Thursday, December 29, 2005

Why do lawyers blog?

And now, a moment of introspection: why is blogging such a big issue in the legal business right now? I'm sure there are as many reasons as there are blogging lawyers, but it seems that there are at least a few common ones, in no particular order:
  • Because we like to show off what we know. Ever had someone ask a simple question in a social situation and give them back an exhaustive treatise on the state of the law dating back to the Magna Carta? (See if you ever get invited back to that mixer again.) And in a profession where clients pay a lot of money to hire an expert in the field, publishing gives an opportunity to showcase what we know/do.
  • To keep up with the Joneses. Blogging has a lot of gravity right now, so it is hard not to pay attention to it. We are compelled to publish because that's what our fellow practitioners are doing, and who wants to fall behind a trend and have to catch up later?
  • Free advertising. Members of one of the law-related email groups I joined trade tips on keeping the blog search results high in Google's index. Especially for solos, blogs are another way to get your name out there.
  • To prove we are human beings. Let's face it, our profession is not always held in the highest esteem. Q: What do you call a million lawyers at the bottom of the sea? A: A good start. You get my point. Publishing can be a way to share other aspects of your personality besides the hard-nosed pit bull you show in court. Some of my favorite posts on legal blogs are the ones that veer ever so slightly off the professional into the personal - not too much, but enough to know there's a real person behind the curtain.
  • To help others. There are a ton of great blogs out there dedicated to helping others become successful. For some wonderful reason God put people on this earth who are not only great at what they do, they want to help others become great too. Two great examples (hard not to use the word "great" so much when describing these folks) are Jonathan Stein of The Practice and Carolyn Elefant of My Shingle.
  • Because we don't know what else to do. Here's where my blog fits in. It's a real struggle to get this practice off the ground, with new, difficult questions every day. I figure writing about things will help keep me focused and moving forward. Unplanned but invaluable side effect: awesome feedback and advice from site readers provides far better answers than I could have come up with on my own.

Also wanted to say hi to solowannabee, another blogger in the same boat as I am, trying to start a part-time practice. Please give her a read.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Free OnLaw access

CEB offers free OnLaw access for twelve months, along with several other tremendous benefits, to new California lawyers. I have been using OnLaw for about two weeks and really finding it to be helpful and full of information - much easier to use, and more applicable to my practice, than Westlaw.

OnLaw currently includes 80 titles covering Business Law, Civil Litigation, Criminal Law, Employment Law, Estate Planning, Evidence, Family Law, Real Property, Torts and Workers' Comp. The Estate Planning offerings cover 17 volumes and 4 practice guides - step by step instructions on completing common legal tasks. If I am starting to sound like a commercial for OnLaw, it's just because this is such a blessing to a new lawyer like me - an instant library, free of charge.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Gaining Experience

Job interviews are pretty standard. The questions about your past, your experience, generally boil down to one thing. It can be asked in various ways, but the idea is always this: What makes you think you can do this job? The interviewer wants to know what characteristic or experience I have that will enable me to succeed at the task at hand. After much consideration, I believe it comes down to this:

I am terrified of failing.

Don't confuse this with being terrified to make a mistake - two very different things. People who are terrified to make mistakes often become paralyzed to take the next step. I'm focused on the big picture, so I'll take the next step…and the next…and the next…always with an eye on the finish line. Because I don't want to think about quitting, and what that would mean to my self-esteem and my standing in others' eyes, so I will do whatever it takes to finish the job and do it right.

The stakes have been raised considerably now that I have passed the bar exam and taken my oath. Failure now comes at a very high price - literally - which is why malpractice insurance is exceptionally important. With fear as a tremendous motivator, I have been reading everything I can on estate planning, probate law, and tax practice, but even with all the book learning I can get my hands on I will have to put the rubber to the road very soon. And book learning is a very poor substitute for real-world experience.

I wish I had been able to do an internship in law school. JFKU has a strong clinical program, but as a full-time working professional with a wife and two kids to support, I couldn't afford to take the time off work. So how does a person go about getting experience in the real world? How do you find clients willing to work with a green lawyer, and supervisors willing to put up with a raw talent and the mistakes that go along with it?

You guessed it - pro bono work.

I've got the feelers out for a few opportunities. My first move was to contact the State Bar's Pro Bono coordinator, who gave me a lead on opportunities in my region. I also contacted my law school; JFKU started an Elder Law clinic last fall and I figured they might need a hand with their growing caseload. I set up a meeting with the clinic director for early next month.

