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Attorneys in small firms can distinguish their practices by achieving and maintaining excellence. One of the challenges of any practice is developing and maintaining a healthy client base, whether it is a mega-firm in a big city or a two-person office across from the county courthouse. The best way to acquire and maintain business is to achieve results for your clients. And when excellence is the hallmark of a practice, the word gets out. Cases will come. When firms sacrifice excellence for volume, standards eventually fall. There is no substitute for excellence. To have the best solo or small firm, take a lesson from some legal legends. For example, after clerking for a federal judge, I had the opportunity to join several large firms. Instead, I chose to join Percy Foreman and Mike DeGeurin in their criminal-defense practice in Houston. I worked closely with Foreman six days a week from 1985 until his death in 1988. Foreman’s philosophy was simple: Work as hard as possible on literally every legal issue, whether a murder case, a motion to suppress or a misdemeanor. Soon after joining his practice, I remember walking past Foreman’s office one morning on my way to county court to try a misdemeanor. As I passed his door he barked a reminder, “Try it like it’s a murder case.” That was pure Foreman. He didn’t have separate gears for misdemeanors, felonies or cases that the press happened to be watching. He simply tried every case like the fate of the Free World was hanging in the balance. Foreman kept his practice small because he wanted control and quality. Small firms can have great strengths. The few principals in charge can exercise direct control on every aspect of each case. A partner in a small firm still can actively participate in the profession of law, not merely supervise what has become the business of law. For example, in our firm of three principals and four associates, DeGeurin, David Gerger and I are involved in every facet of every case. We personally handle all aspects of trial preparation that in a large firm would typically be delegated to a team of associates and paralegals. We know that no matter how much help we might have available in our office, when the case goes to trial, it’s on our shoulders. Our personal reputations are on the line, as is the liberty — and sometimes the very lives — of our clients. Lawyers risk their reputations when they excessively delegate. Clients don’t say, “My attorney’s associate or paralegal messed up.” They say, “My attorney messed up.” And that’s how they should view it. Remember that if you’re a solo or a partner in a small firm. Along the lines of not delegating too many tasks, it’s important to be accessible to clients and potential clients. Whether a corporate executive comes knocking on the door or a grandmother calls for her grandson in jail, one of the partners immediately makes himself available — and that’s before there is a retainer or any talk about fees. Never use an associate or a paralegal for screening clients. Another advantage of practicing law in a small firm is that if someone walks in with an intriguing case or a gut-wrenching problem, you can take the case without going through the screening procedure common in large firms. That makes the small-firm lawyer more in touch with the community and more independent. Paul Nugent practices criminal defense with Foreman, DeGeurin, Nugent & Gerger in Houston, where he focuses on defending individuals and companies in state and federal court in Texas and throughout the United States.

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