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March 2006

The Good and Bad of Being an Independent Practitioner.

Russ Krajec is a registered patent agent, engineer and inventor who owns and operates anything under the sun made by man blog. He started an excellent discussion on what it means to hang out your shingle, the good, the bad and the ugly. Here is a post that he calls "Hanging Out Your Shingle The Upside. In this post, Russ talks about all the great things about being an independent practitioner.

Heres a post he calls "Hanging Out Your Shingle - - The Downside.Here he talks about some of the trials and tribulations involved with being an independent practitioner.

You can never talk about the differences between being an independent practitioner and working for a larger firm enough. The differences are dramatic as pointed out by Russ Krajec in his two posts. On the plus side, he notes that you dont have to share any of the profits with anyone. Instead of working five hours in order to receive the profits from a single hour (essentially working for your partners). He is correct that the fact that you dont have to share profits with partners is one of the best parts about being an independent practitioner. You can either work less for the same money or earn even more income at the same level of effort.

Fundamentally, being an independent practitioner just feels different. When I wake up in the morning, I dont feel the stress of having to make an appearance in the office, being the last partner in your seat, feeling like I have to get dressed up because all the other partners are, or any other activity which really amounts to "form over substance." Instead of wasting energy on peripheral things that really dont or shouldnt matter, I concentrate on what I do best. I think about the important things I am facing each day and how Im going to be a good problem solver. I think about what I want my firm to become tomorrow and I implement the steps necessary to make that happen. Nothing gets in the way of my vision. Instead of waking up with a sense of dread, I wake up with a sense of expectancy. Instead of wondering about what problems I face in the day, I am eager to face the problems of the day. If I am simply burnt out, I go home without thinking twice (and encourage my staff to do the same).

On the downside well its hard for me to think about the negatives. Maybe I am just an eternal optimist, but I dont see the downside. A lack of work has not been a problem. Too much work has been the constant challenge. Revenue has been continually strong. After a year, I dont spend much energy wondering whether or not Im about to lose all my clients and go out of business. I agree with Russ that the loss of a single client can be more problematic for a sole practitioner than for a large firm. However, and I am sure Russ would agree, that next client comes through the door soon enough. Somehow, things tend to work out.

I am at a little bit of an advantage in that I do not work from home. I have a great office and four to five staff working with me on most days. We all go for coffee in the morning. We relate during the day and break the monotony. Everyone gets along great and loneliness is certainly not a problem. If I were a solo practitioner working out of my house, I might go a little stir crazy.

I do agree with Russ that it is a different sort of stress that one faces when they go out into the market as a single attorney. The buck really does stop here. Some days, that can be drag. Or for any attorney with an entrepreneurial spirit, the reward is way beyond the burden. If you have broad shoulders and revel in the thought of being an innovative businessperson, then being an independent practitioner is certainly for you. You know my saying: "Jump, Jump, Jump."

You've Got To Move-It Move-It

At this point, their is little question in my own mind that we are doing things a lot differently here at our law firm than at many other firms. I do not know what the statistics are but I would imagine that most of the industry is made up of traditional hourly billing firms. However, this post wants to acknowledge that there are an awful lot of law firms out there which are in fact doing it differently.

Our firm has a blog which puts a lot of information in motion related to the ways in which we innovate as a legal business. But, there are lots of other firms out there which are not as visible, which I clearly believe are innovators in the market space.

The presence of blogs makes it more likely that firms will start experimenting across a variety of business models. This is great news for clients and attorneys alike. Attorneys who innovate typically have a lot more fun practicing law. They are able to tinker with the business side of the practice and try new and exciting things.

Client Communications Are Not A Billable Event

I am always surprised by the fact that law firms see basic client communications as a billable event. A smart client will always ask their law firm whether or not they will get billed if they send their lawyer an email or a transmittal letter. Clients should know up front whether a five minute phone call is going to result in a sixty dollar charge.

Law firms that view basic client communications as a billable event are, in my opinion, law firms that could care less about customer service. Billing for basic client communications is indicative of a law firm mentality focused on billing every possible moment of every day to one or more clients.

