Nov. 7, 2012 – Nearly 400 lawyers from around the state attended the Wisconsin Solo and Small Firm Conference recently. In this article, five of them highlight some nuggets of information they learned in ethics, substantive law, technology, and practice management.
About the Authors
Heidi M. Eglash (Tulane 1995), La Crosse, established her solo practice in 2005. The firm now consists of five employees who serve clients with needs in estate planning & elder law, business law, real property, debt management and other property-related matters.
1. Our value to our clients and our future as lawyers depends in part on our abilities to treat our practices as well-run businesses – Heidi Eglash
Companies that attempt to reduce our work to cheap commodities are here. Meanwhile, studies like those done by the Wisconsin Access to Justice Commission show that we have more and more legal needs going unmet. The time is right for lawyers and legal services professionals to identify the needs in our communities, along with innovative and viable ways to meet those needs. Presenters at this year’s conference gave us many of the tools needed to do just this – from ideas on developing business management skills, leadership and team skills scaled to the solo or small firm, to creating more cost-effective ways of delivering legal services.
2. Three Ways to Manage Your Time – Sharon Greene-Gretzinger
Presenter Jeffrey Krause had me hooked with his opening, which was something like “you really only need three things” to manage your time: 1) email and a calendar program on your computer, such as Outlook or Google; 2) a smart phone; and 3) a practice management program. Oh, and a way to sync the computer and phone so that your office email and calendar and the email and calendar in your smart phone have the same schedules.
He also talked about managing distractions, like emails which can eat up an hour or two when you should be working on a project. He recommended task scheduling; for example, scheduling a time for answering emails, maybe twice a day, once in the morning and once in the afternoon. Once the task is scheduled, you honor the schedule and train your staff and clients that this is your email time, your blog time, or your time to return calls.
3. “The more control you give away the more control you retain.” – Sara Andrew
So say Ralph Heath, speaking about innovative leadership. He described his process of approving purchases in his company. Mr. Heath, who ran a successful ad agency for more than 30 years, had many employees and each purchase was documented on a form that had to be approved by him. After some time, this became an unnecessary process, and he gave his staff the responsibility for their own purchases. He found that when he put ownership into the employee’s hands, the results were better than when he approved the purchases himself. His employees were able to make better decisions because they were closer to the situation.
4. Managing Client Expectations – Nancy Trueblood
Letting a new client tell his or her “story” is one way to manage client expectations, partially because it alerts you to any preconceived notions the client may hold, according to Sally Anderson of Wisconsin Lawyers Mutual Insurance Co. and attorney Mark Bromley, who spoke on “Managing Client Expectations: The Key to Avoiding Malpractice.” They reminded lawyers to manage a client’s expectations throughout the representation. If that's not possible, its probably better to let the case go.
5. Virtual Practice and Complying with Ethical Rules – Kimberly K. Haines
For purposes of complying with the rules of professional responsibility, cloud storage of information must contain three attributes: we must have adequate protection from breach of confidentiality; we must have unlimited access; and we must own the information.
About the Authors
Nancy L. Trueblood (Marquette 2001), Wauwatosa, is on the board of the State Bar’s Solo and Small Firm & General Practice Section, and is a former chair of the Wisconsin Solo and Small Firm Conference.
6. A “How to” Look at Getting Started With Social Media – Kimberly K. Haines
Everyone should have a blog and a Facebook Fan Page for our firms. Send people from your Facebook Fan Page to your blog. Attorney Sean Sweeney maintains a Wisconsin Lawyers blog, which can be used as a guide for others to get started. Other examples are ABA Blawg 100 and Lexblog by Kevin O’Keefe. Wordpress.org and blogger.com offer templates to get started, too.
7. IPad v. Android Security – Sara Andrew
It seems that there isn’t a right choice between an iPad or an Android tablet, but if you’re doing any work on your tablet, you better have it locked down. Ross Kodner recommended Lookout for locking down a tablet and a smartphone. It’s an easy, free app that will help to ensure that your information is secure in case your device is stolen or misplaced.
8. Email and Inadvertent Disclosure – Nancy Trueblood
Advise your clients not to communicate with you using their work email or computers, since employees have no expectation of privacy in those things. Instead, suggest they acquire a personal email account for email communications. That was attorney Debra Meiner’s advice in “Autofill and Other Disasters: The Ethics of Inadvertent Email Disclosure.”
