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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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  1. A traditional parade of attorneys? Really Evansville? Y'all need to get out more. When is the traditional parade of notaries? Nurses? Sanitation workers? Pole dancers? I gotta wonder, do throngs of admiring citizens gather to laud these marching servants of the constitution? "Show us your billing records!!!" Hoping some video gets posted. Ours is not a narcissistic profession by any chance, is it? Nah .....

  2. My previous comment not an aside at court. I agree with smith. Good call. Just thought posting here a bit on the if it bleeds it leads side. Most attorneys need to think of last lines of story above.

  3. Hello everyone I'm Gina and I'm here for the exact same thing you are. I have the wonderful joy of waking up every morning to my heart being pulled out and sheer terror of what DCS is going to Throw at me and my family today.Let me start from the !bebeginning.My daughter lost all rights to her 3beautiful children due to Severe mental issues she no longer lives in our state and has cut all ties.DCS led her to belive that once she done signed over her right the babies would be with their family. We have faught screamed begged and anything else we could possibly due I hired a lawyer five grand down the drain.You know all I want is my babies home.I've done everything they have even asked me to do.Now their saying I can't see my grandchildren cause I'M on a prescription for paipain.I have a very rare blood disease it causes cellulitis a form of blood poisoning to stay dormant in my tissues and nervous system it also causes a ,blood clotting disorder.even with the two blood thinners I'm on I still Continue to develop them them also.DCS knows about my illness and still they refuse to let me see my grandchildren. I Love and miss them so much Please can anyone help Us my grandchildren and I they should be worrying about what toy there going to play with but instead there worrying about if there ever coming home again.THANK YOU DCS FOR ALL YOU'VE DONE. ( And if anyone at all has any ideals or knows who can help. Please contact (765)960~5096.only serious callers

  4. He must be a Rethuglican, for if from the other side of the aisle such acts would be merely personal and thus not something that attaches to his professional life. AND ... gotta love this ... oh, and on top of talking dirty on the phone, he also, as an aside, guess we should mention, might be important, not sure, but .... "In addition to these allegations, Keaton was accused of failing to file an appeal after he collected advance payment from a client seeking to challenge a ruling that the client repay benefits because of unreported income." rimshot

  5. I am not a fan of some of the 8.4 discipline we have seen for private conduct-- but this was so egregious and abusive and had so many points of bad conduct relates to the law and the lawyer's status as a lawyer that it is clearly a proper and just disbarment. A truly despicable account of bad acts showing unfit character to practice law. I applaud the outcome.

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