Lawyers Journal

Solo, small-firm conference May 10 to address ethics, social networking, technology concerns

The General Practice, Solo and Small Firm Section's 2nd Annual Symposium, on May 10 from noon to 5:30 p.m., with a reception to follow, will be held at Lombardo's in Randolph, to address a range of issues to assist solo practitioners and small-firm members on how to move forward in today's legal climate. To register, see insert or visit www.MassBar.org.

Christina O'Neill spoke with the GPSSF Vice Chair and conference Program Chair Scott Goldberg about this year's conference.

Q: What are the primary topics on the minds of the small-firm and solo practitioners who will be attending this conference?
A: From what we hear from our members, cash flow is the foremost concern and critical element to success. Other issues include staying within your knowledgeable area and not practicing in areas you know nothing about. It appears that the day of the general practice for a solo practitioner is done. The law - and the practice of law - has become much more complex. Networking is one of the ways a lot of these issues can be addressed.

A significant factor that affects cash flow for solo practitioners and small firms is the cut in court funding. If you can't get a trial date, then you'll have difficulty getting cases resolved. There are sessions without judges, without clerks and without jurors. The MBA is addressing this problem on a larger scale, but I think it affects the solo practitioner and small firm even more than a large firm. In addition to supporting court funding, we can -- and should -- network to share ideas and refer cases.

Q: What else?
A: Another way to address the delay in closing cases is through the growing trend of alternative dispute resolution-mediation and arbitration. So, we will have a section on ADR, but we will be presenting it from a different perspective, from a judge's perspective. We will include presentations from a currently sitting judge who willingly assists in settlement negotiations, and from two former judges, now in the private businesses of mediation and arbitration who have seen cases from the bench, not just as an attorney.

The session will provide guidance on how to address settlement and negotiation for a case that's in suit, and in private mediation and private arbitration. The idea is that it fits within the concerns of a small-firm and solo practitioner, who is going to have to be skilled at ADR, because if you're waiting for your cases go to trial, you may not be able to wait financially. Large firms don't have cash flow issues like that.

It becomes essential to move cases appropriately, to close cases. One of those important ways is ADR, and the courts are advocating its use. Private ADR has grown tremendously in the past couple of years. That can be expensive too.

Q: How will the format differ from last year's session, which we understand was fully attended?

A: Last year, we held the section's first symposium and there was a lot of interest in what we were presenting. While it was a huge success - standing room only - we also learned a great deal about the issues on our members' minds, and tried to create this year's symposium to address issues that are at the forefront for solo practitioners and small-firm members.
This symposium has several different themes, such as looking at how practices can be run now, in the present and into the future. And there are, for example, considerations that exist now that didn't exist a year ago or exist in a different context, with different importance.

Q: Such as what?
A: We will have a section on running our law practice from outside the office. Speakers will address technological advances such as mobile e-mail, the iPad and tablets, and smartphones, and include a specific presentation on cloud computing that can be advantageous for a solo practice or a small-firm member. Out of the office time is no longer downtime. Every small practice has to keep an eye on cost, more so than a midsize firm. How can we reduce costs and offer better client service at the same time? We think technological advances will help us do that.
And always a present consideration, through all we discuss, is how to do it ethically.

Q: What are the ethical concerns?

A: For example, these considerations include what an attorney may ethically include in cloud computing; how does one store it confidentially; and what is better off not in cloud computing? We may not have all the answers to this because it's all new, but our speakers will address the issues and foster a sharing of ideas. Our goal is that when members move forward, productivity and ethical concerns to their clients move forward, too.

Another session will address different types of business models from the view of a small-firm or solo practitioner, which may shape the future of a practice's structure. The trend has been for large firms to be breaking down into small firms, and small firms breaking down into solo practices. The practice of law is no longer limited to a certain number of partners and associates, or solo practitioners. Space sharing and outsourcing will influence what a future firm might look like.

