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An Issue-Spotting Exercise in Revenue Stream Opportunities That Solos Should Avoid

by Carolyn Elefant on May 27, 2011 · 2 comments

in Ethics & Malpractice Issues, Mistakes/What NOT To Do

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In these uncertain economic times, many solo and small firm lawyers must struggle to make ends meet. Thus, they’re always on the look-out for side jobs to supplement their income. And while waiting tables or working as a barista in a coffee house are options, most new solos would prefer law-related freelance or per diem jobs which enable them to use their legal skills and gain more experience.

Yet, there are some side jobs that solos should never, ever consider no matter how desperate you feel. I’ve offered cautionary examples here and here. And I just came across this winner at Shitlaw Jobs that’s worth sharing.

From the ad that appeared Craigs List (where else?):

I am a solo practitioner in New York seeking one or more attorneys to serve as my local counsel in California. Familiarity with state court rules of civil procedure and making court appearances required. Familiarity with foreclosure defense (mortgage modifications and short sales) and/or credit card collection defense a plus.

I would like most court filings to be made under my firm’s name, signed by you as local counsel.

Compensation:
- $50 per court paper signed*

*I will draft most court papers. I may ask you for a sample to familiarize myself with local formatting requirements. I would also expect you to review the court papers before you sign them and share any comments, etc., and to share guidance on the litigation process.

- $125 per court appearance

So why should you avoid this job like the bubonic plague? First, the solo who placed the ad is licensed only in New York – but he’s seeking multiple local counsel. This means that Mr. New York Solo either has or plans to build a practice in California. Which raises the question…just how did Mr. New York Solo drum up the business in California for which he’s seeking local counsel? It’s possible Mr. New York Solo took a trip to California and set up shop briefly at Starbucks or a temporary workspace to lure clients. Or Mr. New York Solo may be targeting his website advertising with keywords or meta-tags designed to attract California residents (like “California foreclosure defense”) even though he isn’t licensed in California. Either scenario, raises serious concerns about unauthorized practice of law.

The second problem with Mr. New York Solo’s proposed arrangement is that he wants to buy a lawyer’s signature (for fifty bucks) rather than engage the lawyer’s expertise. Sure, Mr. New York Solo says that you ought to review the documents before you sign them – but how can local counsel know if the claims are accurate without having the ability to consult the client or at least review the case files? Moreover it’s difficult to miss the irony in Mr. New York Solo ‘s solicitation for local lawyers to effectively robo-sign pleadings on behalf of defendants in mortgage foreclosure cases when that constituency was already gravely harmed by the banks’ use of robo-signers.

And there’s more that any lawyer considering this arrangement needs to know. For example, did Mr. New York Solo disclose to his clients that he’s not licensed in California and is retaining local counsel? Does Mr. New York Solo have a malpractice insurance policy, and does it cover him doing business in New York? Or are you expected to carry coverage for these matters as well? These are all ethical and practical considerations that need to be taken into account – because no matter what Mr. New York Solo represents, if your name is on the pleading, then you’ll be the one exposed in the grievance proceedings or malpractice actions that inevitably follow this kind of operation.

Pouring coffee or serving diners certainly isn’t any lawyer’s first choice. But it’s honest work that helps pay the bills – even if it isn’t exactly what you dreamed of doing, or trained for when you were in law school. But by the same token, you probably never dreamed that you might be suspended from the practice of law for signing pleadings based on documents you’ve never read or for causing clients to lose their homes because you relied on stock arguments made by an out-of-state lawyer instead of doing the research yourself. Yet that’s the nightmare that you’ll find yourself in if you sign up for this kind of job.
Editor’s Note: In part II of this piece, I’ll offer tips on how to avoid these kinds of dubious opportunities.

  • http://twitter.com/BruceGodfrey Bruce Godfrey

    Indeed!  Amen!  So true!!!!

  • Melody Kramer, FreelanceLaw

    While I appreciate the word of caution (and I agree with your assessment of your sample Craigslist ad to avoid), working as a freelance lawyer for other lawyers is an excellent avenue of side income while you build a solo practice.  I have done it and many other attorneys like me have done the same.  To suggest that being a Starbucks barista instead of doing freelance legal work is not a solution to the problem you have identified.

    The problem with Craigslist is that there is relatively no filter to who can post what and to whom.  It is designed with broad brush strokes to encompass any type of request for services and does not take into account any of the detailed requirements of legal professionals.  That is why I created FreelanceLaw.com.  It is designed to take into account some of the perils of interactions between law firms and freelancers.  First, registered law firms are the only ones sending freelancers messages.  As a freelancer, you may not get a lot of inquiries, but at least you will know that someone else has at least verified their credentials for practicing law.  Further procedures are also in progress to verify information provided by law firms and freelancers.  And education of freelancers is also a key component to avoiding bad freelance gigs.

    The point is this – as a freelancer there are a lot of common sense issues that you need to deal with in choosing what work to do.  You are a business owner and trust me, if you make bad decisions on side jobs, you will make even worse decisions choosing clients for your law practice.  When you make mistakes, learn from them, but the worst thing you can do is abandon the entire quest for a Starbucks apron.

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