Thursday, March 15, 2007

Where have I been?

You may wonder why I haven't posted in over six months...uh, make that nine months. The reason is this: despite my insane attempt to quit the company where I work and go solo, I was "saved" by an 11th hour job offer that has kept me on board with the bank. The new job uses my legal education and takes advantage of my 15-ish years experience with the company, plus I keep my paid vacation and benefits. The topper is I can stay at my current office in Concord, so we don't have to relocate. What a win. My new team is amazing and I couldn't be happier.

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.