Category Archives: Practice of Law

The Power of Words

This video illustrates not only how the words we choose to use affects marketing, but it affects the way people perceive us.  Choose your words wisely when it comes to marketing.  Choose your words wisely when it comes to drafting documents, talking to clients or other attorneys.  Attorneys are wordsmiths.  Choose your words wisely.

Listen Up – An Easy Way to Show Clients You Care

I rarely get to see other attorneys do initial client intakes because of course, I’m not privy to that sort of communications.  However, I can extrapolate how other people do it but observing how they talk to their clients in court when I’m negotiating with them.  What I’ve seen and found is astonishing.

Next time you’re in court and you’re negotiating with the other side, really pay attention to opposing counsel and how they talk to their clients.  Many times I see attorneys talk at their clients and then when their clients talk back, they start to write on their yellow legal notepad.  The whole time the client is talking to them, it’s just a lot of writing.  Even when they look up at their client, they’re still writing.  Now, writing down notes is important but there’s a time and place for it.  When your client is talking to you, your full attention should be on your client and NOT on taking notes or your notebook.  You can jot down notes later.

Keeping eye contact and reflecting the facial expressions of your client back at them is important in fostering a good attorney-client relationship because it shows the client you care about their case and you also care about them.  Don’t forget that attorneys are in the business of customer service above all else – we just happen to practice law.

What Childhood Cartoons Taught Me About Lawyer Professionalism

From the first day of law school, we are taught the importance of professionalism and ethics in the law.  It is vital that as lawyers, we uphold the highest degree of professionalism.  Each week in Mass Lawyers Weekly we read about lawyers who are reprimanded, suspended or disbarred for ethical violations.  The Rules of Professional Conduct are clearly posted on the Board of Bar Overseers web site , yet sometimes we forget or do not understand some of the key points.  It might help to remember some of these points if we think back to our childhood cartoons, which knowingly or unknowingly taught future lawyers some valuable lessons.  Having grown up watching cartoons in the 1960’s and 1970’s, here is a list of some of the lessons I first learned as a child, well before my first law school Professional Responsibility class:

  • Sam and Ralph, the sheepdog guarding the sheep and the fox trying to get the sheep, taught me that it’s fine to be competitive and try to win, but you also need to be respectful of your opposition. Take a look at this cartoon. It is very entertaining to see the dog and the fox sharing breakfast and being courteous with each other, enjoying each other’s company, but as soon as the whistle blows, they go at it with everything they have.  At the end of the day, they stop their bickering and wish each other well. The Rules of Professional Conduct confirm this.  Rule 1.3 states “The lawyer should represent a client zealously within the bounds of the law.”  Yet the Preamble to the Rules states, “A lawyer should demonstrate respect for the legal system and for those who serve it, including judges, other lawyers, and public officials.”
  • On the other hand, Bugs Bunny taught that you can give someone the benefit of the doubt to begin with, but as a zealous advocate you can’t let yourself or your client be taken advantage of.  If that happens, then as he said, “Of course you know, this means war.
  • Daffy Duck taught me not to be greedy, and not to take things that aren’t mine.  Rule 1.15(c) confirms the obvious: “Upon receiving trust funds or other trust property in which a client or third person has an interest, a lawyer shall promptly notify the client or third person… [A] lawyer shall promptly deliver to the client or third person any funds or other property that the client or third person is entitled to receive.”  If you try to take property which is not yours, your stature as an attorney will shrink to nothing, just like Daffy Duck yelling “Mine mine mine”: Click here, and then fast forward to about the 5:45 minute mark.

I wish they had just shown cartoons in Professional Responsibility class.

What came first – the general practice or the niche?

There are lots of people, resources, blogs and law practice management gurus who will tell you that in order to have a successful law firm, you must have a niche.  I agree with that assertion and it took me my first year in practice to understand that.  However the truth of the matter is that many new solos cannot afford to NOT take every case that walks into their door.  Another truth is that no matter how many times they’re told that they should specialize, it’s one of those things in life that can only be learned through experience and time.

I was asked out to lunch by a solo practitioner today and while we were talking, he said something that made me think of writing this post.  I was talking about how he must have a niche practice.  He commented that first he must have a general practice and take whatever comes in through the door and then, once he made enough money, he can market to a nice practice area.

So the question is, what comes first – the general practice or the niche?  What should come first?

In my opinion, you should form a niche practice from the start but you can also feel free to operate a general practice.  In other words, tell people through networking and marketing that you’re a <insert type of law> attorney but in practice, take other cases.  Don’t operate a general practice with no thought of finding a niche until you’re more successful because you’ll never get there.  Remember, no one looks for a general practitioner.  People look for attorneys that specialize.

Years down the line when you’re looking to expand your solo practice like I’m doing right now, remember that the same niche ideology holds true.  While I’m taking on additional associates to do other areas of law such as immigration and bankruptcy, I will always be a divorce attorney.  The distinction is that I’m expanding my firm without diluting my expertise.

So you’re hanging a shingle – now what? (PODCAST)

I had the pleasure of talking with Attorney Kyle Guelcher on his new podcast show on the Legal Talk Network.  His new show is called New Solo and he’s going to be interviewing guests that will be able to speak about being a new solo or giving advice to new solos and how to practice law.

Exceed Client Expectations Every Time

I’m having central air installed in my office.  The contractors originally told me that it will take 1 week to finish the job.  That was 3 weeks ago and now I’m upset even though it’s 55 degrees outside and I have no need for air conditioning.  The reason why I’m upset is because they have seriously failed my expectations.

