For a Good Cause: Thirty Restaurants at Rotary's 14th Taste of Ridgefield

he 14th annual Taste of Ridgefield at the Ridgefield Community Center on Sunday, Jan. 27, will offer fare from over 30 local restaurants, caterers and wine shops in and around the town.  A complete list of participants is available here,

 An article in the Ridgefield Pressprovides details of the Rotary Club of Ridgefield’s major event to raise funds that help support dozens of local organizations.

 he first serving is from 12:30 to 2:30 and the second, from 4 to 6. Tickets are $40 in advance and $45 at the door. This year there is a special price of $20 for age 12 and under accompanied by an adult.

Tickets are available at Squash’s on Main Street, the Ridgefield Community Center on Main Street, Ridgefield Chamber of Commerce on Bailey Avenue, or any Rotary Club of Ridgefield member, including me at angelo@rt-llp.com and online at ridgefieldrotary.org.

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Legal Project Management: Relevant for the Small Firm?

 Can a small firm take advantage of the same practice management efficiencies adopted by  large firms that have greater resources to invest in innovative technologies and methods?

 When established clients started to make for the door, six law firms started to innovate according to Law Technology News.  To find more efficient ways to do their work, author Alan Cohen writes that the six firms have taken the lead in developing the techniques of "legal project management."

 If legal project management were to be described in a single sentence, it might be: A great deal of data is generated (often from billing records already maintained) and analyzed to develop expected time and resource requirements for legal matters and tasks;  The data are collected and analyzed to develop a resource budget and plan (often conforming to pre-determined process maps) for a given legal matter which is then monitored (often with sophisticated software tools) for variances from the plan.  Generally, a large firm has completed dozens, if not hundreds, of similar matters in a relatively short period of time.  Thus, the data, if usefully analyzed and understood, provide reasonable guidance for developing standard time, resource and process requirements, budgets and "maps" for future matters of the same type.

 Clearly, this is what the LTN article was describing when highlighting the six leaders in legal project management.  Lessons learned included "tie it to the data," create 'springboard maps'" (documentation of standard processes), "look to [software] tools you have," and "debrief and debug."

 A small firm, however: (a) may not have enough data, (b) what data it has may be locked in a system that is relatively inflexible for analytical purposes, (c) the "resources" for any given matter may consist of a fraction of the working time of one attorney and one assistant, (d) there may not be time to develop process maps, and (e) there may not be anyone to debrief except oneself. 

 So, is there anything to learn from the project management innovations of larger firms?  I think there is.

 First, the single lawyer or small firm often does take on larger or more complex cases which call for the coordination of resources (and often the resources are from outside the firm: co-counsel, contract attorneys, independent paralegals, consultants, experts, printers).  Moreover, the small firm may have more at stake in a given matter because there is more of a "make or break" factor when resources are limited and the matter is complex.  Pressure to cap fees or use alternative fee arrangements may be even greater on a small firm (or a preference for the practitioner).  And, the ability to anticipate timing and resource requirements may better allow the smaller firm to make a competitive assessment and bid to actually be engaged for a complex matter, especially if it calls for some sort of alternative billing.

 Or, looking at it another way, project management concepts and techniques may present opportunities to the small firm that would be impractical using casual practice management methods.

 Second, although data may be limited, the small firm has another resource that is actually an advantage: the direct experience of the principals with each matter.  Where the larger firm has more abstract statistical data, the small firm practitioner may have more of the back story as to what the data really means.  Moreover, too much data may be overkill.  The time-honored yogic principle is "enough is necessary."

 Third, software tools, for analysis or monitoring, do not necessarily have to be expensive, sophisticated or difficult to learn.  The right tool for the right job has always been an applicable principle since before the industrial age, let alone the information age.  

 Fourth, certain issues just will not arise.  In a small firm, the project or matter will always be managed and monitored by a principal.  There is no question of "what level" should be assigned project management tasks.  The small firm is almost by definition decidedly flat in organization structure.

