Sunday, February 25, 2007

Amazing Story - Genealogist says Slavery Links Sharpton, Thurmond Families

As is often the case, understanding a historical truth through a more personalized lens brings home the sheer evil of the past.

From the New York Daily News:

In a revelation that will stun the nation, the Rev. Al Sharpton, one of America's most powerful black leaders, has unearthed a shattering family secret - his ancestors were slaves owned by relatives of the late South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond.

It is an ironic twist of fate that inexorably links one of the most vocal civil rights activists and an icon of Deep South segregation.

... The Rev. Al Sharpton sat silently in the sanctity of his Manhattan radio studio as his family's roots were laid bare before him.

With each revelation, the feeling of disbelief grew. His lips drew thin and his face tightened as the findings, projected onto a beige wall, brought home the enormity of the moment.

Sharpton - one of America's most vocal and prominent civil rights campaigners, a man who has dedicated most of his grown life to furthering the cause of the black community - was stunned to learn how his history was bizarrely intertwined with a man with whom on the surface he had nothing in common - the late right-wing Sen. Strom Thurmond.

It is a history linked in the degradation and cruelty of the slave trade in the South - a history that Sharpton himself was totally unaware of until this week.

...In a series of numbing revelations, Sharpton learned how:

  • His great-grandfather, Coleman Sharpton, was a slave in South Carolina.
  • Coleman Sharpton, a woman and two children - believed by genealogists to be his wife and kids - were given as a gift to Julia Thurmond, and were forced to move to Florida.
  • Julia Thurmond's grandfather is Strom Thurmond's great-great-grandfather.
The late Senator Thurmond's family is having none of it, however:

Relatives of the late Sen. Strom Thurmond greeted news of the family's shocking connection to the Rev. Al Sharpton yesterday with some nervous chuckles and one outright denial.

"That's a bunch of baloney," said Barry Bishop, the son of one of Thurmond's sisters.

"I've never heard anything about it," said Bishop, of Greenville, S.C.

"Well, have you seen documents?" he asked.

When told that genealogists from had located historic documents that confirmed that Sharpton's great-grandfather Coleman Sharpton was enslaved by Thurmond relatives in the 1800s, Bishop responded, "Since I don't know anything about it, I'm afraid I can't comment."

The senator's niece Ellen Senter, 61, said she had never heard of the link to Sharpton either, but questioned its relevance.

"If you go that far back in history, you're going to find lots of people connected to each other from different walks of life," said Senter, of Columbia, S.C. "In fact, I doubt you can find many native South Carolinians today whose family, if you traced them back far enough, didn't own slaves.

In another story, related to the Sharpton news primarily by its timing, the State of Virginia's assemby apologized Saturday for the state's historical role in American slavery:

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Meeting on the grounds of the former Confederate Capitol, the Virginia General Assembly voted unanimously Saturday to express "profound regret" for the state's role in slavery.

... The resolution passed the House 96-0 and cleared the 40-member Senate on a unanimous voice vote. It does not require Gov. Timothy M. Kaine's approval.

The measure also expressed regret for "the exploitation of Native Americans."

The resolution was introduced as Virginia begins its celebration of the 400th anniversary of Jamestown, where the first Africans arrived in 1619. Richmond, home to a popular boulevard lined with statues of Confederate heroes, later became another point of arrival for Africans and a slave-trade hub.

The resolution says government-sanctioned slavery "ranks as the most horrendous of all depredations of human rights and violations of our founding ideals in our nation's history, and the abolition of slavery was followed by systematic discrimination, enforced segregation, and other insidious institutions and practices toward Americans of African descent that were rooted in racism, racial bias, and racial misunderstanding."

- Garry J. Wise, Toronto
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Friday, February 23, 2007

2006 - Epstein and Madsen's This Year in Family Law

Mark Harris of DivorceMate has sent out this link to an impressive compilation of 2006's important developments in Canadian family law by Philip Epstein and Lene Madsen.

- Garry J. Wise, Toronto
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Thursday, February 22, 2007

Judge Larry Seidlin

Judge Larry Seidlin, currently being pilloried in the press for the unorthodoxies that evolved this week in his Florida courtroom, has at least one admirer in the legal profession, that being me.

