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Defence Lawyer in Sole Practice - Ask Me Anything


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Diplock
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Thank you for taking the time to share your knowledge and experience with the forum community!

Hi all

I did an AMA some time ago and there was quite a lot of information there. But rather than simply link to it - I think someone saved it - I figured I'd give this new forum a chance to create new content. Because quite honestly, I've been doing this longer now, my observations and experiences have evolved, and I probably wouldn't say things the same way anymore.

By way of introduction, I practice criminal defence in Toronto, with some related sub-specialties. I have a couple employees now, and I've been in sole practice for about six years. I was doing other things for some years prior and I'm about a ten year call now. I'd describe myself as content with my career and not at all looking to get away from it, though there are certainly things I'd do differently if I were starting over - and also things I somehow got away with and which worked for me but which, in good conscience, I could never recommend as good ideas for anyone else trying to follow.

There are other criminal practitioners here with quite a lot of experience and they are welcome to answer questions and participate also. Even people with less experience (more recent calls) and Crowns and such are welcome to answer questions. There may be experiences I can't adequately capture now (what it's like to start during a pandemic, for example) or what it's like to work as duty counsel or on the other side. Certainly I welcome a range of perspectives.

But anyway, ask me anything. I can't promise all answers will receive replies, particularly those that get wildly off topic or are too specific to my circumstances. But I'll try to answer anything I can, and explain why I'm not answering anything else.

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LMP
  • Law Student
4 minutes ago, Diplock said:

Snip

Thanks for doing this! Looking forward to a great thread.

1. When it comes to building a clientele I imagine word of mouth trumps anything else. How did you successfully build your practice to the point where clients came to you? 

 

2. When it comes to things like securing payment for your work, how do you ensure you'll get your money? Do you typically have clients give you a deposit of some kind? Or is most of your work through legal aid and other means? 

 

3. I've heard that a fair number of defense lawyers sort of double dip, practicing in another area in addition to defense. While I won't ask you to identify if you do this, do you find this is pretty par for the course? And if so would you advise it as a way to supplement the traditionally lower earnings lawyers start off with in defense? 

 

4. When it comes to defense I find that most pactioners are solo or quickly go solo. Is it uncommon to join a defense firm? Does the defense world have the sort of "top" firms you hear about in areas like corporate and litigation?

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Whist
  • Law Student

Thanks Diplock!

1. What would you say the ratio is of court to non-court time in your workweek? (Or if it's not a weekly thing, monthly.)

2. Is it unusual or common for people in this area to have both Crown and defence experience? Or is it more so that Crown counsel usually has defence experience and not the other way around?

3. Are there any significant differences for crim practice between provinces, to your knowledge (or if any other crim practitioners here can add)? 

4. You mentioned you were doing other things for awhile before. How much mobility would there be between areas of law - or rather, which other areas would translate well, if any?

5. How many years did it take for you to start feeling like you knew what you were doing?

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StephenToast
  • Law Student
2 hours ago, Diplock said:

[...]though there are certainly things I'd do differently if I were starting over - and also things I somehow got away with and which worked for me but which, in good conscience, I could never recommend as good ideas for anyone else trying to follow.

[...]

What would you have done differently?

 

By the way, the old AMA thread was archived by the waybackmachine but has since been removed. No idea why, but as far as I know, there are no longer a publically available backup of that thread,

Edited by StephenToast
adding info about the old thread
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Diplock
  • Lawyer
3 hours ago, Renerik said:

Do you pack lunch or eat out on an average work day?

Well, to give the pre-pandemic answer, when I was going to court or away from home/office for the day I would generally eat out. I have fairly trashy, fast food habits so lunch at the Timmies or whatever isn't necessarily too expensive. Though it's obviously more expensive and bad for the diet than packing a lunch, which would really be a far better habit.

Since the pandemic, I rarely go anywhere at all. Even the large majority of court appearances are over zoom. So I prepare food at home quite naturally. I actually eat better during the pandemic and I've lost weight as a result. Note, I rarely head into the office because working from there is no more convenient than working from home anymore, though I do still have office space outside my home for complex reasons.

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Diplock
  • Lawyer
3 hours ago, LMP said:

Thanks for doing this! Looking forward to a great thread.

1. When it comes to building a clientele I imagine word of mouth trumps anything else. How did you successfully build your practice to the point where clients came to you?

