So what is a “Small Business Lawyer” anyway?

March 8th, 2012 by Suzanne Meehle No comments »

I get that question a lot, mostly from other lawyers. We don’t take a class on small business law in law school. We take “Business Organizations” and “Contracts,” but there are few classes on representing small businesses. You hear lawyers describe themselves as “Corporate” (read: “Transactional”) lawyers or as Litigators. I understand why I confuse other lawyers when I say that I practice “Small Business Law.”

A small business lawyer is not defined by a specialty practice area, but by the type of clients they serve. On any given day, I find myself practicing in several areas of law: corporate law, tax law, trademarks, copyrights, landlord/tenant law, employment law, trademark law, copyright law, collections and/or contracts. I like that I get to blend so many practice areas. Instead of narrowly focusing on one practice area and getting really good at doing on area of law for a wide variety of clients, I only deal with the issues in each of those practice areas that are unique to the small business owner. So you can define what a small business lawyer is by what we don’t do.

For example, I very rarely set up C-corporations because most of my clients are mom & pop businesses that fit the definition of an S-corp. I don’t do many complex partnership agreements either, because most of my clients want the protection of an LLC or corporation. I don’t do patent law, but I do help clients with copyrights and trademarks. I don’t do corporate tax returns, but I do help my clients figure out sales tax issues. I don’t do securities work, but I do help clients buy and sell small businesses. I don’t handle complex commercial litigation, but I do collections work and handle trademark and copyright infringement claims. I draft employment agreements, but I don’t litigate labor disputes or worker’s comp claims. I help with defining a business exit strategy, but I draw the line at estate planning, which I don’t do (I do work with  a WONDERFUL estate planning firm). I don’t do family law, bankruptcy, real estate, probate or  criminal law.

I don’t take every case that walks through the door.

My ideal client isn’t a rich guy with 500 employees. It’s the start-up entrepreneur with two employees and an office above his garage; the restaurant owner whose kids work the cash register; or the local bike shop that has been there for years. It’s the “little guys” that I love working with. They have just as many legal issues as the big guys, but they have different goals and limitations.

So there you go. That’s what a small business lawyer is, who we serve and what we do.

Securing the Cloud

July 20th, 2011 by Suzanne Meehle No comments »

Like a lot of solos, I used cloud-based services for my computer systems. It’s easier and cheaper than trying to maintain a server and software and a network, plus every cloud-based service provider guarantees that they offer security for your files.

The Rules of Professional Conduct require us to maintain client confidences, and that means securing clients’ confidential information. If we simply trust the vendor’s promises of security, we have not done enough to secure clients’ private and confidential information.

Dropbox just proved that you can’t accept vendor claims of security at face value. On June 19th, Dropbox allowed anyone to log into any of its 25 million user accounts using any password. It let its guard down and compromised the security of client files for the hundreds of lawyers that used their service. I say “used to” because  most of us – yes, including me – have pulled our files off of Dropbox following the security breach.

Dropbox tried to keep the glitch quiet but was exposed by a security researcher. If they had handled things differently – owned up to the problem, accepted liability for any actual data breaches, and taken steps to fix their security, maybe I would have stayed. Maybe. But those Rules of Professional Conduct keep playing in my head.

Traditionally, lawyers are held to a standard of reasonableness. Did we take reasonable steps to preserve client confidentiality? Did we take reasonable steps to claw back any confidential information inadvertently disclosed? Did we use commercially reasonable security protocols to protect client data?

The bottom line is that we were lied to. Dropbox advertises its use of Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) and AES-256 bit encryption. They promised secure data transfer and secure storage. As it turns out, as we learned from the recent scandal, Dropbox only secures its data at the server level, meaning that its own staff has the encryption keys to your data, not you. Nevermind that they blew their own security measures by letting anyone access anyone else’s data. The data was never truly secure to begin with.

So where does that leave us solos, who reasonably relied on the security promises of cloud-based vendors? Well, for one thing, it leaves us looking for better vendors.

I, for one, have moved my file storage back to the cloud, having found SpiderOak, a cloud-based file backup and sharing service that allows encryption of files at the client level (meaning you hold the keys to decrypt your data, not SpiderOak). I still use Google for my email and calendar service, but knowing that email has never been a particularly secure form of communication, I never use email to send documents to clients. Instead I use the client portal features of Clio, my practice management system, which not only boasts its “bank grade” data security but proves it by being certified by three separate security companies: VeriSign, TrustE and McAffee.

So I am not giving up on the cloud. I still think that it is safer to have my data stored on a server in the cloud than stored locally on my (easily stolen) laptop.

