this effort.  The first verse I thought of for some completely unknown reason (I’m sure I have not heard the song in at least a decade):

Believe it or not,
I'm walking on air.
I never thought I could feel so free eee eee.
Flying away on a wing and a prayer.
Who could it be?
Believe it or not it's just me.

I immediately knew it was perfect.  When I Googled the TV show, the following ‘perfect’ synopsis came up:

The Greatest American Hero TV show was an adventure / comedy series about a Los Angeles high school teacher (Ralph Hinkley) who was given a red flying suit by aliens during a field trip to the desert. An F.B.I. agent convinces him to use the suit to fight crime. Ralph later discovers that the suit also gives him the power to become invisible, to see things from great distances and to see through solid objects. During the first season only, Ralph also sometimes included his students in his crime-stopping adventures.

Aliens you say?  Special powers, you laugh? 

I have always been convinced that the single 2” x 2” gray spot on the back of my otherwise curly brown head was left there by Aliens when they kidnapped me and drilled into my brain.  This mysterious gray spot first appeared during college (of course I don’t recall the kidnapping but then again I was in college so they could have nabbed me when I was drunk).  I have always believed that aliens were somehow involved.  How else could a gray spot magically appear on one single spot on an otherwise unblemished human head?  [Did you notice basketball player Rasheed Wallace also has the same gray spot on the back left of his head (thus further supporting my theory)?] 

In any event, I do think that many clients who are victimized by current business/billing models of many law firms could certainly use a non-solo with special powers to protect them.  And I know that many talented attorneys, who would otherwise qualify as the ‘Greatest American Lawyer’ within their niche, suffer under the belief that they are stuck in big firm practice. 

My message is simple.  Take your talents to the street.  Become part of the community of non-solo practitioners.  Market yourself within your areas of specialization and experience.  Help you clients find the ‘best’ resource for issues which you are not comfortable handling on their behalf and then stay involved in that problem in a general counsel capacity.  Build relationships with your customers (don’t even think of them as anything else) which will last and generate referrals.  Don’t be shy about telling your clients how different you really are and how lucky they are to have found you as their attorney.  Help non-solos change the way law is practiced and re-build the reputation and esteem which used to define our profession. 

There is no reward without risk. Just ask Ralph Hinkley!  Remember when he first flew and went right into a wall.  Did that stop him? No, I think not.  He got right back up and, come to think of it, continued to encounter navigational difficulties throughout the tenure of the show.  But he kept trying.  He saved some lives in the process.  He championed justice in the end.

Blog-a-thon tag:

Don't call me a solo.

I will not be a solo-practitioner when my shingle [make that a banner] finally gets tacked above my door. I am striking out to be a 'Non_Solo Lawyer.'   

I am after all already a node in the IP world filled with resources, information and other non-solos. The shared resources among practice groups in a 1000 person mega firm separated by walls, floors and cities are not much different (albeit smaller) than the world of non-solos connected together over IP.  Technology is the answer we have been waiting for.  Efficiency,communication, outsourcing and vertical specialization are the promise of correctly used technology. 

A pundit asked recently how big firms will evolve over the next decade.  Pundits answered in all sorts of ways.  But none mentioned that  solos tied together offering more options and talent than the largest firms with niche areas of specialization will become new competitors to the largest firms.  Non-solo practitioners with controlled overhead, nimble business models based on common principles but each built on the 'no-boss' principle will compete against the Goliath.  Why would any client want the best lawyer within the practice group in a firm, when they kind have the best in the state, country or world? The Greatest American Lawyer is in the house and its time to change everything we have come to know about the practice of law.  This site will chronicle my departure from a 10 lawyer 40 employee law firm in a medium United States town.  It will include everything any lawyer needs to know about starting their own firm, from business plans to technology, from software to office space. After all, if you really are the best at what YOU do, why would you want to allow others to tell you how and why to practice law?  If you have the confidence of the value that you can provide clients, you will succeed over time, over mountains and defiantly as a non-solo.

[once upon a time]

The Greatest American Lawyer Goes Live!

My family has decided to quit our cushy hourly law firm job in a very medium sized town and strike out on our own.   We have a $70k line of credit at the bank on our house.  We have some credit cards with some hefty credit available on them.  We are betting the farm, literally. With tree kids ages 6, 4 and 2, we have decided it is more important to live life on our own terms, by our own sweat and  principles rather than protect the roof over our head. Our small family is walking away from a $150k income [which is a lot where we live] for the feel of the breeze in my hair and a goal to change the way law is practiced.

Welcome to the show! Don't wish me luck.  I'd rather have someone pick up the mail from the post-office for me in the morning, one of the many luxuries I leave behind [along with the work-out facility, firm Cadillac and end of the day scotches in the big boss' office] in my old life as a in-name-only partner at a firm run by one man [who I shall call "Big Boss"].