Thursday, November 29, 2007

Google Me This

Whoever said "the best things in life are free" may have been talking about Google. You have to respect a company whose name is now commonly used as a verb. I "google" things every day. I try to pay attention to questions great and trivial, and if I have any interest in knowing more, I google.

Yesterday the Steve Miller song "The Joker" was playing. For the 1000th time I wondered what the "Pompatus of Love" I googled it. Here is one of the answers

You want song lyrics? Here's The Turtles "Happy Together"

Want to know how to get gum out of hair?

I keep track of questions that arise during the day, so I can google them later.

Why am I blogging about this? Two reasons:

1. It's fun. If you don't already do this, try it and see what I mean.
2. If you ever thought about marketing in your business or profession, (and I think about this a lot in the lawyering biz) must think about how people will use Google to find you. I am particularly interested in how people use google to find lawyers.

More on this tomorrow....

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Credit Cards in the Per Diem Biz

Accepting credit cards is very helpful in the per diem business. It is very easy to set up. You do not need a card swiping machine, you only need an internet connection. I do it through Quickbooks, but any bank can set this up for you. I like it for two main situations:

1. You can smoke out the really bad apples. Anyone who does per diem work knows that sometimes you get shaky payers. It's the exception, but it happens. The way I use credit cards is, after someone is 60-90 days behind, I call and ask if there's a problem. I always ask first if there was a problem with our work, because I want to know if that's the reason for the non-payment. If there seems to be some financial issue, I will offer the option of making a credit card payment for all or part of the balance. Sometimes they are pleasantly surprised and they pay in full. Sometimes they make a partial payment and agree to allow a monthly credit card payment. Sometimes they don't accept any aspect of credit card paying, and then they have been smoked out. Here's my reasoning.....I don't believe there is any lawyer who doesn't have a credit card. If the lawyer doesn't "trust me" to handle the transaction honestly, then why should I trust the lawyer by extending credit? If the lawyer doesn't want to "pay interest" on his credit card debt, why should I be giving an interest free loan? The credit card offer is a really effective way for me to cut my losses on bad payers. You might say "But you might lose the client", to which I say "Let someone else make the interest free loans".

2. Depositions: I generally make a small profit on depositions. I subcontract them out, and I disclose that I am doing this. If I charge $250 for a job, I pay $175 and make $75. I consider this fair for handling the transaction. Unfortunately, attorneys tend to pay slowly on depositions, placing me in the position of paying my subcontractor and chasing the money for my small profit. This was happening so often that it made depositions a money LOSER. My new policy is depositions are taken on credit card guarantee only (except for a few "A" rated clients). Guess what? My volume of depositions is WAY down. However, due to 100% collectability, profits are up. Credit cards transformed this from the most dreaded appearance into one of the most desireable. I actually am inclined to make my deposition fees the most competitive possible, because I have taken the collectability risk out of the equation. This is well worth the 3% or so that the credit cards charge.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Thankful for Thanksgiving

I know my faithful blog readers are expecting a "Top 10 Things I Am Thankful For" list, or poignant reminiscenses of Thanksgivings past (as an aside, I realize it is presumptuous to assume I can achieve "poignancy on demand"). I'll do my best.......after a brief comment about why I am thankful for Thanksgiving.

It's because it encourages everybody to be mindful of thankfulness. The thought is "what am I thankful for?". It points us in the right direction. It tells us where to look. Even if the first thought is "I'm thankful I'm not........dead? in Afghanistan? Bill Buckner?", you know that you can think again. You can think about what you are thankful FOR. What other day, what other time, are we universally encouraged to be thankful? On a Thursday?

I never call it Turkey Day. If we had blackened redfish and spaghetti, and great desserts and coffee, (and had company, were mindful of thankfulness, and enjoyed some laughs) it would be just as good. So it's not turkey day, it's THANKSGIVING.....

