The Nuts and Bolts of Trial Practice: What Lawyers Need to Begin Their Own Practice

From Classroom To Courtroom: The New Lawyers' Start-up Kit

By: Ira H. Leesfield
Leesfield Scolaro
2350 South Dixie Highway
Miami, Florida 33133
(305) 854-4900

OutlineI. Preliminary Considerations

A. Statistics:

Nearly half of all lawyers in private practice go it alone.

B. Pros:

You are in control.

You get to choose your clients, to a degree.

You get to make your own professional and ethical decisions.

You have a lot of flexibility -- decide how to use your time.

C. Cons:

Roller coaster cash flow.

Unshared overhead.

No back-up.

Staggering law school debts.

Set up costs.

Lawyer glutted markets.

Need to be both businessman and lawyer.

II. Tips For A Successful Practice

A. Recognizing Need for Realistic Expectations

In examining their lives, lawyers should recognize that no one can have it all. Few of us can simultaneously be star advocates, efficient managers, and ideal marriage partners and parents.

Lawyers' dissatisfaction has many origins. These include (1) a perceived loss of idealism within the profession, (2) poor management practices, (3) the challenge of balancing career demands and family and recreational pursuits, and (4) the inability to recognize self-inflicted stress and to develop a means of controlling it.

Being a lawyer -- especially a solo practitioner -- is not easy. It is a difficult, pressure-ridden job. Society generally, and the profession itself, define success as "winning". This exerts tremendous pressure on lawyers to prevail at all costs. The practice of law is more and more a business, with profit the bottom line.

Conflict, confrontation, and angry or hurt people -- clients or opponents -- are part of our daily lives. In few other professions must every act be considered in light of dire consequences for a client or a possible malpractice suit.

B. Need for Good Management

Poor management practices are a recipe for trouble, particularly in smaller firms and in solo practices.

Law schools teach law, not how to practice or manage a business. They do not really explain the conflict between the practical demands of paying the overhead and the ethical demands of putting a client's interests first in assessing the reasonableness of a settlement offer. There is much more to building a successful practice than buying a legal-form book and running a half-page advertisement in the Yellow Pages.

C. What You Can and Must Do

1. Hire good support staff, delegate freely to competent employees, and invest in technology. Even if this means hiring only one person at first, do not cut corners with inexperienced help. Your staff represents you. You want the best.

On the other hand, a firm does not have to buy the very latest equipment on the market. By staying half a step back, it can be reasonably current at a fraction of the cost. In fact, many solo practitioners find it unnecessary to hire a legal assistant or other staff immediately upon setting up shop. Word processing and lap-top computers allow many new practitioners to set up practice without the immediate need for additional support.

2. Take one fewer case than you usually handle. The quality of your services will improve and so should profitability. It is hard to resist the temptation to take every case that comes in the door, but even at the very start, take only what you can handle, and handle well.

3. Make sure, before you accept a case, that you will be paid and that, if necessary, you can advance the cost of expenses in a contingency case. Plaintiffs' lawyers often have cases that require advancing costs. The bigger the case, the larger the advance and the longer the delay between expenditures and return. If the case loses, it is doubly punishing -- the lawyer loses not just the time, but the costs advanced.

4. Hone your settlement and negotiation skills. Too many lawyers settle the cases they should have tried and end up trying the cases they should have settled. Settlement conferences and mediation are available. It is sometimes cost effective to explore these.

5. Manage your time: don't delay. Procrastination is the enemy of productivity. Write a "to do" list and check your progress at the end of each day. This will help keep you on top of your cases and your management responsibilities.

6. Emphasize quality in rendering professional services.

7. Establish a retirement program early in your career. Failure to do so causes middle-aged lawyers to view the future with apprehension. It also makes it necessary to continue working after you could have retired.

D. Whether an "Executive Suite" for you

A full service alternative for new/solo practitioners.

1. Executive suite firms lease space in a building, outfit it and then rent fully equipped offices with all the services and staff necessary to begin business immediately. The better executive suit arrangements can provide everything a solo practitioner or firm needs to begin practice. One payment includes not only rent but also telephone answering, word processing, secretarial support and reception services, as well as furniture, conference rooms and access to such capital equipment as copiers, facsimiles, telexes, postage meters, typewriters, billing systems, printers, software and computers.

2. Such an arrangement on a short term or temporary basis may be a practical alternative for a recent law school graduate practicing out of home, but needing a high quality, well equipped office in which to meet clients; or for any practitioner who decides to start a solo practice but doesn't want to incur the expenses and hassle of hiring a staff, equipping an office and signing a long-term lease.

