Friday, June 30, 2006

Friday, June 30, 2006

It's been about a month now since I decided to start a solo practice, and I'm currently in a holding pattern waiting for the house to sell. Just my luck to pick the first real estate slowdown in ten years to list and sell my property.

I'm amazed at the work Jennifer and I were able to do to get the house ready. It looks great. Too bad it took selling the house to get us to finally do the paint touch-ups, yard work and general cleaning (like washing the windows and screens). Anyway, we are hoping and praying that someone comes along and makes us an offer soon so we can move on to whatever awaits us.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Received a belated response to my nystagmus/disability email from SOLOSEZ:

No. Sorry, but it needs to be said.

Trial work is perception, to the judge, to the other side and to the jury. Anything that detracts from that perception is a risk you cannot force on your clients. It would be one thing if you had a more visible disability that would explain itself. But you risk looking like something you are not even if you explained yourself before each case. But that would also have the effect of causing people to look for that. I had a teacher in law school we called winky. End of the class person who guessed closest to the agreed number won a free round. Everyone did poorly in his classes.

All in all I got four responses. Three said (paraphrasing) "suck it up, you can do it, and hang in there" in a nice and very encouraging way. This was the only note that even suggested that I couldn't or shouldn't take a shot at court appearances. The person who wrote it claimed to have a similar affliction, but he never said whether he tried courtroom work or just wrote it off and never tried.

Just like so many other areas of my life, my feelings on this issue are still up in the air. Personally I'm very confident in my abilities, so I have a hard time getting across to people that I'm not afraid to appear in court. I have lived in this body for over three and a half decades, and I am realistic about my limitations. I know there are certain jobs that I could not do because of the nystagmus - for instance, I will never be a neurosurgeon or a commercial pilot, and I'm OK with that. Besides these professions, which require visual acuity that I lack, there are another set of jobs where appearance is important. For instance, a TV news anchor needs to look good while reading the teleprompter or cue cards. In order for me to read the prompter I would have to turn my head to the left to find the spot where the shaking calms down (my null point), which would make it look like I was staring off into space instead of looking into the camera.

What makes me hesitant about trial work is that I could control every aspect of my performance but still be judged - consciously or unconsciously - on something I can't control.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

After meeting with the client I accepted the case. The potential issues I was afraid of turned out to be unimportant in the end.

I'm still refining the presentation I give to prospective clients. I had a few rough edges today, but there was more good than bad by far. Some basic observations:

* Helps to lead with the business card when you are meeting PCs for the first time.

* Also helps to over-communicate. When I book an appointment more than a week out, I send a letter confirming the date, time, location and subject of the meeting. I now make it a practice to call the day before (and maybe even the day of) for a final confirmation, and send another letter after the meeting - either a disengagement letter if I decline representation, or a thank you/warm fuzzy letter if I take the case.

* Try to wrap everything up within an hour. Anything more than this and the PC may fall asleep.

* I always leave something with the PC (brochure, extra business cards, etc.). My thinking on this is even if they don't use me now they can refer me business later - or call me themselves on a different matter.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

I sought and received counsel in preparation for my client meeting this week. After thinking it over, as long as I believe I can help and there are no ethical issues I'm going to take the case. Probably the best part about being a solo is getting to choose your clients, but I didn't become a lawyer for the power trip of turning people away at the door.

Still, I am aware that I need to be careful. I've already been saved from walking into a legal minefield by an experienced practitioner friend who realized that what I thought was a simple issue was actually quite complex. I was all set to handle the case at a fixed rate, too, so I would have eaten all the extra hours it would have taken to finish the project. Lesson learned: when in doubt how much work a matter will take, never quote a fee until you talk to someone who knows what the heck they're talking about.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Monday, June 26, 2006

My mom read last Wednesday's post and has forbidden me from moving to Montana or South America. Before you people from Helena or Uruguay write me angry letters, I don't think she has anything against you personally, she just doesn't want me to move my family out of driving distance.

