Monthly Archives: December 2012

Learn from your year in review

Nick Augustine is a freelance writer, broadcaster, publicity and marketing strategist and he teaches SEO and social media. Nick writes legal industry columns for Chicago Lawyer magazine regarding business and career development. Nick is an alumnus of Marquette University and The John Marshall Law School, where he is an active alumni board member. @NickAugustinePR, @APIFCharity and Augustine Legal PR.

We all enjoy a good year in review to measure our progress. If you are an attorney growing your career, pause and ask yourself a few questions: (1) Do I know more law and procedure than I did last year? (2) Do I know more people than I did last year? (3) Did I make a mistake from which I gained experience? (4) Am I happy to work in law?

If you answer all these questions and know that, only you stand in control of your future, be happy and celebrate closing out another year!

(1)    In any career, we gain experience one day at a time, one project and one case at a time. In law, clients often present facts and issues that make us want to stop and scratch our head. I know a few attorneys who seem to be magnets for the bizarre cases involving some dynamic clients and the cast of characters they bring to the litigation table. Stop and identify some of these experiences and wonder how and when your experiences could be relevant later on. You just never know when some otherwise benign experiences could be important when you least expect.

(2)    I hope you were diligent in attending as many networking events as possible. The most unlikely events and groups can yield incredible returns. Who did you meet this year? Are you keeping in touch with this person? Did you connect with this person in your social networks? Did you drop them a note about an upcoming event? I hope that you can report that you know more people this year than before and if you cultivate relationships, you will be open for new opportunities.

(3)    Mistakes are assets. When you make mistakes, you can learn from them and value the experience points. The people who do everything correctly (so they think) miss the opportunity to grow from failure. Critical thinkers know what can go wrong if they already experienced the negative sides of decisions. I think that all my failures and bad decisions are assets in my set of tools to give great service with the benefit of experience. Embrace your experience.

(4)    Why did you go to law school? If you are happy working in law and feel like you are making other people’s lives better through practice, then you should be glad. Face it, most people lack the education and experience to successfully navigate the legal system and serve clients with positive outcomes. Put the salary and benefits aside and focus on the clients who relied on you to their benefit. Be glad if you made a difference.

At the end of the day, life is a big mixed back of challenges and tricks. The more you know yourself, the better you can decide where you want to be and how you choose to live. Embrace your year in review!

The world and bad publicity didn’t end

Tom Ciesielka is President of TC Public Relations (www.tcpr.net). Tom has more than 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 is on the Public Affairs Committee of the Chicago Bar Association, where he has spoken at CLE programs. Reach him at tc@tcpr.net.

Dec. 21 is long gone, and the world didn’t end, as the Mayans supposedly predicted. Even though that day is history and people have continued their routines, I still think the topic is interesting, especially when attorneys are involved. I read about one attorney in the article “UFO lovers, light-seekers and lawyers await Maya end of days”, by Alexandra Alper, who got caught up in the hype because she traveled to Mexico from Brazil to see how the world would change on that day. She seemed sincerely inspired and impressed when she saw people meditating around her, and the other participants were excited, too.

I can understand why people would want to go there, especially if they’re younger and want some kind of adventure, but I was surprised an attorney would take the event so seriously. Once her pilgrimage was over and she went back to Brazil, what did her clients and coworkers think? It seems like it would tarnish her professional image, not just for believing what others were calling a “hoax,” but whom she was hanging around with as well. Some people were expecting UFOs there, and others saw this as part of their lifelong quest. Since the attorney was quoted along with the others, it didn’t really add up to good publicity for her. Instead, attorneys should be associated with credible people to have a good public image.

An example of negative associations can be found right here in Chicago with the Drew Peterson trial. His attorneys have publicly battled each other with charges of unethical conduct and mishandling of the case. The most recent incident is calling the police over a threatening email. At this point, with all the media coverage of that case and the attorneys’ problems with each other, their reputation has certainly suffered. When it comes to publicity, a good public image should be the goal, not publicity for publicity’s sake.

