Monthly Archives: January 2011

Attorneys in transition attract clients with alternative billing

J. Nick Augustine J.D. is the principal of ALR/PRA, Inc., a full service law practice management agency.  He advises and assists attorneys in transition in public relations and marketing, and also shares recruiting and staffing experience and tips for legal job seekers.

I have a colleague and friend who recently shared a unique model for billing clients who are short on money.  While some say there are no clients, others understand that there certainly are people in need of legal services, but they don’t have as much money for legal fees.  As a result of budget constraints, many would-be clients are going it alone, using self-help resources instead of hiring the attorneys in transition.

To attract the clients on limited budgets, consider developing an alternative billing and fee structure.  Allow clients to budget for legal expenses instead of living in fear of the growing invoices they expect from attorneys using traditional law firm billing practices.

Always perform a reasonable amount of due diligence when taking on a new client who has expressed financial concerns.  This is a red flag for many attorneys and when business is booming, most clients who report financial trouble are often redirected to bar associations for referrals.  Be careful when representing clients to whom you extend any type of credit – nobody likes the free lunch and bar complaints can be common from clients who received a discount on legal services.

Fixed-price fee schedules are an effective way of setting reasonable expectations for traditionally hourly-billed services.  Many routine processes and pleadings can be priced (based on value, time and complexity) so that a client knows what certain options will cost.  From a strategy perspective, a client may think twice about litigating certain issues and settle when they know what a protracted hearing will cost.  Don’t forget to think ahead and build in language in your fee schedule and engagement agreement so that non-routine events are still billable on an hourly basis when necessary, such as when you have an opponent who buries you with an exceptional amount of pleadings and discovery requests.

Fixed-price fees are common among transactional attorneys and the small and midsize firms have attracted budget conscious clients, particularly in the commercial business client space.  Consider taking a fixed-price item and allowing a credit-worthy client to pay in easy installments.  When cash flow is important, installment-based receivables, when paid on time (hopefully they pay on time) can reduce the stress of monthly overhead.

Percentage-based payments and extensions of credit may also attract clients who are expecting more money to pay fees in the near future, based on tax returns, year-end bonuses or cash settlements.  You can enter into an agreement wherein the client assumes your standard hourly fees and pays a percentage of the amount based on what they can afford.  In a sense this is a revolving credit account and you should always be mindful of commercial laws addressing attorney client and debtor/creditor relations.

Inside Perspective: Keep Focused

Dan Harper is vice president, corporate counsel and secretary for Océ North America, Inc., a Canon Group Co.  He is also president of the Chicago Chapter of the Association of Corporate Counsel. The views expressed herein are the opinions of the author and do not reflect the position or viewpoint of Océ North America Inc., Canon Inc. or any of the Océ or Canon companies.

Focus:  a point upon which attention, activity, etc, is directed or concentrated;  to fix attention (on); concentrate. Dictionary.com

I often start my column with a definition because it helps me stay focused on the message I am trying to convey.  I am reminded of the need to focus every time I walk into the office and see the pile of papers on my desk and the ever present reminders popping up on my calendar; when I experience the constant interruption of phone calls and walk-ins.  What do I have to do today to stay focused on the tasks at hand?   However, the concept of staying focused begs an even larger question – What is the goal upon which my efforts should be focused?

We can have no focus unless we have clearly defined goals.  How can one define tasks upon which to focus when one does not have goals established that allow for a strategic setting of tasks to achieve those goals?  In other words, how can you figure out how to get from Point A to Point B unless  you understand the location of Point B.  Once you know, you can map a route to get there.

I am sure that most of you have seen the SMART acronym.  Goals must be:

S = Specific

M = Measurable

A = Attainable

R = Realistic

T = Timely

While the SMART method is useful, I am concerned with goal setting at an even more basic level.  I was vividly reminded of the need to have goals when I was recently in a meeting with a group of volunteers who assist in the leadership of a charitable organization.  Many ideas on programming and how to improve the group were bantered about, all ideas were good, some were excellent!  However, the uninvolved observer might have noticed that the ideas, bright as they were, were also disparate and  non-cohesive in the sense that they did not seem to point to a common interest.  One of the participants finally took a step back and interjected: What is the goal of [our organization]?  We were flummoxed.  All the brainstorming was taking place in a vacuum.