I confess that I spent several hours watching the trial proceedings this week (while working on my Palm, I assure you), as the fate of Anna Nicole Smith's body was determined.

While there really was an aspect of continuing legal education in this for me - it was a rare opportunity to see a full blown trial on television in real time - the storyline and characters were also entirely compelling.

There is no doubt that every evidentiary and procedural rule in the book was thrown out the window by this Judge. He dominated the proceedings from top to bottom, spoke out of turn, and obviously, ticked off many of the media's legal pundits, who expected something more .... "dignified," as they put it.

This is slightly ironic to say the least, given the wall-to-wall tabloid-style coverage cable news itself was offering up. Ratings anyone?

Anna Nicole: Hearing Coverage Makes MSNBC #1 In Early Prime; CNN In 3rd

Here's the answer to my question about how CNN would do by ignoring Anna Nicole.

At 3pm, FNC averaged 323,000, MSNBC averaged 164,000, and CNN averaged 120,000 in the demo.

At 4pm, FNC averaged 170,000, MSNBC averaged 277,000, and CNN averaged 135,000 in the demo.

At 5pm, FNC averaged 258,000, MSNBC averaged 388,000, and CNN averaged 176,000 in the demo.

At 6pm, FNC averaged 321,000, MSNBC averaged 525,000, and CNN averaged 215,000 in the demo.

Judge Seidlin did not create the circus that emerged. Rather, he tamed it, steered it, and kept it somewhat tightly confined to a rather narrow window of time. In his own particularly charming way, he forced the parties to limit their poisonous offerings, while giving adequate and liberal leeway to all to ensure they at least had their central contentions heard.

Judge Seidlin, clearly ideosyncratic and wholly appealable from start to finish in his management of this trial, should be judged, however, by the laudible result he achieved, rather than the colourful soundbites that are likely to become instant TV-courtroom classics.

There was a bit less hate among the parties in his courtroom by the time his decision was rendered. They apparently accepted his meandering wisdoms and moved quickly after his judgment toward a cooperative resolution of at least the immediate issues surrounding Ms. Smith's burial.

How long this relative peace will last - who knows? There will probably be a few bizarre turns ahead in this very tragic matter of the late Anna Nicole Smith.

The procedural purists do not get it - where possible, this is what family court judges often do. They use their personalities, wisdom and experience to bring about resolutions that get parties talking, resolving, and moving forward.

While few of them are as "out there," of course, as was Judge Seidlin, this Judge has my vote of confidence.

At the end of the day, he helped these parties to a resolution that should have been obvious from the start. It wasn't, of course, because they weren't ready to get there. By the end, they were.

That's not Kumbaya, as suggested by many pundits. That's elegant judicial intervention.

The full text of Judge Seidlin's decision is here.

According to this story, there may be a T.V. opportunity for Judge Siedlin to follow:

The endlessly entertaining Florida judge who is hearing the Anna Nicole case has had a TV show on the brain for months. Sources say Judge Seidlin has even made a demo tape of cases that were recorded in his courtroom.

Judge Seidlin... graduated from night law school in New York. Seidlin was a taxi driver who worked his way through school. At 28, he was the youngest judge ever to be elected in Broward County. The 56-year-old judge is married with a young daughter.

More power to him if this happens. It was clear by the time his emotional Judgment was rendered that he would not have been unhappy to end his career on the bench with this matter.


UPDATE: February 23-07 CNN reports that Anna Nicole Smith decision to be appealed:

Thomas W. Pirtle, an attorney for Smith's mother, Virgie Arthur, said an appeal would be formally filed Friday in Florida's 4th District Court of Appeals.

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - A Florida appeals court issued a stay Monday in the dispute over Anna Nicole Smith's body, ruling that her remains cannot be moved to the Bahamas until the judges hear a challenge from the starlet's estranged mother.

...The court gave other attorneys in the case until 2 p.m. Tuesday to respond to the challenge.

Earlier Monday, Judge Larry Seidlin rejected Arthur's request to reconsider last week's ruling, saying he wanted to preserve Smith's dignity by having the funeral as soon as possible. Seidlin declined to speak to reporters.