  

There's so much more to this question than you've even literally asked. So let me back it up a stage. My personal view is that there are two kinds of client bases in criminal law. Actually we could cut it up lots of ways, but here's the division I find useful in the moment. There's clients who get in trouble a lot and hang out with people who get in trouble a lot. And then there's clients who rarely interact with the justice system and who probably don't know anyone else who does. I'll answer your real question in a moment, but let's talk about the second type for a moment.

If you're talking about clients who rarely get arrested and probably don't know people who do, I think word of mouth is far less important. That's why lawyers advertise in relation to impaired driving, for example. It isn't just a lucrative area of law - it's also an area that caters to a client base of otherwise (usually) respectable people who don't get arrested regularly. I think attracting this base of clients is very different, and probably doesn't rely as much on word of mouth. Though that isn't my practice, personally, and it's mainly a theory I have.

For the rest, absolutely, word of mouth is very important. The only real way I know to build a reputation is to do the job well. Sometimes all it gets you is the satisfaction of knowing you did the job well, and no one else particularly cares or remembers. But sometimes that client you served well knows a dozen other people they keep sending your way. I was recently called by a client I hadn't served in years. I have at least two large circles of loosely connected clients who call me, and I suspect I am fairly well known within a particular gang that will go unnamed here. You do the job well and word gets around.

The main advice I'd give to new lawyers trying to make a name for themselves is this. Your advantage is time. When you aren't busy, you can do things that other lawyers have just become too busy or too lazy or just frankly too smart to do anymore (because if you do these things forever, you'll kill yourself). I remember showing up at the police station when a client got arrested - someone who I knew was a client I wanted to keep happy. Showing up at a police station is completely useless. There was fuck all I could do there that I couldn't do on the phone. But it blew the guy's mind I showed up and he told all his friends. So to the extra mile, before you get too busy or too tired or just too smart to keep doing it.

 

3 hours ago, LMP said:

2. When it comes to things like securing payment for your work, how do you ensure you'll get your money? Do you typically have clients give you a deposit of some kind? Or is most of your work through legal aid and other means?

 

Well, the convenient thing about Legal Aid is that you do know you're getting paid after the job is done, at least. Unless billing somehow screws with you, which is more common than it should be. For everything else, you get your money at some point in advance and you put it in a trust account until you've earned it. That's what the trust account is for. I do know lawyers who try collecting for their work after the job is already done. Very, very rarely I still put myself in that position, for whatever exceptional reason happens to apply. But generally speaking, if you do the work first and then try to get paid afterwards, you're just asking for grief.

 

3 hours ago, LMP said:

3. I've heard that a fair number of defense lawyers sort of double dip, practicing in another area in addition to defense. While I won't ask you to identify if you do this, do you find this is pretty par for the course? And if so would you advise it as a way to supplement the traditionally lower earnings lawyers start off with in defense?

 

I certainly do know lawyers who do criminal defence and whatever. When I started out, I took almost anything that came to me and that included a scattering of random stuff I'd never choose to do again now. I don't know if I'd recommend adding another practice area entirely. For those who work in two areas, criminal law seems to combine well with family and immigration. The nature of the practices may be very different, but the client base can be similar.

I don't know that I'd advise this as a way to deal with lower earnings, especially if taken as a temporary issue. The lawyers I know who end up making good money in criminal law obviously only do crim - and they got there by only doing crim.

I'd almost suggest that if you want to do more than just criminal law, trying to add or specialize in something broadly under the rubric of criminal law would be the better way to go. Something like appeals, mental health, youth, etc. It doesn't give you a whole other client base, necessarily, but it does suggest you can stand out as being someone especially versed in at least something, as opposed to being just another criminal defence lawyer trying to compete with more established practitioners.

 

3 hours ago, LMP said:

4. When it comes to defense I find that most practitioners are solo or quickly go solo. Is it uncommon to join a defense firm? Does the defense world have the sort of "top" firms you hear about in areas like corporate and litigation?

 

You're certainly right that most defence lawyers go solo quickly. I have only my own opinions about why that is, but roughly speaking it would come down to this. There are certainly some larger and better known defence firms out there, but by "larger" I mean a dozen or two lawyers, maybe topping out at 30. There's nothing like a bay street model where there's a clear path to partnership. And the number of firms out there where being an associate at the firm is some kind of career achievement, by itself, could probably be counted on one hand. So think about where that leaves someone trying to build a career in this field. There's nowhere you want to stay as an associate, really, and no clear way to ever become a partner. Leaving aside a few quirky exceptions where something works out and you are invited to partner somehow with a mentor or something, that leaves going sole.

