6 month + update

And it’ll be a quickie b/c it’s getting late, but someone actually emailed me out of the blue about this site, so I feel a little guilty about just letting it die a quiet death.
Generally, I have to say that things are going well. I’m only on my own part time — I’m working for another lawyer 3 days a week. The good is a steady salary w/o which there is no way I would have been approved for a mortgage. The bad is that I only get 2 days for my own stuff and, realistically, I generally have more than 2 days per week of work for my own stuff. I’m liking being on my own far too much to want to stop, but I also like the lawyer I’m working for as well as the work I’m doing. So it’s a good arrangement for now.
Lessons so far:
— I need to get better at saying no. I am getting better at turning down cases/clients that I think will be trouble, but I still struggle with saying, no, sorry, I can’t take your case b/c I don’t have time.
— a related problem is charging my clients more. I’m definitely getting better at it and I still truly want to keep my services affordable, but I need make sure I don’t price myself so low that I can never become sustainable. At least I can’t do this until my partner starts pulling in steady, big amounts of cash. Then maybe I’ll follow the vanity law practice model.
— right now, most of my clients come from the bar referral service, but I do occasionally get the cold call. Of course since I’ve changed my number and haven’t updated anything except my website, it’s surprising I get anything at all.
— the virtual office thing works well. I gave up my groovy space downtown (which I still kinda miss) since the lawyer I’m working for is also downtown and I can use that space if I need to. I moved and, rather than continue w/ the commercial virtual office arrangement, I’m renting space from a lawyer who’s about 6 blocks from my home. It’s still a “virtual” arrangement in that I’m only there to meet with clients and pick up my mail. Having 24-hour access to my mail is huge. Probably the thing I liked the least about my old arrangement is that I was using a UPS mailbox and they closed early so I couldn’t get my mail after working downtown. I’m paying slightly more than I was for the commercial virtual space and the mail box rental, but it’s still only $125/month.
— don’t cheap out too hard when buying a postage scale or a computer monitor.
— I love and adore my ScanSnap. I loved it so much I bought a portable to use when I met w/ clients, but w/ my new virtual arrangement, I can use their scanner free of charge.
— keeping my overhead low has been vital to actually making some money. And I’m doing slightly better than break even so far this year!

Office space

You know, I finally saw the movie “Office Space.” I’d heard good things about it, but the fact that Jennifer Aniston was in it turned me off. But I was unfair in holding that against the movie. It was quite enjoyable.

But I digress (and before I’ve even started!).

I have found multiple solutions to the office space dilemma. In fact, I suspect I’ve overcompensated. I know I’m going to need to tighten down on my costs — on the other hand, much of what I’ve been spending has been for things that I would have gotten later, and has use to me now, such membership in professional organizations, reference manuals, office equipment.

But I digress.

Anyway, the plan is still to work out my home, but clearly, I will not be meeting clients here. I’ve been struggling to figure out where I can find space to meet whose location is attractive to clients (in terms of accessibility), relatively convenient for me, and inexpensive.

I’ve found two really cheap locations where I can rent meeting space by the hour — they are spaces that are used primarily by counselors, therapists, and massage therapists. They both have on-line calendar reservation systems which means I can check for availability while talking to the potential client. They are available 24/7, which is very helpful, since I am offering evening and Saturday appointments. The minus is that the spaces have a therapeutic, holistic, touchy-feely air. But my potential clients might find it a little whoo-whoo. Fortunately, both the spaces I’ve found have rooms available that don’t have massage tables in them. Even I would find that too much.

Another more professional-looking option is the executive suite. There are at least three companies in the Portland area offering “virtual office” packages, which include access to a conference room or an office for a set number of hours per month, or a simple rent by the hour option.

There’s an executive suite  about a 15 minutes drive from my home. With their virtual office option, I pay $99 for 8 hours of office access, whereas it’s $25 per hour otherwise. So as long as I’m using it for at least 5 hours a month, I’m saving money.The minuses of this option are, the spaces are only available 8 to 5, Monday to Friday and I have to call in to make a reservation. I’m starting to suspect that they have enough space that I don’t have to worry about availability.

A professional, free option is to use the conference rooms in the law library of the county next-door. The law library is about a 20-25 minute drive from me, so I’ve been using the virtual office option. The advantage of this space is that it expands my reach into the neighboring county.

Finally, I realized that I was spending at least one or two days a week downtown, where the state and federal courthouses are and where most attorneys seem to be located. So I found a very small office (80 square feet) for $150. I get access to a very nice conference room so I can still meet clients there. I’m finding it convenient to have a place downtown where I can work. I’m not a fan of commuting all the way there, but if I have to be there anyway, it’s nice to have place to work.