Also, I am actively looking for a mentor to bounce questions off, review my work, and maybe take referrals for complex matters while I learn the ropes. Teri Cannon, the dean of JFKU's law school, has been really helpful with this effort, and I am also finding programs in the state and county bar associations to pair new lawyers with experienced practitioners.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Data Security

Today's article focuses on data security from two perspectives: (1) protection against intrusion/theft; and (2) protection against loss.

Protection against intrusion/theft. By now we are all aware of the danger that malware (the general name applied to viruses and spyware) poses to any networked computer. Because of our duty to protect the confidentiality of client information, one particular threat that lawyers should be aware of is the use of trojans and other devices to steal data from host systems.

Your first line of defense should be a good firewall (preferably hardware-based) and antivirus software with current virus definitions, but even these measures cannot guarantee 100% safety against intrusion. Your data security planning should also include good encryption software so that even if your data is compromised, it will be unusable by whoever obtains it.

I tested a number of encryption applications before settling on PMC Ciphers' TurboCrypt suite. TurboCrypt creates an encrypted filespace on your local hard disk, which it mounts as a virtual volume and assigns a drive letter as if it were a separate hard disk. Once you have entered your password and mounted the volume, the data stored in the encrypted file is available for read/write access like any other data on your hard drive, but as soon as you unmount it the data is protected by 2x256 bit DES encryption. Other features include a trace deletion tool to erase evidence of use on a PC like temporary files and record of recently used documents, a file shredder with multiple-pass overwriting, the ability to overwrite free space on a disk with random numbers to prevent recovery of previously deleted programs or data, and email encryption.

TurboCrypt is free to try. The free version will create up to a single 16MB encrypted filespace; for more or larger virtual drives you will need to purchase the Personal Edition ($34.95, up to a single 20GB volume), the Professional Edition ($74.95, up to five 100GB volumes) or Enterprise Edition ($199.95, unlimited volumes up to 2 terabytes).

Other encryption applications: APMSafe's Cypherus, Utimaco Software's SafeGuard, Ultra Information Systems' SealShell, Silent Front's Silent Vault, and WinEncrypt Solutions' CryptArchiver.

Laptop users should consider whole-disk encryption software like Pointsec, PGP Whole Disk Encryption or SecureStar's DriveEncrypt. As the name indicates, whole-disk encryption encodes the whole local volume, requiring a password or token authentication before BIOS will boot the PC's operating system.

Protect your data against loss. Even if the bad guys never get your data, you could still lose everything if the hard disk fails or is destroyed. Any data security plan should include frequent backup and offsite storage.

Online backup satisfies both requirements. As an added benefit, backups can be scheduled automatically through your software since the remote server is always available, and you can access your backups from anywhere you can access the internet. Companies such as Xdrive offer online backup solutions starting at $9.95 a month. Make sure to check out your provider's own backup policies (the method and frequency with which they back up their servers) and the security measures they implement to protect your data.

If online backup is too expensive, you can copy your data to some form of removable media like a tape, CD/DVD, or ZIP disk. Most PCs these days come with a CD or DVD burner and some form of simple disc burning software as standard equipment, or you can upgrade to a commercial application like Roxio's Easy Media Creator or Nero's Nero 7 Suite if you require advanced functionality. If you go this route, make sure to encrypt your data so it cannot be accessed if the media falls into the wrong hands. Also, arrange to have the media stored offsite so it will not be destroyed along with your primary data if a disaster occurs in your office.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Choosing Trust Software

Producing quality documents is critical to an estate planning practice, so I have been spending a lot of time evaluating trust creation software. I started by searching the web for "lawyer trust software" and got a few hits, including Daniel Evans' helpful listing (, but one caveat: the page was last updated in May 2004, so the list contains several dead links).

The serious contenders were priced from $229 to $3,500 or more, plus a variety of flavors of annual licenses, software assurance, and add-ons. Two vendors offered fully-functioning trial versions (National Lawforms and Fore! Trust Software), and most of the others had online product demos that either walked through a typical trust creation or at least showed off their product's high points.

After all the downloading, testing, viewing, etc., I have selected Fore! Trust Software ($995, plus $250 for annual updates after the first year). A key benefit is that the Fore! package includes LexisNexis HotDocs software, a powerful automation environment that retails for $650 on its own. Fore provides customer interview forms keyed to the data entry in the software, and customizes the online questions automatically based on the answers you input. I was able to create an 80-page trust package inside of 20 minutes using the software.