How does this relate to in-house counsel?  Many of us plod through life, day by day, hoping for better, thankful for what we have (as we should be), working hard at our jobs.  We consider a good day (or week), when we give some good advice, help a client out of a pickle, solve a problem, proactively manage the company away from trouble, help a friend, whatever.  The next day is the same thing.  You might call this “surviving” as opposed to thriving.  Many of us are fine with just getting by, others need to thrive.

What do you want out of your career?  Do you want to be a specialist in a particular area of the law?  Are you looking to be the next general counsel of General Electric?  Do you want to strike out on your own and use your in-house experience in the private firm setting?  Are you looking to back down on the ours and spend more time with the family?  Each of these goals demand specialized, differentiated strategies.  The tasks required of one goal do not fit within the scheme of tasks required to achieve the other goals.

When goals are clearly identified, you can develop task-oriented strategies to achieve them.  By knowing the big picture and focusing on the tasks required to get you there, you have purpose.  With each task completed comes a sense of accomplishment, a sense of having done something concrete and worthwhile – because you have inched closer to your goal.

So while the pile of paper may not seem to get any shorter, you can thrive in your career as you accomplish tasks and move forward to your end game.  By focusing on the smaller tasks necessary to the achievement of your longer term goals, you make progress.  Progress in turn brings a sense of well-being.  A cycle is created whereby your goals are affirmed through progress and satisfaction which brings forth more effort to accomplish the next set of tasks and so on and on.  Now – stop reading and get back to that stack of paper…..

“People with goals succeed because they know where they’re going. Earl Nightingale

Leveraging Your Reputation: Get active

Tom Ciesielka is President of TC Public Relations (www.tcpr.net). Tom has over 25 years of marketing and public relations experience, working with individual lawyers and midsize law firms. He is also a former board member of the Legal Marketing Association in Chicago and has spoken at Chicago Bar Associations CLE programs. Reach him at tc@tcpr.net.

Even though you’re busy, you should take advantage of opportunities where you can actively find new clients, instead of waiting passively for someone to request your services.

The following are three ways to proudly represent your firm:

Make a Speech

Speaking engagements are multifold in terms of the benefits you receive from them. First, when you are a speaker at an event or conference, you are revered as the expert. People will look to you as the most knowledgeable on the topic about which you are speaking. You will also have the opportunity to directly interact with potential clients. Being friendly and responsive to questions and comments will demonstrate that you care, which never fails to resonate with people.

Participate in the Community

Nowadays, the world wants to know how you are helping others and contributing to worthy causes. By connecting with members of the community, you give your firm a great reputation. Some firms create a team that participates in charity walks, which is great exposure for a firm’s name. It also is a good way to improve internal public relations, which helps establish external public relations as well.

Put Your Face (and Voice) on the Web

Offer options to your website visitors; they may respond more favorably to video or audio rather than just text. If you decide to include video or audio on your website, do not have it play as soon the page is opened. Rather, give visitors the option of clicking on it to hear your message.

When you think about who your firm is and what it does, you need to think about what you know, offer, understand, supply, or do better than anyone else. So actively seek out clients and opportunities, and more meaningful connections will be made.

Shingle while you search

Tiffany Farber is a solo practitioner who has been practicing law since 2008. As someone who has been through transition in her career, she understands the challenges lawyers in this situation face.

If you find yourself unemployed, like so many do right now, and you have the opportunity and desire to take on clients of your own, then you shouldn’t let nay-sayers get in your way.  Handling cases on your own gives you confidence and the much-needed experience that employers desire in candidates.  I do advise you, however, to really think through your game plan before hanging out your shingle.  There are a lot of mixed feelings out there about attorneys in transition taking on clients, but I think it can be done if you have a plan in mind.

Your first steps:

Your first steps should include setting up your IOLTA and operating accounts with your bank and buying a malpractice policy.  These are very important aspects of any law practice.  If you are planning to have a small, temporary practice think about renting virtual office space so you aren’t tied to a lease.  These arrangements allow you to have an actual Chicago address and access to an answering service.  You can also rent conference rooms by the hour.  Some lawyers have a mobile practice and meet clients in coffee shops and restaurants.  I don’t necessarily recommend this because it compromises your client’s privacy, but it is done.

Marketing:

If you aren’t interested in having a large practice, keep your marketing efforts small.  Focus on one or two areas of marketing instead of casing your net wide.  I recommend making business cards.  For cheap cards, try checking out vistaprint.com.  You may want to set up a fairly simple website, but keep in mind that there are associated costs.  Websites give you authenticity, but word of mouth can be a very successful tool as well.  Attend as many networking opportunities as possible, with your business cards in hand, and tell everyone that you are taking clients.