I get calls for uncontested divorces and I often get asked the question, how long will it take.  I tell them it takes about 5-6 months.  Some people are shocked and tells me that other attorneys they’ve called tells them it’ll be done in a month or two.  That is simply  not possible because the Judgment Nisi period is 4 months alone for a uncontested divorce here in Massachusetts.  What those attorneys are quoting is simply the time it takes from intake to when the clients get to go to court.  But that wasn’t the client’s question.  The question was when would they be divorced.

As an attorney, how do you make sure that you don’t make the mistake of my contractors or some of these attorneys?  Give clients a realistic and overly conservative estimate of cost and time.  If you’re taking a retainer for a case, and you expect the case to cost $4000, tell them that there’s a chance it might be $8000 or $10000 depending on what happens.  If you think that the case will take 4 months to complete, tell them 4 months or better yet, tell them 6 months.  The worst thing you can do is underestimate your price and time from the beginning because your clients will think that you have failed them if you don’t live up to those standards you first set for yourself.  If you quote them realistically and conservatively, you’ll exceed their expectations every time!

New Rules for Starting a Law Office (a response)

I recently listened to a podcast from the Un-billable Hour hosted by my friend Rodney Dowell.  He spoke with Erik Mazzone from the North Carolina Bar Association about opening a law office, mentorship, StartingOutSolo and marketing.

The thing I wanted to comment on is the segment about new lawyers starting out solo and the quality of their practice and the need for finding mentors.  I know Rodney and I know he would never imply that new lawyers don’t know how to practice law or are incapable of practicing law, but to some listeners, it might have come off sounding like that.

I agree with Erik and Rodney on the importance of finding a mentor but I disagree about where to find those mentors.  It was said that finding mentorship between a group of new lawyers is not useful because it’s like the blind leading the blind.  I disagree with this because new lawyers have experience from either past internships or practice or just learning how to practice law by themselves.  On the StartingOutSolo listserv, we routinely ask simple questions about how to handle a legal situation or if someone has a form for a particular motion.  If someone in the group has dealt with that legal issue before, it doesn’t matter if they’ve been out in practice for 2 months or 20 years, they’ve dealt with it before and now has the experience and the qualifications to share that experience with fellow lawyers.

It also speaks to the erroneously held belief that old lawyers equals better lawyer.  The years of practice correlates to experience and breadth of knowledge but does not equate to a better lawyer overall.  This I have seen in person.  I have litigated against young lawyers who I thought were very good and I’ve litigated against senior lawyers who I thought were very  bad.  As the saying goes, practice doesn’t make perfect, it just makes you consistent.

As to having mentors, I entirely agree that mentorship is important but I don’t believe that mentorship means you can’t or shouldn’t start a practice right out of law school.  This implies that if you were to join a firm, you’d get supervision and mentorship – which could or couldn’t be true.  I know lots of big firm lawyers, first year associates, that hardly get any mentorship.  They get thrown case research or motions to draft but no direction.  They talk to the senior partners only when getting new assignments or presenting their work.  So these new associates look to not the senior partners, but other associates – 2nd or 3rd year associates.  This is no different than StartingOutSolo members asking each other for help.

Living in the information and technology revolution means that not only is marketing a solo practice easier than ever before, but it also means that finding mentors and legal information is also easier than ever before.  Many new solos join Solosez or other association of lawyers that will gladly speak with them by email or otherwise.  It’s not the traditional method of mentorship where new lawyers follow more seasoned lawyers around all day or see them in person, but it is no less helpful.  My first divorce trial, I spoke with a more experienced divorce lawyer that I met online and I spoke with her and picked her brain for over 2 hours to prepare for trial.  She was a one-time mentor but was nonetheless a mentor.

The bottom line is this – the information/technology revolution has opened up the world to so many more options from every aspect of life and business.  It has done the same for the practice of law.  There is no longer one way to open a law firm.  A myriad of ways exists and are just as valid.  The key, and this hasn’t changed from the old guard, is dedication, research and drive.  Have a goal, don’t stop until you reach that goal, and always do your homework.

How do you learn to be a lawyer?

You don’t learn it from law school, that’s for sure.  As all new attorneys know, law school only teaches us how to think like a lawyer and teaches us the theory of the law.  It doesn’t teach us how to practice law and it sure doesn’t teach us the business of law.  Some people are trying to change that but it’s a hard and uphill process to try to change an establishment.

You need a mentor – that’s what everyone tells you when you graduate and you’re trying to learn the practice of law.  You need a mentor to show you how to write  a motion, how to format filings to court, how to comply with specific court rules, etc.  As graceous as I found some attorneys were when I first started, it was hard to go to someone all the time and ask what I thought were silly questions.

The StartingOutSolo listserv is a great place to start in asking questions.  We feel free to ask silly questions  because we’ve all been in that situation.  Another place that helped me immensely when I first started was Solosez.  It is a listserv by the American  Bar Association.  You do not need to be a member of the ABA to join the listserv.  Solosez is a listserv of attorneys from all over the country and they will answer any questions you might have on anything related to the practice of law.  Another listserv that I subscribe to is MassForum.  MassForum is very similar to Solosez but instead of attorneys from all over the US, it is confined to only members of the Massachusetts Bar.  I usually post questions I have to both listservs to get more than a couple of opinions and hopefully forms to help me.

If you do sign up for Solosez and/or MassForum, it would be a good idea to create a separate email account just for the listserv because they generate hundreds of emails a day and if you don’t have it separated from your regular inbox, you will soon find it unmanageable.  I recommend using Gmail for the separate email because of Gmail’s sorting and archiving features.

In lieu of having a real mentor, I turned to Solosez and MassForum when I first started.  Without them, I think I would’ve been lost for far longer than I had hoped.

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