WEST PALM BEACH, Florida (CNN) -- A Florida appeals court cleared the way Wednesday for Anna Nicole Smith to be buried next to her son, Daniel, in the Bahamas.

The decision by a panel of three judges with the 4th District Court of Appeal upheld a lower court ruling that gave custody of Anna Nicole Smith's remains to the court-appointed guardian for her daughter, Dannielynn.

Last week, Broward Circuit Judge Larry Seidlin awarded custody of Smith's body to Richard Milstein, whom Seidlin had appointed as guardian ad litem for the nearly 6-month-old girl.

Smith's mother, Virgie Arthur, appealed that ruling, because Milstein wants the former Playboy playmate buried in the Bahamas and Arthur wants her daughter buried in Texas with other family members.

- Garry J. Wise, Toronto
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Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Chaos Days, Video Conferencing and the Ontario Courts

The degree to which Ontario's Court system is technologically archaic might well come as a bit of a surprise to the uninitiated.

With that in mind, I am sure these comments will appear to come from left-field, as far as some in the legal profession are concerned (while many in other industries will respond, "duh - we've been doing this for years...") .

Last month, a client and I had the genuine misfortune of spending a wasted day at Newmarket Superior Court (Family Court Branch), waiting for her rather urgent motion to be called and heard.

While I don't recall the exact number of cases on the single, presiding Judge's list, it certainly exceeded 50, and clearly went far beyond the volume that could reasonably be handled by any one Judge.

By mid-afternoon, the remaining uncalled cases, including my client's, were all sent home as unreachable due to shortage of time.

It was a full court day wasted, with all litigants' limited funds squandered in an overburdened court system that did not even attempt to utter a sheepish admission of wrongdoing.

At my next appearance in Newmarket, another Judge of the same court quite openly referred to its weekly motion lists as "chaos days." Unfortunately, this is business as usual in certain courthouses in the Province.

There is a solution.

It is time to make video conferencing available for civil court motions.

It's not such a stretch - we already do this with the Toronto court by telephone (without video) for certain procedural appearances.

Imagine a system where lawyers (with clients nearby) remain comfortably in their offices, productively working, while waiting on-call for their cases to be reached. When the assigned Judge is ready, all parties are notified, and after a brief "on-deck" period, a video conference is immediately convened via our computers.

All parties can see the presiding Judge and each other on-screen. Argument is heard, the matters are addressed, a decision is rendered, and all parties' costs are kept to a minimum.

Access to justice miraculously restored. No costs to our clients for "court waiting time."

No new brick and mortar courtrooms required - just a bit of inexpensive, already-available technology that the young and the technologically-inclined are already utilizing via MSN and other similar, widely-available formats.

With enhanced security features, there is absolutely no reason why this technology cannot be adapted for use by our Court system.

This is an era, after all, where video capability allows physicians to remotely participate in consultations and even surgery through online connections.

While I am certainly not suggesting that this format is appropriate for every matter (it is not), it might be a giant leap forward to have the option.

Especially on "chaos days."

-Garry J. Wise, Toronto
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Tuesday, February 20, 2007

"OOPS, I Did it Again..."

I know it's really minutia, in the big scheme of things, but still... doesn't this sort of stuff kind of grate at you, too?

From Canadian Press (via the Globe and Mail):

WASHINGTON — President George W. Bush called for an all-out allied effort Thursday to defeat the Taliban but angered some in Canada by failing to mention its role in the deadly southern part of Afghanistan.

Mr. Bush singled out for praise countries that have recently pledged extra forces or equipment as a spring offensive looms – countries like Norway, Britain, Poland, Turkey, Denmark, Greece and Iceland.

He didn't talk about Canada, which already has a big commitment in Afghanistan and is fighting in the most dangerous areas. Canada was not tabbed for more help.

Asked about the omission, White House spokeswoman Kate Starr noted other allies like the Netherlands weren't mentioned....

In Ottawa, Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay said he didn't take offence that Canada was left out.

“I'm certain it's just, maybe, a little error,” Mr. MacKay said in French, noting U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice often praises Canada's role in Afghanistan.

Opposition leaders were far less sanguine.

