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Attorneys Frank Natoli and Moshe Lapin launched their new law firm in March 2008 — just six months before the economy began its epic free fall. The timing could have spelled disaster for the fledgling Natoli-Lapin LLC, but instead proved something of a boon because of the firm’s niche: low-cost legal services for entrepreneurs, artists and others launching new business ventures. “We’re growing pretty fast,” Natoli said. “For us, it was perfect timing. There are more entrepreneurs right now because so many people have lost their jobs. We’re the go-to guys for that scenario.” Natoli credits the firm’s success thus far — it soon will have collected 250 clients — to its business model. First, the two-attorney firm follows the virtual law firm model, wherein most business is conducted via the Internet and telephone rather than in a traditional office setting. This keeps overhead extremely low; 80 percent of the firm’s revenue is profit, Natoli said. Second, the foundation of the firm is unbundled, flat-fee basic services geared toward new business owners. For example, the firm’s Web site advertises incorporation filings for a single-member limited liability corporation starting at $395. It also offers trademark, patent and copyright services in flat-rate packages. The firm handles only basic filings, and hands off the business to other attorneys if a matter becomes complicated. “We’re trying to create a sense of a middle ground between these online document providers such as Legalzoom.com and the traditional, stuffed-shirt lawyer who wants to cater to the big clients,” Natoli said. A number of Web sites offer legal forms but no involvement or quality control by actual lawyers, Natoli said. On the other side, starting entrepreneurs often can’t afford to pay retainers and the hourly bills that come with the traditional lawyer arrangements. Clients have responded favorably to the firm’s flat-rate offerings, he said, and he and Lapin are busier than they expected to be when they started out. While the firm’s staple clients are start-up business or solo entrepreneurs, established businesses have sought out its services because of the low prices. The two partners graduated from George Washington University Law Center in 2007 and knew they didn’t want to practice law in the traditional environment. Before going to law school, Natoli had been an entrepreneur and a business consultant. “I saw how difficult is to access reliable legal help, especially without a lot of money,” he said. “I realized this is a ripe area for a legal practice.” Natoli acknowledged that his firm isn’t alone in offering flat-rate legal services, but claimed that it is unique in pinpointing the entrepreneurial community. That focus is a smart move, said law firm marketing expert Larry Bodine of Larry Bodine Marketing in Glen Ellyn, Ill. “Nobody wants to hire a generalist,” he said. “You don’t want a guy who knows a little bit about everything. It’s a benefit to have a specialty like entrepreneurs. That’s big right now because people are losing their jobs” and starting their own companies. Solo practitioners and small firms have been increasingly open to flat-fee arrangements, Bodine said, although he warned that it might not be the best idea to post rates on a firm’s Web site, as Natoli-Lapin does. Advertising bargain basement prices could create the perception that your law firm is akin to a legal clinic, he said. “Generally, you don’t want to talk money until you have them on the phone,” Bodine said. “You are going to attract people who are shopping around just based on price, and that isn’t necessarily what you want.” But it’s the fees disclosure that brings in clients who are sometimes intimidated by the process of retaining a lawyer, Natoli said. Figuring out how to set prices low enough to lure clients but high enough to sustain the firm was a learning process that took six months, however. The firm didn’t necessarily make money on the first matters it handled because its initial flat rates weren’t high enough. However, Natoli remains optimistic about the future of the firm and believes that more attorneys in small firms will have to take creative approaches to thrive. “I think you will see more of these types of practices emerge,” he said. “There are a lot of displaced attorneys out there, and they are going to have to look outside the box.”

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