To Boldly Go Solo

How do you know if solo practice is right for you?  Do you have what it takes to organize, manage, and assume all the risks of running a law practice?

solo-with-laptop-cropped

As Bill Nye would say, please consider the following:

Independence

Solos get to call all the shots: client selection, case selection, setting fees, choosing a practice location – every decision that goes into running a practice.  The responsibility rests on your shoulders.  Do you find that appealing, daunting but doable, or overwhelming?  If you answer is appealing or daunting but doable, please proceed.

Are You a Decider?

Some people are decisive, others are not.  If you agonize over choices and normally poll multiple friends and family members before making a decision, solo practice will be difficult.

Solos need to make business and practice decisions every day.  Some of these decisions must be made under pressure with little time to reflect. The reward, of course, is that you get to decide.  You have the freedom and independence to use your creativity, knowledge, and skills to solve problems.

Are You a Self-Starter?

Solo practitioners must be self-regulating. Can you get the work out without someone supervising?  Give regular attention to administrative tasks like billing and bookkeeping? It will be up to you to meet deadlines, organize your time, and follow through on details. If you are a good planner and organizer, your solo practice will be successful.

Are You a Marketer?

All lawyers in private practice are expected to develop business, but in a solo practice the pressure is greater.  You’re it.  Can you create your own networking opportunities and business contacts?   Devote time to blogging or updating your website?  Post to social media?  Speak at CLEs?  Write articles for bar publications?  Build business referral relationships?

Financially Speaking

What resources are available to you?  What financial demands and commitments do you have?  Is it possible (or desirable) to apply for a micro loan, regular loan, or line of credit?  Are you up for crowdfunding?  Start by reviewing your expenses, then prepare a start-up and monthly budget.  Read about other business/financial essentials here.

Drive, Stamina, and Work-Life Balance

Can you practice law, run a business, and keep it all in balance with your personal life? Are you strongly motivated?  Healthy?  Is your family supportive of your efforts?  These are all good markers.  Nonetheless, make a plan to care for yourself and manage stress.  If you are looking for ideas or resources, contact the attorney counselors at the Oregon Attorney Assistance Program.  Services are confidential and free to Oregon attorneys.

Final Thoughts

Solo practice requires a lot of time and work, but it also has benefits: no one looking over your shoulder, no pressure to take a particular client, freedom to work in the areas of law that you prefer, and complete flexibility in deciding when, where, and how to work.  Is it a match for you?

All Rights Reserved Beverly Michaelis 2017

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.

neighborhood

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

50 Shades of Green: Building a Profitable Solo or Small Firm Practice

The OSB Solo and Small Firm Section is sponsoring 50 Shades of Green: Building a Profitable Solo or Small Firm Practice on October 30, 2015 at the Oregon State Bar Center in Tigard.

Topics include:

  • Meeting the challenges of a changing legal world
  • Marketing and business development ideas you can use
  • Business planning 101
  • The new equation for lawyer happiness: mobile + paperless + virtual
  • Getting the right things done
  • Increase your profits by spending wisely
  • Legal ethics: technology in law practice

Register at osbar.inreachce.com – search for SSFP15.

Cost: $60 for section members, $80 for non-members. Registration includes box lunch.  Social hour follows the CLE at approximately 4:25 p.m.

50 shades of Green CLE

 

Family Leave for Solos and Small Firm Lawyers

How do solos and small firm lawyers plan for extended leave when a new member is about to join the family?  It can be hard enough to take a vacation!

Fortunately, there are some answers and good resources to draw upon.  (Jump to the end of this post.)  For now, let’s cover the basics.

Colleagues, Conflicts, and Staffing

The best coverage plan entails having a number of colleagues lined up who are willing to cover your cases.  Remember what your parents said?  Safety in numbers!  If one person can’t cover in an emergency, someone else can.  A team approach works best.

By necessity, any lawyers who might work on client matters must be screened for conflicts.  Clients need to be notified anyway about your upcoming leave.  Use this opportunity to get permission to share information for conflict and representation purposes.  (More on this below.)

If you have staff, great!  They are a huge help any time you are away from the office, more so during extended absences.  They will be a lifeline for everyday communication, including screening mail, email, and calls.  If you don’t have staff, consider getting a temp.  Having someone who can cover day-to-day operations brings peace of mind and ensures that nothing falls through the cracks.

How Do I Tell My Clients?

One option is to send a letter or email.  No surprise there.  But is it the best approach?

Most lawyers anticipating family leave have a number of colleagues in mind to assist in covering their cases.  This alone can make writing a letter or email complicated and confusing:  “I’m going to be out of the office, but you can choose from Lawyer A, Lawyer B, or Lawyer C.”  Huh?

Consider picking up the phone instead.  Call clients and tell them you are taking a medical leave and why.  (Of course, you can omit the “why” part – it is personal and technically no one’s business, but most lawyers taking family leave don’t mind sharing this news.)

Have a conversation with the client about what is happening.  Explain your plan, offer a name of a monitoring lawyer (or team of monitoring lawyers), then get consent to screen for potential conflicts and review the client’s case with the monitoring lawyer(s).  If everything is a “go,” make sure the client understands and agrees to temporary representation by the monitoring lawyer(s).  Don’t forget to discuss how the billing and payment piece will work.

