Choosing a Practice Area

Last week I made an impassioned plea encouraging you to create a business plan.  A big part of the planning process involves selecting an area (or areas) of practice. Sounds easy enough, but is it?

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Don’t Choose a Practice Area Because…

Someone else said you’d be good at it, a law professor recommended it, everyone else is doing it, or family members and other influencers practice in the area.

Think About the Kind of Clients You Want to Represent

This step is often overlooked, but deserves your consideration.  Take time to reflect on who you want to serve, rather than what you want to do.

  • Do you want to represent businesses or individuals?
  • Start-ups, small family operations, or evolving companies who might need help with mergers and acquisitions?
  • Individuals?
  • Low income or high income?  Elderly? Young? Vulnerable?

Consider Client Characteristics

While it is possible for any client to display these characteristics, they do appear more frequently in certain areas of law:

  • Emotional (angry, fearful, crying, upset) – Family law, criminal law
  • Impaired or mentally ill – Family law, juvenile law, criminal law, poverty law
  • Distressed – Family law, criminal law, poverty law, personal injury, workers’ compensation, social security disability, products liability
  • Confused – Elder law, estate planning, probate, poverty law
  • Vulnerable – Elder law, juvenile law, family law, criminal law, poverty law
  • Demanding – business law, corporate, real estate, intellectual property

Do You Naturally Lean Toward Litigation or Transactional Work?

If you like ever-changing clients, taking risk, working under pressure, and constant challenge > you may be better-suited to litigation.

If you prefer working with repeat clients, minimizing risk, a steady workflow, and predictability > you may be better-suited to transactional work.

Let’s Play Match Game

What is your tolerance level for working longer hours?  Dealing with gray areas of law, high stakes, or deadlines?  These can also influence a practice choice.

Long Work Days

Working longer hours is often associated with family law and criminal law where emergencies occur in the evenings and on weekends.

Gray or Concrete?

If you don’t mind dealing in gray areas, family law, litigation, trusts, estate planning or immigration may be good choices.  If you prefer things to be more concrete, then consider regulatory law, tax law, or administrative law.

High Stakes

The stakes are higher in criminal law, immigration, and family law.  You will need a reservoir of resilience to practice in these areas.

Deadline Driven

Arguably, this is just about every area of law but litigation reigns supreme when it comes to deadlines.  If you are organized, manage workflows well, and have good time management skills you’ll do well in litigation.

Other Stuff

I should also forewarn you that any area of law where your fee is contingent, like personal injury, means an unpredictable pay day.  Honestly assess whether this is something you can handle financially.

The Informational Interview is King and Queen

Doing informational interviews with other practitioners in an area of law that interests you is – without a doubt – one of the best ways to narrow down your list.  Not sure who to approach?

  • Ask for referrals or suggestions from your first level contacts – people you know personally.
  • If your first level contacts don’t know anyone in the area(s) of law that interest you, ask them for names of other lawyers who might know a practitioner in that area.  Keep asking and pursuing leads.
  • If you don’t know anyone who knows anyone who might know someone who practices in an area that interests you, start reaching out to known experts.  Bar groups – state, local, and specialized – are organized into sections and committees, usually by different areas of law or subspecialties of law.  Who are the leaders of those sections and committees?  Who speaks at CLEs for the various bar-related groups?  Who writes articles in bar group publications? Who writes chapters for OSB BarBooks?

A Formula For Cold Calling

There is an art to cold calling.  (And by the way, a call is generally better.)  Here are the steps:

  1. Do your homework first.  Visit the interviewee’s website.  Look her up on LinkedIn or other social media sites.  Run a Google search.  Read what she’s written.
  2. Review steps three through six below.  If you find cold calling intimidating, rehearse a few times before you pick up the phone.  This will be helpful if you end up leaving a voicemail.  Better to spend time practicing beforehand than to fumble and mumble in your recorded message.
  3. When you reach out, be clear from the beginning that you are not seeking a job and this is not a request for a job interview.  Rather, you are interested in the area of law the interviewee practices and would like to learn more.
  4. Briefly explain why you are reaching out to this particular interviewee. For example, you read her article in the Bar Bulletin, noticed she spoke at at CLE, saw that she wrote the chapter on XYZ for BarBooks, etc.  (To state the obvious, this is where the homework comes in.)
  5. Be respectful of the interviewee’s time.  Spending 60 minutes with your subject would be optimal, but may not be possible.  Let the interviewee know that you are looking for 30 to 60 minutes of their time and stick to whatever time limit you agree upon.
  6. Consider extending a breakfast or lunch invitation. Everyone has to eat.
  7. Prepare for your informational interview.  If necessary, repeat step one in greater depth.  You should come to the meeting with a list of questions you would like the interviewee to answer.  In fact, you may want to have some questions written down before you even pick up the phone and extend the invitation.
  8. Send a handwritten thank you note by postal mail after your meeting.

