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The practice of law demands a range of intellectual and practical tools, and those aren't always immediately obvious to outsiders. For insights into the profession, we turned to Michigan attorney Thomas Weiss. After serving in Vietnam with the U.S. Navy, Weiss enjoyed successful careers in corporate finance, banking and hotel management before turning to the law. We asked him to draw on that combination of insider's knowledge and outsider's perspective to tell us what tools lawyers need to do their job. Here's how he responded:
Some Basic Technology
A solo practice or small firm needs the same basic technology as any other business. I love my MacBook, because when it's time to go to court I can tuck it under my arm and still have access to all of my files. You'll also need Microsoft Word (some practices still use WordPerfect, but Word is more common) and a good quality laser printer. You don't need color capability, but printing high-quality text documents is one of a law office's core functions and you'll need to do it well.
Back in the 19th century, Levi Strauss said "If you want to make money in a gold rush, sell picks and shovels." The legal profession works in much the same way, because everybody wants to sell you something. There are major subscription services like Westlaw and Lexis-Nexis, and a variety of specialized "Cadillac" services aimed at niche practices. If you're in solo practice or even a small firm, you have to think long and hard about which of these products or services you actually need, as opposed to what's nice to have. You can easily overspend, if you aren't careful, and inflict unnecessary financial stress on your practice.
Your State's Bar Association
Your state's bar association can be a powerful resource, if you use it intelligently. Each state's association offers a wide range of services to members, but they don't advertise as aggressively as Westlaw and Lexis-Nexis. You'll need to take the initiative to find out for yourself what's available in your state, but it's time well invested. For example, instead of buying your own subscription to a service you'd only use occasionally, you might be able to access that same information through your bar association's subscription.
A Flexible, Adaptable Mind
My family is in construction, and I grew up with the business. I know construction. When I started my practice I had several construction companies as clients, and they were very good to me. Then came 2008, and construction in Michigan hit a brick wall. Every one of those clients went out of business. That's why it's important to be flexible, and to gain as much breadth of knowledge as you can during law school. Five or ten years down the road, if your primary business dries up, you need to have the adaptability and intellect to capitalize on new opportunities.
Outsiders don't usually understand how much of a legal practice depends on personal connections and networking. With a few specialized exceptions, lawyers offer almost undifferentiated services. Pick up the phone book in any town and you'll see page after page of advertisements for lawyers, all very much alike. Trying to undercut the competition is a losing proposition, so you need to differentiate yoru practice by building personal relationships. If you come to the law with a solid set of contacts from a previous career it helps a lot, but in the end it comes down to establishing trust with your clients and potential clients.
Thomas Weiss is an attorney in general practice in Mount Pleasant, Michigan. He holds a JD degree from Michigan State University College of Law, and a BS in accounting and finance from Lake Superior Sate University. Previously he served on the Board of Trustees of Lake Superior State University, the Board of Directors of North Bancorp/First National Bank of Gaylord, and the Board of Directors of the International Association of Holiday Inns.
Fred Decker is a trained chef and certified food-safety trainer. Decker wrote for the Saint John, New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal, and has been published in Canada's Hospitality and Foodservice magazine. He's held positions selling computers, insurance and mutual funds, and was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.
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