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Lawyer lands on feet

February 4, 2009
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Indiana attorney John Conlon lost his job late last year, but he hasn’t given up.

The 62-year-old who’s been practicing for three decades has instead put a retirement plan into action a little earlier than expected by launching his own legal consulting business. He’s tapping into not only his decades of experience but also many years in the legal ethics arena by turning what could have been a career-ender into a new opportunity.

“I’d been thinking about something to do when that time came, something to occupy my mind when the time came,” the 1974 graduate of Indiana University School of Law - Indianapolis said. “When the opportunity came up, I saw this as a time to move up my timetable and put this into action.”

His story illustrates how the legal community is coping with the rising level of joblessness, whether it’s a result of the economic downturn, a voluntary choice to leave for greener pastures, or a result of a law firm merger or acquisition. His is a story about finding a new place to practice.

For Conlon, his change in careers came as a post-acquisition causality between Seattle-based Safeco Insurance and Boston-based Liberty Mutual Insurance, which announced a union in early 2008 and finalized that marriage in September 2008. He’d worked as a regional manager for Safeco and had been with the company since the days it was known as American States Financial Corp. - he’d survived a 1997 merger that resulted in Safeco.

As a litigation-management executive, Conlon’s responsibilities included managing a legal budget of $100 million, developing and putting into place legal cost-control strategies such as in-house fee bill reviews, and supervising staff that worked with more than 400 outside law firms throughout the country.

But when the latest merger occurred, Conlon didn’t survive the cuts. Within a month of the union that would lead to Safeco’s name being dropped, Conlon learned his time with the company was coming to a close. His last day at the Indianapolis insurance company office was the day before Thanksgiving, and he’s now considered officially “retired” despite it being a forced layoff.

“We all saw this coming, but it was just a business decision,” he said. “You had attrition throughout the year, some leaving because of the uncertainty, but the shoe finally fell in the fall.”

Nearing retirement age but not quite there and definitely not ready for that life-changing move, Conlon looked to his longtime interest in legal ethics to pave the way for the next phase of his career.

Jon ConlinConlon is a former chair of the Indiana State Bar Association’s Committee on Legal Ethics, holding that position for three years and speaking at many seminars and writing articles through the years. His resume also boasts about his co-founding the American Bar Association’s General Committee on Insurance Staff Counsel.

That experience and the potential it gave him for his own business came in October, when Conlon attended a corporate counsel conference in Seattle. There, the Association of Corporate Counsel pointed out that company chief financial officers are putting pressure on corporate counsel to cut legal staffs.

“It kind of struck me then that there’s a need for legal billing consultants focusing on the ethics,” Conlon said. “Everything a lawyer does in legal billing is based on ethics of the profession. They always want to help solve a problem, and mostly you get inadvertent legal billing mistakes that can be costly.”

That led to his creation of Legal Points, the consulting business he’s launched from his Westfield home. The specialty will be on legal cost control, particularly in legal billing as it relates to attorney ethics.

He’s spent time manning the ISBA’s ethics hotline fielding those types of questions specifically.

Conlon took the holiday season off to relax and develop a Web site at http:// legalpoints.web.officelive.com/, as well as get some of the basics of his consulting business organized. He brought in some colleagues to bounce ideas off of, including some recently laid off attorneys doing temporary work while searching for a steady position. 

Now he’s on the hunt for potential clients he can help - insurance companies to start with, possibly law firms and corporations at some point in the future. Conlon wants to offer a training session, from a couple hours to a two-day seminar for larger groups. That might involve going to an office to talk about states’ ethical rules, history, caselaw, and modern pressures of legal billing, as well as showing legal departments how they can best develop their own review program.

A session might point to how corporate counsel can spot red flags in e-billing, such as having more than one lawyer or a higher rate than specified, Conlon said. It might also involve discussions about recycled work product - how briefs used from another case can’t be billed to that client or another if being used again.

He pointed out that an in-house fee bill review is a more economical choice than outside legal bill auditing, which handles all the work but can cost more and doesn’t solve the problem in the end.

“We’re talking millions that are spent in legal billing at some corporations,” he said.“If you show a company that they could save 5 percent of their $40 million legal budget â?¦ that’s adding $2 million to their bottom line.”

The current economic climate could be both a blessing and a curse for his business venture, Conlon admitted. A recent survey of law firms found that 98 percent are planning on increasing their legal fees in 2009, and with some support and legal staff being trimmed, those who remain have to pick up the slack - which could lead to more fee disputes between clients and those doing the legal work.

“I want to give them the confidence to handle these issues themselves,”Conlon said. “At the end of the day, they’re responsible for their own ethical decisions.”

It’s a need that isn’t currently being met, according to Don Lundberg, executive secretary of the Indiana Disciplinary Commission. Legal-fee complaints amount to about 5.5 percent of cases opened for investigation, which doesn’t include any screened out because a dispute may not rise to the disciplinary level.

“Fee issues are not off the radar screen, and Rule 1.5 deals directly with attorney fees and says in substance they must be reasonable,” he said. “We struggle with that line between when a fee dispute might be unreasonableness. John, with his background, is a very sophisticated consumer of legal services and knows that every dollar they pay (in legal billing) is a dollar less that stays in the business. So it seems like he’d have a strong business here in trying to find that right balance.”

While confident in the need for this type of consulting business, Conlon said he remains nervous about the start and what may be down the road - particularly in this economic climate where companies and firms are cutting back.

“There’s always a bit of uncertainty when you open a new business, but you just have to take it one day at a time,” he said. “You can’t give up.”
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