If you encounter a gatekeeper – receptionist, paralegal, assistant, secretary – bend over backwards to be polite, thank them for their time, and do your best to leave a complete, but brief message.  Make sure the gatekeeper understands you aren’t cold-calling for a job interview.

You might wonder:  why can’t I just shoot off an email?  You could.  And it may work. But remember: your interviewee is busy and already buried in email.  Your message may not get read or may get caught in the spam filter.

Experience shows that calling and following up by mail is more effective.  Both are more personal than email and require more effort – which doesn’t go unnoticed. Calling means the staff person or lawyer to whom you speak can hear your tone of voice.  Your gratitude and appreciation come across in a way that email can’t match.

All Rights Reserved Beverly Michaelis 2017

Postscript

What should you do if you leave a message and don’t hear back?  Don’t be discouraged. The majority of people you reach out to will be gracious and understanding.  Move on to someone else in the same practice area.

I Don’t Want to Create a Business Plan!

I get it.  I really do.  They involve work and you’re busy.  And if you’re not trying to sell someone on why they should give you money to start or grow your law practice, why would you bother?

Because, my friends, every once in a while you should be selfish and do something for yourself.

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Six Good Reasons Why Every Lawyer Can Benefit from a Business Plan

Everyone can benefit from the business planning process, especially startups.  But existing businesses need a vision too.  Creating a business plan will give you:

  • Clarity about what you want to do
  • Control over your own fate
  • A strategy for staying organized and on track
  • Accountability
  • A way to measure and monitor your progress
  • A path to help you move forward

For associates in law firms, creating an annual business plan is the only way to build a successful strategy for bringing in business – something all associates are expected to do sooner or later.

For partners, annual business planning is likely to be more about reflection: now that I’m an experienced lawyer with a book of business at XYZ Law Firm what do I want to do? If the answer is: make a lateral move, creating a business plan will likely be required.  If the answer is: something else entirely, then time spent reflecting and planning will help you ferret that out.

Why Lawyers Don’t Write Business Plans

Aside from the obvious excuse that creating a business plan is time consuming, you may also perceive it as too difficult.

But there is an even better reason not to write a business plan.  If you don’t put specific goals and objectives on paper you can’t fail.

Here’s What You’re Really Missing Out On

The problem with avoiding failure is that you also set yourself up not to succeed. And you miss out on the other benefits that go along with creating a business plan.

Create a Direction and Lower Your Stress

When you know what you want to do, where you want to go, and how you’re going to get there (the specific objectives included in your plan), it lowers your stress level. There is no more floundering or misdirection.  Having a plan means you’re back in control.

Doing What You Want to Do For People You Want to Work For Means Reduced Exposure to Liability and Ethics Complaints

There’s a huge difference between practicing door law because you’ve always done it versus purposefully choosing a niche.

The door law route exposes you to greater risk of malpractice claims and ethics complaints.  Keeping up with a few areas of law is hard enough.  Trying to keep up with five or ten is bordering on ridiculous.

Imagine instead that you are working in one area, or a handful of areas, that you know well or can master.  With a focus, you can target clients deliberately and work for a client base that you truly want to represent.

You’ll Also See Gains in Efficiency, Money, and Resources

You are a resource.  Your staff is a resource.  Spend your resources on meaningful, designed goals.  This is what creates efficiency.  And with efficiency you can’t help but save money.  Or at a minimum, experience a better return on your investment.  You know it, you can see it, you can measure it.

Business Plan Checklist and Resources

If I’ve convinced you, contact me.  I’m happy to send along my business plan checklist and a list of resources for creating a plan.  Do what you want to do.  I am.

All Rights Reserved Beverly Michaelis 2017

New Work Habits for a New Year

The nice thing about a new year is that it offers a second chance.  An opportunity to step back and take a fresh look at how to run your practice.  As someone who likes the idea of starting over and trying something new I am here to encourage you.  Please read on.

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Are you in a rut?

Let’s face it: we all get stuck in a routine now and again.  Day after day we trudge on without question.  Depending on the routine, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  For example, following set procedures for responding to client email, docketing deadlines, or checking conflicts are helpful time management and malpractice avoidance techniques.  The problem arises when we form work habits that are self-defeating or even life-threatening.

