Starting a Law Firm – Local Counsel Work

When considering starting your own law firm, one often overlooked source of business for your fledgling business is local counsel work.

When I began my career as an attorney at a medium sized firm, I had an idea of what I would be working on. For instance, areas such as corporate law, family law, criminal law, estate law, real estate law, are all examples of practices areas that I, like all lawyers, am familiar with because those courses are taught in probably every law school in the United States. So, if you join a law firm in the private practice arena, you will probably work as a lawyer in one or more of these areas.

For example, the typical way to practice law is to have a client ask you to help them with their legal problem. A person or entity will come to you and hire you to help them with their business, family, or personal legal dilemma. That is the most common way to work as a lawyer.

However, one surprise that many lawyers find when they start practicing out of law school is that other lawyers and firms often hire attorneys outside their firm to be their lawyer for a local hearing. This concept is called local counsel.

There are two standard forms of local counsel work:

(1) a firm in the jurisdiction you work in, but which is a long ways away (like in a different city) hires you; or

(2) a firm outside of your jurisdiction and typically in another state hires you.

In these two situations, attorneys and/or law firms will hire out a lawyer to handle hearings in the courthouse or county where the original firm has filed its case. Hiring and outside attorney enables the hiring law firm to have an attorney present in a court-house that is far-far away from the hiring firm’s office. It would be much too expensive to have a $300.00-an-hour attorney drive from a far away city to attend a minor foreclosure hearing. So, the law firm that originated the lawsuit will often hire an attorney at a lower dollar amount to handle a simple hearing.

Examples of legal areas in which local counsel work is needed are: foreclosures, bankruptcy, and debt collection. Often the hired attorney will appear at a minor hearing, such as a status conference, and file an attorney appearance with the court. The attorney will inform the court that he or she has been hired only for the purpose of the local counsel work. A judge will often understand that the law firm who hired the local attorney will handle the actual procedural filing. However, the local counsel attorney will handle the minor matter before him or her. One thing to keep in mind is that the hired lawyer still owes a duty to both the court and his client to be diligent and prepared when he or she accepts the case – no matter how minor it is.

Why is local counsel work important for starting your own firm? In the foremost, it is usually relatively simple and it is a very effective way to generate cash flow for your firm. Without cash flow, your law firm will die.

Another great thing about local counsel work is that it helps the courts function efficiently. If an attorney can show up at minor hearing and guide the legal process along, the court can worry more about other, more important, cases on its docket.

In sum, local counsel work is an often unknown and overlooked aspect of starting and building a law practice. Attorneys who have been practicing for any amount of time often know about local counsel work. However, a person coming out of law school likely has never heard of it. If a person decides to start their own firm out of law school, they will not want to miss this great source of revenue-generating work.

Furthermore, another reason to do local counsel work is that lawyers tend not to stiff other lawyers. In other words, when you are hired, you know you are going to get paid. That may sound simple, but when you are staring out and trying to survive, getting paid for the work you do is of the utmost importance. Heck, it may be the only important thing to know when you are starting your own firm.

When considering starting a law firm, and whether your niche area is family law, criminal law, corporate law, or some other area of law, you need to remember local counsel work and focus some of your firm marketing towards this area. It is not always the most lucrative work, but, if you can get it, it is steady, it generates immediate cash flow, and it get your new law firm humming.

The Case of a Boutique Law Firm Vs A Conventional Law Firm

The legal scene for some time has been changing with increase in specialized cases. These deal with areas like immigration and environmental laws. The economic conditions have also not been very supporting of the bigger firms as they are finding it hard to manage huge administrative overheads. Out of these times has emerged the phenomenon of a boutique law firm. These have usually been formed by practicing lawyers who left bigger firms and started their own practices which focus on niche areas.

Characteristics of a Boutique law firm:

1. It is usually smaller than a general practice law firms. At times it could just consist of one or two lawyers who have come together due to a shared passion for a particular area of law.

2. Most of these have been formed by attorneys who left bigger law firms to start their own practices. A good example is Chicago Law Partners which was started by five attorneys from Chicago law firm of Neal, Gerber and Eisenberg.