 Although, project management techniques may have to be adapted and carefully thought through for the smaller firm, that is not necessarily a unique requirement.  The LTN article makes clear (and common sense confirms) that each of the larger firms had to carefully adapt and think through its techniques to account for its own organization, culture and practice. 

 Mu conclusion: both for defensive reasons (survival) and to exploit opportunities, legal project management is a concept worth the effort to research, learn and adapt for a firm of any size.  Comments, even expressions of a contrary opinion, are welcome.

 

 

Image: Wikimedia Commons, Copied under GNU Free Documentation License, Author: Alpahmu57.

 

Implied Contract: When Actions Speak Louder than Written Words

 If you think you are not contractually bound to follow-through on a business deal because you did not sign a contract, you need to educate yourself about the legal theory of "Implied contract."  An "Implied contract" describes a set of circumstances in which a court can determine there is a binding, enforceable contract based upon the course of conduct of the parties. 

 There are circumstances where the course of conduct of the parties speaks louder than any agreement on paper.  A written contract can be ambiguous (resulting in contentious litigation in court over what the intentions of the parties were as reflected in the written contract).  An "Implied contract" lies with what the parties did to facilitate and perform a contract in addition to what the parties said in the course of their dealings. 

 Sometimes, actions really do speak louder than words.

 We represented a Connecticut non-stock corporation (not-for-profit organization) in the collection of a debt.  The defendant owed our client money for services rendered to a family member.  The defendant induced our client to provide services to his relative based upon the defendant's repeated promises to pay our client.  When services were no longer needed, the defendant decided he didn't need to pay our client.

Prior to suing, our client made numerous attempts to reach an amicable settlement.  The defendant rebuffed all attempts to settle.  The defendant challenged our client to sue him.  He stated that his attorneys "would welcome testing [our] legal theory of 'Implied contract' in court."   Reluctantly, our client sued the defendant.

 After the defendant's attorneys tested our legal theory of "Implied contract" in court, the defendant settled the case for 96.5% of the debt. 

 It turns out that the defendant and his attorneys were not the only ones who welcomed testing our legal theory of "Implied contract" in court.  Our client was ecstatic with the settlement and that, for once, justice did prevail. 

 

Image: A Handshake; from Wikimedia, Public Domain

Fighting Back Against Abusive or Harassing Collection Practices

 How can you fight back against abusive, harassing or misleading collection practices?  In Connecticut, an aggrieved debtor might turn to the state's abusive collection practices statute. 

 A debtor who proves his or her case may be entitled to actual damages, additional damages up to $1,000 and costs, including reasonable attorneys' fees.  Or, the abusive creditor may be persuaded in a proper case to negotiate a settlement. 

 In a recent case, our firm negotiated a favorable settlement on behalf of a client with the credit card subsidiary of a major national bank.  In addition to receiving money to settle the case, the client recouped all of his attorneys' fees and expenses.  Names are omitted here to preserve confidentiality.

 The client had moved out of the country for a job opportunity.  He sent a change of address letter to the bank.  He engaged a third-party debt-settlement firm to negotiate the satisfaction of a credit card debt.  He agreed to pay the negotiated settlement amount to satisfy the credit card debt and he did pay the settlement amount.  He was sued anyway.  When commencing the suit, the bank directed a State Marshal to serve a summons and complaint at the client's vacant house in Connecticut -- literally thousands of miles from his then actual home. 

The Marshal was following the procedure for service at a defendant's "actual place of abode" according to statute

 Despite efforts to have the suit withdrawn -- service was improper and he was satisfying the debt anyway -- the bank's collection law firm continued the suit.  The client counterclaimed under the abusive practices statute.   

 That statute, in this case, was a useful tool for solving the real problem: getting the bank's (or its attorneys') attention.  There was not a lot of money involved, especially for a national bank.  And, the client intended to -- and did -- satisfy the debt.  There should have been no dispute.  Ultimately, the bank, through its attorney, did pay a bit of attention -- enough to settle the case "amicably."

