Legal Practice Advice

Charging Fees for Initial Legal Consultations

Start Up Valuations | Andrew Abramowitz, PLLCWhen I start a new client relationship, the referral source introduces me to the potential client, usually by email, and then I have an initial call or meeting with the potential client. I don’t require that a fee be paid before I agree to proceed with this background consultation. It’s only after the meeting where we make engagement arrangements if there is a need to do so. Many attorneys, however, feel strongly that this is a bad policy and insist that even the initial meeting is on the clock. Of course, attorneys can feel free to set whatever ground rules they want, as long as they’re properly communicated in advance. There may be practice areas where immediate charging makes sense, but for what I do, I think this sort of policy reveals a mindset about the attorney that I try to avoid.

When Clients Demand One Person in a Personal Services Firm

Use of Debt Financing by Law FirmsMy wife, Leslie, pursued an entrepreneurial venture mid-career like me, founding Leslie’s Leashes, provider of pet care services like dog walking and sitting to grateful animals on the North Shore of Long Island. There are only so many half-hour time slots for pet visits in a day, especially when everyone wants theirs to be at noon, so Leslie has hired walkers as demand for her services grew. However, some of the more particular clients specifically want Leslie to be the walker.

Non-Attorney Ownership of Law Firms

Non-Attorney Ownership of Law Firms | Andrew Abramowitz, PLLCCarolyn Elefant, writing (sensibly) in Above the Law, argues in favor of loosening restrictions in the U.S. against ownership of law firms by non-attorneys. She focuses on the increasing need for small firms to partner with non-lawyer professionals and how the inability to compensate these professionals by sharing profits makes it unnecessarily difficult to function. Regardless of a firm’s reasons for wanting to bring in non-lawyer equity holders, it’s worth considering the policy rationale underlying the current restrictions.

The general fear is that non-lawyer equity holders would interfere with legal decisions that should be left to the lawyers. This is a reasonable concern. To take a concrete example, suppose I had an outside non-lawyer investor in my firm, and suppose further that I was advising a cash-poor startup company who was negotiating with an outside investor on terms that I found to be inadvisable for the client. Now, it would be in my pure financial interest (short-term anyway) to downplay my concerns and let the client proceed with the investment, since it would mean my firm would get paid. But I’m constrained by ethical obligations that require me to put the client’s interests first. If my firm’s investor, however, became aware of this issue, the investor would be expected to push me to withhold my sound advice to the client.

Drug and Alcohol Abuse among Lawyers

Drug and Alcohol Abuse among Lawyers | Andrew Abramowitz, PLLCEilene Zimmerman, whose ex-husband Peter died of a drug overdose, published an arresting account of his descent into addiction. Peter was a patent attorney at Wilson Sonsini, and Zimmerman ties Peter’s story to a larger problem of drug and alcohol abuse in the legal profession. While I haven’t witnessed much of this problem firsthand in my interactions with other attorneys, the problem identified by the article is that the culture at law firms leads attorneys to hide signs of weakness, so it’s not surprising that I haven’t seen it.

Pop-Up Organizations

The New York Times writes about the rise of “pop-up” employers, essentially temporary organizations that are organized for a specific project and then go away. As the article notes, certain types of activities have been organized in this manner for a long time – Hollywood productions and political campaigns, for example. What’s changed recently is the exponential improvement in technology that can match people to tasks efficiently, allowing even complex organizations in many different industries to be created quickly.

I believe this approach could be employed in the provision of legal services. Currently, only large law firms can efficiently handle projects requiring the involvement of more than a few attorneys. But it’s not hard to imagine a portal that can be used to identify a team of attorneys to work on, say, an M&A transaction (senior and junior corporate people, tax, benefits, etc.). Of course, this sort of arrangement would have to be harmonized with existing rules for attorney client relationships (i.e., does the client engage the portal or each of the individual attorneys? How are conflicts handled?). As I’ve written about recently, my firm has joined a network of solo and small firms, and this sort of arrangement has the potential for being the basis for pop-up teams of attorneys. …

What to Expect When You Ask Your Lawyer about a Different Legal Specialty

Corporate Transactional Law Practice | Andrew Abramowitz, PLLCGary Ross, another founder of a small corporate law firm, writes in Above the Law about how lawyers should handle client inquiries about areas of law outside their specialty. As Ross notes, this issue comes up far more for lawyers at small law firms than it does at big ones, where there is usually someone with appropriate seniority and expertise to weigh in.

