Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Personal Injury

On my way into work this morning I was thinking about some of my personal injury cases.

One client was just in a motorcycle accident, and lost part of his leg. I've seen him a couple of times in the hospital now. It's sad to see that happen to someone, especially someone you know. He's a great guy, and I'm sure he'll recover well. I've never driven a motorcycle. I've been driven on them a couple times, but this really drives home the point of why I don't want to be on one much. It's nice to have 3000 pounds of steel around you when you get hit by a car.

A couple of my clients in car accident cases are heading for surgery. One on her toe, the other on her shoulder. I worry that some clients may allow the litigation to affect their medical decisions. With one client in particular, I have strongly encouraged a second opinion before the surgery. If the surgery is a good choice you should do it, but not if it's a bad choice. It might make your case worth more money, but it won't be that much money and it won't be worth the money.

Personal Injury cases might get you some money, but that money never turns out to be as much as you might think. It will rarely change your life. It might make your life a little better for a short time, and in a particularly good case it might be enough for a new car or even a new house. But in the end, when you think about spreading that money over the next 40 years, it has to be an awful lot to make a profound difference.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Albany - Japanese food

Okay, this one's about life in Albany, not about lawyering in any way, shape or form.

A local newspaper gave a glowing review for a sushi place in Albany. I was in that neighborhood, so I had to try it. Very disappointing. I lived in Japan, so I think I know what I'm talking about.

First, a sushi place should not be judged by how many different kinds of fish and other things they can fit into a roll. You will not find any avocado or cream cheese in sushi in Japan. I never saw it.

The best test of a sushi place is the sashimi. That's how you can really tell the quality and freshness and texture of the fish. You can hide lesser fish in a blend of wasabi, fish eggs, cream cheese, etc. You can't hide it in sashimi. Don't get me wrong - I particularly like Alaska and Philadelphia rolls (Salmon with avocado, or avocado and cream cheese). But that's not the true test.

At this place today, the maguro (tuna) sashimi had an aftertaste that was not right. The other sashimi was okay, but not great. I had sashimi yesterday at one of the better places in the area (Yoshi Sushi on Route 9), so I could make a good comparison. Also, at this place today, the miso soup was just plain wrong, the salad dressing didn't taste right (not a traditional concern, since one usually does not get salad at sushi places in Japan), and perhaps the worst thing was the shumai (shrimp dumplings) I had ordered. The sauce for them was totally wrong. The wasabi was not quite right either - a bit too clumpy.

This leads to my justified bias about Japanese restaurants. They should be run by Japanese people (or at least ethnic Koreans who come from Japan). My major reason for this bias is personal - I like to practice speaking Japanese when I go to a Japanese restaurant. Not an issue for most sushi eaters in Albany. But I still believe that the Japanese who run Japanese restaurants know what the food is supposed to be like. They're more concerned with quality.

Some Koreans do a good job. In my experience, the Chinese-run sushi places are just not good. I was in one place where they had sliced up the fish beforehand. That may be good for mass production, but it ages the fish more quickly. Today's place was also Chinese-run. You can pretty much tell which places are not Japanese-run. If a place sells any Korean or Chinese dishes, it's probably not run by Japanese. The place I went to today was only Japanese food, but it was still run by Chinese.

I'm particularly fond of one of the Korean-run places, Ta-Ke, which is near Albany Memorial Hospital. I've only had their Japanese food once that I can remember. In the back they have 3 Korean tables for "Bul Go Gi" (yakiniku in Japanese). Their Korean menu is excellent and the food is delicious. The Korean tables have a gas grill built into them. If you order 2 or more grill dishes, they cook it on the grill at the table. If they trust you, they let you cook it yourself.

Other good places for Japanese food in the area include Miyako's (my favorite) in Guilderland, Mari's in Schenectady (but I haven't been there in a while), Saso's in Albany isn't bad, and Mino's in Saratoga is also good. Hiro's used to be good, but I haven't been there since they changed ownership, so I can't say for sure.

Miyako's is large, has a sushi bar (the sushi chef, the owner, and the owner's wife are all Japanese, so I get lots of conversation), regular tables, a couple of Japanese tatami rooms, and their big attraction is the teppanyaki, more commonly known as hibachi tables. It's a good sign that the Japanese Cultural Association of the Capital District meets at Miyako's. Most of the members like Yoshi Sushi too, but his place is too small for the group.

