Hard Times and Boutique Practices

By Andrea Goldman

The Massachusetts contingent of SoloSez (the ABA’s listserve for solos) has been getting together for monthly dinners for years. New faces come and go, but there is a core group that has formed a strong bond. We refer cases to each other and are always available to answer a question, point a colleague in the right direction, or listen to the occasional rant. At our recent dinners, the discussion has turned to the economy. How is it impacting our practices and what should we be doing about it? Most of us run boutique firms; that is, we focus on two or no more than three practice areas. There are still a few who seem to get business no matter the economic environment. Most solemnly agree that the phone is ringing less these days, but no one is ready to pack it in and go look for a job.

Sasha Golden, of the Golden Law Center, who incidentally initiated the first dinner many years ago, runs an elder law and estate planning practice at the Golden Law Center in Needham, Massachusetts. She began more than ten years ago with an interest in special needs law and is now a part of the majority in recognizing the economy’s effects on her boutique practice. “My routine estate planning has slowed, pretty much to a crawl.” Golden is not overly concerned, however, because she is keeping busy with the inevitable. “There are certain things that will not be affected because they’re not avoidable. People get sick and people die. And the legal issues that arise with that must be dealt with . . . whether anybody likes it or not.” So, while estate planning is down, elder law remains steady. This is where Golden comes in, dealing with the few issues that have not been affected by the economy. Golden’s plan for facing the current economic situation is to focus on marketing and self-promotion. She will continue with elder law and guardianships and plans to reach out to domestic relations lawyers to get her estate planning back on track. Golden maintains peace of mind by “trimming the fat and keeping on top of the bills.”

Christopher Shannon, of The Law Office of Christopher A. Shannon, is a sole practitioner in Brookline, Massachusetts, who realizes the importance of handling varied kinds of cases. Focusing on residential real estate, criminal defense, and family law, Shannon notices that some areas are currently stronger than others: “I see more people struggling financially with all of the family and societal pain and friction that entails. As homes lose value or are lost to foreclosure, divorce is increasing.” To ensure a steady work flow in a broken economy, Shannon plans to expand his practice into immigration law. He says that not only does it overlap his criminal law practice, but there will always be large numbers of immigrants attempting to become U.S. citizens. He feels that taking classes and looking to hire a bilingual paralegal are the proper steps to continue a successful practice in a troubled time.

Joyce Davis, of the Law Office of Joyce E. Davis, has been practicing workers’ compensation and disability law for years. She began practicing workers’ compensation law while working at a large firm in Boston. She had been an insurance regulatory attorney concentrating in workers’ compensation insurance alternatives. After the workers’ compensation reform legislation was passed in 1991, Davis’s area of practice slowed. In order to keep her on board, her department head had another lawyer teach her what she refers to as “hands-on” workers’ compensation—i.e., actually litigating cases at the Department of Industrial Accidents.

Davis has a strong connection to the Brazilian community. She states:

To date, I have been fortunate to have had a steady stream of new clients. One of my major referral sources has been undergoing some major changes and that, more than the economy, has affected my practice. The economy may, however, have an impact on me as the downturn continues. I represent many immigrant day laborers, and The New York Times recently published an article about the difficulty these individuals are having finding work. The fewer jobs for my client base, the fewer injuries, and hence, fewer cases for me. On the other hand, I believe that there has been research showing that as people lose their jobs, workers’ compensation claims increase.

In her case, the work has been business as usual.

Dana A. Curhan practices in the area of criminal and civil appeals and post-trial matters. After doing moot court in law school, he had the foresight to do appellate work as a career (perhaps a topic for another article). Curhan’s first job out of law school was as an appellate prosecutor in a local district attorney’s office. After five years, he left to enter private practice. He currently has two lawyers in his office.

The economy has affected Curhan in a couple ways. Many people simply cannot afford to hire him, but then again, few people ever could. He says:

Up until fairly recently, I would quote, for example, an $8,000 fee. The clients would offer me some fraction of that up front and then ask to go on a payment plan. On those rare occasions when I would agree, I would never get the second payment. At present, these clients cannot even come up with the initial payment. So far, my business seems to be holding up. The attorneys who normally hire me are still hiring me, and the people who need and can afford my services are still around. One way of looking at the changes to my practice is that the retail side has changed. The tire kickers who had no intention of paying me and who were generally a distraction are not around.

Curhan has seen a noticeable jump in divorce cases in the past six months. His theory is that when people started losing their jobs a year or so ago, they figured it was a good time to split with their spouses. As the cases are tried, one party or the other is not happy with some aspect of the judgment. That’s when he will get a call. Traditionally, during a recession, there is also a spike in certain types of criminal appeals a year or two after the downturn starts. (By the way, for a lot of these people, the recession started some time ago.) Child molesters do what they do regardless of what is happening with the economy, but for other types of offenses, there seem to be cycles. Some people lose their jobs and start selling drugs. Some lose their jobs, drink too much, and beat up their spouses.

