Listening to the Voices of Experience

Debra L. Bruce, JD, PCC.

At Lawyer-Coach we get quite a number of calls and emails from attorneys starting a new law practice. Some are fresh out of law school. Some have been with a bigger firm, a corporation or the government. All appreciate the wisdom of lawyers who have been there before. Here’s an opportunity to hear from some small firm lawyers who are willing to share the benefit of their experience.

Getting advice from more experienced lawyers

Angela Nickel, a Seguin attorney who handles real estate and construction matters, including litigation, says. “Don’t be afraid to ask other lawyers for help….I developed relationships with other lawyers in town and simply asked for guidance, forms and the occasional game of devil’s advocate. Not only did I get the support I needed, but I developed some truly wonderful friendships. With 18 years under my belt now, I am eager to return the favor to other young lawyers in my community.”

Martha James, an immigration lawyer in Dallas, agrees, “it is imperative that you keep in touch with other attorneys regularly, either though organizations or one-on-one. Attorneys are a great source of referrals, advice and support.”

Stacey Langenbahn, a Colleyville lawyer who incorporates Collaborative Law and Cooperative Law techniques into her dispute resolution efforts, has several suggestions. She recommends asking an experienced lawyer to be a mentor and to co-counsel with you. She also suggests asking to “shadow” (follow around) another lawyer. That’s part of how associates in bigger firms learn, and it can be available to enterprising solos, too. Finally, Langenbahn points out that you can direct your substantive and practice management questions to a lawyer’s listserv or blog for advice.

Keep your expenses down

Ted Weiss was a partner in a Houston mega-firm before going out on his own to offer full-service dispute resolution as a mediator, arbitrator and litigator. He says, “As you begin, concentrate on minimizing your overhead consistent with presenting a professional image.” Bigger firms can benefit from economy of scale that would not appear to be available to smaller firms. Weiss, however, suggests some ways to save on costs by subleasing from another law firm. That allows you to share expenses on items like a conference room, common area furniture, receptionist, administrative assistant, and office equipment. Some of the equipment expenses you share may include a telephone system, copier, fax machine, scanner and postage machine.

Weiss goes even further by suggesting that you use wireless technology as much as possible for telecommunications. He says, “Rather than three landlines (two for phone and a third for DSL and fax), use a wireless PDA for your phone, an air card for Internet service anywhere with your laptop, and Efax to receive faxes.” His recommendations also provide a lot of flexibility and mobility. You can practice from almost anywhere, and if your office moves, you won’t need to change any phone or fax numbers.

Nickel had some cost-saving suggestions for small town lawyers. She said, “I bought an old house downtown that was suitable for a home-office arrangement, yet with plenty of visibility. I hung out my shingle, turned the parlor into a professional-looking office, and learned to type and file like a seasoned legal secretary.”

While keeping costs down is important, when you start hiring staff, Glynn Nance, a Houston business and tax transactional lawyer, counsels, “Don’t try to save money on cheap support staff. You will create more problems for yourself.”

Biggest mistakes

Everyone learns on the job, and mistakes are part of the process. If you learn from others’ mistakes, however, maybe you’ll make fewer of them and hit your successful stride sooner. Erik Goodman, a criminal lawyer in Austin, says “I wish I had paid more attention to cultivating contacts with civil lawyers.” He now knows their value as referral sources. Likewise, Weiss says his biggest mistake was to neglect networking and marketing when his workload was heavy. He says, “Even when your plate is full, make sure to continue business development activities that will help keep new business in the pipeline.”

Debbie Welch, an Amarillo lawyer, cautions, “Be highly selective in who you represent.” At her firm, they now only represent people whose company they enjoy. She says, “There are some people who are never going to be happy and you don’t want that type of person for your client.” James adds, “Don’t take a client just because you need the work. Not all clients will pay you when they get your bill….It is important to discuss expectations immediately with clients, get realistic retainers, and keep a close watch on receivables.”

Nance warns about a mistake his firm made. “Be careful of software programs that market themselves as a one-stop resource for accounting, file management and contact management. They will be good in one thing, but not in another.”

Good advice they received

Welch commends the advice she received to get board certified in her area of practice: estate planning and probate. She recommends that you represent clients in a few select areas of practice, and become an expert in those areas. “You cannot be everything to all people,” declares Welch. Nance agrees. He says board certification gave him instant credibility with potential clients and referral sources.

He also received sage advice to take two or three people to lunch every week. “It’s the best marketing tool a small firm lawyer has in his quiver of marketing arrows,” he asserts.

Making the move to a small firm

The switch to a small firm from a big bureaucratic corporate office or from a multi-office mega-firm can unsettle even seasoned lawyers. Paul Yale, a board certified oil and gas lawyer in Houston, says, “If you have spent a long period of time with the same employer (in my case, a big corporation for 27 years), you are probably overly risk averse and overly pessimistic about your chances of success outside the corporate womb….Don’t underestimate how big a factor renewed passion for your job can be.”

Laura Upchurch handles contested probate, trust and guardianship matters, as well as real estate and small business matters in Brenham. Based on her experience in moving from a large firm to a small one, she advises: “Recognize that you will no longer be a small cog in a large wheel – you will be a large cog in a small wheel. If any of those cogs does not mesh with the others, the firm’s ‘machinery’ is not going to operate properly…. [M]ake sure, before you join the firm, that the goals, philosophy and style of your practice will be cohesive with those of the other attorneys in the office.”

She suggests multiple interviews and meetings to get to know the other lawyers before making a move. Her firm reviewed writing samples and transcripts, and talked with colleagues at her former large firm. Now they also use personality assessments to help ensure a good fit. These precautions benefit both the firm and the prospective new lawyer.

James admonishes that it will be a mistake to think you can “just practice law” in a small firm. “You will be doing everything from marketing to billing to overseeing staff,” she reminds. Many attorneys underestimate the amount of time they will spend managing staff and handling other administrative matters.

Upchurch also reminds small firm lawyers that everywhere you go, you represent your firm. “If you are one of only five attorneys, what you do and say before others will likely reflect more on your firm than if you are one of 500 attorneys.”

Find ways to keep your practice enjoyable

Finally, you’ve got to keep it fun. Overcoming daily challenges can be wearing, and many lawyers burn out. John Sloan, a plaintiff’s personal injury lawyer in Longview, says, “The thing I learned that made my practice more successful and more enjoyable is to take advantage of the opportunity that we have as lawyers to get to know people from all walks of life. Not just to get to know them from the standpoint of their legal problem or their case, but to get to know them as individuals with interesting stories to tell, with hopes and with dreams. Seeing each client this way makes for a more enjoyable practice and there is no better advertisement than former clients that have become valued friends.”

© 2008 Debra Bruce


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