Thursday, September 29, 2005

Customer Service

I get so annoyed by the awful state of customer service in today's world of business. You call so many places where the phone is answered by a computer: "Your call is important to us ... Press "1" for blah blah blah ...."

If my call is so important to you, why don't you have a human answer the phone? This irritated me before I opened my practice. I decided it would not be that way with my firm.

Today I called a company that was supposed to send me medical records. They faxed me a mostly incomprehensible document, but in the middle of one page was a short typewritten note, inquiring if I wanted films or film reports.

The sender's name was Tina, and there was a phone number under her name. I called. "Press 4 for a directory of names". I pressed 4. "For Diane, press 701. For Marcie, Press 702. For Linda press 703. For Sandra press 704."

No Tina. I pressed Zero. "That option is invalid."

What kind of business tells a customer that what the customer wants is invalid? If I was speaking to a human, they would never say that. Don't get me wrong, I love computers. But there is one task in this world that they're no good at -- answering the phone. I made a few more efforts to escape the voice jail system, but was unable to get to a person at all.

When you call the Redlich Law Firm, a person answers our phone. 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, weekends, holidays, etc. How'd I do that? I hired an answering service. With current call volume this costs me about $300/month. A decent legal secretary would cost about $4000/month, for 9-5 work with a lunch break, not including weekends.

The answering service forwards calls to me from 7 am to 9 pm every day, including weekends, holidays, vacations, etc. If I'm available I pick up the phone. If not they send a text message to my cell and I get back to the caller quickly.

My clients actually seem to appreciate it.

I suppose there's a downside. I have my cell phone with me all the time. My neighbors were teasing me about it yesterday because I actually left it at home for a half-hour. I get calls at all hours, wherever I am. Personally, this does not bother me, and my wife doesn't complain either. The simple fact is that a typical call is a speeding ticket and means $250 in revenue, and once in a while it's a personal injury case worth thousands.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Palm Treo rant

It appears that Palm will be joining with Microsoft on their next Treo phone. I find this extremely disturbing. I rely heavily on my Treo 600 for my business. I keep my calendar on it. I keep many of my contacts on it. I keep track of my finances on it. I get calls on it. And when I'm not available, my answering service texts my messages to me on it. Oh, and when I'm sitting in Court waiting and I forgot to bring something to read, I play solitaire on it (and when I can't sleep too). I even use it to get on the web and get directions once in a while when I'm lost.

The Treo OS is easily the best phone OS (operating system) out there. I'm addicted to it. When the 600 came out, they had the market in their hands. Everyone who reviewed it knew it. Walter Mossberg, the revered Wall Street Journal columnist, loved it (and I think he still does).

But they came out with it about 3 years ago. Everywhere else in the world of computers and phones, things improve at a rapid rate. Various new models appear, expanding on what's good. Not Palm. They stuck with the 600 with no changes for more than a year. Then they came out with the 650, which was barely an improvement. It actually had the same amount of RAM (memory), only with a LESS efficient filing system so many users suddenly found the new 650 couldn't hold everything they had on their old 600. The only significant improvements were Bluetooth (which allows for wireless headsets) and better camera software (not terribly important since the camera isn't much anyway -- a quarter of a megapixel with no flash). Oh, and the keyboard is supposedly better too. I haven't bothered upgrading to the 650 because it's not enough of an improvement and I can't justify spending an extra $600+ or so for it. I think I'm eligible for a better deal on a new phone through Sprint in a few months, and I'll probably buy the 650 then. I can't see myself buying a Windows phone.

I should mention the one downside of my Treo 600. I'm on my fourth one. The hardware keeps failing, so the phone part stops working right. Not sure if the 650 is any better about that. But they don't make the 600 any more so I'll have to get a 650 before it disappears. Once that dies, we'll see what's out there.

2 1/2 years ago, their management should have figured out they had struck gold, and built on what they had. Make multiple versions of the phone! Build a range from a low-end phone with no camera and relatively less memory, to a high-end phone with tons of memory, a good camera, and an MP3 player (maybe with iTunes), and throw in a pink one for girly-girls (or girly-guys) and maybe a special edition model associated with a rock band (like U2 and the iPod). Oh, but that would be marketing like Apple does. (In another post I'll rave about how much I love Macs -- I haven't even tried an iPod yet.) Hmm. Maybe somehow we can talk Apple into making a smartphone. Steve Jobs would actually know what to do with it. How about Apple buying Palm out? Putting iTunes on a smartphone makes sense because users regularly sync with a desktop, unlike a regular cell phone. Just a dream.