So, without a lot of monthly overhead or commitment (both the virtual office and the downtown one are on month-to-month leases), I’ve managed to find multiple office spaces.

Client selection

As I launch into solo private practice, I’m finding client selection to be the issue that I’m really struggling with. I’m certainly not complaining — I know I’m extremely lucky to be having to worry about which potential clients to accept rather than worry about having any potential clients to vet. But one of the pieces of advice I’ve encountered over and over about going out on your own is be very, very careful about the clients you take.

I never struggled with this issue much when I was at legal aid. For most of my time there, the majority of my clients came through court appointments. If I was scheduled to take a case on a particular day, and a case came in, then I had a case. Later, when I was working in a section that had a different intake system, I took cases based on the merits of the case and/or whether the client’s situation was especially compelling. Sometimes, I would a case simply because I thought my client had been treated unfairly and, even if it was extremely unlikely that I would be able to get adequate redress for that wrong, I thought that there was value in giving my client the opportunity to challenge what was being or what had been done to them. I guess a shorter description would be, taking a case for the principle of the matter.

In some ways, it’s funny to think about having luxuries when being a legal aid lawyer, but that was certainly one of them. Of course, luxury can lead to overindulgence and, while focusing on the case and not the clients, I definitely ended up with some extremely difficult clients who made their cases much, much harder.

Now, the potential difficulty of the potential client is a major factor in my case selection. By difficult, I don’t just mean, is the client mentally ill (which was sort of the defining characteristic of my legal aid clients), I mean, what are the client’s expectations? is the client willing to listen to me about what a realistic outcome is? can the client afford to pay me to pursue their definition of a realistic outcome?

I’ve already turned down a custody case based on the above criteria. It’s the sort of case that, if I had done straight custody cases as a legal aid lawyer, I would have taken. I believe the client has been treated unfairly (if her version of events is at least 51% accurate), I believe that I had a decent chance of getting her an incrementally better result than what she would get if she was unrepresented. The case had some interesting legal issues. But, the case looked time and labor intensive. I questioned the client’s judgment based on some decisions she’d already made. At this point, I’m not willing to take a pro bono custody case — and the client didn’t have the funds to pay me, even at a reduced rate. So, I had to turn her down — which was really tough. But, in the end, it was the right decision for me. And I need to be somewhat selfish right now.

Turning prospective clients into paying clients

As I’ve progressed down the road in opening my practice, my attitude towards getting clients has fluctuated. Before I hung out my virtual shingle, I figured that I would focus on getting pro bono clients for the first couple of months and build through word of mouth. Once I put up the website, I think I subconsciously expected it to magically draw in people, so naturally I was hurt when the emails and phone calls didn’t immediately start flowing in.

Now, a couple of weeks in, my internet presence has led to a tiny trickle of calls and I’m finding my problem regarding clients is doing the sales side of being an attorney. I’m too used to being a legal aid lawyer and giving it away. For example, I’ve been talking to a very nice woman with a credit card judgment against her. I can’t imagine charging her to look at her papers and tell her, yes, this is a legitimate garnishment order, not a debt collection ploy.

And once I get around to asking prospective clients for money, setting my rates will be tough. I know, as I’ve been told multiple times by seasoned practitioners, “charge what you’re worth.” And I also know there’s the reverse psychology concept whereby, if you’re charging too little, people will assume you’re not any good because if you were, you’d charge more. But I have a hard time charging for something, such as a voice in the legal system, that I think people have a right to have. Still,  since necessity is the mother of something or the other, I suspect that as my monthly expenses accumulate, it will become easier to appreciate the monetary value of my services.

First client cold call!

So this is very exciting. I actually had a potential client call me out of the blue. I was so astonished I totally flubbed the call. But then again, it was a foster parent looking to intervene in the dependency proceedings – not an issue close to my heart. Needless to say, the call went no where, but it’s exciting that someone found me through the internet!

Where I’m at in setting up my practice

I saw a bunch of former colleagues when I went back to the East Coast for a conference. In describing the state of my practice, I told everyone that I have malpractice insurance and a business card, but no clients . . . .

