Musing on purpose

I've been a bit down about work lately and I don't fully feel like I'm making the difference in the world that I want to make.  

I'm in Social Security.  I advocate for people seeking benefits from the government.  The work is depressing because the situation is depressing.  Most of my clients wait at least two years for a hearing.  A lot of them look "lazy" and/or "just looking for a handout" from someone else's perspective.  Some of them really are scammers, trying to pull one over on the government, sometimes trying to pull one over on me; I do my best not to represent those people, but sometimes I'm deceived myself.  Anyway, most of my clients are people with some physical or mental health condition that simply gets in the way of them being able to hold down a full-time job, and in a society without enough jobs to go around anyway, the roll of the disabled is growing larger.  

I get pretty down about our society and my role in it.  We as a society (America) have been doing a pretty bad job of taking care of the weak ones; really, the chronically poor, whether they're disabled or just uneducated and under/unemployed.  We make people jump through all sorts of hoops, and we don't offer the help until you're really desperate for it.  But if we (as attorneys and activists) are honest with ourselves, the people themselves aren't always all that inspiring either.  

The reality is that I'm working to fight poverty one person at a time, and I'm only focused on a very narrow slice of the poor population; and the difference that I make to each of them is still fairly small because these benefits aren't so substantial.  I even sort of feel bad about making a living at this because my pay comes out of the checks of the poor people I'm trying to help, as though they'd be slightly better off if I didn't have to charge them for my services.  (Of course there's the back and forth on that issue, if I didn't get paid I couldn't do the work and then they'd be much worse off.)

But mostly I'm frustrated because it feels like bailing water out of the Titanic with a bucket.  

I occasionally remind myself of the parable of the starfish.  It's a simple story.  Sometimes a wave can deposit starfish (and other sea creatures) on the sand, and if they dry out before the tide comes in over them, they die.  So a little boy is walking along the beach full of starfish, millions of them, picking them up one at a time and throwing them into the ocean.  He sees an old man, who questions what he's doing.  "You'll never make a difference - there are too many for you to ever get through."  The boy picks up another starfish and tosses it into the ocean.  "I made a difference to that one."  

Sometimes I would rather be a politician or run a massive nonprofit agency making structural changes to fight institutional poverty in this country.  In the starfish metaphor, I wish I could be a wave on the ocean... or at least have a bulldozer.  Instead, I'm a small time attorney helping one person at a time get benefits.  It's slow, agonizing, heartbreaking work.  I lose a lot and I watch my clients suffer, and a lot of them aren't very pleasant to be around.  But I periodically look over the list of cases I've handled.  I'm fortunate to have lost count, somewhere in the hundreds.  I know there are plenty of much more experienced attorneys whose lists are in the thousands, but I've helped hundreds of people attain a marginally better existence.  

I'm tempted to go back through the list and pull out a phone number or two, check up on people to maybe feel some hope.  But I'm also worried what will happen if I check up on someone and find out that life isn't going well- I probably wouldn’t have anything more to offer them.  

So I have to plod on.  One hour at a time, one case at a time, one life at a time.

Exciting news

I'm very excited to announce that I'll be transitioning to an of-counsel role at Ramos & Ramos, and ramping up my roles at Pasternack Tilker, Allsup, and now primarily the office of Lewis Schwartz.  

Lewis is quite possibly the foremost solo practitioner in Social Security in Western New York, an absolute pillar of the Social Security bar.  His practice focuses primarily on appeals to Federal Court, where he is one of the most prolific and successful advocates in the Western District.  

I'm also back in the business of directly offering per diem hearing and writing services to firms across the country who need coverage for Social Security hearings and appeals.  

Ramos & Ramos

I'm excited to announce that I have officially joined the practice of Ramos & Ramos, a thriving multi-practice firm, as their Social Security specialist.  

Ramos & Ramos is "right sized" with four attorneys and a small but growing paralegal staff, and we operate in a shared space alongside solo attorneys Josh Dubs, Nicholas Hicks, and Philip Dabney.  This unique arrangement enables us to collectively cover just about every area of law that a private person may need: Ramos & Ramos has specialists in personal injury, family law, real estate, and now Social Security; and our co-located colleagues together add wills trusts and estates, bankruptcy, criminal defense, and administrative law.  

Why me?

Why go with James for your SSI claim? 

There are more lawyers and more law firms than ever before. 

You are constantly bombarded with ads on TV, radio, and billboards. So by now you know pretty well what they all say. What aren't they saying?

At many large firms, your case may not be much more than a number or a statistic in a computer. You might not even get to speak to an actual attorney before your day in court, and he may or may not have seen your file before then. It's very easy to make a claim in an ad, and it's just as easy to hire a squadron of attorneys and paralegals to treat each case like a disposable product in a factory. 

Many large firms can claim a lot about their numbers. Many of those numbers are true. Maybe they really have represented more claimants than anyone else. Maybe they are the biggest, with the most lawyers and the most efficient process. But is that the approach that is right for your case?

One thing that I'll admit right up front: I haven't handled as many cases as any firm with a one-digit phone number or a national ad campaign. Instead, I remember the faces and stories of each of the hundreds of clients that I've helped resolve their legal needs. 

I don't have a close working relationship with the internal lawyers at the big insurance companies. What I have is the time and dedication to form meaningful connections with my clients, and the skill and finesse to defuse tough negotiations and advocate on your behalf no matter who we must face. 

I don't have a six or seven figure advertising budget. What I do have is a personal stake in making sure that each and every client leaves happy enough to enthusiastically recommend my services to their friends and relatives. 

I don't have thousands of clients fighting for my time or hundreds of customer service workers to read you my computer system. What I have is a personal relationship with each client, and what you have is direct access to your attorney. 