Over the weekend I picked up two new referrals from friends at church. Because of the negative stereotypes, people seem to be surprised that lawyers can walk into church without bursting into flames, but many of us do (the church part, not the bursting into flames part - at least I've never known any lawyers to spontaneously combust).

The first referral hasn't panned out yet, but I have an appointment with the second set up later this week. There are some red flags that there may be tricky legal issues cropping up with this potential client (PC), so I had to call a mentor for advice today. I was advised that this is the type of case that many lawyers turn down or at least think twice about taking, which made me think of a recent note I read from a solo lawyer who turned down a PC in a similar situation. He said he has always wondered if the client would have been better off with him learning as he went, rather than being forced to find a new lawyer with a case that wasn't exactly screaming to be picked up. On the other hand my advisor said she took a case like this and ended up getting sued, so I have quite a decision to make. If all my "red flags" get cleared up at the meeting, all will be well, but if not I may have a very difficult decision to make.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Friday, June 23, 2006

I got to "play" with Abacus Gold today, and I'm impressed. Although there is ample documentation provided out of the box, I was able to install and run the software myself (no consultants needed) without spending hours reading first.

Abacus has an estate planning module, which I didn't buy but am now considering very seriously. I'm fairly happy with my existing trust software, but the upside to switching is the elimination of double-entering client data (once in Abacus and then a second time in my trust software). I'm thinking there may be a way to connect my trust app - which is based on HotDocs - to the Abacus database, but if I wanted to spend that much time hacking databases I would have stayed in IT.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

I drove to Sacramento to meet my friend Adrianne and her fiancee Killian. They are getting married the weekend after next and asked me to perform the ceremony.

This will be the fifth wedding ceremony I have conducted (California lets anyone who pays $25 register as a Deputy Commissioner of Civil Marriage). I guess I'm a little bit of a romantic sap but I really like weddings. Officiating at a wedding is a lot like being a lawyer - you get to form a new business partnership, and you get to stand in front of a crowd of people and make them listen to you. Hopefully I don't get any objections from the bench to my bad jokes - or at least nothing that results in sanctions.

I was supposed to meet the happy couple at a Starbucks in West Sacramento, but strangely we ended up on the only boulevard in California that does not have a Starbucks on it. How quaint.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Today is day #3 that the house has been on the market. Here is a link to our listing on our realtor's site.

Still no idea where we are going to end up when the dust settles. Today I joked to Jennifer that when escrow closes and we get our money we should surprise everyone by moving to someplace unexpected like Montana or South America.

Tonight was my one night to come home from work and relax - as much as you can relax while struggling to keep your house in showroom condition. I started the week with a late, but fun, evening as my 6-year old son took me to San Francisco for a father's day Giants game. Yesterday I had a client appointment; Thursday I am travelling to Sacramento to meet with some friends to plan the wedding ceremony I am officiating for them the weekend after next. And Friday Jennifer is going out with her girlfriends, so I get to be Mr. Mom for the night - a little extra work, but also a lot of fun.

I signed up for my first law seminar today - "Time Bombs in the California Workplace: From 'You're Hired' to 'You're Fired'". I'm definitely interested in doing some business law, so this should turn out to be interesting and informative.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

The best part about SOLOSEZ is the massive number of solo lawyers who post to it. That can also be the worst part, since the number of emails generated by the list can be overwhelming. I suspended delivery back in December, opting to read the archives online instead.

Before I sent yesterday's message about nystagmus to the list I changed my SOLOSEZ settings to deliver a daily digest instead - one consolidated message each day, instead of hundreds of individual ones clogging my inbox.

I did appreciate the few replies to my note, all of which were very encouraging. Several shared examples of trial lawyers in their own communities who manage with disabilities, some much worse than nystagmus. Another shared the story of an attorney, while not disabled, who suffered humiliation in the courtroom - his suspenders gave way while he was approaching the bench: "Hang in there, Brandon. Just be glad you aren't approaching the judge with your pants around your ankles like my colleague down here..."

