Friday, January 27, 2006

Westlaw Trouble

Right out of the gate, and already in some trouble with "the man." That's where I found myself when the mail came on Wednesday night.

Back in November, fresh off my swearing-in ceremony and my shingle still dripping with wet paint, I made some business decisions that I thought needed to be made to get my practice off the ground. One such decision was to subscribe to Westlaw. I still don't know why I did this, for two reasons: (1) I never really mastered Westlaw in law school, doing most of my research in the library; and (2) I don't really need the thing anyway. But it was one of those things I thought you needed to be a lawyer, so I was sure surprised when I started talking to actual lawyers who didn't use a commercial database like Westlaw or LexisNexis for their research.

So, there I was, on the verge of paying $100/month for something I didn't need and would never use...and with four years of training in advocating a position, I couldn't just let that be the end of it. I called Thomson-West to try and undo my stupid mistake. After talking with a somewhat unsympathetic (but polite) agent, and faxing in a letter of explanation, I though everything was OK. Up until I got the mail Wednesday, that is.

An unnamed person at the Return Credit Processing desk wrote to let me know my request to terminate my contract was denied, and I would be held to the two-year term I agreed to. This was a bit disappointing, as you might imagine.

Fortunately I managed to reach a very nice West Group regional manager, and he has promised to get the contract canceled. Whew. But I won't be able to let my guard down completely until February comes and goes and I don't get a bill from West. *fingers crossed*


Recent activities: On Wednesday I attended a meeting of the Estate Planning Council of the Diablo Valley. As a guest of President Annette Knox, I got to sit at the head table and had a front-row seat for Michael Desmarais' keynote address, "Why You Can't Estate Plan Around Estate Litigation." Brilliant, and frightening - thank goodness for malpractice insurance! Also, I was surprised to learn that one of the Association's members, John Hartog, is the author of several practice manuals in the small library we maintain in the Elder Law Clinic.

Sunday I called a new friend, L. Red Gobuty, who is thinking about starting an estates/probate practice in the Sacramento area. He's already reserved a website and plans to record a probate law podcast. Thanks to Jonathan Stein for pointing Red in my direction.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Keeping Your Day Job

When I found out last May I had passed the California bar exam, I entered a state of limbo while I waited for the State Bar to process my Rule X Moral Character examination (a requirement before you can practice law in this state). It was a series of small disasters...I applied later than I should have; my application was subsequently lost or mishandled; and finally I was informed I had missed an entry on the application listing my job title at a temp job I held ten years ago, causing the processing to freeze entirely while I filled in the job title ("Temporary Employee") and paid the $35 reprocessing fee.

Somewhere around the beginning of October, I got anxious to find out what was going on, so I called the San Francisco office of the Bar and was told that they can take up to 180 days to process the application. I finally got my determination letter on day 178. So, to any of you who will be sitting for the California Bar Exam, if you don't take anything else away from my column today, please learn from my bad example file your Rule X application on time.

While still in that limbo mode I had lots of time to plan how to eventually land a job. I had been working internally at work to catch on with one of our in-house law groups, but I knew I had to have a "Plan B." My first stop was the career center at JFKU, to do some research on the job marketplace. I was surprised to find the average starting salary for a first-year associate in my area would be a pretty drastic pay cut for me, and come with the added joy of much longer hours. Right about there "Plan B" started to lose some serious luster.

Normally I'm fine with starting at the bottom and working my way up. The problm now is that I'm the sole breadwinner at home since my wife left teaching to raise our children. I also don't have a huge cash reserve, so any hit to my salary - even a short term hit - is really going to hurt.

I tried to think outside the box a bit to come up with creative ways to make a new job work. If we sell our house and bank the gain, I could use the extra cash to supplement my income while my career gets started. The drawback there is that I would want to move closer to the big city - where the jobs are - to cut down my commute, and the social cost of uprooting my family from family, friends, school and church weigh heavily against.

Another idea that came to mind was starting a practice on the side to make a few bucks and get some experience at the same time. That's how I fell into the idea of estate planning, which seemed like something that can be done in the evenings. I've heard several arguments why part-time law practices can't work, but there are just as many success stories out there - I guess it depends a lot on the individual and the situation. I know that without this option I would have to do something drastic like sell my house and move just to enter the profession.

So far it has been working out well. I have a few clients already, and people seem to like having a lawyer who will meet with them in the evenings when they are available.


I'm still working with the Elder Law Clinic through John F. Kennedy University. Learning a brand new area of law, and working with such devoted volunteers, has been a real eye-opener for me. We had our first "staff meeting" last weekend, and as a person trying to get a solo practice off the ground it's especially great to feel like part of a team for once.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Purposely Not Mentioning Jonathan's Award

Jonathan Stein reminded me to mention that he had recognized The Fifth Estate with an award in The Practice blog, but I am purposely not going to do that. If you read the article you will know Jonathan's feelings on self-promotion. This presented me with a real dilemma...if I don't mention the award, he might think I am not pleased by the mention; but if I do, isn't that bragging?

So I have decided to mention that I am not going to mention it...that way I highlight my humility while still remaining gracious.

Pro Bono Work; and First Client Meeting

It's official. I am volunteering my services at John F. Kennedy University's Elder Law Clinic. After meeting with clinic director Virginia George on Wednesday, I started Thursday and already have two clients. Going forward I will keep two office hours a week on Thursday, and attend team round-tables one or two Saturdays a month.

It's been a long time since I learned how to do anything new, so the first few phone calls at the clinic were very interesting. Yeah, the nerves were going, and I didn't really know what I was doing, but as a brand new attorney doing the estate planning thing on my own, it is great to finally have someone tell me what to do. Virginia has been great so far with tips about how to deal with clients and third parties, but isn't micromanaging.

Working on elder law issues also keeps me focused on why I got into law in the first place - to help people. How can you not want to keep seniors from being taken advantage of or abused? Even with just the two short hours I put in yesterday I left feeling great.

The great feeling carried over into my estate planning practice as well. To get some experience I have selected five or so people in different life situations (single/married, kids/no kids, etc.) and offered a will or trust package for free. Last night I met with the first and we had a great meeting. I was dying for feedback on how I had done, so I was understandably excited with positive feedback that I sounded like I knew what I was talking about.


Just for kicks, I applied to be an apprentice bar exam grader. I should know within a few weeks whether I have been selected for the spring session. Exam grading is hard work - marking up bluebooks three hours a night for six straight weeks - and the money is not great, but what an experience.


COMING SOON: practice management software reviews - I am testing several, and will give my opinions of each.