Skip to main content
News
Jax Daily Record Wednesday, Sep. 12, 200112:00 PM EST

Learning the business side of practicing law

Share
by: The Florida Bar News

True confession from Hollywood attorney Alan Steven Bernstein: “I am not the most organized man in the world.”

So when a client questioned the amount of his bill, Bernstein didn’t have the black-and-white facts to prove he was correct.

“I knew I’d put the time in, but it was a question of how I ran the books,”recalled Bernstein, a solo practitioner handling mostly drunken-driverdefense work.

After the client filed a complaint with the Bar, Bernstein was ordered to undergo an evaluation of his office systems and procedures from The Florida Bar’s Law Office Management Assistance Service (LOMAS). The resulting recommendations, including an investment in time-management software, are paying off, he said, as he continues to learn to be better at the business side of legal practice.

“Unfortunately, I was focusing so much on practicing law that I was delegating too much about the business of my law practice. And I used to take whatever came through the door. I learned you have to screen clients.

[LOMAS] helped me a lot and gave me perspective. Did they teach me these things in law school? Not at all. I was really unprepared to work on the business side,” Bernstein said, of graduating from Nova Southeastern

University’s Shepard Broad Law Center in 1981.

These days, Nova does offer a non-credit, four-week workshop to second-year and third-year law students called “Small Firm Practice/Management.” Students do a detailed business plan, plan a law office, learn about trust accounting and general survival techniques, including how to advertise without breaking any rules.

The debate has rumbled for decades: Whose duty is it to prepare law students for the business side of running a practice? Law schools? The Bar?

Both?

“It’s an old-school attitude,” said Nova law professor Debra Moss Curtis, of law schools’ general reluctance to get into teaching the practical, non-theory side of being a lawyer as part of the curriculum. She pushed to create the workshop at Nova when the dean wanted to create a series of career development workshops, such as “Spanish for professionals.”

“I’ve often heard the quote: ‘This is law school, not lawyer school. This is an academic pursuit, not a vocational pursuit.’ But the reality is that this law school is a vocational school, too. If we don’t teach it to them, they won’t learn it,” Curtis said.

“We have an obligation to provide it. We’re not breeding people to sit in law libraries. We are sending them out in the world to be business people.”

Curtis has watched her non-credit workshop at Nova grow from two students in 1997 to more than 60 students this year.

“What I think my students find most shocking is how many hats you have to wear in small firms. You have to decide everything from what kind of computers to who’s going to buy the legal pads. I think they are confounded by the depth of trust accounting rules.”

While philosophies differ on whose duty it is to teach law students practical nuts-and-bolts business sense, there’s no question that too many lawyers have learned their lessons the hard way.

“When we break the statistics down, we believe that well over 50 percent of Bar disciplinary complaints emanate from poor business practices and have nothing to do with the legal essence of being a lawyer. And malpractice statistics related to poor business practices are even higher,“ said J.R. Phelps, a legal administrator hired by the Bar 21 years ago to begin LOMAS.

It was the first such Bar program in the country, and since then 18 other states have followed Florida’s lead.

It was the late Sam Smith, 1981 president of the Bar, who convinced the Board of Governors in 1979 to add the LOMAS position, when the discussion centered on adding more prosecutors.

“LOMAS should be the ounce of prevention that prevents this expensive pound of cure,” Smith liked to say.

For two decades, LOMAS has been offering services to lawyers who ask for help voluntarily, as well as those involved in disciplinary proceedings.

In his role conducting LOMAS disciplinary consultations, Rjon Robins has seen “a grown man and woman shut the door and break down in front of me over the heartache and feelings of inadequacy and failure they have secretly harbored because no one ever taught them how to keep track of a calendar or tickler system. Or because they never really understood what their staff does for their law firm until the secretary called in sick for a week and the entire office ground to a halt. Or they never thought about establishing policies for their staff to follow to help them avoid troublesome clients who end up reporting them to the Bar for discipline because they were unable to achieve some sort of unrealistic goal. Or they are just flat broke, even though they work 60 to 70 hours a week and now their families hate them, too.”

As Phelps says: “Competence as a lawyer is a two-part equation: technical competence and the ability to perform competently, that is deliver legal services in a timely and cost-effective manner. Law schools and CLE programs emphasize the technical aspects of being a lawyer. It’s the ability to perform competently that LOMAS addresses in its seminars, telephone consultations and on-site consultations.

“Client complaints are generally related to performance issues rather than technical mistakes. The complaints range from ‘My lawyer missed a hearing’ to ‘My lawyer never really did anything.’ Law school doesn’t teach you to be organized.”

Why not? Jay Foonberg, a California attorney who wrote the popular ABA book, “How to Start and Build a Law Firm,” responded, “In my opinion, there are two reasons: The larger firms, which hire out of the law schools, don’t pay a premium for this. There is no big demand. And there is a prestige factor for the law school. The priority is to the big law firms because they are the ones buying 10 seats to the alumni dinner.

“The second reason, I think, is there is no one to teach the course. No course is ever taught in law school, unless it gets through a curricula committee, and the tenured professors jealously guard their own jobs.”

Walter Crumbley, an administrative law judge for the Social Security Administration in Tampa and chair of the Bar’s LOMAS Committee, has also experienced that law school reluctance.

“This is one of the things that has bounced back and forth for years: What is the role of the law school and what is the role of the organized bar as far as preparing people to practice?” Crumbley said.

“I think every law school is this way: They see their role as teaching you to research and think like a lawyer and write like a lawyer. That other stuff you’ll learn when you get out. The assumption is that you’ll go to a firm, and you’ll learn to do that from them. Unfortunately, the people out there may not know how to do it very well, either.”