Case types:

There is a risk that if you take on clients, their cases will involve a great deal more work that you initially thought.  This is the main reason that starting a practice while looking for employment is difficult.   In my opinion, this is a very important issue to think about when you are starting a practice and searching for full-time employment at the same time.  As you know, litigation can take years.  What if you take on some clients and score a full-time job a few months later?  Is it ethical or even permissible for you to just drop a case that involves ongoing litigation?  No.  Think about the types of cases that will allow you to move on once they are completed.  If you write a will for a client or handle a real estate closing, this can take less time than handling a divorce or negotiating a settlement.

Working with another attorney:

Having a relationship with someone who already has a law practice can be another great way to get experience and make some money.  Explain to the attorney you are working with that you are looking for full-time job opportunities.  The attorney may ask you to do some light work like handle a court appearance or do some research for him or her, but you will be getting experience without having to worry about leaving a client high and dry.  If the attorney has more complex work for you to handle, think about your level of commitment before you accept the opportunity.  Remember, if you take on a case, you should not take a job opportunity until you have fully assisted your client.

View From the Classroom: Pre-law education?

Steven D. Schwinn is an associate professor of law at The John Marshall Law School. He is co-editor of the Constitutional Law Prof Blog http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/conlaw/ and he can be reached at sschwinn@jmls.edu or (312) 386-2865.

Law school famously does not require a pre-law background.  Unlike other professional and graduate schools, law school proudly accepts, indeed thrives upon, students of all backgrounds.  We happily take all overachieving comers, whatever their prior field of study, on the theory that sheer smarts in any subject can translate into success at law school.

But why is law school different than, say, medical school?  There may be several reasons.  Maybe the law is less specialized and therefore requires less pre-training.  Maybe it’s fundamentally more accessible to thinkers of all types and therefore can accommodate students with a wider range of educational backgrounds.  Or maybe law school benefits more from intellectual diversity in classroom—that diverse thinking helps us teach and learn the law.

There’s surely some truth to each of these.  Law school is different.  It’s probably less technical and specialized than other professional programs.  It’s probably more liberal and accessible, too.  And its basic social nature—relying, as it uniquely does, on social interactions not just to learn material but also to socially construct the subject—undoubtedly benefits from diverse thinking.

Still, we might learn something from the pre-educational requirements of other disciplines.  After all, there are some basic building-blocks of American law that many of our students don’t know before coming to law school.  Some of these are easy: the basic structure of American courts; the common law method; and basic legal reasoning.  But some are tougher or more nuanced: our legal, social, and political histories; our politics; and our bedrock values—things like due process—that drive so much of our law.  Whether easy or hard, these are topics that we have to squeeze into the law school curriculum (often in orientation), or hope that our students pick up along the way.  Yet they are also topics that we could easily require in the form of some prescribed pre-law course of study.

Pre-law requirements could help ensure that our students come to law school with baseline knowledge—and help ensure that we could assume that baseline knowledge as we work with both beginning and upper-level students.  They could also give us a jump-start on legal education, saving time and space in the curriculum for more advanced study.  Finally, and most importantly, they would help move us away from a view of the law as mere logic (that anyone with raw, undifferentiated smarts can master) and toward a view of the law as experience, history, politics, sociology, values, and all else that makes up our rich and complex field.

Our students need not be pre-law majors; that approach swings much too far the other way.  But some basic and modest requirements for our applicants from all disciplines could bring great benefits.  And we could achieve these without trading on—but instead even enhancing—our justifiably cherished traditions of openness and intellectual diversity.

Who am I?

Bill Wilson spent over 20 years in legal departments at corporations large and small, from high tech to brick and mortar, and is writing about various topics while trying to find that next great career opportunity.

This very simple question should be the start of your job search.  The answers hold the key to building your resume, where to search, and who can help you.  But it’s deceptively simple, in that there are many, many layers to it.  And answering it requires a healthy doses of honesty – with yourself.  Fortunately, as a lawyer, you should be very good at the process, but it’s always harder with yourself.  So don’t try to do it all alone.

On one level, you need to state the facts: I have done this kind of law in the past, I’ve worked here.  But you need to know much, much more about yourself.  Organizations have personalities too, and chemistry is probably the key factor in hiring: the hiring powers ask “do we want to work with this person?”  “What will they add to our organization?”  And they are looking at fit, and so should you.  Some want a particular kind of person; others look for a mix.