If the client does not agree with your proposed arrangement, you may have to disengage and withdraw from the case.  The client will need to find a new lawyer of their choosing.

Confirming Arrangements in Writing

Assuming you call clients to review your plan, sending a confirming email becomes relatively easy:

“As we discussed, I will be out of the office on a medical leave of absence for ___________ (months/weeks).  During my leave, I propose that _______________ monitor your file.  You agree that I may share information with _____________ so (he/she) may screen for potential conflicts of interest. If no conflicts exist, you agree that I may disclose details of your case to ______________________ for purposes of monitoring your file and attending to any legal work that needs to be accomplished while I am out of the office.  If we discover a conflict that prohibits ___________________ from assisting you, I will contact you immediately.

You will receive a separate written confirmation from ___________________ (the monitoring lawyer) confirming the arrangements we have made.

(Describe next how the client will be billed.)

My assistant, _______________, will be available by phone and email should you have any questions while I am out of the office.  (Provide your assistant’s contact information.)

Rest assured I will stay informed regarding the status of your case.  I anticipate returning to the office on ___________.  If for any reason my return is delayed, I will inform you immediately.

(Optional:  Please reply to this email confirming your understanding and agreement to this arrangement.)

Fee Agreements and Paying the Monitoring Lawyer

If your existing fee agreement has a provision informing the client that you have made arrangements for someone to cover your practice in the event of illness or disability you have laid the necessary foundation for using a monitoring lawyer.  The PLF offers a number of fee agreements and engagement letters that incorporate “assisting attorney” language.  For samples, visit the PLF website.  Select Practice Management > Forms, then Engagement Letters.

If your existing fee agreement has a contract lawyering provision – meaning the client has consented to use of a contract lawyer at a specified rate – it is easy to have the monitoring lawyer step into the contract role.  You may bill the client for contract lawyering services according to your existing fee agreement.

Alternatively, clients can sign separate fee agreements with the monitoring lawyer.

More Answers and Good Resources

There are many excellent articles and resources for lawyers planning family leave:

[All Rights Reserved – 2015 – Beverly Michaelis]

Making Money: Maximizing the Business Side of Practicing Law

Law is both a profession and a business. So what pearls of wisdom did the experts at the 2014 ABA TECHSHOW have to say about the business side of law practice? Read on…

How Are We Doing?

  • According to Lexis’s Chris Anderson, over 50% of solos have no accounting software at all. @MrsMacLawyer RT @lawyerist (My 2 cents: true and sadly ineffective – the return on investment in purchasing quality billing and accounting software can’t be overstated.)
  • Law firms used to raise rates 10% a year; now just about 3% says @gnawledge – @Business_of_Law
  • Key Business Challenges for Lawyers [INFOGRAPHIC] – MyCase Blog @nikiblack

Talking to Clients about Fees

  • Calling a client that’s behind on payment is a hard thing to do; manage expectations — says Steve Best of @affinitytech @Business_of_Law
  • Lawyers are not comfortable having conversations about fees (both sides) – feels “salesy” and “confrontational” says @gnawledge – @Business_of_Law

Setting Rates and Crafting Agreements: The Rule of 3

  • Law firm billing discounts are a 1-way street; once you give them, you’ll continue to give them; protect the price – @gnawledge – @Business_of_Law  (My thought: I don’t believe in continually marking down bills.  I do believe in offering early payment discounts.  The client saves money.  The lawyer is paid more quickly.  Win-win.)
  • Rule of 3 in law firm pricing: 1% cut in price = 3% cut in profit – @gnawledge – @Business_of_Law
  • Rule of 3 defined: Attorney bills at $300/hr; 1st 100 is salary; 2nd 100 is law firm cost; 3rd 100 is profit – @gnawledge – @Business_of_Law
  • Bills Out – Money In – #ABATECHSHOW session @PeggyGruenke makes this case for flat fees – @Business_of_Law
  • New meaning for AFA: “appropriate” fee arrangement – @gnawledge – @Business_of_Law
  • The better law firms are at pricing, the better it is for the market – @gnawledge – @Business_of_Law
  • Resources for law firm pricing: LMA Group (Legal Marketing Association) | ILTA. (International Legal Technology Association) @gnawledge – @Business_of_Law

Billing

  • Some firms have 300 billing codes…but just 20 are used. Need to think through codes – @gnawledge – @Business_of_Law
  • Billing codes are gamed; got a cap on one code, the hours get logged in another. @gnawledge – @Business_of_Law
  • Where’d those billable hours go? Right here in the matter management system – @Business_of_Law (Link to LexisNexis FirmManager “Money Finder.”)

Trends and Where to go from Here

  • Litigation finance is a growing trend — several financing companies have raised lots of capital @gnawledge – @Business_of_Law  (My input – this can be a slippery slope.)
  • The Essential Survival Guide for the Independent Attorney: summary here. @Business_of_Law
  • Session Summary: 5 Effective Law Firm Billing Techniques – @Business_of_Law

All Rights Reserved – Beverly Michaelis [2014]