THE CHAIR’S CORNER

Confronting Recession Head-On

By James M. Durant III

This issue I’d like to present the story of a lawyer who has discovered unique ways to deal with the current economic downturn. I thought it best to present this story unfiltered, in the lawyer’s own words. So, without further ado, here is one typical day in this lawyer’s practice:

My Day
I am a solo! I begin my day with a brisk shower at the local YMCA after an incredible workout in my pilates class. My membership with the YMCA will soon expire, and I am afraid that I will not be able to renew it this year. Following my morning exercise routine, I quickly head to the local doughnut shop for my usual cup of coffee, cigarette, and plain cake doughnut. Sure, this breakfast is less than nutritious, but it’s reasonably priced at $1.32. I then quickly head to my office on Seventh and Thompson, in the Samuel Rendon Building in downtown Santa Maria, California. I really admire my office with its quaint early Mexican architecture, which includes Spanish tiles and an adobe facade.

Today I’m preparing for an important deposition in the Dorian case. Mr. Dorian is one of my oldest clients. He owns three restaurants, two cleaners, and four coin-operated car washes. He is currently in litigation for a slip-and-fall that occurred at one of his restaurants. I anticipate that after this deposition, we are surely going to move to an expeditious settlement. I am confident that Mr. Dorian will be pleased with my representation. Mr. Dorian is my good news; unfortunately, I lost three other long-standing clients within the last two weeks. And within the last month, I lost a total of nine clients. One client advised me that he simply couldn’t afford me any longer—even though my retainer is the lowest in the county and he had been doing business with me for more than five years. Instead he’s opting to use the Business Lawyer in a Box program that he purchased for $300 online. He says that he’s been able to draft and file his own pleadings and motions with the program (although the program offers no guarantees of accuracy). He tells me that he’d much rather use my services, but during these economic times “every dime counts.”

After finishing Mr. Dorian’s business, I travel to district court to represent Dr. Polk, a 65-year-old retired obstetrician. He is not wealthy; he recently lost most of his retirement, which was tied up in stocks. I am representing him for a mere $200 in his suit against Mrs. Jenny for planning to block his view of the valley with a new addition to her home—a fourth room over her back porch. I have represented Dr. Polk on occasion pro bono. He has been my client for most of my law practice. Fortunately, we were able to obtain a temporary restraining order, halting Mrs. Jenny from building for now.

At lunchtime I have a bag of oatmeal waiting for me. I usually eat oatmeal because of the obvious health benefits. And the cost. I pay just $2.50 for a box of ten packets of oatmeal, which lasts for the entire week.

After lunch I travel to superior court and await the possibility of obtaining a client under the Criminal Justice Act. I am usually fortunate, but lately the allocation of clients by the court has been limited or nonexistent. After two hours, once again, no client.

En route back to my office, I stop by McGee’s, a local office supply store and copy shop. I had to get rid of my copy machine and printer—the maintenance contract was too expensive. McGee’s handles most of my printing and photocoping without a monthly contract. Unfortunately, they cannot guarantee client confidences, but they indicated that they would “do their best.” I hope that will be enough should my state bar ever start asking questions.

After that I head back to my office . To save money, I had to reduce my secretary’s time to ten hours per week—compared to the 70-plus she previously worked. Her name is Vanessa, and she has been with me for more than seven years. Vanessa is loyal, but I know that she will have to find other consistent employment soon.

By 5:00 pm all I have left to do is complete a couple correspondences to clients. I’ve recently stopped mailing these matters by the U.S. Postal Service. Instead, I only send electronic letters with signed receipts.

My workday ends around 7:00 pm. I am exhausted and awfully hungry. I have a friend who manages a local Mexican restaurant, Perez’ Comida . In exchange for helping Mr. Perez with his accounting and business management, I am able to dine at no cost after 9:00 pm. They close at that time, and whatever is left, I get to eat. It is a good situation, but I have to admit, Mexican food every night can sometimes get the best of you.

After dinner I’m ready for a good night’s rest, so I just head back to the office and spread out my blankets on the couch in the waiting room. Unfortunately, several times during the past few weeks I’ve been awakened in the middle of the night by the security guard, who thinks there’s someone breaking in. I tell him I’m just working late. This is a ritual that I find happening with greater frequency. I have great difficulty going back to sleep when aroused by a bright flashlight and a hand banging on my window. I really hate having to sleep in my office, but I have no choice. You see, I lost my home two months ago owing to a foreclosure and was forcibly evicted by the local sheriff. Adding salt to my wound, my credit is also ruined and I cannot even obtain an apartment. Even worse, I am currently not a candidate for government assistance.

Back to Reality
The story above is fiction, but I am told that for some attorneys in the United States, this situation is too close to being factual. In June 2009 Tommy Wells, then ABA President, conducted a recession conference in Chicago addressing the issues confronting lawyers’ ability to render legal services during these economic times. I was invited to serve as a panelist during this conference of ABA executive leaders, and I gave a news report that was very similar to the fictional account above. However, my news report included actual stories of practitioners having to work on less than a shoestring budget with declining revenue receipts. During this conference, we diagnosed the dilemma and discussed potential remedies. I commended Tommy Wells on his initiative to confront this issue head-on with the recession conference and with the ABA’s economic recovery resources page ( http://new.abanet.org/economicrecovery).

Following his lead, the General Practice, Solo and Small Firm Division has initiated a Commission on Recession, which is headed by Lee Kolczun, ABA Board of Governors member and former GP-Solo chair. This Commission is a joint project with the Law Practice Management Section. Under Lee’s leadership, we will specifically discover means of assisting Main Street Lawyers to sustain themselves during difficult economic times. We will explore such means on the state, local, and national levels. Although we anticipate great returns, we also recognize that such an endeavor will take time to be truly effective.

The GP-Solo Division remains steadfast in its attempts to truly serve the Main Street Lawyer. If you would like to be part of this initiative, please contact the Division staff immediately at 312/988-5648 or genpractice@abanet.org. We are in this together, and together we will better enable our fellow practitioners to serve the needs of their clients.

 

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