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Letter to a Young Lawyer

By Annie Gausn | Jul. 2, 2006

Law Office Management

Jul. 2, 2006

Letter to a Young Lawyer

A retired attorney offers sage advice to anyone just starting out in practice. by Donald M. Pach

By Donald M. Pach
      Dear New Lawyer,
      My first eight years of practice were with the state of California, where I gained extensive trial experience doing tort defense and eminent domain cases. I guess I always had it in mind that I would someday go into private practice. During my tenure with the state, I took every opportunity to keep abreast of other areas of the law through CEB courses. In fact, I developed quite a will-drafting sideline with the referral help of a mutual friend in the insurance business.
      In 1970 I was asked to handle some right-of-way acquisitions for a local public entity. I was told that the work could last a couple of years and would provide a few hundred dollars a month in part-time income. I went to our chief legal counsel to get permission to do this work in my off-duty time. I was refused on the grounds that our office was "too close to the capital." I looked at the chief, an attorney turned administrator who had 20 more years of work experience with the state than I did, but who was earning only 15 percent more money than I was. I realized I did not want that future. So I resigned from state service and hung up my shingle as a solo practitioner, renting office space at an older attorney's building in midtown Sacramento. Here's some of what I learned being on my own.
      Become a Renaissance person by staying on top of all aspects of the law.
      During my 13 years as a solo attorney, I learned that working as a lawyer was every bit as much a business experience as it was the actual practice of law. The buck began and stopped at one place-my desk. I was a one-man band, doing eminent domain, environmental law, personal injury, wills, some divorce, some bankruptcy, some business law, appellate work-everything, it seemed, except criminal law. (I did not have the time, expertise, or stomach for criminal defense, and I soon abandoned divorce and bankruptcy work as well.)
      Don't burn your bridges.
      During this time, I kept in close contact with my friends at the state and, to my amazement, obtained a good number of referrals from them. That office in Sacramento had some 50 attorneys, each of whom had a circle of friends who often asked for an outside attorney referral.
      Use simple accounting and filing systems, and stay on top of them.
      Setting up an office in those days did not involve computers or high technology, so it was important to keep things simple. I think that still applies today. For example, a good filing system is essential. The frustration and wasted time of looking for a lost file can be costly in more ways than one. Also, keep track of all billings and payments. I used to have a manila folder with a copy of every invoice that went out in a given month. When a bill was paid, the copy of the invoice was removed. That little folder told me the story of any unpaid invoices, and I made sure that unpaid bills were kept to a minimum. There are many courses out there that teach how to set up a small practice from a business perspective, and you should take advantage of them.
      Keep it professional.
      A good secretary or paralegal can make or break your office. But when I first moved into my office, the older attorney advised me to maintain a professional atmosphere and never allow a secretary to be on a first-name basis with me. He said that clients do not like it. "Apart from the ethics of the thing," he added, "as a practical matter, never have an affair with your secretary-you will not be able to fire her [or him]. And never have an affair with a client-you will not be able to collect the bill."
      Keep your referral sources in
      good repair.
      My major source of business was referrals. As I said, I had a good friend in the insurance business who referred cases to me-not only wills and estate planning, but also probate and wrongful death matters. Another source of business for me was accountants and realtors, who have many business clients they will share if you do a good job for them.
      Locate your office where there are other attorneys.
      Other attorneys, of course, can and will refer cases to you, and you should locate your office in an area where you will be able to interact easily with other attorneys. But the real value in being near other attorneys comes from bouncing ideas off them I cannot emphasize enough the importance of that. However, some of my worst experiences have come at the wrong end of a loser case that was either unwanted or screwed up by another attorney.
      Only take cases that you believe have merit.
      Be careful when you accept referrals. Moreover, take only good cases. Loser cases are time-consuming, not cost-effective; they act as a millstone around your good reputation and are a breeding ground for malpractice claims.
      Be sure your partners are capable and share your work ethic.
      During the latter part of my 13 years as a solo lawyer, I developed a lot of business by doing major real estate acquisitions and financing for various institutional clients. It was time-consuming but very interesting and exciting. It was also lucrative. When I decided I needed help, instead of bringing in and training new lawyers, I decided to join an established, local, 25-attorney firm. Although I had been a senior, named partner on my own, I then inherited approximately ten other partners. Several were excellent attorneys and producers of good-quality work. Others were not so good. The upside was having backup; the downside was dealing with nonproductive partners and personnel issues. All in all, my eight years with a large firm was a positive experience, but it was also eye-opening. I was a top income producer, I worked long and hard, and I had a strong work ethic. I say this not to boost my own image but to point out that resentment can develop when others don't seem to be pulling their weight.
      Communicate with your clients.
      One of the issues I noticed at the large firm was some partners' apparent lack of concern for client relations. Most significantly, they did not return client calls. I attribute this to the fact that the offending persons had absolutely no experience running a business on their own. Return all phone calls promptly. It's important that your clients think their case is the most important one in the office. A tip: Send a blind copy of all correspondence involving the client's file to the client. It is cost-effective and lets the client know that you are working on the matter, even if he or she is not directly involved in the communication. Communicating with clients is the lifeblood of any successful law practice.
      Be the best lawyer you can be.
      Little did I realize when opening my small office that the right-of-way acquisition project for that local public entity would go on for 15 years and involve as much work as it did. At one time, for that agency, I had dozens of condemnation cases in federal court, generating steady hourly billings. This experience led to my representing many public and private eminent domain clients throughout the state.
      Attorneys in the public sector often look with envy on the income earned in private practice. But not every private practitioner earns big money. Public practice and judgeships have a lot to be said for them: decent salary, good retirement and health benefits, the "pure" practice of law (without the worry of billings and overhead), and top-notch resources at hand. These things are nothing to sneeze at. Be certain to take all such issues into consideration. If you do elect to jump into the pit, you'll find there's a price to pay: long hours, including weekends, away from your family. But you will also find private practice a rewarding experience. Helping a person in need and bringing a successful result can be enormously fulfilling. Running a successful business and doing good work go hand in hand. The better service you give your clients, the higher your reputation will soar, and the more income you will receive. California might seem to have an overabundance of attorneys, but there is always room at the top for one more good one.

Annie Gausn

Daily Journal Staff Writer

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