Deus Ex Machina

July 15th, 2011 by Suzanne Meehle 1 comment »

Jack Whittington’s post, When Tragedy Strikes, really struck a nerve. A really painful nerve.

Jack is dealing with the loss of his stepfather while studying for the bar exam. Meanwhile, I am trying to keep my little law firm’s ship afloat while dealing with my own tragedy: my mom is dying of cancer. My mom is my rock, my friend, and my heart. I’m not handling it so well.

I’ve written before about the Seven to Nine Rule, which, in a nutshell, states that we can handle seven to nine things going on in our lives at any given time, except that when tragedy (or any other “biggie” that throws your life a curveball) strikes, it drops to three things we can handle. As Jack is well aware, when you’ve already got one “biggie” to deal with, throwing another “biggie” at you can grind things to a halt. But we have no control of the timing of the “biggies” that hit us.

In literary terms, this is a function of Deus Ex Machina, literally “Ghosts in the Machine.” It means that an unseen hand intervenes in the events already at play and steers things in another direction. Call it fate, God, karma, whatever – whether for good or for evil, the ghosts in the machine really do screw up the works.

I would like to give you some sage advice for dealing with it. I wish I knew how to overcome the feeling that suddenly you went from juggling tennis balls pretty well to juggling chainsaws rather poorly. I wish I could.

All I can say is that you have to still get out of bed in the morning. You have to go into the office. You have to do some work for the clients who are paying for you to be there. Like it or not, just keep putting one foot in front of the other.

Building a mutual admiration society

July 11th, 2011 by Suzanne Meehle 3 comments »

First and foremost: I have been remiss in posting to my blog here and I apologize. Between writing SPU columns (see the nifty new badge over there on the right) and keeping up with my website’s blog, I have let this become an afterthought. Hopefully I will get my act together and keep writing here about things that are relevant to SPU but aren’t appropriate fodder for the Big Law To Solo column.

Mentoring has been on my mind a lot lately. Recently I was asked to mentor a law student or new attorney by the mentoring committee chair of the Central Florida Association for Women Lawyers (“CFAWL”). I was honored, to say the least. After all, it was a CFAWL mentor who convinced me that I could go out on my own and be successful. I was also terrified. I’ve only been out of law school since 2006, and I guess I still think of myself as a newbie. What could I possibly have to teach a new lawyer?

Then I got a call from Judy Young. Y’all may know her from around these parts. She is “the” wine lawyer, has been practicing since 1999 and is someone of whom I am admittedly a little bit in awe. Susan had given her my contact information to talk about intellectual property contracts, among other things.

Judy and I hit it off, and thus began a beautiful relationship. I helped Judy with IP law and how I do flat fee pricing for the kind of work I do. And Judy taught me that I do have something to offer as a mentor. After all, if I can teach her something new, I surely have something to offer to a new baby lawyer, right?  Moreover, she taught me that you are never too good, to experienced or too specialized to add skills to your practice, to learn new tricks or to seek out mentors.

Judy also taught me a lesson in graciousness. We talked about how she became very specialized and built a niche in her market. Which led to a discussion of food and wine and travel. Which led to one of the most spectacular thank you gifts I’ve ever received, purely because Judy paid attention to what I said about loving to cook and my visit to Napa Valley. (Note to self: Judy can have whatever she wants from my forms library!)

I watched how Judy handles her client relationships, and saw her determination not to cave in to a client’s demands for a lower fee. It reminded me that I am worth more than what I charge, and that I don’t need to take work that doesn’t pay just so I have work coming in.

She is still teaching me and I now think of Judy as a mentor. I’d like to think the thought is mutual.

Running a Law 2.0 Firm

February 22nd, 2011 by Suzanne Meehle No comments »

I recently read ReWork by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hanson the founders of 37Signals.

If you’ve never heard of 37Signals, here’s the scoop on David & Jason and their company: Those are the guys behind Basecamp, the wildly popular project management and online collaboration tool. They developed the open-source  web application development platform that was used to build Twitter and many, many social networking and Software as a Service (“SaaS”) sites (such as Clio) that are often referred to as “Web 2.0.” In short, they are huge.

And they did it by being small on purpose. They focus on doing one or two things well in each application, and they don’t overload on features. This minimalist approach extends to the way they run the business: They don’t have a campus in Redmond or San Jose with a fleet of developers. They started small and stayed small on purpose. They bootstrapped their business, eschewing loans and venture capital. They gave away their biggest product, the Ruby on Rails development platform, knowing it would ultimately lead to more business for them. They are successful because they won’t accept failure, and they refuse to run their business the way they are “supposed to.”