* * * * * *

Thanks to Jonathan Stein of The Practice, who stopped by and posted some great cost-saving ideas for new lawyers. Also, came across an interesting site for law-practice technology issues: TechnoLawyer. The site hosts newsgroups, but also publishes a host of weekly emails with hardware/software reviews, issues pertaining to intellectual property, news issues and answers to reader-submitted questions. Only checked it out briefly, but it passes my first test (it's free). I'll report back later if it turns out to be good or bad enough to warrant mention.

Sunday, December 11, 2005


At a family gathering yesterday my brother-in-law were talking about blogs and he asked if I was going to publish this blog in RSS format. To be honest, I don't know much about RSS other than what the acronym stands for (Really Simple Syndication) so I did some quick research last night. I still don't know a bunch about syndication, but I got the blog published.

Blogger automatically publishes site content in Atom format; the URL is

In addition, I created a free account with a third-party website called FeedBurner ( to syndicate my site content for readers that are not compatible with Atom XML formatting. The URL is

To subscribe, you can click the XML chicklet under "Links" in the right-hand column, or follow the "Subscribe to…" link in the page footer.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Malpractice Insurance

I found a source for malpractice insurance for young lawyers in California: Lawyer's Mutual Insurance Company. LMIC offers a "Strong Start Program" for solos in practice less than three years with premiums starting at only $500 in year one, scaling up to $3,785 in year six. Adding this $500 into my estimated expenses for year one brings the current total up to $7,537.50. Looks like my ongoing expenses in year six forward will be close to $10K on average.

Advertising expenses still need to be added in, but I haven't yet decided on my marketing plan. I'm still wanting to start slowly to build up my experience before I start promoting myself to the general public, but plan to open up to walk in business sometime in 2006.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Considering my first-year expenses

I'm facing a lot of expenses in starting up my practice. Even though I plan to work from a home office and save rent, there are a ton of other bills to be paid:

Bar Association dues. California charges $395 a year to maintain active status. There are also add-ons like section memberships for legal specialists ($65 - $70 each) and some "suggested" donations that for some reason don't appear all that voluntary (the amounts were pre-filled on my 2006 dues statement). Factoring in the partial year's membership for 2005 ($195), my total will be $825 - 900, depending on how many sections I join.

Other Associations. I also joined my county Bar Association, although this is completely voluntary. Regular dues are tiered depending on years of practice, but max out at $180/year. I got the first-year discount and only pay $25, plus another $25 to join the Probate & Trust section and network with local Estate Planning attorneys. I also intend to rejoin the Christian Legal Society ($87.50 per year for first six years of practice), and the Estate Planning Council of the Diablo Valley ($75 annual dues plus $25 application fee and $30/month to attend dinner meetings with guest speaker). Total: $597.50 for the first year.

Continuing Legal Education (CLE). Lawyers are required to complete 25 hours of CLE training for every three years. Although there are many ways to earn units for free, many programs are fee-based. I signed up for an introductory lecture in Estate Planning through West (the company that runs Westlaw) for $190.

Office Expenses. Cutting some corners here. I will probably print my own letterhead and business cards, so the expense will be minimal (ink and paper should run less than $100 total). We already own a Post Office box, a networked multifunction printer (including scanner, fax and copier) and a second phone line for the fax; still, I am considering adding a virtual fax line for around $20/month for the flexibility of being able to receive faxes anywhere I can connect to the internet. I bought a new cell phone ($45) and monthly service ($35/month) rather than install a third phone line in our home. Total: $805/year.

Technology. I intend on meeting clients in their homes or offices whenever possible, so I will probably need a laptop PC ($1,500). In addition, I will need some specific software, including a Wills/Trusts package for HotDocs ($995, plus $250/year for updates); encryption software to protect client data on my laptop hard disk ($150); and QuickBooks to handle my client billing ($400). Total: $3,045.

Research. I subscribed to Westlaw's Estate Planning database ($99/month) and bought a two-volume Estate Planning guide ($295 plus periodic updates). Total: around $1,500/year, depending on the number of updates to the Estate Planning materials.

