Bar Soap – February 2020

Not quite sure what happened to 2019. It came and went so fast. Is it just me or did you notice as well?

And indeed, you have not seen a Bar Soap column in some time. Let’s pack this one with lots of news.

November of this past year saw another spectacular MCLE Spectacular. Goodness, not just because it was the 25th Anniversary of the MCLE Spectacular (although that it was) but because it was the best one yet. I know I keep repeating myself each year, but it is an event not to be missed.

Looking back to the summer months of 2019, they too came and went too fast. (Notice a theme here?)  I cannot mention enough how important it is to say tuned to Bar Association events. It is the best means of getting to know new practitioners, reacquainting yourself with friends and getting referrals. Our local bar association continues to come up with new and creative events for our pleasure and legal education.

Not to rain on the parade of all those who push signing up for referrals sites and programs, but, the very best referral program at our firm is “word of mouth”, followed by the CCCBA’s Lawyer Referral Service. All others pale in comparison.

In spite of all the money we spend on our web site, I am always surprised to hear from other attorneys the words “I didn’t know your firm did that.”  We have had a very strong immigration practice for the past ten years or so at the firm. Erika Portillo is a very experienced and successful immigration attorney. But attorneys still express surprise that we do that work. In fact, Erika regularly makes presentations to groups about immigration law.

Do a good job for a client and the word gets out. Having said that, I cannot fail to mention our own Bar Association’s Lawyer Referral Service. It has consistently provided a stream of cases for our firm. And we are proud to say we have sent lots of checks to the LRS as its share of our success.

The practice of law is changing. I am not sure why. In spite of classes on the subject, I actually see less civility rather than more. I certainly notice far fewer cases proceeding to trial, and perhaps that is a good thing. And I hear a lot more griping from lawyers about the practice. Those gripes run the gamut from “Not enough work, too much work, to clients don’t pay their bills.” We appreciate as lawyers that practicing law is a business. Not only must we practice our trade, but we must manage a business. That means paying rent, managing staff, keeping up to date systems and much more.

Was at a party recently and someone asked me “So you are a lawyer, why should I hire you if I need legal assistance?” It threw me a bit.  How do we answer that question? I thought about it a great deal and cannot create an answer in ten words or less. Because that is what was needed; a good answer in ten words or less.

And speaking of ten words or less, I regularly look at web sites for law firms. Goodness! They all show the respective firms to be the greatest, most experienced and able to leap tall buildings at a single bound. So, looking at a law firm web site is really not helpful in determining if the firm is the right firm for the client. Apologies to all those web design firms that promise to design a site which keeps the firm at the very top of the Google search page. Seems to me it still goes back to word of mouth and good lawyering.

One of my very successful friends who exclusively practices plaintiff personal injury work, remarked that his firm had a very expensive and robust web site, but he could not think of a single major case he got through that web site. We actually use web sites to research lawyers who are involved in our cases. We used to do that with Martindale Hubbell. (See lawyer on the other side, and look up the profile.)

I recall several years ago I predicted the growth of bigger firms handling all aspects of legal work. Now on the contrary, I see many attorneys leaving the bigger firms and going solo. Less overhead, fewer headaches and actually better income. The expensive brick and mortar edifice is not necessary to impress clients. And when the client calls the small firm or solo attorney, she actually gets to talk to the attorney.

I think you probably heard I am soon to be the chair of the Walnut Creek Chamber of Commerce. Learning a great deal about our local commercial real estate market. That is of particular interest in our legal community as next to staffing costs, it seems the next biggest law firm cost is rent. Is the market softening? Is the “work space model” gaining traction? Rent a space only for the purpose of meeting with clients, or taking depositions? In recent years we have seen some notable firms go out of business and simply walk away from expensive leases. Might do what O’Conner, Runkel & O’Malley recently did, and that is buy their own building.

I always like to hear about people on the move. David Pearson recently gave up his shorts and tee shirts to don more traditional attorney attire and join Roger Brothers at Brothers Smith LLP. Mark J. Hilliard is also joining the firm. Just so you know David, the dry cleaning bill is going to go up. Hope you factored that into your decision.

It appears a number of lawyers at the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office are looking for work. The attorneys in that office serve at the pleasure of the DA, so when there is a change of administrations, many are shown the door. Most DA’s offices are civil service employers and attorneys cannot be fired except for cause.

I certainly cannot keep up with all the sad news of the passing of many of our local lawyers. But of note, this past year we lost Don Anderson, Marvin Starr and Peter Pappas. I am sure there were many more. People often tell me the only reason they read the local paper anymore is to find out who had died. Count me among those people who feel that way.

Yes, I am still doing Coroner’s Inquests in Contra Costa County. Hard to believe I started filling in as a back-up hearing officer in 2005. This past year I did the Hart Family Inquest in Mendocino County. Many other counties have expressed an interest in having inquests, but few have started the process. Many counties send representatives to sit in on our Contra Costa Inquests to see how we do it. Certainly Contra Costa is the “gold standard” for Coroner’s Inquests. Of some interest is an article out of LA entitled “When Officers Kill Someone Can Inquests get Answers for the Public?” It was written by Doug Smith in 2015. He clearly did not know that Contra Costa has regularly had inquests since the early 80’s.

The 2020 Judicial Assignments have been posted. For those of us practicing “Civil” law it appears all remains the same, except Judge Ben Burch is replacing Judge Susanne Fenstermacher. Judge Fenstermacher and Judge Virginia George will team up to replace Judge Sugiyama in Probate.

I will close on the note that our local bar association is so good now at reporting local legal news and events, that it seems to steal the thunder of “Bar Soap.” Not complaining mind you. It’s a compliment to the crew running our wonderful Contra Costa County Bar Association.

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