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Why Solo Success Looks Like Jose Baez

by Carolyn Elefant on July 11, 2011 · 1 comment

in Encouragement

Jose Baez’s win for Casey Anthony wasn’t pretty. From an opening statement that promised much but didn’t fully deliver to cross-examination questions that went nowhere or elicited evidence that seemed to hurt more than help to the clumsy cardboard exhibits, no one will ever confuse Jose Baez and his band of solo lawyers with the smooth, make-it-look-easy elegance of Johnnie Cochran and the Dream team (who can forget “if it doesn’t fit, you must acquit“).

But it doesn’t matter.

At the end of the day, Jose Baez won Casey Anthony’s case not because he was innovative or tech-y or trying to turn the legal profession upside down — but because he was dogged.

Consider these tidbits from Baez’s bio:

  • Baez couldn’t even gain admission to the Florida Bar after graduating law school and passing the bar due to the Bar’s belief that Baez lacked the requisite character. Baez spent eight, long years to convince the Bar otherwise, and in 2005, finally succeeded.
  • While waiting for admission, Baez did what he could to get by and shoe-horn his way into the legal profession. The headlines make much of Baez’s past gigs as a bikini salesman, but more seriously, Baez also devoted his desert-years to more law-related pursuits, such as founding a non-profit group against domestic violence and working as a paralegal for the public defender.

And Baez’s ascension in the Casey Anthony case wasn’t any smoother either:

  • Baez found his client in the most pedestrian of ways – not through a pay-per-click website or an online campaign, but by word-of-mouth through the jail house grapevine as a result of a reputation honed by working on lots of small matters.
  • Baez screwed up several at trial. Though the talking heads may had no business picking apart the mistakes, Baez certainly made them. Like every other lawyer. But – Baez didn’t let those mistakes mire him. The closing arguments (or at least the parts I saw), by Cheney Mason and Baez methodically attacked every single weakness in the prosecution’s case, from the failure to explain motive down to the arrogance of the prosecutor’s smirk. The argument wasn’t fancy or sophisticated or even always entirely riveting. But like a dog that won’t give up a bone, Baez wouldn’t give up the case either.

I don’t pretend to have any special insight into the Casey Anthony case. But at the end of the day, I think that Baez won quite simply because he wanted more. For the prosecutors, Casey Anthony was part of the job; just another of the hundreds of cases passing through the office where a victory means a notch on the belt and maybe a promotion or increase in pay. For Baez, the stakes in Casey Anthony’s case were much higher. Of course, Baez had a duty to save his client’s life, but also, an opportunity to change his destiny. Baez wasn’t going to give up on either without putting up the fight of his life. He wrested a ruling from that jury by sheer force of will.

Though I’m not a criminal defense attorney, Baez’s experience resonates for me because it’s a microcosm for the solo’s story.   What I’ve learned from covering the solo beat as a blogger and practicing lawyer is that those solos who find the greatest success aren’t the ones you’d predict. They’re not the most tech-y or the ones with the greatest tag-line or fanciest website and business cards (though of course, those accoutrements don’t foreclose success either). Instead, it’s those solos who are perpetually underestimated as lawyers but who want so badly to do what they do – whether it’s defend clients or research knotty legal issues on a freelance basis or unravel the mysteries of the tax code – that they’ll start work at the crack of dawn, hop a budget red-eye flight for an opportunity across the country, beg seasoned lawyers for twenty minutes of advice and keep push-push-pushing, seizing every seemingly insignificant possibility until they birth a successful law practice that would have never otherwise existed…and alter the course of their destiny in the process.

Just as Jose Baez’s victory wasn’t pretty, neither is the solo’s success story. No glamor or brilliance or four-hour work week. Just doggedness and enough guts to carpe diem when opportunities stumble your way.  And the grace to ignore sour-grapes and resist saying “I told you so” when you finally break through.

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Do Successful People Give or Sell?

by Carolyn Elefant on June 28, 2011 · 3 comments

in Legal Profession Trends

Over at his My Law License blog, my friend and co-defendant Brian Tannebaum adeptly summarized a thought to which I’ve devoted far too many words without ever getting to the point. Specifically, Brian asserts:

Successful people give away advice on success, unsuccessful people sell it.