Dealing with police - in general

So what do you do when the police stop you? I know what you shouldn't do:

Example: When a police officer attempts to speak with you, do not say "I'll be right with you" and attempt to walk away. They don't like that. My client got beaten up, partly because of this simple failure to recognize that that police officer, at that moment, was the most important person in his life. He also got charged with DWI when he wasn't intoxicated, and charged with the felony of assaulting a police officer, on a night when no one from the DA's office was available, meaning he spent about 20 hours in jail before I was able to get him out. I had to spend 11 hours of time (from 2 am to 1 pm on a Saturday) to deal with this.

The short answer is, you should be polite to the police officer. This may be hard to accept, but most police officers are generally decent human beings. They also have difficult jobs. They often have to deal with unpleasant people, and occasionally they face very real danger in their work.

I mentioned that they're human beings. That means they're imperfect. And here's the key, as I see it.

In that first moment (maybe 5-10 seconds) of your encounter with that police officer, he or she will decide whether you are one of the good people or one of the bad people. If you are polite, and show your respect, the odds are you will be considered one of the good people. This does not mean you will necessarily get away with whatever you've done, but you are far less likely to get beaten and thrown in jail. If your offense was a close call (say 75 mph in a 65 mph zone), politeness may get you a "this is your lucky day sir", while rudeness might get you a ticket for something a bit worse than what you actually did. And it will be much harder for your lawyer to get you a deal later.

Just the other day I was in Court negotiating with a Trooper. My client did worse than usual because the Trooper felt he had been rude. He said something like: "Ordinarily I'd give you a better reduction, but this guy was an asshole".

Now at the same time I'm saying be polite, that doesn't mean you should tell everything.

Q: Do you know why I pulled you over?
A: No (you might have a guess, but you don't know)
A: I'm sorry officer, no I don't, but I'm sure you had a good reason. What did I do?

Q: Have you had anything to drink tonight?
A: No (even if you have -- you're not under oath and this would be an admission against interest)
or you might try:
A: I'm sorry officer, but my lawyer told me never to answer a question like that. (No is a better answer)

Q: Is it okay if we search your vehicle/house/apartment?
A: I'm sorry officer, but my lawyer told me never to consent to a search. (notice the polite "I'm sorry")

Q: Do you know what the speed limit is here?
A: No, but I've got a bad feeling I'm not going to like the answer (humor can help)

Q: Do you know how fast you were going?
A: No (you don't know your precise speed)
A: I'll have to assert my Fifth Amendment privilege on that one officer (I actually did this once - the humor did help, but you have to be lighthearted, not snide -- also, this was around the time Mark Fuhrman was saying that phrase, so that made it a little funnier)

One last thing - a judge told me this one. He said he carried a bottle of liquor in his glove compartment. His strategy was if he ever got pulled over after he'd had a few drinks, he'd get out of the car with the bottle, and in an obvious manner, open it and start drinking it.
Technically, this sounds like a good strategy - it's pretty hard for the police to get a good reading on your level of intoxication when you were driving because the demonstrative consumption messes up the testing.
I'd say this is a high-risk strategy, and it's probably only worthwhile when you're facing your 3rd or 4th DWI, in which case you probably are not going to plan ahead like this.

A far better strategy is to call a cab if there's any chance you might have had too much to drink.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Good blog on handling police

I just saw a good blog on dealing with police when you're stopped by them. Their main site is also good stuff. I will do a blog entry soon with my thoughts on dealing with police. The key word in my advice is "polite".

Thursday, July 14, 2005

The Economics of a Law Practice - Rates

A while back I did a post about cheap lawyers. One of the challenges for a lawyer is figuring out how much to charge.

I started out with the general notion that I was going to charge $200 per hour for my time. I figured that if I managed to bill only 500 hours a year (10 hours a week), I would get $100K in revenue. After all my expenses, I'd survive, but I wouldn't be making much. If things went well, I might get to billing 1000 hours per year, and then after expenses I'd be doing pretty well. If I got to 1500 hours, that'd be $300K in revenue, and then I'd be in the ballpark of getting rich. But I'd be working a lot of hours, because as a solo you end up working 2500-3000 hours in order to bill 1500. And if I actually managed to bill 2000 hours, I'd want someone to shoot me because I'd be working way too hard.