Working long hours can kill you

Six years ago I reported on a study from the Annals of Internal Medicine that found people “who work an average of 11 or more hours per day have a 67 percent higher risk of suffering a heart attack or dying from heart disease than people who work a standard seven- to eight-hour day.  Those who work between 10 and 11 hours per day have a 45 percent higher risk.”

For those of you who champion working hard and putting in long hours, these numbers are a sobering wakeup call.

Sitting is the new smoking

In 2016 came the admonition: get off your duff to improve your health.

While deadlines may sometimes dictate longer hours, sitting in your chair for 10 or 11 hours a day shouldn’t be the norm.  Long hours translate to physical stress, little or no time to exercise, and eating habits that are often less than stellar (like grabbing fast food on the way home.)

The truth is that none of us can maintain a “7-7-7 schedule” (7:00 am to 7:00 pm seven days a week) without suffering the consequences.  Even if you buy a treadmill or standing desk.

Time for a do-over

If I am describing you, stop.  You can do better, and you’ll be happier for it.  Here’s how to cut back the amount of time spent in the office and still accomplish what you need to get done.

Learn to say “goodbye” and “no.”

Two of my favorite words.  And they should be yours too.

Find it hard to turn people away?  I understand how you feel.  Lawyers face economic pressure: I don’t really have a choice.  I need the money.  And emotional pressure: Family, friends, or former clients are depending on me.  

Next time you want to say “no,” but are struggling, follow this simple advice.

Overwhelmed by the amount of work on your plate?

This is a good news/bad news scenario.

Let’s start with the “bad news” first.  You have too much to do and can’t get it done.  You may be paralyzed or depressed.  You don’t know where to start.  Call the attorney counselors at the Oregon Attorney Assistance Program (OAAP).  They provide free and confidential help with issues just like this.  They can also connect you to resources that can help relieve the pressure.

On the “good news” side, having too much to do means you can afford to be more picky about clients and cases.  Time to cull the herd:

What are your priorities?

Yes, I’m talking to you.

What do you want to make a priority?  Create time that is sacrosanct to tackle what you want to get done by blocking out time on your calendar.  Treat this time as if it were a client appointment – take no calls, do not read email.  Stay off the Internet unless the task at hand involves being on the Internet.  Give the matter your undivided attention.

Multi-tasking is for the birds

Or rather, the bird brains.  Literally.  It’s just about the worst thing you can try to do.

The idea that we can juggle ten things at once is a myth – we simply can’t do it.  Here is one of the better explanations I’ve read about why multi-tasking doesn’t work.  It was the inspiration for this post.  If you want to do something well, not start over ten times, remember it afterward, and get finished sooner, then single task!

You can control client expectations

Learn to shape and manage client expectations – from the very simple (availability by phone, ability to accommodate unscheduled appointments) to the more complex (meeting client deadlines).  The Professional Liability Fund (PLF) offers sample client brochures that explain office and billing practices.

Give yourself a break with this easy time management technique

Form a new habit for 2017.  Check your calendar first before making a time-related promise to a client.  If there is no “deadline” per se, determine when you can reasonably fit the project into your schedule.  You gain nothing by promising a quick turnaround if you can’t keep your word.

In a pickle? Triage!

If you’re in a pickle – a deadline is approaching and you know you can’t meet it – start triaging.  Call your client.  Call opposing counsel if necessary.  Negotiate a new due date.

I know facing up to deadlines is hard.  I also know many lawyers hesitate to call their clients or the other side because they fear being yelled at.  Know this: your clients and the other side are far more understanding than you give them credit for.  Everyone has been there.  They get it.  It turns out that waiting is not really that big of a problem ninety-nine percent of the time.  And if you need support making these kind of calls, just give a ring to the nice folks at the OAAP.

Get back in control

Getting help may be just the ticket to get your workflow back in control.  Consider temporary staff or a contract attorney.  Questions?  Call your friendly practice management advisor at the PLF for help.

Leaving early?  Good for you!

Last but not least, ditch the guilt of leaving early – it is your well-deserved reward for good planning and efficient work habits.

All Rights Reserved Beverly Michaelis 2017

Postscript

Have I given this advice before?  Absolutely.  But a reminder never hurts.  Especially if you know, as I do, that we all feel discouraged from time to time.  Never forget: you can start over and you can make a change.  Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Rural Law Practice – An Essential Need

The day after Christmas the following headline caught my eye on Twitter: Lawyer Shortage In Some Rural Areas Reaches Epic Proportions.

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As it turns out, the tweet was about a report on NPR that profiled a lawyer in Nebraska who travels 500+ miles a week visiting clients.

But this isn’t just a Nebraska problem, and it didn’t begin in 2016.

The lack of rural lawyers has been highlighted right here in the Pacific Northwest:

How are states addressing this unmet need?

