Donald E. Howard II sees his new business venture as a natural combination: Everybody needs to get their hair cut and lots of people like to talk about their troubles at the barbershop.
So the New Britain attorney decided to open Legal Cuts, a legal-themed barbershop on West Main Street that also happens to be home to Howard's law office, which is in the back of the building. He's been open since early April and caters to people with all types of legal issues.
"I thought it was the perfect marriage," said Howard. "People could feel comfortable in this environment and feel they can trust the lawyer. I want to make sure legal services are available to these people" who may be intimidated by walking into a traditional law office.
Howard's new venture earned a mention on the ABA Journal website, as well as in an article on Findlaw.com that discussed a trend toward "hybrid businesses" launched by lawyers. The article's author, attorney William Peacock, gave a thumbs-up to the concept.
"It really is intimidating for a client to go into a stuffy attorney's office, while some pompous guy sits behind a massive desk in a $5,000 suit, and tells you that he wants a $3,000 retainer for your relatively simple case," Peacock wrote. "If you can break that barrier, make yourself approachable, and calm the nerves of the client, developing that client-attorney relationship of trust will be much easier."
With his business still getting off the ground, Howard spends his days in Rockville Superior Court as a clerk and then checks in on his barbershop/law office three or four times a week. People who inquire about legal services when he's not around are encouraged to leave their information and Howard returns their call. A whiteboard listing his flat-fee legal services for representation in DUIs, pardons and uncontested divorces are readily available at Legal Cuts along with his business cards.
"I'm still a struggling new attorney and in this economy, you have to step outside the box — and burn the box," he said. "I believe the barbershop is the epicenter of the community. People can come in here and play checkers or chess and get to know their surroundings."
Howard said he got the idea for Legal Cuts from a television show after seeing a California lawyer who offers legal services in a coffeehouse that is aptly named the Legal Grind. Howard decided on a barbershop because he took courses to become a licensed barber in Chicago and then cut hair during his undergraduate and graduate school days at Mississippi State University.
Moving around the country with his wife, who is in the Air National Guard, Howard earned a law degree from the University of Wyoming and served as a barber's apprentice in Wyoming and Georgia before moving to Connecticut. Last February, he passed the Connecticut bar exam and started clerking in the state courthouse.
"I've handled some small claims, personal injury and criminal matters so far," Howard said. While clerking, he's trying to figure out what areas of the law interest him most. He's leaning toward a career as a criminal defense and personal injury lawyer.
He hopes Legal Cuts is an opportunity to showcase his skills while also developing a potentially lucrative business plan. He's working on an idea to host a legal theme night — Family Law on Mondays, for example — where expert lawyers in specific areas will present seminars and provide consultations to people who have stopped in for a haircut or those specifically interested in the topic. People then could retain those attorneys, if necessary.
"That referral business could be pretty lucrative," said Howard, who is still analyzing the practice book rules to determine what referral relationship are permissible under the Rules of Professional Conduct.
Howard is doing all he can to publicize his new business. Though he has experience as a barber, he is not licensed in Connecticut. Right now, he practices law and he has two full-time barbers cutting hair seven days a week. Howard also has ideas about expanding his hair services to women while always offering easy access to legal services.
"I have a lot of legal services that appeal to the average person," he said. "If they need papers files in family court, for example, I can do that for them to help them save time. Basically, it's a document service and if they needed advice, I can talk to them about that, too."
Howard offers specials, such as a $5 haircut and a haircut and clothing package geared toward men who have an upcoming court appearance. "One pet peeve I have is guys taking pleas in court wearing t-shirts or sports jerseys," Howard said. "So you can get a haircut and a white shirt and tie for $30" at Legal Cuts.
Howard is adamant about running Legal Cuts just like a law office. Barbers aren't allowed to offer any legal advice and they must conduct themselves professionally in and out of the workplace, Howard said.
"I want people to know this isn't an average barbershop," he said. •