After I got hooked on the Treo 600, I sent a letter to Palm's CEO and COO suggesting something like that, telling them how awesome the Treo 600 was, etc. No response. A customer who paid over $600 for your product sends you a nice letter and you don't even have a college intern write a thank you note?

This company's managers are what's known as "empty suits". They wear nice suits. They probably have great resumes and MBAs from top schools. They seem to know a lot about merging, IPOs, and other arcana in the world of finance, but they don't know jack about running a company, developing a product, or marketing to consumers.

Friday, September 23, 2005

The "First Appearance" and the missing DA

One of the things you learn when you handle speeding tickets and DWI in New York is that some court appearances are a waste of time.

The court date on a New York traffic ticket is generally a first appearance date. Many clients are surprised to hear that the officer does not have to show up on that date. The first appearance is for you to enter a plea. If you plead "not guilty", the Court will set a trial date.

You can plead not guilty by mail, and then you don't have to go to the first appearance date.

Many non-lawyers (and even some lawyers) are under the impression that if the officer doesn't show, the ticket will be dismissed. On a first appearance, the officer does not have to show. Even on a trial date, some courts will not necessarily dismiss a ticket if the officer doesn't show. They might adjourn the case to give the officer another chance to show up. Sometimes another officer appears on behalf of the officer who wrote the ticket. That officer will negotiate a deal for the missing officer. In some courts you can get the ticket dismissed, but some judges will grant an adjournment (and you will probably not get a good deal the next time if you refuse the deal this time). You have to know your courts. Another good reason to hire a lawyer for your speeding ticket.

I encountered another "first appearance" problem this morning. Client was charged with DWI (his BAC was 0.08). I went to make a deal for him (he's out of the country), but there was no Assistant District Attorney -- and therefore no one with whom to make a deal. Most courts meet at night, and this is known as a non-DA night. I guess in this particular Court it was a non-DA morning. So I'm going back on Tuesday to wrap things up.

Of course, I should have called the Court ahead of time to make sure there would be a DA there, but the no-DA thing is pretty rare so I don't usually worry about it.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Figuring out the comment thing

Tough thing about blogging is whether or not to allow comments. You don't want unfriendly comments, and you don't want "spam" comments (comments generated by computer, usually for SEO purposes). On typepad you can require comments to get your approval first. Blogger doesn't do that, but at least it has a word verification box (hard for computers to do) and it does notify you when you get comments.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Youth discrimination

I have a little chip on my shoulder about societal discrimination against young people. I was 18 when the NY drinking age went to 19, and was 19 when it went to 21. So I was illegal, then legal, then illegal, then legal, then illegal and finally legal again.

I see these issues now in my work. Police to some extent target young people for traffic stops. Today I got a proposed plea agreement on a traffic ticket, and the DA specifically mentioned that my client is under 21 in offering a plea that is not as good as I would usually get.

There are a variety of other concerns -- the age of consent, emancipation rights, and even larger issues such as abortion and social security are relevant because they have a disproportionate impact on younger people (not many 45-year-olds get abortions; those of us under 40 doubt we will ever get Social Security benefits; etc.).

So I'm trying to get a new political party started: The Youth Party. I figure the main issue early on would be the drinking age, as that issue should be popular on college campuses. There are larger issues, but this one should be a consensus.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

The Albany NY area

It occurred to me that some readers might not know much about the Albany area. It is also known as the "Capital Region" of New York State. Albany is the NY state capital.

Other major cities in this part of NY include Schenectady, Troy, and Saratoga Springs. Smaller cities in the vicinity include Amsterdam, Gloversville, Johnstown, Cohoes, Watervliet, Rensselaer, and Hudson.

There are also some large towns. The population of Colonie NY is almost as large as the city of Albany. Others include Guilderland (my hometown), Clifton Park, Bethlehem, Niskayuna, Rotterdam, and ... well that list could get long.

There's a lot of history around. There's also some very pleasant places. Lake George is gorgeous year-round and quite popular in the summer. Saratoga Springs is also very popular. Both are perhaps playgrounds for the rich from downstate New York. The Hudson and Mohawk rivers are quite beautiful, if you ask me.

One of my favorite spots is John Boyd Thacher State Park. It has a trail called the "Indian Ladder Trail". You walk down a lot of stairs and then along the bottom of a big cliff. Along the way, if conditions are right, you see some very impressive waterfalls.

All in all, a nice place to live. It can be a tough sell as place to visit. But when my friends do visit and I show them these places, they do seem to like it.

Lawyer websites and SEO

If any lawyers are reading this post, I can see them scratching their heads at the term "SEO". It stands for "Search Engine Optimization". Okay, they're still scratching their heads, and I guess most non-lawyers are too.