Then you get to the point where you think about hiring an associate. Suppose you have enough work that you could bill out an associate at $150/hour, and the associate would bill 2000 hours. That's another $300K in revenue. If you pay that associate $60K (a good wage in Albany for an associate with 2-3 years of experience), you're probably spending $100K total on that associate when you include benefits and other overhead. But that means you're making an extra $200K in profit. Not bad. This is where the economics of a law practice starts making a lot of sense for the rainmaker. If you can generate enough business for 5 associates, you're making $1 million a year in profit before your own billing.

Of course you have to manage your associates, and some of them may expect to become partners at some point. I have trouble with that. I'm very possessive of my law practice, since I started it and feel a bit like it's my baby. I'm happy to work with my wife, who tends to see this as my practice even though she is a co-owner. When you hire associates you're giving up some control. When you make someone a partner it's a big change. I tend to think I'd encourage my associates to start up their own practice, and help them get going, rather than having them become partners with me. But maybe down the road I'll find there's a good reason to take on partners. My education on the business of being a lawyer is not complete.

Getting back to rates though, most of my work is not billed hourly. I charge $250 for most traffic tickets, $400 or more if I have to travel. I charge $1000 for DWI violations. These tend to be flat fee rates. The time I put in varies, but the value for the client is the same regardless. It tends to average out okay, so I think it makes sense. I can resolve many traffic tickets by mail, which probably takes me less than an hour. For some I have to go to Court and that can take two hours or more. If you get a decent volume of traffic cases, you can get 2 or 3 tickets in the same court on the same night, and that works out better.

I charge more for DWI because you can't do them by mail, and you may have to go to Court more than once. And there's also a risk that you'll have to do a lot more work if the client doesn't accept a deal. At that point you will charge the client more, but there's a risk of nonpayment.

Criminal billing is tough because most defendants are poor. Criminal defense is a lot of work, and you have to charge a lot because you can put in a lot of time. You also have to charge a significant amount up front, because there's a strong risk of nonpayment. I'm thinking about raising my up-front charge on all felonies to $5000 from $2500.

I took on a case outside my usual area of practice recently, and charged $5000 up front. This case is burning a lot of time. The client calls me almost daily, even though I keep warning him that his calls are costing $20 every 6 minutes. We're already through over $3000. I feel a little bad for the client, but it's an area of law I find unpleasant and I am doing valuable work, providing a much higher quality of service than they've experienced in the past.

That's one of the things about rates. I charge more than the cheap lawyers, though I'm not the most expensive on the block. The big thing I'm selling is that I provide strong customer service and quality work. My toll-free number is answered 24/7 by a person who speaks both English and Spanish (an answering service in Los Angeles). They attempt to connect those calls to my cell phone from 7 am to 9 pm (Eastern time), 7 days a week (holidays too). If it's outside those hours, or I don't pick up, they send a text message to my cell phone, and I call back as soon as I get it.

When you call my firm, you will talk to me, usually right away. You don't talk to a legal assistant, who doesn't really know how things work. And you don't get a computer talking to you, telling you to press 1 for this or 2 for that. I hate that, and I'm sure many clients do too.

Several callers have been surprised when they get to talk to me. I think they're used to calling and not being able to get to talk to the right person. And that's part of what my clients are paying for. The other end is delivering quality work. I take care of things for my clients so they don't have to worry about it. That's why they hire me. And that's why I'm worth what I charge.

The Economics of a Law Practice - Part I - Advertising

One of the things I've long heard about lawyers is that, while we may be good lawyers many of us are not good businessmen. In other words, there are many lawyers who are good at preparing papers and speaking in court, who are not so good at marketing, accounting, budgeting, etc.

I had some bumps along the way. My biggest problem, and it hasn't been too bad, is figuring out where to spend money. Yellow Pages advertising, for example, is very expensive. So are television and radio. I have spent thousands on yellow pages, TV, radio, and other print ads. My general experience so far is that the Yellow Pages are probably worth it, but it's a close call. TV, radio and other print might be worth it, but you have to spend a lot of money. And they're probably only worthwhile for areas of practice where you can get high fees, such as personal injury. When I do that advertising, I tend to shoot for a niche as a Spanish speaking lawyer. But even for that kind of niche, I think I'd have to spend at least $25K/year to establish some degree of brand identity with the target community.

I remember when I did one set of radio ads, I got a lot of calls from Spanish speakers who had a family member in jail. I learned pretty quickly that if they can't afford bail, they can't afford me.