“Maybe with Harper leading Canada, he thinks it's become the 51st American state,” said Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe.

“That might explain it.”

NDP Leader Jack Layton said it's time Bush started appreciating Canada's efforts. “Mr. Bush, once again, doesn't have a good grasp of the situation on the ground.”

And Liberal Leader Stephane Dion said it's unforgivable Bush neglected to mention Canada, especially after failing to thank the country for helping U.S. travellers stranded by the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

“We're taking on more than our fair share. . .of duties in Afghanistan,” said Mr. Dion. “I believe the president must immediately correct this omission.”

Said Liberal MP Denis Coderre: “With friends like that, you don't need enemies.”

Since 2002, 44 Canadian soldiers and one diplomat have died in Afghanistan. Canada has 2,500 troops with the NATO force in Afghanistan, most of them in the southern Kandahar province which has long been a Taliban stronghold.

-Garry J. Wise, Toronto

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Monday, February 12, 2007

Entering the U.S. with Your Children - Travel Information for Parents

We are often asked by parents who intend to travel with their children about new requirements at the US-Canada border.

According to Passport Canada, as of January 23, 2007, all Canadians entering the United States by air must have a valid passport. Canadians who enter the United States by land or sea can continue to use such documents as a birth certificates and drivers' licenses for at least another year.

The following are some of the essentials recommended by the Canada Services Border Agency and The United States Customs and Border Protection Office to help avoid delays or complications at the border when traveling with children after a separation. These requirements may also be applicable, absent a separation, where only one parent travels with a child.

Notarized Letter of Permission

A notarized Letter of Permission is required by the United States Customs and Border Protection Office (and recommended by the Canada Border Service Agency) to evidence entitlement to travel with a child.

In addition to including specific travel permissions, the letter must also include complete contact information for all parents or legal guardians, so that Customs officials can contact the non-travelling parent to verify or confirm any information.

The following is a sample Letter of Permission, provided for example purposes only. It will, of course, require appropriate modification to fit any individual circumstance:



I, ______________, am the lawful custodial parent of

______________ (Child's full name), born ____________ (DD/MM/YY) at ______________ (Place of birth).

The Child's Passport information is as follows:

Passport number: _________________

Date of issuance of passport: __________________ (DD/MM/YY)

Place of issuance of passport: __________________.

______________________ (Name of Person travelling with child) has my permission to travel with the said Child(ren) to visit:

________________ (Place of visit) via ______________ (any stopovers) during the period commencing ______________ (Start travel date) and returning on _____________ (End travel date).

During that period the child(ren) will be residing with:

_______________________ (Name of person travelling with child)
_______________________ (Address)
_______________________ Telephone (h)
_______________________ Telephone (w)
_______________________ Fax/Email Address

Any questions regarding this permission letter can be directed to the undersigned at:

_______________________ (Custodial Parent's Name)
_______________________ (Address)

_______________________ Telephone (h)
_______________________ Telephone (w)
_______________________ Fax/Email Address

____________________ (date) _____________________

Signature of Custodial Parent



The Letter of Permission must be notarized by a lawyer or other notary public.

It is recommended that your lawyer assist you in drafting a Letter of Permission for your particular circumstances. We also recommend that appropriate border authorities be contacted in advance of your travel dates to verify requirements, as these do change from time to time.

Other Documents

In addition to the Letter of Permission, the Canada Border Services Agency further recommends that parents carry the following documentation when travelling with children:

  • Copies of any legal custody documents (custody order, separation agreement, etc.)
  • Child's Birth certificate
  • Child's passport, visas and other immigration documents
  • If no other identification documents are available, a letter from your doctor or the hospital where the child was born, stating that you are the children's parent.
When traveling with a group of vehicles, the parent and child should travel in the same vehicle when arriving at the border.

Applying for a Canadian Passport for children under the age of 16

In cases of separation or divorce, only custodial parents may apply for passports on behalf of their children. Where a joint custody arrangement exists, either parent may apply for the children's passport, but both parents must sign the application.

During this application process, Passport Canada requires that you provide the following:
  • all legal documents that refer to custody, the mobility of, or access to the child
  • the divorce order or judgment, if a divorce has been granted
More information on obtaining a passport for a child is available from Passport-Canada here. The Canadian Passport Application form for children under 16 may be downloaded here.

