General Practice, Solo & Small Firm DivisionSolo, Summer 1996
The Ten Commandments of Solo Practiceby James Kolb
1. You are a solo. Know your limits. Do not bite off morethan you can chew. You have been approached by a prospectiveclient who has a case that requires skills you learned about inlaw school but have not yet had an opportunity to use. Don'tworry, if you haven't been so approached, you will be. Before youtake on this client, you have to evaluate just how much you needto learn to effectively represent this client in this particularcase.
Suppose it is a tax case, and you have no particularexpertise in taxes. You should realize that the IRS code,regulations, opinion letters, tax manual, and all the decidedcases cover many interlocking matters that are not necessarilycross-referenced. However, as a lawyer you are expected to knowand address them. Consider what you will have to do to providegood representation; understand that you will probably spend morehours learning than you will be able to bill, and think aboutwhether referring this client to another lawyer might not resultin a return referral at a later date.
2. Remember how to say no, and practice regularly. I havethe misfortune of feeling sorry for prospective clients andtaking their cases even when I know in my heart that I will notbe paid. Remember--your time and advice is what earns you money.Your family should come before nonpaying clients. That is not tosay that you should not be without compassion, just limit the probono cases to those you fully intend to represent without fee.
3. Embrace technology; it is not a false idol. Learning howto run a law practice with computers really pays off in the longrun. If you prepare a form or pleading today, you will have itfor years (updated as necessary, of course). You need technologyfor research, word processing, demonstrative evidence,presentations, etc. Learn early and well.
4 . Remember to bill, and do so regularly. Funnything...people don't pay unless you bill them, and sometimesdon't pay when you do bill them. You can't expect the client toknow how much to pay unless you let him or her know. Any casethat depends on hourly billing must be billed at regularintervals. Don't let the amount build up until it is unmanageablefor the client.
5. Don't neglect to ask for a retainer. Clients expect topay or have a good knowledge of what is expected of themfinancially at the time of their first visit. You should alwaysobtain a retainer before you start on any meaningful work, evenif the amount is modest. Remember, the client who is unwilling topart with some money at first will be hard to collect from later.Beware of the old "forgot my checkbook" routine. If you enteryour appearance in court, you may not be able to later getreleased from representation if the client does not pay. This isa dilemma you don't need--giving top-notch representation to anonpaying client.
6. Thou shalt not undersell yourself to your neighbor (oranyone else). Your services are valuable, and they become more soas you gain experience. Why shouldn't you bill and receive whatthey are worth? You may want to give discounts from time to time,but if you do so, you should be sure that the client knows whatthe full value of the services is.
This is especially true when your friends and relatives areyour clients. In his book How to Start and Build a Law Practice(American Bar Association), Jay G. Foonberg recommends that youshow the discount clearly on the bill: e.g., the total fee is$450 less the family discount ($300), which leaves a balance dueof $150. Your client has no way of knowing what a nice thing youdid unless you tell him or her.
7. The problem case will not go away. Don't ignore it. Whenyou have a case you just don't want to work on, remember, itwon't go away. Keep it on your desktop so that you are remindedof it on a daily basis. Take care of it a little at a time if youare unable to immerse yourself in the case. That way, you may geta flash of inspiration that allows you to go ahead and finish thecase. Remember, lawyers get sued for missing statutes oflimitations.
8. Avoid taking a case out of pity. If you take a case outof pity, don't expect full payment. Don't get emotionallyinvolved in your clients' problems. You can't give effectiverepresentation if you can't be objective about the case. A lawyerwho becomes emotionally involved in a case is a prime candidatefor Lawyers' Avoidance Syndrome.
9. Don't take shortcuts. Whenever you skip the research, theShepardizing, or the review before a hearing, you are going topay for it by having your ears pinned back by your adversary.Spend the time and the effort and you will be the one pinningears back. That is not to say that you should never take ashortcut--if you have a case that should be settled rather thantried, attempt an early settlement.
10. Trust thine own instincts about a client or a case. Ihave frequently gotten "bad vibes" about a case or a client atthe first meeting. Without fail, this is the case that causes themost problems. Listen to your instincts. You will find that therewas a basis for any misgiving, even though you did notconsciously recognize it.
James Kolb is a sole practitioner in Rockville, Maryland, and hasrecently started a consulting firm that develops databases andtemplates for existing law and business applications..