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Letters to a New Lawyer: Laying the groundwork for private practice

January 19, 2011
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Letters to a New Lawyer

Editor’s Note: This is the second in an occasional series of advice-oriented letters to young lawyers. If you are interested in sharing your wisdom on practicing law, e-mail Kelly Lucas at klucas@ibj.com.
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LetYoungLaw-DoxseeWhile I have worked for the government as a deputy attorney general (then one of the biggest law offices in the state), most of my practice has been as a solo attorney in association with other attorneys. I do not recommend opening your practice alone. At the very least you should find some space with another experienced attorney or, if you cannot, at least find a mentor who you can call on for advice. What you learned in law school is not enough to make you ready for the practice of law.

The sole practice requires a special kind of temperament. It requires you to be a self motivator. There will be no senior partner or office manager telling you what to do or when to do it. You will have to be aware of your client appointment calendar, court hearings, due dates for filings and court hearings.

You need an independent spirit with confidence in being your own boss. This also means that you are dependent on yourself for income. There will be no regular paycheck. Your income comes when the client pays or you collect a judgment. Some clients are slow pay (or may not pay at all) and some cases do not pay until the matter is concluded. When I entered the practice it was said that you should have three months of savings to get over the slow spots, today six months would be better.

The sole practice requires some management skills to deal with clients and staff, if you have staff. You will also need some accounting skills or least the ability to keep up on who owes you money, keeping your bills paid and keeping records for your taxes. You can get a bad reputation by being a slow bill payer and if you do not collect your fees, you cannot pay your bills. Taxes are another matter and as a sole practitioner you will have to pay quarterly estimated income taxes. A good accountant or accounting program can help you in setting up and keeping up your accounting books.

You must keep the client informed. When taking on a client, you should make sure the client understands the terms of employment. Either have the client sign a fee agreement or send a confirming letter with the terms of employment spelled out. Be sure the client understands the costs and what you are going to do. Once you have the client, keep the client informed of what is going on. This can be done with copies of letters you send to opposing counsel and copies of filed pleading or other documents you have prepared. I am always formal in my correspondence to other attorneys. Copies are often sent to the clients by me and by opposing counsel. I have found that clients tend to be suspicious of attorneys who are too friendly in their correspondence to other attorneys and worry that, being so friendly, the attorney will compromise the client’s interest. Finally, be sure to return telephone calls.

One of the most frequent disciplinary complaints is that of not communicating with the client. Of course, there are client’s that telephone you too much. Many attorneys make it clear to their client that they charge for telephone calls. I do not charge for calls that merely advise on status. However, my billing program has a column for time spent with the client at no charge so they are aware of my service.

You need a time-accounting program, both to keep a record of how much time you spend on each matter, but charging a client by the hour. I use a very simple computer database program in which I enter each day the time I spend on each client’s file. I also keep time on non-client matters. This helps me to be more efficient in the use of my time. When I charge by the hour, the client gets a time log and I want them to know when I perform services for which I have not charged. There are also available commercial time-keeping and billing programs for those who like the more detailed programs.

You may wish to specialize or specialize by exclusion. When I started out in the practice, it was easier to be a solo practitioner and have a general practice. I took in just about every case that came through my door. Today, that may not be wise. Some areas of the law have become too complicated for the generalist.

In later years I have specialized by exclusion. I no longer do criminal law (although it was favorite area of law), personal injury, bankruptcy, and securities law. Later letters will cover some of the special practice areas.

One of the early things you need to do is to find the courthouse. Do not be afraid to introduce yourself and find out what each office does and what records they keep. Many of these records are now on computer and are rapidly becoming available on the Internet. The auditor and recorder usually have a published listing of their fees which will become important in collecting those fees from your clients. Knowing the judge’s law clerks, secretary and court reporter can be very useful. Even today I could do my own title and judgment searches, if it were not cheaper to have a title company do it for me.

Over the years I have kept a master list of all my clients. I check this list to make sure that any person I am taking legal action against has not been a former client or I have some other conflict of interest. This is particularly important if you practice in a small community. I would also recommend you keep a list of the names of persons you have taken legal action against.

As a professional you have an obligation of service to your clients and to your community. The obligation to your client is not just to be their advocate, but to tell them what is right and what is practical. You will often have clients whose cause is just, but the amount in controversy is not worth the time and the mental aguish of pursuing. If after explaining the expense and what is involved in the legal action, the client still wishes to proceed, then you can proceed. However, it they have a frivolous case, you should tell them, explain that you cannot take their case and advise them that they are free to seek another attorney.

In starting out you should read a few books on starting a practice. Just do a web search, or the American Bar Association has some information on their website at abanet.org.•
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Donald Doxsee is a 1963 graduate of the Indiana University School of Law, a past president of the Allen County Bar Association, and is in the private practice of law in the association of Williams Williams & Doxsee.

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  1. I have been on this program while on parole from 2011-2013. No person should be forced mentally to share private details of their personal life with total strangers. Also giving permission for a mental therapist to report to your parole agent that your not participating in group therapy because you don't have the financial mean to be in the group therapy. I was personally singled out and sent back three times for not having money and also sent back within the six month when you aren't to be sent according to state law. I will work to het this INSOMM's removed from this state. I also had twelve or thirteen parole agents with a fifteen month period. Thanks for your time.

