Nov 6, 2012
Evolutions of a Solo Practice – Part 2
by Barry Seidel
I passed the bar exam on the first shot, and accomplished every law student’s dream, making partner in one day. Now the firm needed an office, and furniture, and telephones, and other trivial details like paying clients. My first office was located through an ad in the Law Journal, time for space with an attorney named Richard Herman* at 299 Broadway. This was the deal: I paid $100 per month for an office, which was actually the reception area for an insurance broker. I used to point inside to the broker’s office and mention that my office was under construction ‘in there’. My space included a desk, chair, file cabinet, and use of the library, copy machine and refrigerator, down the hall in Richard’s suite. Putting my sandwich and juice in that refrigerator was a big perk.
Richard’s 6-office law suite was down the hall, with each office occupied by a different solo practitioner. Richard also had many ‘cases in progress’ to refer, and the deal was 50/50. I soon found out that ‘cases in progress’ meant cases he had signed up at various points in history and done nothing about. Those were the good ones. The bad ones were the ones he had worked on and made worse. I had a pretty good idea which cases to work on first, the ones with a chance to generate some money before too long. Also ones I had some idea how to do. Actually, some of these matters just needed a phone call or two to resolve them, like a five year old car accident property damage claim. I think the client had forgotten about it, and was thrilled when I called with news of his $1200 settlement, 1/3 to the lawyers was $400, which should have been $200 to me. But it was a little less because Richard took back his $35 in ‘disbursements’, which I felt funny taking from the client. First lesson in high finance, never underestimate small-mindedness. Richard had been in practice 40 years, probably had more money than anyone could need, but made toast in his office toaster oven, adding jelly from an unmarked jar. One day I discovered his secret jelly source, as I spotted him scooping little packets of diner jelly into his private stock.
Most of Richard’s cases were salvageable, and despite his idiosyncrasies he did help me build a client base. His clients became very loyal to me. Richard never missed them and I never felt badly about it. I also had some other business building ideas. I sent out over 500 announcements to a list of friends, acquaintances, relatives, and people my mother suggested. You’d be surprised how willing people are to hire a lawyer with no experience. Based on many years as a clientologist, I now understand the psychology of this seeming folly:
People want a lawyer who has time to give their case attention, and who is affordable (a skeptic would say ‘cheap’). I had some decent work within a few months, directly from those announcements. I got some collection cases from my friend’s Dad, a deathbed will for my cousin’s friend (which soon turned into an estate), an uncontested divorce referred by my family doctor, and a steady stream of general cases.
Every one of Richard’s suitemates had work for me, too. Some gave outright case referrals, but they mostly gave me court appearances on civil cases. Never having been to court before, this was on-the-job-training. One of the lawyers sent me to Housing Court. What a place! Hundreds of angry people doing the same mad dance hour after hour, every single day. Those are the lawyers and Judges. The clients, both landlords and tenants, didn’t dance much. They scream, at each other and at their lawyers. In Housing Court I first noticed something about the court system, and it applies to most types of courts. When there are more cases than any courthouse could possibly resolve, something must be done to finish all the cases. That something is providing both sides with an incentive to settle. In Housing Court every case gets conferenced and both sides are given options they don’t like. If both sides agree to be unhappy, but sign an agreement nevertheless, you have a stipulation of settlement (a “stip”) and the court is happy. One of the things court personnel are always yelling is “Any stips? Why don’t you just stip? C’mon, stip and you can get outta here!” If one side or the other doesn’t want to stip, something bad is likely to happen. For a landlord, his case will be adjourned week after week while his tenant lives rent-free, and when the case finally comes up for trial his papers will be technically defective and his case dismissed. “And if you don’t like it appeal, and off the record, you shoulda stipped to giving the tenant three months free in exchange for his leaving.” Tenants get hammered too. If they don’t stip as suggested they can get an immediate trial, and lose.
There seemed to be two kinds of lawyers in Housing Court, ones who didn’t seem like “regulars” and were either screaming at their clients, screaming on the phone, or doing a stumble-mumble combo. The “regulars” seemed to float above, gliding from room to room, getting their stips working in the morning like short order cooks, and winning trials all afternoon against the irregulars.
I thought the Housing Court scene had some potential, primarily because I couldn’t imagine experienced lawyers going there by choice. It seemed like a good place to boost my practice. I did a few things to get in the game. I asked all the lawyers in the suite for Housing Court appearances and referrals. I took a CLE seminar on Landlord Tenant law. I also put an ad in the Manhattan Yellow Pages. I got a $6 per month special introductory offer for a listing under “Landlord-Tenant Lawyers”. Since it was Manhattan, I was pretty sure there would be competition, but I figured I would be available and ready, and for $6 a month ($72 for the first year) how could it lose? When the book came out there were only five lawyers listed there! It is very gratifying when an advertising idea “works” and the phone rings. I was surprised that many of my calls were from landlords. You might think that all landlords have lawyers “on retainer”, which it turns out is rarely the case, or that landlords as “business-people” would not resort to the yellow pages to find a lawyer. You might be right generally, but one of the great things about New York is that even a small percentage of such a large group is still a lot of folks. Some of those early cases turned into nice fees and others weren’t so big but at least yielded crazy stories and valuable experience.
Landlord/Tenant practice brought me lots of clients, got me appearing in Court, and got me ‘lawyering’.
Next time I’ll share the evolution of my solo practice: Landlord/Tenant evolves into Real Estate and ‘General Practice’.
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