Summed up, I am looking at around $7,037.50 in expenses through the end of next year. This is not even taking into consideration malpractice and Errors & Omission insurance, because I haven't found out how much this will be yet, and the not-insignificant matter of student loan payments. It will probably reach five figures before I know it. Just another reason why lawyers, even the home-office variety, have to bill at such a high rate.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Work-Life Balance

In my introductory post I mentioned work-life balance as the reason I was leaning toward private practice instead of an associate position with a medium or large firm. Associates are expected to bill around 2,000 hours per year (sometimes more or less, depending on the firm). New lawyers may have to work two hours or more to total one billable hour, so a 60-80 hour work week is not out of the question.

Why the insane hours? I believe it all comes down to the money. Many high-achievers are drawn to law as a career because of the earning potential. The general perception is that you can roll out of law school into a six-figure job and be on easy street for the rest of your life. At JFKU, the first class you take is an Intro course that preps students for what law school and beyond will really be like. Many of the 1Ls (first-year law students) in my class were mortified to hear the going rate for first-year associates in the San Francisco metro area - it represented a significant pay cut for many of us. Some people walked out of class that day and never came back.

The money is there, believe me. But firms know that they will lose a large percentage of new hires through attrition because of the difficult working conditions. People will burn out, decide law isn't really for them, and bail. For those that can hack it, the median salary in my area is around $95,813 for lawyers in the first three years of practice (figures courtesy of Sure this seems like a lot, but if you are consistently working 80-hour weeks with no vacation, you are only making around $23 per hour for your time.

Why does law practice have to be this way? Shouldn't lawyers be able to have a home life too? One of the real problems with lawyers is that we tend to focus on the problems, but not the people. Maybe if we spent more time being people we would be able to relate better to our clients.

Would more lawyers be willing to trade the high-six-figure income and the rep that goes with it if they could have a more well-rounded life? I don't know if I'm willing to sell my time with my kids, my wife, and the things we do together just for a few more bucks (OK, a lot more, but the answer is still the same).

Saturday, December 03, 2005


Welcome to my little place on the web. I have been inspired to blog by reading the works of others, most notably some great law blogs (please do not call them "blawgs") like The Practice and Home Office Lawyer. Hopefully I will have something to say that can add to the content available in cyberspace, and not just be a waste of bandwidth.

My background: After spending thirteen years in banking as a technical project manager, I am looking to law as a second career. I didn't really intend to become a lawyer - and I'm still not sure how I ended up as one. I started back to get my MBA in the late 1990's and somehow took a wrong turn. Actually, the reason is I found out early in my first year that I hated B-school. The only class I enjoyed was Business Law. At the end of the course, the prof took me aside and asked what I was doing wasting my time in an MBA program when I should be pursuing my JD instead. Silly me, I took him up on it and started looking for a law school.

It didn't take me long to find a school. Since I couldn't afford to quit my day job (still can't, actually) my search was limited to schools with nighttime JD programs. I went to an open house at John F. Kennedy University's School of Law and found a good match. It is a great program, and I admit it didn't hurt that the campus was just a few blocks from my office. Although my interview with the dean (at the time, former L.A. deputy city attorney Michael Guarino, who once brought obscenity cases against the Dead Kennedys) didn't go well - OK, he threatened to punch me because my alma mater, Fresno State, beat USC in the 1992 Freedom Bowl - I somehow made it into the program.

I am pleased to say I passed the California Bar Exam on my first try, which I didn't realize was all that difficult until I checked the pass list and saw that some of my classmates who I was sure would pass, didn't.

Now I am trying to get some traction in my legal practice. I would love to stay with my current company, since it is a Fortune 500 corporation with a great reputation and an internationally-known brand. The company is so large that it would be a shame not to find something, somewhere that I could do with my degree. Plus, they paid for roughly half my education, and have treated me very well, so I'd love to stick around.

On the other hand, I feel I have an obligation to really do something with my life now that I have run the gauntlet of law school and passed one of the most difficult examinations in the country. I'm just not willing to sacrifice my family life for it, so I don't think I can ever be an associate for a Big Law firm where I will need to work 60-80 hours a week to survive. I am married with two kids, and my wife is currently over a week past due with our third, so a good work-life balance is important to me.

To pay the bills, I'm sticking with my day job for now and looking for some volunteer pro-bono work through non-profits or social service agencies. JFKU is starting an elder care clinic, which would be a great opportunity to get experience and feel like I'm making a difference at the same time.

Thanks for reading. Please feel free to post any questions/comments - feedback is greatly appreciated.