3. It focuses on a niche or a few niche areas rather than all aspects of law and order. For example, Chicago Law Partners takes up cases only for not-for-profit organizations.

4. They market themselves as “specialists” in their chosen area like immigration laws or maritime laws.

5. The fees charged by these firms are usually higher than the conventional general practice law firms.

Pros compared to a conventional law firm:

• A firm that handles all kind of cases may not have the depth and knowledge required for specialized cases say a divorce which involves child custody.

• If you find a boutique law firm which is passionate about your cause, you may be able to get their services at lower cost. And the dedication that stems from their passion for the cause is an added bonus.

• A boutique law firm because of its knowledge and involvement may be able to assist with investigating the case besides fighting it on your behalf.

• The staff at a boutique firm tends to provide more than just legal advice. Due to their vast experience, they can also provide personal and professional advice to deal with the issues you may be facing during your legal battle.

Cons compared to a conventional law firm:

• First is the cost of hiring such a firm which will be higher than that of hiring a conventional firm. This may reduce over time given their lower overheads but that is still to be seen.

• They may not have enough staff which could be deterrent at times for the case in hand.

As a concept it looks to be a better option than a conventional set-up especially for handle highly complex and specific cases. But, are firms ready to focus on just one area, is yet to be proven in the long run. Also needs to be proven is the implication that they are more than just small law firms attired in a new garb.

Common Qualities of the Best Law Firms

In my 12 years of practice, I have been employed with a wide variety of law firms. When I decided to open my own practice, I started thinking about the qualities that make up the best law firms. In determining the best law firms do you include things such as employee benefits, firm culture and employee turnover rates? Or do you focus on the qualities that affect a law firm’s most precious commodity – the client? My take on this is that the best law firms employ quality attorneys and staff with the highest of ethical standards and the desire to fight within their ethical bounds for their clients.

One key factor in having a successful law practice is an effective leader. A good leader will have a vision for the firm’s direction, a commitment to serving its clients, and a desire to find like-minded people that believe not only in the clients, but the brand of the firm. I have found in my practice that effective leaders can quickly change with success and growth. They often lose touch with the very people that helped them grow into a successful powerhouse. It is easy to go from a scenario of weekly partner/associate lunches to rarely, if ever, seeing a partner in the office. Effective leaders at the best law firm have a good understanding of the legal work coming out of the office, the overall satisfaction of its clients, and an awareness of the employees’ overall job satisfaction. With success and growth, it is easy to lose touch with these important factors, but good leaders will remain cognizant of these factors, even with exponential growth of the firm.

The best law firms also have compassion for their clients. When attorneys at these firms meet with clients, it’s never about sharing the attorney’s successes. Rather, it’s listening to your clients concerns, determining their overall goal through representation by the firm, and showing empathy towards their situation. Many attorneys look at their clients and see dollar signs. They look at the opportunity to bill or the total fee they will earn on a contingency for a huge settlement. These attorneys fail to recall one of the most basic ethical consideration of attorneys, acting in the best interest of the client. Because at the end of the day, all the billable hours in the world won’t make a practice successful If you don’t satisfy and take good care of your clients. Firms with this mindset often have high turnover rates because they make billing THE priority. They burn their attorneys out and bring in brand new attorneys and start the process fresh with them. This can easily lead to dissatisfaction by clients. They may not know from one month to the next which attorney is representing them.

Another key quality of the best law firms is a narrow focus on a particular area of law. The days of general practitioners is (or should be) gone. Laws are complex and can change in an instant depending on legislation or new case law handed down by appellate courts. The best law firms have focus on one area of law and become very good at it. They are aware of recent changes as well as developing changes in their area of practice. With such a narrow focus, they can change strategy in an instant and become the authority to their clients by showing their knowledge in a particular area of law. Beware of the lawyer who claims to practice in all areas of civil litigation. While it is possible, consider that opposing counsel may have a more narrow focus. They may have that golden nugget of information that can make the case a winner for them and a loser for your client.

There are a number of other factors to consider when trying to determine the best. That may be the discussion for a future article. But those discussed here are, in this author’s opinion, the most important factors to consider when trying to figure out what makes a firm one of the best.