 

Image: Google Images, Public Domain, Boxer John Lawrence Sullivan

 

Office Share or Strategic Partnership

 Our small, congenial law firm is interested in connecting with a professional whose practice is complementary to ours.  Recently, we posted, on several sites, the availability of a furnished office, without a long-term lease, in our condominium suite.  The relationship, however, can potentially develop beyond office sharing to a strategic partnership.  With no commitment or obligation up front (other than paying month-to-month rent), further development would depend on  mutual interest and creative thinking.

 We think the potential would be most obvious for a solo personal injury or matrimonial attorney, a CPA or an independent paralegal. We are open to other ideas.

 If you think you know a qualified professional who might be interested, please forward this post.   Information about our firm's practice can be found on our website, www.rt-llp.com and this blog.  Information bout the available space can be found, among other places, at:this site.

Lessons from Small Business to Small Law Firm - - Hiring and Firing

A small business owner lamented The High Cost of Bad Hiring a few weeks ago in an article in the New York Times "You're the Boss" series.   Small law firms are also small businesses.  The solo practitioner or small firm partner is also a "boss."  

 Lawyers tend to be notoriously poor managers.  Don't interpret that last comment as entirely negative.  Lawyers simply prefer to practice law, not interviewing new hires, training office staff or giving performance feedback.  This same tendency might be observable among other professionals and even in some businesses where the principals would prefer to focus on their particular expertise (for example design, cooking or merchandising) rather than manage their business.

 There are exceptions in the legal profession.  Some excellent managers, even CEO's of substantial businesses, are legally trained.  But, let's focus on the more general case.  Most of us can benefit by thinking through the lessons offered by The New York Times'  once-frustrated-but-now-enlightened business owner: 

1. It's worth taking the extra time to thoroughly screen candidates to find the "right" one;

2. Training is essential.  So is supervision.  As our now-enlightened owner put it: "I was not delegating.  I was relegating.

3. Tenacity is important.  It may take a while and multiple tries to find the "right" person for the job.

 

I would add that effective hiring is especially critical for the small law firm.  There is simply no one around to pick up the slack for a bad hire.   By the way, a "bad" hire can mean a bad hiring decision or bad supervision by the manager or partner, not just an underperforming employee.

 My bottom line: if staff is necessary for the delivery of professional services, legal or otherwise, a well-balanced approach with due attention to managerial issues, such as hiring, can only benefit the practice.

 

 

 

 

Our New Connecticut Office Address

As of March 29, 2012, our Connecticut office will have a new address:

Rogers & Tartaro, LLP

158 Danbury Road

Suite 8

Ridgefield, Connecticut 06877

 

Our telephone number, fax number and e-mail addresses remain unchanged.

 

This blog will continue to comment on topics of interest to the small business community. Thus, metaphorically this blog continues to be "On Main Street."

Firm Update: Successes in Employment; Trusts & Estates

We're back. After an unavoidable hiatus, we're posting again. Although we regret our absence from the blogosphere, we were not idle. We begin by updating clients and friends with summaries of some our recent accomplishments:

 

Employment Law - Reinstatement of Government Employee

We helped a hard-working federal government employee win reinstatement to her job and achieve vindication after a premature suspension. Our client was accused -- but not tried, let alone, convicted -- of a serious crime. We worked in coordination with criminal defense counsel to prevent the loss of pay, job status and morale while charges were appropriately addressed. 

We are pleased to report that both the criminal charges and the employment issues were resolved satisfactorily for our client who is back at work without loss of pay or status.

 

 Trusts and Estaes - IRS Audit

 We are in the final "winding down" stages of representing the Executors of a 20 million dollar estate through an IRS audit of the estate tax return. Working with the Estate's accountant and a co-counsel, we established a professional working relationship with the auditor and were able to fully document and explain all aspects of the tax return. This matter presented a significant issue when we discovered a consultant had over-valued an asset and the Executors had to file an amended return to claim a refund. The IRS agreed with us on that issue and we were able to resolve other issues raised by the audit to the satisfaction of our clients, the Executors -- and the IRS.

