When attorney Patrick M. Roney left an insurance defense firm to start his own practice in the thick of the recession, he knew flexibility would be a key to success.
So the Milwaukee attorney branched out into general civil litigation, including landlord-tenant disputes, as well as estate planning, personal injury and even some criminal defense.
“When I resigned and opened my own practice, I knew I’d be taking on areas outside of my comfort zone because I needed money coming in,” Roney said.
Many other solo and small firm practitioners have also had to broaden their practice horizons in order to stay solvent.
“It reminds me of when I first got out of law school and there was that willingness to do anything,” said Madison real estate attorney Jason A. Greller.
While Greller, of Knoll Greller SC, has helped keep his firm afloat representing for-sale-by-owner residential clients, he has seen colleagues lose their businesses and office space.
“I think there are people who maybe want to take on divorce clients or do other work,” he said.
Practice Management Consultant Alan R. Olson acknowledges that branching out is common during a down economy, but advises his clients not to stray too far from their areas of expertise.
He counsels targeting specific clients, rather than adopting a “vacuum cleaner” approach.
Olson, a principle at Altman Weil, said that in addition to knowing the substantive law, lawyers who branch out need to know how much to charge clients and determine which ones to take and which ones to turn away.
“They also have to decide what level of complexity they can accept, as opposed to cases that need to be referred out to a specialist,” he noted.
‘Not happy law’
Madison practitioner Ethan T. Miller has seen his commercial and residential transaction business evaporate in the last two years.
In an effort to offset the dip, Miller has expanded his practice into eviction and foreclosure work, two areas which have grown.
In the last two years, the number of commercial and residential eviction cases he’s handled has exceeded the total during his first five years in practice.
“Evictions and foreclosures are not happy law, but it puts food on the table,” Miller noted.
Roney agreed — about 50 percent of his caseload during the last two months has come from landlord-tenant eviction cases.
While not individually lucrative, he said handling a high volume of eviction cases can boost the bottom line.
Roney recently signed a contract with a small property management company to handle eviction cases on three properties in Milwaukee.
He’ll also take the occasional OWI or felony criminal case because they can be good sources of revenue.
“I am picky when it comes to criminal cases, but clients usually pay up front,” he said.
Solo real estate attorney James N. Graham hasn’t moved into criminal work, but he has expanded his practice to include more litigation.
Previously, residential and commercial transactions and contracts accounted for the bulk of his practice, and he typically referred foreclosure or partnership dispute litigation out to another firm. Over the last two years, he’s started retaining the work.
“With transactional volume down, I’m keeping work I would have otherwise given away,” Graham said.
Graham still refers bankruptcy cases, but some other real estate attorneys are moving into that area as well.
Miller, of WR Stewart & Associates SC, said that in the course of dealing with clients in foreclosure, he has educated himself on the basics of bankruptcy law.
Last year, he was involved in a case representing a lender in a Chapter 13 reorganization case.
“We were asking what were grounds for objecting to the plan, and it was like I was back in law school,” Miller said.