Be of counsel, keep your own shingle

J. Nick Augustine J.D. is the principal of Law Publicist Communications, an ALR/PRA, Inc. company.  Law Publicist Communications is a public relations agency also offering coaching and consulting.  Nick advises and assists attorneys in transition in public relations, marketing and practice management.  He shares recruiting and staffing experience and tips for legal job seekers.

Attorneys starting their own practice want to be able to build their name and reputation while earning money from “of counsel relationships,” as I will term them.   I suggest anyone looking for of counsel opportunities should first do their research, including a call to the ARDC and the ABA.  Knowing, and being able to demonstrate the finer points of an of counsel relationship, should help you when approaching seasoned lawyers with too much work on their plate.  Here are a few of today’s economic realities we need to consider.

Economic Reality #1:  We are practicing in a rebounding economy where seasoned professionals are cautious when approaching mergers and acquisitions of new associates.  There are two things lawyers generally dislike, turning away clients and terminating employees.  I may get some disagreement on turning away, or referring interested clients, but I doubt anyone enjoys terminating an employee.  Keeping associates with no scheduled work is a realistic concern for many lawyers in solo and small firm practices.  Having another lawyer as a back-up is a great proposition in a rebounding economy.

Economic Reality #2:  You never make more money working for others as you would on your own but bills need to be paid now.  If you establish an of counsel relationship with a firm who has work now but no promise of continuation, you can bring in money today to pay bills while building your own practice.  Along the way, you may just happen to stumble upon your very own client.  If you continue the of counsel relationship you will likely reach a point where the income from your main practice eclipses the value of the work being fed by the of counsel firm.

Economic Reality #3:  The clients who retained an of counsel firm are more likely to be loyal to that firm and won’t send referral clients to you.  If you have and market your own practice the chances of referrals are minimal compared to associates of a growing firm. People will assume the firm who hired you has a solid book of business and is less concerned about client generation. But don’t forget, you have bills to pay now.

Economic Reality #4:  The economy is rebounding, but remember, it will take some time.  If you are set up to accept those clients next year, the setup activity this year becomes well worth your investment.  Remember, an of counsel relationship doesn’t have to dissolve when you are well on your own.  You just might be in the position to hire an associate who you can feed with an of counsel workload.  Consider as well that you might be listed as an of counsel lawyer on another firm’s site.  They will probably keep all the work that comes from their own marketing efforts, but isn’t it nice to be found another place online?

With the caveat that young attorneys should always get help when practicing in new areas, I suggest losing the training wheels and take the solo plunge. The sooner you establish your own firm the sooner your value will grow among your colleges and clients.  Again, get help, don’t practice on your own without having co-counsel and of counsel plans in place.


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