  2. Our nation produces very few jurists of the caliber of Justice DOUGLAS and his peers these days. Here is that great civil libertarian, who recognized government as both a blessing and, when corrupted by ideological interests, a curse: "Once the investigator has only the conscience of government as a guide, the conscience can become ‘ravenous,’ as Cromwell, bent on destroying Thomas More, said in Bolt, A Man For All Seasons (1960), p. 120. The First Amendment mirrors many episodes where men, harried and harassed by government, sought refuge in their conscience, as these lines of Thomas More show: ‘MORE: And when we stand before God, and you are sent to Paradise for doing according to your conscience, *575 and I am damned for not doing according to mine, will you come with me, for fellowship? ‘CRANMER: So those of us whose names are there are damned, Sir Thomas? ‘MORE: I don't know, Your Grace. I have no window to look into another man's conscience. I condemn no one. ‘CRANMER: Then the matter is capable of question? ‘MORE: Certainly. ‘CRANMER: But that you owe obedience to your King is not capable of question. So weigh a doubt against a certainty—and sign. ‘MORE: Some men think the Earth is round, others think it flat; it is a matter capable of question. But if it is flat, will the King's command make it round? And if it is round, will the King's command flatten it? No, I will not sign.’ Id., pp. 132—133. DOUGLAS THEN WROTE: Where government is the Big Brother,11 privacy gives way to surveillance. **909 But our commitment is otherwise. *576 By the First Amendment we have staked our security on freedom to promote a multiplicity of ideas, to associate at will with kindred spirits, and to defy governmental intrusion into these precincts" Gibson v. Florida Legislative Investigation Comm., 372 U.S. 539, 574-76, 83 S. Ct. 889, 908-09, 9 L. Ed. 2d 929 (1963) Mr. Justice DOUGLAS, concurring. I write: Happy Memorial Day to all -- God please bless our fallen who lived and died to preserve constitutional governance in our wonderful series of Republics. And God open the eyes of those government officials who denounce the constitutions of these Republics by arbitrary actions arising out capricious motives.

  3. From back in the day before secularism got a stranglehold on Hoosier jurists comes this great excerpt via Indiana federal court judge Allan Sharp, dedicated to those many Indiana government attorneys (with whom I have dealt) who count the law as a mere tool, an optional tool that is not to be used when political correctness compels a more acceptable result than merely following the path that the law directs: ALLEN SHARP, District Judge. I. In a scene following a visit by Henry VIII to the home of Sir Thomas More, playwriter Robert Bolt puts the following words into the mouths of his characters: Margaret: Father, that man's bad. MORE: There is no law against that. ROPER: There is! God's law! MORE: Then God can arrest him. ROPER: Sophistication upon sophistication! MORE: No, sheer simplicity. The law, Roper, the law. I know what's legal not what's right. And I'll stick to what's legal. ROPER: Then you set man's law above God's! MORE: No, far below; but let me draw your attention to a fact I'm not God. The currents and eddies of right and wrong, which you find such plain sailing, I can't navigate. I'm no voyager. But in the thickets of law, oh, there I'm a forester. I doubt if there's a man alive who could follow me there, thank God... ALICE: (Exasperated, pointing after Rich) While you talk, he's gone! MORE: And go he should, if he was the Devil himself, until he broke the law! ROPER: So now you'd give the Devil benefit of law! MORE: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil? ROPER: I'd cut down every law in England to do that! MORE: (Roused and excited) Oh? (Advances on Roper) And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you where would you hide, Roper, the laws being flat? (He leaves *1257 him) This country's planted thick with laws from coast to coast man's laws, not God's and if you cut them down and you're just the man to do it d'you really think you would stand upright in the winds that would blow then? (Quietly) Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake. ROPER: I have long suspected this; this is the golden calf; the law's your god. MORE: (Wearily) Oh, Roper, you're a fool, God's my god... (Rather bitterly) But I find him rather too (Very bitterly) subtle... I don't know where he is nor what he wants. ROPER: My God wants service, to the end and unremitting; nothing else! MORE: (Dryly) Are you sure that's God! He sounds like Moloch. But indeed it may be God And whoever hunts for me, Roper, God or Devil, will find me hiding in the thickets of the law! And I'll hide my daughter with me! Not hoist her up the mainmast of your seagoing principles! They put about too nimbly! (Exit More. They all look after him). Pgs. 65-67, A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS A Play in Two Acts, Robert Bolt, Random House, New York, 1960. Linley E. Pearson, Atty. Gen. of Indiana, Indianapolis, for defendants. Childs v. Duckworth, 509 F. Supp. 1254, 1256 (N.D. Ind. 1981) aff'd, 705 F.2d 915 (7th Cir. 1983)

  4. "Meanwhile small- and mid-size firms are getting squeezed and likely will not survive unless they become a boutique firm." I've been a business attorney in small, and now mid-size firm for over 30 years, and for over 30 years legal consultants have been preaching this exact same mantra of impending doom for small and mid-sized firms -- verbatim. This claim apparently helps them gin up merger opportunities from smaller firms who become convinced that they need to become larger overnight. The claim that large corporations are interested in cost-saving and efficiency has likewise been preached for decades, and is likewise bunk. If large corporations had any real interest in saving money they wouldn't use large law firms whose rates are substantially higher than those of high-quality mid-sized firms.

  5. The family is the foundation of all human government. That is the Grand Design. Modern governments throw off this Design and make bureaucratic war against the family, as does Hollywood and cultural elitists such as third wave feminists. Since WWII we have been on a ship of fools that way, with both the elite and government and their social engineering hacks relentlessly attacking the very foundation of social order. And their success? See it in the streets of Fergusson, on the food stamp doles (mostly broken families)and in the above article. Reject the Grand Design for true social function, enter the Glorious State to manage social dysfunction. Our Brave New World will be a prison camp, and we will welcome it as the only way to manage given the anarchy without it.

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