Here's my top 10 things I am thankful for:

10. Trader Joe's in Forest Hills
9. Dovie
8. Living in NYC
7. Angioplasty with a stent
6. Relaxing times
5. Written expression
4. Forgiveness
3. Memories
2. Right here, right now
1. Rebecca, Emilie, Felicia

A brief reminiscense of Thanksgiving past.....We lived in an attached house with a narrow street in front. You could play touch football there, two on two or three on three....."five steps and cut behind the red car"...."fake square out bomb"...."three straight completions is a first down".... On Thanksgiving it was cold out, good for football in sweatshirts. Red in the face, blowing some smoke like the Green Bay Packers. Working up an appetite, no school tomorrow and tomorrow is only Friday. Five touchdowns wins. Somebody wins, it doesn't take that long, it doesn't matter who won. It doesn't seem cold out at all, it's just right. Back in the house EVERYBODY is there. It is so WARM.

Happy Thanksgiving to all.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Per Diem Agencies

There are a few per diem "agencies" in New York. They offer court coverage in all the courts. By necessity they sub-contract out all the work. I've got nothing against them, some of them sub-contract their Queens work to me. I give them a discount in exchange for volume. They know I won't solicit their clients (One exception....if one of my clients uses an agency and I end up covering, I will call and point out that if they call me directly it's cheaper). I don't view my per diem practice as an agency. There are a few major differences:

1. We cover only one County, so we get some "expertise" in that County.
2. I am in the Jamaica Courthouse personally, so even though I am not on every appearance, I am there if a problem arises. I will also handle certain things personally, on request for most clients.
3. I have associates and steady per diem attorneys, and it never gets further removed than that. I may have a "per diem to the per diem", but when I get agency work, we often get a "per diem to the per diem to the per diem". I can't imagine this is what the client had in mind when they called. Incidentally, the record for degrees of removal on an appearance is FIVE.
4. An agency HAS to be more expensive. They are subbing it out and have to make a profit too.
5. We can trouble shoot the work when it comes in......and we often do. If someone faxes me an unreasonable request, and I know it's unreasonable because I am in Jamaica every day, I call the attorney and try to make a better plan. Agencies can't do that, and often end up with their per diems walking into the doo doo (I can't believe I called it that).

So, if agencies offer lower quality work and are more expensive, WHY are attorneys calling these agencies? There can be only one reason.....for the simple convenience of having the calendar clerk make only one call. Instead of calling the best per diem office in Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Suffolk, they make one call to the agency. This may be more convenient for the calendar clerk, but I submit it is a poor practice. Any office with a volume of appearances should NOT be using agencies, and I suspect that after trying it, they often leave. Spare yourself, call the best per diems in each County.

People have asked me why I don't expand to other Counties, and essentially become an agency. Simple....I don't believe in the business concept. If someone calls me for a non-Queens appearance, I will give them someone in another County who does what I do. I don't share in the fees on those, cuz if I did, those firms would have to charge what the agencies charge. What I try to do though, is encourage the people who use my business model in the other counties, to refer me, as I refer them, and SHUN the agencies. This is a networking technique that has worked well.

So, to sum up....per diem agencies bad....per diem specialists by County....GOOD

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Per Diem Biz Relationships

In the per diem biz you want to be want to have a lot of cases to cover. Ideally you want all the apperances in the same place at the same time. Of course, it never happens this way. I have ongoing business relationships with many other per diem attorneys. I don't view my "crew" as static. It's always changing, mostly growing, though occasionally people leave the fold.

Here are a few tips for potential crew members:

1. Saying "yes" to assignments is very good. When I am looking for help with coverage, I want to make one call and have the person say yes. I know that's not always possible, but if a person is consistently unavailable (after telling me to call them for work), I stop calling.

2. Be accessable. In this biz, not answering your cell phone, or not calling back within five minutes, is like saying NO. If you want work, be accessable.