I was surprised that each of the writers claimed to know someone with nystagmus, because the condition is fairly rare (only one per several thousand births in the U.S. from what I have read). They all suggested the condition is no big deal and should not cause me any problems in court, especially if I am up front with the judge and have confidence in myself. Another colleague has suggested some possibilities to "break in" gently and get comfortable in the court, such as certain types of hearings that may be done in judges' chambers or without parties present. One of the first things I intend to do when my job transition is over is find someone who will let me tag along to court so I can experience it myself and see if I can picture myself advocating for a client. I'm sure I could do it if I put my mind to it.

All in all, yesterday was a good day. The house is on the market now. After I got home from meeting a new client, I reheated a very nice dinner, put the kids to bed, and watched a movie on the couch with Jennifer. I finished the evening off with a nightcap of a few chapters from the famous Foonberg book on starting a solo practice, a book I will probably read and re-read a few times this year.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Monday, June 19, 2006

SOLOSEZ is a listserv set up by the ABA's GP Solo and Small Firm Division. The list is a great resource for solos like myself. Today I sent the following email to SOLOSEZ to troll for suggestions on how to deal with an issue that has been nagging at me for some time:

I was born with congenital nystagmus that causes my eyes to shake (yep, just like the police look for in the field sobriety tests, lucky me). The nystagmus does not really limit me physically, so I have never called it a "disability", but I am pretty self-conscious about it.

My practice is currently centered in transactional law, but there's only so much of that work to go around. I want to explore other areas but don't know how my physical condition may limit my possibilities. (I want to say "not at all" because I've never been one to let my nystagmus determine what I can and can't do, but I also know I will never be an astronaut or a commercial pilot because of my condition and I'm OK with that.) I'm usually fine one-on-one and in group settings, but the shaking gets worse when I am nervous so I am a bit concerned about how I would look in court, especially in front of a jury. Can a new lawyer build a successful practice without making court appearances? Would it be acceptable to handle everything up to the hearing stage, and then associate in another lawyer to handle the litigation? Or are there some areas of law where I might make a living without having to go to court?

I am glad I finally wrote this note, but I thought about it a long time before I could click the "send" button and let it go. I almost never talk about nystagmus because I don't like to draw attention to it, so actively soliciting advice in this area is a big step for me.

Last month I traded emails with a hearing-impaired lawyer, who confirmed some of my fears about this profession: "It's hard to deal with a disability and be an attorney. Somehow as if society expects attorneys to be perfect." Attention world: I'm not perfect. Neither are my prospective clients, but unfortunately they get to scrutinize my looks and demeanor in deciding whether or not to hire me. Sometimes it is difficult for me to maintain eye contact, which some people perceive as a sign of dishonesty or weakness. As a result I sometimes overcompensate so people will know I am competent, trustworthy, and strong enough to manage. Nevertheless I will not be surprised at all to lose a prospective client over this, and I can't say I would totally blame the client. They may not even be aware of the reason for their uneasiness. Hopefully I will get some good feedback from SOLOSEZ so I can figure out how to construct my practice. But more importantly, I would like to get it through my head that this isn't a big deal and I shouldn't worry so much about it.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Friday, June 16, 2006

I politely declined the paralegal job interview today. After talking with the supervising counsel, it turns out my instincts are correct and there is no career path from paralegal to corporate attorney.

This job came to my attention courtesy of an aunt on my mom's side of the family. I was hoping to use a little nepotism to overcome the disadvantage of not attending an ABA school, but things didn't work out the way I hoped. Afterward, I sent my aunt an email thanking her for the introduction and letting her know I wouldn't be the latest member of the family working for her company. She responded with a nice note that read:

Hopefully…you won’t need to work for [our company] (or anyone else) because your
own business will be more than enough to keep you busy and pay the bills!

Always nice to get a little encouragement here and there. It was definitely a big boost after yesterday's sudden panic attack.

