Nov 27, 2012
Evolutions of a Solo Practice – Part 3
by Barry Seidel
Landlord-Tenant Evolves Into Real Estate/General Practice
I stayed in my first office at 299 Broadway for about two years (1982 – 1984). I did my own typing and answered my own phone. I had an answering machine where I could call in for messages from outside, using a tone producing device that you had to hold up to the phone and then hope it worked. Actually it worked pretty well. I called in often and called people back promptly. I spent a lot of time calling people from phone booths, in Court and in the street. Everybody did that. We carried change. There was always a wait for the phone booths in Court.
I did my typing on a “Selectric” typewriter. Nobody I knew had a word processor in 1982, though I started seeing them soon after. I didn’t have a fax machine either. I do remember when they started to become common, and thinking how much pressure they would add to law practice. I spent a “fortune” (about $1400) on my first fax machine, for a fax that had rolls of acetate paper, where after a few months the printed words began fading.
Early in 1984, I started thinking about moving my office to Forest Hills, Queens. This was where I grew up, and near where I lived. I found commuting to Manhattan by subway very draining. I was also attracted to the idea of developing a “neighborhood” practice. I started looking at Queens offices and found a great space in a suite on Austin Street in Forest Hills. This office had some amenities. The rent included use of a library, copy machine, fridge, and receptionist. It was hard to adjust to a receptionist who didn’t really work for me. I encountered this dilemma several times over the years, and while I was sometimes able to “make the best of it”, its not ideal.
I had a variety of cases at that point, and was proud to say I had a “general practice”. I always answered the “what do you do” question honestly, and said I was in general practice, with a focus on landlord-tenant cases. I liked Landlord-Tenant cases and Housing Court well enough, for what they were giving me…….court experience, client experience, and some income. There is an inherent tension in doing “general practice” while quasi-focusing in a particular legal field. Some of the problems are….
- You can’t possibly know the law as well as the specialists.
- You can’t possibly know the Judges and court personnel as well as the specialists.
- You can’t have an office staff at the level of the specialists.
- In a volume Court like L&T, you can’t be fee competitive.
- When you have other types of cases going on, you can’t afford to get stuck in Court on one case. When that happens it is always a money losing situation.
I actually had some Landlord-Tenant cases that were interesting, exciting, and paid well. Of course, when that happened they were also anxiety filled and insomnia producing. One time my client (a Landlord) was sued for illegally evicting a Tenant. In hindsight, I realized my client had been set up by the tenant’s lawyers (who specialized in wrongful eviction cases under the then “new” wrongful eviction statute). Long story short, it appeared that my clients had insurance that might cover the claim, but the insurance carrier disclaimed (they sent me a telegram disclaimer, imagine that!). I had to bring a declaratory judgment action to get them to come in and defend (and ultimately settle) the case, but not before I had a trial and a mis-trial and a re-trial in Housing Court. When I finally got the carrier into the case, they did have to pay me for all the defending I had done. I have omitted most of the details, but thirty years later I do remember the whole affair. This is not a tribute to my memory, it is more of a tribute to how traumatic it all was. The main lesson I learned from that case was that I did not want to do landlord/tenant as my life’s work.
At that time (mid 1980’s) in New York City, there was a big development in the local housing market. Thousands of rental apartments were being converted by the building owners to “co-op” ownership. Essentially, tenants were given the opportunity to buy shares in their rental apartments, at an “insider” price. At one point, I answered a Law Journal ad for a part-time position, with a Landlord firm who were bringing “non-prime residence” cases against tenants. They were seeking to evict the tenants, so the landlord could sell their apartments at the open market price. My job would have been to gather enough evidence to either evict the tenants, or drag them into Court and try to buy out their interests at a discount. Pretty awful stuff, so I passed on the job. But it did get me thinking.
There were a lot of tenants who were suddenly going to be buying their apartments, and they would all need lawyers. There would be contracts, and bank financing, and closings, and all the stuff that usually goes with a “real estate” transaction. If you asked most lawyers what kind of case a co-op purchase was, they would say it was “real estate”. It struck me though, that most of the clients thought of this as a “landlord-tenant” situation.
I looked at my Yellow Pages ad in the Landlord-Tenant section of the Lawyer ads, and noticed that none of the ads mentioned co-op conversions. When I looked in the Real Estate section of the lawyer ads, I saw many lawyer ads for co-op conversions. So, I called my Yellow Pages rep and asked whether I could keep my ad in the L&T section, but make reference to co-op conversions. He said “Yes, and you can also have up to five words under your ad, $60 per month.” I did some math and thought “That’s $720 per year. I would need one or two clients to break even. Kinda makes sense.”
I then placed an ad in the Manhattan and Queens Yellow Pages, ($60 per month in each book, but I recall I got some kind of discount) in the Lawyer section under the sub-category Landlord-Tenant, adding these five words, “Co-ops, Condos, Contracts and Closings”.
There are few things more gratifying than having a marketing idea work. I was the only lawyer listed in the Yellow Pages this way. The phone rang every day. I took some Continuing Legal Ed to learn enough to actually do the work. On every deal I learned. As I started doing these closings I also realized that many of my friends and family (and their friends and family) were buying their apartments. This made the omnipresent young lawyer question (“What do you do”) much easier to answer. Suddenly my mantra was “General practice, with a lot of co-op and condo closings”.
Sometimes clients were taking the buy-out money and buying a house. This was especially true with my Queens clients. The first few times this happened I actually turned the work down. The main reason was I had no idea how to do a house closing. One afternoon a title company rep cold-called me in Forest Hills and asked “Who does your title work?” I replied “Nobody, I don’t do house closings because I don’t know how”. He said “Well, my boss is the owner of a title company and he is a lawyer. I’m pretty sure he would be willing to teach you how to do it, no charge, because it would be a smart business thing for us to do.”
And so, on my first ten or so house closings, Larry Litwack of Big Apple Abstract essentially told me what to do, every step of the way. When the Sellers attorney sent me a proposed contract, Larry and I went over it together, and he taught me everything a lawyer needed to know about real estate. I also soon learned that most of my adversary attorneys were pretty supportive towards a young attorney trying to learn the business. When this happened, I had two teachers on each deal. I was hungry to learn, so I learned a lot, and fast.
Over the years I have not only given hundreds of titles to Big Apple Abstract, I have also referred them attorneys as clients, some of whom became much bigger clients than I ever was. Funny how that goes.
I did a lot of real estate for quite a few years. The ads worked well, and I also made myself known to all the local real estate brokers. A few loyal brokers feeding me clients was very healthy. Real estate has always been the bread and butter of general practice. I ate pretty well doing real estate, though at some point I wanted to eat better.
Next – Evolving into plaintiff’s personal injury work.
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