9. Books UnBound is a Useful Tool – Sharon Greene-Gretzinger
Books UnBound™ is the subscription-based online library of State Bar of Wisconsin PINNACLE™. books. Books UnBound includes links to primary law through FastCase, a legal research database that is free to every State Bar of Wisconsin member. I went to the opening session of the WSSFC and learned about the interactive research tools the online library provides.
I learned that Books UnBound will allow me to instantly view a case or statute that is referenced in the material, highlight the relevant information, and take notes that I can refer to later. There is a notepad function or “virtual sticky notes” that I can use inside any book and that my notes will be stored for me and tied to my subscription for later reference. It also allows lawyers to directly link to cases in FastCase, which is free. I signed up that day.
10. Technology and social media can help even the busiest solo practitioners and small firms stay connected with their communities and their clients – Heidi Eglash
What would I do without my case management software and social media tools? Without them, I might always be stuck at my desk, unable to serve clients efficiently, or unable to communicate well with them or with other busy professionals. This year’s conference taught us some new techniques for ethically using and managing the hardware and software we use, evolving technological services, and social media tools.
11. FastCase Is Expanding – Sharon Greene-Gretzinger
Soon, Fastcase will allow practitioners to search cases back through 1885. Why pay for a research database when Fastcase is part of your member benefits?
12. E-filing and the Changing Judiciary – Kimberly K. Haines
Electronic filing in state courts exists in 18 counties with low volume. In order to increase volume and include all of the 72 counties, we need to change three cultures: attorneys, clerks of court, and judges. Within the next 10 years, Wisconsin will have a totally different judiciary as 83 percent of all our state judges will be eligible to retire.
About the Authors
Sara Andrew (Marquette 2006), Fond du Lac, is a small-firm lawyer focusing her practice on estate planning, trusts, wills, probate and estate administration, and real estate.
13. Assume LLC Rather Than S-Corp – Sara Andrew
When you have a single owner forming a business entity, make the assumption to form an LLC unless it’s obvious to start an S-Corp or other business entity.
Mark Siler discussed choosing a business entity, and he told a story about an early CLE he attended regarding the same topic. His one take-away was to always start with an S-Corp instead of an LLC. After a period of time practicing, he discovered that was not a good assumption, and now he makes the opposite assumption, to start with an LLC instead.
His main reason, among many others, is that a person can easily convert an LLC to an S-Corp if necessary, but the same is not true in the other direction.
14. To build strong teams of legal professionals, we need to learn to make innovation, communication, delegation part of our law firm cultures – Heidi Eglash
It’s always amazing to me how many of our State Bar members are “true solos” – folks who really do manage all the functions of a legal practice on their own (I was almost there once, and I have to say that my administrative skills wouldn’t win any awards). For those taking the first steps into hiring staff or outsourcing services, or even for those who have done so and need to stay on course, the presentations we heard on good employment practices, innovative leadership, and working effectively with our clients and colleagues were valuable.
15. More Things You Did Not Know You Could Do With the Software You Already Have – Kimberly K. Haines
State Bar Practice Management Advisor Nerino Petro and tech-savvy lawyer Ross Kodner continue to help lawyers save money with existing software. In this popular session, I learned some great tips, including the following:
- How to encrypt PDFs in Acrobat X or XI before sending documents electronically;
- How Adobe Acrobat Pro allows you to save an email folder as a single searchable PDF document;
- How to create a follow-up reminder when sending an email from MS Outlook;
- How to create an electronic business card to send with emails that can be added to your recipient’s contact/address book;
- Create Word Legos = Quickparts + F3 for saving key contract provisions and knowing exactly where to find them.
16. Mistakes We Made When We Opened Our Law Practices – Kimberly K. Haines
Attorneys Daniel Davis, Mark Goldstein, and Coral Pleas gave a great presentation highlighting the 20 mistakes they made when starting their practices, and how other solo practitioners we can learn from them. I made them all, and I was glad to see that the session participants represented varying levels of experience and years of operating a solo or small firm.
17. Communication – both through clear messages and reinforcement – are the key in maintaining understanding and trust between lawyer and client – Heidi Eglash
Communication issues always rank high in the reasons underlying client misunderstandings and complaints. We have more communication tools than ever, yet we compete with more “noise” as we try to get our messages across. In presentations, we learned how to communicate clearly with our clients. Presenters also provided some good suggestions to clearly define expectations that can be reinforced to maintain good relationships with clients and colleagues.
About the Authors
Kim Haines (Marquette 1990), Delafield, has been in a small-firm or solo practice since graduating from law school in 1990. She currently serves on the Board of Governors and is chair-elect of the State Bar’s Law Office Management Section.
