NMSH-B-Chap3-Planning Your Practice

Section B - Chapter 3

Planning Your Practice

Read this together with Chapter 4 (Financing) because they go hand in glove -- you need to know the kind of practice you want when you evaluate and/or apply for financing AND you need to fit your practice into the kind and amount of financing you have!

WHAT KIND OF PRACTICE DO YOU WANT?

Transactional? Litigation? Servicing the needs of individuals?
PI? Criminal? Domestic? Bankruptcy? Corporate? Administrative?
Mediation? Collaborative?
Non-profit? For-profit? Making gobs of money?

WHAT KIND OF OFFICE ENVIRONMENT DO YOU WANT?

Home office or outside office?
Client-friendly or utilitarian?


WHAT KIND OF TECHNOLOGY DO YOU WANT?
Conventional? Cloud-based?

OFFICE

So where are you going to have an office?  Think of your goals, your professional needs, your clients' expectations, and your temperament.

There are lawyers who successfully work out of their homes, but this might not be a good place to meet with clients, and it is usually good to have other lawyers to communicate with. Still, it is tempting to have a lower overhead by not paying outside rent (or as much outside rent).  As we said, think of your goals, professional needs, your clients' expectations and your temperament. Consider, for example, the following:

  1. Goals. Do you want to fit in with or be part of BigLaw or do you want to be a solo or small firm attorney?  Do you want or need the exposure and mentoring from the other attorneys who will be around if you have an outside office that has other attorneys near by?  (Hint: remember attorney listserves can be great watercoolers for that if you have a home office.)
  2. Professional needs.  Will you be meeting frequently with clients? Will you have problems with their waiting outside in their car if your earlier appointment runs late?  (Hint: don't schedule clients back to back if you have a home office unless you have a good system set up for clients who come early.)  Will you do mediations with break out sessions and need an additional room with privacy?  Will you have conferences with other lawyers where a big table for lots of papers will be appropriate?
  3. Clients' expectations.  Who are your clients and what are they expecting in their lawyer?  Will they be expecting the conventional BigLaw infrastructure of building/staff/offices, and not trust you because you aren't part of it?  Of might they appreciate the greater personal attention you might be able to give them if you are less stressed about paying for that BigLaw infrastructure?  Clients will differ in their expectations, and in their needs and desires. 
  4. Temperament.  Are you an extrovert who wants or needs other people around to talk with face to face?  If so, and you have a home office, be prepared to schedule regular meetings outside of your office with colleagues so that you are getting the right amount of interaction with others that you want.  Similarly, if you are an introvert who works happily alone, you too should schedule regular meetings outside of the office so that you do not isolate yourself unnecessarily.

If you are working outside of your home, consider starting your practice by trading work for rent with an established attorney. Try to work out an arrangement where you can trade about five hours of your labor for rent. Maybe you can agree to do some additional work on a sliding scale, but make sure that you can allocate the bulk of your time to the development of your practice and not his.  Additionally, you can consider renting outside space on a part-time basis, for example, use of a conference room or office two days a week for meeting with clients, working at home the rest of the time.

If there are no lawyers in your community and you still want to share office space, look to businesses that work with lawyers a good deal. A title company might be an excellent choice or a Realtor. Enter into a written agreement to trade work for rent. Make sure that it is spelled out and spell out a sliding scale for additional work. Evaluate it often at first. It is important that you feel that you are not being used and it is important for the landlord to feel that he is getting a benefit by having an arrangement with a lawyer. Maybe you will get lucky and you can make an arrangement with someone who will provide you with a desk and two client chairs. Hopefully you will land in a location where there is a conference room so you do not even have to have clients see your office.

If you need furniture, try commercial landlord sales. You can frequently get fantastic furniture at very small prices. Watch the classified ads.

Home Office

Having an office in your own home can solve some of the inconveniences faced by individuals who choose one of the other types of offices. There is no long commute to your workplace, nor is there a need to worry about infrastructure costs. The only issue that really presents a deterrent to home office use is the type of practice you will have. A criminal law attorney or a lawyer who has a busy practice with high client traffic would probably not find a home office suited to his or her needs. But a lawyer who handles transactions, or one with an appellate practice should find the home office quite satisfactory.

Once you have decided on a home office, you need to arrange your home and your family to accommodate this. Regarding meeting with clients, it is always better to meet with them at their place of work or another location where they feel comfortable and, more importantly, can get all the papers that are needed to discuss the case.

