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   May/June 2002


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RISK TAKERS: BRANCHING OUT

Fly Right
Dos and Don’ts in Opening a Second Office

By K. William Gibson

Successful solos already have their hands full when they’re running a single law office. So what makes a solo choose to open a branch office on top of that? Well, we all like getting new clients. I have been handling personal injury cases exclusively for the past 15 years. A couple of years ago, I saw that the effectiveness of my advertising had diminished, particularly my Yellow Pages advertising. But there was one continuing bright spot: My office has advertised in two Spanish language Yellow Pages directories with great success.

The Spanish language directories cover a broad geographic market in the areas surrounding Portland, Oregon, where I have practiced since 1980. Both the east side and west suburbs, in particular, have large numbers of Spanish-speaking residents. I decided that it was time to make myself more accessible to these groups. However, not every potential client would want to visit my office on the east side. So, I decided that I needed to open a branch office on the west side, about 25 miles away. That office opened in the fall of 1999. And it closed exactly one year later. This is the story of how I did it, and what went wrong. On the bright side, this is also the story of how I learned from the mistakes and am trying it again—though differently this time—to make it a success.

You’ve Got the Space—Now What About the Staff?

The branch concept was sound enough. Go to your clients—don’t make them come to you. If clients live 25 miles away from your office, there are probably at least a dozen of your competitors between you and them. So, I rented a small office from another lawyer in the right area and hooked up a high-speed phone line to network the two offices. I also sent my long-time legal assistant to staff the new branch. That was mistake number one. My assistant, who is also my sister, lives near our main office. Now, she would have to drive an hour each way to get to work every day. By Portland-area standards, that is a long commute. I agreed to shorten her workday to compensate for the long drive, which, of course, led immediately to a drop in productivity. That was mistake number two.

Mistake number three was hiring a receptionist-secretary for that office who lacked clerical and legal skills. But I perceived her to have good bilingual skills and connections in the Hispanic community that would make up for her limited office skills. Anyone can learn to use the computer, I thought. Wrong.

Supervising Has Its Complications: Watch for Assumptions

My experience overseeing the new office taught me a valuable lesson about the difficulties of supervising employees who work in a remote location. As much as I tried to keep tabs on the branch office, I always felt one step behind. I didn’t reliably get the latest information or learn about problems until after they had become serious. While my legal assistant did a good job of initial case screening, my attempts to meet personally with every new client were spotty, at best.

Mistake number four was failing to train my new employees adequately. We sometimes forget that it took us years to figure out how a law practice works, and we should at least allow a few months for new employees to gain a sense of what we do and why we do it.

For example, one of my branch employees couldn’t understand why I had turned down an injury case for a man who had gotten drunk, wrecked his car and ended up in the hospital. She pointed out that he had insurance and wondered why he should not get a settlement. I realized then that I had not explained to her the concepts of fault or negligence and how that played into our decision to take a case or turn it down. I had assumed that everyone knows that the accident has to be someone else’s fault. I had assumed too much. Once I explained the basic concept to her, she understood immediately.

Three-way Consultations Are Time-Intensive

While the office successfully attracted new clients, I failed to realize how much more work is required to serve a client who speaks no English. Mistake number five. You’d think it would be obvious, but it took a while for the point to drive home.

Imagine every conversation with the client as a three-way one—whether in person or on the phone—and you begin to get a sense of how time-intensive it is. Then there is the difficulty of explaining technical legal information to the client—it’s hard enough to do when the client and I are speaking the same language. But when I first have to explain the concept to my bilingual employee and then ask him to convey that concept to the client, it is often difficult to tell if the client really got the message. We had more than our share of misunderstandings.

I began to realize that the cases that we got in the new office had more problems than those in the main office and they were all moving at a snail’s pace toward settlement. I started to worry about our ability to serve the new clients’ needs. I talked with a couple of bilingual lawyers about working for me in the branch office, but that did not pan out.

The last straw came when the lawyer I was subleasing from decided to make a career change. He told me that he wouldn’t be continuing with his lease, although I could take over his lease—at triple my rent. I took it as a sign from above that this adventure had come to an end. Shortly thereafter, I closed the office and forwarded the phones back to my main office. Of course, I brought my legal assistant back, with all the files that we had opened during the previous year. I borrowed a friend’s office when I had to meet my west side clients, so they didn’t have to drive across town to see me. That client convenience was the reason I had opened the branch office in the first place.

Experience Breeds Appreciation

Fast-forward a year. I have just opened a new branch office. This time it is going to succeed. Like my previous branch, this new office is also in a suburb that has a large Spanish-speaking population. A key difference is that it is only 20 minutes away from my main office on the same side of Portland (and it’s on my way home).

Another difference is that I now have more bilingual staff support than before, and I have more of an appreciation for what it takes to serve the needs of a non-English speaking clientele. I also have a better appreciation for the ways in which cultural norms, customs and traditions shape my clients’ expectations of the legal system. As a result, I am better prepared to anticipate problems before they become problems and to educate my clients about what to expect from the legal system. So far, it is working well.

I almost forgot to mention the most important thing: I’m learning Spanish.

K. William Gibson (bgibson@cnnw.net) is a solo practitioner in Clackamas, Oregon, where he practices personal injury litigation. He is Chair of the ABA Law Practice Management Section and author of the ABA book How to Build and Manage a Personal Injury Practice.