3. Some of the advantages of executive suite arrangements are:

a) Flexibility - Executive suite offices allow attorneys to predetermine their operating costs while avoiding large capital investments. By offering flexible leasing arrangements and instant

availability, executive suites permit a solo practitioner to set up an office within 24 hours with a short-term lease.

b) Part-Time Option - Many executive suite firms offer a part-time or business identity plan. Such programs give the attorney a permanent address with phone answering and mail handling services to deal with the attorney's clients. He or she uses and pays for the office and facilities only when they're needed. Solo practitioners often use this part-time approach as a cost-effective method of establishing an office out of the home in which to meet clients or colleagues.

R. Location

1. Remember whatever location you select your area will include not only other attorneys but also residents in many different businesses, such as accounting, court reporting, consulting, and so on. As a result, the opportunities for networking can be significant.

2. Top tier office space. This level provides office space in the best buildings with the most prestigious addresses. (Often such buildings do not rent small suites, so the only access for a solo attorney or small firm on this level may be through an executive suite.) These are also the most costly situations, but may be desirable for those who need or wish to make a high-quality presentation to clients: not usually the case with the beginning new/solo practitioner.

3. Middle tier. On this level the buildings and addresses are less prestigious. Furnishings and decor should be attractive and well-maintained but may not be aesthetically outstanding. The cost for these locations is less, or should be less, than for top-tier operations.

4. Be comfortable with the overall ambience of the space and the residents in the building your select. For example, it may not be appropriate to locate a law practice in a building if down the hall there are 24 salespeople working out of a single office. This is true no matter how reasonably priced the facility may be.

F. Practical Considerations.

1. Need for a library: for some attorneys this is a serious problem. Many lawyers work around this need through access to a friendly law firm's library. For others the solution is the local bar association library.

2. Telephone: answer yourself/by an assistant or answering service? If using a service and the telephone isn't answered professionally, find another firm. Don't cut corners here. For most attorneys, the telephone is the lifeline to new business, existing clients and important contacts.

3. Office: does the shape, lighting, quality, furnishings and sound level satisfy requirements?

4. Services: Make a list of the "services" you provide for your own review. Indicate whether they are performed by the staff, "self-serve" or either. One of the most important services for attorneys is word processing. Make sure your staff meets standards here. Talk to other lawyer residents. Exchange ideas. If you have a receptionist and conference facilities, do they meet high standards? How well do they (and you) receive visitors? How well do your services really serve you.

5. List your equipment and the brands. Is it high-quality? Does its performance meet requirements? It is up-to-date?

6. Does your office environment and decor provide a satisfactory professional image? Will it satisfy clients' expectations?

7. Is building management professional, responsive, on-site? How long have they been in business? Who provides the janitorial service? How often? Who is responsible for cleaning?

8. Is the building suitable as to address, condition and commuting time? Location is considered critical both by clients and attorneys.

9. If sharing space, is your office secure if files or confidential papers are left overnight? Are there other people walking through the suite? Can you lock your office door? Who has keys to your office?

III. Finding Satisfaction In Solo Practice

You must be willing to make the compromises necessary to ensure a well-rounded personal and professional life. Otherwise, dissatisfaction is inevitable in both areas.

A. Put first things first

Consider what is most important to you and your family and make the choices that will ensure it comes first.

B. Emphasize quality of life, not dollars

Money is a means, not an end. Strive to run your law practice -- don't let it run you.

C. Be yourself

In scripting your life, make sure it is yours. You do not have to live up to your father, older brother or sister, or any other paragon. There will always be others who have more money, win more cases. You will never be at peace marching to someone else's beat.

D. Select well-rounded role models

There is a tendency for lawyers to emulate "winners" without first making sure that the personal qualities of these courtroom successes are as worthy of imitation as their legal skills. Legal giants can teach us advocacy skills -- but don't extrapolate from success in the courtroom to success in life.

IV. Dos and Don'ts

A. Do network. Become involved in Bar Groups and Committees. The contacts you make here will help provide the case-flow you need to maintain a successful practice.

B. Do develop good interpersonal skills, including listening, communicating, and negotiating skills. Do not flatter yourself. Learn the valuable skill of listening.

C. Don't accept too many demanding, contentious clients. You may not be able to pick your opponents, but you can generally choose your clients. Some clients will never be satisfied. Any short-term financial gains that appear to justify taking their cases are more than offset by the personal stress -- and possible professional damage -- that may result.

D. Don't demand too much of yourself. Over achievers and Type A personalities gravitate to the legal profession. The compulsive qualities that permit students to excel in law school often adversely affect their mental health later in life. An exaggerated need to excel is no ally to interpersonal relationships or personal satisfaction.

E. Remember no one can have it all. You are never going to win all your cases or achieve success in all other areas of life. What you can do is to keep your practice in perspective.

F. Seek balance in your life so that personal as well as professional interests may prosper.

G. Give every case your best effort so that you can live with your losses as well as your wins.

Reprinted from ATLA's (program title and date), with permission of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America. Copyright Association of Trial Lawyers of America. Further reproduction of any kind is prohibited. For more information, please contact the National College of Advocacy, 1050 31st Street, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20007, 800-622-1791.