Tax on Legal Services in PA

There’s no time to passively wait on this issue, folks.   Seniors are heavily in favor of tax on legal services, as it will replace property tax, and make it more affordable to hold onto their homes when limited to social security. Pennsylvania Realtors (“PAR”) are also heavily pushing this tax “reform” because the real estate tax is a factor which can impact a buyer’s decision for one residence or another.  They have a well-funded PAC, and it’s alleged that among the various groups which have put this bill forward, there is $1,000,000 or more in financing pushing it forward.

On the other hand, the Pennsylvania Bar PAC has about $250,000.  Outnumbered in voices, and crushed by the funding disparity, it’s not looking good right now. The sales tax in PA will increase from 6% to 7% under SB 76.  Sales tax on legal services would be 7%.

Tax guru Kelly Phillips Erb, Esquire, makes another point:

To be clear, it’s not just sales taxes that would increase in the Commonwealth. Personal INCOME taxes in the Commonwealth will also increase in order to offset the loss in property tax revenue (likely landing somewhere around 4.25% eventually – a rate that is higher than the rate of personal income growth). That boost, together with the increase in sales tax base, will not be enough to offset the difference as initially determined by the Independent Fiscal Office. The IFO – which looks at data but does not support or oppose a position – did a rather thorough analysis of the proposal
last year.

Let your voice be heard.  Contact your Senator and express your opposition to Senate Bill 76PBA can’t do it alone.   Not only will this tax have a chilling effect on access to legal services for those of marginal income, but it will be an administrative nightmare for law firms, particularly solo and small firms.

Imagine if you have to pay sales tax when billed, but you don’t actually collect it (or your fees) for months.  Does your billing software even have the capability to charge tax?  Most do not.  That’s because there are only 3 states in the nation which tax legal services: Hawaii, New Mexico and South Dakota – which takes the form of a gross receipts  tax in each state.    Apparently FLA had a tax on legal services, but repealed it due to problems in administration.  Read the ABA statement.

Security Issues on iPhone 5s

Attorneys who use the iPhone 5s should refrain from enabling Touch ID.  There have already been two patches in response to two security flaws.  But tech experts feel that the Touch ID feature is still a risk for phones carrying confidential client information.  Michael Pham of Winstead Attorneys has some insights in a post on the WinTech blog.  He suggests that employers implement strict written policies and  procedures that require employees to keep their mobile devices current with the latest  software updates concerning security, and that they notify the company the  minute a phone goes missing.  Wise advice.  I also recommend that remote swipe be enabled before any client information is synched to the phone.

It’s important for firms to take proactive steps to protect confidential client data.  Failure to take reasonable precautions could spell malpractice.

Job Opening – Law Firm Office Administrator

Solnick & Levin is a small law firm in Jenkintown, PA with a busy personal injury and workers’ compensation practices.  They have a job opening for a Law Firm Office Administrator.

The firm, which currently has 4 attorneys and 6 staff, is growing and will be nearly doubling its footprint into space adjacent to their existing office.  The expansion project is expected to launch in April.  The responsibilities include human resources management, facilities management, and management of accounts payable and accounts receivable.  Interested candidates should submit their resume and salary requirement to Mindy Levin, Esq. via email.  No calls or walk-ins.  The firm offers health insurance and 401(k); salary is commensurate with experience.

A Guide for the Surviving Spouse

Lancaster, PA attorney Patti S. Spencer is a nationally recognized Trusts, Estates and Taxation Lawyer, Writer and Expert Witness. Her areas of concentration include trusts: estate administration, settlement, and planning; inheritance tax: fiduciary liability,  and tax planning.  A recent issue of her e-Newsletter “Taxing Matters” has a very practical Guide providing advice for a surviving spouse.  For example, item #5 of a total of 17 tips is:

Don’t start giving things away.  Until you know what your legal rights and responsibilities are and what your spouse’s will and other estate planning documents require, don’t give away or destroy any personal possessions or any other belongings of your deceased spouse.

Read the rest on your own here.  You may want to print it to PDF and save it for future reference.

If you’re currently grieving, you may also want to read my article “Stranger at the Door.”  You’ll be glad you did.  Have a hanky ready!

How One Keystroke Can Undo Your Deal — Confidentiality:

What does a teenager have in common with confidentiality?  Absolutely nothing.  Today’s youth live out their lives on social media without a thought of consequences from sharing every thought and action.  Following is a guest blog by Wayne, PA employment lawyer Robin Bond.  Read about how a college-age daughter’s Facebook post cost her father $80,000. These are your
employees and clients, folks.  Make sure they understand the meaning of the term “confidential.”

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When a company and an employee sign off on a deal or settlement agreement, “confidentiality” about the terms of that agreement is often a key condition for payment. That means “keeping quiet” — and keeping your social media fingers, and those of your children, off the keys!