Up-to-date information regarding U.S. Customs and Border requirements can be found here from the US. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Specific U.S. DHS information on travel with children is here.

- Annie Kenet and Garry J. Wise, Toronto
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Web 2.0 ... The Machine is Us/ing Us

This is a positively brilliant video essay from cultural anthropologist, Michael Wesch, of Kansas State University.
A bit outside our usual fare - and well worth a look.
And afterwards, check out this story from the L.A. Times on the ever-present problem of those who can't help trying to to game the system.
- Garry J. Wise, Toronto
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Thursday, February 01, 2007

Starting A Law Firm

I am asked from time to time about the pros and cons (and nuts and bolts) of starting a private law practice as a sole practitioner. I received an email about this a few days ago from a recently-called lawyer in Toronto, and thought it might be useful if I posted my comments here on The Blog.

Here, then, are a few thoughts for the benefit of new lawyers considering "hanging a shingle."

Pros and Cons

For the right kind of person, starting your own law practice offers the opportunity to:

  • have increased flexibility and self-determination in career, lifestyle and family choices

  • take a lead role in complex matters that might otherwise be handled by more senior members of a larger organization

  • develop an individual and distinct persona in the profession

  • avoid all the vagarities and uncertainties that are typical of any employer-employee relationship
  • sidestep the "politics" reputedly found in large firm settings

  • develop solid, direct relationships with key clients

  • relate to entrepreneurial-minded clients and prospective clients as a genuine and empathetic peer

  • enjoy the gratification of building a practise that is genuinely "yours."

  • build equity that will represent a saleable asset at the time of your retirement
Starting your own law practice will not likely mean that you will work less hours - you will probably work more hours - or that you will have less worry - you will probably have more.

Building any new business requires ongoing engagement, time and effort. If you thrive on contact with people, however, the process will likely be quite enjoyable, much of the time.

The main downside of starting on your own is obvious. It will take a while for your practice - and your income - to ramp up. The eventual benefits may well be many, but if you are unwilling or not in position to absorb a potential struggle for a year or three, it might be better to consider a different option.

The Basics - Professional and Governmental Compliance

There are some foundational basics, of course, that will be necessary to attend to at the outset:

  • Law Society membership fees must be in good standing and professional liability insurance must be maintained

  • Register your business with Canada Revenue Agency, and obtain a GST registration number

  • Work with a competent and experienced legal bookkeeper to ensure that your firm's accounting system will comply from the outset with all regulatory requirements (there are software programmes now available that address all such issues)

  • Register your firm's business name, and consider what form of business organization you will work within

  • Choose a suitable and responsive financial institution to work with, and open a General bank account and a Trust account

Business Planning - Choose Your Area(s) of Practice and Choose your Clients

I am reminded of Jack Palance's word of advice to Billy Crystal in City Slickers. Asked for his prescription for success, Palance said: "One Thing. Just do one thing, and do it better than anyone else." (O.K. I'm paraphrasing)

There is a lot to be said for that approach. "One thing" however, may not necessarily mean limiting oneself to one area of practice. It may mean focusing on one type of client, one neighbourhood, one industry's needs, or one project at a time.

Decide where you want to go, and then determine the road map for getting there.

In other words, take the time to do the necessary business planning.

But also be ready to adjust for the type of client and issue that tends to walk in your door. That will play a big role in defining how your practice will evolve.


What you will really need to start your office will be quite modest:

  • Technology - a computer, printer, internet connection, fax machine or programme, a good scanner, and the necessary software.
  • A reasonably credible mailing address that will at very least offer boardroom facilities where you can meet with your clients, if not a formal, full time office. Consider using such a mailing address/boardroom facility while working from home for the first few months to reduce immediate overhead. Many environments will be reasonable about such arrangements if approached.
  • When you are ready, share space. Look for a small office within a law firm environment that houses other lawyers who are complimentary to your philosophy and practice areas. They are your built-in mentors and referral sources, so choose carefully. Don't spend too much, but don't skimp to save $100.00 per month and find yourself in a lesser environment that offers fewer opportunities.
  • Think twice - no, think five times - before you allocate any budget to an opulent, showcase office. It is truly not necessary when starting your practice.
  • Location is something to carefully consider. There are highly-evolved business centres in virtually every corner of the Greater Toronto Area. "Downtown" still has allure with certain lawyers and clients, but it is no longer key to be located on Bay Street to establish street cred. And neighbourhood or storefront law firms also occupy an important role in serving a community directly. Overhead costs vary, as do opportunities in each area. Demographic research can be useful in understanding the many options presenting. Careful assessment of your goals, including lifestyle questions around travel time, will help guide you.
  • Once again, technology has changed everything. Get a Blackberry or Palm, and treat it like it is your primary desk. Be accessible.
  • If you don't intend to work with a laptop that you will carry around. LogMeIn and GoToMyPC are two miraculous technologies that will allow you secure, lightning-fast access to your main desktop computer via the Web from any computer in the world with internet access.
  • While many online resources discuss the "necessity" of a bank loan to start your firm, I strongly urge that any extensive financing be avoided at all costs. You are probably already carrying a numbing student loan. You don't need the added headache of a fickle banking system and revolving-door account managers whose influence and relationship with your practice may actually be quite limited.
  • As an alternate financial strategy, I suggest this: Don't spend it if you don't have it. Let your practice's organic growth dictate when and how you upgrade. Start small and grow. Don't start big and wait to catch up.
  • Go virtual from Day 1. Bell Canada (and I suspect its competitors) offers a virtual phone number option. This phone number, which will forever be yours, can be seamlessly and remotely forwarded to any land line or cell line, and can migrate with you if you subsequently relocate to any local destination.
  • Make sure you demand and get a "good," easy-to-remember phone number when you negotiate your phone service.
  • Also get a toll-free number. It is free, and you will be charged only for calls you receive on it.
  • And.. but for the occasional law firm I encounter that still "doesn't get it," I wouldn't feel the need to mention that voicemail is a necessity.
  • Go paperless. Scan every document and have it available on your computer for reference, review or printing at any time. The legal profession is rapidly migrating to email as its primary and preferred mode of correspondence with colleagues, clients and court and government offices. Email attachments are increasingly utilized to move documents from point "A" to "B." The courts will eventually move to electronic filing, just as the land registry offices and corporate filing offices already have. Get ahead of this curve.

Operating Budget

Take the time to crunch the numbers in terms of necessary expenses. You will need to cover the following essentials:

  • Law Society dues and Errors and Omissions Insurance. These can be paid monthly

  • Rent (if any)

  • Phone expense (including Blackberry or Palm), High-Speed Internet access, Quicklaw, GoToMyPC charges

  • Office supplies, postage and occasional couriers

  • Bookkeeping and accounting fees

  • The costs of any client disbursements that are not met by retainer funds paid in advance
  • At least some budget for continuing education courses in your primary area.

  • Miscellaneous and non-recurring costs.

That's it. No lunch budgets. And no filtered water coolers just yet.

And needless to say, no staff. You know how to use a computer. You know how to answer a phone. You know how to make a photocopy and send a fax. And you know how to make a phone call or send an email. Later in your career, staff will be a blessing and a necessity. They will be involved professionally in most aspects of your work and dramatically improve the quality of your firm's services and your professional lifestyle. For now, though, she who helps herself is queen.

As your practice begins, track your docketed time, billings, revenue and expenses on a daily, weekly and monthly basis. Be aware of where you are financially. As appropriate, establish goals and targets.

And take the time to notice and appreciate your small and larger successes as they happen. They will not be an accident. You will have earned them.

Finally - save for income taxes. They will come very soon - probably faster than your cash flow. They will not get paid on a prayer, and C.R.A.interest and penalties are very expensive.


Branding is more than a current marketing catchphrase. It is the public personification of your firm, and it defines the image and personality you will project to the public and the profession.

Branding is one area where I recommend allocating a bit of budget for help from a professional marketer and graphic designer. A dignified, but impactful firm logo will engender respect for you and your firm from the outset.

First impressions will make a difference.