It’s important to make sure that your reputation is solid, and if anything is going to be shared publicly about a case or your firm, get approval, and find out if there are any people or situations involved that may cause problems. For instance, if a reporter wants to quote you or someone else at your firm, find out if you are allowed to talk and how much you can divulge about a case. Afterall, you shouldn’t become guilty by association or do something that will make you look bad.

Create a client-friendly billing culture

Kyle Woods of Supreme Financial Management and Robin Iori of Iori Communications are members of the The Law Firm Consultants Network (LFCN).

The Law Firm Consultants Network (LFCN) recently held a breakfast panel on law firm collections practices. Titled, “Show Us the Money,” it featured several professionals who work in the legal industry. They were: Angie Hickey of Levenfeld, Pearlstein LLC; Bob Markoff of Markoff Law LLC; George Mangan of DeWitt Stern; and Elizabeth Lindberg of the Illinois Department of Employment Security. The panel was moderated by Marv Siegel of Premier Professionals International.

All of the panel members, who represent dozens of years of experience in the legal industry, agreed on one point: the collections process really begins at the start of the client relationship. Every client relationship must have an engagement letter that spells out the payment expectations for that client. If possible, the letter should be updated on an annual basis as the relationship continues.

While this was questioned by a few of the law firm administration professionals attending the event, it was still agreed as the safest way to avoid collections issues, especially with those clients that a firm has had for multiple years. Of course, going back to get an updated engagement letter with those clients for which the firm has been working for 25 years can pose a challenge.

In addition, the creation of a “client friendly” billing culture is a must. From the client side, addressed by Ms. Lindberg, the three words for law firms to remember are “communicate, communicate, communicate.” The most effective way to increase a firm’s realization rate is to keep the client updated on any and all lawyer activity. Clients should not see the amount of time spent on a matter for the first time on a statement.

Two more tips: Don’t “block bill.” Clients want law firms to list separate line items on statements. And don’t practice “catch-up billing.” Clients have budgets, too. And they do not want three months of billing jammed into one statement.

From the law firm perspective, Hickey described her firm’s process. They allow an attorney 30 to 60 days to collect an account. Then it is turned over to the collection department at the firm. This enables the client to discuss the billing issue with someone other than the billing attorney, which is often more effective. Clients of her firm may also pay by credit card or be set up on a monthly payment plan.

Hickey noted that lawyers at Levenfeld, Pearlstein know the firm’s emphasis on collections and those who come to the firm are schooled early on in the importance it plays in the firm.

Markoff discussed what is often the “last resort” option. As an outside collections professional, Markoff gets the call after all other attempts have apparently failed. He noted that litigation can be costly, and the option of receiving only 50 percent is viable. “Settle at 50 percent and run” was his recommendation. Contingency fees for collections services are around 20 percent without litigation and with it, they can surpass 30 percent. And the contingency fees usually come with the threat of a counter claim.

As for the effects on E&O insurance, Mangan said that insurance companies do take a look at E&O claims when determining premiums. The best way to mitigate counter claims – and ultimately insurance premiums – is to have a sound billing and collection process in the first place.

Social media jitters

Nick Augustine is a freelance writer, broadcaster, publicity and marketing strategist, and he teaches SEO and social media. Nick writes legal industry columns for Chicago Lawyer magazine regarding business and career development. Nick is an alumnus of Marquette University and The John Marshall Law School, where he is an active alumni board member. @NickAugustinePR, @APIFCharity and Augustine Legal PR.

Attendees of the ISBA Midwinter Meeting discussed social networking and concerns of security and propriety. There are many judges and attorneys who elect not to join peer communities on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn. Rules of professional conduct for lawyers are slowly catching up to common customs and standards in our business and social communities. Below are three steps concerned social network users should take to increase online safety.

While some are social network averse, others embrace the opportunity to engage in relationships with their peers and public audience. My uncle was a judge and he was very social and quite active in the community. Attending an event in person versus on a social network is just not that different, except that online there can be a record of a social network exchange.

