I consider the period before the Internet hit the legal profession (roughly around 2000) to be Law 1.0. One of the biggest benefits of Law 1.0 was that it allowed lawyers to gain experience and other benefits by working under mentors at law firms.
There are several ingredients that go into making a good mentor. Although it helps if your mentor likes or tolerates you, that’s not essential. A good mentor needs to be:
- A great (or competent) lawyer. The main job of the mentor is to be a great lawyer with you at his or her side, watching, learning and helping your mentor represent clients.
- A specialist in one or more areas of the law so that you can pick up specialized knowledge.
- Willing to trust you with real responsibilities.
- Willing and able to teach you how the law firm gets new business. If you have the skills to bring in your own clients, your mentor should help you develop into a rainmaker for the firm.
- Willing to bring you into client meetings, depositions, negotiations, and other meetings so you can watch how things are done even though you aren’t yet qualified to play a role.
- Willing to let you meet the clients and work on serious projects where you can participate in serious meetings so you can see how the decisions really get made. You don’t want to be the lawyer who gets assigned a task, but never gets into the meetings so you can see who, how and why it was decided that you should perform the task.
- Interested in introducing you to other lawyers so you will have contacts in the legal community.
- Willing to let you learn the business side of the law, from negotiating an initial client contract to seeing the law firm’s expenses on a per-case or monthly budget basis. (This comes after you’ve proven your loyalty and competence.)
When I started law practice, some civil defense law firms in my city employed associates who had five or six years of experience doing nothing more than reviewing documents, conducting discovery, writing briefs, and carrying the briefcases of lawyers who actually went to trial.
The law firm that hired me had a different philosophy. They believed in giving associates meaningful experience, and trusting them with real responsibilities: In my first four years of law practice I
- Met with new clients. At first, I met with a partner and potential new clients. But soon I was meeting and signing up new clients without help from anyone.
- Handled much of the preparation and the direct examination of several witnesses in a police shooting death case.
- Tried a Federal Torts Claim Act lawsuit by myself in federal court.
- Handled solo dozens of district court trials involving automobile accident claims for less than $5,000. • Filed dozens of complaints.
- Handled discovery, including taking significant depositions, in dozens of cases.
- Wrote approximately ten appellate briefs and orally argued one of the cases before the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.
- Met dozens of lawyers and judges with whom I would later have business or be able to turn to for advice. • Learned how to conduct myself as a lawyer, both in court and out.
Because of the time I spent at the law firm, I got clients referred to me when my old law firm had a conflict-of-interest or had a case was too small. I had two mentors I could call and ask for advice. If I needed advice from an older, more experienced lawyer in a legal specialty that our law firm had not practiced, one of my mentors would call a friend and ask him to help me out.
I also learned that all lawyers inevitably face crises when the client didn’t show up for a deposition or some other mistake was made. One of the most important things my old law firm taught me was that these things inevitably occur, and you can usually handle them in a way that doesn’t make judges and opposing lawyers think you are incompetent, disrespectful or a fool.
During the two year period before my personal injury practice really began to pay off, I paid the bills by writing lots of wills, drafting some leases, handling criminal cases involving traffic tickets and arrests for bad checks, and handling referrals of legal matters my friends and my old law firm did not want to handle. Without this type of work for two years, I would have had to leave the practice of law. Once my personal injury practice began to succeed, I hired associates and law clerks. I formed a law firm. I began to take, and win, large class action cases. That was how I made my living until the year 2000, when I realized that the Internet was our generation’s version of the Industrial Revolution.
After I read Kevin Kelly’s “New Rules for the New Economy,” I realized that nothing would ever be the same again. I asked myself if I wanted to continue practicing class action law, or join the Internet Revolution. To me, it seemed analogous to asking a farm boy in England if he wanted to go to London or stay down on the farm. I closed out my pending cases, and began looking for a way to participate in what I came to think of as Law 2.0.
At that time, there were six million people who had taken the diet drugs referred to as “fen-phen.” The drugs allegedly caused heart valve defects. I hypothesized that, with a potential audience as large as six million people, I could create an online newsletter about developments in research as well as the mass tort litigation.
I thought I could email the lawyers involved in the litigation, and print the email interviews in my online newsletter. There was just one problem; the lawyers wouldn’t reply to my emails.
I also thought that I could sell advertising to lawyers who wanted to be hired by people whose heart valves were damaged after taking fen-phen. That didn’t work so well either.
I was fortunate that a lawyer friend stopped by for a visit after returning from a sabbatical. He was looking for work, and thought I could probably let him work on one of my class actions. When I explained that I was trying to make a living writing an online newsletter, and I planned to sell advertising to lawyers looking for clients, my friend laughed until tears filled his eyes.
After we discussed my project a couple of days, my friend told me, “You need a proof of concept. No lawyer will buy ads on the Internet until you sign up clients yourself and prove it can be done. He agreed to work with me without pay for six weeks and, if he believed it would work after six weeks of working on the project, he would become my partner.
Six weeks later we founded the American Legal Alliance. I believed we were entering the brave new world of Law 2.0. We set up a network of small law firms and solo lawyers as part of our Alliance. From 2000 to 2015, the American Legal Alliance signed up victims of deadly drugs and medical devices, and collected tens of millions of dollars in settlements for thousands of clients nationwide.
Several other mass tort law firms did well in the period from 2000 to 2015, the period I think of as Law 2.0. But for most lawyers, the past fifteen years have been very tough. The 2008 recession damaged the big law firms, and the RoboLawyers (LegalZoom, Nolo, RocketLawyer) decimated the small law firms and solo lawyers.
The technological sector has noticed the lawyer layoffs and problems new law school graduates are having finding jobs with law firms. It has offered several new products to serve the market of stay-at-home and virtual-suite lawyers. We have software for lawyers without real law offices that is designed to replace the standard law office computer system. Examples are Clio, MyCase, and ActionStep.
But there is currently no substitute for working a few years at a law firm under a good mentor before beginning the private practice of law. Nothing completely replaces the extended mentoring and advice one can get from one’s old law firm members and friends made while working at the firm. And, although social media marketing is easier for solo lawyers than ever before, nothing replaces the free referrals of clients in need of help with wills, lease disputes, child custody matters, divorces and other problems that used to be the life blood of solo practitioners everywhere.
The American Bar Association has tried to help fill the need for mentors. The ABA’s SoloSez listserv has about 4,000 small firm and solo lawyers who share information and answer each others’ questions.
But who will provide the free client referrals such as those I received from my mentors at my old law firm? And who will answer an emergency telephone call from a sole practitioner who needs immediate advice about a relatively simple legal question?
It’s time to find out if Law 3.0 can address those issues.
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