October 24, 2007
For some of you, this tip may be a “well, duh”, but for others this is a huge timesaver.
Microsoft Word has a great feature called autocorrect. You may already be familiar with this — it’s the function that, when you type “teh” it changes it to “the” for you. Here’s something you may not know — you can add things to autocorrect. That’s right — and it doesn’t just have to be one word replacements — you an insert huge hunks of formatted text easily. For example — at the end of all your court pleadings, you have a signature block. This signature block includes a line to sign your name, your name and firm address, as well as the date (generally). By using autocorrect, I only have to type **signature, and then press the spacebar to get by entire, properly formatted signature block in the document. And this isn’t the only correction I use it for.
Here’s how you set it up (in Word 2003):
- Type out the text, properly formatted.
- Highlight the formatted text.
- Go to Tools –> Autocorrect Options.
- In the box labeled “replace with” type your shortcut (i.e., **signature).
- The “with” box should already be filled with the highlighted text.
- Ensure the radial button for “formatted text” is selected (just above the replace and with boxes).
- Click on add.
- Click ok.
Now make sure you don’t use a common term (i.e., don’t use “signature”, use “**signature”), otherwise autocorrect’ll bother you. But this can be a huge timesaver for blocks of text you type on a regular basis. Enjoy.
October 12, 2007
I realize I haven’t posted on here in a little while. The reason I haven’t is because I didn’t feel I had been thinking about forming the perfect practice. I’ve recently come to the conclusion that I was wrong.
What I’ve been thinking about recently is the practice of law in general, and more specifically my role in the system. When I talk about my role, I mean whether or not I should have one.
I don’t really know what drove me to become a lawyer — it wasn’t the money or glory. It wasn’t really to help people (though that was always in the back of my mind as a side benefit). I think it was really for the academic challenge the practice of law posed.
To this end, I loved being a law clerk. 95% of what I did was the research and writing of briefs for my employer. Even when the issue was similar to one I had done before, I prided myself on coming up with new arguments, new perspectives and new ways to win.
Since becoming a lawyer, I do less of that and deal more with the legal process. The basic motions/discovery/legal wrangling provide little in the way of that valued academic exercise. I deal with clients who don’t understand the way the legal process works, don’t understand how the rules of evidence work and can’t seem to understand that they can’t have the perfect resolution to every issue they put before us. I deal with clients who tell me they do understand these things, work with me to come up with a mutually agreeable settlement to their issue, agree to settle the case, sign the settlement agreement with the other side, and then complain that they settled the case.
All these things tend to be frustrating, and frankly disillusioning. While I do understand that this is part of the practice of law — the nitty-gritty parts of litigation go hand-in-hand with the vaunted academic exercise of research and writing — it makes me wonder if the practice of law is really for me.
I’ve realized that these thoughts, these doubts, are part of my thinking about the perfect practice. If your heart is not in it, no practice can be perfect. After all, you cannot serve your clients fully and effectively if you’re just not into what you’re doing.
So this is an issue I need to work out as I try to develop my plans for the perfect practice. I have decided, however, that I will continue posting my other thoughts on developing the perfect practice — even if my thoughts help one other person develop a better practice then writing this is worthwhile. Indeed, even if I don’t help another person improve their practice, then perhaps writing this blog can simply be cathartic. That may simply be all I need, and if so, then that’s perfect…
September 25, 2007
I was talking to the boss the other day, and came to learn something very interesting. The associate I replaced had left for greener pastures. By greener pastures, of course I mean that the associate got offered a job at another firm, a couple of counties away, making significantly more money then here.
The Boss wasn’t going to be able to match the new salary, so he congratulated the associate on the new position and hired me as a replacement.
Well, it was recently discovered that the associate wasn’t heading to the greener pastures he claimed. Instead, he opened up his own practice, not a few counties away, but a few blocks away. This was discovered when one of our clients changed representation to the old associate.
Now the boss isn’t upset that we lost the client. The boss isn’t upset that an associate would leave this practice to open up their own. The only thing the boss was upset about was the lie.
Now I understand the whole “last minute notice” that some attorneys give. I realize that there are firms where, once you give them notice, they say that you can just pack your bags and go that day, instead of the two weeks you gave them. What I don’t understand is the lie. Why say you’re going to do X when you’re really going to do Y? There’s no need. Plus, when you’re really opening your own practice up down the street, your old boss will find out.
What amazes me is how this associate kicked himself in the own ass by doing this. The boss would’ve been willing to send him referrals, possibly let him continue working on some cases as co-counsel or sent him cases outright (with the client’s permission of course), or provided him with some appearance work to help supplement his initial income. Of course, none of these things are going to happen if the boss doesn’t know this is possible. After all, you’re not going to send appearance work to someone in another county, when you know people in your county who can do it.
So by lying about where he was going, the old associate cost himself some business and income when he’s just starting out as a solo, as well as some goodwill and reputation with his old firm. Why? I have no idea.
