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February 27, 2008

"Passed the Bar - Hung a Shingle" - Michael Bace

Today's guest blogger, is Michael J. Bace, a brand new solo practitioner who didn't even wait 24 hours after being sworn in to open his doors for business.  And coming from a family of entrepreneurs, this is not surprising.  Here's his story and philosophy about practice which should be uplifting for everyone.

Guest Blogger - Michael J. Bace

Okay.  Here goes. I graduated in May of 2007, took the bar exam in July, was sworn in on November 26, 2007 - and was ready to accept clients on November 27, 2007!

I took one year off between undergraduate school  (Univ. of  New Hampshire) and law school (New England School of Law, Boston, MA).  I think my decision to go solo probably had a lot to do with my father.  He has been a self-employed general contractor for as long as I can remember.  I guess he and I both have difficulty taking orders from a boss, and prefer to be solely responsible for the quality of our work (whether it's banging nails or representing clients).  Further, I have no mortgage and no children and somehow was able to convince my wife that now was the best time to give it a shot!

When I officially decided to open my solo practice, I was given a multitude of discouraging opinions.  I heard that it would be "malpractice per se" to attempt to practice law after passing the bar exam.  Colleagues frowned, or suggested I practice for a firm for a few years to gain experience.  Recently, I was actually told that handling even a simple criminal defense would be the equivalent of a "medical school graduate performing brain surgery for the first time."  Do not listen to the negativity. 

The fact is, when you pass the bar exam in your jurisdiction, you are licensed and qualified to practice law.  You may not be as experienced, but you possess the skills to become competent in almost any area of the law given the proper research and preparation. 

More importantly, a solo practitioner is in a position to provide a number of services that large firms are not.

Flexibility & Customization -  Large firms are often inflexible, stuck in their procedures, and tend to operate for the benefit and convenience of their members, and not for the benefit and convenience of their clients. A large law firm, like any huge corporation, is eventually slowed by its own policies. A solo practitioner is not subject to this issue and, therefore, can provide service that is more responsive.  Solo practitioners can often change policies, customize forms and procedures in order to better serve the client.  As independent practice attorneys, we can adapt and change on the fly.

Efficiency - At a typical larger firm, documents and the clients attached to them are often repeatedly passed along by layers of associates, senior associates, partners, before getting the attention of a senior partner. This is a slow, inefficient, and worst of all: expensive process. The large firm can not be as sympathetic to client needs, because that is one of the ways it makes money: the billable hours of its staff. Independent practitioners cannot afford to delay or push paper. Any client is a big fish to the independent attorney. In a large firm, many clients will find they are small fish in the firm's pond, and are treated accordingly.  A solo practitioner has no small fish in his pond. Because repeat business is so desirable, and referrals are so vital, every client is important and is treated as such.  Solo practitioners are in a great position to take advantage of new technology.  We can be sitting in a coffee shop, with a laptop and access to every document in a client's file.  When the client calls our office, the call can be directed to our cell phone, the documents can be reviewed, and emails/faxes can be sent with the click of the mouse.  That's efficiency.

Personal Attention - Unlike large firms, my office is happy to have clients contact us, day or night. Clients may contact us via mail, fax, e-mail, Web site, and cell phone. Calls to my office are automatically re-routed to my personal cell phone. I strive to be accessible almost anywhere and anytime. If you use a larger firm, the chances that one of the attorneys is going to encourage a client to call them at home or on a cell phone is extremely slim.

Value - A small firm can give the client a lower cost for equal work, which is an incredible value. A knowledgeable, hungry, and motivated solo practitioner can often perform legal tasks in far less time than would be required by a law firm and its team of staff members. Large firms can give their staff a lot: beautiful mahogany offices, high salaries, yearly bonuses, catered food at meetings, golf outings at expensive country clubs, limo service home for anyone working past 5:00, in-house cafeterias, in-house gyms, expense accounts, etc. All of these amenities need to be paid by the clients. Solos do not have to pay for that kind of fixed overhead, and can pass the savings along to their clients.  Solo practitioners feel pressure to make a sustainable living, but are not bound by billable hour goals from managing partners. 

So the next time someone attempts to discourage you from entering the exciting and entrepreneurial world of the solo practitioner- tell them you think there is a real need for the kind of customization, efficiency, personal attention, and value that only you can provide.