It's not uncommon for newer lawyers to look for associate positions at the defence firms that do have a fair supply of business and the need to recruit and replace associates semi-regularly. I suppose a few of them could reasonably be considered "top" positions, even - though I wouldn't dare attempt a ranking or even a vague list of who belongs at the top. But the main thing is, even at these places, it's usually a transition to setting up for yourself rather than being invited to join as an equity partner.

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PulpFiction
  • Lawyer

Appreciate you creating a thread like this.

Does it make sense for someone interested in criminal defence to open up their own office in this current market/covid situation? From what I understand, criminal defence seems to be an area where it's a natural step to set up shop immediately after getting called. I encounter many, many defence counsel who have set up immediately after getting licensed. Due to covid and the potentially permanent use of Zoom for certain court matters, there's limited time in court to interact with lawyers or demonstrate competence that'll be noticed (for potential referrals) or stumble across a potential client. Is it still worth it? Or would you suggest working for someone for a while, first? 

A bit about me:

-GTA market 

-Articled in criminal defence for a very experienced defence lawyer 

-No debt + enough capital to set up shop and cover associated expenses + can handle a couple years of losses as a worst case

-Decent criminal law experience through law school/articling - enough to know how to handle a file from start to finish (and I've done so for many files) 

-Confidence in court. Not sure why, but I'm not complaining. 

My main concern is attracting clients. I don't know what to do other than renting office space in chambers and hoping senior counsel hands me their less-lucrative/desirable files. Or that my former boss sends similar files my way. I also don't know if working for someone and then setting up my own practice will solve this client problem. I figure if I do good work for clients while working for a firm, I might have some clients contact me later, but it's also probably as likely they'd just go back to the firm and hire the more experienced lawyer.

Thoughts? 

 

Edited by PulpFiction
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CleanHands
  • Articling Student

@Diplock Thanks for doing this. This is going to be a very basic, simple and stupid question. But I thought about it and I think if I tried to be more specific I might narrow the answer you have to give and miss out on useful information (assume I don't know anything here and you probably won't be too far off). So here it is: when a fairly new call with some criminal law experience wants to hang their own shingle, what do they need to do to make that happen? What steps need to be taken? What steps should be taken? I know it's the traditional crim defence path but it's daunting and certainly not something they teach in law school.

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LMP
  • Law Student
14 minutes ago, Diplock said:

 Snip

Fantastic, thanks so much for your responses. This thread really hammer home the value of a forum like this. 

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Diplock
  • Lawyer
2 hours ago, Liavas said:

Thanks Diplock!

1. What would you say the ratio is of court to non-court time in your workweek? (Or if it's not a weekly thing, monthly.)

 

Ugg. That's hard to define. If "court time" includes only literally being in Court and addressing a presiding justice - or waiting to do so - I'd say actual court time could be as low as 10-20% of my time in some weeks. It would have been somewhat higher pre-pandemic if we included travelling to court. If I'm in a trial, that can shoot way up of course. But bear in mind we all spend a lot of time doing stuff that's absolutely lawyer-stuff just not literally in court. We're reviewing disclosure, talking with our clients, negotiating with Crowns, etc. That stuff doesn't happen literally in court, but it's core lawyering work so I wouldn't want you to imagine the rest of boring administrative stuff.

 

2 hours ago, Liavas said:

2. Is it unusual or common for people in this area to have both Crown and defence experience? Or is it more so that Crown counsel usually has defence experience and not the other way around?

 

I think this varies a bit by province and perhaps by region. Certainly in Ontario many Crowns have always been Crowns and nothing else, while some have defence experience. They tend to be the better ones. 😃  Some defence have Crown experience also, so it can work both ways. But I'd say it's probably the majority of both who have never, for whatever reason, done the other side.

 

2 hours ago, Liavas said:

3. Are there any significant differences for crim practice between provinces, to your knowledge (or if any other crim practitioners here can add)?

 

Well, criminal law is federal, so the literal law itself is the same between provinces. But I do believe there are significant differences in terms of the organization of the Courts, certain practices, how Legal Aid is arranged, etc. Most of it is stuff I've only heard of and said "huh" to at times. For example, I believe until very recently in Alberta bail hearings were run, on behalf of the Crown, by police officers. That's just bonkers nuts in my experience. But I don't have a list of differences at my fingertips. It's more that when someone describes a practice that's alien to my experience, it tends to stick on my brain.

