Changing Gears in Economic Downturn
As the face of the economy changes, those changes are reflected in each sector and industry. The legal industry is not exempt from these rapid changes, and as lawyers face an uncertain future, they must create a shifting paradigm to manage their stress and legal costs. Even in these hard times, there are ways in which lawyers can focus on gaps in their time to forecast a more promising future.
1. Attorneys can participate in bar association’s continuing legal education programs, which seek to address issues related to the housing crisis. Hot topics such as bankruptcy crimes, foreclosure, and consumer debt are all areas that an attorney can add to their current practice areas.
2. Developing expertise in a new practice area may mean seeking guidance from a more seasoned attorney or representing a client on a pro-bono basis under the tutelage of a sponsoring organization. For example, the New York County Lawyers Association sponsors the CLARO Project, which is a volunteer lawyer program for litigants with consumer debt cases. This program facilitates new knowledge acquisition through training sessions and practical expertise developed by advising pro se litigants, as well as developing skills in civil court procedure. Similar projects have been established throughout the country. For example, the Clark County Legal Services and Clark County Pro Bono Project in Nevada; the Pro Bono Project in Louisiana; and, the Lee County Volunteers Lawyers Program, all focus on consumer debt, credit, and bankruptcy issues.
3. Research the possibilities of becoming a part-time administrative law judge (ALJ) for agencies such as the Environmental Control Board, Department of Finance, and the Taxi and Limousine Commission. These agencies offer a paid, flexible work schedule where an attorney can maintain a law practice while serving as an ALJ. Another excellent opportunity is through the American Bar Association National Conference of Administrative Law Judiciary, which offers a Judicial Mentor Program for attorneys.
4. Continue to build your skills and enhance your visibility. For example, become a small claims court arbitrator. Also, apply to become a guardian ad litem in housing court or guardian, court evaluator or attorney for Alleged Incapacitated Persons, pursuant to Article 81 of the Mental Health Law. These opportunities are available nationwide. For example, the Atlanta Volunteers Lawyers Association offers a program on guardian ad litem, and the court website at http://www.utcourts.gov provides information on becoming a guardian ad litem in the State of Utah.
5. Get “plugged-in.” Visit any available bar association or court law library and catch up on recent changes in the law. Visit your law school to find out about programs. Join every list serve available to you so you can access information about free programs and connect with fellow attorneys.
6. Teach your paralegal, receptionist, or legal secretary a new skill to help you become more efficient when the market picks up.
7. If you have hopes of becoming a judge one day, volunteer your time with a political club in your area to “rack-up” some service points. Study the careers of retired and “sitting” judges. Visit the mayor, governor, and congressional offices to learn about the judicial screening process for nominations and elections on the local and statewide level.
8. Attorneys can create a plan of action to re-create ties or strengthen ties to past and current clients. Creating a postcard, which reminds clients of current and newly developed practice areas, as well as providing a discount rate incentive, may be objectives of this plan of action.
9. Attorneys may now be able to devote more time to market their practice. Conducting presentations at senior centers, churches, hospitals, and schools, among other entities in the community, can help to increase the visibility of the law practice and bring in new clientele.
10. Present your knowledge and expertise to fellow attorneys and laypersons by writing an article on an area of interest or assume a position of leadership. Bar association committees are frequently looking for contributing writers and attorneys interested in key positions within committees. This will enable others to learn of your expertise and refer clients to you in that area of practice.
11. Work on increasing your efficiency and effectiveness. Catch up on billing clients. Determine if you have a well-organized filing system. Is your computer software up to date? Are your computer and email folders and frequently used forms organized in a manner that is easily accessible?
12. With a little slack in your schedule, spend some time mentoring. Accept interns in the office, who can help you develop creative ways to market while you mentor them about the law practice. Get involved in coaching a mock trial program if one is available in your area. For example, the Thurgood Marshall Junior Mock Trial Competition enables attorneys to coach a seventh- or eighth-grade class in New York City while they learn about the legal system and various legal professional careers to which they can aspire.
13. With new knowledge of bankruptcy and foreclosure, attorneys can inquire whether a local college is interested in having them teach a class in an evening paralegal program.
14. With many nonprofits facing budget crises and possible collapse, attorneys can seek to become board members to assist in ways that generate income to help keep the organization’s mission alive.
15. Attorneys can join a bar association committee to work on community service projects. For example, participate in a hotline, where attorneys assist callers on a range of civil issues such as housing, employment, divorce, and bankruptcy. For example, in the State of Massachusetts, the Volunteer Lawyers Project of the Boston Bar Association established a hotline to deal with trust and estate issues. Similarly, the Lawyer Hotline in Wisconsin and the Legal Aid Hotline in Washington State serve the purpose of having lawyers respond to basic legal questions posed by callers.
16. Whether it be friends, family, or colleagues, there’s someone who may be worse off than you. Moreover, because of previous time constraints, perhaps you couldn’t spend as much time as you wanted with your family. Well, now’s the time! Find low–budget activities such as hiking, visiting museums, church concerts, discounted GEICO/AAA movie tickets. Inquire whether you can participate in Working Advantage at www.workingadvantage.com, a program offering discounts on cultural events in some cities.
In sum, attorneys should take notice of the changes in the legal industry. However, this should not be a time for simply accepting these changes. Attorneys should choose to navigate their own path toward learning, adjusting and funneling their “gap” into building meaningful relationships, which they will treasure for years to come.
Savina Playter is an attorney with the Law Firm of Rodriguez & Fuentes, P.C. She was formerly an attorney to the Honorable La Tia W. Martin of the Bronx Supreme Court. Ms. Playter copresented CLE to the CUNY Legal Resource Network (CLRN) and is an adjunct professor at Hunter College. She lends her expertise as a small claims court arbitrator and coaches in the Thurgood Marshall Junior Mock Trial Program.
Ms. Playter wishes to thank her paralegal, Rhonda Ayers, for her research assistance in developing this article.
© Copyright 2009, American Bar Association.