Like the other lawyers interviewed, Curhan does not have any plans to change his practice and will continue to do appeals. To some degree, the market may dictate the types of appeals that he handles, but this happens in every business cycle.

Denise Squillante, of Denise Squillante PC, has been in solo practice for 25 years. Her primary practice area is family law, and she also has a general practice and does some corporate, personal injury, and estate work. Her courtroom presence is primarily in family law. While in law school, she participated in a legal aid clinic that serviced indigent individuals in family law matters, which led her to practice in that arena. She says at that time, there were few women lawyers in practice and few as sole practitioners, and most of her first clients sought help in family law matters. Squillante says,

My practice is busy, but I have noticed a marked slowdown in the attorney traffic in the court. I attribute this to the number of pro se litigants and the downturn in the economy. At this time of year, the phones are usually ringing off the hook with people seeking a first-time appointment or what I refer to as an intake. These calls usually come in before the beginning of the year when people who are considering separating or leaving the marriage would file right after the holidays. Although there have been difficult economic times over the span of years I have been in practice, I have not seen anything as deep as this.

Here are some of my observations: One lawyer in my community, a solo in practice for decades who had a primary real estate practice, is looking to office share, one lawyer who has been in practice for 35 years in a two-lawyer firm is very concerned and is taking work such as collections that he would have refused a year ago. In two continuing ed programs that I participated in this October, I noticed a significant numbers of lawyers who were attending in order to develop skills to move from one practice area into another. I am getting more résumés from new lawyers looking for jobs. I have noticed more young lawyers from a neighboring state who are licensed in both states coming into the courts of my community.

Squillante has a third-year law student part-time, one assistant, and one receptionist. She has instructed the office to be careful relative to the ordering of supplies and is paying more attention to what things cost and getting more bids on expenses such as insurance. She is trying to be more flexible with her time to make sure that intake appointments are scheduled within the current week—she previously would have booked them out two to three weeks in advance without concern for a lost appointment. In this economy, in her view, lawyers are going to need to pay close attention to the service end of their practices.

Squillante will not be changing her primary practice area, but she is looking to expand the type of services her office provides. She plans to attend a comprehensive mediation training to see whether she wants to branch out in that direction.

Alan Fanger seems to be the exception to the rule. His practice is quite varied, including probate litigation, legal malpractice, and real estate disputes. He says, “While employee compensation (especially Wage Act) work has increased, real estate litigation has slowed dramatically.” Fanger settled four six-figure cases just in 2008, which would and should make any lawyer happy, but in this economy, Fanger openly admits that he is still very concerned about what lies ahead. He obviously shares this distress with many others and is also not alone in wondering what to do. Whereas some lawyers such as Christopher Shannon are broadening their scope, Fanger says that, “this is not the time to be expanding practice areas. The more specialized you are perceived to be, the more of a competitive advantage you have.” His advice is to accept reality, network, blog, and get on your feet and promote yourself.

My experience has been mixed. I went through three weeks recently where the phone did not ring. It was the quietest time I have had since I started my practice. In a way, however, it was a good break to have. I focused on cleaning out files, writing blog posts, touching base with clients, straightening up my desk, and planning for the future. My QuickBooks and PCLaw are up to date, and I took a hard look at my client base to determine which cases to weed out. These economic times are encouraging me to be lean and mean.

I handle mainly construction (homeowner/home contractor, subcontractor/ contractor, etc), real estate, and business disputes. I also write contracts for new construction and renovation projects and work as an arbitrator and a mediator. Clients are calling about smaller disputes, but I have not been tempted to take those cases—I refer them elsewhere. I have used the time to launch a new consulting business and created a website to start my marketing efforts. I am guessing that it may be owing to increased optimism since the election, but my phone is now ringing again, and I feel more like I am running my practice rather than having it run me.

Although some lawyers are tempted to start taking anything that walks through the door, most of the seasoned lawyers I know are holding fast. They recognize that having a defined boutique practice attracts more clients as opposed to cutting back on their potential client base. In fact, when I started my practice, I realized that the more I defined myself, the more clients I attracted. In Massachusetts I am known as the “home contractor vs. homeowner” guru, which can be limiting at times, but it certainly helps pay for two college tuitions. Like many lawyers with boutique practices, I am thinking about ways in which I can expand my practice, but more as a natural outgrowth of what I am already doing rather than a frantic attempt to learn something new.

My best recommendation is to try to view the economic downturn in a positive light. It is giving all of us the opportunity to reassess and focus on expanding the profitable and satisfying aspects of our practices. More importantly, it is forcing us to weed out the clients that are making us lose money and avoid the cases that will be more costly in the long run. That is not a bad thing.

Andrea Goldman is the principal of a Newton, Massachusetts, law practice specializing in construction, business, and real estate disputes. She is a litigator, mediator, and arbitrator and is fluent in Spanish and French and has served international clients in their native language. She recently launched a new consulting business, Building Confidence, LLC, www.buildingconfidence-llc.com. For more information about Andrea Goldman, visit www.andreagoldmanlaw.com or call 617/467-3072.

Copyright 2009

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