GPSolo Magazine - January/February 2004
Diversified Practice: Not My Style
For ten years I was one half of a popular, lucrative general practice firm whose “criminal” foundation was a thriving DWI practice in what was then a small town. The civil core of our cases ran the gamut of expected matters: personal injury, workers’ compensation, domestic relations, estates, Social Security disability, landlord/tenant, consumer law, and the assortment of civil cases that don’t fit neatly into any category.
I had come to the practice after working in two legal services programs, one small and rural, the other large and urban, and I had specialized at both. Despite my futile protests, my new partner turned no case away and demanded I do the same. Every day was a struggle, but I imagined that after a few years, I would have been exposed to enough types of cases that they would become familiar and I could handle them with the same ease I felt after six months in a legal services specialty area.
After about a year, when we were both working late in the office (my days routinely started at 7 a.m. and ended about 10 p.m.), I watched a law book come flying out of my partner’s office door and heard him yell, “Can’t I ever get the same case twice?” My heart sank—he’d had a general practice for 15 years.
Increasingly, though, we did specialize—in a manner of speaking. He handled most criminal law matters and the associated motor vehicle hearings, leaving me with all the varied civil work. This didn’t seem much like specialization to me, and I felt more and more burdened as the practice grew. We hired a part-time attorney, who worked for the government days and for us at night, to handle the non-litigation work and some of the paperwork associated with our litigation. Although this proved helpful, it still wasn’t adequate, and we added another attorney to co-counsel on many of the civil cases headed for trial. After several years, three lawyers with their own practices were co-counseling with us.
The issue of diversification, though, was a constant battle between my partner and me. My partner’s point (and I see its validity quite clearly now that I’m on my own) was that clients prefer a full-service practice; if you refer clients to another lawyer for their workers’ comp case, they may stay with that lawyer for their DWI. Also, a diversified practice ensures a steadier income stream. Certain types of cases recurred at specific times in the year: We looked forward to settling our personal injury cases in November and December, when insurance companies were closing their books but few clients wanted to spend holiday money on a lawyer. In January and February we had a flood of domestic relations cases from people who had stayed together through the holidays “for the sake of the children.” March, April, and May brought income tax refunds, and throughout spring, summer, and fall clients had money from construction and farm work, all of which people used to pay for non-contingency civil cases and criminal cases. This work fell off during winter, when personal injury settlements picked up again. During rough economic times, we had an increase in workers’ comp and bankruptcy cases that helped offset the loss of criminal clients who instead turned to public defenders.
My decision to practice only criminal law came slowly after the partnership dissolved. I realized I wouldn’t be able to handle as many “big” cases and appeals as I previously had and still make a living. I might have decided to concentrate on workers’ comp or bankruptcy cases and gone to a volume practice in those areas, but I simply wanted as little paper and as much litigation as possible, and that meant criminal law. My decision to de-diversify was primarily personal.
The benefits from having practiced in many areas, though, are substantial. Knowing there were other areas of law in which I felt comfortable did provide some security. It also helped that I could provide additional services to clients in conjunction with their primary matters, for example, preparing a power of attorney for an incarcerated client. Clients also ask general questions, and it’s helpful to have at least working knowledge of other legal fields, if only to make the correct referral or know whether a referral is indicated at all. I don’t believe this is essential, though; some of the best criminal defense lawyers I know have never practiced anything else.
Practice diversification comes up more often in the civil arena. Although it’s possible for one person to handle a variety of tort-related work, such as personal injury, intentional torts, and constitutional torts, it becomes increasingly difficult to also handle domestic relations, bankruptcy, workers’ comp, consumer law, and real property issues—and to handle them all well. The toll for keeping up is enormous.
Some lawyers need to have a general practice because of location. My former law partner opened a practice in a small rural town, which necessitated a general practice, but the town grew quickly, and the increase in population made a limited practice feasible. It’s also possible to cover a larger territory if the lawyer is willing to travel. I have three offices in different towns (two offices are interview-only) and routinely go to court in six different counties. I would rather do this than diversify my practice, but the choice was not a simple one.
For obvious reasons, it’s considerably easier to limit your practice than to expand it. Before you make the decision to de-diversify, you already know where most of your money is coming from, but you have no prior track record when you decide to expand. Expansion also might bring about staff increases, which could affect the time you spend managing instead of lawyering. What worked in my two-person firm was arranging co-counseling with lawyers who had experience in the areas where we needed help. We generally divided costs and fees, which lightened the burden considerably for contingency cases with expensive costs. The other advantage to co-counseling is that you can gauge the results before making the commitment of additional staff, office space, and equipment.
Even with only one practice area, my preference still is not to hire other lawyers. Friends urged me to do so when I started turning down work, but I didn’t (and don’t) want the downside of having someone on salary during the inevitable slow periods. Instead I worked out an arrangement with a lawyer who needed work: I interview clients, work up the cases, and pay her a flat fee to go to court. On the other hand, a lawyer I know who went from a general civil practice to a criminal practice about the same time I did hired five lawyers and grossed half a million dollars last year. (Amazingly, we compared actual net incomes, and they weren’t much different. But I went home at 5:00, while he stayed at the office to deal with management issues.)
In the final analysis, the decision is a matter of your geographical location, financial expectations, and personal preferences. It’s unlikely to be economically feasible for the sole practitioner to limit a practice to workers’ comp cases in Butte, Montana, but Baltimore is another story. My suggestion is that a fallback area can provide a measure of economic security through changing times and market conditions.
Judith Stainbrook is a solo practitioner in Carroll and Queen Anne’s Counties, Maryland, concentrating in criminal law. She can be reached at email@example.com.