Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Getting and Keeping Clients During Your Legal Career

Wow... I'm tired.  Doc Review is killing me.

But I have to get this off my chest.
I know that it is the impossible, or nearly impossible, dream to become a solo.  But I can't help but think that my chances of being a solo have been cut off at the knees.  As many of my readers know, I have been practicing for a while.  I started at shit law and worked my way up.  As you all should know, a person who only worked in Big Law stands little chance of getting a client for a firm until he's a partner.  But I had a chance to drum up clients for a long time.  And in the beginning I did.  For every real estate closing I did, I gained a child custody hearing.  For every traffic ticket I defended, I gained a partnership dissolution case.  I had clients that wanted me to handle all of their work.  They had my cell phone number and I fully intended on carrying these people with me until I could handle the cases on my own and get the money in full, rather than a salary.  When I left the firm, my boss made me sign an agreement that I wouldn't take the clients with me, or I wouldn't get my last two weeks of pay.

Once I left shit law, I went to a firm that was more polished.  And I still had clients calling my cell phone and asking me to represent them in various capacities.  Did my new law firm appreciate that?  NO.

I went to the partner in my polished mid-size firm and told him that I had a client that wanted me to handle a matter and he forbade me from taking his case.  He said his liability insurance wouldn't cover a case of a different variety than the practice typically handled and he wasn't interested in the business.  So, I had to hand off these clients to various friends and my former firm.  I dropped the clients one by one.

And while at that firm, I gained even more clients.  We would represent them in one capacity and they would ask that I handle another type of case that they anticipated coming down the pipeline.  When I approached the partner with OUR clients and a different case, he once again declined the business.

I'm sure you all have heard that attorneys are not good businessmen, and this was a prime example of that.  He had concerns about not handling the case as well as someone who specialized in that area of the law would tarnish our "good name."  He also expressed concern with trampling on the feet of other attorneys that typically represented these businesses because they were "friends."  There are no friends in business.

Then, at a big firm, there was no chance that my clients and their five figure defense costs would interest my firm.  In fact, I was forced to sign a document saying I wouldn't represent someone outside of the firm or I would jeopardize my job.  I never did.  For the few clients that still called my cell with emergencies, I referred them away....

Now, as a doc review attorney, on every project that I take--I am forced to sign a document saying I will not represent anyone else while on the project.

So, by now I would have had a nice book of business, but I don't. It's as if being a solo is not difficult enough.  All of the firms you work for figure out a way to either take you off their cases, so there is no danger of the client following you.  And all subsequent firms don't necessarily want the business.  You're forced to hang a shingle with no clients to speak of.  You have all the experience you need, but no clients.  There's not much that separates you from a solo straight out of law school.

At some point, you get to an age where you will not get hired without a book of business.  I worked with a gentleman that was in-house counsel to a large company until it was bought and he was let go.  He worked there for 25 years.  His only client was that company.  At 60 years old, looking for a job, he was told that someone of his experience could not be hired unless he came with a substantial book of business.  Obviously, this was impossible.  That is the ultimate in age discrimination.  And, in most people's opinion, being in-house counsel was arriving.... Isn't that the apex of one's legal career?


  1. You're a chump that couldn't hack it. Face it. It is easy to bitch about the coulda shoulda woulda after the fact, isn't it. Why not just admit that you weren't willing to take the risk? Oh, I am sure you'll have some lameass excuse for why you couldn't become a solo after the "shitlaw" job. Given the recent trend on these depressing blogs you'll likely even deride solo practice as inferior and a waste of time.
    See, you seem to have an excuse for everything. The only thing you never do is shoulder the blame yourself.
    You had options in life. No one can argue that.
    You made the wrong decisons somewhere along the line. You failed yourself. And I only say you failed because this blog is a testament to your belief that you have not reached your goal. Instead you feel fit to bitch and moan about how unfair the profession has treated you. Specific to the post at hand, you bitch about your employers; the people who worked to become successful and in turn took a chance on your lousy ass. You complain about them not letting you build your own book of business. You cite their insurance not covering your outside activities. Oh, excuse me. Apparently someone who has been successful/lucky is supposed to put all they've attained on the line so that you can do a couple traffic tickets. Oh, that totally makes sense. I get it now.
    If you wanted to work for yourself you should have been proactive. Bitching about it after the fact is pitiful and indicative of why you have been a failure: you accept no personal responsibility and refuse to grab the bull by the fucking horns. There is no excuse for that. Money, networking, etc. can all be overcome by simple hard work. I am sure you'll deny that, but then again, you've never tried that route. You've just decided to be a spoiled brat.

