Legal Practice Advice

A Productivity Tip for Attorneys

Law is a service business. Whether we like it or not, our clients tend to assess our performance based on our reliability in returning calls and emails and keeping tabs on how a project is proceeding, and less so on the actual quality of our work. Many highly intelligent and skilled attorneys are tripped up by, for example, failing to keep up with the barrage of incoming emails.

The popular professor and non-fiction writer Dan Ariely (Predictably Irrational) has devoted much of his professional attention to work productivity issues. He has helped to develop a time management app called Timeful, which I haven’t tried, but to the extent it implements his ideas, it’s surely helpful. I wanted to focus here on just one of his tips, described in this Reddit thread, which is to try to get important tasks done in the morning, pretty soon after getting up, which is when most people are by far the most productive.

I’ve tried to implement this idea in a manner that works with the demands of my practice. Here’s the basic challenge: corporate attorneys have a mix of tasks that can be done in a couple of minutes or so, e.g., responding to a straightforward email, and ones that take longer, e.g., reviewing or drafting a long agreement. If you try to do one of the longer tasks while monitoring incoming email, each time you interrupt what you’re doing to attend to the email, you’re taken out of the flow of the longer task. And before you know it, you’ve been in email-responding mode for three hours, and you haven’t made discernable progress on the big item.

Attorney Productivity | Andrew AbramowitzI deal with this by setting attainable goals for the time-consuming tasks in advance for a particular day, and then seek to get them done before lunch. So when I start work at 8am, I just take a few minutes to scan emails received overnight to make sure nothing is urgent, but then I get right down to the big tasks (like this post, which I’m writing at 11am). I keep my email screen off most of the time, and while I do check periodically to make sure nothing urgent has come in, I try to avoid responding to them while I’m focusing on what I planned to do. Then, if all goes well, I can spend the rest of the day in “reactive” mode, responding to emails that are in my inbox and that continue to come in during the afternoon, with the satisfying feeling that I’ve plowed through my to do list.

Needless to say, I can’t impose complete control over client demands. Sometimes there are meetings or calls that take up the productive morning hours, sometimes I can’t get everything done in the morning that needs to get done, and sometimes things come up in the afternoon that need to get done that day or night. However, I’ve found that at least trying to organize my day in this manner has helped me both with productivity and my job satisfaction.

Practical Steps to Opening Your Own Law Practice

I got a call from a legal recruiter this week (it felt like 2006 all over again), asking if I was interested in joining up with one of a few more established law firms that he works with. I politely declined, saying I was happy doing what I was doing. He said that my choice to go out on my own took a lot of “cojones.” I guess that’s all relative, corporate law not being the bravest career choice out there, but I appreciated the sentiment.

Opening your own Law Practice | A. AbramowitzMany attorneys with big firm backgrounds dream about striking out on their own, but don’t have cojones in this sense – they can’t take the leap of faith involved in expecting that clients will want to hire them. But I think another impediment for a lot of attorneys is that the practical aspects of launching a firm just seem too overwhelming to contemplate. My experience, however, is that while there was some legwork involved, it wasn’t too bad. Below is a short checklist of the main items to be addressed. Of course, I can recommend specific people to help in each area, for those who are interested.

  • Formation – You’ll want to form a limited liability entity, like a PLLC, via a short filing with your state’s Department/Secretary of State, which unlike a regular LLC requires that you submit evidence that you’re in good standing with the state bar. You’ll also need a single member operating agreement, which is boilerplate. Obviously, if you partner up with others, the operating agreement would be more intricate.
  • Space – You’ll need to rent office space, and arrange for the things that fill it (phone, internet, fax, computer, etc.). This is substantially simpler in a virtual law office context, needless to say.
  • Insurance – To sleep at night, you’ll want professional liability insurance. There are brokers who help in connecting you with insurers. There are certain practice areas that are considered higher-risk than others (securities law is one), but you’d probably be surprised how low the premiums are, given horror stories you’ve heard about physician malpractice insurance.
  • Banking – You’ll need a firm bank account, which includes an operating account and a separate escrow account to hold client funds. Once you’ve had some business experience and income, you can obtain a business line of credit to help smooth out choppy cash flow.
  • Engagement Letter – Prepare a form of engagement letter for clients (required in New York for matters involving $3,000 or more in fees), which you’ll need to adapt for different situations (e.g., hourly vs. fixed fees).
  • Accounting and Billing – I use QuickBooks Online for this, which is really easy to use and generates professional-looking email invoices. When I started, I did the entries myself. Now I outsource those functions just to save me time, not because I can’t do it in a technical sense. There are also timekeeping products out there, which I don’t use. I just keep track of time on regular spreadsheets.
  • Website/Marketing – At the very least, even if you don’t initially do things like blogging, you’ll want to have a professional website ready to go before you launch the firm. Then when you blast out the announcement by email to everyone you even barely know, and post it on Facebook, LinkedIn, etc., you can include a link to the website, and your friends can forward that to others. The website should, ideally, have the information that most people would want to know about your firm – expertise, your professional background, contact information, etc.

Legal Referrals

When I speak with other attorneys about my firm – and most of the attorneys I know are not in small firm/solo practices – they often ask, “What do you do to bring in clients?” The phrasing of the question indicates that they are thinking of active/pounding the pavement-type activities, such as making speeches, writing (like this) or even cold calling prospects (shudder). While I don’t always know the process by which my clients determined to hire me, the reality in my case is that it’s a more passive process. Most of the time, it’s a referral scenario where a potential client asks someone for a recommendation for a corporate lawyer, and fortunately that someone thinks of me and makes the introduction. The recommenders come in all shapes and sizes: existing clients, other attorneys, various friends and family.