The lack of rural lawyers has real access to justice implications, as reported in April of last year.  (Legal Aid holds Oregon’s first virtual legal aid clinic to help address the disproportionate ratio between legal aid needs and available legal aid attorneys in the state’s rural areas.)

The NPR piece points out that some states, like North Dakota, Iowa and others, send law students to rural firms for summer internships. South Dakota gives a stipend to lawyers working in under-served areas. Nebraska (the home state of the lawyer featured in the piece) is recruiting high school kids to become rural lawyers.  Each year, 15 high schoolers get a tuition scholarship and future admission to the University of Nebraska Law School.  Utah, Colorado, Texas, Vermont, and Wisconsin are trying to tackle the problem too.

Back here in Oregon

Oregon is working to draw attention to this need and offers the Rural Opportunities Fellowship Program through the OSB Diversity and Inclusion Department.  The fellowship allows continuing law students to explore summer legal opportunities with public employers and non-profit organizations in rural Oregon (defined as anywhere along the Oregon coast, anywhere east of the Cascade Mountains, or anywhere south of Roseburg. Other areas of Oregon are considered on a case-by-case basis).

Ask Any Practice Management Expert

And ask any (aged? experienced?) practice management expert – we have been telling young lawyers to consider rural law practices for over 20 years.  The suggestion began with my excellent colleague, Carol Wilson, and was carried forward by myself and Dee Crocker.  If you don’t want to listen to us, then consider this: legal marketing trends show that 71% of people looking for a lawyer think it is important to have a local attorney.  If you want clients, put the Tim Brouillette’s of the world out of business.  (Tim is the Nebraska lawyer who travels 500+ miles each week to visit clients.  No offense Tim, but if we can get lawyers to set up shop closer to where the need is you won’t need to travel so much.)

Something tells me Tim won’t mind….

All Rights Reserved Beverly Michaelis 2017

My Desk, My Enemy

Desks are the pedestals of our productivity. How we organize the stuff on them has a big effect on how well or if we get things done in a timely fashion. But just as important as these practical concerns is the impact it has on our mental health.

While researching content for a presentation, I came across this older post: My Desk, My Enemy: 6 Helpful Ways to Get Organized.  Written by Dan Lukasik and published at Lawyers with Depression, it contains helpful information that remains relevant.

Organizational Style

Dan begins by describing the four organizational styles identified by Kelly Lynn Anders in her book, The Organized Lawyer:

Stackers organize by topic in stacks. They are visual and tactile and like to give the appearance of order. The busier these people are, the more stacks they have.

Spreaders are visual like stackers, but must be able to see everything they’re working on.

Free Spirits keep very few personal belongings around the work area. They like new ideas and keep reports, books, articles and magazines near.

Pack Rats have emotional ties to things. They like the feeling of fullness around them and like to tell stories about what’s in the office.

These categories are insightful, and describe a fair number of people I’ve worked with. But they fail to recognize what happens when a lawyer is depressed, depleted of energy, and has no motivation to get organized.  Dan calls this “the depressed desk:”

When a lawyer has depression, motivation and organization are BIG problems. A lack of energy blunts motivation. We already know that it’s a good idea to keep our desk together, but there simply isn’t much neurochemical juice to get it done….

We must outfox depression. It would have us do nothing. So we must do something. 

Dan’s Six Simple Solutions [Abbreviated]

  1. Get rid of all those pens. Only keep three or four.
  2. Take home any books that you don’t use on a regular basis. [I would add: do the same with magazines and legal periodicals. Create a “free spirit” space at home if this is your organizational style.]
  3. Hide cords – use twist-ties or coil your cords up.
  4. Only keep on your desk what you need for that day. Then section off your desk and workspace so that everything has a specific space.
  5. Have a dump day.  Pull everything out, put it in a big pile, sort, and toss.
  6. Schedule a date and time to clean your desk.

Read Dan’s original “six simple solutions” here.

Parting Thoughts

It’s easy to be skeptical of simple solutions.  How could tossing excess pens or hiding cords possibly help?  What difference does it make to clean off my desk?  

Trust me, it helps.

  • Eliminating clutter reduces stress and anxiety.
  • Organizing and prioritizing gives you back a sense of control.
  • Compartmentalizing allows you to plan for what you need to do and when.
  • Freeing up space allows you to breathe, think, and work.

You owe yourself, and you deserve, a pleasant work environment.

If you are a lawyer with depression, consider following Dan’s blog and connect with one of the confidential attorney counselors at the Oregon Attorney Assistance Program.

[All Rights Reserved 2016 Beverly Michaelis]