3. Don't overprice yourself. Here's a surprise for some people. This is a competitive business, and it runs by the same rules as other businesses. If you price yourself too high, you will not get calls. If you can offer better terms, you get more work.

4. Don't overbook yourself. I can't stop a sub-contracted per diem from taking other work, but if you can't cover my stuff effectively, I can't use you. One way to not have this happen is to have per diem biz relationships. I always suggest to my crew that they can have their appearances covered within my crew, if this will help. This works only if the person respects and follows the next rule.

5. No client stealing. EVER. This means you do not solicit per diem business from other peoples clients. In fact, you DECLINE it if offered. I have done this many times. When appearances are being sub-contracted I always ask how the per diem wants the "contact question" handled. You have to know what to do if you must make a call from court. There are ways of handling this, but you have to be clear. This client stealing is a funny thing. I know some of my competitors solicit my accounts. It's not illegal. I just won't have a business relationship with those people. Here's how I know which competitors would solicit my accounts....If you are pretty busy in the Queens courthouses and you have never sought me or my crew out to help with coverage, I think it's because you think I will solicit your accounts. People who work with me, and have their own accounts, know I would NEVER do it. However, the fact that you worry about such a thing makes me KNOW that you would do it to me. You know who you are, so keep running your business your way. I'll stick with mine.

Something I noticed about these per diem biz relationship tips. While I wrote them for per-diem to per-diem deals, they are actually the backbone of the per-diem relationship with their lawyer/customer:

1. Say yes to the jobs.
2. Be accessable.
3. Price it right.
4. Don't overbook, be able to cover it well.
5. Work with integrity.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Being the Interviewer

In 25 years in practice I've had 168 different people (yes, I counted) work for me in various capacities. This includes associates (full and part-time), secretaries, paralegals, law students, college students, high school interns, and per diem attorneys. I interviewed all of them, even the high school interns, and surely have interviewed 500 other people where the fit was not right. One way I know interviewing is a real skill is that I keep learning how to do it better. I learned strictly through experience, as will you, but here are a few tips I wish I'd had:

1. Don't talk so much. If you liked someone's resume enough to interview them, you may be pre-disposed to hiring them and are already giving them a job description and talking about your practice. The candidate will not interrupt you when you go on and on, though they may think you are a windbag who doesn't know how to interview. Stop yourself if you are talking too much. If you have described some aspect of your practice, a simple thing to do is stop, and say "What do you think about that?"

2. Listen to the candidates questions. I will come out and tell someone that I really evaluate a persons potential by the quantity and quality of the questions they ask. I am comfortable saying this because it's true. I may make a statement or describe something that's going on and ask the candidate to ask some questions about it. I try not to accept "I don't have any questions", and the fact is, if someone sticks to that answer, it is highly unlikely I'd hire them. I want a good dialogue in an interview, and I will want a good dialogue when the person is working. Remember, once a clam always a clam.

3. I did not get this one from a book, but I really like "What do you see yourself doing, career wise, in five years?". What I am looking to uncover is what I call "employee mentality". This is a person who treats the job like a job, does the minimum and will let you down in the clutch. I value longevity and commitment, and despite the number of employees I've had, I've had many long-term devoted people. I tell the candidate I won't hold them to their answer, and I won't hold an answer against them if they think they will not be with me in five years. I tell them I prefer being around people with lofty ambitions.

4. Don't be afraid to probe the resume, especially if there was something on it that impressed you. I like open ended questions like "Tell me about some of the contracts you drafted at Smucker & Jelly?"

5. If there are specific things you might need, don't hesitate to ask. Sometimes I absolutely needed someone with a car, and you don't know if you don't ask.

6. I would never explicitly ask about family life, intention to have children, lifestyle, or anything else that would offend the person or cause them to give me a legal problem. Naturally though, as an employer you have a vested interest in knowing these things. That's why you shut up and listen, and draw correct conclusions from the discussion. People will often list hobbies and interests on their resume, and you can sometimes get an impression from this, but you can tell even more about the person when they talk about it.