 

2 hours ago, Liavas said:

4. You mentioned you were doing other things for awhile before. How much mobility would there be between areas of law - or rather, which other areas would translate well, if any?

  

Anything with litigation would be good experience. Also anything where you get to use evidence in any sense, such as civil. Or anything where you're serving a client base of individuals rather than entities. I mean, there's translation in terms of doing the work itself, and then there's translation in terms of just keeping clients happy long enough to get good at it. Those are potentially very different skills, but I guess both are useful.

The thing about criminal defence is this. Anyone can do it if you can attract a sufficient base of clients to keep busy. And if you're willing to take Legal Aid clients, and go the extra mile to keep the clients that you do have happy (see above) you can probably stay busy enough to make a go of it. So if you're talking about what it takes to just get into criminal defence and stay in it successfully, it's far more important to be able to bring in and keep client than it is to know anything. And I know that's a terrifying admission. But despite the high stakes in this game, it really is a learn-as-you-go area of law for many people in it. Me included.

 

2 hours ago, Liavas said:

5. How many years did it take for you to start feeling like you knew what you were doing?

 

Somewhere in my old AMA, I answered a question in 2016 when I indicated I felt truly comfortable doing my job about 20% of the time. Probably now it's more like 60-70%. There's no one moment it all comes clear. We're always learning something new. Just a couple days ago I had a screwy question I didn't know the answer to, and neither did the Crown I was working with, and I asked three colleagues and they all gave different answers. It feels nice to do something and to know exactly how to do it. The overall percentage of time you spend doing stuff that feels that way creeps up over time. But there's never a specific break point. And there's always something new you don't know.

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Diplock
  • Lawyer
1 hour ago, StephenToast said:

What would you have done differently?

 

By the way, the old AMA thread was archived by the waybackmachine but has since been removed. No idea why, but as far as I know, there are no longer a publically available backup of that thread,

 

Okay, I was going to try to duck around this, but since you've asked directly I'll answer. As noted, I was doing other things for a while, and I got back into criminal defence in late 2014 early 2015. It was always what I wanted to do on some level, since law school, but I hadn't had any exposure to it in years and very little practical experience. Nevertheless, when I decided to return to it, as a called lawyer, I just decided one day I was a criminal defence lawyer. Got myself a business number, empaneled with Legal Aid, printed some business cards, and just started calling myself a criminal defence lawyer. That's all it took.

Looking back at the things I didn't know when I started is frankly fucking terrifying. And it only becomes more so each year. Thankfully, I had offices with other criminal defence lawyers who actually knew what they were doing, and by spreading around my stupid questions I avoided burdening any one person too much by asking them to hold my hand through everything. But almost everything I did required hand-holding on some level, and learning as I went. Thankfully, I can't recall any situation where something I didn't know really cost my client in a meaningful way, or put my own professional standing at risk. But the only reason that's true is because I had the right people around me, I asked many, many stupid questions, and I got lucky.

I wrestle with this issue all the time, because I don't believe in preaching exceptionalism. I don't want to be that guy lecturing young lawyers about how it's irresponsible for them to do exactly what I did - especially since it worked for me, and I have an established practice now. But quite honestly, if I met someone now doing exactly what I did those six or seven yeas back, and if I figured out how little they actually knew about what they were doing, I'd be horrified. Then probably I'd help them avoid obvious mistakes if only to protect their poor clients. And maybe that's part of the reason the lawyers around me kept patiently answering my stupid-ass questions.

Edited by Diplock
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realpseudonym
  • Lawyer
1 minute ago, Diplock said:

Thankfully, I had offices with other criminal defence lawyers who actually knew what they were doing, and by spreading around my stupid questions I avoided burdening any one person too much by asking them to hold my hand through everything. But almost everything I did required hand-holding on some level, and learning as I went. Thankfully, I can't recall any situation where something I didn't know really cost my client in a meaningful way, or put my own professional standing at risk. But the only reason that's true is because I had the right people around me, I asked many, many stupid questions, and I got lucky.

Getting into chambers/offices with good lawyers you can trust is probably the best thing you can do for yourself as an inexperienced solo practitioner. It's something I benefit from literally everyday, and is probably the only reason I haven't ruined anyone's life yet. 

