Small Law is Beautiful – Debra L. Raskin

Debra L. Raskin

President’s Column, November 2014

As I walked around and chatted with attendees at the New York City Bar Association’s annual Small Law Firm Management Symposium last Thursday, I was reminded of something. For all the recent talk about the increasing difficulty of taking the Big Law career path, and about how some law school graduates are forced to hang out their own shingles, a lot of lawyers go the solo or small-firm route by choice.

Call me Exhibit A. I’m small and I’m proud. The firm where I work has eleven lawyers, which, granted, is much bigger than a solo operation, but it’s much smaller than a lot of the firms I come into contact with and go up against on a daily basis.

One lawyer I spoke with, Veronica Escobar, seems delighted to have her own practice in Elderlaw and Trusts & Estates. She previously worked in government, and her experience in providing protective services for abused and neglected children gave her the litigation experience she knew she would need when she went solo. Veronica impressed me as someone who practices law for the purest of reasons, to help people, and I loved how she described the practice areas in which she’s worked. “The common denominator is people dealing with crises,” she said, adding, “Trusts & Estates is Elderlaw’s older sibling” and “Family Law and Trusts & Estates are kissing cousins.”

As I walked among the exhibits in the Reception Hall, I was happy to see the fantastic services—tech and others—that have sprung up to level the playing field in the legal profession. (Also, pens and stationery! If you are giving away pens or mini-flashlight tchotchkes, you have my full attention.)

One of those services, Casemaker, is a remarkable legal-research resource that can be used as an alternative to LexisNexis and Westlaw. The best part of Casemaker, for our purposes, is its marketing strategy. It partners with bar associations like ours. If you join the City Bar, you get Casemaker for free as a member benefit. This benefit alone makes City Bar membership irresistible.

Of course, with City Bar membership you get much more, as was clear from an afternoon panel at the symposium. Arlene Bein, the City Bar’s Director of Membership and Marketing, described many of the benefits of membership, including free and discounted CLEs, career development and networking programs, and the opportunity to serve on committees that work to help shape the law and educate the profession and the public.

Ron Mirvis, the City Bar’s Senior Reference Librarian, described why our library is among the best practitioners’ libraries in the nation. And George Wolff, who directs our Legal Referral Service, made a compelling case for Bar Association members to apply to be on the panel to receive referrals in the areas of the members’ expertise. In the past ten years, LRS work has generated $130 million in counsel fees. As George explained, LRS receives a percentage of those fees—which in turn funds activities of the Bar Association to benefit its members. Lawyers on the LRS panel pay that percentage only when they have been paid for the referred case, an efficient marketing strategy in comparison to advertising where there is no assurance that the expense will yield results.

Last, but not least, Alla Roytberg, Director of the City Bar’s Small Law Firm Center, described other benefits for small firms and solos. These include the Virtual Law Firm service we have recently implemented which provides lawyers with a mailing address—a fine one if you ask me: 43 West 43rd Street—as well as a ‘suite number’ for receiving mail and the option to add a ‘212′ telephone number to get messages. The Small Law Firm Center also schedules access to meeting rooms and offers other practice necessities, all right here at the City Bar.

Last Tuesday, I participated in one of Alla’s best creations, the Small Law Firm Center’s Mentoring Circles. I was impressed with the energy and mutual support among the participants, grouped by practice area, who discussed substantive issues unique to their specialties and nuts and bolts matters such as finding forms online. One participant pointed out the advantage of these in-person meetings in contrast to listservs and the like: In person, you know who is listening and you can be sure you are not posing questions to your opposing counsel. Score one for the real world.

All in all, call me biased, but I took two things away from last week: there’s never been a better time to be a small practitioner or a member of the New York City Bar Association.