Are judges and lawyers not supposed to engage the public? Do we really suggest a judge is unable to be a neutral and detached magistrate in court and be friends with the lawyers outside of court? Judges have been friends with lawyers and lay people since the beginning of the industry. There is another side of the story, however, the safety of professionals who might be the unfortunate target of wrongdoers.

There are three steps high profile professionals can take to protect their privacy and safety.

1. Mobile phone settings. Most smart phones will prompt users to ask if they want to share their location to improve performance or user experience. When your phone settings are set to share location, metadata can appear in pictures you take, on some photo sharing sites. If you make a record of your whereabouts, it is easier for nefarious people to locate you. It is worth your time to review privacy settings

2. Facebook settings. If you take the time to learn or ask someone to teach you Facebook privacy settings you can feel more secure about participating in social networking, even if only with family and very close friends. I know several high profile professionals and celebrities who play it safe by taking advantage of setting security. You can also set your “about” page to appear as your default, instead of the traditional timeline. It is a good practice to review your settings once a quarter to make sure site settings are secure. The “Subscribed” option is also a smart option for friend requests you wish not to accept. If you participate in this option, you can limit who can subscribe and see your updates without hearing from them on your wall. Here is a link to more info.

3. LinkedIn etiquette. There should be no reason to fear presence on LinkedIn if you adopt a LinkedIn policy. Since the inception of the site lawyers have asked, “Is it inappropriate to be linked to my opposing counsel?” Consider drafting a short disclaimer, you can prominently place in your profile summary that indicates your policies for being LinkedIn and how you manage your page.

While safety concerns are reasonable and appropriate for high profile professionals and elected officials, following stated and followed policy and security measures can allow even the most cautious social network users to participate in their communities online.

Pending bill authorizes licenses for illegal immigrants

Marty Dolan, principal at Dolan Law, and his associate, Karen Munoz, represent victims of wrongful death and personal injury. His column “Law and Wellness” appears in Chicago Lawyer magazine and her column appears regularly in the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin. This week’s blog is written by Karen Munoz.

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, the number of Latinos in Illinois was about 2 million, or nearly 16 percent of the population. Lawmakers estimated about 250,000 illegal immigrants live in Illinois. The Illinois Senate recently passed Senate Bill 957 that allows illegal immigrants to obtain an Illinois driver’s license. The Senate voted 41-14 in favor of the bill, which allows the secretary of state to issue a temporary visitor driver’s license to those who have resided in Illinois for more than a year; are ineligible to obtain a social security number; and who are unable to present documentation from the federal government authorizing their presence in the United States. Holders of the temporary visitor driver’s license must comply with other Vehicle Code regulations, including insurance requirements. The bill makes a temporary visitor’s driver’s license invalid if the driver cannot provide proof of liability insurance upon request from a law enforcement agency.

The bill was drafted in response to the dangers posed by those taking to the roads without a driver’s license and without insurance. Unlicensed drivers are involved in almost 80,000 accidents in Illinois annually, resulting in $660 million in damage. Unlicensed immigrant drivers cost $64 million in damages claims. In the event of an accident, it was often the public that was left with picking up the tab. According to the Highway Safety Coalition, there are about 250,000 undocumented immigrants in Illinois who are driving without licenses and insurance. There have been calls for an amendment to the bill that would require undocumented immigrants to take a formal driving class. It has been argued that many immigrants who come to Illinois will not have driven in the blizzard-like conditions that Illinois can often experience and so would require education for handling such conditions. Temporary visitor driver’s licenses are a different color from regular Illinois driver’s licenses and are clearly marked “not valid for identification.” Undocumented drivers will have to present a verifiable passport or consular identification card, and proof of one year of Illinois residency in order to obtain the license. Drivers will also have to pay a fee and pass vision, written and road tests, as well as buy auto insurance.

If approved by the House and signed into law by Gov. Pat Quinn, Illinois would join only two other states – Washington and New Mexico – in granting such licenses. The House is expected to take up the measure during the January lame duck session.

