One Lawyer’s Renaissance: Creating A Small Firm at the Millennium
By David P. Leibowitz
In 1998, I was 48 and leading the insolvency practice group at a fine midsize Chicago firm. But bankruptcy practice had become more national, focused in Delaware. With fewer significant cases filed in Chicago, it was hard to meet benchmarks. Then one morning, I received an unusual e-mail from the International Law Institute, in Washington, D.C., seeking assistance for a training program in Mongolia. I was intrigued. The ILI sought someone knowledgeable in bankruptcy, economics, trusteeship and training—someone like me. So I responded, and three months later, I was leading a group of lawyers and judges in Ulaan Baatar, putting in place a new bankruptcy law.
Even though this was a paying project, many of my partners were skeptical. They rightfully felt that there were few business opportunities for the firm in Mongolia. But I felt that it was worthwhile. How often does one have the chance to represent a nation?
On my return from the trip, I realized that I would be much more satisfied in a practice that allowed me greater freedom. Soon, my partners and I amicably agreed to go our separate ways. I decided to establish my own firm in fast-growing Lake County, Illinois, about 40 miles north of Chicago. I located a small office in Waukegan, just 20 minutes from my home, across the street from the courthouse. I rapidly developed a rewarding practice with the flexibility to pursue my interests in the law of developing countries. At age 51, when many other lawyers are tired and burned out, I am rejuvenated and look forward to every day. How did it happen—and what might it mean for you?
Taking Personal Inventory
Self-assessment can be painful. I am a good bankruptcy lawyer; but there are many good bankruptcy lawyers. There are not that many great bankruptcy practices. It was tough to admit that I did not have a great practice. I knew it would be difficult, perhaps impossible for me to establish one, particularly with the locus of bankruptcy activity in Delaware.
But I realized that I have strong legal skills. I had established many friends and much goodwill. I am well-known in my community, having served on local school and library boards and as an AYSO soccer referee. I learned that my greatest strengths are versatility and my relationships, especially close to home. They have been invaluable in building my practice.
Seeing Opportunity in Change
I also looked at industry consolidation, and I saw lots of opportunities. Big national and regional banks had bought out traditional neighborhood banks. But the consolidated banks were perceived as distant and unfriendly, and had not swept up the entire market. Instead, smaller and more responsive banks moved in.
There are lessons for lawyers in all practice areas. The Big Firms are just right for the Fortune 500 companies, but there is plenty of rewarding work for everyone else. And the Big Firms are not as well suited to represent everyone else as are smaller, more accessible firms or solo practitioners. Large firms do good work, even great work. But they can be taxing. They tend to be in high-rent districts and require a lot of administration and overhead. In business terms, large firms have comparatively low margins. They also tend to be bureaucratic.
As a small firm, the Law Offices of David P. Leibowitz LLC has been able to make quick decisions concerning its office, advertising and technology. I don’t have to worry much about issues of scale, personnel problems or internal communication. I and my staff spend more time with our clients. We have lower expenses and higher margins.
I charge clients less and still make a very good living. I get help from the Big Firms when I need it. My clients seem genuinely pleased that I return their calls promptly, that I can see them right away, and that I have efficient, friendly offices close to them—with parking readily available.
Developing a Coherent Theme and New Business
When I opened my office in Waukegan, I didn’t bring even one client from my former firm. In retrospect, it seems like blind faith. But looking back on it, I did do a few smart things.
- I asked myself how I could best exploit my strengths. I realized that Lake County was growing and underserved. So I came up with the theme of Serving your legal needs in Lake County, a slogan that appears on everything that emanates from my office. I serve the needs of businesses and individuals in Lake County, as well as out-of-town lawyers, businesses and individuals when they have legal matters in the county.
- I sent out a lot of announcements. I went to a local stationery store and developed a sharp, modern look to carry out on my business cards, letterhead and other firm materials.
- I developed a small trifold brochure, explaining my practice, areas of expertise and general philosophy.
- I established a network of two branch offices in Lake County and another one near the federal court in Chicago. This allows me to meet clients at locations convenient to them. I don’t use these offices often, but clients appreciate knowing that they have options.
- I ran institutional ads for several months in a local chain of newspapers. People still remember them.
- I listed my office in professional directories, including Martindale-Hubbell, reflecting my new location.
- I introduced myself to all the lawyers and judges in Lake County. Through mail, open houses, visits and general visibility, I pointed out that I was not competing with them, but rather offering them services locally that previously hadn’t been available. I made myself a resource for my fellow Lake County lawyers. (This year, they elected me as a delegate to the Illinois State Bar Association.)