And whether that first impression comes from a logo on a brochure, business card, or letterhead received, it will be a big part of how you are sized up. While it is true that people will recognize that you are just starting out, they will be justfiably impressed because of your branding by how "together" you have it at such an early stage, and perceive you as a bit of an up-and-comer. That is where you want to be.

Develop an internet presence. Secure your intended internet domain name right away, whether or not you will be building an extended website at first. At very least, get a starter website up using your logo and a clean and easily navigated layout. Provide a basic description of your firm, the services you offer, your relevant biography, contact information and a bit of public education about the areas of law in which you have knowledge. It is your online business card, and an absolute must.

As an even easier entry point to the internet, start a blog. There is no expense, and the publishing tools are easy to learn and master. This blog uses Google's "Blogger" service. Registration is easy. Go here to get started.

Consider providing simple services such as notarizing documents at reasonable cost to supplement your major areas of practice. Publicize this service online and through direct contact with interpreters, immigration consultants, community organizations and paralegals. Work on developing this area to build cash flow and perhaps more importantly, an email list of potential, future clients with whom you can build rapport and maintain contact through newsletters and other information pieces. This works - a former tenant of ours had a veritable, daily stream of such clients sustain and build his young practice through a well executed and thought-out internet strategy for notary services.

I have never seen the Yellow Pages as a worthwhile investment. Now that the internet and Google have arrived, they are even less so. Don't bother. You can get much better return on advertising investment elsewhere, unless you are planning to buy multiple, full-page spreads like certain well-known personal injury lawyers in this marketplace.

Finally, build your own list of personal contacts - family members, friends, professionals and lawyers in your personal circle who may be in position to steer referrals your way. And when your logo-adorned shingle - virtual or otherwise - gets hung, tell them all. Loudly. Repeatedly. Cheerfully. By email. By phone. By message in a bottle or airmail. But tell them.

Stay in touch with your clients once you have completed your work for them. Send birthday greetings. Do quarterly email newsletters. Help them to remember your firm and the various ways you may assist them and their contacts. Stay top-of-mind with your previous clients - they are your most likely clients of the future.

Give your business card out everywhere. Every clerk in every store you visit is a potential client. Say hello. Your charm will no doubt work for you every time (or at least once in a while).

Let people know what you are doing. And don't be shy about it.

Knowledge Base

While it is probably true that the profession is increasingly becoming specialized, and there is more to know now than ever before, it is equally true that information has never been easier to locate and obtain.

Law books have essentially been relegated to a rather quaint role as props to be dusted off for for lawyers' photo-ops. One of the good new developments for starting lawyers is that a law office budget for library resources need not be extensive. That used to be quite a challenge.

Statutes, topical articles, and most current Canadian court judgments are easily found online via Google and the courts' websites. Many law firms have excellent websites and blogs that contain quite extensive, high-level discussions as to many of the issues that are current in their areas of practise.

Having said that, there is still no substitute for QuickLaw when it comes to researching a specific legal issue. While I have no intention to do a "free commercial announcement" for Lexis-Nexis, the reality is that, irrespective of your area of law, with QuickLaw, the answer to any question of law is only a mouse-click away.

A monthly subscription to QuickLaw is a necessity. Budget for it.

Use all Available Resources

  • When challenges arise, ask your peers for their input.
  • Seek and explore other viewponts and perspectives, so that you can assimilate good arguments and develop strategies to counter worthy, opposing views, as required.
  • Go to Continuing Education programmes offered by the Law Society and Canadian Bar Association.
  • Get on newsletter mailing lists, to stay up-to-date. These are offered by Bar-Ex, and many law firms via their websites.
  • If you have a mentor, even better, but remember that a true mentor's role is not to give you answers. It is to offer ideas and to facilitate your process of analysis. The Law Society of Upper Canada offers a Mentorship Initiative to match lawyers with suitable mentors in their practice areas. Call them.
  • Use the internet and Quicklaw frequently for the wealth of information you will always find.
  • Ask your accountant and other experts and professionals, where you have a question.
  • And at the end of the day, get used to trusting in your own skill, judgment and instinct. It is what you are selling, and it is probably your key asset.