Oh, and speaking of yesterday's activities - all those government jobs I was looking at require graduation from an ABA school. It's almost like some kind of conspiracy to keep tuition dollars flowing to ABA institutions. Wonder if I could make a name for myself by filing a class action lawsuit on behalf of all the qualified attorneys who attended state bar or other unaccredited schools but don't qualify for federal employment?

FYI, I was notified by Ian Best that this blog has been included in his Taxonomy of Legal Blogs. (I checked and I am listed under the heading "Advice for Lawyers and Law Firms", in case you are interested.) Thanks to Mr. Best for including me, and I wouldn't be a good neighbor if I didn't encourage you to check out his blog 3L Epiphany and wish Mr. Best much luck in his studies for the July Bar Exam.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Thursday, June 15, 2006

I shared earlier that I am not a solo by choice - I have always preferred the relative security of a regular paycheck and paid benefits. As time passed, and the rejection letters piled up, I became more comfortable with the idea of being my own boss...but I admit that every now and then a little shadow of doubt has crept in. Today's tiny cloud was courtesy of a conversation where somebody told me something I have heard repeatedly since I announced I was going solo: that solo practice was hard, and I may not be sane for choosing this career.
Most times that just rolls off me like water off a duck's back. If I'm feeling confident, I even take it as a little compliment - "I admire you for taking a risk." Today I panicked (just a little) and immediately ran to a computer to log on to USAJOBS and apply for any and every government job I could find. When I started to apply for jobs that required firearm training, I realized things had gone far enough.

Ironically, less than an hour later I got a phone call from someone wanting to set up a job interview. By this point I was so used to the polite rejection letters that receiving an actual phone call with a live person at the other end who wanted to talk to me was a bit of a shock. Unfortunately it turned out the job was a paralegal position with no possibility of growth, so I had to turn the offer down.

When I got home and calmed down I finally had a few minutes free to install the new practice management software I bought: AbacusLaw Gold. After installing I had to get back to work on the house, so I haven't had a chance to play around yet, but it looks pretty straightforward, much more so than some of its competitors. I installed evaluation versions of a few other suites and some are extremely difficult to figure out - and I have an extensive technical background.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Nothing much to report today - more packing and cleaning around the house. Why didn't anyone warn me how much work is involved in getting a house ready to sell?

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

A day of packing and more work around the house. We finally have the house in decent shape to sell, thanks to about two weeks worth of hard labor, and our agent signalled her approval by dropping off the "for sale" signs today. They will go up sometime this weekend.

I received this site from a colleague on a marketing listserv for solo practitioners, and thought it amusing and appropriate: Anonymous Law Firm. Reading it made me feel much better about the stream of rejection letters I got after sending my resume around to law firms this spring.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Monday, June 12, 2006

I got another client today, and what makes this notable is she was referred to me by an existing first referral! Hopefully the first of many.

This whole "mild mannered bank employee by day, lawyer by night" scenario can't end soon enough for me. I'm not devoting much time to the actual practice of law right now, but I spend a lot of time on business planning and selling our house. I'd guess I'm working at least 80 hours a week (and my wife is, too), so I look forward to getting back the 40+ hours a week I currently spend on my day job. Who knows, I'll probably end up investing that "extra" time back into the practice, but at least it will be my decision, and will hopefully pay dividends as time goes by.

Aside from the physical and mental drain of the long hours, practicing law part-time in the evenings has some real logistical drawbacks. Scheduling appointments around family events (both mine and clients') is a huge hassle. Often I have had to look three to four weeks out on the calendar to find a workable date. Weekday office hours would make things a lot easier, since there would always be a fixed amount of time that I'd be available to clients - and I can always schedule the odd evening/weekend appointment as needed. Then when I get back to the point where I'm having to schedule appointments four weeks out it will be due to my heavy caseload and/or frequent trips to the French Riviera. Either way, a great problem to have.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Friday, June 9, 2006 through Sunday, June 11

On Friday Jennifer and I loaded the kids into the van for a weekend trip to the Central Valley (Fresno). A college reunion was the main event for the weekend, but at the time we planned the trip we also intended to use the opportunity to look around northeastern Fresno and Clovis to see if we could make a life there. We are not strangers to the valley - Jennifer grew up there, and we met while students at Fresno State University - so the though of moving down there didn't come from out of the blue.