I will confess that of my 20-plus years of regular full-time employment in-house, only 14 of those years was I working where I should have been.  I am not a very political person, but I worked five years at a company where politics was played out with live ammunition.  I value integrity above many other factors, but went to work somewhere that did not share that value with me.

Looking back, I probably realized those things in both cases by the time the offer was made, if I had been more rigorous about the process of who I was, and acted consistent with them.  Sure enough, I was more successful when I worked where my personality and the organization’s were in sync.

Take some time with some clean sheets of paper to do some thinking.  Are you a workaholic, or is balance important?  Is money key, or other things? Type A or laid back? Am I a loner or a team player? When didn’t it feel like you were working?  When did you feel valued?  What could you have done without?  Was it people (who change frequently) or was it the institution (that usually don’t) that was the source of your issues or the reason it was great?  What got you excited: was it the products, was it the chance to work with lots of other smart people, or was it that they assumed you knew what you were doing and let you do it?  Lots of rules or no rules?  Many questions.

A word of advice: Get feedback.  Take out old performance reviews and look for the grains of truth.  Ask mentors, past supervisors – and listen.  Don’t forget your spouse.

Armed with these answers, you will write a better resume that paints a more vibrant picture of who you are; narrow your search to organizations that are consistent with you; and probably be happier with, and more successful in, the job you get.

Meet one of our event’s speakers

Katherine E. Hagman is a consultant at Chicago Legal Search, Ltd., and she is one of our speakers at our Wednesday event. She took some time to answer a few of our questions.

What is your No. 1 piece of advice for lawyers going through a career transition?

My No. 1 piece of advice for those going through a career transition right now is to keep a positive attitude. You may feel like you’ve heard this a million times over, but it is vital to your job search and your career.

In this market, rejection is inevitable. Take it in stride, because employers pick up on negativity, desperation and defensiveness about being unemployed. Do not internalize this rejection. Trust me when I tell you that it’s a very tough job market and I see many qualified and talented people applying for the same position, and only one person will get the job. If you are rejected, this does not negatively reflect on your value as a person or as an attorney.

Focus on the positives of the process – getting an interview, a new career around the corner, learning a new skill, meeting new people. Think about what you bring to the table and keep these thoughts at the front of your mind.

How can a lawyer become a better networker?

Being a successful attorney involves skills such as writing, researching, drafting and analytical thinking. These are very important skills, but they don’t always translate into the realm of networking.

Here are a few suggestions to improve your networking efforts:

Expand the pool of people you want to network with. Don’t just think of other attorneys you know who work in law firms – think of other professionals and even friends that might have connections or suggestions for you. Maybe someone has a relative who works at a start-up company and needs an attorney. It’s great to talk to other lawyers to get job leads, but lawyers tend to know a lot of other lawyers and probably get a lot of inquiries already. Expand your networking efforts to those outside of your profession.

Set a firm goal for yourself for people to meet with in a week. Pick a day that you’re going to be in the Loop and tell three people, “I’m going to be in the Loop for a meeting on this date. Would you like to get coffee after?” These face-to-face meetings are vital and will help your contacts keep you in mind.

Be honest about your situation and be direct about what you would like from the people you contact. I think some people are afraid to tell others that they are looking for a new job. Others seem to feel guilty for “imposing” on someone. But these people in your network are your friends and colleagues – they want to help you. Let them know what they can do. Don’t be afraid to ask them to introduce you to a hiring professional or to ask them to give your resume to a hiring contact at their company or firm.

Lastly, but most importantly: Think long term! Don’t just network with the hopes of getting something quickly in return, such as an interview or a job, and then never talking to this person again. Networking is a two-way street, and it’s a long road! Realize that the people you meet today may open doors for you down the road. You are not just networking to find a job – you are connecting with friends and professionals who will be an asset to you professionally for many years. See what you can offer them as well.

How would you characterize the job market right now for lawyers?

Difficult, but much better than this time last year.

From my vantage point, the job market for attorneys in Chicago has improved quite a bit recently. It’s still tough for new grads to land that first job, but for laterals, those with the right type and level of experience are getting more interviews and offers than a year or two years ago.

Many of my clients are hiring and have told me that they are receiving far fewer resumes in response to job postings than this time last year. That is very good news! It’s a good time to be looking for a job, because you are more likely to get results. I think many people will be moving on to new ventures (they have been waiting to opportunities to arise), which means that the firms and companies that are leanly staffed after having numerous layoffs in the past couple of years will need to replace these attorneys very quickly. We are seeing this translate to more hiring and people getting back to work.