I've found the web to be far more cost effective, at least for me. I'm probably a bit more web-savvy than the typical attorney, so it's a little easier for me. I programmed my own site in html using Netscape Composer. It's not pretty, but it's functional, and somewhat optimized. I also set up my own PPC programs. I spend about $300/month, not counting what I'm spending on a soon to be deployed upgrade to my site. I spent a lot of time getting all that going. In doing so, I learned a lot. I could see someone who is not web-savvy hiring someone, paying them a lot of money, and not getting nearly as much out of it. I've even thought of setting up a side business as a web consultant for lawyers.

The area where the web has generated the most business for me is speeding tickets and other traffic tickets. Most of my clients are from out of the area. They get a ticket as they're driving through. When they get home, they look for a lawyer in this area. They're not going to use the Yellow Pages - because they don't have one from this area. TV and radio ads won't help them either. The internet is the most logical way for them to search for a lawyer.

I can say based on my experience that this area of law probably won't end up with too much competition because the volume of business won't sustain it. I'm getting maybe $1000 - 2000 a month in revenue from traffic tickets. If that were all I did, I'd be starving. It doesn't make much sense for someone else to spend $10K to start competing, if that divides the pool in half.

I do get a few DWI cases off the web, along with other criminal defense and even fewer personal injury cases. Those generate higher fees, but they're not regular revenue.

Some of this is probably specific to the Albany, New York area. I suspect there's more web competition in NYC or LA, etc.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Airline "Accident" case

The word "accident" is in quotes in the title because the meaning of that term is very important in cases against airlines. I discovered this in one of my personal injury cases. I thought I had a simple case of negligence against the airline, on a slip-and-fall. I learned that such matters are governed by the Warsaw Convention and the Montreal Agreement.

Under these rules, damages are capped at $75K and the airline is strictly liable -- if the situation qualifies as an accident. And it turns out that a 2000 decision by the Second Circuit (the federal appellate court over New York, Connecticut, and one or two other states) ruled that it counts as an accident if the "characteristics of air travel increased [the plaintiff's] vulnerability."

In our case, this appears to apply. While I don't like a cap on damages, I very much like the strict liability. Strict liability means that the plaintiff does not have to prove that the defendant airline did anything wrong.

Family Court

When I first opened my practice I did "assigned counsel" work in Family Court in a couple counties. Assigned counsel are assigned by courts to represent indigent people (who can't afford a lawyer) in certain kinds of cases. Family offense petitions in Family Court are an example.

I hated it for a number of reasons, particularly that the work itself is unpleasant, and also because of the billing process. The billing problems were simple. First, the pay was too low. When I started it was paid at $25/hour for out-of-court work, and $40/hour for in-court work. On 1/1/04, the pay went up to $75/hour for most cases for most work. I charge my clients $200/hour. I give breaks in some cases, but almost never to $75/hour. At that point I will sometimes just say forget it - let's do this pro bono.

Second, the billing process was too complex and frustrating. Too many forms to fill out and too many steps in the process of submitting them. I think people who do it a lot get that worked out, but I just didn't like it. I generally charge my clients up front, and keep track of hours and expenses on a simple spreadsheet.

Regarding the work, the participants tend to be more irrational than in any other area of law. I think it's because of the emotions involved. Personal injury clients, defense or plaintiff, never seem to get too upset. Criminal defense clients usually know they're in trouble and they're just hoping you can minimize the damage, or they want to take a shot at trial, but know the risks and accept them. Parents fighting over their kids get extremely upset, irrational and generally disregard the advice of their lawyers.

Also, to a lesser extent, the work is unpleasant because of the quality of the practitioners, with some notable exceptions. They are less likely to return phone calls or respond to a letter. In some sense, they are doing this kind of work because they couldn't get better work. And again, there are exceptions to this.

So since I don't like this area, I figured I could avoid doing such work by charging a high amount up front. Few clients will choose to pay a large sum up front. As an example, for divorce cases I tell people $10,000 up front. That's worked so far. No one has been willing to put that much up - and I'm happy about it. I recommend friends (who are high-quality) who usually charge less up front.

But then there's the problem -- what if someone actually puts up the money? My practice being relatively new, and not having piles of cash around, I have to suck it up and do the work. And hopefully soon I will need money less, and I'll raise the up-front amount even higher. Or I'll hire an associate to handle this area.