Clients should definitely avoid the mindset that lawyers should be able to speak intelligently about the basics for every area of the law. Law school and the bar exam cover a lot of ground, but far from everything. There is no reason to expect that a randomly selected lawyer would be able to rattle off details about, say, import/export regulation or local liquor licensing requirements, if asked out of the blue. While there are still true generalists who practice in small towns, their actual knowledge base is limited to the types of matters that generally come up among citizens doing regular things, i.e., not derivatives regulation.

Small Law Firm Networks

Select Counsel network of law firms and attorneys with big law experienceMy law firm recently joined Select Counsel, a new and fast-growing network of law firms with profiles like mine: small firms founded by attorneys with significant sophisticated large law firm experience. The resulting network is not itself a law firm, but it provides a way for both lawyers in the network and interested clients to quickly locate highly qualified attorneys in appropriate jurisdictions and practice areas. The network has also established an active LinkedIn group enabling participating attorneys to run questions past other members.

Select Counsel | Andrew Abramowitz, PLLCWhen I am speaking to potential new clients, my pitch is pretty simple: I’m the same guy that would have handled your matter when I was with a big firm, but without the big firm infrastructure, I’m able to offer those same services at more reasonable rates and with more personal service. Fortunately, I’ve found that appeal works more often than not, and I’ve built a nice practice. Sometimes, however, potential clients will elect to go with a larger firm. Certainly, there are matters that are better handled by teams at large firms (multi-billion dollar merger, IPO underwritten by first-tier investment bank), but there are certain transactions that I’m capable of handling, where the potential client makes what seems to be the safer choice of a larger firm. (I don’t want to come off as too harsh about big firms, where there are many fine lawyers – and they’re a significant source of referrals for me!)

The Select Counsel arrangement has the potential to eliminate a lot of the queasiness that some potential clients have about small firms, in particular that their expertise is too narrow to handle anything but discrete projects. With the ability to quickly locate the right kind of attorney, it’s easy to quickly assemble a team to collaborate on a matter. Of course, even before this network started, I had assembled my own ad hoc go-to team of specialists (tax, etc.), and I continue to rely on them. But the ability to fill in any gaps through the network will allow me and others in the network to replicate the geographic and practice area scope of a big firm, benefitting both me and my clients.

Right and Wrong Ways to Expedite Deal Negotiations

Use of Debt Financing by Law FirmsOf the many times that I’ve worked on a corporate deal – not a simple agreement, but a transaction of some complexity involving multiple documents and perhaps multiple parties – it is extremely rare that the transaction got done early, in advance of the target closing date set at the beginning of the process. This is not necessarily the fault of anyone involved, but it’s a matter of deal-making being a process with a lot of moving parts that takes time. This causes some frustration, usually among the principals more than the attorneys. Although there’s no magic bullet that will cause deals to get done instantaneously, the following are some tips that will expedite the process in a manner that doesn’t cause unnecessary stress and hard feelings:

  • Follow up, nicely. While job number one for you is ensuring that you are pushing out paper without much delay, once that’s done, if you’re waiting on something that’s in someone else’s hands, and it’s taken longer than expected, ping that person with a polite email, asking for an ETA.
  • Schedule check-in calls. Particularly if there is a large working group, it can be helpful to have periodic conference calls where the participants go through a closing checklist or otherwise get themselves on the same page. Having the call on the calendar has the side benefit of prodding people to attend to their to-do list before the call, to avoid having to admit on the call that the work is not done. But these calls shouldn’t be done too frequently, which causes frustration, with everyone thinking they’d rather be left alone to do the work.
  • Don’t showboat about off-hours work. Particularly when the transaction (inevitably) falls behind the unrealistic schedule, you’ll start to see behavior like someone emailing the group late at night or on a weekend, implying that they are sacrificing free time to work on this and wondering why everyone else isn’t as committed. Ultimately, it is unknowable what other people’s workload is and whether they’re doing as much as they can on your deal. Instead, treat everyone else as a professional, and if there are timing considerations, discuss them respectfully.
  • Don’t set fake deadlines. Deal principals will often announce that a deal needs to close by a particular date, without much explanation. If, as is often the case, it’s a BS deadline that was set to short-circuit the process and perhaps limit transaction costs, it will backfire when the deadline inevitably passes because of factors that may be outside anyone’s control. At that point, the deadline-setter has lost credibility.
  • Create a transaction timetable. In my experience, certain types of transactions (IPOs, for example) have a detailed weekly timetable, while others, like M&A, are less likely to have one, probably because they are too unpredictable. If it makes sense in a particular transaction, it’s good to try to impose a broad framework like this if it builds in buffer time and is more realistic than just “close by Friday.”