  2. Is it an option to not be so ethical and just do the business on the side anyway?

  3. Angel, so what do you propose people in "your shoes" to do?

    I mean, what would you do differently now that you know how it turned out?

    That is the kind of information that would benefit readers of your blog. I know it can be nice to elicit sympathy, but how about using your experience to help people already in law school or working their way up through what you call "shit law"?

    By the way, what exactly is "shit law"?

  4. Angel, you are attracting trolls. To the first poster, if you hate these blogs so much, I have a novel thought for you: don't read them!

    Simple hard work doesn't always put food on the table, tool. Guys who work at the bottom usually get stuck with backbreaking, grunt work, making a pittance. While upper management and the executives do less-demanding work and make big bucks. So, for you, go out and grab your mother by the horns. Quit speaking in condescending tones, empty platitudes (What next? A speech on apple pie, motherhood, and patriotism?), and spend your time doing something you like.

    Angel, companies and law firms do this to protect their "image" and their assets. They don't want the added competition. They want to keep you and the other doc review specialists on a short leash. That way, it is more difficult for you guys to go out on your own. Thereby, you need to rely on these pigs for your daily bread. It is about control, money, and power. Nothing more. Too bad the mental midget at 1:57 cannot grasp this basic concept. It has been this way for millenia.

  5. Hmmm.. Well, I'm not putting this out there to garner sympathy. I don't need that. I just want to call attention to issues that you may not realize when you start practicing.

    I don't have much more insight in retrospect. This is what I can say, both of those bosses mentioned did things the right way. They both came from wealthy families, so when they wanted to open up their own firms--their parents floated them until the clients rolled in sufficiently. I didn't have that option.

    So, what I wish I could have done. When I was working in shit law, I should have saved a ton of money so that I could step out of that firm and start my own practice. BUT, I couldn't because I wasn't earning enough.

    Shitlaw=courtrunning, grimey cases, people's work, low pay, crazy boss, obscene hours... you know it when you're in it.

    So, if I had saved a nest egg, I would have started my solo practice after shit law.

    1:57 said I can't hack it. I say, I avoid risk. To go off on your own, with no nest egg and student loan debts and a credit card with which to pay your bills didn't appeal to me. I would have preferred to do it now, but have lost my clients since.

    RE: being unethical and keeping clients anyways. With me, it wasn't so much a matter of losing my license because I was confident in my ability to handle a case well--even if it was on the side as I remain employed by a firm. It was simply a matter of time. Not all legal work can be done at one's leisure. I imagine I could have done wills and drafted contracts on the side (and I did and sometimes still do). But, for me, the big money would be in litigation and hourly rates. When you work 60 hours a week, it was hard to get away from the office to make a court appearance that might take 3 to 5 hours. Or a deposition that might take all day. I just couldn't juggle working full time and having cases on the side, because there wasn't enough time in the day for that. My first boss, in particular, was very paranoid. Not that I would do cases on the side, but that I would interview somewhere when I said I was in court. I actually interviewed at 8 pm or 7 am to get around his constant phone calls asking me, "If I feel better? Am I resting? Should he bring me chicken soup? Can I come to the office?"

