Welcome to Blawg Review #187. The Blawg Review is a "blog carnival," which, for the uninitiated, is essentially a collection of links to recent blog posts organized around a common theme by the blogger hosting the carnival (which today, is yours truly). The Blawg Review focuses on posts from the world of legal blogging (or "blawging"), and is hosted each week by a different law blog (or "blawg").
It so happens that Monday is Evolution Day, which celebrates the anniversary of Charles Darwin's publication of The Origin of Species on November 24, 1859. Darwin's seminal work is most frequently associated with the principle of "survival of the fittest," which terminology incidentally was not coined by Darwin (who originally described his theory as "natural selection"), but Herbert Spencer, an English philosopher who incorporated Darwinian concepts into his theory of society. Darwin approved of the phrase and later used it in future works (crediting Spencer).
Anyway, in honor of Evolution Day, the theme of today's Blawg Review will be "survival," a subject that, sadly, is on the minds of many businesses and individuals nowadays in the midst of what has become a severe economic downturn. We know it's really hard for many people out there, and alot of lawyers in particular are hurting. Over the years, the legal blogging community has been a source of inspiration, wisdom and friendship for those who have participated in its myriad conversations. In that vein, we hope this issue of The Blawg Review will provide the legal community with some helpful insights and strategies for riding out this rough patch - and also provide a bit of cheer as we mix in some tongue-in-cheek advice with the more serious stuff. Going forward, we encourage all blawggers to reach out to peers who may be in financial distress to see what they can do to help whether it be referrals to job openings, a business introduction, or friendly advice. Finally, we'd like to thank all the blawggers who inundated us with posts for consideration, and for taking the time to formulate how those posts might be used by us. We apologize we could not include every post, and for those that made the cut, we hope you approve of how we've tied them in to our "survival" theme.
State of the Legal Industry
There is no question the recession has pushed law firms into the throes of a massive contraction with Above the Law reporting ominously on continuing layoffs (via its Nationwide Layoff Watch), and the darkening outlook for associate bonuses.
Enrico Schaefer at The Greatest American Lawyer suggests the shrinking BigLaw sector may not be a bad thing at a macro level since it will provide an opportunity for foundational change in the market for legal services as new legal service models (e.g., alternative billing) start competing with the traditional approaches (e.g., billable hour), and clients start to have real choices. In other words, as Bruce MacEwen at Adam Smith Esq. notes, the legal market reinventing itself.
But for those less inclined to ponder the macro implications of the current turmoil, and simply hang on to a job or stay in business, how best to do that? Here's a laundry list of strategies from your peers.
I. Advice for Individual Attorneys
1. Excel at your work
First, to state the obvious, do your job really well (have to prepare, let's say, a motion in limine? here are some tips from the Drug and Device Law blog to ace that assignment), and try to avoid making really bad mistakes (like the government attorney whose typo nearly cost the government $200 million (as reported by Professor Jon Siegel at Law Prof on the Loose)).
And if you err? We're all human, but don't make excuses or get defensive. Just apologize, as per Victoria Pynchon who outlines the mechanics of a sincere and effective apology.
2. Switch Practice Areas
With many sectors slow, now may be the time to consider switching practice areas. Logically, seems that bankruptcy law must be hot. Not so fast. As per Jay Fleischman at Bankruptcy Practice Pro, you need to get paid to make a living, and many consumer bankruptcy filers may not have the dough to shell out for your fees.
But no question, Chapter 11 corporate bankruptcies will provide steady fees for years to come (been there, done that), especially if major corporate behemoths like GM start filing en masse (see Eugene Volokh who explains what kind of financial distress Chapter 11 is designed to fix). Already, The Conglomerate reports, corporate bankruptcy filings are way up. Our single prediction - one of those corporations will NOT be Google (as an aside, the Electronic Frontier Foundation invites students interested in technology law and policy to apply to work with EFF next summer through the Google Policy Fellowship - one fellowship you can be sure will still be around when next June arrives).
The subprime mess should also open up opportunities for lawyers seeking to recover money for investors or to defend corporate executives at financial institutions against charges that they misled investors with rosy predictions (no? really? impossible!!! But so say Pomerantz Haudek Block Grossman and Gross at Pomtalk, which reports on the FBI's opening of a criminal investigation into the public statements made by Lehman Brothers execs prior to its demise).
While a bad economy certainly increases stress on the homefront, don't rush to open a divorce law practice, as per the Legal Blog Watch post indicating that divorce business is down because (according to NYC matrimonial lawyer Bonnie Rabin), prospective clients are apparently waiting for homes and retirement accounts to regain value before moving ahead with a breakup.
Definitely also stay away from real estate, you say? Again, not so fast. According to the folks at Pepper Hamilton, real estate lawyers may be able to reinvent themselves by offering companies advice on how to trim their costs by reducing their real estate tax assessments. This is the key: be nimble and consider how your existing package of skills can be recast to address a current need.
The aging population may also make healthcare law a good long term pick. Start getting up to speed by reviewing David Harlow's latest post at the HealthBlawg on the new Patient Safety Organization regulations.
Antitrust law? The good news there is the field is sufficiently complex to thoroughly exercise your gray matter (see, for example, David Fischer's analysis of the LinkLine litigation to be argued shortly before the Supreme Court), which means you're not just getting a job, but getting smarter too (case in point: before becoming an Internet marketer for lawyers I worked at Kaye Scholer and frequently saw Milton Handler, a name partner and guru of the antitrust bar, still coming to work well into his 90's).
3. Go Solo
But what's a BigLaw attorney to do if the writing is on the wall and it's clear you're going to be let go no matter how brightly you shine? May be time to hang out your own shingle, in which case be sure to check out Susan Carter Liebel's brainchild - Solo Practice University (favorably reviewed by Charon QC). Just consider carefully the fields you choose to specialize in, as noted above (in a post from last month, Susan explains why now is the time to go solo).
