Evolutions of a Solo Practice: Part 7 (Probate and Estate Administration)

(Read Evolutions of a Solo Practice – Parts 1- 6 if you’re new to this author)

When I returned to work, I knew I had to adjust my practice to make it a better match with my physical and mental health.  I converted the per-diem business into a model where the actual court appearances were mostly delegated to other lawyers.  I didn’t simply “farm them out”.  I hired, trained and supervised the lawyers and my office staff very carefully.  I wanted my name to be associated with quality appearances and good service, and banked on the idea that the lawyers hiring me wanted that too.  I did not think they required “Barry Seidel making every appearance himself”.   For the most part, this was true.  If there were ever a problem or a “situation”, I took responsibility and solved the problem.  If somebody really needed me personally, I would make the appearance.  After all, to appear in Court on one was easy.

I also ran the back office of the per-diem business as well as possible.  I hired and trained people to handle the calls and the scheduling and the billing.  I took this very seriously, and I still do.  I customized Quickbooks for the per-diem business.  I was an early user of credit card payments for per-diem appearances.  The main use for credit cards in the per-diem world is to smoke out bad payers.  The way I look at it, if a firm owes me more than $500 and won’t make a credit card payment, I cut them off.  This greatly improved my collections.  And, though I kinda hate to say this, it sent some of my worst deadbeats to my competitors!!

Winding down the negligence cases was not exactly a labor of love.  It was more like negotiating a divorce that I knew was for the best, and ultimately, rather liberating.

Ah, but what to do instead.  I was healthy enough to work, I had years of general practice experience which included concentrations in some specialties.  I realized that I had never totally focused on any of the specialties, but I did not consider those experiences to be in vain.  They had brought me to my present place, and I knew I could still (20 years into my practice!!) decide!!!!

The field of law that kept jumping out at me was “probate and estate administration”.  To be clear, this was/is not “estate planning”, which for many reasons never appealed to me.  The cases I was thinking about were the ones that started out “Somebody died, and then…..”  There are a lot of cases like that…..and there always will be.   In fact, considering demographics, and baby boomers, it seemed like a sure fire growth field.  I didn’t need any studies or surveys to confirm this, I just knew it had to be so.

It also seemed that while a lot of lawyers were already doing this kind of work, it was not for everybody, and I liked that.  Some lawyers just don’t care for the subject matter, but I actually find it interesting.  Some lawyers don’t like that it has its own rules, its own specialized court, and its own language.  I had always found them confounding, but I always muddled my way through.  I started to envision what it would be like if I became an expert in the field and really went for it.

Self-help books always encouraged visualization and goal setting.  I understood this intellectually, but finally saw the value in visualizing a goal.  When you really visualize, and then sit down to plan what to actually DO, it becomes much clearer, and much easier.  These are the things I did….

  • Started taking CLE classes on probate and estate administration.
  • This enabled me to get Guardian-ad-Litem appointments.  This generated some fees, but more importantly, got me involved in cases where top lawyers were litigating, so I really learned.  It also got me known by the Surrogate and all the “players” in Surrogates Court.
  • I bought an inexpensive program that could generate Surrogate’s Court documents.  Oh, and I learned how to use it!
  • I hired a part-time associate who knew how to prepare Surrogate’s Court papers really well, but didn’t care for going to Court.  Since I like going to Court better than preparing papers, this was a great hire (She’s now been with me over 10 years).
  • When I was in Surrogate’s Court, I paid careful attention, figured out which attorneys knew their stuff, and asked a lot of questions.
  • I did Google searches and reviewed the websites of all the attorneys doing this kind of work, and then…….
  • I rolled out my own website www.queensprobate.com.

I started the website with a modest site through Findlaw.  I geared the site towards giving useful information to potential clients who had the cases I would most want to do.  This I loosely defined as “anything interesting and profitable in Queens Surrogates Court”.  I have cases in other Counties, but all other things being equal, I prefer the home Court.  Hence the name.  I wrote all the copy myself.  This took some time and effort, but has been well worth it.  New clients seem to connect with the site, and they often tell me so.

The website made the phone ring and immediately got me involved in a LOT of Surrogates Court cases.  I had quite a few cases where the Public Administrator was a party, usually as an adversary.  They have very strong legal counsel, so they kicked the crap out of me a few times, but never in a way where I didn’t land on my feet.  I’ll spare the war story, but at one point I stood up to them (and the Judge and a Guardian-ad-Litem), when they told me I was wrong and that my approach to a case would not work.   When I turned out to be right (and it was not my client who had to pay back the missing money, but the malpractice carrier for his prior attorney), it seemed like my relationship with the entire Courthouse improved.  This also improved my confidence, and made me know I was in the right field.

Over the years I kept increasing my commitment to the website.  I wrote more pages for it.  One day the counsel to the Queens Public Administrator told me that if someone googled “Queens Public Administrator”, my site came up ahead of theirs.  This is a good thing.  When someone gets served with a Citation from the Queens Public Administrator, and they do the logical thing (google it), I want them to call me, and very often they do.

Another common website scenario is a client from out of State having a New York legal situation, and calling their local attorney.  These attorneys usually realize they need a New York attorney, and they too do the logical thing, they google it.  I love getting calls/referrals from out of State attorneys.

I did not realize it at first, but Surrogates Court work fits my current peer and age group…..my peers tend to have these kinds of cases.  I can relate to the issues arising out of death in a family and speak from first hand experience.  Some might be uncomfortable with this, but I enjoy untangling complicated situations, using creativity, and negotiating resolutions.  I’d even say that the cosmic karma of “finishing up the affairs” of someone’s life is quite satisfying.

It’s nice having expertise and being recognized for it.  It’s nice to practice confidently.  It’s nice to know a lot but learn something new every day.  It’s nice to deserve to be well paid and have it actually happen.

Funny thing – very often handling an estate requires knowledge of other legal areas.  My evolution has taken me through general practice, landlord/tenant, real estate, litigation, negligence, and “per-diem”.   I like what I do now, but wouldn’t trade any of my prior background.  It’s all part of the package, and I am grateful for it all.

All opinions, advice, and experiences of guest bloggers/columnists are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, practices or experiences of Solo Practice University®.

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3 comments on “Evolutions of a Solo Practice: Part 7 (Probate and Estate Administration)

  • This post has given me hope that I can possibly hang a shingle when I graduate from law school; even in this economy. I just finished my first year as a 35 year old law student and I am constantly thinking about how to map out my career when most people obtain law degrees in their mid to late 20′s with plenty of time to “figure things out.” I really want to practice criminal defense and one other niche area, but I am not sure I have ten years to spare working for a public defender or prosecutor’s office before I can begin working on my own. I have started to network and join organizations in my areas of interest, so I think I am off to a good start.

  • I have really enjoyed this series of posts. I have gleaned many lessons from them and have seen myself in a lot of the stories that you have relayed. I appreciate the honesty and detail you put into the posts.

    I wish you the best in the next 30 years of your journey and I wish you good health.

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