    I dunno.
    I wish my parents didn't view graduating from law school as adulthood. If they had floated me a couple of years while I established a practice, maybe I could have done that. But they cut me off at 18, financially.

    Once again, I don't want sympathy. I will survive and I certainly can hack it I am just pointing out the issues so you can be aware. I was UN-aware.

  6. I saw this happen to *many* associates at my old law firm. The best part was that when those associates reached the senior level, they were blackballed from the partnership because, drum roll please -- they were "not engaging in business development."

  7. 1:57's comments are really offensive and definitely naive. This gentleman obviously has never worked in a law firm setting and has no clue how the game is played. Obviously, Angel busted her ass obtaining clients; read the damn post. At least at my firm, associates are not expected to originate clients and expressly discouraged from business development - and she went against this trend! She is not whining; rather, just stating the truth about how most law firms operate. Your post simply does not make any sense. So my advice for 1:57 is to quit trolling law blogs and continue eating your twinkies.

  8. I learned the flaws of being in-house counsel from watching the Enron fall out. In 2001 and 2002 Houston was flooded with these types that had no clients. Former Biglaw types may also face a similar situation upon exit.

    As soon as I picked up clients I left my old firm and ran a nice solo practice for years.

    If I had to start from scratch I would pick an area that has statutory attorney’s fees and hit the speaking circuit. Use that to keep the lights on while you develop other practices.

  9. Do NOT get me started on the age discrimination rampant in law. And what are the odds 1:57 is a trust fund baby with oh so much room to talk about hard work and spoiled brats?

  10. Angel I hear your comments ALL the time and I understand your situation. You can delete the first person's comments if you want but, I do find them entertaining.

    I believe you will figure it out because you at least have awarenss and that's the first step.

    Law schools do little to prepare students for the real world of law firm work.

    You found and gained clients once, I have faith that you will do it again. I dare you to take some risk - not many people get very far with out taking that leap of faith.

    When you do something solid will be there for you to stand upon or you will be taught how to fly.

    I'm going to follow to see how you do!

    Cheers, Lorin K Mask

  11. I completely understand this post. I used to work in a small law firm when I graduated from law school, and within a year, I had built up a decent book of business without even trying. Many clients simply liked the way I did things, and wanted to work with me in the future, or they referred their friends. It wasn't necessarily well-paid business, but it was clearly the seeds of a decent practice if I could continue to nurture it.

    Then I moved to a middle-sized law firm, where I was explicitly told that they weren't interested in me bringing my former clients. It was implied that the middle-sized firm was "above" representing people in residential real estate, or writing basic wills, or doing small matters. So I left all of my clients behind.

    And while working at the middle-sized firm, there was little time to develop new business. The billable rates were sufficiently high that any new clients who did contact me were discouraged when I told them the firm required me to bill about twice what I would have charged at the small firm, for the same work.

    Large and middle-sized firms are typically set up by groups of attorneys who come together when they all have good books of business. People don't often develop business in those situations. It can happen, but it's unlikely. The partners in my middle-sized firm generally worked in smaller firms, and who had a smalltime client who made it big and needed lots of legal work. And they the attorney takes this impressive book of business to the middle-sized firm (often out of necessity, as there was too much work generated by this single client for him or her to do on his own.)

    New lawyers in middle-sized or large law firms are constantly reminded that they are there to bill hours for their partner's clients, that they are not there to take on low-paid work that the associate can bring in, and all of this dramatically hinders the associate's ability to develop business by taking a risk on an early-stage promising client.

  12. I agree there are a lot of hurdles to building up a book of business. Even if an associate does bring in serious client, the firm will often assign a partner to the file. So you need to bring in clients who are super-loyal, otherwise they might get stolen.

    Also, 80-90% of partners will do anything possible to prevent their associates from developing good relationships with their clients. The fear is reasonable I suppose, but it's very frustrating.

    When I was a BIGLAW associate, I gave these issues a lot of thought. It became clear that the only escape from a life of being dumped on and abused by more senior attorneys was to develop my own clients.

