Drafting an Effective Law Partnership Agreement

Law Practice Management Program
State Bar of Texas
Webcast panelist
Austin, TX
November 27, 2007

For more information, go to www.texasbarcle.com.

Differentiation by Design

Debra L. Bruce, JD, PCC.

Recently I ran into a Houston lawyer at the Hermitage Hotel in Nashville, Tennessee. As we chatted, he extolled the virtues of the hotel. He began with his amazement that, although he had only stayed there once before, the doorman called him by name when he arrived. Then he gushed about the impact of walking into the luxurious bathroom in his room.

At the Vintage Inn in Napa, California, as I unlocked the door and stepped into my room, I heard gentle strains of soothing music. Lamplight and a fire flickering in a fireplace created a romantic mood and warmed me from the chill of the night air. A small table held a complimentary bottle of wine, with glasses and a corkscrew. I sprawled on the bed, and felt like I had landed on a fluffy cloud. This was not my usual business trip experience. When I got home I started planning how I could get back to that hotel.

What do these stories have to do with your law practice? They illustrate the marketing power of focusing on a client’s experience when delivering service. These hotels stood out in an industry with competitors literally around the corner. Would your clients say that about your firm?

Read more «Differentiation by Design»

Joys of Lingering in France

Debra L. Bruce, JD, PCC.

When daydreaming of France, people may think of the stars and glitter of the Cannes Film Festival, the haute couture of Parisian designers, famous architectural innovations and landmarks like the Eiffel Tower, the perfectly executed haute cuisine of expensive French restaurants, the centuries of cultural history on display at the Louvre, the opulence of Versailles, or the blasà nudity on the beaches of the French Riviera. Many such attractions draw millions to visit France every year.

I like those things, but what makes France a joy for me are the smaller things that I encounter in daily living here. I like turning on to my street, cresting a hill, and suddenly confronting a stunning view of the valley dotted with pink, coral and white houses with tile roofs, followed by more mountains and the Mediterranean Sea in the distance.

I like the delight of savoring truly fresh bread that I pick up every day at one of the five bakeries within a mile of our house. If my teenage son is with me, I order extra. He devours most of a baguette, breaking it off in warm chunks, in the five minutes before we get home. Baguettes are the 18-inch long tube-shaped rolls that Americans call AFrench bread, despite the fact that there are so many different types of fresh bread in France. We have all wondered out loud how we will survive without fresh bread every day when we get back to Houston. How can we go back to the tasteless, uniform, pre-sliced stuff in a plastic bag?

I like the numerous sidewalk cafes and the way people linger about in coffee shops and cafes. I bask in the sunshine and sip something while watching the world drift by, whether in July or November. I have never felt rushed by a waiter, even if I finished eating half an hour ago, or haven=t ordered but one cup of coffee, long since gone. One is so welcome to linger that it is inevitably necessary to flag the waiter down to get a check.

I like warm goat cheese. I never knew that, and would not have guessed it. I love it melted on toasted bread and served on a green leafy salad, a dish called Chevre Chaud (Ahot goat).

I like the colorful fruit and vegetable stands, visible from the street. In the summertime, most of the produce is locally grown, vine-ripened, just picked, and very flavorful.

I like the numerous small family-run shops, where most of the shopkeepers take time to chat with customers. Even as a foreigner I don’t feel anonymous. I almost expect to bump into Ozzie and Harriet or Beaver Cleaver reincarnated and speaking French.

I like making the acquaintance of people from all over Europe, most of whom speak some English and tell interesting stories about why they are living here now. Many of them still have businesses in other countries, but choose to live in La Belle France.

I like watching the human scenery on the beach, on a crowded boulevard or in the market. The great majority of French women of all ages have trim figures, and many, regardless of age, wear skin-tight clothing and very short skirts to prove it. At the grocery store I am amazed to find 65-year-old women in spandex body suits and high heels. Aristocratically dressed women in designer suits, topped off with the ever present artistically tied scarf, also adorn the aisles. The teenager in tight white pants so see-through that I can tell she is wearing a brown thong underneath bounces by. I wonder at the four-inch heels worn by mature women and the four-inch platform jogging shoes worn by teenagers. I say thanks for the American women who rebel against uncomfortable shoes.

