Sunday, December 6, 2009

Client Soliciation

Since I am still rather new in solo practice, I cannot sustain myself on referrals. I must find business. I hear some traffic attorneys hang out at the Daley center and wait for cases. I used to see an older attorney standing outside of 26th & California handing out business cards. But I haven't seen him in a while. He probably got reported to the ARDC and was advised to stop. When the ARDC talks, smart attorneys not only listen but take notes as well.

I never openly solicit in public. I also do not normally accept cash payments anywhere near a courthouse. I see it all the time, but it just looks shady to me. Sometimes it has to be done that way, but my policy is to meet the payee well before the court date to sign the fee agreement and collect payment.

I have picked up a few cases this year by being in the right place at the right time. I have also been fortunate enough to get some referrals from happy clients and an organization I am associated with on a pro bono basis. 

Every week I get a list of all of the Cook County felony arrests for the previous seven days. The list contains the district of arrest, date, name, address, and crime charged. This list, of course, costs money. 

I solicit through direct mail and I am not alone. Most people on this list get around 10-15 letters the week following the arrest. There are usually around 1000 felony arrests every week. Yes, that's 1000 new felony arrests per week in Cook County alone. Wow. Most of those are city of Chicago cases.

I go through the list and weed out certain crimes I don't handle such as felony DUI, domestics, sex crimes, prostitution, arson, forgery, or crimes against children. It's by choice that I do not handle such cases. I have my reasons and I stick by them. But for example, in 1979 my grandmother was killed by a drunk driver, thus no DUI defenses from me. And white collar crimes don't interest me.

At the end of my selection process, the list is usually down to just over 500. And out of that 500 about 100 will be returned as undeliverable by the postal service. It appears many people give false addresses when arrested.

The Illinois Rules of Professional Conduct states the following about solicitation:

(a) A lawyer shall not by in‑person, live telephone or real-time electronic contact solicit professional employment from a prospective client when a significant motive for the lawyer’s doing so is the lawyer’s pecuniary gain, unless the person contacted:

(1) is a lawyer; or

(2) has a family, close personal, or prior professional relationship with the lawyer.

(b) A lawyer shall not solicit professional employment from a prospective client by written, recorded or electronic communication or by in‑person, telephone or real-time electronic contact even when not otherwise prohibited by paragraph (a), if:

(1) the prospective client has made known to the lawyer a desire not to be solicited by the lawyer; or

(2) the solicitation involves coercion, duress or harassment.

(c) Every written, recorded or electronic communication from a lawyer soliciting professional employment from a prospective client known to be in need of legal services in a particular matter shall include the words “Advertising Material” on the outside envelope, if any, and at the beginning and ending of any recorded or electronic communication, unless the recipient of the communication is a person specified in paragraphs (a)(1) or (a)(2).

What this means is that it's permissible to mail someone who might need an attorney as long as the mailing is clearly marked that it's an advertisement and there is nothing untruthful in the communication. Clearly someone just arrested for a felony might need an attorney.

I know there are some attorneys who think soliciting business in this manner is unethical, unprofessional, and downright sleazy. I challenge anyone with such an opinion to hang out a shingle in Chicago, do nothing but criminal defense work, have little actual criminal experience, have no steady referral system, and survive in these economic times. Sounds like a great business model, but I made it work. 

At least 90% of the weekly felony arrests involve individuals from the low income areas of Chicago, the south and west side. With this economy and the high unemployment rate, very few have several thousand dollars to pay a criminal attorney. The public defender's office gets the majority of cases and we private attorneys split up the rest. There are not a lot of us either. I see the same attorneys day after day. The majority of them are either ex-assistant state's attorneys or ex-assistant public defenders. I am neither. 

Given the size of Cook County you would think there would be hundreds of private criminal defense attorneys. But this isn't the case. There is little money in what I do where I do it. I drive a Ford, not a BMW. Many of my colleagues dip into divorce or personal injury as the cases come. I am 100% criminal and getting by. I don't want to do anything else. Nothing else interests me. 

There are a few older attorneys with over 20 years experience that probably live off of referrals. They also make more money per case than I do. And I think that's fair. But the big money attorneys won't take a felony gun case through a motion hearing as cheaply as I will. For example, I went to court 5 times and eventually won a suppression motion on a gun case for a $900 bond. 

Fewer people, however, can afford the more experienced attorneys. This leaves attorneys like me (affordable) with the lion's share of those that can scrape a few dollars together. The more expensive guys probably take less cases and make more money. But I service many more clients in any given month. To date in 2009, I have accepted about 150 new cases or an average of just over 13 new cases per month. Some of these cases required one or two court appearances and some took months. I typically have 20-25 open files.  

You have to appreciate just how massive the Cook County criminal justice system is. There are 39 felony trial courtrooms for city of Chicago cases alone! Yes, 39! In addition there are 5 district courthouses in the suburbs that handle their own cases. I can't imagine what it's like to be in a county with one old courthouse that every case of any type moves through. 

I met an attorney recently at a seminar in Springfield who was from such a county in Eastern Illinois. They had 2 judges and the felony trial call was on Wednesday afternoons. That's it. One afternoon per week for all the felony cases in the whole county. I can't get my head around that. Needless to say, he did more than criminal work. And although we were both Illinois attorneys we were worlds apart. 

Not including traffic court, there are 7 criminal courthouses in the city of Chicago (5 branch courts, Domestic court on Harrison, and 26th & California). Add the suburbs and that makes 12 courthouses for the entire county. Even with this many courthouses the system is still very stressed. 

Each felony trial courtroom has about 200 open cases at any time. This is a guess though. Some have as low as 100 and some as many as 400. Most public defenders have upwards of 75-100 cases at any time. Each felony trial courtroom has 3 assistant state's attorneys and 2 public defenders. There are no shortage of cases and the county jail is well populated.

I spend a lot of time in my car. There are mornings I have cases in Bridgeview and Skokie. Take all of this running around, add all of the secretarial work I do in addition to running my practice entirely by myself and it's easy to see how I move all day. On Saturdays I usually meet new clients and I am in the county jail almost every Sunday visiting clients that are in custody. 

I rely on technology greatly in my practice. My diary is synced wirelessly to both of my Macs and iPhone via MobileMe. All of my client files are uploaded to my iDisk and accessible anywhere the internet is available or simply by my phone. I keep nothing sensitive in these files. It's mostly pleadings and scanned arrest reports. My business phone number is actually a virtual number that can be forwarded anywhere, which is always my cell phone. I use a web based virtual fax machine and I have a home office. I did have a real office until September and it was a waste of money. I was never there and no one ever came there to see me.

My practice is very service oriented. Being a lawyer is only part of the job. What I lack in experience I more than make up for by servicing the customer. My phone is answered by me 7 days a week. I get new business calls at the strangest hours. I know I have been hired on several cases because I answered my phone when no one else would. And not too many of my colleagues will drive to Englewood to meet the family of someone in the jail. That is normally how I am hired. I go to the home and meet the family. I explain the law and procedure. I make no promises other than to do my best. Unethical? I think not. 

In a county with 1000 new felony arrests per week, there is no shortage of work. But people have to know I am here if I want to be hired. I am building a reputation one case at a time and one court appearance at a time. That takes years, but so far so good. Referrals from happy clients are starting to trickle in and maybe in 10 years I can live off of referrals, but not now.

Oh, I don't do traffic cases either. 

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