In Gulliver Schools, Inc. v. Snay, Patrick Snay’s lawyers negotiated a settlement of his age discrimination and retaliation claims; however, confidentiality was a key term for payment of $80,000.  Snay told his college-age daughter that the case “was settled” and that he was “happy with the result.” Snay’s daughter did what many of her age would do: she immediately went to her Facebook page and posted the following message: “Mama and Papa Snay won their case against Gulliver. Gulliver is now officially paying for my vacation to Europe this summer. SUCK IT.”

Snay’s daughter — a Gulliver alum – had approximately 1200 Facebook friends, and many of these were current or former Gulliver students as well - the exact population Gulliver did not want to know about the settlement. The school withheld the payment to Snay and the Court sided with the school, on the basis that the daughter’s social media posting violated her father’s duty of confidentiality under the settlement agreement.

Disaster Planning, Prevention and Recovery — Free Seminar

I am pleased to let you know that the Greater Philadelphia Professional Counsel will be presenting a seminar on Disaster Planning on Wednesday, March 19, 2014.  Registration and free breakfast begins at 7:45 – 8:30 am.  The seminar will run from 8:30 am to 10:00 am.  There is no charge for the seminar, but pre-registration is required.

It will be held at the Hilton Garden Inn in Fort Washington, PA.  I will be one of the panel members.  Additional information and registration can be found at info@gppcouncil.org.

I hope to see you there!

Coaching for PA Lawyers to Improve Marketing and Other Skills

My first major step onto the coaching soapbox came in the form of an article entitled “Coaching to Improve Skills,”  which appeared in the December 3, 2007 issue of The Pennsylvania Bar News.  I wrote it because I was sick and tired of hearing attorneys say that if an attorney did not instinctively know how to market, they would never learn.  It’s just wrong.

Most attorneys are not instinctively good at marketing.  However, marketing is very much a learned skill.  Any attorney is capable of learning how to become an effective rainmaker, or at least a strong contributor to a firm’s efforts.

The fact is that Baby Boomer attorneys grew up in a rapidly expanding marketplace.   Individuals and companies were happy to find an attorney who did decent work, and had a nice “bedside” manner.  That’s about all that was required to grow one’s practice through word of mouth.  There was plenty of room for new attorneys to try one methodology or another, and make mistakes along the way to honing one’s skills in asking for legal work, and referrals to new clients.  Those who chose not to do so were able to make partner by serving the needs of other partners’ clients.  Those “worker bees” chose not to develop skills outside their comfort level, because they didn’t need to do so in order to succeed.  That doesn’t mean that they weren’t capable of doing so.  Maybe they would have needed some assistance to get there, but if motivated, they could have.

When the marketplace leveled off, development of marketing skills started to become a determinant of who would make partner, and who would not.  Firms would invest enormous resources in helping attorneys develop professional skills.  But when the same attorneys did not “naturally” develop marketing skills by a certain point in their career, they were cut loose, on the assumption that they were a lost cause.  Such a shame.  Many who were cast aside went on to develop the skills out of necessity, in order to survive on their own.  Some did better than others, but most managed to survive in the profession.

Now that we’re in a highly-competitive, contracting marketplace, there is even less room for experimentation and trial and error in client development.  Smart firms are realizing that training in this area is as necessary as any other area.  And let’s keep in mind that real learning by lawyers is acquired by “doing” and not by “studying” about it.  That means one must know what to do, how to do it, and then practice and perfect the skills.

For many attorneys, coaching can provide the difference between success and failure.  And that doesn’t apply just to development of rainmaking skills.  Coaches work directly with attorneys to help them create a personal action plan.  They help attorneys identify what is holding them back, and develop strategies to overcome the roadblocks.

I have searched for coaches I can recommend for many years.  Most that I have met over the years do not meet my expectations.  It’s not about the credentials; it’s about the person and their methodology.  I have a few I can recommend to PA Bar Members.  Some focus just in marketing.  Others in more general areas contributing to success.  However, I was recently so impressed by one in particular, I will mention her here.

We became acquainted through LinkedIn.  After some e-conversation, we met in person.  Obviously I was impressed.  So let me recommend you take a look at the credentials of Dena Lefkowitz.  If you decide to call, tell her Ellen sent you.  I don’t get any referral,  just satisfaction knowing attorneys are getting the additional skill training they need to be successful.

 

Twitter username worth $50k?

A very interesting article on CNET News caught my attention.  The headline “Coveted $50,000 Twitter username swiped in tale of woe” intrigued me on more than one level.  First, of course, are the security issues.  Definitely read the article, and track back to the blog post, to get an idea of how vulnerable your online accounts can be.

