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October 01, 2008

Going Solo - Confessions and Inspirations - Sergei Lemberg

It is often discussed that solo practitioners will do best by being laser-focused on a niche. While great minds differ on this topic (as I believe success in choice of practice areas is unique to each individual), Sergei Lemberg has cornered the market on a unique and highly specialized niche - lemon law.  The reason this niche intrigues me is everyone is a potential customer and it is positioned as a national practice with extensive and efficient use of technology.  When you provide a legal service that everyone may have to use that crosses all socio-economic lines that's quite a niche. 

Guest Blogger - Sergei Lemberg

Why I Went Solo

By Sergei Lemberg

I went solo because I realized I hated working for other people. After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania Law School in 2001, I passed the bar in New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. I followed the course that many recent grads take, and spent five years working for a series of major law firms. I was a corporate associate in the New York office of Boston-based Mintz Levin, then a bankruptcy associate at the New York office of Houston-based Andrews Kurth, and finally a bankruptcy/litigation associate at what is now the 400-lawyer firm of Day Pitney in Stamford, Connecticut.

Working for large firms representing corporate clients embroiled in litigation or bankruptcy wasn’t as fulfilling as I had hoped; I yearned for the opportunity to do well by doing good, through having an impact on individuals’ lives. To be honest, I was also ready to regain control over my own life. I wanted to make my own decisions, have my own clients, and run my own cases. I soon discovered that I wanted the flexibility of running my own shop, and started the process of pinpointing practice areas that interested me.

I knew I was looking for something other people weren’t doing – something that had less competition and that would allow me to distinguish myself. During law school, I was captivated by Article 2 of the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC), which covers the sales of goods. I was drawn to contract law because of its complexity as well as the ways in which it reflects human nature. I felt strongly that Article 2 of the UCC made contract law come to life, making it accessible and understandable.

http://www.ag.arkansas.gov/images/lemon.gifBut my foray into lemon law was largely due to luck. A friend of my mother’s knew a lawyer in Georgia who practices lemon law, so I called him and he suggested it as a practice area. I was intrigued. I quickly came to realize that auto manufacturers never, ever accommodate consumers who don’t have legal representation. I understood that I could help people resolve a devastating problem and move them to a better place.

My satisfaction comes from knowing that I can positively affect my clients’ lives by using the legal process to force manufacturers to take back defective vehicles or offer consumers a substantial settlement. I also appreciate that the law dictates that manufacturers pay for legal fees, so that my clients are not further burdened in the process of seeking redress for their defective vehicles.

But I still faced the challenge of building my own practice. I chose Stamford, CT as a location because it’s convenient and because there aren’t many other cities around. I started by subleasing an office from another lawyer. I hired a part-time lawyer quickly thereafter. I’ve got what could be referred to as adult ADD, so I can’t focus very well on legal work. I felt it was a weakness, so I hired someone good at it, to make sure that my work is up to par and is completed in a timely manner.

I have clients from all over the country and rarely see clients in person, so technology has been an important component in making my practice work. I advertise using Google AdWords, share documents on Google Docs, and use VOIP for my office phone system for on site and off site staff.

It took about a year to become known in the lemon law niche. But I have this quirky love of marketing, and was ready to make my own firm fly. Marketing is key to building a law practice - or any other business. I'm not shy and I love to promote myself, because I believe my legal skills can make a difference in peoples' lives. Lawyers are frequently shy about self-promotion, but take a look around.... Is Pepsi shy? Is Nike shy? Is Sony shy? Is Stop & Shop shy? No. Businesses advertise. That's the engine in the American economy. I got lucky when I reached out to the New York Daily News and they did a profile on me. But, as in baseball, luck finds those who play hard, and I reached out to the press and made a concerted effort to bring this area of law to their attention. It worked, and I’m glad it did.

I think young lawyers sometimes let fear overtake them. They don’t go out on their own because they are afraid they won't get clients, their clients won't pay them, their work won't be good enough, they won't know what to do, or they'll get sued for malpractice. My suggestion? Follow the Lemberg Maxim No. 1 - Just Do It (I think I stole it from Nike). Focus on where you want to be in five years, not on what you cannot or don't know how to do. You can hire people for that. You can't hire anyone to fight for your professional satisfaction, but you can hire lawyers to do your legal work, secretaries to type, accountants to do your bookkeeping, marketing consultants to help with marketing, etc. In other words, don't let your fears dictate the direction of your career. Instead, let your dreams and your aspirations dictate your career choices.

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