This is something that I won’t do when I’m eventually ready to set up shop. Why should I lie about my intentions? There’s really no good reason to do so. Even if you think of a good reason, realize that in the practice of law, the truth will come out eventually. Even in a large legal pond (i.e., lots and lots of lawyers), it still ends up being a relatively small community. Plus, depending on the situation you are leaving, if the firm is congenial and supportive of you opening your own practice, you may get some help, in the form of old equipment/furniture/books, forms or just some good old-fashioned advice.
Besides, the perfect practice begins with the perfect transition, and a transition based on lies is not a perfect one.
September 20, 2007
The perfect practice should mean something. What I mean is this: what you do as a lawyer should mean something. Now this varies from person to person — not everyone feels that you need to champion some cause or work for the greater good of humanity with every breath — but it should mean something to you.
I bring this up because it’s a problem I’ve been having at my job recently. As I handled what seemed like my bazzillionith commercial landlord-tenant case, where the goal was simply to stall and let the tenant (our client) stay as long as possible, I realized how little I cared for what I was doing. Sure, it’s important to our clients — the longer they get to stay somewhere, the longer they stay in business (for some clients, like some restaurants we work for, leaving a location is basically the death of the business). It’s not important to me however. I feel like I’m not really doing anything but pushing some papers around and asking for adjournments. Not a great feeling.
So what do I consider important? I’m not totally sure. I’ve yet to find that area of civil law where I can honestly say that I’m doing something important. When I was working in a prosecutor’s office, it was easy to find that. So what am I destined for? Maybe a job with Child Protective Services? Maybe guardian ad litem work for children? Who knows. Maybe I’ll find it in PI work. Whatever it may be, it needs to be important.
September 10, 2007
The more I work for others, the more I realize what won’t fit into my vision of a perfect firm. One of the biggest problems I see with the attorney I currently work for are time management, and client management, issues.
The attorney I work for (let’s call him Boss) spends half his day dealing with clients. Boss is constantly on the phone with clients, or sitting with them in his office. There are no designated “phone call” or “meeting” times. A client calls and they get transferred to him. A client walks in and, while they may have to wait a little bit, they end up in his office eating up his time.
One of the reasons for these constant interruptions (at least based on what I’ve heard and seen) is that Boss charges by the hour. Boss constantly has clients in the office or on the phone asking about bills. While the client bills are “detailed” in their listing of what went on during a period of time, it’s difficult for a client to see the value of some of the services. As a result, Boss ends up spending too much of his time dealing with explaining the bill, when he could be working on their case.
I think this is a good argument against the billable hour. In fact, I think this is one of the better arguments out there. I’ve always dismissed the idea that the billable hour puts you at odds with your client (i.e., the conflict of interest theory) because any billing method does that. Let me explain. Opponents of the billable hour often say the following: when you bill by the hour, your interests are in conflict with the client. This is because your interest is in stretching everything out and being inefficient in your work (i.e., take more time, charge more money). Of course, these opponents rarely see the opposite side of the coin: any flat-fee arrangement (whether or not it’s called value billing) puts you at odds with the client as well. When you make the same amount of money regardless of time spent, it’s in your best interest to come to a conclusion as quickly as possible. Either way there’s a conflict with the client.
The difference is this: when you have some sort of a flat-fee arrangement, your clients know what they’re paying up front, and, usually are paying it up front. The money is earned upon payment, so unlike funds in a trust account, the money is yours. If you charge a flat rate, you don’t have to spend time explaining what every little charge is for.
In the perfect practice, there will be a phone system in place that minimizes the amount of time I will have to spend on the phone. Meetings with clients will be when truly necessary and by appointment only. Most importantly, I will use a billing system that minimizes the amount of time I have to spend explaining my bills to my clients, so I can spend more time working for them.
September 6, 2007
Apple just announced that it’s cutting the price of the 8gb iPhone and discontinuing the 4gb iPhone. Of course, this has the people who bought the iPhone already upset and the people who have yet to buy the iPhone happy. What’s also interesting about this is that it’s basically the reverse of the standard “introductory rate” package. Normally, when someone is entering into a contract or buying consumer goods, any discount is upfront — think of Columbia House DVDs — get so many for $1 and then buy a bunch for $20. In this case, it’s the opposite — pay so much for it now, pay less if you wait and get it later.
Yes I know that prices for electronics eventually fall. But this is different simply because of (a) the timing [the phone only came a couple months ago]; (b) market demand hasn’t slowed down; and (c) there isn’t a new “replacement” technology.
So what can you, the lawyer, learn from the drop in the price of the iPhone? Take a look at your rates — probably not everyone in your target market can afford your rates as is.
Perhaps you’ve been practicing for a long-time and have slowly increased your rates over that time. Your long-term clients have seen the rates climb slowly and steadily and have been able to adapt to the growing costs. New clients may not be in a position to do this. Frankly, there’s nothing wrong with having different rates for different clients. While a large number of iPhones have already sold, there’s a large portion of the market that simply cannot spend $600 on a cell phone. Those who can and are willing to probably already bought the iPhone if they wanted it. Those that can’t may be able to buy it now that the price went down.
