General Practice, Solo, and Small Firm Division
How to Get Some Satisfaction
By Robin Page West
Note: This Q & A interview was conducted with SOLO Editor-in-Chief Robin Page West, who has a solo practice in Baltimore, Maryland.Q. This issue of SOLO is all about lawyers doing what they love. You have a niche practice. What is it?
A. It's called "qui tam." I represent people who blow the whistle on fraud against the federal government-for example Medicaid fraud or intentional misuse of federal grant funds. My clients use a statute from Civil War days to blow the whistle and receive a share of the recovered money as a bounty. It's different; it's challenging, and can be very rewarding on an altruistic level as well as financially.
Q. How did you get started handling these cases?
A. It was a referral from a lawyer/friend who was too busy at the time to research this area of law, which was as new to her as it was to me. The client suspected her employer of billing Medicare for services that were never performed. Soon after she notified her superiors, she lost her job. Was it possible that her company was intentionally bilking the government out of millions? Normally, she would have no standing to sue for those millions, but under the qui tam statute, also known as the Federal Civil False Claims Act, not only did she have standing, but if her suit was successful, she could share in the proceeds.
I looked around for something to read on the topic-a primer, a how-to article, or some forms. All I could find was one esoteric treatise written for lawyers defending these cases and some academic articles that didn't even touch on the procedural basics.
I found a buddy in the local bar whose firm had at one time filed one of these cases. Together, we read the statute and filed our case. Several years later, we settled it for almost $9 million dollars, the fourth largest such case nationwide that year.
Q. How do you market a niche practice like this?
A. I was fortunate to receive a lot of good publicity from that settlement. Reporters started calling and my name appeared in magazines and newspapers. NPR's Morning Edition interviewed me and clients from around the country started to call. I was asked to speak on the topic in California, Alabama, the District of Columbia, and Baltimore. I also write articles for trade and industry publications and talk about this subject to other lawyers who may be potential sources of referral business, particularly employment lawyers. I also put my website url, www.quitamonline.com, in my articles and e-mails.
Q. Do you have trepidations about putting all your eggs in one basket?
A. Yes, because it's not a good idea to do that, and I try not to. It's easy for me to get caught up in the excitement of wearing the white hat and tracking down fraud, and to let my routine bread-and-butter cases get relegated to the back seat. But when I do this, my income goes on a roller coaster-astronomical one year, abysmal the next. I have to discipline myself to pay as much attention to the routine work as to the sexy, exciting stuff.
Q. So how does a specialized practice feed into your sense of satisfaction? And how does it make you vulnerable? A. I am enjoying my work now more than I ever have during my 20-some years of practice because I am representing people who have been mistreated for doing the right thing. I'm helping put money back into the U. S. Treasury. I feel like I'm giving something back. And I'm never bored because each case is different. It's hard to stagnate in a field where it seems that no two cases are the same. But I am vulnerable in that, at any time, a case can take a turn for the worse or the statute could be repealed or changed. But I don't dwell on that because that can happen in almost any area of the law. Lawyers need to be prepared to retool and rethink their practices just as in any other profession or industry.
Q. At what point did you feel you'd become an expert in the field of qui tam?
A. After eight years of handling qui tam cases almost exclusively, I finally felt I was truly an expert with the publication earlier this year of my book Advising the Qui Tam Whistleblower. It's the book I was searching for, but never found, when I was getting ready to file my first case under the statute.
Q. What are the financial repercussions of a specialized practice-are there long dry spells? Do you depend on a couple of big wins to see you through? If so, how do you budget? And what do you do in the "off season"?
A. Yes, there are long dry spells, and yes, I depend on a big win every so often to get me through. I keep my overhead low, even though I may not need to-just so I can have that peace of mind that comes from knowing I'm not overextended. As for the "off season," it's my opportunity to go home, putter around the house, and enjoy my family. I've learned not to fret when the phone is temporarily quiet, because soon enough it will start ringing again.
Robin Page West can be reached at email@example.com.
Advising the Qui Tam Whistleblower: From Identifying a Case to Filing Under the False Claims Act by Robin Page West is available for $94.95 ($79.95 for Section members) on the Section's website at www.abanet.org/genpractice/home.html (click on "books"), or order direct through the ABA's Service Center at (800) 285-2221. Ask for product code 5150282.