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The phone rings. It’s the judge’s clerk with information about a scheduling conference the solo practitioner must attend, notwithstanding the fact that the solo already is scheduled to be in another court at the same time. A small firm lawyer needs to appear before the planning and zoning board on behalf of her client, a developer. How should she make the request, and to whom should she address it? It is three days until the discovery responses, answers and/or objections are due, and a solo is tied up in the next-to-last day of a weeklong jury trial. How can the solo find time to meet with the client, go over the discovery and prepare the responses for filing? A lawyer in a two-member firm is preparing her client for a meeting with the bank president who has instituted foreclosure proceedings. When is the best time to sit down to discuss this matter, and what specific times and days are best to avoid? A solo needs to appear, for the first time, in a particular judge’s court. Does the judge require attorneys to question witnesses from a podium or from a seated position at counsel table? Does the judge have any specific rules lawyers would be wise to advise their clients about, such as proper dress or a ban on cell phones and pagers? All the above scenarios will happen to solo and small firm practitioners, and the best weapon with which to react is the same: relationships. Relationships with other lawyers certainly are important, but it’s perhaps even more critical to forge ties with staff, assistants and paralegals. A court bailiff, court coordinator or deputy district clerk can be the best source of everyday information about how a specific judge works. The secretary to the zoning board chairman or administrative assistant to the bank president possesses invaluable insight about nuances that might help a solo or small-firm lawyer create the first impression that will make the difference. Being able to call the lawyer on the other side to request a few days of additional time to respond or, even more important, being able to get a lawyer to cover a docket call or other matter is a necessity for the solo or small-firm lawyer. BUILDING BONDS So how can lawyers who are going it alone or with a few colleagues cultivate those relationships? The best way is to make it clear, first to one’s own clients, that the way a lawyer handles matters is to cooperate with the lawyer on the other side regarding any reasonable request, such as a request for additional time or continuance, if at all possible. The old saw, “What goes around, comes around,” is a true one. When a solo or small firm lawyer is in a court for the first time, a great place to start is to introduce himself to the bailiff, ask the name of the court coordinator, share the fact that this is his maiden voyage and inquire whether there is anything about which first-timers should be aware. Expressing naivete and acknowledging that any information or help would be appreciated is disarming and encouraging to the court staff, which may be able to help in a number of ways. Another small matter of manners that goes a long way, whether in a new court or a familiar one, is to say “thank you.” The court reporter, bailiff and deputy clerk are sure to remember the lawyer who was not only aware of their existence but also took the time to thank them by name. And in the transactional lawyer’s realm, the administrative assistant, the secretary or paralegal who receives the same treatment as a visiting lawyer walks out the door is the same person who will get that lawyer in to see the boss the next time around. In every situation involving a lawyer, relationships exist. The relationship grounded in personal distrust and acrimony leads to what has been characterized as a Rambo proceeding, full of nastiness and hardball tactics. The cost rises for the client and attorney and makes for a difficult professional life for the solo or small firm practitioner, while the contrary breeds benefits that go beyond the individual case. The lawyer, court personnel, administrative staff member or assistant that remembers opposing counsel from a compliment given, from a request for help made, or from a simple “thank you” offered may be the source of future agreements and possibly future referrals. A smile and a “thank you” might just develop into a future client. As trite as it may sound, lawyers’ creeds are indeed a good place to begin and end every professional relationship lawyers develop. The solo and small-firm practitioner can afford to do no less. It is just good business. Guy Harrison is a solo practitioner in Longview with a general civil practice who also serves as a mediator. He served as the 2002-2003 president of the State Bar of Texas. He serves on the Texas Access to Justice Commission, the executive council of the National Conference of Bar Presidents and in the House of Delegates of the American Bar Association.

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