Since I opened my practice about 2 1/2 years ago, I have worked on my law firm website. I've worked to improve the content so prospective clients will find it informative. I'm working (with professional help) on the design so that it will be prettier and therefore more professional, giving a sense of credibility. The actual design goal is to make it reassuring. You can see one version of that design at a new variation of the site we've been working on:

But the biggest thing about making a law firm website effective for bringing in business is making it so that potential clients find your site. I do PPC (pay-per-click) advertising, and that helps. But SEO is the big thing. This involves many factors. I'm happy to say that what I'm doing seems to be working. My main site now ranks well on a variety of searches. I'm referring not to where I rank on "sponsored links", but in the "organic" search results. I'm doing better and better in those results.

I have continued to work on improving my site and other factors for SEO. It recently has come to my attention that other lawyers in the community have noticed. A couple of lawyers mentioned it to me in the last week or so. If they have noticed, then many other lawyers have probably noticed also.

And that's why you can't sit on your heels. The odds are that someone will try to outdo me on this. I'm fortunate in that I have a pretty good head-start. Also, I've been on the internet since 1988 -- before there was a world wide web. I know how to code in html and until recently I've done most of my own stuff. But I can't rest on my laurels because others will try to do better. If they succeed, my rankings might go lower.

So I'm working on further improvements to my site, and doing a variety of other things so that I not only maintain where I am but improve if possible.

For now most of the competition here is not from lawyers or law firms, but from lawyer directories and other such things. I figure that the directories will take their share of clients, and that's fine. For people who are looking for a lawyer whose site has substance, I should continue to do well.

The reality is that there isn't really a number 1 position on the web. As long as you're on the first page you'll be okay.

The other thing is that there may not be enough business on the web to justify having 20 firms fighting over the business. The revenue I'm generating is still not enough to really sustain a small law firm. If 20 law firms were fighting over that business, each would end up spending much more than I'm spending now and no one would make money on it because the pot would be divided 20 ways.

I get calls all the time from the directory sites trying to sell me a position in their directory. Sometimes it's an exclusive listing -- you'll be their only lawyer in that topic for that county. Sometimes it will be one of three or four lawyers in that topic in that county. It always costs a lot more than what I'm spending, and I suspect that the revenue will be less than what I'm generating.

DWI and Revocation in New York

I got a call Friday and it's a somewhat sad case. The client got his second DWI. His first was earlier this year. In New York, if you get two DWIs (including DWAI) in five years, your license will be revoked for 6 months, and there's virtually no chance at a conditional license during the revocation period. Especially, as in this case, when the second DWI comes so close after the first one.

Without a conditional license, life can be very, very hard in upstate New York. Downstate, there's a lot of public transportation, especially in NYC. Upstate you either have to live very close to where you work, or you will not be able to keep your job. If you have to drive for your job, it's over.

This client lives 40 minutes drive from his job. My advice: start looking for an apartment near your office now. The best we can hope for in this case is to hope and pray we can get a deal that reduces it to DWAI, which is a violation and not a misdemeanor (and therefore not a crime). The client's BAC was fairly low (.12). Maybe, if we agree to counseling and some other measures, just maybe, we can get that kind of a deal. The other big deal about getting the DWAI is in case there's a third DWI. If this one stays a DWI misdemeanor, the next one's a felony. That's where it gets really bad.

The alternative is to try to fight the charge. This gets very expensive, and the odds are generally not good. Some judges at least appear to find the police credible, even more so than may be accurate. And of course, the police often are credible. The consequences of losing a DWI case at trial are generally more severe than making a deal. Jail time becomes a significant possibility. Since it looks like the client will not lose his job by taking a deal, he's probably better off that way, and sucking it up without driving for 6 months.

I talk to my DWI clients quite a bit about their circumstances. Even though I don't drink and drive (I rarely drink), I feel the penalties are too severe for relatively low level offenders like this client.

Some of my advice - for the first-DWI offenders:
#1: If you know you're going out drinking, have a plan for how you're getting home.

#2: If you find yourself out drinking, and you don't have a plan, or your plan fell through, call a cab. Have the numbers of 3 cab companies in your wallet. Yes, a cab can be expensive, but almost always less than $100. A first NY DWI will cost you ~$5000, and as we can see from this case, the second is much worse.

#3: I encourage them to consider alcohol counseling. I can't say whether someone has a drinking problem - I don't have the expertise. But I can say for sure that they have a driving problem. If they do have an alcohol problem, they should look into it.