Initially, I thought that I could refute Brian’s comment by referencing successful people who command huge speaking fees.  But in doing some research, I discovered that the pinnacle of speaking engagements – the ever-inspiring TED Talks don’t pay their speakers.  Score one for Brian!

Of course, in the work-a-day world, success and revenue-producing activities aren’t always mutually exclusive. There are examples of successful lawyers who generate income from CLE’s and programs and seminars (like Bryan Garner, whose legal writing seminars were reviewed here or the Gerry Spence Trial College or Gardner Bankruptcy Bootcamp — programs which are well reputed though I can’t vouch for them personally since I’ve never taken them or reviewed the materials.  I even generate revenue, albeit modest, from this blog and my books – not enough to get rich or retire on for sure, but enough to make the time away from my practice that I spend on this blog worthwhile.  After all, because I don’t coach or sell product, and because this blog (in contrast to this one) is entirely unrelated to my day job as an energy lawyer, it doesn’t generate any business for my practice.

Still, I get what Brian is saying. These days, there’s too much information that colleagues once freely shared or passed down through the ages in the interest of teaching new lawyers and improving the quality of legal services that many consultants have commoditized and repackaged solely for profit.   But  putting a price tag on something free doesn’t always improve the value.  To the contrary, a dollar sign can also cheapen a noble  act like mentoring motivated by generosity and professional commitment by converting it into a commodity that can be bought and sold.

Maybe I’m just a nostalgic lawyer clinging to an idealistic vision of how our legal profession “used to be.” Still, aren’t the gurus who give away nothing the ones who are really out of synch with the times?  After all, at least two of the 21st century’s biggest entrepreneurial success stories – Facebook and Google – give away quite a bit (as do the TED speakers I mentioned earlier) though of course, those companies make it up on the back end even as they provide a useful product.  Even so, these companies remind us that charging for every little crumb of information isn’t what the cool kids do.

Fortunately, there are still plenty of solo lawyers who generously share their practice experience on blogs, or listserves or face to face without a fee – and I’ll continue to do so as well by ensuring a stock of  FREE materials at my site as well (the only time I absolutely don’t do free is when someone else earns money off of it).

So, what do you think?  Is Brian’s dichotomy accurate? Or does he have it backwards?  Is there a middle ground – for example, are there certain types of programs or services that justifiably command a fee, and other types that ought to pay you to show up?  Post your comments below.

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This New York Times article, Small US Farms Find Profit in Tourism does triple duty as an analogue for a law firm niche practice , business model and marketing idea. The Times reports on the trend of farmers creating additional streams of revenue in the form of bed-and-breakfasts, horse-rides and corn mazes to supplement their income from traditional activities such as planting crops and raising livestock. These ancillary activities, which can produce as much as $50,000 in extra income, are often critical to the survival of many small farms. And they also produce valuable lessons for lawyers.

Business Model
Just like small farms, small firms aren’t necessarily self-sustaining. Some lawyers simply may not attract enough clients; others, may generate plenty of calls from prospects in need of legal help but who can’t pay full freight. Rather than selling one particular services, lawyers should consider a more diversified business model, offering a range of options from more commoditized unbundled, virtual legal services to bespoke services. Alternatively, like small firms, small firms can offer related legal services – such as DIY books, consulting work on a particular area of expertise, serving on a board of directors or providing freelance services. Even though your bread-and-butter may be your bespoke legal services, as I’ve written here, the added revenue can make a difference in your bottom line. [click to continue…]

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This past week, this refreshingly upbeat MSNBC piece, Law Grads Going Solo and Loving It (BTW, congrats to my fellow blogging colleagues, Susan Cartier-Liebel at Solo Practice University and Aaron Street at Lawyerist for the mainstream mention) has been receiving tons of buzz in the form of tweets and social media pass-arounds but very little substantive discussion by bloggers.

