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MAY 2014 - YLS Event
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Starting Your Own Practice: A Post-Event Recap

by Julie C. Stromberg

The entrepreneurial spirit was alive and well at the Young Lawyers Section’s sold-out event, “Starting Your Own Practice: Common Traps, Ethical Considerations, and Business Fundamentals.”  The two-part program, moderated by
Michele Ballard Miller of Miller Law Group, covered poignant issues for all practitioners to consider when starting and owning their own law firms. Attorneys from various areas and levels of practice filled the Loyola Law School lecture hall as they attentively and voraciously soaked in all the knowledge the panelists generously offered.

Starting Your Own Practice: Part I --- Common Traps and Business Fundamentals

The first part of the program featured
three small firm owners: Susan Hill of Hill & Piibe, Immigration Attorneys; Zein E. Obagi, Jr. of Obagi & Stodder LLP; and Matthew D. Umhofer of Spertus, Landes & Umhofer LLP.  The practitioner panelists were joined by Al Hernandez, Founder and President of Lawyers Pacific Insurance Brokerage, who added invaluable recommendations from an insurance perspective.  All panelists started their own practices at different levels of their careers, from upon law school graduation to after a lengthy, successful career at a large, international law firm. The discussion ranged from topics including:  retainer agreements, trust accounts, malpractice insurance coverage, defining representation, fee splitting, outstanding invoices and how to avoid them, and managing overhead.  Some of the invaluable recommendations the panelists shared included: the importance of having a mentor who will help you develop business; join with someone who already has his/her own business and design it in a way where you can build your own practice and develop your own business; tips on networking and marketing oneself; and how not to give away too much advice.  In addition, Al Hernandez explained that the questions on an application for malpractice insurance can function as an outline for how an attorney should manage his/her firm.

My favorite piece of advice came from Matthew Umholfer, who recommends to “feast upon the scraps of large law firms.” Further, Susan Hill provided the best practical advice applicable to all practitioners: to be successful, and even to survive in the legal industry, you must “have the ability to adapt and hustle.”

The greatest take-away from the first part of the program was that although there are many risks involved in starting and owning a law practice, there are also great benefits. The benefits include:  pride of ownership, autonomy, and the ability to choose your own cases. As Zein Obagi, Jr. explained, one of the greatest benefits of having your own practice is “to be your own boss.” According to Mr. Obagi, there is a particular value associated with having the freedom and autonomy to be your own boss.  However, these benefits are not without their own share of unique pressures and risks. For example, Michele Ballard Miller analogized being a law firm owner as a mother hen who always has the pressure to feed her baby chicks. In addition, Ms. Ballard explained that “the peaks and valleys you will experience as a law practitioner are very different when you are on your own” and you have to be mindful of this fact.  Therefore, it is important to find a balance between the benefits of the freedom of being your own boss and the demands of having greater responsibilities and the associated risks involved with the latter.  

Starting Your Own Practice: Part II – Ethical Considerations

The second part of the program featured an invigorating discussion regarding particular ethical considerations many solo practitioners and small law firm owners’ face. The panel featured E
llen Pansky of Pansky Markle Ham LLP and Cecilia Horton-Billard, Senior Trial Counsel for the California State Bar.  It was interesting to get a perspective of a defense attorney, Ms. Pansky, and a prosecutor, Ms. Horton-Billard, in the area of legal malpractice.  Mses. Pansky and Horton-Billard focused their discussion on recommendations for how to avoid a malpractice complaint being filed against you with the State Bar. According to Ms. Pansky, solo practitioners and small firm owners will find that client complaints to the State Bar are a common part of business.  With this in mind, solo practitioners and small law firm owners should take into consideration the many recommendations to avoid malpractice claims, including but not limited to:  (1) institute policies and practices in your own office and follow them; (2) be sure to communicate regularly with your client (i.e., send update letters or emails regularly); (3) choose your clients carefully; (4) document everything!; (5) always run conflict checks before speaking to prospective clients about their potential matter; and (6) send out decline or drop letters (see Rule 3-700 [Termination of Employment] for dropping representation).

Ms. Horton-Billard expanded the discussion to include an explanation of the process when a malpractice complaint is filed against an attorney with the State Bar
. Her discussion primarily focused on the State Bar’s Intake unit, which is the State Bar’s department that receives malpractice complaints filed against attorneys.  According to Ms. Horton-Billard,  the State Bar sees 700 complaints per year. Although most complaints have no merit, the attorney, by law, must respond. With this in mind, solo practitioners and law firm owners should keep in mind the following: (1) if a complaint is filed against you, consider having someone help you with a response; (2) participate in the process right away and do not assume that the case will go away!; (3) reach out for help on ethical questions or concerns, including the State Bar’s website and Ethics Hotline: 1-800-238-4427.

Although the discussion focused on ethical considerations for solo practitioners and law firm owners, Mses. Pansky and Horton-Billard’s recommendations are applicable to all attorneys. Overall, they provided a very practical and enlightening discussion.

We are certain that many attendees walked away ready to either start or continue their own practice. We hope that after attending this program, they will now have the tools to better equip themselves to succeed in their endeavors (and hopefully avoid a malpractice claim). According to program attendee Chike Emenike,
“The panelists were very informed and honest, and I thought they gave us real insight into the realities of practicing law as a solo practitioner- from ways to looking for clients to ways to protecting ones' self from clients (a concept that is not always intuitive to new attorneys looking to take on every single client they can get!).  Overall, I thought the program was very encouraging and informative."

Program Recording Available and Young Lawyers Section Next Event

If you were unable to attend this exciting program, but are interested in experiencing first-hand the program’s engaging and encouraging discussion, the recording for the first part of the program is available at the WLALA website for only $20. Building on this successful event, which will likely by repeated in the future based on its popular response, the Young Lawyers Section will be hosting a webinar in June on “Social Media Considerations for Lawyers.” This practical and informative webinar will surely benefit all attorneys. As program attendee Joseph Hekmat explained,
"WLALA did it again with a program that was both informative and relevant to newly minted lawyers."  We hope that we will have a repeat success with our next program. 

To listen to the first part of the program, please CLICK HERE.

Julie C. Stromberg co-Chair of the Young Lawyers Section and Of Counsel at Obagi & Stodder LLP


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