18. Put a Deductible on the Indemnification Clause – Sharon Greene-Gretzinger
Steven M. Szymanski gave a very informative presentation entitled “Acquiring or Selling the Privately Held Business.” The session was packed with information and practice tips, and his outline is a great reference document for any attorney who handles the sale of a business.
Szymanski recommended an indemnification clause for the Purchase Agreement, which I typically use; however, his deductible concept was new to me. Using the deductible approach, the buyer is responsible for damages up to a certain amount (you put in the amount) and the seller is responsible for the damages beyond that amount. Great idea!
19. Establish Regular Virtual Meetings – Nancy Trueblood
Practice management expert David Bilinsky encouraged lawyers who establish virtual teams to schedule regular “virtual meetings” to discuss what team members can accomplish to help each other meet the team goals.
20. Special Warranty Deeds – Sharon Greene-Gretzinger
I represent some lenders and I get a lot of calls from homeowners facing foreclosure; so I went to the substantive session “Deeds in Lieu, Short Sales and Foreclosures.” It was well worth the time and full of useful practice tips. Presenter Louis Andrew described “Special Warranty Deeds” and how they are being used by lenders who take property back from a borrower through a deed in lieu of foreclosure. When they go to sell the property, they use a special warranty deed that only warrants the period of time that the lender actually held the property; everything before that time is excluded from the warranty, providing additional protection for the lender who wants to protect themselves from liens and other clouds that may have attached to the title prior to accepting the deed in lieu.
21. Five Things Confirmed From Prior WSSFCs – Kimberly K. Haines
Once again, I was reminded of five little things that can help my daily practice:
- Delay sending out emails by two minutes to avoid an “Oh-oh” mistake, such as wrong recipient, etc.;
- Practice411 and the State Bar’s Solo and Small Firm elist are still invaluable tools along with other State Bar resources such as Fastcase and WisBar.org;
- Do not forget the value of the telephone! Telephone communication is still a valuable tool that can accurately deliver tone and emotion;
- Only look at email three times a day: morning, noon, and late afternoon to limit the distraction it creates;
- Let the client guide manner of communication and collect his/her preferences; i.e, some clients still have a dial-up connection for the internet.
22. Beware of Fraudulent Short Sales – Sara Andrew
In this ever-changing and complicated real estate market, short sales, deeds in lieu, and foreclosures are at an all-time high. Watch out because amidst the large amounts of short sales, that are often difficult to navigate, there are also fraudulent short sales. Louie Andrew spoke on this topic, and he cited a notice received by his title companies by their underwriter, Old Republic, warning about these types of fraudulent transactions.
About the Authors
Sharon Greene-Gretzinger (California-Hastings 1991), Shawano, opened a solo practice in 2007, handling mostly transactional work, including estate planning, probate, guardianships, real estate, small business support, and support for tribal entities. She was previously in-house general counsel for a Wisconsin tribe.
23. Time Period Has Changed for Notice of the Sale of Property – Sara Andrew
Notice required for the sale of a property in a foreclosure situation went from six successive weeks in a newspaper of the county to three weeks, under a recent amendment of Wis. Stat. 815.31. Additionally, when a property is found to be abandoned, the sale of said property “shall be made upon the expiration of 5 weeks.” Wis. Stat. 846.102.
Previously the sale was upon the expiration of two months. David Krekler spoke about these changes and many other important points during his talk on cases and principles about collection, litigation, judgments, foreclosure, bankruptcy or receivership.
24. Our State Bar is fortunate to have a core of dedicated attorneys and staff members who commit time and effort to the continuous improvement of our profession and to all of us who serve in – Heidi Eglash
One of best things about attending the WSSFC is meeting other practitioners from around the state who are there for the simple reason that they want to serve their clients and make their practices better. The State Bar staff and volunteer attorneys on the planning committee who are there have devoted considerable time and creative energy to developing a curriculum that fits a wide range of practice needs and challenges us all to grow. In addition to meeting these great people, you learn that you aren’t alone in many of the challenges you face and that there are solutions that will be right for you, your firm and all the clients who depend upon you.
Even if I weren’t chairing the planning committee next year, I would attend next year’s conference. There are sure to be more great educational presentations and networking opportunities next year, and the committees to plan these are forming now. I’d encourage anyone who has a suggestion or some time to spare – in whatever amount – to contact me and get involved in next year’s Solo & Small Firm Conference.