I like watching old men playing pÃctanque or boules, the French version of bocci ball. A man in his seventies, wearing a beret, holds up before him a stainless steel ball the size of an orange. He crouches a little, eyes the opponent’s ball resting too close to the target, and lets loose with a great arcing toss, which narrowly misses the overhead court lights. Miraculously, his ball plops down directly on top of the offending opponent’s ball, sending it shooting out of range. The old man cavorts just a little before relinquishing the shooting line to his opponent.

I like the round points that substitute for intersections here. It is not necessary to stop unless a car bears down from the left. Once in the round point, if I question which way to turn, I can just keep circling until I figure it out. Round points, however, do take some getting used to.

I like the way so many homes have window boxes of blooming flowers, especially in the perched villages. I like the boulevard esplanades and the circles in the center of the round points that are transformed into miniature parks filled with colorful flowers year round.

I like seeing teenage girls walking arm in arm. And teenagers (boys and girls) walking with their arms locked with their mothers. My American teenager hasn’t picked up that habit.

I like the fact that from my home I can drive only a few minutes to visit separate museums with enough original works to be dedicated to only one world famous artist, such as Picasso, Matisse, and Chagall.

Perhaps what I like best is the French attitude about life. Having made a decision to slow down my life, and to make conscious choices about how to go forward, I am in the perfect place for me at this time. The French aversion to schedules that don’t personally benefit them requires one to relax, let go, and slow down…or go mad. In the French culture it remains important to take time to savor the morsels of life (as long as you aren’t behind the wheel of an automobile). I have wondered why little shops (always on the cusp between survival and ruin) shut down for two or three hours at lunch time, losing the opportunity to take my money. On reflection, I realize that the owners act in accordance with their priorities, and money does not top the list. Life does.

1998 Debra Bruce

This article was originally published by the Orlando Sentinel in 1998.

Who Do I Need to Know and How Do I Meet Them?

Debra L. Bruce, JD, PCC.

I. Rule 1.01 of the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct

A lawyer should not accept employment in a matter beyond his/her competence.
Unless: 1.01(a)(1) a competent lawyer is associated with client’s prior informed consent
“Competence” defined as having the ability to timely acquire the necessary knowledge, skill & training.

Need to know: lawyers

  • That you can call on to give you advice and guidance to expeditiously acquire such additional knowledge, skills and training as you may need.
  • That you can associate in your client matter with the client’s consent if the matter is too complex to handle on your own.

How do you meet them?

  • Houston Young Lawyers Association meetings
  • State and local bar association section meetings.
  • Solos Supporting Solos.
  • Call your old professors, especially if you are practicing in the same town. They can answer questions and refer you to other lawyers. They may even be able to help you find employment down the road if you stay in touch. Established lawyers often contact their old professors when they are looking to hire a young lawyer.
  • Lawyers in firms where your friends are working. Even someone just 2 or 3 years ahead of you can be helpful.
  • Take on bar association duties or section duties.

Start attending meetings before you have questions, so that you will already have the relationships established before you have the questions. Most of the organizations have student memberships, but very few students take advantage of them. You will stand out as dedicated, plucky, and savvy.

Find ways that you can benefit the lawyers you would like to benefit from. When you do them a favor first, they will want to find a way to benefit you.

  • Perhaps offer to 2d chair a trial with them for free, or at a very cheap rate.
  • Handle some of their “dog” cases for them.
  • Find out what needs or interests they have and try to help get them met.
  • Baby-sit their kids in a pinch.
  • Give their high schooler a tour of the college campus.
  • Prepare a home-cooked meal and deliver it.
  • Take their college kid to lunch to tell them what law school is really like these days.
  • Teach them the slang they need to know to understand what their kids are saying.
  • Teach them how to do things on the computer.
  • Set up a simple website, listserv or blog for their ski club or charitable organization.
  • Set up their Facebook or LinkedIn profile for them and teach them how to use them.
  • Show them some useful apps for their iPhone or other SmartPhone.

II. Rule 1.14

A lawyer holding funds of clients must hold them in an account separate from the lawyer’s own funds, in a “separate account, designated as a trust or escrow account.”

2. Need to know: bankers familiar with trust accounts, and preferably with IOLTA accounts. That banker can be essential to your practice for a lot of other reasons, as well.

  • If the banker knows you and trusts you, she can be a good referral source.
  • You may need a loan for capital improvements or equipment. Perhaps you will be able to negotiate a line of credit once you are able to demonstrate an income stream and create some receivables.