    Even making partner does not necessarily solve the problem. A partner without clients is usually known as a "service partner" He or she makes a good salary but is still dumped on and often micromanaged by more senior partners. Even at the age of 50, he will be expected to bill 2000+ hours a year. What's more, he or she has little power and can get de-equitized or even laid off in a downturn.

    At the same time, it's very difficult for a 30 year old -- without serious family connections -- to develop a book of business. And to make matters worse, it seemed like I was being obstructed at every possible turn.

    For example, I had the idea of developing a niche practice area. To develop a specialty where I would be a respected authority in a particular area of the law and clients would want to hire me based on that expertise.

    My idea was to start by doing pro bono work in various areas to build up my experience. However, it's surprisingly difficult for a BIGLAW associate to get pro bono work, particularly in areas which might lead to more lucrative business.

    In my experience, even legal services organizations are extremely hostile towards the idea of referring pro bono work to young attorneys. And law firms are generally speaking hostile to the idea of giving any kind of independence to associates.

    "New lawyers in middle-sized or large law firms are constantly reminded that they are there to bill hours for their partner's clients, that they are not there to take on low-paid work that the associate can bring in, and all of this dramatically hinders the associate's ability to develop business by taking a risk on an early-stage promising client"

    I agree 100%. And I would add that even if that client doesn't pan out, it still would be helpful to have your name out there as an actual attorney. If you are in court representing that client (and not just holding somebody's bags), other people (adversaries, potential clients, etc.) will see you as a real attorney whom they might want to hire or refer cases to.

    Not only that, but psychologically it's very good to have real experience handling your own clients. Just like it's a lot easier to pick up girls if you are not a virgin.

  13. I saw one attorney succesfully make the transition from BIGLAW associate to BIGLAW partner with a book of business.

    Besides being an excellent attorney, what happened was that one of the firm's partners -- with whom he had a good relationship -- left the firm to become a senior in-house counsel at a major company.

    But even that was not enough -- this associate had to quit his job at the firm and take a job with another BIGLAW firm, with the proviso that he would be able to bring in this business and have control over it.

    The guy is doing pretty well now, but as far as I know, he has only that one client. So if something goes wrong with that relationship, he has a big problem.

  14. Hi Angel - Wow. That first commenter has a major malfunction. I certainly don't want to defend any of the actions of the firms that you describe, but I wanted to clarify a few points. First, with regard to the liability insurance, many policies are limited to certain practice areas and also specify that any associate practicing in that area must be supervised by a partner. From a partner's standpoint, it's a loss because they are typically not going to be able to bill their time. Also, it may create a liability that is outside the insurance. I know that you would have done a great job representing the clients, but most M actions that I have see are crazy people (typically individuals) rather than bad work. The insurance pays for the defense in that case, but only if the work was in our area. I personally take a hit and serve as the responsible partner for several associates because I think it is in the best long-term interest of the firm that associates develop business development skills - and everyone starts small. That being said, both the associates and I are limited as to the areas in which we can practice.

    There may also have been an established referral network between your firm and another and your acceptance of the work might have been seen by the other firm as a threat to them if the work was in their area. You are certainly to be commended for bringing in the work, but if 10K in work engangers 1M in referrals, then maybe that's not the best thing.

    You are also right that many clients are not portable between firms at different levels - the cost structure is just not the same. Also, I think that you experienced that it was most difficult to do client development in the larger firm with the higher billing reat. As for having to sign that document as a document review attorney - I wonder about the legality and whether it is enforceable. Good luck as you rebuild your practice!

    Finally, as far as "arriving", I have to say the my impression is reaching financial freedom. Having enough in assets so that you don't have to work and/or can choose to work only as much as you want.

  15. It's really nice to hear what I suspected from someone with your experience, MP. Thank you! So, in short, it's not just me. It's a reality of practicing the law that law grads should be aware of.



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