Michael Bace

Law Office of Michael J. Bace
245 First Street, Suite 1800
Cambridge, MA 02142
508.922.8328
attybace@bacelaw.com
www.bacelaw.com

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Comments

Chuck Newton

We all need to welcome Michael Brace. I believe he has his talking points down, which is good. He has that elevator speech down as well. He has a very readable website. All of these things are good. My only advice is that young lawyers are scared of not finding sufficient businesses and are not certain of their interest, so they take this shot gun approach to their practice area. I have done this for a good number of years. What I think I have found is that some, but not many people, simply go out looking for a "lawyer". They go out looking for a resolution to a problem they might be experiencing. In short, they are not directly thinking they need a lawyer, as much as they are thinking they need to get out of this stinking marriage, or I have got to get bailed out of jail. So the message is diffused. By looking for the broadest appeal, it ends up not appealing to many. I can compare it this way. You can call it "multi-specialty", although that term is not allowed in Texas, but it is still a general practice. I am not sure how many people respond to this. You would like to believe it is similar to looking for a physician who is a general practitioner, but I do not think the comparison works well because when people are generally sick they want to get diagnosed. That is not true generally in law. They know the problem they wish to resolve. It is the old story about the executive of a drill factory that quit selling drills and started selling holes because people do not want to buy a drill, they want to create a hole. The same is true here. Also, when you are new you do not have the experience to sell yourself, so you are left with selling the individual benefits of your particular practice area. With the exception of Obama it is hard to sell no experience as a plus. For example, selling yourself focuses people on who you are, whereas selling bankruptcy as an opportunity to consolidate and lower your debt does not. It generally does not work to sell general service. So, my advice, for whatever it is worth (and I guess not that much but it is given freely and generously) is to greatly narrow your focus, stop selling yourself as a lawyer, and start selling the solution you can best provide. Pick a practice area (as narrow as possible) and pound the benefits of that home.

Stephanie Kimbro

I found your post very encouraging, Michael. I too had heard that you should not even consider practicing until having at least five or more years of experience working at a law firm. Congratulations on thinking for yourself and not caving in to the peer pressure.

Attorneys who have the drive to open solo practices have no problem finding creative ways to get the hands-on experience they need. And most can do it a lot faster than spending the first several years after law school carrying boxes for and trailing after a more experienced attorney. Mentors are necessary and invaluable, but there are other ways to acquire mentorship than working for someone else. Welcome to the profession!

David Carson

I totally agree with Chuck's comment about narrowing your focus and selling the solution you can provide. Michael's firm website looks great. He might also want to supplement it with a practice area blog or blogs.

Speaking of narrowing your focus, I stumbled upon an interesting law firm pitch today.

"Did you join the Hannah Montana Fan Club, but couldn't buy Miley Cyrus concert tickets?

Contact us for a free consultation."

I thought it was a joke, but it's not. http://www.peircelaw.com/. This is a good reminder that lawyers can (and should) be creative.

Larry

Thank you for the words of encouragement.

PerGynt

Michael has the first jump cleared in that he has overcome the fear that his peers have allowed to keep them from doing what they wish. It is important not to allow the fear of others dictate your own actions. I'm not saying that you shouldn't be cautious, just that fear is a useless and wasteful emotion in this case.
Good luck.

Jason

Michael is very inspiring. His website looks great.

Chuck has an interesting point. Although, I wonder if you can specialize in low income or rural areas? I suppose you can still specialize. Perhaps, your practice areas are just limited?

Is it more reasonable to "specialize" in two or three areas in these locations instead of merely one to make up for the modest means of the clients?

Susan Cartier Liebel

Jason,

You bring up an interesting point.

According to Wiktionary, a niche is:

(in biology) "A function within an ecological system to which an organism is especially suited."

(by extension) : "Any position or opportunity for which one is well-suited, such as a particular market in business."

Therefore, a niche in the legal profession is a particular market for which you are best suited to offer your legal services.

So, to answer you question, a niche can actually be functioning in a rural market servicing an entire community and building your practice based upon the needs of that community ie: real estate closing, family, small business incorporations, etc.

A small community lawyer (or generalist) can be a niche if the lawyer is best suited to serve that market.

Frank

Susan,

I completely agree with you. It appears to me that the "family" lawyer role has faded away in recent years. It doesn't seem like families and individuals "have" a lawyer anymore. What I mean is that people used to have one lawyer for themselves or their family who they considered to be a counselor for anything that might be legally related (selling a home, wills, someone to help when their son or daughter kicks a soccer ball through the cranky neighbors window). But today it seems like people often encounter a problem and go searching for a specific lawyer to fix that problem.

The role or "niche" I envision for my future solo practice is to be a community or family lawyer. To have clients that entrust me with their day-to-day legal encounters. Just as you said, a small community lawyer, someone that clients automatically call when they have a legal need. Typical mainstreet families rarely encounter complex legal problems such as intricate tax issues, bankruptcy, or even uncommon criminal matters, because of this I am confident that I or any other solo can build a practice as a community general practitioner

Now, there may be times when I might not be able to handle a certain matter due to its special complexity, maybe a tax problem. But I still would envision that the client call me for a consult and a referral to a specialist attorney.

All in all, I agree that you can "specialize" as a general practitioner

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