I know that each case is different in subtle ways. You aren't just a number or a pattern. Your case and your life matter to me. 

My promise to you:

I will treat you with respect and dignity throughout the process. 

I will keep you informed about what's going on with your case. 

I will do my best to expedite your claim. 

I will be up front and honest with you about your claim, setting clear and realistic expectations. 

I will work on your case personally. 

If you have questions about whether a solo practitioner is the right representative for your case, feel free to ask and I promise that I will give you the straight answer that you deserve. 

Flat rate legal services

Paying for legal services is scary.

Lawyers can be expensive.  Legal fees can be unpredictable.  Expenses can quickly mount.  Up-front retainers can be hard to gather.  

Flat rate services are a new and rapidly trending option in paying for legal services, that can control the magnitude and predictability of costs.  

The way it works is simple.  The lawyer and client discuss the scope of the legal services that are needed.  The lawyer presents a price, typically from a prearranged "menu" of services, and the client pays the fixed price up front.  The lawyer remains on the case until the task is done, and if other tasks are required, the process can start over.  

For many types of matters, this will save clients money, but more importantly, it removes the uncertainty and confusion of the process.  With a flat rate service, you know what you're spending before you commit to a certain practice, and before you part with a dime.  No large retainers.  No waiting for a bill.  Just a lawyer who works for you to do what you have paid him or her to do.  

There are some potential downsides to flat-fee billing, of course.  Everything has a downside.  Sometimes a flat fee can have a higher cost than the billable hours method.  Sometimes a flat fee may not cover everything that a client ultimately decides that they want.  And there are sometimes matters that are too inherently complicated for a flat fee to make sense.  Flat fees also require that fees be paid up front, which may not be feasible for some clients and some types of matters.  But for those cases, many flat-fee firms still offer contingency fees when they are needed.  For most clients, flat fees will simplify the process and take away the stress and worry of not knowing what the bill will say.  

I've decided to start offering a menu of flat-rate legal services for all of the types of matter in which I engage.  Social Security and Worker's Compensation will remain on contingency fee only, as the fee structures for those types of cases are prescribed by law, which doesn't allow lawyers to engage in alternative fee structures.  But for business contracts, letters, research tasks, traffic and misdemeanor defense, and administrative filings, flat rates will be available immediately.  


Systematic File review: an approach for efficiently managing a Social Security practice

To manage a Social Security practice effectively, it is essential to have a system in place for routinely reviewing cases in order to make important case decisions.  In order to win cases, you need to know what you have, what you need, and how you will get it.  To concentrate your efforts where they will be most fruitful, you should first have a system in place to identify and "sort" your cases. 

In a "volume business", cases will broadly fall into three categories.

Category 1 is the "Good" cases. In triage, these cases are not only meritorious on the asserted facts, but the evidence is well-developed. These cases need minimal attention. Proper diligence on a case like this is to quickly settle it. Get the client their money, get the firm their fee, and take it off the docket.

Category 3 is the "junk" cases. These are cases that either lack merit even on the alleged facts, have such significant evidentiary issues that the case is likely futile, or have client problems that merit cutting losses. All of these cases should be identified as soon as possible and jettisoned, generally by withdrawing the representation. Exit and don't look back.

That leaves category 2: the "work" cases. These should be the bulk of clients in the first place: claims which would be meritorious on the alleged facts, but which need work to complete the evidence. This is where an advocate gets to be really effective. In a "work" case, the advocate review identifies the strategy of the case, identifies the likely sources of evidence, and plans the timeline of the case.

Identifying the category of case is essentially step 0 to managing an effective volume practice. Knowing what you are working with will allow you to efficiently utilize your resources and effectively advocate for your clients.

So how do you identify the cases?  

It’s important to remember that these categories are somewhat fluid, except category 3.  2s become 3s if development reveals that the allegations will not be supported.  2s become 1s when development is completed and the facts and argument are supported. 1s become 2s if an unexpected problem develops, or if the firm fails to act before evidence gets stale.  

If a case is properly identified as a 3, then it should not be revisited.  The purpose of a “jettison” category is twofold.  First, it helps the client to guide their personal decision making.  When a client has a category 3 case, a good attorney enters the "counselor at law” role to advise the client that they do not have a viable claim, and should direct them to the appropriate alternative resource, whether that is a rehabilitation resource, an appropriate medical source, or a different type of claim.  Second, the jettison helps the firm to efficiently target resources where they are likely to be fruitful.  Attorney and paralegal time, as well as expense expenditures, are nominally scarce resources, and shouldn’t be squandered.  Every resource that is spent on a 3 raises the cost of the 2 and 1 cases, because those cases are now sharing resources with wasted efforts.  So keeping bad cases going is bad for the client and it’s bad for the firm.  It’s also a failure of several ethical duties.  

A case that is a 1 should be expedited.  The same reasoning applies here as in 3: it is good for the client, and good for the firm.  There can be no doubt that a client with a meritorious claim is better off the sooner they get paid.  Some firm managers may question whether it is good for the firm, though.  In contingency fee matters, resolving a matter quickly may actually result in a lower fee payment, and sometimes that fee reduction is disproportionate to the amount of effort saved.  But if they are not expedited, evidence goes stale, the client gets more frustrated, and the case is moved back to category 2.  

Arguably, expediting 1 cases might cost more resources, as the firm would need to invest a burst of attorney time on the motion for summary judgment; in social security hearings, this might actually take more attorney time than simply going to the hearing.  This is an area where a firm needs to consider other aspects of their practice model.  Does reputation matter?  Is there a possibility of client referrals coming from expedited cases?  Is ethical duty a priority over fee considerations?  If the answer to any of these is “yes”, then there’s not really a choice here.  Category 1 cases must be expedited.  It’s not optional.  

So that brings us to category two, which is worthy of its own articles.