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Renerik
  • Law School Admit

Not interested in solo practice but my god do you ever have a way with words!

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Diplock
  • Lawyer
2 hours ago, PulpFiction said:

Appreciate you creating a thread like this.

Does it make sense for someone interested in criminal defence to open up their own office in this current market/covid situation? From what I understand, criminal defence seems to be an area where it's a natural step to set up shop immediately after getting called. I encounter many, many defence counsel who have set up immediately after getting licensed. Due to covid and the potentially permanent use of Zoom for certain court matters, there's limited time in court to interact with lawyers or demonstrate competence that'll be noticed (for potential referrals) or stumble across a potential client. Is it still worth it? Or would you suggest working for someone for a while, first? 

A bit about me:

-GTA market 

-Articled in criminal defence for a very experienced defence lawyer 

-No debt + enough capital to set up shop and cover associated expenses + can handle a couple years of losses as a worst case

-Decent criminal law experience through law school/articling - enough to know how to handle a file from start to finish (and I've done so for many files) 

-Confidence in court. Not sure why, but I'm not complaining. 

My main concern is attracting clients. I don't know what to do other than renting office space in chambers and hoping senior counsel hands me their less-lucrative/desirable files. Or that my former boss sends similar files my way. I also don't know if working for someone and then setting up my own practice will solve this client problem. I figure if I do good work for clients while working for a firm, I might have some clients contact me later, but it's also probably as likely they'd just go back to the firm and hire the more experienced lawyer.

Thoughts? 

 

This is a good one.

I seems like a lot has changed during this pandemic, but I also wonder if much has changed at all. In the GTA, certainly, there was at least the potential to pick up clients in court while you were there. I commented at length on this in the past, because it's kind of a dicey topic by itself. Some lawyers actively solicit clients in the hallways, but this practice is (a) outright prohibited in some courts, and (b) frowned upon at the best of times. It does have a used car salesman quality to it that's a bit beneath the dignity of the profession. Now I have acquired clients simply because I was in a court hallway wearing a suit. And perhaps I don't remember anymore how much of that early business I obtained that way, but it doesn't seem like it was the majority.

One other major way you can obtain business starting out is simply by letting as many busy lawyers as you can know that you're willing to take absolutely anything they don't want to do off their hands. Every established lawyer gets calls from clients who are obviously more trouble than they're worth. Often these are clients with Legal Aid matters that aren't going to get sorted easily. Sometimes it's private clients who can't come up with much but can come up with something. Or sometimes those lawyers will have discrete work they need done without actually giving you the client. Regardless, it's work. Do it well, and more comes your way.

Really what I'm thinking is this. There's a base of clients out there who need to find a lawyer and don't know how. Anyone looking for the guy in the suit standing around in the court hallway is still looking for a lawyer. They're just not doing it the same way. I don't know for sure how you connect with those clients now. Network with anyone who might be in a position to refer, obviously. Make sure they know you'll help anyone who needs it. Officially organizations can't refer to specific lawyers. But sometimes a social worker or a frontline employee in some position might send work your way anyway. They'd consider it a favor to the client to do so, and often it is if they wouldn't know how to find a lawyer otherwise.

I'm sure times have changed but sometimes things don't change as much as they seem. So yeah. Rent space in chambers and then hustle your ass until you're busy. Then when you're busy but still not making too much money - which will happen - your next problem will be how to work better, smarter, more efficiently, and how to attract better-paying work. Which is probably a never-ending cycle that I'm still in myself. But getting to that first point...it's still the same thing. Just with less hallways.

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Diplock
  • Lawyer
2 hours ago, CleanHands said:

@Diplock Thanks for doing this. This is going to be a very basic, simple and stupid question. But I thought about it and I think if I tried to be more specific I might narrow the answer you have to give and miss out on useful information (assume I don't know anything here and you probably won't be too far off). So here it is: when a fairly new call with some criminal law experience wants to hang their own shingle, what do they need to do to make that happen? What steps need to be taken? What steps should be taken? I know it's the traditional crim defence path but it's daunting and certainly not something they teach in law school.

Let me give you the best, all purpose advice that I can. And then I'll try to add a few specifics, but everything really falls under the larger umbrella. And it's based on this generalization. No matter what I suggest here, I'll be leaving all kinds of things out. Either things I've forgotten, or things that seem obvious to me but aren't to you, or less common issues that turn out to matter in your case, or things that come up quickly and change. All kinds of crap will come up. You deal with it as it happens.

