Attorneys interested in the “nuts and bolts” of starting a law firm listened as Matthew Foreman, a solo attorney, described the equipment they’d need.
It probably came as no surprise that they’d have to acquire a computer and the right software to run it.
But his next suggestion might have seemed more unusual to some. Purchase a shredder, he said.
Members of the audience for the panel on which Foreman sat were among 200 who attended Thursday for the 14th annual small law firm symposium of the New York City Bar Association. The focus of the conference was on something most attorneys don’t learn in law school: How to run a successful small business.
The city bar counts as small firms those with 24 or fewer attorneys, about one-fourth of the bar’s 24,000 members. Approximately 40 percent of that subgroup are solos. Shan Thever, director of the city bar’s small firm center, said most of those who seek out his help are solos or firms with only a few attorneys.
“They’re the ones who need the help,” he said in an interview. Running a business in tandem with a law practice is “tough,” he added, pointing out that solos can’t leave the nitty-gritty of business to others as lawyers can in large firms and may not have anyone to call if there’s a problem.
Among the other nuts and bolts covered by panelists at the city bar symposium were taxation (“find someone who knows what he is doing”), the right legal structure for a firm and how to draft engagement letters so that a client knows what he’s getting into.
“You need to bill your clients fast and furiously,” advised Vaughn Buffalo of Buffalo & Associates, a two-person firm. But he said that new solos sometimes are uncomfortable saying “pay me or I won’t do the work.”
Buffalo said that he takes a week’s vacation each year during which he does nothing but think about how he can improve his business.
Finding clients is a priority for solos and small firm attorneys although they may have trouble scratching out the time to do the marketing that is needed. But the symposium introduced symposium attendees to one potential client that few may have approached: New York City.
The city has many attorneys on its payroll, but “there are opportunities” for outside counsel, said Muriel Goode-Trufant, managing attorney of the city’s Law Department.
For example, the Comptroller’s Office hires pre-action hearing examiners for claims against the city, “a pretty good stream of business,” Goode-Trufant said, and the Health and Hospitals Corp. retains medical malpractice firms. The Law Department solicits proposals from firms to serve as conflict, collection and bond/special disclosure counsel and hires, as needed, out-of-state counsel and attorneys to handle white-collar investigations and admiralty matters.
Law firms that are 51 percent owned, controlled and operated by women and minority group members can obtain certification from the city, a designation that improves their chances of getting city business. Agencies have goals for hiring M/WBE contractors, and the Department of Small Business Services offers training. The application also can be used to acquire certification from agencies with similar programs such as those of the state and Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
The city lets up to $17 billion each year in contracts on goods and services. In fiscal 2015, it awarded $725 million to minority and women business enterprises, 42 percent for professional services.
Goode-Trufant explained that certification requires significant documentation to avoid fraud. “It’s an onerous process,” she acknowledged.
A New York Law Journal search of the city’s online directory of certified businesses turned up only 33 law firms.
Reflecting the perils of running a practice and a business at the same time, solos and small firms are the subject of a disproportionate number of complaints from clients to the Appellate Division, First Department, disciplinary unit. How to avoid ethics complaints and how to cope with ones that are filed was the topic of another panel.
Small firm attorneys “are always on the edge, with either not enough work and too many people or too much work and not enough people,” said Pery Krinsky, who represents attorneys facing discipline.
The failure of personal injury lawyers to tend to client matters often generates grievances. More generally, attorneys pressed for time may give client communication short shrift. “Protect yourself,” said disciplinary referee James Shed. “Keep your client informed.”
The great majority of client complaints are dismissed. An attorney may not even know that a complaint has been filed. Other matters can be settled with a letter.
However, the disciplinary department does not hold it against a lawyer if he or she hires an attorney for more serious issues.
“Get counsel if you can’t handle it,” said Shed.
But retain “someone who practices before us, not your cousin Vinny,” said Jorge Dopico, the chief counsel of the disciplinary department.