Archive | January 2012

Laying infrastructure – early law firm management

"infrastructure infrastructure" by author

In 2008, everything changed. Markets around the world collapsed, and many people were driven out of work as a result. High unemployment meant loss of income, and that in turn led to far less spending back into the economy. In the legal field, an area long thought to be “recession-proof,” lawyers were laid off left and right, and firms large and small downsized or disappeared altogether as billable hours dried up, as people and companies could not afford ever-increasing legal fees. The economy has since improved, but the survivors of the Great Recession were left to pick up the pieces and move forward.

I actually “officially” started my law practice late in 2010 by registering as a PLLC with the Virginia State Corporation Commission, and my basic website followed shortly thereafter. I recently purchased a book, Law Practice Strategy: Creating a New Business Model for Solos and Small Firms by Donna Seyle (the source of much of the background information on this blog post), when I decided it was a good idea to expand my online presence. I started by creating a Facebook page and Twitter account for my law firm and expanding my LinkedIn profile. I also started an online services page, which features do-it-yourself legal forms for fixed fees with options for attorney review. Furthermore, I created a profile on the legal and medical advice site and began answering questions there, linking my responses to Twitter and Facebook. Finally, I started this blog to write about law issues and my progress in establishing a solo law practice. I took all of these steps at a very low financial cost, with only the book and the online services being the only items where I had to pay any money.

Creating the infrastructure for my law practice was actually the easy part. I had a plan and followed it fairly quickly, and I was totally engrossed in the effort. Keeping up the momentum created by this process is proving a bit more difficult for me. Infrastructure is all well and good, but you need to add moving parts for it to be useful, and networking has become more key for me to get my name out into the industry. In the past, business cards and word of mouth were paramount, but in this age of growing Internet resources, more and more people are simply going online and trying to find answers at the lowest cost to themselves. To this end, I am seeking to increase my digital footprint by using my new infrastructure to expanding my name recognition. At this point, online networking means following other attorneys on Twitter, keeping the blog up to date, finding old and new contacts on LinkedIn and Facebook, and using Avvo and similar Q&A sites to provide additional substance to my cache, as well as gaining new knowledge for myself. There are many other low-cost networking possibilities that I will pursue, but at this point what I have is keeping my hands full.

Offline, I am doing volunteer work and doing pro bono intake, which sometimes leads to representation. While this does not lead directly to income, it provides valuable in-person experience and allows me to problem-solve. I have also joined local bar associations in DC, Arlington, and Fairfax, and seek to be on their attorney referral lists.

Overall, it has been an interesting month on the infrastructure front. Much more work lies ahead. But it’s been fun so far.

This blog is an advertisement for the Law Office of Philip R. Yabut, PLLC, and the information in this post is not to be construed as legal advice, nor does reading it form an attorney-client relationship. Please do not post confidential information in the comments section.


Details, details

"intricacy" - by author

Divorce can potentially be one of the most stressful and emotional times of a person’s life.  Even if there are no issues to be worked out between the spouses, ending a marriage is difficult proposition, and ideally it should be done as efficiently and painlessly as possible.  For many people, it’s just a simple division of assets and liabilities.  For others, property can include trust funds, pensions, securities and other complex instruments. And there may also be powers of attorney and wills to worry about on top of everything else.

One of the keys to a smooth divorce is drafting a thorough property settlement agreement (PSA). Be sure to include every single asset and liability, no matter how seemingly insignificant, because any issue can delay proceedings and may require an ultimately unnecessary court appearance or two. Even if you’re going pro se, and if you have the means, have an attorney look over it before signing. Online law firms are growing in number, and many offer low-cost, flat-fee consultation and document review.

In short, make sure the PSA is as detailed as possible. People often complain that lawyers are overly wordy in their language (the so-called “fine print”), but this is to make sure there are no questions about what is in the document. In this case, it could save you time and money.

This blog is an advertisement for the Law Office of Philip R. Yabut, PLLC, and the information in this post is not to be construed as legal advice, nor does reading it form an attorney-client relationship. Please do not post confidential information in the comments section.

Change a Judge Can Believe In

Grand Canyon Mather Point Spring Storm 2011_5067a
National Park Service

To paraphrase the old philosopher Heraclitus, change is the only constant in the universe. Everything in nature is in continuous movement, and one never sees the exact same thing twice. You can go to the same spot overlooking the Grand Canyon a thousand times, but each visit is unique, a little (or a lot) different. No matter how similar it looks, if you examine your surroundings more closely, you’ll find differences both obvious and subtle.

In family law, change is paramount in cases of child and spousal support. After the judge’s initial support decree, the parties have two choices: live with it until it expires on its own, or try to amend it. Both the Virginia and District of Columbia codes provide for modification of support orders if the party asking for it can show a material change in circumstances.   That change can be as major as a new (or loss of a) job, marriage, health problems — or something as mundane as the passage of time.  If you show the judge that things are different, you can get more (or be compelled to provide less) support for yourself or your children.

Support guidelines are generally mechanical in nature — you both supply income and assets/liabilities information and, for the most part, the judge chooses the number that comes up.  The judge has some leeway for extenuating circumstances like those I mentioned above.  When you seek a support order modification, be sure to tell your attorney everything you can think of that can or actually does affect your financial status, no matter how mundane.  Because even the smallest change can be significant.

