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Adventures in Court-Sitting, Part III: City of Alexandria


Compared to the behemoths in DC and Fairfax, Alexandria City’s Franklin P. Backus courthouse seems tiny, which is understandable because Alexandria is a city of “only” about 139,000.  Inside, the hallways are stately but simple, and the General District and Circuit courtrooms have an old-time feel, with large windows, high vaulted ceilings with chandeliers, and paintings of judges of years past on the walls.  And unlike some of the newer judicial buildings in the DC metropolitan area, Alexandria’s halls of justice are brightly colored and make great use of natural light, giving an almost cheerful atmosphere — if only your matter weren’t so serious.

The docket was light that day with no family law cases on the schedule, so I spent the first part of the morning checking out traffic court.  Unlike my experiences in Fairfax and DC, the courtroom was sparsely populated with folks challenging tickets, and the judge zipped through uncontested cases in lightning speed.  Later, I picked up the tail end of a civil docket, a very short small claims session, and a couple of more hardcore criminal cases in Circuit Court.

Another observation: since the courthouse is in the middle of Old Town Alexandria, the surrounding neighborhood is a lot less forbidding than its counterparts in DC and Fairfax and Arlington.  Don’t forget to get a sandwich or visit the waterfront after your day in court.

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.

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Adventures in Court-Sitting, Part II: DC Superior


“beacon of justice” by Author

On an extremely hot early summer morning, I embarked on my second day of courthouse self-orientation observation tours, this time the Superior Court of the District of Columbia.  In short, it was an exercise in re-orientation and sampling the nuances of DC’s trial court.

This wasn’t the first time I had visited the H. Carl Moultrie Courthouse, but every time I go I am amazed by the controlled chaos inside.  The courthouse is very reminiscent of a busy commuter train station.  There is a grand central lobby with a giant message board listing all of the judges and their courtroom numbers.  From that lobby you see wide hallways leading to rows of courtrooms, with plenty of seating for anyone waiting for their cases to come up, and each room’s daily docket is usually taped on the wall next to the door.  On a normal day, there are dozens of people milling around, conferring with their families and/or attorneys or simply waiting around in silence.

The courtrooms themselves are unique in that the gallery seats are nothing like church pews, but are padded with arms like in a movie theater.  The room setup is circular, with a large round lit structure on the ceiling over the judge’s bench, which makes it look like you’re looking up inside the Hirshhorn Museum’s “donut hole.”  I sat in on a morning criminal docket, so I saw a few shackled defendants being led in and out of the holding room for scheduling hearings and guilty pleas.  There wasn’t much else for me to see that morning, but it still was worth my time.

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.

Adventures in Court-Sitting, Part I: Fairfax County


“anti-occupation forces” by Author

As a new-ish solo practitioner, I am constantly looking for ways to increase both my experience and exposure in the field.  Recently, I had a morning scheduling conference for a divorce case in Fairfax County, Virginia, and since those proceedings normally last no more than 10 minutes, I decided to make the trip out there worth my while by watching random court proceedings.

I took in a sampling of cases in General District and Traffic courts in order to get a feel of what these proceedings are like since I have never practiced in them before (I already have some limited experience in Circuit and Juvenile and Domestic Relations courts).  This is what I learned:

* Cops don’t recognize the popular concept of “rolling stop.”  Neither do judges.

* If you ask a witness a question, don’t interrupt him before he fully answers.  Judges don’t like that.

* General seating in a courtroom can be really tough on your back.

* Never, ever let someone use your driver’s license to operate a vehicle, even if it’s your our own brother and you love him dearly.  You might end up with a criminal record without actually doing anything wrong.

Besides that, I did get one very important lesson reinforced out of watching other lawyers practice law in front of judges.  Even if s/he disagrees and rules against you, a judge will always appreciate a good advocate.

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.

I am not a lawyer! I am a human being!