I’m on vacation, so I don’t have much time for extensive comment myself – but I wanted to focus on the aspect of the article that’s generated the most controversy in the comment section. Specifically, how realistic is the experience of Damon Chetson the North Carolina solo profiled in the article who says he earned more last year (essentially, his first year of practice right out of school) than the $150,000 to $160,000 that a big law associate makes? The question is important for new lawyers for several reasons. First, these numbers are necessary to enable new solos to evaluate their prospects of success. Second, understanding the basis for these numbers is important for solos who aren’t making nearly as much. Sure, a $150,000 salary out of law school is inspiring to new lawyers and gives them hope that there’s a chance for a great life in the law even if they can’t find a job working for others. On the other hand, for the new solos struggling to get by, seeing a lawyer making $150k out of the gate can be discouraging and demoralizing – you may wonder what you’re doing wrong. So it’s important to compare apples-to-apples to see if Chetson’s situation would really work for yours.

For starters, based on my own rough calculations, and Chetson’s own discussions here, I’m fairly sure that his numbers are indeed plausible (some commenters suspected puffery). According to Chetson’s website, he charges between $2000 and $3500 for most DUIs, $1000 to $3500 for misdemeanors and felonies start at $2000 – and he says here that his website grossed him $200,000 in clients. At $2500 per case, that’s around 80 cases per year – or about seven per month. Those are completely reasonable numbers if a solo is leveraging the web.

But the big question is….can Chetson’s success be replicated by other solos? That’s not entirely clear. Here are some of the contributing facts I’ve identified. [click to continue…]

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So, it’s summertime for the solo, and surprisingly, the selling is easy. At least, I’ve always thought so. For starters, lots of law practices slow down, what with clients, other judges and lawyers on vacation and many lawyers have time on their hands. Moreover, with the economy in its current state, it’s a buyer’s market for hiring motivated law students who can help you with a variety of marketing ideas that you may have put off – like a law review article, webinar or starting a blog. Plus, working with a law student during a summer lull gives you a chance to flex your delegation muscles without the pressure of critical or imminent deadlines.

Summer is also conducive to reconnecting with colleagues. Because of the less hectic pace, you should be able to enjoy a few leisurely outdoor lunches, or break away in time to make a 5 pm happy hour. If you’re more ambitious, you might try inviting a group of your office mates or listserve colleagues to a baseball game or organize outside activities like a hike or volleyball or ultimate Frisbee. [click to continue…]

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Musings from the Other End of the Pleading

June 21, 2011 by Carolyn Elefant

For the past month, ever since I learned that I’d been named as a defendant in Rakofsky v. the Internet, I’ve been getting acclimated to life on the other end of the pleading. In my seventeen years as a solo, I’ve inhabited a comfortable spot on the signature line. I still get a thrill at [...]

Read more Ethics Issues 1 comment

The North Carolina Bar’s Double Standard for Data and Dollars

June 20, 2011 by Carolyn Elefant

Two months ago, North Carolina released Proposed Formal Ethics Opinion 6 , Subscribing to Software as a Service (SaaS) While Fulfilling the Duties of Confidentiality and Preservation of Client Property. As others, including my Social Media for Lawyers co-author Nicole Black, NC Bar LPM Advisor Eric Mazzone, e-lawyering pioneer Richard Granat and North Carolina virtual [...]

Read more Cloud Technology 2 comments

A Tentative Thumbs Up for LawyerUp

June 17, 2011 by Carolyn Elefant

Update – 6/19/2011 – opposing views, end of post As proprietor of MyShingle, a hub for solo and small firm lawyers, I receive calls and emails every few days pitching the latest, greatest online marketing tools. When I don’t jump at the chance to hop into an affiliate relationship (which I don’t do ) or [...]

Read more Marketing & Making Money 1 comment

ABA report: No New Rules Needed for Law Firm Rankings

June 15, 2011 by Carolyn Elefant

The following is a guest post by Roy Ginsburg When U.S. News & World Report decided to rank law schools, this ranking – for better or worse — fundamentally changed the law school admissions process. So when U.S. News announced that it would join forces with Best Lawyers to publish rankings of lawyers, that announcement [...]

Read more Ethics & Malpractice Issues 0 comments

Shingular Sensations Michele Grant & Leo Mulvihill: Solo Celebrities on the Peoples’ Court

June 7, 2011 by Carolyn Elefant

After a lengthy hiatus, we’re back on track with our Shingular Sensations, where we focus on solos who have achieved important victories or are otherwise doing interesting work. This month, we feature a pair of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania based solos: Michele Grant [MG] of GrantMyersLLC.com – “The Artists Law Firm,” a full-service, talent-side firm focusing on [...]

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