Feb 28, 2013
Evolutions of a Solo Practice – Part 5
by Barry Seidel
In the early to mid 90’s, as my negligence caseload grew, I noticed a few things:
- The fees were way better than the fees from closings, but the cash flow was sporadic.
- I was spending a lot of time in court, sometimes on ministerial appearances that were time consuming, draining, and wasteful.
- If I was honest with myself (and admittedly I sometimes wasn’t), I didn’t particularly care much for this type or work, or the clientele.
About half my negligence cases were in Queens. If my own convenience were a basis for venue, I’d have filed suit there on every case. However, it would practically be malpractice not to venue a plaintiff’s case in The Bronx or Brooklyn if you could, so I had plenty of cases outside of my home court. Every time I left Queens for a motion, or a scheduling conference, or a pre-trial conference, several things would happen: I would spend the entire morning, I didn’t know the local rules and customs, I didn’t know the Judges or clerks or adversaries, I didn’t know where to park or eat, and I was tired when I got back to Queens.
When I appeared in the Queens courts, I found these problems weren’t so bad, and I also noticed how much my adversaries generally hated being there. I started thinking about what I (they) would pay, not to have to do these appearances. I noticed a few lawyers who seemed to be covering appearances on behalf of other lawyers. These were mostly defense lawyers who were there on behalf of a carrier and were making some extra income. I asked around to see what they were charging, and $75 – $150 per appearance was the range. I would have gladly paid someone $75 to adjourn a motion in Brooklyn, and thought lawyers would pay someone to do that in Queens.
Another thing I noticed was that if planned right, one attorney could handle multiple appearances in the same building. All this takes is knowing the local practices, such as which Judges have a second call at what times, which Parts allow you to “check in”, etc. It also doesn’t hurt to have the Court clerks helping you (or at least not hurting you). I got out the yellow pad and did some math. It seemed possible to make $500 – $1000 per day, if I had the business. This would be 5-10 appearances at an average of $100 per appearance. Another added kicker, the “clients” for this work would be other attorneys. Everyone has their little quirks, and for ME, this was very appealing.
All I needed was a marketing plan and I’d be “in business”…..
There are a lot of ways to get per diem business. Some of the standard ways work pretty well, including networking your existing attorney contacts, word of mouth, and advertising in bar journals and legal newspapers. I did all of those, but I added one more that really worked. I did a direct mail campaign, to a targeted list. Here’s what I did: I wanted a list of plaintiff attorneys who had PCs (preliminary conferences) coming up. I figured these would be appearances where firms would be comfortable trying me out, plus I could price it right, plus I could get the later appearances (motions, depositions, pre-trial conferences). This was in about 1995, prior to e-courts or e-law. The Court system had actually just started computerizing. There was only one publicly available computer in the Courthouse. I looked in the Law Journal for cases where a “Request for PC” had just been filed. Then I sent my law student clerk to the Court computer and had him make a list of all the plaintiff attorneys with newly filed PC requests. That was our list.
I then prepared one of the greatest cover letters of all time. I mean, I drafted it and edited it, again and again and again. I showed it to some of my attorney friends and got valuable feedback. When I was satisfied with the cover letter, I composed a printed fee schedule. I priced everything at $75, but the main thing was, I listed every kind of appearance I could think of. PC’s, CC’s, EBT’s, TAP (we love acronyms in the per-diem world), motions, Inquests, Infant’s Comp hearings, etc. I threw in some rates for Civil Court too, but not landlord-tenant. The final thing I added was a special Rolodex card. This had my contact info, but most important, while my name was on the body of the card, the tab said simply “Queens Court Appearances”.
My clerk brought me lists of about 300 firms at a time. Over a six month period we sent out 1350 direct mail packages. Cover letter, fee schedule, Rolodex card. From those 1350 we got 175 law firm clients!!! This is about a 13% conversion rate, which advertising people have told me is unheard of. Well, it happened, and not only did I get 175 PC appearances, most of the firms started using me for everything they had in Queens.
I was on to something. I had to develop some systems to intake and prep and bill and collect on all the work. So I did. I had to bring in some other attorneys to help with the work, so I did. I had to figure out how to pay the helping attorneys, so I did.
Most of the per diem cases were on negligence cases, but surprisingly, I also got calls from collection firms who wanted me to make volume appearances in Civil Queens. I had my law clerk (who was a night student and looked like a grown-up) mark my cases ready in Civil and then conference with the pro-se defendants, until I arrived from Supreme to make the actual appearance.
There were many days when we covered 10, 20 even 25 cases, and I’d say the quality of our work was pretty darn good. I was always conscious of how I would want a case covered if I sent someone, and tried to cover them that way.
Things were going great guns, culminating with being featured on the front page of the New York Law Journal (December 27, 1999, but who can remember such things). A reporter followed me around the courthouse, interviewed me, and wrote a very flattering story. A photographer took my picture on the courthouse steps, with a caption “Barry Seidel, the King of Queens”.
Meanwhile, during this entire hubbub, I had an office full of negligence cases. I was trying hard to keep them all moving, and in compliance, and investigated, and litigated, and resolved to the clients’ satisfaction. It was very stressful trying to do this while I was running around being “The King of Queens”.
In hindsight, it was impossible to do the per-diem practice and be a negligence lawyer at the same time.
And then it happened..…..
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