We like to say that we are a value-based billing law firm. We only bill for those items which provide value to the clients. If we are not marking up a document or producing work product which can be visibly seen by the client--not just any work product, but high level analysis--that we don't bill it. If a phone call is that significant, it will always result in work after you hang up the phone. If an email contains strategic or other important information in a case, then it will require the attorney to get out of their chair and do something with it. The activity that comes from basic client communications is appropriate for billing.

An interesting thing has happened to our law firm as a result of the fact that we do not bill for basic phone calls, transmittal or emails by and between the firm and our clients. Our clients are unobstructed to provide us key information or involve us in their court business problems. By facilitating as opposed to discouraging communications, we end up with more matters to handle on behalf of our clients. As importantly, our clients feel good about calling us on the phone or receiving basic information. Their guts don't tighten up with fear that they are getting billed time by calling their attorney on the phone.

We constantly remind our clients that communications are not billable time. We encourage them to contact us by phone or email. I would never go back to the old model of billing for basic client communications. It is my opinion that it is the most destructive aspect of the traditional hourly billing model. It creates psychological barriers for both the attorney and the client. Our approach not only generates more business, better client relations but also makes our conversations and communications with our clients "feel good."

1st Audio Blog Vacation Journal

This is the first audio blog from GAL's Hut Trip to the back country of Colorado.

GAL went to Boulder CO.  While his family flayed at the ritzy St. Julian Hotel, GAL and his buds went on a back-country hut trip up to Janet's Cabin, just above Copper Mountain.

As you can see, I am always ready to take risks.  The last hut trip was 11 miles into the mountain and 2,300 vertical feet.  We did one night of winter camping in the mountain.  While tending to blisters the next morning, I got frostbite in my big toe.  I still don't have any sensation in that toe today.

Janet's Cabin was an easier journey.  6 miles and 1,000 vertical feet with 50 lbs packs on our backs.  But there is always danger in the mountains.  I love danger!

Practicing Law from the Kitchen Table and in the Car

It is starting to dawn on me exactly how much work I’m getting done during periods of what would otherwise be downtime. Because digital dictation has become such a major part of our practice, I am increasing both the times and places that I dictate from. This morning for instance, I got up and immediately grabbed my Philips 9350 portable digital recorder and added two items to the extranet. These were items that immediately popped in my brain when I woke up. If I didn’t have my digital dictation system with me, there is a good chance I would have forgotten about them altogether. As it was, it took me two seconds to dictate instructions and to-do items.

I then got in the shower. The shower is a wonderful place for intrusive thoughts to permeate your brain. You’re standing there trying to remember whether or not you are at the shampoo or conditioner step, when ten things launch an attack on your neurons. You think of several very important things that you wanted to do yesterday but didn’t quite get done. Somewhere between my shaving cream and my razor, I grab my recorder and quickly dictated instructions to various staff members on a variety of things. I have one staff member, my extranet manager Al, access my web mail account and send email to various people. I dictate the content and have a disclaimer at the bottom that I’ve dictated the email, that it is typed by Al and "Boom" I’ve taken care of yet another important item.

On the way to the office in my car, I dictate another couple of important items for the day. Since I’ll be at depositions for most of the day, I won’t have a chance to get staff going in the right direction as I would if I was available. I am able to make sure that my staff is busy and productive in less than two minutes of drive time.

Now, I’ve got my coffee and I’m sitting at my desk. I’m waiting for Amicus Attorney to launch (which could take about 90 seconds). During this downtime, I grab my digital recorder and dictate this Greatest American Lawyer post. I have turned nonproductive time into incredibly productive time.

I know that I am gaining efficiencies which are beyond anything I’ve ever achieved before in my practice because I route all of this dictation as I start my day. Sometimes it is 15-30 different items which are being routing to various staff as my day begins. These are all items which I would otherwise have to deal with in the office. More likely than not, they are items which would simply have been lost between the cracks.