For other blogs generally commenting on DWI and revocation in other states, see:
Say Anything and
Defend DWI Missouri

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Dealing with police

I did a post in July about dealing with police. A couple days ago I received the "Busted" DVD from Overall I thought it was good. I recommend it highly, but I would encourage anyone to seem apologetic and/or demonstrate a very mild sense of humor with police, rather than being stiff as depicted in the video.

When you're asked if you've been drinking in a traffic stop, you can just say no. Alternatively, you might say "I'm sorry officer, but my lawyer told me never to answer a question like that."

When they ask to search your vehicle, you say "I'm sorry officer, but my lawyer told me never to let anyone search my car."

Just a thought.

Possession of marijuana -- unlawful or criminal

Note: Our office handles marijuana possession cases.
I appeared with a young client this week who was charged with Criminal Possession of Marijuana (CPM). In NY, 25 grams or less is unlawful possession of marijuana (UPM), a violation. This client had 29 grams, which makes it a misdemeanor -- a crime. 29 grams is about an ounce.

With UPM, it's common to get the charge resolved with an ACOD - adjournment in contemplation of dismissal. There's a specific statute authorizing ACODs for UPM. But this client was 4 grams over that. You hope for a sensible DA who will agree to resolve the CPM with an ACOD. Unfortunately it can be tough to find sensible DAs.

In this case we resolved it with a Disorderly Conduct (DisCon) violation. Client paid a fine of about $200. At least he has no crime on his record, and no drug charge to affect financial aid.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Blawg of the Day!!

Got a mention as "Blawg of the Day" for this blog on The Inter-Alia blog. The specific post is here.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Criminal Lawyers

There's been some local press lately about one of our judges, and some other issues relating to criminal cases. A few of our local lawyers have been in the press about these issues.

I did my first day of service on Grand Jury today, and that prompted some thoughts that are keeping me from sleeping, which is usually a good excuse to blog.

It is common to see criminal defense lawyers in the press criticizing the prosecution system as being unduly harsh. I suspect the initial reaction of most readers/viewers is to assume that the defense lawyer is biased. But common sense says otherwise. As defense lawyers, we are more in demand when there is more and harsher prosecution. That is, the harsher the system is, the more money we make.

And yet we still speak out, against our financial interest. We should be biased in favor of more prosecution. So why do we speak out?

We speak out because the system is too harsh, and too rigid. A simple example of this is the enforcement of speed limits. As a speeding ticket lawyer in Albany, NY, most of the tickets I see are on the interstate highways. These are divided highways with limited access (i.e. few exits and entrances). They are inherently safer than regular roads. In Europe speed limits are generally not enforced and it is common for people to go 100 mph. In Germany, parts of the Autobahn have no speed limit. And the fatality rate on the Autobahn is lower than on American highways.

Meanwhile speed limits in residential neighborhoods are generally 30 mph, and are enforced less. These are among the most dangerous roads because collisions between pedestrians and cars cause very severe injuries.

I would gladly trade all of my traffic ticket revenue for the freedom to drive at speeds I consider safe and appropriate on interstate highways. I would be even happier if those highway patrols would spend their time enforcing traffic rules where they matter most - where pedestrians are present.

Along the same lines, traffic courts are not terribly fair to the defendant in my experience. Your chances of beating a speeding ticket in court are very small, even if you are actually innocent. I suspect most of my clients are probably guilty (and most of them admit it), but some are adamant that they are innocent and I have to explain the odds of success and the additional cost and difficulty for them of going to trial.

Our society's approach to DWI is also off. Police stop people with little or no reason, subject them to a variety of tests, and charge them with DWI or DWAI for blood alcohol content levels that I personally consider not dangerous. I do not blame the police for this, by the way. They have difficult jobs and they are following our orders.

Blood alcohol levels generally range from 0.00 to maybe 0.30 or a little higher. My personal view is that levels below 0.10 are not really that dangerous. At around 0.15 it starts to get bad. But current DWI law makes 0.05 a DWAI, and 0.08 a DWI (which is more severe). The major problem is that the penalty for a first-time DWAI is very, very harsh. It will probably cost the defendant as much as $5000 in total costs, including lawyer's fees, fines, surcharges, time, and particularly in increased insurance rates.

Meanwhile if you whack someone over the head with a pool cue in a bar fight, you'll probably be able to plead to a disorderly conduct violation, pay a $200 fine, and you're done. I think the bar fight is worse.

These are some fairly random thoughts. I'll hopefully come up with more in the future. I'd like to write about my Grand Jury experience, but the rules are pretty restrictive about that so I'll wait until I know more about what I can say.