It’s not news to anyone that the economy is a mess, or even why it is and how we got here. The vast corporate structures we leveraged and then over-leveraged finally collapsed onto themselves, and the safety and stability once associated with having a “cushy” job with a big company in a tall building has now become a landscape of layoffs and hiring freezes. Professional school graduates are piling into the workplace, even from the most prestigious programs, with year-long waits to start work, or without a job at all. Storied companies and firms, many of whom used to publicize as a point of distinction, their economic health and layoff free employment record, are now laying off many of their mid-level professionals and managers with little notice and no severance. The sacrifices long associated with corporate life and the benefits it provided are beginning to seem needless and wasteful. If your continued employment future is based on the capricious nature of risk-averse and self-interested Baby Boomers, why on earth would you want to put in 80 hours a week polishing your boss’ plaques?
The legal profession has, for years, expressed concern over the business model that has dominated the past two decades. Billable hours drove the prices of legal service sky-high, and demand always seemed to be outpacing the supply of capable attorneys. Despite the commoditization of legal education and bar membership, old-guard mentalities prevailed: the value of a lawyer was based largely on where he/she went to law school or multiple decades of practice. As both of these standards left comparatively few professionals to choose from, the costs went up. The labor market for this small enclave became intensely competitive, and salaries began to drive prices (rather than the other way around). The Star Chambers of senior firm managers enjoyed enormous windfalls from this exponential price explosion and the overhead of even modestly-sized firms ballooned far beyond what could have ever been imagined.
The current economy combined with the increasing failure of existing business structures has led many capable professionals to eschew the traditional business models for entrepreneurial ventures that eliminate needless overhead and focus on value and customer service rather than simply profit. The law community, and as it turns out, this particular lawyer, are no exception.
I debated for a long time whether it was viable for a single lawyer to practice in today’s economic climate – and then I realized that there were more reasons now than ever before to do it:
1. Consumers and business owners have become focused on getting real value for the money they spend. Needless expenditures have become an unaffordable luxury, and even long-standing habits are being re-evaluated. Are you really getting $500/hour worth of benefit from the time your attorney is charging you for? Do you really care how nice his/her office is?
2. The computerization of the legal practice has made the resources once only available to a select few both affordable and widely available. Law students are taught legal research via the internet, and taught drafting on their word processor. Correspondence is done via e-mail and cell-phone, and the “virtual law firms” represented by the established social and professional networks of most practitioners makes the need to hire a “full-service” law firm nearly obsolete.
3. The more that law firm lawyers focus on business as their businesses struggle, the less they focus on service. Some of these firms are cutting prices, but they’re also cutting service. Going to see a lawyer has become like going to see a dentist without insurance – you know it’s for the best, but it’s really going to cost you, it’s probably going to hurt, and there’s no way of knowing whether you’re being taken good care of. The individual attention that a sole practitioner can provide is more needed now than ever.
So, with the help of one very savvy graphic designer and web-programmer, I left my years at the law firm behind, and have begun serving clients on my own. It wasn’t like I was some kid fresh out of law school, the ink on whose Bar certificate hadn’t even dried yet, hanging up a shingle and hoping to learn it as I go. I practiced in Century City, and drafted hundreds of documents, ranging from multi-million dollar purchase agreements to simple releases and waivers. I had advised clients on matters ranging from whether or not to sign documents to how to get a new business started. I had hosted meeting breakfasts, power lunches and closing dinners, trained other lawyers on the ever -changing landscape of corporate law and even helped my firm to recruit young lawyers from my alma mater, Stanford Law.
In my experience, most senior executives that I knew had two attorneys: one who handled their big corporate matters, litigation, etc., and another they usually referred to as their “contracts guy”; someone who could work quickly and inexpensively on documents that didn’t require the reputation or expense of their “other” lawyer. In addition to knowing a number of business folks for whom I provide this service, I felt that given the current entrepreneurial climate, this was a service that more and more people could use, but that few had real access to.
MyContractsGuy.com is a place to get your questions about contracts answered, by a real lawyer, from a real law school, with real experience and real resources. No Legal Zoom disclaimers, no call centers in India, and no pre-packaged help. Got a contract and don’t know what it means, whether you should sign it, or how to negotiate its terms? Need a contract and don’t have any idea where to start? Is it important? You do need to talk to a lawyer. If only to find out that you don’t need a lawyer. When it matters, now you have a friend in the business. Your contracts guy.
I’ve enjoyed beginning to help people on my own terms; the reason I became a lawyer in the first place. I’m enjoying doing my part to eliminate waste from the legal profession. I’m enjoying not wasting my time with ministerial tasks whose sole purpose is padding a client’s bill and justifying my own employment. I’m enjoying the new economy, my lack of a secretary and parking spot, and a greatly improved commute. But most of all, I’m enjoying being a real part of the success and independence of the talented people I’m proud to call clients.
Here’s to not being your father’s lawyer, but maybe being yours.