So first, the catch-all advice. Make a list of everyone you know who can answer stupid questions for you and help you. And yes, I can be on that list as can others on this forum. Now be sure to spread out your questions enough different places so that no one person either (a) feels completely sick of you and gets the idea they are holding your hand through life, or (b) ends up feeling you really are as ignorant as you may be. As things come up, ask everyone you need to ask. And if you're still confused, ask someone else the same question, hopefully from a slightly more informed basis thanks to the last answer. Repeat.

In terms of things you absolutely need to do sooner rather than later, you need to register your business to get an HST number and that should happen first because it takes a bit. Then you want to get empaneled with Legal Aid so you can accept certificates. They'll want the HST number, which is why the other thing comes first. Then you'll want clients to be able to contact you so, you know, a phone line, business cards, etc. You should probably have a website, though many criminal lawyers don't. If you're going to have one, my advise is that it shouldn't suck but also shouldn't have dynamic content (a blog you need to update, social media plug ins, etc.) unless you are really really sure you'll keep them fresh. Better to have something static and presentable than something that looks abandoned.

As for the rest - see above. I do believe it's valuable to be in chambers to start, but obviously that adds overhead. It's a choice. But other than that, you've covered the minimum already.

Oh, and you'll need a fax number. Yeah, I'm not kidding. There are companies out there that will do a virtual fax and it comes to your email as an attachment. You don't really need an old-style fax machine to have a fax number. But you'll still both send and receive stuff using it. Consider wrapping that service up with any business phone you use.

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Goblin King
  • Law Student

Hi Diplock, 

I’m attending law school in the fall, so I don’t have much skin in the game here, but I’d be interested to get an employer’s perspective on how students (summer and articling) and new calls can sell themselves to sole practitioners. In what situations are these inexperienced people useful to a relatively experienced sole who may be expanding their practice? 

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realpseudonym
  • Lawyer
10 hours ago, Diplock said:

As for the rest - see above. I do believe it's valuable to be in chambers to start, but obviously that adds overhead. It's a choice. But other than that, you've covered the minimum already.

 

When to go into chambers is kind of a chicken or an egg thing. How will I get referrals and support? Go into chambers. How will I afford that? You'll need referrals to pay the bills and support to make sure you're doing the work properly. How will I get referrals and support? Go into ch...

I think it's probably good to build up a bit of a client base through networking. And then after a couple of months, when you're (hopefully) getting paid on your first round of billing and (hopefully) have more new business coming in, then you take on more overhead like chambers. Agency work for other lawyers can be helpful for generating revenue a little faster, because some lawyers will pay an agent right away, so there might be less of a wait than there would with one's own files.   

I went a couple of months without being in physical office space (I had a mailing address at another office, but wasn't paying for the space). Then I subletted an office in chambers (which became more of a thing during the pandemic) and used it on evenings and weekends when the lawyer wasn't there before eventually renting my own office in chambers.

There are also virtual chambers, where you're paying for an address, board room usage etc, but don't have your own office or desk. I've never done it, but others do as an interim step. 

 

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LMP
  • Law Student
31 minutes ago, realpseudonym said:

When to go into chambers is kind of a chicken or an egg thing. How will I get referrals and support? Go into chambers. How will I afford that? You'll need referrals to pay the bills and support to make sure you're doing the work properly. How will I get referrals and support? Go into ch...

I think it's probably good to build up a bit of a client base through networking. And then after a couple of months, when you're (hopefully) getting paid on your first round of billing and (hopefully) have more new business coming in, then you take on more overhead like chambers. Agency work for other lawyers can be helpful for generating revenue a little faster, because some lawyers will pay an agent right away, so there might be less of a wait than there would with one's own files.   

I went a couple of months without being in physical office space (I had a mailing address at another office, but wasn't paying for the space). Then I subletted an office in chambers (which became more of a thing during the pandemic) and used it on evenings and weekends when the lawyer wasn't there before eventually renting my own office in chambers.

There are also virtual chambers, where you're paying for an address, board room usage etc, but don't have your own office or desk. I've never done it, but others do as an interim step. 

 

For those of us who may not know, could you explain a bit what "chambers" are? 

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PulpFiction
  • Lawyer
37 minutes ago, realpseudonym said:

.

 

Did you start your own practice right after getting called? 

