Sunday, January 28, 2007

How I Went Directly Into Solo Law Practice.....

In 1981, I was in my third and final year of law school. I suspect most law students envision themselves actual attorneys only in the abstract, if they think about it at all. Not me, my picture was vivid. I would be a country lawyer in the City, sitting back at my desk, calm and cerebral, taking in all the facts and solving real problems for real people. Practicality for fun and profit.

Fellow students didn't talk about practicing law, only about getting into a firm and making partner. I listened intently and spoke little. The first inkling of a problem came during my second year at the University of Texas Law School. Park Avenue and Wall Street firms recruited on campus. I interviewed with 20 firms, each time it was like a bad blind date. I wondered if they hated me as much as I hated them. Easy question to answer, I never got a call back.

During my second year, I took a part time job at Montague & Smith (* all names are fictitious, all stories are true), a small Austin law firm. My first day on the job, my first assignment: Mrs. Peterson was a 50 year old woman with cerebral palsy who my boss, Joe Montague, had represented on her two divorces. He told me this client was physically handicapped but mentally functional, she was a decent client who paid her fees, so he wanted me to solve her present problem, some kind of insurance question. He wasn't sure exactly what it was because he couldn't understand her over the phone. He said to drive over to her house, straighten it out, and keep track of my time so the firm could bill her. I loved it, a mission.

Mrs. Peterson spoke loud and slurred. We walked slowly to her dinette table and she showed me stacks of papers. The whole situation was a mess....two years of Blue Cross claims unsubmitted, rejected, and neglected. Claim letters and lawsuits from doctors. No recollections, wrong recollections, misinformations. This was not a case that required any research, just plain talk, patience and persistence. I was in my element. I was a big hero at Montague & Smith when that situation got resolved, mostly because I saved anyone else from having to deal with it. They were paying me $10 per hour, and billed $100 per hour for my time. In my book, they were the greatest.

Still thinking I wanted Park Avenue, I left Texas after two years to attend Fordham Law for my third and final year. I got another part-time job with a solo practitioner named Fred Shulman. He handled mostly accident cases, plus other wacky stuff. My first assignment there, and representative of the flavor of the place: Fred's client owned a bar which was a known drug dealing location. It was about to be closed down by the Liquor Authority. The liquor license was almost suspended, and Fred had brought a proceeding to stop the suspension while the case was being reviewed. My assignment was to review the records and write something to convince the liquor authority to let him keep his license. The problem was, undercover agents had recorded many conversations of people asking the owner where they could find "Joe with the good blow", and the owner had consistently directed them to his back office. I asked Fred how we could possibly overcome this, and he said we couldn't but we had been paid to buy some time to keep them open through Christmas season. Working on a case you are supposed to lose is very relaxing. I loved working for Fred. Park Avenue firms started to lose their appeal.

Meanwhile, I was still in law school. More awkward interviews. This time I did get two call backs, one from a firm who defended accountants in malpractice cases, the other from a firm doing surety law. To this day I don't know what surety law is. Tight job market then too, no jobs at the District Attorneys office or even at legal aid. No jobs, but no panic, just an idea gnawing at me. I WANT TO OPEN MY OWN LAW OFFICE. Fact is, I had no money, no contacts, no clients, and no clue how to do this. So I sat down with the Placement Director at Fordham, "It is an unusual idea.", she said, then added "Statistically only about 3% of graduates nationally do that, and I've never heard of anyone in New York." She looked down, sorry that she had disappointed me. But she hadn't. I stood up, hesitated, and said too fast and too loud, "You mean, people actually do it? 3%? Are you sure?" She replied, "I don't know, I mean I never, I'm sorry, but wait a minute" She fumbled around in her desk while she spoke "I heard about a book.....I don't have it....I haven't read it....but I saw an it is, it's by a guy named Singer, take a look at this, you could probably get it at Barnes & Noble".