7. I don't think it violates any law, so I ask people if they smoke. I've hired a few, and let's just say I ask the question and weigh the answer carefully.

8. When I first started I did not call references, but now I do. I will especially call a prior job where I know the past employer or someone at the firm.

9. Trust your gut. I once interviewed someone who was working someplace else. It happens. I didn't have a great feeling, but I needed to hire someone and my "friend" had recommended her, so I offered her the job, and said that I assumed she would need to give at least 2 weeks notice. The next day she called and said she was ready to start immediately. This was a very bad sign, and she turned out to be the worst person I ever hired....and yes....I eventually fired her.

Next blog.....hiring and business relationships in the per diem world.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Hiring 101

One of the hardest things about solo practice is hiring and keeping good employees. Like many aspects of real life practice, this is not taught in school. At some point you will need one or all of the following: associate, paralegal, secretary, law clerk. Part of the problem is your practice may not justify a full timer for any of those roles. What you really need is a part-timer who can fill ALL those jobs. It's never a perfect can only do your best, keep business growing at a healthy rate, and expand staff accordingly.

Here are some tips on hiring people (Note: if you are a human resources person in the corporate world, these tips are really elementary. Please realize that for us lawyers in solo practice, we ARE the human resources department, and the accounts payable, accounts receivable, mailroom, word-processing, proofreading, marketing department, janitorial crew......and practicing lawyers. Not only do we not have a human resources department, the main way we learn these things is through experience.) Sorry for ranting, here are the tips:

1. WRITE A JOB DESCRIPTION. I cannot emphasize this enough. Take your time, and write down everything you need someone else to do. Don't hold back. Look the list over carefully, and see if there are things that naturally group together. I like to go one step further and start seeing how the tasks fit on specific cases RIGHT NOW. For example, if I wrote down "draft bills of particulars", do I have one case or do I have 20 cases where this is needed? Would I let someone else do the BP on the Wilson case? No? The Wamsteker case? No? Hmmmm.

Oh, here's a related one: Write YOUR job description. By knowing what you want to do, what you expect you, the owner, should be doing with your time, you can help focus on what your "staff" should be doing.......the stuff that needs to be done that you should not be doing.

2. Write an ad for EXACTLY what you want. This is related to the job description, but here you have to condense it down to ad size. Every word is valuable, make them count.

3. If you place a classified ad, use a box # or freshly created anonymous e-mail. If you place an ad in the law journal, or the newspaper, or at a law school, you WILL get a large response.

4. When the resumes and letter come in, spend some time reviewing and thinking. I have a "3 stack system" for my first impressions. Stack 1 is for apparent possibilities. Stack 2 is for possibles. Stack 3 is no way. I sometimes make a 4th stack for funny, but then I put them with stack 3. Of course, you have to read between the lines, but don't forget to read what's there. People will tell you what they are looking for, and if it's clearly not you, don't waste your time.

5. I look at cover letters carefully. Frankly, the best resume cannot overcome a crappy cover letter. Remember, if you hire someone, the next cover letter they do will have your name on it.

6. Location counts. Sometimes it's disappointing that the best candidate would have a long commute. Experience teaches that this is a big problem. It will be tempting to rationalize this, or allow the candidate to rationalize it, but long commutes lead to big problems. I actually give extra points for proximity. The one opening I would give would be for a student or recent grad, where they might be moving from the stated address. It's worth asking.

Are we ready to interview some people?

More on this tomorrow

Thursday, November 8, 2007


It's a real "step up to the plate" situation. You may be asked, you may think you should, you may see that nobody else is going to and (heaven forbid) the clergy person is going to do it based on his ten minute family interview.