As the months passed, we changed our minds and decided to stay in the Bay Area because of the demographic advantages present in Antioch/Brentwood for the types of law I am considering, coupled with the lower saturation of attorneys per capita. The valley's crime rate for both violent crime and property crimes also factored into our decision, which was affirmed when we turned on the local Fresno news report on Friday night to find not one but two police standoffs involving hostage situations in the downtown area.

Even though our minds were all but made up we decided to take our sightseeing trip anyway. Like any major metropolitan area Fresno has its good and bad sections, and the good (particularly the newer development in the northeastern part of the city) presents very nicely. When we drove around at around 7 PM, we found quiet neighborhoods and very well-kept homes. There appeared to be a larger number of office parks within a short drive suitable for a small law office. We found the same to be true in Clovis, which has a nicely preserved "old-town" area and great parks and schools.

The rest of the weekend was a whirlwind, including a rushed trip back home to finish some last minute painting before the house hit MLS on Monday, so Jennifer and I didn't get a chance to talk about whether our feelings toward Fresno had changed. I'm almost afraid to get into that conversation because I was feeling good that we had a settled decision, and I don't want to steer us back toward indecision. Right now I feel like I could make a good career and give my family a good life in either place, so the decision should come down to where we would rather live. The pluses and minuses of both areas weigh out so evenly that even that decision is a draw at this point. We're back to looking for signs that point us to one place or another, a closed door here or an open one there.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Thursday, June 8, 2006

As if it isn't hard enough figuring out what to do with my life, now I have to figure out how to pay for everything?

Well, OK, we've already got that figured. But it wasn't easy. I put my love of spreadsheets and budgeting to good use and In the end my wife and I decided to sell our house and use the gain to finance the first three-plus years of my practice. By then I should know whether I am cut out for this profession or if I should refocus on another career path.

The hardest decision was whether to sell the house or stay and pull out equity. I ran numbers five years into the future under both models using conservative estimates for appreciation and investment gains, and the result showed a slight benefit to the equity loan side, but not by a huge margin. The problem was that under that scenario we would hit the maximum loan-to-value ratios that most mortgage lenders impose (usually 80% - 90% of the value of the home) around the middle or end of year two, at which point we will have to sell anyway, so staying put and pulling out equity just delays the inevitable.

We have decided to rent for a while, and are looking for a slightly bigger house - we currently have more kids than bedrooms, and having our 6 and 4 year olds share a room has been challenging at times, especially at bedtime. It will be a little strange to be a renter again after being a homeowner for ten years, but we'll manage.

There are other financial adjustments to deal with, not the least of which will be the shock of paying for my own health insurance. Oh, the joys of self employment.

Wednesday, June 7, 2006

Tonight I attended my first official county bar association function - a Board of Directors dinner meeting. I was invited to attend along with several fellow East County lawyers to discuss any issues we are facing in our practice. It was a very interesting evening, and I especially enjoyed hearing from and talking to other East County lawyers.

The ten years I have lived in Antioch have been a time of tremendous growth and change for the city, but as I mentioned before one of the reasons I decided to stay and open my practice here is the relative scarcity of legal services in the area. After hearing the conversation tonight I am getting an idea why that is. Many of the courts and services that used to be available to the citizens of Antioch and Pittsburg have been consolidated to the main county facilities in Martinez, which is at the other end of one of State Route 4, one of the most congested stretches of highway in the Bay Area. Travelling from Brentwood or Antioch to the county court can take 75-90 minutes on a good day. This is a major problem for East County practitioners, not to mention our clients.