I have a somewhat leisurely marketing plan with regard to clients. I want to practice bankruptcy, debt collection defense, mortgage foreclosure defense, and family law, including juvenile law. So here’s what I’m doing so far: I’m getting involved with the legal aid bankruptcy and senior law clinics. I hope by taking some cases through those clinics, I will build up some positive word of mouth and referrals. I am also in the process of signing up with the bar association’s “modest means” program to take referrals for family law and foreclosure cases. In this program, my hourly rate is set by the client’s income (screened by the bar’s intake staff). I am slowly making contacts, primarily with consumer attorneys, to see if any of them would be a source for referrals. Finally, I am waiting to hear about my application to take court appointments representing parents in dependency cases. While the pay for these court appointments isn’t great, $45 per hour — it has the advantage of being a guaranteed source of cash flow. The disadvantage is that I wouldn’t get paid until the case is closed and these cases typically take months.

So far, I’ve avoided doing an in-depth financial analysis. With my legal services background, I’ve had the luxury of never having to think about cash flow. My plan is to let things build over the next month or two, and then I’ll have a serious sit-down with myself and work out what my monthly costs are and what I need to make to exceed those costs. My modest goal for now until the end of the year is to get at least one paying client so that I don’t totally regret the $480 I spent for malpractice insurance for the rest of 2009.*

I’m planning to keep costs as low as possible. I have the luxury of a small pile of capital from the sale of my house that I can draw on. I have to make sure that I don’t get too lax about that, since that small pile of capital  is also the cornerstone of my retirement plan (such as I have one) and, ideally, I’ll be able to replenish it within a year or two.

Right now, low operating costs mean — I’ve designed my own business cards and website (with plenty of help from my tech-savvy boyfriend). I have no marketing budget yet — so far I’m limiting myself to free on-line marketing, as well as the other strategies outlined above. I’ve inherited a copy/scanner from the aforementioned bf and I’m using my old laptop as well as a spiffy new Acer netbook (cost — $300). I’m using the (free) OpenOffice suite rather than MS Office, and bf is also building me a database that will function as my case management and timekeeping software. I’m using GoogleCalendar plus Mozilla’s Sunbird for my on-line calendaring — with this system, I’m able to sync my calendar across both computers as well as my smartphone. I’m using Dropbox (free) to store and sync my work files across the two computers. I’m also using Mozilla‘s Thunderbird for my email manager (an email address comes with my domain name), although I haven’t figured out how to sync that across the computers with actually setting up some sort of network.

I’m using GoogleVoice and my cell phone for phone services and signed up with TrustFax for about $5.00 per month for online fax service. I’ve found a fabulous law library about 20 minutes from my home that has an impressive array of reference books, as well as free Westlaw and Lexis access. I’ve indulged in a couple of luxuries — the netbook certainly wasn’t necessary (but it was cheap), nor was the conference back East or all the NCLC manuals I bought (at a deep discount), nor did I need to upgrade my regular phone to a smartphone . . . .

Speaking of  superfluous spending was planning on working out of my home and using rented conference/meeting spaces for client meetings, but I’ve stumbled across a couple of really cheap ($200/month) office rental situations. Of course, at that price, neither is ideal, but both have their pluses. I’ll probably make a decision about that in the next couple of weeks.

So that’s where I’m at.

*Oregon is relatively unique in that, not only does it require its attorneys to carry malpractice, it requires attorneys to obtain it through a single carrier — the Oregon Professional Liability Fund. I probably could have held off on taking paying clients until next year, since most of the pro bono work is covered by PLF, but hey, I need the challenge.

What’s this about?

This blog is about my attempt to transition from being a legal aid lawyer to a solo practitioner — hence the subtitle. The title is just my tongue-in-cheek homage to all the solo lawyer blogs I’ve been reading recently in preparing myself for the solo life.

Some background — I spent eight years as a lawyer at a non-profit firm. We provided free civil legal services to low-income people. It was as close to a dream job that I thought I would ever find as a lawyer. However, I have a restless streak, and for family and personal reasons, I decided to leave that job and move across the country to Portland, OR.

I had the luxury of some savings I wasn’t afraid to dip into and a generous boyfriend, so I moved without much of a career plan.

Most people are surprised to learn that a low-paying legal jobs are extremely competitive, but, that’s the reality for most positions at public interest organizations. The combination of low turnover due to high job satisfaction and limited budget means that there are not a lot of openings. I used to be on the hiring committee of at my legal services organization. We were swamped with highly qualified applicants each time we had an opening for a staff attorney.

Point being, since I had no desire to work for a law firm and I didn’t get hired at the local legal aid organization, it eventually occurred to me that maybe I should go into business for myself. I’d like to serve low and moderate income clients — people who are priced out of legal aid but can’t afford to pay much for legal assistance. I’m planning to use this blog to record the adventure of setting up and running my own solo practice.