I have heard it said there are people who would rather be in the casket than delivering the eulogy, so bad is their "stage fright". I tend to challenge such self-judgmental and limiting statements, but assuming you could POSSIBLY do it, and are considering whether you should, you can do it, you should do it, you MUST do it. If you had a close relationship with the deceased, it will be one of the greatest gifts to them, but more than that, it's a gift to yourself.

Look at it this way.....when you do it, you will never forget that you did it. In fact, you will be proud, especially when you really nail it. I won't say I nailed it every time, but I've done seven eulogies, for my Mom, my father-in law, his father in-law, my aunt Anna, Felicia's Aunt Tybie, and twice for clients who had no family and I had arranged the funeral (and was asked "to say a few words"). They are not so hard to write.....once you get started. Most of your "audience" knows the person you are talking about, or knows something about them, or at the very least are there out of respect to someone, and they want to know more. I don't know about you, but when I go to a funeral for a person I did not know (out of respect and caring for a person I DO know), I want to hear a eulogy that tells it right.

Here are a few tips (these may really help you some day):

1. Spend some time thinking and writing. Grief will hit you during the process, but you will gain strength from the effort.

2. Read it out loud, or at least read it to yourself. You will know where the emotional parts are, and you will be ready. You can stop if you need to, and you will know it's fine to do that.

3. At my Mom's funeral I gave an extra copy to the Cantor who was officiating, and told him if I couldn't do it, he should read it. He said OK, but he knew it would not be necessary.

4. If you have people close to you, tell them you are writing it, and ask them for some thoughts.

5. When you read it, you don't have to say how hard it is...everyone knows. If you delay in starting due to emotion, this makes the eulogy better.

6. Print a few extras, make sure to save it on the computer.

I previously posted my Mom's eulogy

Here is the one I read at my Aunt Anna's funeral.......

Eulogy for Anna Sender

A eulogy can only be words, and it is a challenge to find words sufficient for the task. But I have a great helper. And that is the knowledge that I have something in common with everyone here. We all experienced this phenomenal, unique, and unforgettable person. I always felt there was something extra and special about Anna, a certain spirit and magnetism. And is it possible that it grew over time? Yes, I believe it did.

Even though most people here know Anna’s family background, I want to talk a little about it because it illustrates something about growth and change. Anna is a product of a different time, you could even say a different part of history. Yet, have you ever encountered a more modern person? We all have encountered people who seemed to be rooted in another time, or stuck in a different era. But through her life, Anna drew from all of her experiences, triumphant and tragic, and kept moving forward, kept living life. Going back to the beginning, Anna’s parents came to this country from Russia around the turn of the century. Her father died when she was about 8 years old. Her mother lived in this country for many years, and spoke only Yiddish (This did not hinder Anna’s English conversational skills). Anna was the sixth of seven children. The oldest child was a daughter, Fannie, who died at the age of 17, while serving as a nurse in WW I. Next there were two sons, Philip and Arthur, and then three daughters, Rose, Betty, and then Anna, and then Manny. Anna was born around the end of World War I, and grew up during the 20's and the depression of the 30's. She did not have much formal education, but it is fair to say she made the most of the schooling she had.

She worked hard in various types of work, including many years in a hat factory.

Then her life took a change when she met and married Red. I’m not the most worldly person, but in my life I’ve never encountered a couple like this. They had a certain chemistry, maybe explosive chemistry, but a formula that worked. And whatever else one might say or think about it, it sure seemed right. It was many years before they had Michael, and growing up he was surely among the most wanted and cherished children ever. It remains difficult to talk about, but Michael was an extraordinary person, and Anna was extraordinarily proud of him, and proud of her little family.

Michael was 24 when he died in 1982 (he’d have been 44 now), and at that time Red had already started a horrible decline from Alzheimer’s. How many people would have been beaten, right then and there? Or shuffled through the rest of their life? Or complained about their pain? For the rest of HER life, Anna showed a resiliency that we all marveled at. And we all learned from her. You could not leave a conversation with Anna and not feel better. You had to be inspired, you had to think about your own problems (whatever they might be), and know that you could move forward. Anna did not teach you these things by preaching, or telling, but by living. And not just living, but living with energy, excitement and enthusiasm. Enthusiasm is contagious you know, and spreading it is a good thing.