 

Trusts and Estates - Undoing a 20-year Error

 We drew on our expertise in both New York and Connecticut law to help a family undo a 20-year error in two deeds and quiet title to a Connecticut real estate property. The property had been in the family even longer, more like 40 years. But, over 20 years ago, when a parent tried to pass the property to the next generation, a New York lawyer drafted two deeds, each with a provision that would have been legally sufficient in New York but not in Connecticut -- we'll spare you the technicalities but attorneys and others who are curious can send us an inquiry through the "Comments" feature of this blog or drop us an e-mail.

As a result, we had to go back 15-20 years to research the history of two closed estates. Clearing title involved researching the status of estate tax and succession tax laws over the last 15-20 years (which have done nothing but change over that time), determining the value 20 years ago of a property that had not sold for about 40 years and commencing an appropriate proceeding in Probate Court.

Happily, with the assistance, patience and cooperation of the clerks of a New York Surrogate's Court and of a Connecticut Probate Court, title was cleared, title insurance was issued and the family was able to sell and transfer the property as planned. 

Attorney (and Client) Expectations

                                              

As a private firm with a civil litigation practice in a mid-sized town, we receive inquiries from potential clients looking for information and wondering if they “have a case.” We are often surprised by the expectations of many of these individuals, including the assumption that a retainer or initial consulting fee will not be charged. 

An attorney’s inventory consists of his/her time, expertise and judgment. An evaluation of a case draws on all three, and fair compensation is appropriate. Consulting and retaining an attorney requires a substantial emotional and financial commitment. 

Since a litigation practice inherently involves helping clients to resolve disputes or controversies, the stress level is always high, even before the first introduction. We found that the following suggestions can help both potential clients and attorneys (no matter what the size of the firm) navigate through the beginning of the process. 

Communication is key. An important element to a successful outcome is the attorney - client relationship and the sharing of knowledge. Be sure you are comfortable with one another. Both parties should be reasonably available.

Be realistic. Both client and attorney need to be sensible about whether a case is viable. Many potential litigants mistakenly believe that hiring a lawyer will easily resolve their problems. Clients should also understand the potential extent of time (and inherent costs) for litigation.

Be wary. Litigation is inherently risky. Any attorney who guarantees a particular result should be avoided. 

Agreements should be formal. The attorney’s terms of representations should be in writing and explained to a client’s understanding and satisfaction. Be honest and make sure each party knows what is expected of the other.

Fee arrangements should be written out in detail and signed by both parties. 

Clients have work to do, too. Clients are responsible for gathering relevant materials in a timely manner.

Experience counts. Make sure that the firm or attorney you are considering is experienced in the area in which you are dealing. 

Be open to a fair settlement. The goal should be a satisfactory, reasonably economical resolution of the dispute. “Go for broke” --  and you just might get there.

Support Your Local Food Pantry

            

Signs of the recession are apparent in downtown Ridgefield. There are vacant storefronts downtown when, a year ago, there were none. The vacant storefronts evidence the fact that, indeed, Ridgefield is not immune to feeling the pinch of the economic downturn in our state and country.

As a community, however, we don’t see the evidence that many of our neighbors struggle to feed their families. The Ridgefield Food Pantry, located in Town Hall, reports that as the effects of the Great Recession linger, more and more Ridgefielders turn to the food pantry to supplement the food they can buy to place on their family table. Many Ridgefielders need the Food Pantry’s assistance now, whereas a few years ago, they were among the many people donating food to the Food Pantry.

Please consider making a donation of food or a supermarket gift card to the Ridgefield Food Pantry. A donation of $5.00 is not diminished by administrative fees; and, a jar of peanut butter will help fill a child’s hungry tummy. Even the smallest donation to the Food Pantry makes a huge difference in whether our neighbors go to bed hungry or are able to feed their families during this very difficult time.