In your experience, does the chambers set up actually result in referrals from other lawyers and some sort of mentorship/support when needed? In terms of support, I don't mean handholding as if I were their articling student, but more so having a group of more experienced lawyers to bounce a question off of here and there so I don't completely screw things up. 

Also, in terms of cashflow/billings and ability to cover overhead - what if I was in a financial position to cover overhead but don't have a client base? Do you think it's still advisable to pay for space in chambers for the referral/support benefit while building the client base? 

I don't want to look like a complete jackass, renting expensive office space with no clients. But if there's benefit from doing it, I can certainly eat the cost and afford some losses while building my practice. Thoughts? 

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PulpFiction
  • Lawyer
15 minutes ago, LMP said:

For those of us who may not know, could you explain a bit what "chambers" are? 

Someone correct me if I'm wrong, but from my understanding and the way I've used the word, it's a shared office space. You rent an office under the same roof as other lawyers, with the expectation that you'll reduce overhead on things like reception/administration by sharing the expense, while having senior counsel close by to potentially offer support and referrals. 

edit: I shouldn't say the expectation is there will be senior lawyers close by, rather the expectation is that there will be at least a few experienced and established lawyers close by. 

 

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cherrytree
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36 minutes ago, Goblin King said:

Hi Diplock, 

I’m attending law school in the fall, so I don’t have much skin in the game here, but I’d be interested to get an employer’s perspective on how students (summer and articling) and new calls can sell themselves to sole practitioners. In what situations are these inexperienced people useful to a relatively experienced sole who may be expanding their practice? 

Not remotely close to being an employer so I can't chime in on the hiring aspect, but speaking as a student who found myself a job at a smaller practice in 1L summer as someone who was entirely inexperienced (not crim but I think the point is transferable to lots of small practice settings), what I've learned about the "usefulness" of a student is the importance of "managing up". Take initiative, be proactive, follow up, stay on top of everything assigned to you, know the expectation/deadline you have to meet and then meet them well.

Working at a small and busy practice led by someone who is experienced with a good book of business means that you need to be able to find answers on your own, articulate what those options are, give your thoughts on the pros and cons, then make it really easy for your supervisor to take in all that information so they can make the final call with a full and clear view of all sides of the issue(s). Scour every online website and resource you can access in order to make your best educated guess(es) that you can then present to your supervisor, and go beyond the Internet to find the appropriate contacts to call or speak to in person, if calling/emailing are not working.

This will not be a linear or easy process, especially in the beginning. Sometimes half a day or a whole day's work end up having to be scrapped because you misinterpreted something or the situation evolved in an entirely foreign direction. But as a student, these mishaps/mistakes are by and large expected and forgiven, it's just that you are expected to accept responsibility then learn quickly from there.

The key is to be sensitive to your employer's time and how you can best help them optimize their time. In a small practice, there aren't too many people to go through before the buck stops with the person responsible for the entire shop, so ultimately your utility to the business as a student is to make it easier to keep all the balls in the air as much as you can. There is always some kind of time-consuming, tedious work that would be way too expensive to bill the client if the experienced associates and senior partners do them, and using a student should make the calculus make more sense to the business. The fact that you are inexperienced means you are likely gonna have to make up for it with a good attitude, eagerness to learn, and resilience to handle last-minute tasks under some level of stress. But if you are working under a supervising lawyer who cares about trusting you with good work (however difficult or tedious) that is beneficial to your learning, that is a great gift and is what makes the employment relationship a mutually beneficial one.

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realpseudonym
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59 minutes ago, LMP said:

For those of us who may not know, could you explain a bit what "chambers" are? 

@PulpFiction is correct.  

58 minutes ago, PulpFiction said:

Did you start your own practice right after getting called? 

Not right after, but within my first year. It's an insane thing to do, but can be done. As per Diplock's posts, doing it successfully requires a lot of luck and guidance, in addition to being able to do good work. 

58 minutes ago, PulpFiction said:

In your experience, does the chambers set up actually result in referrals from other lawyers and some sort of mentorship/support when needed?

Chambers don't get you anything automatically. It's the potential to develop relationships with the lawyers in chambers that benefits junior counsel. That might not sound like much, but outside of chambers, it can be harder to build those mentorship relationships than you might think. Chambers are a way to get your foot in the door with senior lawyers. Especially in the pandemic, that's not nothing. You're not bumping into colleagues outside of bail court or in the gowning room or whatever. If they're not seeing and hearing from you, busy senior counsel can forget that you exist. If they do, you don't get their file referrals. But if you're renting down the hall from them, that's a reminder that you're a person who might take on a case. 

