GPSolo Magazine - April/May 2005
Voices of Experience
What is your background, and what inspired you to become a lawyer?
I am an accidental lawyer because of the urging of my then wife. I had attended two colleges, finished pre-dental, then switched to engineering, then journalism. I was in the Army, and my wife said, “Why don’t you go to law school? My daddy will give us a half of a cow for the freezer” so we could eat. I managed to get in the law school at the University of Georgia, where I finished first in my class (magna cum laude), was law review editor-in-chief, Phi Beta Kappa, etc. The rest is history.
What influenced your decision to pursue a general practice/solo/small firm career?
At first I practiced with a small firm, then clerked for a great appellate judge (we introduced footnotes to the Georgia appellate opinions and other innovations). Soon I had a bunch of kids—and decided it was time to get back into private practice. A firm of two brothers in Jonesboro offered me a partnership. I took it and have practiced in Jonesboro ever since.
What did you find hardest about setting up as a general practice/solo/small firm lawyer, and where did your biggest help come from?
The two-brothers-and-a-Driebe firm broke up, so I started out on my own. Naively, I thought all you had to do was hang out your shingle. Then somebody asked me if I had any retainer clients. I didn’t, and that got me concerned. The business side of running a practice was the most difficult—dealing with cash flow, equipment purchases, and the like. My biggest help came when I hired an accountant and a knowledgeable assistant.
What are the biggest changes in law practice you have observed through the years?
More paperwork and less civility. Instant communication via e-mail or fax. Also, the computer and Internet research have reduced the need for support staff. We once had two secretaries for three lawyers, but now we need only one.
What early lawyer experiences have helped you in your career?
I was willing to take any case and try it. I won a bunch, which made me understand that confidence and hard work could prevail in court. A land syndicator later became a friend, and I handled a number of large and complicated cases through limited partnerships. Often, several big firms represented the other side. I found out that they weren’t any smarter than me, even if they dressed better.
Whom do you most admire?
Jimmy Carter, a friend for more than 40 years. A farmer from South Georgia elected president!
What was the best professional advice you ever received?
Delegate, delegate, delegate.
What was the worst professional advice you ever received?
Charge your client for copies, faxes, and long-distance calls. Instead, I raised my hourly charge $5-$10 and saved both client irritation and my time.
Who or what got you started with ABA and/or GP|Solo Section involvement?
I joined the ABA in law school and accidentally got involved with the Georgia Young Lawyers, later serving as its youngest president. As a result, I participated in the ABA Young Lawyers and served on its Council. Around that time I also met John Clark. The tradition was that graduation from the Young Lawyers meant you went on to the General Practice Section, as evidenced by the number of Section Chairs who followed the path. After a relatively quiet time for me in the Section, John Clark got me directly involved with GP|Solo again in the early 90s as he was moving up to Chair. Been hanging around ever since.
What can the ABA and/or GP|Solo Section do to be a good home to young lawyers?
Although it is good to offer things of material value, I sometimes think there is not enough emphasis on the value of just contributing to our profession. Young lawyers need to know about professionalism and civility. We can expose them to those concepts. The GP|Solo Section is also great at helping members get to know lawyers from all across the United States. They find out that they have similar problems and solutions, and that lawyers are interesting as long as they aren’t talking about “famous cases I have won.” And the Section offers the opportunity to go to a number of different places: Did you ever think you would go to Rapid City, South Dakota?
What area of general practice/solo/small firm practice would you like to see changed?
The concept that solo and small firm lawyers can’t handle complicated cases.
What is the one thing you cannot stand regarding the law/lawyers?
The tyranny of the billable hour. When I started practicing, about every case was handled as a flat fee or contingent fee. A lawyer was judged on results. Now, everyone and everything seem to be governed by the billable hour. Of course, this often leads to abuses toward both the client and the firm.
What advice would you give new lawyers?
- Clients hire lawyers they know, so get around.
- If you make a mistake, admit it to your client.
- It’s nice to say no: Don’t bite off more than you can chew.
- Ask if you don’t know: Sometimes it pays to play dumb.
- Follow your gut: If you are not comfortable with a client, problems will follow.
- Send all letters and documents to client by e-mail.
- Practice existential law: Ask the client how you did before a ruling by a judge or jury. You can do your best, but you can’t control the result.