Wherever you office, try to make sure that you can use a copy machine at a reduced cost as well as other necessary benefits. There are copy services available in almost every community now that will do your copying at a reasonable cost, so do not make an investment in a copy machine that you cannot afford initially.

Pros: Cheap! Also gives you a home-office deduction on your taxes, if you are a sole-proprietor of your business. No commuting costs (time/money/energy). No office politics. Well set up for multi-tasking -- you can put on the crock pot and do laundry between client appointments and calls; you can take a nap when you really need it.

Cons: All those tasks -- they're all there and may help you procrastinate!  You might have a hard time separating work from your personal life -- the work space may creep into more and more of your living space; clients may stop by unexpectedly to drop things off; you might be drawn into working "just that little bit more" when you are supposed to be off work, just because it is all there.  Note: some types of clients, some individual clients or prospective clients might not trust your professionalism if you do not have what they consider a "professional enough" office setting.

Outside Office

Pros: if it's in the same physical location of other lawyers, other law firms, it may be easier to get interaction with other lawyers on a daily basis; depending on the type of client you are servicing, an outside office may appear more professional to some clients; it may be easier to separate work life from home life -- when leaving the outside office, you shut the door on your office, and you may be better able to turn your back on the day's work and the work that is still calling to you. You also might be able to share, e.g., receptionist services, costing you less. 

Cons: it will immediately cost you cash money, unless, e.g., you have a trade arranged with an existing location (you trade work for space); you will add commuting time, money, and energy costs to a day when you otherwise might have been able to work at home; if you are an early worker, you could find yourself going in to work in the dark, e.g., at 5 a.m., or even going in early to meet with a client who doesn't show. Similarly, if you work late, or on weekends, you might find yourself alone, too, and leaving to go home in the dark. Security concerns are no fun!

Virtual Office

This term can mean where you are renting an office space in a large suite set up specifically for the purpose of letting professionals have offices in which to meet clients, when they don't want to rent an office full-time. It may have receptionist and mail services, too. These kinds of offices are not available in most cities; as of mid-2011, only available in Albuquerque.

Pros: May be cheaper than a full-time office rental; may give you some colleagues around with whom to talk and network.

Cons: It still costs cash money; you still will be commuting; you still might find yourself going in at hours you don't prefer.  

TELECOMMUNICATIONS

Phone/Fax/Internet and Email/Videoconferencing

I would suggest that you make an effort to get your own phone line and fax line if you need to and to make arrangements with the phone company to get your personalized voice mail. It could be devastating if you started practice, used all of the benefits of another party to start your practice, and just when you thought that you were ready to take off, you began to have difficulties with your landlord and you were without an office and now your clients could not reach you. Make your phone line and the benefits associated with it your key to independence. You can always get your calls forwarded to a new number if you change. 

ADVERTISING

Conventional advertising is expensive and every sole practitioner must be very careful when deciding where to put scarce advertising dollars.

Conventional print/online/websites & blogs/networking and referrals/speaking.

Typically, someone just starting out should not spend more than X% of their budget for advertising.

Advertising in the Yellow Pages is presently, very expensive, and it does not have much of an impact for smaller advertisers in the Albuquerque market. You will probably have to be there, but do not make a big investment initially. A full page ad will cost well over $2,000.00 per month and it very well may not bring in that much in income given the saturation that is presently in existence in the Albuquerque market. The regional phone books are more affordable. Check the deadlines for all of the Yellow Pages. The Albuquerque Phone book usually comes out in December and it is important to get your ad in by September of that same year. The other phone books have different deadlines and publication times.

COMPUTER AND OTHER EQUIPMENT [This information is also provided in Chapter 5 of the Appendices. We should combine into a standalone chapter]

Lawyers have a number of options when it comes to technology. What is available now does not just make it easier to practice law, but it can essentially eliminate the need for an established law office. Primarily all that is needed is a computer, a printer, and an internet connection. The computer itself does not have to be a complete desktop system, as a small laptop will prove adequate.

Assuming that you wish to have an office to meet with clients and store the binders received at various conferences, you should equip that space with both a telephone and a fax line. Two separate lines are better than one, since this allows you to be able to use the phone while receiving a fax. The fax machine may be considered outdated, but lawyers are slow to change habits and many established firms continue to use faxes. Note that I am recommending landlines. While cell phones have become ubiquitous, it is still cost effective to have a landline rather than just a cell phone, particularly in small firms and due to the need to screen the calls. Note that landlines are unaffected by power failures, which is another plus.