Anna was a great talker, and a great story-teller, but she also had one of most important attributes of a conversationalist, she was a great listener. And she cared about what you said, and absorbed it. When you were having a conversation with her, it was the most important conversation on Earth. And it didn’t matter that five minutes later she was going to have the most important conversation on Earth with someone else. It did not diminish yours.

A number of years ago Anna moved to Florida. During that time she not only made many friends, was involved in many activities, but also took classes and college courses, and traveled extensively. All these things were done at full speed and with total involvement. When she got sick and declined so rapidly, it was like she lived 83 years at100 miles per hour and then ran out of gas. Many of us saw her just a few weeks ago, and she was dancing and laughing and talking as always. We can have that memory, and years of other memories to hold on to. I can only say to my father and to Joan, who were with Anna in her final days, that the power of Anna’s life (and the happy times you spent with her) will last beyond the painful times. Her spirit touched us all and enriched every one of us.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Impertinent Questions

Here are some questions which are interesting to answer, and even more interesting to ask. I've asked some of these for years, some people get into the spirit and discuss them, some people think the questions are stupid (what a shock). I'll throw in a few of my "answers". Hmmm, maybe I like these questions because I like giving my answers. You can decide.....

1. Do you share a birthday with anyone famous? I thought everyone had a ready answer for this one. I've known I shared mine with Richard Nixon for a long time. However, my recent informal poll revealed that most people do not have a ready answer for this one. Here's a link that will help. I was so pleased when I asked my 14 year old Rebecca, and without hesitation she said "Barry Bonds."

2. Who is the first President you remember? Not who was President when you were born, it's what you remember. For me it's JFK. Rebecca said Bill Clinton. A lawyer in Court recently said "Nixon", a younger one said "Reagan". I asked an older lawyer who I know served in WW II, and he said "Hoover". The best answer I ever got was from my wife's Grandfather, who was born in Russia in 1900 and came here when he was 10. He thought about it for awhile and said "Vilson". A few years from now, people will answer "George W. Bush". Oy.

3. How many times, if ever, have you dialed 911? If you're ever stuck for a conversation starter, this might elicit a good story. Or, it might be a long boring story about a fender bender car accident. As best as I can recall, I've dialed it five times. Sometimes I knew other people must have called (like a car on the side of the highway with huge flames coming out of it....pretty scary to drive past), but I thought, "what if everyone assumed someone else had called?". Of course, when I called and started describing the situation, the operator said a lot of people were calling. Kind of nice to know.

4. How many times, if ever, have you caught a foul ball at a baseball game? Something about this is very exciting. I have a lifetime total of two. I know that the first one was hit by Len Gabrielson of the Giants, at Shea, probably in 1967. The second was also at Shea, Tom Seaver was pitching for the Reds, and Doug Flynn of the Mets hit it. But who can remember such things?

5. Have you ever been on a jury and deliberated to verdict? This is one I have never done, but I am always interested to talk to people who have. Incidentally, I have been asked many times by friends and family "I got a jury notice, what should I do?" I always say the same thing...."If you had a case and someone else got a jury notice, what would you want THEM to do?"

6. Have you ever shot a handgun? I have not, but I have to admit, I'd like to.

7. How many times, if ever, have you had a car stolen? Is there any stranger feeling than going to where your car was parked, seeing a different car there, and realizing your car has been stolen? For a time during the Dinkins administration, car theft was so rampant in Queens that I had a car stolen, then had a crappy little rental car for a few days, and the rental car was stolen!

Last question for today.....have you ever delivered a eulogy at a funeral? I like this question so much, tomorrow I will blog about it.