Surviving the Law Firm "Crash" (or What to Do When Your Law Firm Dissolves)

Leslie Williams

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Let the “games" begin.

On Friday, you left the office pretty confident that on Monday the normal routine would ebb and flow. Nothing “out of the ordinary" was expected. In fact, you’d relegated yourself to the fact that your career as a paralegal/legal assistant/legal secretary was quite boring but, hey, it paid ok, you had health benefits and even enjoyed work free weekends - most of the time.

But what was going on behind the scenes was another story.

You see, over the past year some decisions were made – poor decisions – that affected the law firm you worked for. Decisions to hire an attorney or two with a supposed “following" did not pan out. Do you follow me? Think of your hairdresser. When a hairdresser graduates from beauty school, she (or he) does not have a “following" or a “book of business". It takes at least a few years to build up a clientele. Some clientele stay with you, some don’t. And so the game goes.

The same thing is true concerning attorneys. Over the years, attorneys hopefully build a “following". When a partnership goes sour, the attorney quite literally takes his “book of business" with him wherever he goes (if he hasn’t signed some cockamamie agreement with his current law firm that restricts this). Sounds fair, doesn’t it? If the attorney has truly garnered these clients on his own, wined and dined them, nurtured the relationship, worked hard to earn their trust, etc. , he should be allowed to transport the clients along to the next partnership.

But guess what? Your attorneys, in their quest for increasing their income by bringing on a new seasoned associate or two (accompanied by their VAST “book of business) forgot to perform their due diligence. That is, they “assumed" the new, seasoned associates (30-40 year law veterans) actually had a viable “book of business". Wrong.

Instead, what the veteran attorneys were looking for was a place to hang their hat – an office to visit each day – a place to go. Surprise! It never was their intention to bring anything to the table – they just wanted to sit there and eat. They also brought their high dollar assistants with them to sit at the table also. The billable hours generated by each of the individuals (attorneys & paralegals) was not enough to cover their own salaries, benefits, etc. , so the firm ended up in the “hole". Overhead exceeded income.

The attorneys who brought these new employees onboard have no business sense and it all came as a complete shock to them when at the end of the year their bonuses amounted to only $100,000 over their yearly salary. Can you hear me weeping?

What does this have to do with you?

Ok, ok, I’ll get to the point.

You’ve trusted foolishly in the business acumen of the folks you work for over the years. Most people I’ve worked for have no idea how much money is tied up in their “receivables" or what the “bottom line" is.

So, what’s my point?

Protect yourself. Always understand that this law firm could self-destruct in what seems like a “nano-second" because of poor business practices.

How do you protect yourself? Three areas come to mind:

Diversify your knowledge

Do you currently work as a personal injury legal assistant? Insurance defense perhaps? Study another area of law – perhaps estate planning, bankruptcy or real estate. I’ve worked in the medical malpractice, estate planning, administrative law, eminent domain, environmental, franchise and attorney discipline fields and I am very “employable" as a result.

If you’ve just begun your legal career, open yourself up to other job opportunities that might come your way within your law firm. Let’s say that your department handles all of the estate planning documents within the law firm. If there are litigators in your firm, let it be known that you would be glad to help out when needed. Believe me, when a trial is looming, organizational skills are needed. This will allow you to enter into a field to (1) see if you like this type of work; and (2) build more of a “team spirit" within the firm.

Volunteer to summarize a deposition. If you’ve never done one before, simply ask one of the more seasoned legal assistants or paralegals if they could point you in the right direction. Usually, there will be deposition summaries on the computer for you to review.

To Certify or Not to Certify

I did not become certified through the National Association of Legal Assistants, however, it may be that in your part of the country the Certified Legal Assistant (“CLA") designation is regarded very highly. In that case, obtain your certification. It can only help you. Because I have years of hands-on experience, I simply took an online course to obtain my certificate through the University of Southern Colorado at Pueblo. What impresses those who have hired me either fulltime or as a contract paralegal/legal assistant is that I can immediately sit down at the desk and begin my work – no real training necessary.

Network, Network, Network

1. Join your local legal assistant, legal secretary or paralegal organization. Attend the meetings regularly. Volunteer for committees. The friends you make could be real lifesavers when you find yourself without a job unexpectedly.

2. Is there a legal administrators website in your city which lists available jobs? If so, watch the website regularly, especially when new jobs are added.

3. Become familiar with the owner(s) of the placement agencies in town. We have one in the city I live in which is owned by an attorney, catering to the legal community solely.

Prepare yourself for the unexpected. God has blessed you beyond measure. Be wise. The legal job market is very competitive. How will you compete? What do you have to place on the negotiating table? Understand your strengths and weaknesses and seek to improve yourself constantly.

Think on these things. Simply begin to strengthen those areas you are weak in and you will succeed. The Lord will bless your efforts.

Leslie R. Williams is the author of “Breaking Into the Legal Field". Her website is Leslie is an author, publisher and entrepreneur with over 15 years experience in the small business field. She is a published author as well as a former restauranteur/franchisee. Leslie’s writing is geared to inform and inspire those interested in pursuing (and keeping) a career as a legal secretary, legal assistant or paralegal.


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