Legal Referrals | A. Abramowitz | NYCWhile I refer to this process as passive in the sense that I’m relying on people to call me rather than the other way around, in reality none of this happens without a lot of active laying of groundwork. First and foremost, the majority of my career was spent in a few large firms, and I think I made a good impression on my colleagues at those firms as well as other deal participants that I worked with over the years. If I don’t come off as smart and, perhaps more important, reliably able to meet client demands, I’m not getting the referrals. Then, I needed to make sure people are aware of my practice such that they think of me when asked by a potential client, and I accomplished that by letting everyone I even vaguely know that I was starting a firm, and on an ongoing basis I try to keep in touch with friends and colleagues generally, even without a definite expectation that any particular relationship will lead to business.

Some of my referral sources are hoping for, and a few directly ask for, tit-for-tat referrals back from me, which obviously I try to do when it’s appropriate for the particular circumstance. But it’s unrealistic to expect cross-referrals to be equal in scope going each way. Even if you’re more a “taker” than a “giver” in a particular cross-referral relationship, if you do a bang-up job for the client you took, then you’re making the giver look good.

While paying fees for referrals can be an ethical no-no, there are permissible relationships that serve a similar function. For example, a small firm that doesn’t have corporate/securities expertise can have a corporate solo attorney act as part-time “of counsel” to the firm (I’ve done this with a few firms), and because the economic arrangement involves the working attorney keeping some but not all of the fees paid by the client to the firm, the firm who would otherwise refer the work out is also compensated.

Optimal Law Firm Size

I spent over five years of my career at Greenberg Traurig, LLP, a law firm of about 1,750 attorneys. Pretty big. Other large firms are content to maintain a smaller attorney count and grow only organically, not through lateral partner hires or mergers.

Virtual Law Offices

I live in the quaint seaside town of Port Washington, Long Island (at least, it’s as quaint as is possible 20 miles from Manhattan). Local residents have, in the past year or so, been much more likely to see me around town running errands during normal business hours than in the past. This is because my law firm is gradually morphing towards becoming a so-called virtual law firm. When I started the firm in 2010, I set up my office on 5th Avenue and 46th Street, and dutifully commuted in every day (75 minutes door-to-door each way, at best, notwithstanding the puffery of the real estate agents who will tell you only how long it takes for the train to get to Penn Station, which never happens on time anyway).

As my firm’s workload and breadth of practice has increased, I’ve been bringing in attorneys and other law firms on a contract basis to help. I don’t have the space at 5th Avenue to physically house these people, and my primary go-to contract attorney spends most of the year in Andalucía, Spain (now that would be a commute). So these attorneys do their work from wherever they want to work. The fact that they are not physically present has almost no practical effect on how we work together, which is done primarily via email and phone.

Virtual Law OfficesObserving the ease of these virtual relationships, I started to question why I was trudging into the city myself. Of course, I’m the face of my firm and therefore need to meet with clients from time to time. Nevertheless, 95% of what I do is email, phone calls and review of Word documents, which can be done anywhere with an Internet connection. Accordingly, I’ve been working mostly from home lately, though I often come in for meetings, in one of the conference rooms at 5th Avenue or elsewhere, as needed. This required a couple of technological adjustments – using cloud computing for my documents and email and call forwarding for calls that come into Manhattan – which has been seamless. All the time I save on commuting gives me that much more time to devote to my work and has made me much more productive overall.

It will be interesting to see whether my arrangement becomes the norm for how law is practiced in the future, particularly for areas of the law, like corporate, that are less likely to require physical presence somewhere at a particular time. It clearly works well for firms like mine – experienced lawyers working with a network of other experienced lawyers. Time will tell whether it could potentially work for the big firm setup, where young attorneys are being trained by mentors.

Checklists as an Alternative to Form Agreements

I’ve always simultaneously been impressed and confused by attorneys who maintain massive paper form files of each major type of agreement that they are commonly asked to draft. Impressed because this involves some discipline in thinking past just getting the current deal done, but confused because of the impracticality of this approach. If, for example, you’re looking to insert a shotgun buy-sell provision in an operating agreement between two 50/50 partners, it’s not the most efficient use of your time to thumb your way through your form file of 157 operating agreements to find the one or two that had that provision. If you have the ability to electronically search for keywords within your Word documents, that can sometimes be a quicker way to locate that odd provision, but only when there are unusual words or phrases involved.

The questionnaireAnother approach is to have a single form agreement that incorporates most of the possible alternative provisions that you could reasonably expect to see. This is the approach taken by the NVCA open source venture forms. While this solves the problem of being able to locate provisions you need, it is incredibly labor-intensive to put this kind of form together and keep it updated.

An alternative approach is to abandon the idea of form agreements and instead develop a checklist for each type of agreement you’re drafting. For example, if you had a checklist for an LLC operating agreement, there would be a section dealing with how the company would be managed. You could have a series of questions like whether the company is member- or manager-managed, whether passive investors have any “major decision” veto rights and whether a board of managers required unanimity for any decisions. Then, instead of presenting the applicable provision right there in the checklist, you’d just list the agreements you’ve done in the past that contains the applicable provision and note the section number. A checklist like this takes a relatively small amount time to update for each new agreement, and you have the immediate ability to locate that obscure provision.