So part of our discussion will be about business models that include space sharing and associations. We're going to have presenters address both of those aspects. One of the developing trends is to share resources and create networks, of which we will have an entire session and networking reception. A solo practitioner may have his or her own practice but does not have to feel or practice all alone.

Q: How does one go about that?
A: We will focus on the different aspects of networking. How do you do it as a solo practitioner, or as a small firm, and who in the firm does it? There are differences and similarities.

Also, as an associate in a firm, how do you network within your position as an associate? Different firms have differing emphasis on the associate's role. Some put emphasis on bringing in cases, some want to build a client base that makes them more valuable to the firm. Some attorneys want to build a client base for the future. So we will have representative speakers from these different groups discuss networking from the perspective of a solo practitioner to a small firm and as an associate.

And as is common, there are ethical considerations all along the way, as well as practical and financial considerations.

Q: How are ethics influenced by policy changes?
A: Certain policy changes affect ethical concerns. The new changes to contingency fee agreements are a good example of how solo and small firms differ from large firms, and are on the minds of our members. There's no one way to do it. We're going to present options on how to do it ethically.

Our speaker will offer guidance to solo practitioners and small firms. We will also have a speaker address accepting cases, declining cases, and what a small-firm or solo practitioner should be considering in making the decision to do one or the other, as well as withdrawing from a case. All lawyers, but especially small firms and solo practitioners, have to be aware of ethical considerations throughout their practices.

Q: Is it easier to decline a case than to withdraw from one?

A: Well, it's probably easier to decline a case than to withdraw from it at a later time, but easiest isn't always - or even often - best. Not only has the practice of law dramatically changed in the 25 years I've been practicing personal injury law, tort law itself has dramatically changed.

Years ago, many lawyers practiced a little personal injury law and got away with it. My personal belief is that you can't do that any longer. The law is much more complicated and much more specific. And to best represent your client, you need to be well-versed in the subtleties in personal injury law, just as you would in another area of law, such as probate law. Networking is a great way to consult with other skilled attorneys.

And this affects client representation. A case can settle for the same amount with two different lawyers and yet the client can have a different net recovery solely as a byproduct of how much the lawyer knows about the ins and outs of managing the case - negotiating liens for example. We hope to share that information and networking ideas so we can all do a better job for our clients.

We will also look at ethical concerns into the future. One of our speakers will address the ethics of social media. We could do a whole day on that. If you are considering using social media, which everyone will shortly, you need to keep ethical considerations in mind from the beginning. It is intended to be the start of an ongoing discussion as firms move forward.

Q: Isn't the structure of social media a direct challenge to attorney-client confidentiality?

A: It certainly doesn't have to be. Social media can be used to spread what you do and what you have to offer, but it's not designed to discuss a specific client. For example, I may share information through social media on the rights of injured police officers, which is my concentration. That would be useful information for all police officers before and after they get injured, but I would not discuss the representation of any particular officer. You need to know where the ethical line is, or at least have the line in mind.

Q: Who is working with you and what are your expectations for the event?

A: I'm chairing the symposium and my co-chairs are Alan Klevan, a skilled solo and small-firm suburban attorney, and Rodney Dowell, who is, among other responsibilities, the director of the Massachusetts Law Office Management Assistance Program (LOMAP). The three of us have brought our different perspectives together to come up with a comprehensive schedule and dynamic speakers.

Following the presentation sessions, we will have a networking reception. Last year, we held the event at the MBA offices. It was standing room only. We wanted to do more this year, without being space-confined. We will start with a working lunch and end with a networking reception.

We hope and expect that attendees will get a lot of practical information and a lot of good ideas - opportunities to get some of their questions answered, and meet new people and expand their networks, which in and of itself is invaluable. And of course, we welcome any associate, solo practitioner or small firm to join the GPSSF Section so they don't have to go it alone.

For more information about speakers and topics, or to register, go to www.massbar.org/events/calendar. The cost is $100 for MBA members and $150 for nonmembers.

©2014 Massachusetts Bar Association