“ponder” by author

Let’s face it — lawyers don’t exactly have spotless reputation.  When people think of lawyers, words like “cheat” and “shyster” invariably come to mind.  Okay, I may be exaggerating a little, but stereotypes tend to contain at least a scintilla of truth.  The lawyers who actually are greedy, money-grubbing, billable-hour-exaggerating poor excuses for human beings have ruined it for the rest of us in the industry.  And the suffix “Esq.” may as well be a scarlet abbreviation on our business cards.

Of course, stereotypes are made to be broken.  Believe it or not, it is possible to be both a lawyer and a sympathetic human being at the same time.  The most obvious first step is to be and stay ethical.  There’s nothing wrong with making money, but do it with a clear conscience.  The other is to give back to the community in some way.  You don’t have to quit your six-figure salary and corner office and become a public interest attorney — maybe a donation here, a pro bono case there, or even community service not related to law.  The important thing is to never forget that people depend on you, and you depend on them.

Links:

Legal Services of Northern Virginia
probono.net/dc

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.

Adaptation.


"camouflage heron" by author

The ABA Journal recently posted an article on the future of the legal profession:

“There will be 10 to 40 percent fewer lawyers in the next decade than there are today, a trend that will effect mostly solos and small firms, predicts Fairfield, Connecticut-based attorney Fred Ury, according to [Jim] Calloway [director of the Oklahoma Bar Association’s Management Assistance Program]. And the growing number of venture capitalists throwing tens of millions of dollars at startups automating basic legal services cannot be ignored by U.S. lawyers, Calloway said. However, lawyers can embrace some of those same systems, tools and techniques to boost their own law practices and attract clients.”

As a new startup myself, I need to figure out how to create business in a challenging economic environment. Not only are potential clients seeking lower cost alternatives to the traditional attorney fee structure based on the venerable billable hour, but there is a huge movement afoot to meet that need in the form of low-cost do-it-yourself document assembly services such as LegalZoom.  Need a will?  Power of attorney?  Simple divorce papers?  Just click a link and avoid talking to (and paying for) a lawyer.

To that end, I have added my own online document assembly service to my law practice.  The drawback to LegalZoom and its commercial competitors is that they cannot offer legal advice — you’re completely on your own, so if something goes wrong, you could be stuck with a bigger problem than what you started with.  My service goes beyond what they offer — for a low, fixed fee, you can ask for a personal consultation on your legal documents, whether you create them on my website or not.

Times change.  The trick is to keep up and not be left behind.

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.

Business Planning Square 1: Mission Statement


"Enterprising" by author

So you want to start a small business — in my case, a law firm.    Virtually all experts recommend drafting a business plan, which is what I have started with step 1: the mission statement.  After all, the first thing you need to step into the self-starter world is a reason to exist.

Of course, being a lawyer, the first thing I did is look for reference material online.  There are many resources floating around the Internet to assist in creating a business plan.  Perhaps the most referred link is the Small Business Administration’s “How to Write a Business Plan” page, which has comprehensive and user-friendly guides for the budding entrepreneur.  I also found CMS Law Firm’s blog Starting a Law Firm helpful (they recently created a new site here). Finally, here’s a link to the American Bar Association’s solo practice resource page.

Taking all of this advice, plus that of my loving fiancee, I set to work on coming up with a mission statement.  I thought about how I want to make my embryonic practice stand out in a sea of solo and small firms in the Metro DC area.  I wrote down a few bullet points describing what I envision my firm will be in the near and not-so-distant future.    Since a mission statement should only contain a few sentences, I condensed the points into a short paragraph, which is now on my firm website and Facebook page.

“It is our mission to provide quality legal representation with the highest level of integrity. We will strive to provide services based on value to the client, helping the growing segment of the population that cannot afford legal representation under a traditional billable hour system. Through these principles, our goal is to become a leading family law practice in Northern Virginia and the District of Columbia.”

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.

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 Avvo.com 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.