Second, was the fact that a username could have such a value.  Maybe it’s time to start thinking creatively and reserving free account names that may become desirous later.  Hmmm . . . wonder if @Personal_Injury is available?

Although the latest update to the story includes a strong denial from PayPal about divulging information which allowed the hacker to hijack the user’s accounts, I tend to believe the user, Naoki Hiroshima.  There are tons ways a “confused caller” can get small bits of information over the phone; enough to later claim an account.

PayPal’s name has been associated with all sorts of online fraud, almost since they first started.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s not PayPal itself, but nefarious individuals who have exploited their name for phishing and identity theft schemes since day one.  For that reason alone, I have long advised attorneys to use something other than PayPal for credit card service (merchant account) their clients can use to pay.  Just the association to the name still leaves a chill of risk for many who remember the horror stories.

When Fee Exceeds Value

I present a number of seminars to PA attorneys in which I strongly make the point that billing is more art than science; however if an attorney approaches it from the perspective of  hours x rate = You owe me, the lawyer has missed the point.  From the client’s point of view, it’s about value received being equal to or greater than dollars billed.  I additionally stress that billing should  not be deemed a chore, but rather an opportunity to communicate ones continued value to the client.

Read this ABA Journal Law News Now article entitled “Judge scolds BigLaw over fee request for research on ‘basic and banal’ legal principals.” In a matter which was worth approximately $40K, the firm billed $126K, and asked the court to make the client pay.  Really?  It isn’t obvious that this was excessive to someone, anyone, at that firm who touched this transaction?  I hope the firm involved is sufficiently embarrassed by the ensuing bad press.  (This story has appeared online in several notable publications.) They obviously  have no notion of value from a client’s perspective.

I have frequent conversations with attorneys who tell me horrific stories of having referred cases for trusted clients to other attorneys they think they know well, only to be contacted later by that same client who is angry over the referral.  In 9 out of 10 cases it has nothing to do with skill, but rather “blowing through retainers in a heartbeat,”  “billing an amount far in excess of the value of the matter,” and “failing to communicate regarding the investment status of outstanding time/costs until the matter is a done deal.”

Every lawyer, regardless of the number of years in practice, should be required to read Jay Foonberg’s book “How to Draft Bills Clients Rush to Pay” at least once.  You can buy it from the ABA bookstore here.

 

 

Custom Apps Created by Law Firms – Brilliant Marketing

A terrific next step in education-based marketing strategy is the law firm mobile device app, designed to address a specific client need.  Law Technology News recently reported on  apps designed by Latham & Watkins and O’Melveny & Myers, to inform users about anti-bribery and anti-corruption laws.

The Latham & Watkins iPhone and iPad app, which is called the AB&C  Laws Application, was launched on  July 18th.  It is free from Apple Inc.’s iTunes app store. The app serves as a reference tool informing users about anti-bribery and anti-corruption laws  in major jurisdictions around the world. In November, 2012,  O’Melveny & Myers released a similar app with a more narrow scope, which focuses exclusively on the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practice Act (FCPA).  The app can be downloaded free from  Apple Inc.’s iTunes app store. (search: “OMM FCPA”), and is designed for use on the iPhone® and iPad® devices. According to a firm spokesperson, the app has been downloaded 550 times since it  was launched.

More firms are jumping on board to develop apps.  Fox Rothschild launched its New Jersey Divorce app in June 2013, after taking six months to build it.

I completely agree with legal marketing guru Micah Buchdahl, owner of marketing company HTMLawyers, who is quoted saying, “there are more law firm apps on the market than people may realize. But that  doesn’t mean they are all effective. . . . The reality is that most of these apps that the law firms have developed have  very small usage and really it’s just about saying that you have one . . . If a firm does create an app, the best bet is to be practice-area specific . . . the apps have come down in price and can cost between $5,000 and $25,000 to  create, depending on the app’s sophistication.”

I didn’t say this was a cheap strategy.  I said it was a smart one.

Most firms don’t have the internal resources to develop an app.  Latham & Watkins and O’Melveny & Myers had the talent on staff.  I’m not sure whether Fox Rothschild did their own design work on the app, but suspect they did.  When West Virginia-based Spilman Thomas & Battle, which has an office in  Pittsburgh, decided to develop a human-resources-focused app, they turned to  Pittsburgh-based Quest Fore for assistance.  They launched their app, SuperVision in early July, 2013.

There is no doubt that we’re just scratching the surface of the development of law firm apps which are actually useful to clients, rather than being a glorified advertisement for the firm.  Right now this is a strategy which requires a significant investment of time and dollars.  Given increased demand by law firms,  I anticipate that tools will be developed which will make app development an affordable strategy for smaller firms.

 

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