This blog is an advertisement for the Law Office of Philip R. Yabut, PLLC, and the information in this post is not to be construed as legal advice, nor does reading it form an attorney-client relationship. Please do not post confidential information in the comments section.

Living Wills: The Curious Case of Terri Schiavo

In March 2005, the nation was captivated by the case of Terri Schiavo, a Florida woman who had been living in a persistent vegetative state (PVS) for 15 years, surviving only because a feeding tube was providing her with sustenance. Doctors had concluded that her higher brain functions had ceased and that she had no hope of recovery, and her husband Michael Schiavo decided to remove the feeding tube and end her life. Her parents fought this decision for years, and the legal firestorm that ensued eventually drew in politicians on the state and national level, and eventually an unsuccessful petition to the U.S. Supreme Court. Ms. Schiavo finally died, but not after becoming a cause celebre for both sides of the “right to die” issue.

At the core of the debate was whether or not Terri had definitively given Michael consent to end all extraordinary means to prolong her life — colloquially, “pulling the plug.” Michael had repeatedly insisted — and state courts agreed — that he had discussed with his wife that she did not want to continue living under extraordinary means, and that he had oral consent to end her life if the situation arose. However, she did not write down her intentions, leaving it to a “he said, she said” battle that would rage for years. In the end, much heartbreak and hardship could have been avoided if Terri had what has become known as a “living will,” a legally binding document that you can use to determine end-of-life issues should you become permanently incapacitated. And, as soon as this case finally ended, I drafted my own living will and distributed it to my loved ones.

The living will must be properly witnessed to be effective (in Virginia, one person must witness your signature; in DC, you need two witnesses), and may contain additional provisions for organ donation and power of attorney for health care. If nothing else, it will provide peace of mind that if the unthinkable happens, your family and friends will not have to deal with unnecessary heartbreak and a potentially emotionally charged fight over what to do.

This blog is an advertisement for the Law Office of Philip R. Yabut, PLLC, and the information in this post is not to be construed as legal advice, nor does reading it form an attorney-client relationship. Please do not post confidential information in the comments section.

The journey begins

Hello, everyone.

These postings will reflect my views and opinions only, and not those of anyone else — and, of course, they are not to be construed as legal advice or create any kind of attorney-client relationship.

I’ll begin by talking about why I decided to become a lawyer — and a solo practitioner, at that.

When I was in 8th grade, someone — the local school district, the school itself, not sure who exactly — decided to change the social studies curriculum to something more focused on American history facts and figures. We were to be the last class taught on the old curriculum, which included an overview of the U.S. Constitution. Up to that point, I was convinced that I would be involved in sciences of some kind, but my first exposure to the nation’s governing documents gave me pause. It was not much more than a basic civics class, complete with a class trip to Washington, D.C., but I found myself with a way forward in the direction of my life. I decided right then I would work toward a career in the legal profession, and my coursework in high school and college reflected that, with an emphasis on American history and political science as there was no “pre-law” track available.

I eventually got admitted into George Mason University School of Law in Arlington, Virginia.  Instead of searching for the fastest route to a big DC firm I decided to take a different approach to my career.  I took internships in the public interest area and worked for a solo practitioner, getting some courtroom exposure and first-hand experience in law firm management.  I learned early on that there was much more out there in the legal profession than the Big Law experience.  And because GMUSL is a public school with very reasonable tuition at the time, I did not have gigantic student loans to pay back, so I did not feel overly pressured to follow the big money.

My first exposure to family law was through one of those internships, a summer and a semester at Legal Services of Northern Virginia in Alexandria, Virginia. I did some client intake and performed law clerk duties, which meant drafting court pleadings and client letters, but also included arguing motions in court under attorney supervision.  Cases ranged from people seeking divorces to child or spousal support to emergency domestic violence hearings, all done pro bono.  It was a very different world from how many see the legal profession.  There were no glass walls or giant corner offices or secretaries in central cubicles.  I shared a small closet of an office with the other interns and dealt with clients who had trouble feeding themselves and their children, people who are underrepresented in the legal profession.  The attorneys were (and still are) overworked and underpaid, but they seemed happy that they were doing good for the community, filling a need for people that society seemed to have left behind.

It may sound trite and contrived, but I decided I want to make a difference with my law degree and license, and that I wanted to do it by opening my own practice in family law.  It took a few years after graduating from school, but here I am, trying to get it going.  I hope to do well for myself and my family, of course, but at the same time I want to feel like I am doing something for my community, like those Legal Aid attorneys. And, for me, that means giving clients the best representation that I can give. Family law is not for everyone — emotions often run high, and you frequently have to deal with people in the most stressful times of their lives, whether it be ending a marriage gone wrong or trying to do what’s best for their children.  I am confident that I am up to the task.

My hope for this blog is that it will contain useful and interesting information about current issues in family law and my experiences in solo and virtual law practice management. Thank you for reading.

The information in this post is not to be construed as legal advice, nor does reading it form an attorney-client relationship.