Twenty years ago I wrote that while many pundits were predicting the nation’s lawyer population would reach a million before the end of the century, I believed that within a decade the number of lawyers would stabilize short of a million and then begin to decline. My stated reasons were that law schools were releasing thousands more new lawyers than the market could possibly absorb/employ, and that legal fees had increased so dramatically, especially among the very largest firms and based on the perceived need to compete for “the best and brightest,” that costs would outstrip the willingness and even the ability of clients to pay. College graduates would think twice about paying upward of $100,000 to become a lawyer if finding a job in the field was no longer a sure thing. I concluded that, as a result, not only would the number of lawyers decline but that many marginal law schools, including newer, for-profit ones, would combine or close.
I was wrong. It took longer than a decade. But it is happening now.
So what does a young lawyer do who has lost his or her job but has not lost the six-figure debt that came with seven years of college and law school? Tough question. Good question. Or what does an experienced lawyer do who has been “excessed” by his or her firm and shown the door? Many are turning away from law practice and seeking employment that will use the talents and skills honed by their legal training and law practice experience. To them we say a sincere “good luck.” Others are deciding to go it on their own, hang out a shingle, or find one or two friends in similar circumstances with whom to form a new law firm. To them, we say an equally sincere “good luck.” And “listen up.”
If you have not already done so, join your local (city or county) bar association and make yourself attend meetings; join your state bar association’s general practice and/or solo or small firm section; join the American Bar Association General Practice, Solo and Small Firm Division.
Why? Because these are the places where a young lawyer is most likely to find a mentor with whom to share problems and get suggestions and advice on how to find clients and develop and run a new solo practice or small firm. And these are also the places where an experienced lawyer may network to build a practice. If your budget can afford it, attend state bar and American Bar Association meetings as well; these meetings will help you form relationships with lawyers who may have a broader viewpoint than you find at home. In any event, volunteer to serve on a committee that will bring you in touch with experienced practitioners.
You might also consider adopting and living by these Ten Commandments for keeping clients happy and avoiding complaints, disciplinary and otherwise:
- At your first meeting with a new client, always discuss fees, whether they be hourly, fixed, or whatever variation.
- At that first meeting, define as exactly as possible the scope of your engagement. New clients always think you are agreeing to do more than you think you are agreeing to do.
- Immediately after the first meeting, prepare and send to your new client a proposed engagement (retainer) letter agreement. Remember to put the scope of your engagement, as you understand it, in that engagement letter.
- Communicate! Return client phone calls the same day if at all possible. If you cannot, have a secretary or other office person do so. Immediately. After complaints about fees, by far the most frequent client complaint is “My lawyer never answers or returns my calls.” Bombard clients with paper or e-mail copies of correspondence and documents. Patients know what their physicians do for them because most of their work is done with the patient present. You know how hard you are working for clients, but most of your work is done out of the clients’ presence. The only way they will know is by seeing the results of your work as it happens. But be very careful in your use of e-mail; it is very easy to misdirect an e-mail and inadvertently disclose client-privileged information or documents, thus running the risk of a waiver of privilege and a possible malpractice claim.
- Do it now. Procrastination is indirectly responsible for more disciplinary complaints than you can imagine. Create an office environment where your work flow is scheduled so that each job deadline is clear and consistent with court deadlines and clients’ reasonable expectations. And stick to your deadlines. This is the easiest rule to flub.
- Whether or not you are working on an hourly fee basis, keep accurate time records detailing everything you have done and when you did it. Retain old records, including notes of telephone calls and conferences, until the expiration of the applicable statute of limitations for professional liability. Inform your professional liability insurance carrier immediately if a client ever complains, whether orally or in writing.
- Be candid and forthright if you lose a motion, a trial, or appeal, or if a negotiation goes badly. Tell your client as soon as possible after you find out. Never misstate, mislead, or exaggerate to a client. About anything. If you have always treated the client as you would like to have been treated, the “one-time” client whose case was lost may still come back in the future or may refer other clients. If a client discharges you, cooperate fully with your former client and the new lawyer.
- Attorney trust accounts are sacrosanct. There is no more certain way to lose your law license or have it suspended than to “borrow” from your trust account, even if you repay the amount the next day. Even a totally harmless inadvertent mistake in making deposits or withdrawals can result in inquiry and discipline. Only you or a partner should have the authority to make deposits and/or write and sign checks. And you had better have the very highest level of confidence that your partner is ultra-reliable. Your professional life depends on it.
- Read and remember your jurisdiction’s rules of professional conduct. Keep a copy on your desk as a reminder, and keep in mind any mandatory ethics continuing legal education hours required.
- Remember the Lawyer’s Golden Rule: Always treat every client as you would wish to be treated if the client were sitting in your chair and you were on the other side of the desk.