Should You Start Your Legal Career at a Big Firm?

John Balestriere, writing in Above the Law, argues that young attorneys should not feel bound to follow the standard advice to start one’s career at a large firm to get “training.” As someone who spent 12 years at large firms and the last (almost) seven running my own small one, I’m in a position to weigh in on this topic. Although in my current position, I often expound on the benefits of small law firms, both for clients looking at what type of firm to engage and for experienced attorneys looking for a better way to practice law, I would still advise young attorneys looking to end up in the private sector to spend some time in a large firm.

Optimal Law Firm Size | Andrew AbramowitzFirst, an important caveat. Balestriere is a litigator, and my understanding (not based on experience) is that in that area, small firms and governmental agencies kind of throw young attorneys into handling trial work pretty much right away, as opposed to the large firm experience of having junior associates handle more behind-the-scenes work. I can’t speak to that; my advice in this post applies to those thinking of becoming a transactional attorney.

Most of my early formative years were spent at Willkie Farr & Gallagher, a well-regarded “white shoe” firm in New York. Although I can’t say that all of my time there was used productively (I recall with non-fondness being asked by a quirky corporate partner to not leave my apartment on a Saturday and to wait for a call, which never came), I learned a huge amount, making me the lawyer I am today. My experience at Willkie, which I think is true of most big firms, had the following attributes that, I think, make the large firm experience worthwhile for junior attorneys:

  • Plenty of potential mentors – I took assignments at Willkie from dozens of partners and senior associates, allowing me to gain a variety of experiences. If you’re working at a small firm, your boss may be a good mentor, but you’re not getting the benefit of seeing how many different lawyers do their job.
  • High standards – I certainly don’t want to denigrate the many talented attorneys who work at small firms and for the government, and there are some real duds at big firms, but I was impressed with the intelligence and work ethic of the great majority of those I encountered at Willkie. They helped create expectations for my work that I still seek to meet.
  • Network building – By working with a lot of attorneys at a large firm (or, as in my case, at a few big firms over several years), you will encounter and hopefully impress people who may be, later in your career, potential referral sources for business or otherwise in a position to help you. Two of my most important current clients are (1) a public company whose CEO was once my boss when I was an associate, and (2) a promising startup whose founder was an associate with me at Willkie.

Elements of a Client Pitch

Gary J. Ross, like me a former BigLaw corporate and securities attorney who launched his own practice, writes in Above the Law about different types of client pitches, and which are the most effective. After detailing some lame and/or insufficient pitches, such as having gone to the same school as the potential client, he identifies the most effective pitch as being able to convince the potential client that you’ve successfully handled matters like the proposed one many times.

While I agree all of Ross’s points, there are two other elements to my pitch that I usually make:

Elements of a Client Pitch | Andrew AbramowitzPersonal Service – Many of my clients are referred from colleagues of mine, and the client doesn’t comparison shop with other firms before hiring me, but in situations where I find myself in a competition with another firm, that firm is often a mid-sized or large firm, rather than one with my profile. In that scenario, the appropriate strategy is to play up the differences between my way of doing business versus the large firm way. Accordingly, I emphasize the personal service that I provide. In a big firm (and I speak from much experience there), the pitch meeting will often be led by the senior partner, but after the deal starts, you find yourself dealing mostly with someone more junior. In contrast, I point out to the potential client that I am the sole point of contact, though I have experienced attorneys doing behind-the-scenes work to help me keep up with my workload and be able to be responsive to the requests of multiple clients.

Cost – I’ve received advice from time to time that small law firms shouldn’t emphasize price too much, because it seems to devalue the service being offered. However, legal services are really expensive, regardless of who’s providing them. It’s perfectly valid and appropriate for clients to be focused on these costs and, accordingly, for the attorney to seek to appeal to potential clients on these grounds. Therefore, I’m not at all reticent about discussing my fees early on in my interactions with potential clients, pointing out that my colleagues and I are the same people that had successful careers in prominent firms, but whose services are now available to you at a significant discount to the going rates. I further point out that this is made possible by my firm’s extremely low overhead, with attorneys working from remote locations. In other words, when you hire me, you’re not paying indirectly for expensive artwork on office walls and summer associate trips to Yankee games.

I don’t win all pitches with these arguments – the biggest headwind that I face is that hiring a big firm is a safe choice that won’t likely be second-guessed within an organization – but it’s a pretty compelling story (if I do say so myself) and works plenty of the time.