The solo practitioner should seriously consider the following equipment for an efficient law office:

  • Either a laptop or a desktop system with built-in wireless and Ethernet cards. (I will avoid the debate as to whether to purchase an Apple computer or a Windows operating system. A large number of the products on the market for lawyers are designed for Windows. If you can find good substitutes for the Mac, then feel free to use an Apple.)
  • Appropriate software
  • An all-in-one machine for scanning, copying, faxing, and printing
  • A small, portable scanner
  • A digital dictation device

The following discussion relies on generalities rather than specific product names since what technology is available changes rapidly.

Computer

In furnishing your office, it is no longer necessary to have a large library. Instead, a few reference books and a computer connected to the internet are all that is required. You can purchase a desktop computer or a laptop with at least a 19-inch screen. Either computer must be able to connect to the internet both with broadband and with wireless. Either should have the biggest hard drive that you can afford; at present about 2GB of RAM seems adequate. Your computer should also be equipped with an internal DVD reader/writer, and a reader for flash media. If you intend for your office to be wherever you are, then a laptop with a 15-inch screen and the various other features will be good enough. Your machine should also have a built-in or external USB camera.

As mentioned earlier, you can choose whatever operating system you are comfortable with. I personally keep a dual boot system with Windows on one side and Linux (Ubuntu) on the other. I find myself favoring the Linux side, since the software for billing and client management is all free.

Appropriate Software

Purchase any software you need to manage the office. A few specific programs are Dragon Naturally Speaking, which allows you to dictate papers and emails to the computer; HotDocs, which lets you create fill-in-the-blank forms; and AmicusAttorney, which creates a law office on your computer complete with a time monitor, a billing system, and client folder management.

Printers and Other Peripherals

While you should aspire to a paperless office, not all courts as yet accept electronic files. In order to save space, best is an all-in-one machine, which will comprise the copier, the scanner, the printer, and the fax machine. If you intend to travel, you can purchase a portable scanner with attached document feeder from various companies. ScanSnap makes an excellent model. If you want to have something smaller, I would recommend a hand-held scanner, such as the DocuPen from Planon. Compared to other hand-held units, this one is excellent in being able to scan a whole page rather than just a few lines of text at a time.

Digital Dictation

If you are away from your desk but wish to compose a brief or capture a recording of the hearing you are attending, you can purchase a digital dictation device such as the Olympus D4000 or the WS-100. Once you have a recording, plug the unit into the computer and, using the attached software, create a transcript and print out a hard copy. You can also send the files over the internet to be processed by your staff.

Other equipment

Though a relatively new development, some courts allow lawyers to use their own computers and the courtroom's projector to present their arguments. If the courtroom lacks a projector, you can purchase a small portable one. Portable projectors are also useful if you have to give a presentation.

As you will find once you have your computer, not only can you handle many of the projects semi-autonomously that used to be done by secretaries and paralegals, but you can also accomplish other tasks such as preparing stationery, business cards, and other projects that needed to be contracted out to various companies. In addition, several online research venues allow you to eliminate the need for a large, bulky law library.


FINDING WORK

You might want to tell people what you will do through the Bar Bulletin that is published weekly and has a section devoted to ads. Network and let established lawyers know that you will assist them at a fair rate. It is better to do good work and get paid something for it then to price yourself out of a market. Prove to people that you are invaluable and you can then charge a higher rate comparable with the value of the work that you produce. You can contact the Albuquerque Bar and join their referral pool. Make yourself available to LREP and Lawyers Care as you will gain experience and contacts and this may lead to fee generating work. Let the courts know that you are willing to be a guardian ad litem for minors or other incompetent individuals and this may also lead to additional work as well as contacts.

Create a webpage. With the growth of the online world and the increase in the number of people who find everything – including lawyers – through the internet, it is a necessity that you create your own webpage. There a number of simple books and free software to help you do this yourself. Alternatively, you can contact a web design firm to create the site. A good website should state clearly what you do and who you are. It has been suggested that lawyers should also include a blog on their site to keep clients updated on issues that may affect their cases. A blog can also attract new clients and can increase your online presence, particularly by improving your ranking on search engines.