In 1985, Judge Crumbley, who has a bachelor’s degree in business administration and a master’s in public administration, approached Stetson about teaching a law practice management class.

“They told me, ‘We’re not interested in that, but we’d like you to teach administrative law.’”

Eventually, Stetson agreed to let Crumbley teach the course, which he did until last year.

“We put aside the legal part and deal with day-to-day business operations,” including how to set up an office and hire good employees, Crumbley said.

“In law school, they say the statute of limitations is four years. But they don’t say you need a system in your office to make sure you don’t miss that date.

“I think there’s not a great recognition yet by lawyers in the field how important practice management is,” Crumbley said. “It can really and truly make a big difference in the bottom line, malpractice prevention and better quality of life. If you understand the concepts of how to attract good clients and manage that lawyer client relationship well, you’ll have a practice that is not only financially successful, but personally satisfying, as well.

“What made teaching it worthwhile is when a student comes back a few years later and says, ‘You saved my life!’”

At Florida State University College of Law, more is being offered regarding professionalism and ethics issues, said Dean Don Weidner. But when it comes to practice management issues, “like the nitty gritty of how to do billing records,” Weidner acknowledged: “We could do more in that area.”

Mostly, FSU students learn such things in non-credit workshops conducted by practicing attorneys. Clinical programs also provide hands-on experience.

“A small percentage of our students hang out a shingle. In part, it’s something that we can provide outside the curriculum. Practitioners are delighted to come in and do it for free,” Weidner said. “And the thought is that The Florida Bar helps bridge the gap. The Young Lawyers Division is active in this area. And there’s the sense that it’s not an academic discipline.”

YLD President Liz Rice said: “With some of the larger law schools, especially, it’s not seen as ‘intellectual enough.’ Their philosophy is the students will learn these things when they’re out practicing.”

Because of time constraints, Rice said, the YLD’s “Practicing with Professionalism” seminar “only hits the highlights, the tip of the iceberg.

. . . Would it be helpful for law schools to offer it? Yes. But can the Bar do more, too? Yes,” she said. Stressing that while LOMAS does a great job, she believes it’s underutilized, and perhaps Bar sections could put on more related seminars, too.

What Donna Goldman, a solo family law practitioner in Ft. Lauderdale, didn’t learn at the University of Miami law school, she sought out voluntarily from LOMAS.

“On television, the attorney never has a problem finding and keeping qualified staff. They never worry about the amount of the bill they give the client, and rarely, except when showing this laid-back beach bum type of attorney, does the TV show a lawyer asking the secretary what checks have come in,” Goldman said.

Robins, of LOMAS, spent the day at her law office, she said, and she found his advice both interesting and useful, including a form book to supplement her knowledge of office-type forms and documents.

“Rjon told me, and I couldn’t agree more, that it is important to be ableto delegate responsibility. That is huge. However, this goes to the inherent problem of finding competent and affordable staff to delegate these responsibilities. Oh, the horror stories!” Goldman said. “I was always known as an efficiency expert. A problem, of course, is what about when those around you aren’t as inherently efficient. How do you find the time to train?”

Sometimes, the best advice on how to keep clients happy seems commonsensical.

“I would say to every lawyer in America: Take a course in how to listen,” said Foonberg. “Like my daddy always used to say: ‘If you are talking more than one-third of the time, you are talking too much. If the Lord wanted us to talk two-thirds of the time, the Lord would have given us two mouths and one ear.’ Clients don’t want you to talk until you listen to them. The

Golden Rule of marketing is dead. The Platinum Rule is here: Treat others as they would want to be treated.”

James Pruden, 47, knew all about customer service from having an MBA and spending years in business before he went to Nova’s law school at age 40. He has launched his second career as a lawyer, opening a solo practice in Boca Raton.

“When you open a practice for yourself, you have to realize you are running a business first, a law practice second. I had a long career with IBM, which was very service-oriented,” Pruden said.

“And the practice of law is a very service-oriented business. It frames how you treat clients. One of the biggest complaints you hear about law offices is something as simple as how quick you can get your phone call returned.

Clients don’t want to wait three days to get someone to call them back,” Pruden said.

“And there are simple things I do with my billing practices. I have attorneys shriek at what I do. I leave a lot of money on the table. People complain about law offices that charge $1.50 a fax. It doesn’t break my back, and it doesn’t cost much. I don’t charge for faxes. And I get a tremendous amount of good will from my clients.”

Even though he was very familiar with the business world, Pruden still took Curtis’ workshop at Nova.

“Law school is not there to give people MBAs and certainly can’t give them 10 or 20 years of practical experience,” Pruden said. “But it’s a matter of nuts and bolts and what tricks they can tell you. If you’re a self-starter, you can take these good points of advice and apply it into getting a running start at a business.

“It gives people an insight into things as simple as the costs of a telephone. I had a detailed plan of how to run this business. But there are challenges you don’t know until you get in there and do it. Just dealing with the telephones. It took me a while to get the phones right. I had multiple lines, where if one is busy it rolls into another line. I had voice lines rolling into the fax lines,” he said laughing at the hassle.

His biggest fear was that he’d have no clients, but he didn’t have to worry long.

“If you do a great job for somebody, you’ll get three or four new clients by word of mouth. If you do a bad job, you’ll never see anybody again,” said Pruden, who has not spent a dime on advertising and says he has enough clients to keep him busy. He invested in a great law library, instead.

And this advice comes from Bernstein, who admits he learned a lot the hard way when he left a large law firm, sold his condo, and moved back home to pay for opening his solo practice, bringing with him two clients, one who didn’t pay: “Competition is deadly. Make sure you are organized in what you do. And keep your eye on your back.”

—Reprinted with permission of The Florida Bar News.

Related Stories

Advertisement