How do you meet them:

  • Don’t just set up your account and do all your business thereafter at the ATM or drive-up window. Walk in to make deposits and make a point of saying hello. Call them by name.
  • Consider putting your accounts at a bank small enough that you can get to know the branch manager or a significant officer. Perhaps one in your building, so you can bump into them or stop in often.
  • Stop and ask questions about their services. Refer new accounts to them.
  • Take out a small loan and pay it off in 6 months or a year, just to establish yourself as a good and creditworthy customer.
  • If you do transactional work, find out who handles real property financings or business loans. Invite them to lunch and find out what kind of business they are looking for.
  • Attend some of the networking and holiday events that the bank has. For example, Sterling Bank has a women’s networking event each month.
  • Bankers move around a lot. That’s good and bad. It makes it more challenging to have a solid banking relationship with your bank when the people keep changing. It gives you an opportunity to have potential referral sources in multiple banks, however, if you keep up the relationship.

Rule 2.01 “In advising or otherwise representing a client, a lawyer shall exercise independent professional judgment and render candid advice.”

Comment 4 says, “Matters that go beyond strictly legal questions may also be in the domain of another profession. Family matters can involve problems within the professional competence of psychiatry, clinical psychology or social work; business mattes can involve problems within the competence of the accounting profession or of financial specialists. Where consultation with a professional in another field is itself something a competent lawyer would recommend, the lawyer should make such a recommendation.”

3. Need to know: depends on your practice area. Often the people you may need to refer your clients to can be good referral sources to you, as well.

For a Family Law Practice:

  • Therapists, counselors, social workers
  • Financial planners
  • CPAs (tax & auditing)
  • Ministers
  • Bankers
  • Investigators
  • Appraisers
  • Lawyers in other specialties

For a Transactional (Business, Real Estate, Tax) Practice:

  • CPAs (tax & auditing)
  • Appraisers
  • Bankers
  • Investment bankers
  • Venture capitalists
  • Surveyors
  • Title companies
  • Real estate agents
  • Property insurance agents
  • Life insurance agents for key person insurance
  • Tenant leasing agents
  • Architects
  • Interior designers/space planners
  • Specialized licensing agents (like liquor licenses)
  • Engineers

For a Trial Practice:

  • Court reporters
  • Court clerks
  • Mediators
  • Investigators
  • Doctors
  • Expert witnesses (engineers, safety experts, chemists, etc.)
  • Forensic computer experts
  • Document storage, retrieval and management
  • Demonstrative evidence presentation and multi-media specialists
  • Jury consultants

How do you meet them?

  • Bar section meetings – talk to speakers & ask other lawyers
  • Networking groups
  • Chambers of Commerce
  • Civic groups
  • Trade association meetings
  • Ask for referrals by other service providers who serve the same client base
  • Your building directory
  • Events, parties, etc. they sponsor (they’re looking to meet people like you and potential customers)
  • Chat with people at the courthouse
  • Attend unusual CLE events with non-lawyer speakers
  • Judicial receptions
  • Events sponsored by Texas Lawyer or other companies that have exhibitors
  • State Bar convention
  • Ads in the Texas Bar Journal, the Houston Lawyer, Texas Lawyer and other legal publications
  • Online research, listservs & chat rooms for lawyers
  • Social media, particularly LinkedIn

III. Paragraph 5 of the Preamble to the DRs:

“As a public citizen, a lawyer should seek improvement of the law, the administration of justice and the quality of service rendered by the legal profession.”

You need to have your office well organized to be able to render quality legal services.

What connections do you need to help you run a quality law office?

Who do you need to know:

  • Persons to recommend hardware & software tailored to the legal industry
  • Insurance agents for: malpractice liability, premises & general liability, fire, theft & casualty, flood, business interruption
  • Good legal administrative assistant, paralegal or office assistant
  • Virtual assistant or virtual paralegal
  • Computer technology professional
  • Landlord representative in your office building
  • Tenant rep to find your office space
  • Executive suites rep
  • Lawyers subleasing space
  • Banker – loan officer
  • CPA or other tax advisor
  • Employment agency for temp and permanent assistants
  • College placement office & financial aid office for part-time help
  • Furniture dealer – perhaps used
  • Bookkeeper
  • Printer for business cards, stationery, announcements, invitations, etc.
  • Promotional item sales rep
  • Business coach
  • Professional organizer
  • Legal research & forms guide company rep (Westlaw, Lexis, LoisLaw, BNA, etc.)
  • Nearby bigger law firm with a good library

How do you meet them?

See the other suggestions above.

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