Worried you can't find enough clients to go solo? Enrico Schaefer suggests hooking up with an attorney who’s got a block of business and solid client relationships, while Jordan Furlong at Law21 recommends heading over to the LegalOn Ramp website where the fast growing online community of corporate counsel and private practice lawyers is extending invitations right now to young lawyers who find themselves in dire straits. Basically, as good a place as any to start networking.
4. Leave Law
Undoubtedly, some lawyers may decide to abandon law entirely and take up alternative careers. Perhaps the coolest non-legal option we've seen to date is professional mixed martial arts fighting, as per Above the Law's profile of Nick "The Goat" Thompson, a University of Minnesota law grad who participated in the ultimate fighting EliteXC tournament broadcast on CBS while studying for the bar exam (lost his match, but passed the bar). We have no question that Thompson will survive no matter what career he pursues - clients always love a lawyer who can beat up the other side (in this case, literally), but if law doesn't pan out, it always helps to be the "fittest" candidate when competing for scarce jobs (may want to break a few boards at your next interview - always impressive). For a laundry list of lawyers who have pursued alternative legal careers (typically ones that leverage a treasured, but long dormant talent), more fulfilling angles within the law, or stress-relieving pasttimes, head on over to JD Bliss (starting with a post last week on alternative careers pursued by several women lawyers).
How about starting up your own business? If you've got the funds, perhaps not a bad idea given what is likely to be sharply reduced competition in whatever market you choose to tackle. Or maybe buy an existing business? Asset prices are definitely cheap nowadays, but as Rush Nigut warns in his Rush on Business blog, buying a business is fraught with perils that are best mitigated with thorough due diligence using the kind of comprehensive checklist that Rush provides.
II. Advice for Law Firms
1. Conserve Cash
What about specific survival strategies for law firms? If you're a solo practitioner, Susan Carter Liebel offers a bevy of helpful tips, including analyzing your cash flow situation and re-examining your marketing plan.
You may also want to start cutting your entertainment outlays - like dinners at fancy restaurants - don't worry, you'll be in good company - according to Lawrence Cunningham at Concurring Opinions, with the implosion of Wall Street, it's now real easy to get a dinner reservation at any of New York City's fanciest restaurants.
And in a worst case scenario, if you can't afford the rent, but don't want to work from home, consider setting up shop in a cargo shipping container, as per Craig Newton Rides the Third Wave.
Bigger firms may want to re-examine their reliance on bank credit for funding operations - a step DLA Piper is apparently set to take according to reports (picked up by the Charon QC blog) that the global firm plans to ask US income partners to contribute capital to the firm for the first time starting next year (to the tune of up to $150,000 according to The Legal Ethics Forum).
2. Layoffs - Smart?
Unfortunately, as noted, at bigger firms, mass layoffs have been the tactic of choice to cut costs. But as Jordan Furlong observes at Law21 such knee-jerk reactions don't necessarily make good business sense since jettisoning associates indiscriminately can lead to a loss of top notch legal talent that can hurt a firm in the long run (indeed, intellectual "capital" is perhaps a law firm's most valuable asset). Smart firms, Furlong opines, will buck the trend of "sacrificing the pawns and protecting the king," and get greedy about talent when everyone else is fearful of keeping it.
3. Focus on Existing Clients
Also a bad idea to cut back too much on marketing, at least when it comes to existing clients. As Tom Kane at the Legal Marketing Blog advises, it's important for law firms to continue marketing to existing clients because, as we all know, "it is far less expensive to market to current customers than it is to acquire new customers ... especially during this dismal economy."
How to please existing clients? Perhaps share their pain by reducing their legal bills. As per Evan Schaeffer at The Illionois Trial Practice Weblog, that might include not deposing every single possible witness in your next litigation. Try also to avoid the common badges of lawyer greed like dubious billing practices - the kind of stuff that can get your firm a real bad name if it leaks to the press, as per David Giacalone at f/k/a.
4. Continue Marketing Cost-Effectively and Creatively
What marketing tools to use? As yours truly blogged last week, law firms may want to follow the lead of other marketers and more fully embrace email newsletters and alerts as a low cost, targeted and measurable method for reinforcing expertise with existing clients (who expect to continue hearing from their lawyers about breaking legal trends relevant to their businesses). The same research also shows that social networking (think blogs, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc.) is also a good approach to cost-effectively network, generate buzz and develop a reputation for thought leadership.
Indeed, creative marketing campaigns that builds buzz may be incredibly effective in the current, less "cluttered" advertising environment, like the "Go Green, Take Fifteen" program launched by Boston-based law firm, Sherin and Lodgen, which, beginning in 2009, will reward developers building LEED projects with a 15% discount on their legal fees. Nice way to draw attention to an up and coming practice.
5. Bailout money
But let's say your firm is really in a pinch? What's your last resort? Apply for some bailout money as per Bruce MacEwen at Adam Smith Esq. (tongue-in-cheek?) (alas, advice coming too late for Heller Ehrman and Thelen Reid).
Finally, let's not forget personal survival at the expense of financial survival. As Oregon personal injury lawyer Tom D'Amore recently advised, as winter beckons and we increase our use of heating appliances, check your carbon monoxide detectors.
I now pass the baton to my colleague Eric Turkewitz, at the New York Personal Injury Law Blog, who will host Blawg Review #188 (seems Eric's office is just 17 blocks south of mine, but we've never met up - what do you say Eric? lunch any time soon?).
For anyone interested in participating in future blog carnivals, the Blawg Review has information about next week's host, and instructions on how to get your blawg posts reviewed in upcoming issues.