There it was, an ad for "HOW TO GO DIRECTLY INTO SOLO LAW PRACTICE, WITHOUT MISSING A MEAL", by Gerald Singer. 15 years later the trip to Barnes & Noble is a trail of smoke and dust. I flew out of her office, off on another mission. Found the book in the back of Barnes & Noble, a bright blue cover amidst the real law books. To buy or not was not a question. I started flipping through, thinking "I can't believe somebody wrote this book and I found it!" "Geez don't read it all right here. Read it on the way home."

I got a seat at 14th Street in the City and dove into the book. The F train is an express in Queens and it flies. Queens Plaza, then Roosevelt Avenue where I'm supposed to change for the local. When I looked up I was in Jamaica, five express stops past Roosevelt, heart pounding. This could actually work! This guy figured out how to go right into practice in Los Angeles. His plan was brilliant, but it would work even better in New York. I KNEW it.

Although my law office officially opened a year later, the day I was admitted to practice, I wanted to get started. That day I started a subscription to the New York Law Journal. This is a daily newspaper for New York lawyers. Besides articles about law, it also has a huge classified section, filled with ads for jobs, part-time jobs, offices, situations wanted, business opportunities, seminars, and court calendars. I started reading the Law Journal every day, still do. It keeps you in shape for daily practice. It should be read carefully and with feeling, like its the most important thing you can do for yourself. The law journal is the business transformer for entrepreneurial lawyers, you just have to plug in.

I hooked up with the Law Journal and set in motion the strategies of "How to Go Directly into practice....". In a nutshell, the idea is to find a time for space arrangement for an office, including referrals of legal work and cases. Next, introduce yourself to other lawyers in the same suite and in the building and get legal assignments and referrals. If that didn't get you busy, knock on doors in the rest of the building. Then, send announcements to every person and entity you've known in your whole life. Add in your own creativity and don't look back. You could also get on some referral panels, do a little advertising (if you have any specialized knowledge), and otherwise think like a businessperson with a valuable product to sell.

The next call after the law journal was to Fred. I told him my plans and asked if he'd let me work part-time once I was a lawyer. Money was secondary, I knew I'd need him for advice when real clients and cases came in. He was on board from the start. I used to call him all the time. Some of my best days now, 24 years later, are when he calls me with a question. I'd drop anything to take a question from Fred.

Still in school, I saw an ad in the Law Journal for a company called "Educated & Dedicated". I don't remember their exact ad, but it was basically "our clients need a messenger who can figure out what to do when they get there". The description was accurate. One of their clients was a company called "Federal Document Retrieval", who sent me to copy files at various places in New York, mostly the Federal Courts. Their clients were big law firms all over the country. I even made a few runs to the Federal Archives in Bayonne, New Jersey. "E&D" always wanted me to call them directly, never their clients, but one day I was stuck in Bayonne and couldn't find what their client wanted. Nobody at "E&D" knew what to do, so I called Suzanne at Federal Document Retrieval directly. We got the info straight, and she started asking me about myself, and I briefly told her my life story. She asked me to talk to her boss Doug, the owner. He got on the phone, had me re-tell my story and then asked "How would you like to be our exclusive agent in New York?".......and from then on I was.

I passed the bar exam on the first shot, and accomplished every law students dream, making partner in one day. Now the firm needed an office, and furniture, and telephones, and other trivial details like paying clients. My first office was located through an ad in the Law Journal, time for space with an attorney named Richard Herman at 299 Broadway. This was the deal: I paid $100 per month for a space which was actually the reception area for an insurance broker. I used to point inside to the brokers office and mention that my office was under construction "in there". My space included a desk, chair, file cabinet, and use of the library, copy machine and refrigerator, down the hall in Richard’s suite. Putting my sandwich and juice in that refrigerator was a big perk. Richard's 6 office law suite was down the hall, each office occupied by a different solo practitioner. Richard also had many "cases in progress" to refer, and the deal was 50/50. I soon found out that "cases in progress" meant cases he had signed up at various points in history and done nothing about. Those were the good ones. The bad ones were the ones he had worked on and made worse. I had a pretty good idea which cases to work on first, the ones with a chance to generate some money before too long. Also ones I had some idea how to do. Actually, some of these matters needed a phone call or two to resolve them. Like a five year old car accident case with no injuries, just a property damage claim. I think the client had forgotten about it and was thrilled when I called with news of his $1200 settlement, 1/3 to the lawyers was $400, which should have been $200 to me. But it was a little less because Richard took back his $35 in disbursements which I felt funny taking from the client. First lesson in high finance, never underestimate small-mindedness. Richard had been in practice 40 years, probably had more money than anyone could need, but made toast in his office toaster oven, adding jelly from an unmarked jar. One day I discovered his secret jelly source, spotted him scooping little packets of diner jelly into his private stock.

