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Getting by with a little help from my friends, in the criminal defense practice

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From at least high school, I dreamed of one day being my own boss. In fact, I had already reached that dream at the age of eleven, when I performed my first of many paid magic shows for children’s birthday parties, disappearing milk from a pitcher, making items appear from an empty folded screen, transforming a glass of sugar to a glass of candy that I passed to the audience, and more.

The enchantment of performing magic and music has stayed with me, feeding into the unfolding enchantment of every succeeding stage of my life, including the practice of law. That very enchantment has helped me transcend and weather many times in my life when I have seen many aspects of life in shades of gray, finally able to be in the now, not letting the outside circumstances of human rights violations, injustice, bigotry and economic inequity dampen my strength to help be a solution to those challenges rather than a kvetcher in the corner.

Who would have known that the Jay Marks I met at a six-year-old birthday party who in seventh grade seemed to tense up when I asked if he wanted to visit one day to shoot some hoops (as if maybe I were from the other side of the mentality railroad tracks; I was already outrageous by then) and by twelfth grade was a committed Reagan disciple, would at once become my first (and only to this point) law partner and inspiration to leap into the exhilarating world of being my own boss, with no safety net below and amazing possibilities ahead? When Jay and I spoke with on-the-money lawyer Mark Winston (who was previously a partner at my first law firm) to finalize our partnership agreement, he asked with a mix of wonderment and disbelief at our chutzpah to go off together on our own: “You’re really going to go through with this?”, which succeeded close in time to one of the partners at Jay’s soon-to-be former law firm proclaiming us “crazy” for doing so. Ten years earlier, a senior associate at my first law firm proclaimed how scary it is to start one’s own law firm.

This was the only time I witnessed Mark Winston’s not being on the money, because our partnership transition worked spectacularly. Our first potential client came in our door while we were walking through our new suite a few days before we had even moved in our furniture. We continued the Spanish weekly radio call-in show that he had started while at his law firm, which was one of our early sources of clients. Jay continued his very devoted work with the local Hispanic community and with charitable causes. A little over a year later, I figured out in 1999 how to launch and add content to a website, ahead of the curve of many other criminal defense lawyers. Jay was already a mainstay of local interviewees on Spanish language television about news of the day, and I started getting many broadcast and television interviews  and invitations to speak at continuing legal education and other programs within three years after we opened, both through our Internet presence and through my publicly-known First Amendment defense work. The performance and results we delivered our clients, together with our heartfelt reasons — not merely financial — for being out in the public, got us successful professionally and financially early on. Our theme at all times was — and continues to be for me — being lawyers for justice, focusing on individuals and their rights.

A new big transition came ten years after going into partnership with Jay, when we both opened separate solo law firms. By then, we were each practicing much different areas of law, with me mainly doing criminal defense and Jay mainly doing immigration. An important overlap of our practices was that many of my non-U.S. citizen criminal defense clients needed advice about the immigration impact from their criminal cases, and numerous of Jay’s immigration clients needed criminal defense help. We each went out on our own, nonetheless, and each found continued satisfaction and success with our own law firms, and no longer found a big difference between pooling financial resources on staff and overhead expenses than paying our own staff, our own rent, and the well over hundred thousand annual dollars (at least for me) that it costs to run a solo law firm.

Jay and I remain friends. We supported each other as friends with our transition to becoming solo practitioners. We continue referring clients to each other. When we meet in person, by phone, and email, we often continue where we left off in our last bit of laughing like sophomoric hyenas. When we see each other, Jay sometimes jokes that whether I like it or not, I’m getting a hug. It was great when Jay and I shared banter when still in the office at the end of the workday and after our clients had departed. A solo law practitioner will better adjust to being solo by doing well with solitude before and after hours; fortunately, I adjusted well to periods of solitude long before becoming a lawyer or law student.

With the Internet and other technology, and in an economic climate where small businesses can thrive all the more, there has perhaps never been a better time to succeed as a solo lawyer practitioner or as a partner in a small law firm. I have always believed strongly in helping birds of a professional feather rise as I rise, and in seeking the same from them, with brainstorming, giving moral support and insight, and with covering each other for court date conflicts for scheduling hearings and other non-trial matters.

I have considered the possibility of hiring one or more lawyers or entering into a future new law partnership. Those remain possibilities. At this point, it works better for me to find quality lawyer colleagues to cover for me for non-trial court date conflicts, and to refer potential clients to other lawyers when they come to me too close to their court date for me to resolve a date conflict. If I hired lawyers, I would want lawyers who would hit the ground running on great prior experience and quality. If I entered into a new law partnership, I would want to have as much overlap as possible in a partnership (and with any lawyer employees) with the way I now practice law, which includes putting clients ahead of money, never shirking from representing controversial causes or clients (from radical peace activists to the Westbrook Baptist Church) when I believe in defending them, and being willing to give up a potential fee by declining representation that does not sit right with me (for instance, I decline to take clients who want to snitch).

For me to succeed for my clients, I benefit from and deeply am grateful for the help of my staff and the support, help, and friendship of so many of my colleagues, friends and mentors, getting by with a little help from my friends.