Serve your Clients Well

You've gone to law school, done the Bar, articled and now you're really a lawyer. That is quite an accomplishment, and in most cases means you have all the tools required for success.

A few more comments, then, on doing your job well:

  • Get used to one key reality - you won't know the answer right away a lot of the time, and you don't need to. It is perfectly reasonable and highly responsible to request adequate time to research and consider options before offering potential solutions. This will never change. It is part of your job description, and in no way implies that you don't have the right stuff.
  • Your clients come to you for solutions, but they do not usually expect quick-fixes (they've probably tried those before consulting with you).
  • Take the time required to really listen to you clients. Understand what the world looks like through their eyes, and communicate your understanding of their needs, along with your objective, professional point of view in "plain English." Use an approach that your clients can and will assimilate. Mostly, be human.
  • Read between the lines. Be diplomatic, but ask tough questions. Give bad news, where you must, but offer reassurance, support and workable advice in all circumstances.
  • Be careful about the unscrupulous client. Say "no" when your ethical thermometer tells you to.
  • From the beginning, organize your computer system so that the key information you need will always be be easily found and accessed. Colour code your paper files, if this will be helpful to you. Be in a position to get the information you need, when you need it.
  • Keep your clients in the loop. With email, that is easier than ever. There is no reason for your clients to be uninformed by you. It is bad lawyering and bad business. And all-too-often, it leads to misunderstanding and a loss of confidence by the client.
  • Be up-front about billing practises. Have written retainer agreements. Obtain adequate and reasonable retainer payments in advance. Bill regularly.
  • Keep extremely detailed time dockets of all your professional activity. Be specific about the recorded event, the time involved and the details of any discussions you have, however insignificant they may seem at the time. You may need this information later.
  • Do not let unpaid accounts continue to mount. As time goes on, collection will become increasingly doubtful.
  • There is almost no error that can't be fixed, so relax (with one eye vigilantly on the ball at all times, of course), but there is one major exception to this: Do not miss limitation dates. Institute a tickler or diarized reminder system. This type of error will be costly and generally, irreversible.
  • And finally, prepare and be prepared. When it's show time, be ready. Judges can tell if you are fumbling for information and so can your clients and opposing parties and counsel and everyone in the court. You want results. There is no substitute for preparation. And it's a nice feeling when the court reporter who has just watched you in court asks for your business card.

There is no greater satisfaction than a happy client - except, possibly, when that happy client refers someone new to you. Referrals are the ultimate vote of confidence. And they are a good measure of how you are doing in the key area of client satisfaction.

Web Resources

There are a number of tremendous online resources about starting a law firm, from various North American jurisdictions.

Here are a few:

Starting a New Firm: Top 10 Mistakes to Avoid and Top 10 Tips for Success (Canadian Bar Association - Ontario)

Getting Started: Opening Your Law Office (British Columbia Law Society)

How-To Kit: Open a Law Practice (Michigan)

Starting a Law Practice Web Directory (Oklahoma Bar Association)

My Shingle - Online Guide ( articles from various jurisdictions)


"If you build it, they will come."

So said Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams, a sentimental favourite of mine.

I remember starting out myself, back in 1986, a somewhat frightening twenty-one years ago.

I had no work to do at all, until a relative of mine who is a lawyer referred three or four cases to me, all at once, including my first family law matter.

Suddenly, it was real. I called it my "practice in a briefcase," but I was damned proud of it.

Soon, the phone rang again. A colleague from law school was working in a large firm, which needed some help on a massive affidavit of documents.

Another file.

An accountant I knew referred a client of his, a building contractor, for action in a construction-related matter.

Then, an opposing counsel in another construction matter was impressed by my cross-examination of his own client (a lying scoundrel, if there ever was one). He began to send counsel work to me.

And so on.

I still act for some of the clients I met through those early contacts.

As in any small business, there have been good years and occasional not-as-good years. And while the skill of running a bigger, but still-small practice probably will take a professional lifetime to master, it is very fulfilling to see the fruits of your work in continued growth and development.

I hope these remarks will be of some assistance to those reading them. With planning, patience and committment, it is highly likely that opening your own law practice will prove to be a decision you will be glad to have made.
Good luck.
- Garry J. Wise, Toronto
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