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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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