I’ve received ten of these emails in the past year from the Babbs Law Firm based in Orlando, Florida:

“Good morning Attorney Turco,

 My name is Terrylle, and I am reaching out on behalf of the Babbs Law Firm in Orlando, Florida. I found your name looking for lawyers in the Southern District of Iowa for possible establishment of a local counsel relationship with our outside law firm. The Babbs Law Firm does foreclosure defense in Florida and Washington, DC, but has recently expanded to serve homeowners nationwide. The Babbs Law Firm is looking for attorneys to serve as local counsel, or co-counsel, in many jurisdictions around the country.  I’m contacting your firm to find out if your firm might be interested in working with Babbs Law Firm as cases arise in your area. If we have a need to serve a client in your area, we want to have local counsel, or co-counsel, lined up and ready to go.”    

I really had no idea who Sam Babbs was until I saw a new case issued by the South Carolina bankruptcy court imposing sanctions on the Babbs firm.

There has been an avalanche of these types of cases issued throughout the county in recent years and almost all of them involve a highly entrepreneurial attorney who markets bankruptcy services through the internet.  Bankruptcy law is particularly suited for this type of advertising since bankruptcy petitions are fairly generic and the process of preparing a case can be standardized much like Henry Ford did with the assembly line.

The fact is, successful bankruptcy attorneys do create assembly lines.  Smart attorneys should create streamlined preparation methods. They should automate the process to achieve a standard level of excellence for every case prepared.

So it comes as no surprise that our field increasingly sees regional or national firms entering local markets. They advertise well. They are internet savvy. They use telephone salespeople to quickly sign up new customers. Necessary documents can be faxed or emailed or uploaded to a central case preparation factory anywhere in the world.

But these new firms lack one thing: a local attorney to represent clients at the bankruptcy court hearing.

The challenge for these high-tech law firms is to figure out how to create a network of local counsel to show up at court. Warm bodies are needed, and, quite frankly, that is about the only qualification required.

The results of this spoke-and-wheel legal structure is predictable.

  • Clients get lost in the shuffle. They don’t know the name of the attorney who represents them.
  • Local counsel rarely meets the client prior to the bankruptcy court hearing.
  • Bankruptcy petitions are prepared by staff in the central national office.
  • Petitions are prepared by non-attorney staff who lack any courtroom experience and who are compensated by the number of cases prepared instead of the quality of the cases.
  • Communications with the firm are limited to telephone calls with no one person or team assigned to the case. You talk to a new person on the phone every time.
  • Petitions are frequently bare-boned and lack important details to explain the case to the court trustee.

Read the entire Babbs case and all these shortcomings are revealed.

What these national firms don’t  seem to understand is that they have their organizational structure backwards.  The key to a successful national firm is not centralized operations but empowerment of the local counsel.

A national firm should used its centralized powers of technology, advertising, organization and finance to empower local counsel.

A smart national firm should immediately route new customers to speak with local attorneys. Instead keeping costs down by hiring the cheapest local attorney to show up in court, national firms should seek out enterprising local attorneys  who want a partner to handle advertising, technology, accounting and routine management duties so that they can focus on their role of representing clients. Talented local partners do not just want a token payment for being a warm body. They want ownership of their work and profits.

A savvy national firm that empowers its local partners would have a multiplier effect. The national office could answer phones and provide extra paralegal services and provide a template for standardized excellence in service. When times are busy the national office could inject extra personal to prepare cases. When times are slow a national office could tap local counsel to help out other local counsel in busier regions.

A national firm that focuses on making the local partner successful by enabling them to provide superior service is the blueprint for success. But this cannot be achieved if the national leader thinks like a fast food franchisor.

In my firm all new clients speak to an attorney who is then assigned their case for the duration of the matter. We work in teams, and a paralegal is partnered with each attorney to provide clients with an attorney/paralegal team that follows them through every step of the case. You always know who handles your case.  This is the most expensive way to structure a bankruptcy firm, but it also produces the highest quality of work and client happiness.

I’m not interested in being a warm body for the Babbs firm. No self-respecting attorney would.