I’m not saying that you should always charge new clients less for the same work — it’s not fair to you and it’s not necessarily good business. However, you should look into different aspects — if you do corporate law, you may want to charge small start-ups a little less for some of the upfront/initial work (articles of incorporation, etc…) and develop them into long-term clients. A few years down the line they may be in a better place and able to pay some of your higher fees. A young couple without a family may only need the most basic of wills — charging a little less when they get them may lead them back to you as their assets and family grow, creating the need for more complicated wills and trusts done at higher costs.
If you have a sufficient client/work load as is, then you don’t need to consider this. If you’ve been thinking of ways to bring in new long-term clients to replace ones that may no longer need your services (i.e., businesses that have been sold, clients who have moved or passed away), then you may want to target them at their inception, at a rate they mind easier to swallow.
After all, if Apple needs to drop the price of the iPhone to reach more of their target market, perhaps you do too.
On several listservs I belong to, as well as in occasional blog postings, people say that there is a problem with going paperless. The problem they all see? Long readings on a computer screen. A lot of people have a problem with reading a 45 page motion/brief/case on their computers. I say there are two reasons this isn’t an issue.
First, if reading a document on your computer is such a strain on your eyes, you need to invest in a better monitor. In reality, you probably read a lot on your computer and don’t necessarily notice it. I think that it is more a psychological issue — it seems harder to read a long document online than the NY Times — and the times is a whole lot longer.
Second, just because you maintain a paperless filing system doesn’t mean you have to read everything electronically. A lot of the time, motion papers, discovery etc… will come to you in paper format. That paper is then scanned and electronically filed. Usually, the original papers (minus anything you absolutely have to maintain in original form) are then sent to your client. Well, you can read through things the first time in the original paper format before sending it off to the client. After that, the indexed and filed electronic version of the document will probably suffice for whatever your needs are. I also don’t think that the “reading long cases online” is so much of an issue. So much research is done electronically, and I don’t believe that all these people are printing out cases to read them. Even if you do, you can always print these documents and either (a) save them in a binder or (b) get rid of the copies [I'm sure people believe this is wasteful, but if you're paper-training a dog or have a bird cage to line, these papers could be useful].
So you can have a paperless filing/organizational structure without having to sacrifice the ability to read the occasional document in hardcopy.
August 30, 2007
The firm I’m currently working at is a litigation based general practice firm. Basically, if it’s litigation, we take it (along with the rare transactional matter for our long-term clients). This is a great thing for me — I’m getting exposure to a number of different areas of litigation practice. Of course, this philosophy of taking it all has me thinking about the future launch of my own practice.
When you open up your own small firm, you have to ask yourself — do I want to be a generalist or a niche-ist? That’s right — niche-ist, not specialist (I steer clear of the term specialist because a number of states are considering having “specialist” certifications for different practice areas, a philospohy I’m opposed to for a number of reasons I’ll discuss at a later time).
The answer to that question really comes down to several different factors. First, you have your desired practice areas. You may only want to do estate planning, or criminal defense work, or you may want to practice in a large number of areas.
Second, you have your target location. This can be very important. If you’re planning on running your practice in a small town/isolated community, you’ll probably have to be a generalist — there likely won’t be enough business in a particular practice area to support you. Of course, if you have a working spouse and only want to practice a little on the side while raising kids (or some other situation akin to this), you can probably then get by limiting your practice areas. If you plan on practicing in a large metropolis, then you’re probably better off finding a niche.
Third, you need to consider your future clientele. Who do you want to serve? If you want to serve Fortune 500 companies, you need to figure out what they’re looking for in outside counsel. Are they looking for someone who has a niche practice in commercial litgation, or someone with a practice that does criminal defense, personal injury, commercial litigation, estate planning and elder law, among other things? If you want to serve the poor/underprivileged/disenfranchised, look at the practice areas they’re most likely to need representation in. Large scale commercial litigation, insurance defense and intellectual property law are probably not their biggest concerns.
Of course, what it really comes down to is which of these factors is most important to you. Perhaps you really want to do estate planning — you’ll fnd a location that makes it work and an appropriate target market. You’re from a small town and really want to spend the rest of your life there? You’ll open a practice that provides a broad enough range of legal services to support yourself. You don’t care about money — you’re still that bright-eyed, bushy-tailed idealist out of law school? You’ll open a practice to serve the people you want to help.
The important thing is figuring out which of these factors is most important to you, and defining your ideal practice in such a way that it address all three factors.
August 28, 2007
Today I started a new job at a small law firm. I sat down at my computer and booted up. Apparently, the last attorney to use the computer didn’t like to use folders to organize things. I found nearly 100 files saved to the desktop. This was literally so bad that, when I moved all the visible files to a single folder, 30 more popped onto the screen. I then opened the My Documents folder and saw ~300 files just floating around.
I had to spend about 30 minutes just cleaning this stuff up this morning. Even so, all I managed was to get the files sorted into folders by year, and then install a desktop search client to index all the files, so I could find things when I needed them.
Unfortunately, the people who need to hear my plea are probably the same people who aren’t reading blogs, but everyone:
PLEASE LEARN HOW TO USE FOLDER TREES TO ORGANIZE YOUR FILES (at least in some capacity), and if you know someone who simply leaves all the files lumped in one place, spend some time showing them the benefit of organization. Please.