Monday, October 20, 2008

Using Technology to Boost a Solo Law Practice

Attorney Sergei Lemberg, who specializes in lemon law, , is sitting in the guest blogger’s chair today.

After I graduated from law school, I went the typical route and spent five years working for a series of major law firms. Eventually, though, I reallzed that I wanted to run my own shop, be my own boss, and handle my own cases. After deciding that lemon law would be my niche, I went about the process of building my solo practice, a process that was helped tremendously by technology and online tools.

Although I started by subleasing an office from another lawyer, my practice is largely “virtual.” I have clients from all over the country and rarely see them in person. I use VOIP for my office phone system for onsite and off-site staff, which gives the impression of everyone being under the same roof. I also take advantage of the Web-based Google Docs application for online collaboration, and share practice management software using Citrix.

But one of the most useful tools for building my practice is the Internet itself. I’m a Google AdWords advertiser, and run my AdWords ads in multiple jurisdictions to obtain a highly targeted but diverse clientele. I’ve also used that cornerstone of Web 2.0, blogging (and guest blogging!), to extend the reach of my practice. I’ve extensively optimized my website to make it more search engine friendly, and have expanded it to include genuinely useful content. As a result, I’ve seen my search engine rankings climb.

In today’s increasingly connected world, it’s easier than ever to succeed in a solo practice. By using online marketing methods and technology, office walls become much less relevant and the practice of law becomes virtually boundless

Monday, March 17, 2008

Will work for office space?

One of the most important early decisions in the life of a solo attorney is what to do about office space. I have found that the best way to find an office space is through craigslist postings. This allows you to to price different spaces in different areas to find an office that meets your budget. Of course, finding a suite with other attorneys is a great way to meet other attorneys, possibly get referrals, and have other attorneys to "pick their brains". Or is it?

While this all sounds nice, the reality is that there are plenty of "sharks" out there who are more than willing to take advantage of a young attorney. For example, I live and work in Boston where there are lawyers everywhere who are usually extremely busy. The logical solution seems to be to offer some of this surplus work to young attorneys who are: 1)affordable, 2) eager to work, and 3) flexible. My thinking has been "why wouldn't an attorney be willing to contract work out at $35/hr to me while billing it at $200/hr to their client?"

For whatever reason, I haven't been able to break through this invisible barrier. I have been working for the past 6 or 7 months for a patent firm in Boston. The original agreement was that I would work 20 hours/month for the firm in exchange for the office, and any extra hours I billed I would be paid $50/hr. After a few months, it became clear to me that the firm was not going to honor its deal and I was prepared to move on. The head of the firm urged me to stay and work on a big patent law case on contingency basis. I was offered 20% of the settlement and $50/hr for anything else I billed. This seemed like a perfectly fair agreement and I hesitantly agreed to stay.

I worked for a few weeks drafting the memo, associated motions and documents for the contingency case, and billed time to several other of the attorney's clients. But as soon as I filed the motions with the court and gave the attorney my bill for the hours, he immediately reneged on the agreement and stated that the deal was that I would work 20 hours/month before receiving any payment. Needless to say, I was upset at the change in the agreement. I have a son who requires a babysitter during the day so the time I spent working for this firm, I actually lost hundreds of dollars in day care expenses, not to mention money lost on cases which I didn't take so that I could focus on billing for this law firm.

The bottom line is that lawyers who are beginning their practice are not highly sought after. There seems to be a common misconception that because attorneys work so many hours, attorney positions are available for those who want them. I have seen law firms in Boston looking for experienced attorneys at an annual salary of $40k/yr. It seems as if there are plenty of law firms willing to bill your time as an attorney while paying you as an intern. My advice to young attorneys is to not sell yourself short. Even if you need the work, take the time to find your own clients, research the appropriate laws, and represent your law firm. You might find that it is difficult to keep your morale up as you struggle to make ends meet. But staying the course and building your law practice allows you to learn something about yourself that you'd never learn by jumping at the first available, unreasonable offer of employment.

Please note that not all law firms and attorneys are trying to take advantage of you. Ask attorneys whom you know and trust what they think about a particular firm. It is generally safe to assume that law firms and attorneys with reputations for being untrustworthy have gotten their reputation for a reason, so stay away. And if the offer is too good to be true, it probably is.

Friday, January 4, 2008

When to bill?

It seems as if every attorney is expected to specialize in one thing or another. As a solo attorney who is just beginning his/her career, the best advice that one can give as far as what field of law to pursue is this: it's not what you do, it's what you do not do. For lawyers beginning their practice, the objective is to learn as much as possible about a variety of fields in order to discover what interests the lawyer. But is this doing a disservice to the client? Should a client have to pay for the "learning period" of the newly licensed attorney? Ultimately, it is an issue each attorney must deal with. Every attorney has been faced with the dilemma of "is this billable time?". For me personally, I spend probably twice as much time researching as I do billing. This may mean that I earn less money at the end of the day, but I feel as if my clients are getting equal value. I'm not charging them for the time I spend learning about current law in a particular area. Since no lawyer is current in all areas at all times, it seems logical to spend some non-billable time learning about the field.