Most of Richard's cases were salvageable, and despite his idiosyncrasies he did help me build a client base. His referrals became very loyal to me, he never missed them and I never felt badly about it. I also had some other business building ideas. I sent out over 500 announcements to a list of friends, acquaintances, relatives, and people my mother suggested. You'd be surprised at how willing people are to hire a lawyer with no experience. Based on years as a clientologist, I now understand the psychology of this seeming folly:
people want a lawyer who has time to give their case attention, and who is affordable (a skeptic would say "cheap"). I had some decent work within a few months, directly from these announcements. Some collection cases from my friends Dad, a "deathbed will" for my cousins friend (which soon turned into an estate), an uncontested divorce referred by my family doctor.
Every one of Richard's suite mates had work for me. Some outright referrals, but court appearances on civil cases mostly. Never having been to court before, this was on the job training. One of them sent me to Housing Court. What a place! Hundreds of angry people doing the same mad dance hour after hour, every single day. Those are the lawyers and Judges. The clients, both landlords and tenants, don't dance much. They scream, at each other and at their lawyers. In Housing Court I first noticed something about the court system, and it applies to most types of courts, when there are more cases than any courthouse could possibly resolve, something must be done to finish all the cases. That something is providing both sides with an incentive to settle. In Housing Court every case gets conferenced and both sides are given options they don't like. If both sides agree to be unhappy, but sign an agreement nevertheless, you have a stipulation of settlement (called a "stip") and the court is happy. One of the things court personnel are always yelling is "Any stips? Why don't you just stip? C'mon, stip and you can get outta here!" If one side or the other doesn't want to stip, something bad is likely to happen. For a landlord, his case will be adjourned week after week while his tenant lives rent-free, and when the case finally comes up for trial his papers will be technically defective and his case dismissed. "And if you don't like it appeal, and off the record, you shoulda stipped to giving the tenant three months free in exchange for his leaving." Tenants get hammered too. If they don't stip as suggested they can get an immediate trial, and lose.

There seemed to be two kinds of lawyers in Housing Court, ones who didn't seem like "regulars" and were either screaming at their clients, screaming on the phone, or doing a stumble-mumble combo. The "regulars" seemed to float above, gliding from room to room, getting their stips working in the morning like short order cooks, and winning trials all afternoon against the irregulars.

I thought the Housing Court scene had some potential, primarily because I couldn't imagine experienced lawyers going there by choice, though it would be a good thing to boost my practice. I did a few things to get in the game. I asked all the lawyers in the suite specifically for Housing Court appearances and referrals, and took a continuing ed seminar on Landlord Tenant law. I also put an ad in the Manhattan Yellow Pages. $6 per month special introductory offer for a listing under the specialty listing "Landlord-Tenant" under the general heading "Lawyers". Since it was Manhattan, I was pretty sure there would be competition, but I would available and ready, and for $6 a month ($72 for the first year) how could it lose? When the book came out there were only five lawyers listed there! I got some calls and some real cases, not overwhelming, but decent stuff. I was surprised that many of my calls were landlords. You might think that all landlords have lawyers "on retainer", which it turns out is rarely the case, or that landlords as "business-people" would not resort to the yellow pages to find a lawyer. You might be right generally, but one of the great things about New York is that even a small percentage of such a large group is still a lot of folks. One of my landlord yellow page calls turned into my first law story......

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