Being around the office is also an opportunity to informally build rapport and trust with senior counsel. Even in our pandemic adjusted schedules, I'll stop and chat with lawyers in my office once or twice a week. That builds personal relationships. And as they get to know, like, and trust me more, they're more willing to provide guidance and referrals. It's hard to quantify that as a monetary value, but it can have value, depending on your ability to build relationships and the quality of the referrals and mentorship available. 

58 minutes ago, PulpFiction said:

Also, in terms of cashflow/billings and ability to cover overhead - what if I was in a financial position to cover overhead but don't have a client base? Do you think it's still advisable to pay for space in chambers for the referral/support benefit while building the client base? 

I probably wouldn't take on fixed costs with no revenue. I would want to at least be able to project some billable work within the foreseeable future to help offset the cost. When you do it though is a bit of judgment call on your part. 

Edited by realpseudonym
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Diplock
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18 hours ago, Goblin King said:

Hi Diplock, 

I’m attending law school in the fall, so I don’t have much skin in the game here, but I’d be interested to get an employer’s perspective on how students (summer and articling) and new calls can sell themselves to sole practitioners. In what situations are these inexperienced people useful to a relatively experienced sole who may be expanding their practice? 

Well, that's a pretty general question as phrased, but I can't fault you for that considering that you don't have much context yet. I think you kind of get to this point yourself, but a potential employer either has work available to hire someone or they don't. So you don't need to figure out for yourself in advance what you would be useful doing - an employer should have a pretty strong idea of what they want you to do. I imagine all you're really asking is how to turn yourself into a competitive candidate as compared with anyone else.

My answer, to that amended question, would simply be to get as much practical experience as you possibly can and exposure to the courts. The best way to do that is through clinics. Get involved with whatever your law school offers in that vein and start assisting real clients with real situations asap. Outside of a very few exceptions, in almost any legal practice you'll be doing real, practical things and not engaged in complex research projects. So gain experience doing real, practical things. In pre-Covid times, I would have advised that you get as much exposure to actual court operations as possible. Hang out at court, potentially even assist with set date appearances etc. if there's an opportunity to do so. But court operations are so disrupted right now and to some extent virtual appearances may be here to stay, at least in Ontario. So it's hard for me to say what that will look like immediately. So my best advice would be to start with clinics right away and see where that leads. Then whenever courts start reopening again, find whatever excuse you need to spend time there.

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Diplock
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17 hours ago, LMP said:

For those of us who may not know, could you explain a bit what "chambers" are? 

@realpseudonym definitely covered most of this topic already, but I would say there is a difference in the way "chambers" is typically used and understood as a term, as opposed to "shared office space" or simply "renting an office." It's not a strictly defined term in any sense - it's more like asking what "friends with benefits" means. Obviously that's a flexible concept. But it does mean something different from "friends" or "dating" or whatnot, and almost everyone understands that.

Roughly speaking, renting an office in chambers implies that there is some shared identity among the lawyers occupying that space together. Sometimes that involves shared advertising, I've seen websites built around it, etc. Obviously you aren't forming a partnership and your practice is still your own - in fact you'd want to be careful not to create an apparent partnership in the mind of any client. But it's still something more than showing up at the same address and sharing access to the coffee machine and photocopier. In the most traditional arrangements that I've seen, it's generally understood that the proprietor(s) of the chambers would throw enough work at the renters (especially newer renters) to cover the cost of rent, so that the overhead is at least revenue neutral. It doesn't take much really - that could just be one legal aid file every month or so. And the other lawyers in chambers naturally look to the juniors in that space to act as agents, take stuff they don't want off their hands, etc. If nothing else there's a convenience factor to that, so if you aren't an absolute jerk or incompetent, and you're just there, that's an immediate point in your favor.

I do think it's a very worthwhile investment for any new practitioner. Unfortunately, with so many people working remotely right now the value may have degraded somewhat. Because even if you're in the office, it may be that others aren't. But in normal times, absolutely. I wouldn't recommend anyone starting from scratch put themselves in a situation where they are working around no one else. It isn't an overhead thing. I think working from your own kitchen table or working from beautiful office space you've rented all by yourself creates the same problem. The defence bar is a wonderful, collegial community. But you have to be around it to benefit from that.

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