I think that law firms in particular have a lot to learn from these Web 2.0 guys. The world has changed, and Big Law -from senior partners who have their assistant print out emails for them to read to associates who never interact with clients – isn’t doing itself any favors.

So what does a Law 2.0 Firm look like?

  • It is much smaller than the traditional law firm. Solos and small firms can be more nimble in a changing world.
  • It is lean and efficient, paying attention to their processes for getting things done and eliminating redundancy.
  • It is tech savvy, using technology  to increase communication, lower costs and provide better information.
  • It collaborates with clients, staff and other attorneys whenever possible.
  • It gives away information, for free, knowing that it is good marketing and builds goodwill.

At least that is my vision. I am constantly working on building a Law 2.0 business, and ReWork reminded me of a few things I am doing right, and mad me evaluate some things I can do better.

My clients appreciate the fact that I do not charge for quick questions by phone or email. They are willing to pay a little more for my other services because of it.

I have what I affectionately call my “No Assholes Policy”: if you are a jerk to me or my staff, I dismiss you as a client (or won’t take your case to start with). That means that I usually weed out the problem clients from the start, and I get my good clients work done that much faster. (Not to mention that I’m much nicer to be around.)

I focus my marketing efforts on online and social media; because it is relatively inexpensive to use and because most of my clients are likely to look online for advice before contacting an attorney. I also provide a lot of small business information on my blog and in my monthly e-mail newsletter to clients.

I use Solo Practice University for networking, mentoring and education; and I use for web-delivered CLE.

Finally, I offer my clients the option of using a web portal to access their online documents and communicate with me. So far, clients aren’t using the portal much, which tells me I need to improve in this area. So I am looking into refining the interface so that it is more user-friendly, that will let clients complete an online intake, schedule meetings and phone calls, and more.

What does a Law 2.0 firm look like to you? What are you doing to build your Law 2.0 practice?

The Seven-to-Nine Rule

February 18th, 2011 by Suzanne Meehle 6 comments »

Several years ago, a therapist friend of mine told me about the Seven-to-Nine Rule, which goes like this: during normal, day-to-day living, we can successfully juggle seven to nine things. Those “things” include the following:

  • career,
  • health & hygiene,
  • marriage,
  • family,
  • social life,
  • hobbies,
  • volunteer work, etc.

But, according to the Rule, when one of those “things” you are juggling is a “biggie” – birth of a child, illness, illness or death of a loved one, getting married or divorced, career change, moving – the number of things you can successfully juggle drops to three. Three!

One of the life lessons I learned working at Big Law was that work was supposed to come first. In other words, if I had to deal with a biggie, work had better be one of the three things I kept juggling… or else. (Which begged the question: Since I already had given up family, friends, hobbies and a social life for the job at Big Law, did I give up brushing my teeth or what little time I got with my husband? Hmm…)

In all fairness, the Big Law firm I worked at was not to blame for its philosophy. It shares its value system with nearly every other Big Law firm out there. It really is no wonder that the rate of substance abuse among lawyers is so high as well as depression. When your life’s work is reduced to six-minute increments, it’s easy to become burned-out and disillusioned. The way most law firms are run, there is no value placed on being a good lawyer, much less a good person.

Starting my own firm was my way of dealing with these problems. I can choose how to bill for my work, and I can decide what has value in my business. I chose to ditch the billable hour model in favor of a service model. I fixed my fees and stopped tracking my time. I am working on quality standards for my business that focus on excellence as an attorney rather than time spent on billable matters.

Recently, I had a biggie hit me hard. My oldest sister – the rock my family leans on – nearly died from a pulmonary embolism. I packed up my laptop and headed to Tennessee so I could help take care of her when she got out of the hospital. Yes, I brought work with me, but there was no pressure to bill 40+ hours while I was away. I have been able to keep my business on track without feeling like I was juggling more than I could handle.

The Seven-to-Nine Rule still applies, but I get to choose what and how to handle it when a biggie hits.

My New Brand

February 1st, 2011 by Suzanne Meehle 1 comment »

I launched my new “brand” today. I’m still d/b/a The Meehle Law Firm, but there is a new logo and a new look on the website. Take a look and let me know what you think.