Now, my business is based almost totally on referrals from other lawyers and from former and existing clients. Approximately 5 percent of my business comes through the Internet.
Putting Technology to Work
Developing business is one thing. To actually get the job done, you must use technology. I have found several tools particularly critical in my small practice.
Practice management software is vital. With one package, you can maintain your personal database, schedule, docket, caseload and all associated documents. You can synchronize your database to your personal digital assistant. My PDA and telephone are now merged into a single "Smart Phone."
Time and billing software is also imperative. I keep my time very accurately. It imposes discipline, and good timekeeping and billing habits really do pay big dividends. If you do the same, your clients will be impressed with your professionalism. And it’s surprising how quickly satisfied clients pay their bills.
Lastly, I strongly recommend that you get a PDA and use it. I have long been a Palm Pilot fan. I am even more fanatic about the Palm Pilot now that it is part of my telephone and also synchronizes with my practice management software. Its calendar features help me keep appearances and appointments. My Smart Phone lets me be effective for my clients wherever I am. I even use it to send and receive e-mail. No longer need I lug a laptop computer everywhere.
Getting on the Web
Any practice today needs a Web site. A good friend offered to help me build my site, at www.lakelaw.com. I showed her my materials, took a photo of the courthouse near my office and let her go to work. I find that her work compares favorably to Web sites for much more substantial firms. I use the site for several purposes:
- Supplementing my print advertising and communicating information about my practice without imposing on prospective clients in person.
- Providing links from sites such as Martindale-Hubbell, Lawyers.com, Yahoo and other Web directories.
- Offering clients and prospects legal links relevant to my practice and their problems.
Moreover, in addition to enhancing my Lake County presence, my site lets my friends and colleagues around the world see what’s happening here.
Going with the Local Talent
Since the Lake County community affords me a good living, I give back. I volunteer my time to the legal service program, not only for indigents who need bankruptcy services, but also in the monthly Spanish-language legal aid clinic. It lifts my spirits. It’s also smart to get involved in local civic affairs, maybe a candidate fundraiser, a charity event or a project involving a member of the bench or the bar association.
I also stick with local talent in my office. I don’t have a secretary, but I do have two fine assistants, local college students who work hard and know computers well.
My legal assistant is a local law student who attends classes in Chicago in the evening. As a fourth-year student, much of her work is billable at reasonable rates. Clients are very happy. And someday soon, I will have a young lawyer ready to work with me. In addition, I hire other lawyers in the community on a part-time basis as needed. In so doing, I get the help I need and build goodwill.
Unintended Consequences—A Personal Renaissance
A funny thing happened when I opened my own firm. I started to feel very good about myself. I found my way to the gym and away from the refrigerator. Over the past several months, I lost more than 50 pounds. I’m fit and healthy and strong. So the renaissance of my practice led to a personal renaissance as well.
After two years, my practice in Lake County is thriving. I sometimes have to turn new matters away (imperative if you always want to serve all your clients to the best of your ability). And the international opportunities have continued. I’ve been back to Mongolia for another training mission, this one sponsored by the World Bank. I’ve been to London, where I participated in the latest INSOL conference. With the benefit of e-mail, telephones and my local talent, I was able to fully serve my clients even while overseas for several weeks.
I’ve attended symposia in Manila and Hong Kong concerning the development of insolvency law in Asia. I’ve had the opportunity to work with leading academics and lawyers in China in connection with the development of that nation’s insolvency law. All this with a modest home base in Waukegan, Illinois.
In 1998, my future was cloudy. Now I look forward to every day, with the same enthusiasm I enjoyed at the outset of my career. I can’t say what will happen tomorrow, but I’m sure that it will be interesting and rewarding. How bad is that? Believe in your dreams. Have a plan. You may discover a new and better reality.
David P. Leibowitz ( firstname.lastname@example.org) is principal of the Law Offices of David P. Leibowitz LLC, in Waukegan, IL, and a bankruptcy practitioner.
- Flying Solo: A Survival Guide for the Solo Lawyer, 3rd edition, edited by Jeffrey R. Simmons. ABA Law Practice Management Section, 2001.
- Getting Started: Basics for a Successful Law Firm, edited by Arthur G. Greene. ABA Law Practice Management Section, 1996.
- How to Start and Build a Law Practice,4th edition, by Jay G Foonberg. ABA Law Practice Management Section, 2000.
- Plus, for information about the International Law Institute and its programs, point your browser to www.ili.org.