TECHNOLOGY IN COURTROOMS

In recent years, there has been a movement to upgrade courtrooms with not necessarily the latest technology, but at least the basic ability to utilize modern projectors and computers. The Federal Circuit has seen the largest advance with several courts now offering rooms with attached monitors for judge, jury, and counsel. These rooms also provide wireless access and other features to permit the projection of textual evidence (letters or contracts) in a way that can be viewed by all.

In considering how best to serve the client, the solo attorney should take into account this new technology available through the court. As detailed above, the computer and peripherals purchased should be compatible with the court's equipment. Since it has not yet come to a point where non-lawyers can sit at the counsel's bench, requiring an IT consultant to understand and set up the system should be avoided. It is possible to get training from the court, and the lawyer should have more than a passing familiarity with the equipment in order to not impede presentation of the case.

If the court does not provide the equipment but allows its use (and security has been notified), the choice of what the lawyer brings is determined by the case and what is available.

The following additional items will prove useful:
  • a scanner
  • a projector with at minimum 2400 lumens – though note that judges do not like to turn off the lights, so you need to allow for the ambient light and its effect on your presentation.
  • For display, a standard projector screen is certainly appropriate. If the solo is blessed with enough money, the purchase of several flat screens for the judge, jury, and opposing counsel would also work.

On the software side, properly developed powerpoint presentations can be of great benefit in highlighting the important points of evidence for the jury.

To end with a caveat, the lawyer should still bring copies of the slides on cardboard as well as the trial notebook in order to avoid the unexpected.

Recommended reading:

Effective Use of Courtroom Technology: A Judge's Guide to Pretrial and Trial, published by the Federal Judicial Center, available at http://www.fjc.gov/public/pdf.nsf/lookup/CTtech00.pdf/$file/CTtech00.pdf

Courtroom Technology Manual (a very detailed description), published by the Administrative Office of the United States Courts, available at http://www.uscourts.gov/misc/courtman.pdf

WHAT TO CHARGE

 Experienced lawyers will tell you that it really takes between three and five years to feel comfortable with the actual practice of the law to bill close to the number of hours that you spend on a project. If you are working for another lawyer and he is asking you to do research at $20.00 per hour, then you can charge for all of your time. If you are working for a client and you have set your hourly rate at $60.00 per hour, it may be that you will only charge for one out of every two hours that you spend on a project. You want the client to be happy with the work that you are doing for him, but you also have to adjust for the fact that you are spending some time learning. As you get more experienced, you can charge closer to the actual time that you put into a project. When I do hourly work, I always make sure that the client can see that I do not charge for every item. For example, I will never charge for a simple phone call unless I also do another task. That way, the client can call me and know that he will not always be charged for making contact. We are providing a service, and we want the clients to feel that they are getting a good product at a fair price. Thus, you may work 80 hours a week to bill 40 hours initially. Eventually, you may be able to bill out 60 hours for the 80 hours that you work. Being in business for yourself is time consuming.

BILLING

 Purchase Timeslips or another billing program and keep track of your work on each file daily. Keep track of all of your costs and send out a bill for costs and time every month. If you have a retainer in your Trust Account, you can transfer the money from your Trust Account to your General Account at that time with the documentation that you have sent your client. If your client does not pay in a timely fashion, follow up and let them know that they are expected to pay for the service that you render. Every attorney collects for work differently. It is difficult to ask for money in advance, but it may be necessary. If a client is going to hire an attorney, that same client has to know that there are financial obligations associated with the retention of the attorney. And the attorney has to be willing to turn down work that he or she does not feel is going to be paid for, unless the attorney is voluntarily doing pro bono or reduced fee work. If an attorney has agreed to represent a client, it may be necessary for the attorney to expend the attorney's own money to protect the interests of the client. For example, if a client comes to an attorney at the end of the statute of limitations and the attorney has informed the client that he will take the case and that he will file a complaint, it could be interpreted as improper for the attorney to wait for the deposit of the filing fee from the client prior to filing suit. If that is a condition that is prerequisite to the attorney representing the client, then that would need to be set out in the initial fee agreement.

TO REACH THE GOAL

 Strive to do the best work that you can do for a reasonable cost and understand that you are providing a service to others. Make your service invaluable and affordable and you will grow more competent and content with helping others do what they could not have done without you.


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