It was 1992 and hip-hop was just beginning to cross over into the mainstream of American culture when a small group of New York hip-hop artists began a movement that would change the music industry. Rather than pursuing solo careers, they formed the Wu-Tang Clan, a collective of artists who were neither exactly a group nor exactly solo.
It was a collaboration designed around the theory that a group of solo artists working together could do more than any of them could individually. They were the Federalist Society of hip-hop, and solo attorneys can learn a lot from them.
“Protect Ya Neck,” Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), 1993
The Wu-Tang’s first single, “Protect Ya Neck,” is more commonly abbreviated by attorneys “CYA.” For solo attorneys, and especially young solos who haven’t yet had the hard-knocks lessons of protecting yourself, it is easy for some of those CYA tasks to get pushed to the side in favor of seemingly more pressing projects.
Call notes and the related follow-up letters are just one example. When you spend an hour on the phone with a client, especially an unexpected client call that interrupts your plan for the day, it is easy not to spend another half an hour drafting a follow-up letter detailing the legal advice you just spent an hour explaining to the client.
But it’s important to take good notes in a client meeting or phone call and then lay out for the client in writing what you just discussed. Although you may be perfectly clear about what you said, your client may have left the conversation with an entirely different idea of the status of his case. By using notes you made at the time to draft a follow-up letter, not only can you demonstrate later what you advised the client, but you might help the client understand better what is going on.
Calling the Professional Responsibility Board is another good way of protecting yourself. Whether you are having a problem with a client, have questions about whether you can take a case or are dealing with a difficult opposing counsel, solo and small-firm attorneys have to face thorny ethical issues without the benefit of the established mentor relationships that large-firm attorneys commonly have.
By calling the PR Board, you get the answers you need to these questions, and more importantly, they will keep a record of the fact that you called, what you asked and what they advised you.
Your client, opposing counsel or even the judge may not be happy about your final decision, but having a record of your good-faith attempt to find out the right answer to the situation gives better insulation to your decision.
“C.R.E.A.M. [Cash Rules Everything Around Me],” Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), 1993
It’s the No. 1 piece of advice experienced attorneys give to younger attorneys, and it is doubly true for solos: Get your money, in cash, up front.
Clients are always willing to promise money, mostly in good faith, but then things come up. Cars break down, they lose their job, and in criminal law and some areas of civil practice, an attorney may find herself stuck representing a client who can no longer pay.
For small firms, there is rarely a sizeable bankroll you can draw from in order to tide you over or mitigate the loss of client fees. The result can be what Eric Cooperstein of the Cooperstein Law Offices calls “chasing retainers.” Cooperstein, a legal malpractice defense attorney, described how lawyers who accept partial payments sometimes fall into the trap of setting a client’s case on the back burner in favor of a new client who can pay.
Before too long, attorneys have more cases than they are able to handle because they are “chasing” the next partial payment just to pay the bills. This can lead to unnecessary delays, unhappy clients and possibly malpractice suits.
Solos who practice in criminal defense, moreover, sometimes tell a client to bring a check to the first hearing, especially in smaller matters where they may have never met the client in the few days between the initial client contact and the first appearance. Setting up a pre-hearing meeting can be a pain, but attorneys who don’t do it may end up showing up to court and meeting the client who has forgotten his checkbook, or whose check later bounces.
Neither walking away from representation the day of the hearing nor committing to it without a guarantee of payment are good options, so follow the advice of the Wu-Tang Clan: Have cash in hand (or in your account) before you move forward with representation.
“Can It Be All So Simple,” Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), 1993
By definition, small-firm attorneys do not have an army of younger associates and staff to track down every legal thread or pour hundreds of hours into research. We spend every day juggling “The Law” — that is, the things we learned in law school — with all the non-legal tasks associated with any small business. We have to maintain good communication with our current clients while marketing for new ones, and keep up with the administrative elements of every case while dealing with the business issues that are a part of any small company. Streamlining is important in any business, and with a small business, those small non-legal tasks can seem to grow to occupy the whole day. In order to work efficiently, we have to simplify.
The easy way is obvious: There are some cases that are simply inappropriate for solos or small firms to take, cases that are so large or complex that one or two attorneys could not handle the workload. But in another sense, many of the cases that seem complex can be simplified into much less work-intensive cases.
The temptation — left over from law school — is to “issue spot” and try to work every possible angle of the case or put every possible argument in a brief. Simplifying a case to its essentials: The best theory of liability, or the best arguments in a brief, will improve the power of arguments and will allow a solo attorney to work more efficiently by spending her time on what really matters. It’s good to be thorough, but it really can be all so simple.
Perhaps the most important lesson to take from the Wu-Tang Clan’s success is how collaboration can help solos develop their practice. The Wu-Tang Clan never intended to become a group act but worked together to develop their individual careers, and names like RZA, GZA, Method Man, Raekwon became a veritable who’s who of the industry.
In the same way, by working together with other solos, collaborating on projects, and having a group of other trusted solos to refer cases or cover conflicts, small-firm practitioners can translate the success of the Wu-Tang into the legal field.