Running Small Law Firms Brings Challenges, Benefits for Oklahoma Attorneys

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Some small Oklahoma law firms are not following the trend of smaller practices and solo legal practitioners opting for flat-fee arrangements with clients.

How to set fees is just one key decision that Tim McKinney of Guthrie has had to wrestle with as a new attorney.

"It's my opinion that anybody that tells you they're doing a flat fee is still basing that upon experience and how many hours they think it will take," said McKinney, in practice since October 2005.

McKinney said he would be surprised if many flat fees are being quoted for contested divorce cases, for example.

"I do uncontested divorces, with children or without children, for a flat fee," he said. "But I also tell them that if this becomes contested, then there's going to be an hourly charge. I think it could be dangerous, on the domestic end of it in particular, quoting flat fees."

McKinney also does flat-fee criminal work, unless a case goes to trial, as well as probate cases.

One of McKinney's law professors advocated for flat fees as being fairer to clients than the traditional billable-hour approach, but McKinney's not so sure.

"I think in a lot of aspects it's not as fair to the client," he said of the flat fee, "if the attorneys are actually billing the hours that they're working on things, rather than inflating their hourly rate."

McKinney's practice involves a combination of flat fees and hourly rates, depending upon the case and the amount of work involved.

He said it's good for a client to know how much he or she is going to pay, but that does not work in all situations.

Particularly in domestic cases, he said, some clients need a lot of handholding and will "burn up the phone."

McKinney said pricing his services has been a big issue for him in his new practice.

"Most of the time, I'll end up doing it the first time for a lot less than what it's probably worth," he said.

Attorneys tend to be pretty tightlipped about what they charge, he said.

"But eventually it gets back to you how much so and so quoted them, so you can feel a little more at ease about your pricing," he said.

McKinney, treasurer of the Oklahoma Bar Association General Practice/Solo and Small Firm Section, answers his own phone at his one-lawyer practice.

However, he said he knows veteran Guthrie attorneys who choose not to have a secretary or receptionist.

"That's kind of what I find in this town," McKinney said. "When clients call here, they don't want to talk to the receptionist, they want to talk to an attorney."

He said that technology makes it easier for a solo practitioner to do his or her own paperwork, legal forms and research, a lot of it is now accessible online.

Not that operating a one-man operation doesn't have its drawbacks.

"You don't have anybody to cover for you if need to be in Oklahoma and Logan county at the same time," he said.

Still, McKinney is his own boss and can set his own hours and take a break now and then, within reason.

"My clients still drive that to some degree," he said.

Another plus, McKinney said, is that the benefits of all his work and effort come directly to him, not to someone else.

Ponca City attorney Brian Hermanson, chairman of the OBA's solo and small practice section, also runs a one-attorney firm. …