So why am I rebranding my business when I’ve only been in business as a solo for a couple of months? Because it needed to be done, and it’s easier to revamp a brand before you get too invested in it. There were problems with my old logo and tagline  - they were too reminiscent of my old law firm, and since I did the original graphic design work myself, I could always see where I messed up spacing or got the shading slightly wrong. I was not happy with the look and feel or with the image it conveyed. It felt a little dark and claustrophobic to me. Here’s the old logo I designed:

And, for reference, this is the logo for my old law firm:

So I consulted an expert: a friend of mine who is a graphic designer for a very large copier company whose name begins with an “X.”  We went back and forth a few times discussing what I wanted the brand to be, how I wanted to be seen and the message I needed to send to clients and other lawyers. She sent me several designs that I liked and finally, this one, which we both absolutely loved:

It’s lighter, brighter and cleaner. It conveys the message I want it to about the nature of my firm: we are green, we are professional but we aren’t stuffy lawyers, and we serve small business. It’s also distinctive and a marked departure from my old firm’s branding, and nothing like I have seen any of my competitors using (which, after all, is the whole point of branding).

So tell me what you think. Do you love/like/hate the new logo?

Peace of Mind

January 19th, 2011 by Suzanne Meehle 1 comment »

One of the things clients sometimes ask me is, “What happens to my case if something happens to you?” Good question. As a solo, there’s no one in my office who can pick up the ball and keep things moving forward. There’s just me.

So I wrote a disaster recovery plan that includes procedures for what to do if something happens to me. In it I named another corporate lawyer for whom I have high regard, Sultana Haque. Sultana has agreed to take care of things in my absence. It includes a definition of an extended voluntary absence  in which case I give notice to my alternate counsel, forward my phones and email to her office and she handles emergencies that come up. In the event that I become permanently disabled or die, she takes over my cases and begins the process of winding up my business.

She was visibly relieved when I asked her to do this for me because she did not have an answer for her clients when they asked the same thing. Now, I’m her “backup” lawyer as well.

For Sultana and me  it means a slightly lower PLI premium.  For my non-lawyer husband, it means he doesn’t have to worry about what he’ll do with the law firm in his house after something happens to me. And for my clients it means that they have peace of mind that even though I’m a solo practitioner they will be well taken care of no matter what.

The Cat’s Out of the Bag

January 17th, 2011 by Suzanne Meehle No comments »

By now everyone has heard that I will be writing a monthly column for SPU. I am incredibly excited about the opportunity to have a dialogue with everyone at SPU about making the transition from Big Law to Solo, and about just about everything else that is on my mind. And there is a LOT on my mind!

I’m so excited, in fact, that I’ve already submitted my first article to Susan a week before my deadline and I’m already working on February’s column. Right now that’s just a collection of ramblings about why I left the safety and comfort of Big Law in the first place (hint: it rhymes with full bit), but hey – I’ve got a month to polish my prose!

Mostly though, I am excited to be back at SPU. I stupidly left  while starting and building a small firm with a business partner who thought SPU was just too expensive and refused to pay for it (I know, I know). Now that I am solo, I re-enrolled and I’m taking about five classes right now. I honestly intend to work my way through EVERY class SPU offers, time permitting. Honestly, the content that SPU has built is priceless. My practice has already improved because of it.

I’m of the belief that you get out of something only as much as you put into it. I’m diving into SPU head first, and I’m looking forward to meeting all of you in the pond.

Bad Advice

January 16th, 2011 by Suzanne Meehle No comments »

In addition to SPU, I have been reading books on managing a law practice. Since what I do is help others to start and manage their small businesses, I’m constantly looking for ways to improve how I do business.

I started reading Start Your Own Law Practice: A Guide to All the Things They Don’t Teach You in Law School About Starting Your Firm by Judge William Russ. Nothing against the Honorable Judge, but I simply could not finish the book. Honestly, I barely made it through Chapter 2.

With all due respect to the Honorable author, the book is full of standard advice: you need to have an office and it should impress clients; you need to hire staff right away; the benchmark of a successful law firm is a cadre of associate attorneys who crank out the billable hours. Yadda. Yadda. Yadda.

You don’t need an office to impress your clients. Mine are more impressed by my website and the fact that I consciously eschew the stuffy lawyer trappings.

You do not need to hire a full-time paralegal, an assistant and/or a receptionist right out of the gate. Hiring staff is brutally expensive, and until you know your cash flow well enough to predictably pay your staff, stick to hiring virtual and temporary staff on a project by project basis. I recently hired a friend who used to work as a legal assistant but is trying to start her own business to come into my office one day a week to clean up the clerical stuff I don’t have time to deal with. That’s enough HR overhead for me as I get the ball rolling.

Most importantly, while making lots of money and providing jobs in a down economy are great things to aspire to, if you really want to be a solo practitioner, why shouldn’t that be enough? The benchmark of a successful law practice is whether the lawyer and his or her clients are happy. If so, you’ve got a winning formula in my book.