Consider these publicity ‘gifts’

Tom Ciesielka is President of TC Public Relations (www.tcpr.net). Tom has about 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 is on the Public Affairs Committee of the Chicago Bar Association, where he has spoken at CLE programs. Reach him at tc@tcpr.net.

It’s the time of the year again when people are giving gifts to each other. There are various ways to promote your firm or your own individual practice through gifts that you buy, but you can also give people other types of “gifts” that could also help your reputation. Here are two ways you can do that:

Tips. Set aside some time today to think of ways you can help your clients and even other attorneys by creating a tip sheet. One example of a tip sheet that would be very helpful would include some legal tips for starting up a business. Many people have no idea what the legal ramifications are of various decisions they’ll have to make, and your tip sheet could prevent a lot of headaches and court dates. Another tip sheet could be about zoning issues in your community. Some towns change the rules, but the residents aren’t aware of the changes or what the legal expectations are. If your specialty is technology, you can create a tip sheet about effective legal disclaimers for websites. The possibilities are endless; all you have to do is think about your area of expertise and come up with a simple list that will help people. It will also help you to clarify what you want to focus on so that you can craft effective promotional messages in other areas of your publicity plan.

Packages. If you’ve already written blog posts or articles, or if you’ve created video or audio pieces, then package them up and offer them for free. For instance, if you’ve done articles on copyright law, put them together in a PDF that you can send to people or post it on your website for people to download. If you’ve done videos, put them together in one section of your website or on YouTube or Vimeo and send the link out to your social networks. Compilations are a great way to stay in touch with people and make it easier for them to get all the information they want in one place.

Whatever you do to help others and share your expertise will help your reputation and strengthen your professional network as well.

Supreme Court considers same-sex marriage

Marty Dolan, principal at Dolan Law, and his associate, Karen Munoz, represent victims of wrongful death and personal injury. His column “Law and Wellness” appears in Chicago Lawyer magazine and her column appears regularly in the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin. This week’s blog is written by Karen Munoz

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed on Friday to take its first serious look at the issue of gay marriage. The Court granted a review of the California’s ban on same-sex marriage. The Court will also review the Defense of Marriage Act (110 Stat. 2419 (1996)) which defines marriage as only the legal union of a man and woman. As it currently stands, nine states allow same-sex partners to marry (or soon will) and 41 states do not allow such unions. Of those 41 states, 30 have written gay marriage bans into their state constitutions.

By looking at the question of gay marriage, the court will at least decide if the federal government can refuse to recognize the validity of a same-sex couple lawfully married in their state. The court may also look at whether states must permit marriages by gay people in the first place. The California case involves a challenge to Proposition 8. Proposition 8 was a constitutional amendment passed in 2008 by 52 percent of voters which banned same-sex marriage after 18,000 same-sex couples were legally married in the same year. A federal judge declared the ban unconstitutional and a federal court of appeals upheld that ruling.

The Supreme Court has several options in reviewing the decision of the California court. It could reverse it, leaving the California ban on same-sex marriage in place. It could affirm it on the narrower theory, which would allow same-sex marriage in California but not require it elsewhere. Or it could address the broader question of whether the constitution requires states to allow such marriages.

The Supreme Court will also review the Clinton-era Defense of Marriage Act which specifies that, for federal purposes, the word ‘marriage’ means only a legal union between one and one woman as husband and wife. The Defense of Marriage Act was passed in 1996 in reaction to a state court decision in Hawaii which held that the state could not deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples. There was a concern at the time that this rule would force other states to recognize gay marriage. But Hawaii never adopted same-sex marriage.

The action is being brought by a New York woman, Edith Windsor, who married her wife in Canada in 2007. Windsor’s wife died and Windsor was faced with a tax bill of $360,000 for inheriting her wife’s estate. A spouse in an opposite-sex marriage would not have to pay such a tax. In February 2011, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. announced that he and President Barack Obama concluded that the law was unconstitutional and would no longer defend it in court but would continue to enforce it.

The two cases are likely to be argued in late March, with decisions expected by June.