American Bar Association
General Practice, Solo, and Small Firm Division

Solo
Fall 2002 vol. 9 Number 1

Making Crime Pay: Tailor Your Practice

By Judith Stainbrook

When you find yourself grateful that your pager went off only three times during Thanks-giving dinner and that you average four hours sleep a night, it's time to make a change.
As a solo in a rural county, I had a "general" practice-meaning I took everything that walked, crawled, or fell through the door. I'd inherited the attitude from my former law partner, who thought it was the only way to survive. After we separated, I continued the approach despite the fact that Timeslips showed my main source of income was criminal law.
Finally, I opted to change. First to go was domestic law, which took the most work with the least return. When I told my staff, they worried that my calendar would be empty. With more calm than I actually felt, I said, "Yes, but my income will remain the same." In fact, it went up. And I was getting more sleep-up to five hours!
I took on the "big" civil cases that I'd given up when I went solo, but my bottom line still showed that criminal law was my bread and butter. Plus, I found that I really enjoyed courtroom work more than paperwork. But how was I to set up a criminal practice? Leave my cards in bars? Advertise on restaurant placemats or in the expensive Yellow Pages? What?
I knew that "letter lawyers" were common, but it never occurred to me to try a direct mail campaign until a lawyer friend suggested it. He'd developed a very successful criminal practice from direct mail and offered to send a trial run of 200 letters for me. To my surprise, I got six cases.
The secret? He listed his price for his services in the letter-a very reasonable flat fee. Other "letter" lawyers didn't. They'd try to hook clients, who were already inundated with direct mail solicitations, into calling, and then quoted high fees-if they quoted fees at all.
So I started a successful letter-writing campaign-until anthrax hit the East Coast. Now people were afraid to open their mail. What to do? I started sending brightly colored postcards. People now noticed my fee on the card before they were tempted to toss it as so much junk mail. Even if they didn't need a lawyer at the time, they tended to save the card. Being brightly colored, it was easy to locate later. And first class postcard rates are cheaper than bulk mail rates.
As a bonus, more civil work came my way, though I now neither need nor want it. But my friends in general practice appreciate the referrals, and in turn refer criminal work to me.
Because I live in a rural setting, I do have to travel; I put 60,000 miles on my car last year. But when I get home, I am through for the day-sometimes by noon. And there's no paperwork to worry about. If you don't like to drive, you can work one or two high-volume courts. One caveat: Some states (mine is one) regulate direct mail from lawyers, so be certain to check out your state statutes to ensure you comply.

Judith Stainbrook is a solo practitioner in Maryland and can be reached at stainbrook@conectiv.net.


 

 

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