On a social level it was also great to interact with other lawyers. That is still strange for me to write, since I used to dread these types of networking or social engagement where I am forced to mingle with people I don't know well. I am very social with my own friends, but for some reason have never been very successful breaking the ice initially. The good news for those like me is that it gets easier the more you do it. I intend to do as much networking as I can, especially now that I am getting started. People seem to want to help, and have been great about offering assistance or advice.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Tuesday, June 6, 2006

There are a lot of decisions left to be made, but one thing is for sure: I can't work at home. I have tried in the past, but the result would drive both me and my family nuts. For the last few weeks I have been looking for a small office to lease to give me a place to meet with clients, think, study and plan.

I have chosen to set up shop in the community where I live, which is both good and bad. On the positive side, we are relatively underserved from a legal perspective (based simply on numbers of lawyers per capita), and there is a great (and growing) need for professional services here. On the bad, the area is mostly single family homes with little business infrastructure, so finding a small office is proving to be tricky.

There are plenty of offices available over the hill closer to San Francisco, but we have decided to make a go of it here in the suburbs where the business infrastructure is not as developed. This rules out many of the best options for new solos, like legal suites and subletting an office from an existing small firm. An additional problem is that many commercial realtors don't want to deal with people seeking small spaces, so it can be difficult to find someone to help you search. I have found the classified ads in my local paper to be the best source of listings; Craigslist is also good in some communities, but has relatively little to offer in my market area.

One extremely good resource is Loopnet, a website I stumbled across courtesy of a Google search. Loopnet had several office leases in my area, and put me in touch with a commercial agent who may be able to help. I met with her today to take a look at three spaces in an office park about five minutes from my house (can't wait for a commute like that!). The offices were just what I was looking for, except they are on the second floor in a walk-up with no elevator - a huge problem, since I am considering elder law as a possible practice area. Appears to be a deal breaker, which is a shame because I liked most everything else about the complex.

There are still other opportunities, including a new office building right set to open next month at a great location with plenty of traffic (right across the street from a Wal-Mart) and a business incubator in the next city over. There is a fair amount of new commercial space just hitting the market, but the problem with this route is that most landlords won't subdivide smaller than 1,000 square feet, and since all they provide is four walls and a door you have to put out a lot of money to finish it (add HVAC, interior walls, paint, flooring, etc.).

Monday, June 05, 2006

Monday, June 5, 2006

I have decided to quit my comfortable, well-paid (but non-law related) office job and open a law office as a full-time solo practitioner. I made the decision a few weeks ago, but I have been holding off making any announcement until I had a chance to notify my boss so he would hear the news directly from me and not third-hand or through the magic of Google.

Like a lot of solos, working for myself wasn't exactly my first choice, but sort of my only choice. When I was wrapping up law school and thinking about the future, I always imagined I would work for someone else - in a perfect world, it would be a corporate job with my existing employer. But after spending the last year and a half networking and applying for jobs (both inside my company and out) with no results, the time to fish or cut bait is finally here, and I choose to fish.

This was a difficult decision for me to make. I have worked for my current employer for over 13 years, and my job is not entirely unsatisfying. I could work here happily until retirement and probably have a nice career to show for it, but I would always regret not giving law a shot. I can't stand the thought of all the time and effort - and student loan payments - standing for nothing.

My plan represents a huge undertaking for my whole family, including selling our house and moving, but despite all the risks it feels 100% like the right thing to do. I've never been much of a risk-taker before, and I come by that naturally: my dad worked 35 years for the government, and having grown up on welfare he instilled in me the importance of always knowing where your next paycheck is coming from. (We lost my dad to cancer last year, and when I asked my stepmom what he would think of my plan she said, "Your dad would be proud of you no matter what, but he would say you're out of your mind," which proves how well she knew my old man.) Still, after my initial acceptance that this was the only way to accomplish my goals, I have been getting more and more excited about the possibilities that lie before me.

I will be writing regularly about my progress. Hopefully my struggles will be of interest to some future generation of lawyers interested in following in my footsteps. If I am successful, feel free to steal my good ideas; if I fail, hey, this becomes a more interesting story and maybe they will find someone good looking to play me in the movie version.