Today I read an… interesting… article suggesting something that only lawyers on the internet believe. Apparently “virtual technology” (I guess stuff like cloud computing and iPads) is going to reshape the face of law. This will allow young lawyers with very little supervision to offer cheaper legal services to people, thereby undercutting large and mid-sized law firms. The author states:
I’ve seen new law school graduates successfully fill the void between the brick and mortar model and the other option of downloading do-it-yourself legal forms on-line by serving this market virtually. Clients can find the attorney on line, the attorney comes to meet the clients at a time and place convenient to the clients, the clients can access their attorney and documents on line and everyone is happy.
The obvious regarding my questions about “virtual lawyers” aside (where do they take depositions? Where do they store deposition transcripts, or client files securely for that matter?), here are a few observations from a young guy who has their own practice that is doing well.
Of course, take my advice for what it’s worth because I only started my own firm in 2012, and it could all fall apart tomorrow. But these are my musings…
– Good clients want to know you’ll be around tomorrow. “Sorry, I found a job a large law firm, so I’m going to have to find another lawyer to deal with your son’s trespass charges” doesn’t exactly inspire clients to hire you. Having respectable office space sends the message that you are invested in your practice, and you’re not going to close shop the second something better comes along. Having a virtual office does not make you look invested in your practice in my opinion. Anyone with a computer can start a website and call themselves “The Law Office of Joe Schmo”. Do you actually want to be a small firm lawyer, or is this just a way to make money until you find a “real job?” Don’t worry, clients already know the answer.
– Clients who don’t have time to meet at your office are usually not good clients. Typically they do not understand how involved the legal process can be. There are exceptions, but for the most part, clients who are too busy to deal with how annoying seeing a lawyer is aren’t all that interested in their case, either. I know, it’s so easy to download songs from Amazon.com and click on a button to watch Franklin & Bash. But the practice of law requires a lot more than that. Face time with your client is so important – getting to learn the ins and outs of their case, and evaluate them as witnesses. Clients who think their legal needs are easy, or can be fixed with the click of a button, need to learn that isn’t the case. It takes a lot of time to handle a legal matter the right way, from both the client and the lawyer. it just does.
– There is a market for young lawyers, but it’s not “Sure you can get that off LegalZoom, but I’ll hit CTRL-P and charge you $500, where an old guy would charge you $750.” The market is clients who can afford to pay something, but not the full boat of what an established lawyer would charge. And you know what this means? As a young lawyer, you’ll put in hundreds of hours that you don’t get paid for just becoming competent, and when the matter is over you’ll think to yourself “I should have charged triple what I did.” If a client can’t afford a lawyer at all, refer them to a legal clinic. A lot of those types of clients will be referred to you from established lawyers, partners in biglaw, people who work in law firms. So hang out where those lawyers hang out and become friends with them. Find ways to show that you’re competent by joining bar association committees and doing other activities that lets you establish your skills to established lawyers.
– While technology is fun and shiny, it’s not the backbone of running a law practice. The hard stuff is figuring out how to manage your cash flow, how to pay yourself (and the IRS), manage a trust account, manage your calendar, conduct appropriate client intakes, draft appropriate correspondence, not blow deadlines, and a whole bunch of other things that the technology people never want to talk about. Because those are the things technology just can’t help you with. Sorry.
My two cents for anyone starting a practice, especially a young lawyer?
Don’t strive to be the cheapest lawyer on the block. Invest in your practice, because it lets clients know you’re going to be there tomorrow. Take on matters where the client can pay something, just not what a lawyer with 30 years of experience would charge. When you take those matters on, understand that you’re going to put a lot of time into becoming competent and not get paid for it. Do a great job on every single file that comes into your office. Not a good job or an adequate job, a great job. Learn the law and the facts inside and out. Your client will recognize your efforts, and refer other clients to you.
Once you get good at what you do and build a strong reputation, you can be more selective about your clients. As a young lawyer, focus on developing a reputation for excellence among your clients and your peers, especially those who are more established than you. They’ll send you the best clients.
Oh, and it takes a lot of time to learn how to run a law practice and serve your clients. As in, every waking minute of your life. If technology helps you do any of those things required to run a law practice, great. Sometimes it does. But it has never been a substitute for competence and hard work, and it never will be.