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January 23, 2009

Going Solo - Confessions & Inspirations - Jeena Belil

Life after Big Law actually exists even if you are laid off unexpectedly.  This is the story of Jeena Belil:

Guest Blogger - Jeena Belil

Going Solo After Layoff?  Yes, It Can Be Done!

In 2004, I was the Managing Attorney for a small New York Insurance Company.  By September of 2007, my entire department was laid off as a result of a “reduction in force”.  It would only get worse for law firms and legal departments in large companies during 2008 and we have not seen the last of it.  You may be working in a law firm right now and silently freaking out over what is to become of your job, but you may not have to.  Now may be the perfect time to go solo.  I did, and I’ll never go back.  It can be done.  Here are five things I did to get my practice up and running:

1. I changed my paradigm and got out of my comfort zone.  One philosophy I had while managing employees was, don’t ever take it personally that people are looking for their next opportunity.  Until the last six months or so of my last corporate gig, I did not apply that thinking to my own career.  I thought, well, I’ve reached the “pinnacle” by becoming a staff counsel managing attorney and my job is pretty safe.  Once I realized that my job was in danger, I began to visualize a different career path than the one I was in.  Rather than thinking of myself as an employee, who would have to submit resumes to potential employers, I thought and acted as if I were going to embark on a solo career, free to answer to myself and my clients. 

2. I decided to practice what I already knew how to do. Alright, perhaps plaintiff’s personal injury and no fault litigation is not the sexiest of practice areas, but I had fourteen years of experience working on both sides of the “v.”, representing accident victims as well as insurance carriers. Yes, I took classes in everything from bankruptcy to immigration to estate planning in the months after the lay off, but I realized that I could quickly capitalize on my experience inside the insurance business and I could offer that unique perspective to my injured clients.

3. I readied myself while I still had a job.  While I was waiting for the axe to fall, I knew I had to figure out how the heck I was going to get business.  I spent a week putting together a contacts list.  This was everyone from my mom and dad to past employers, to attorneys who were my adversaries and knew my work. I did not let on to too many people that my job was in jeopardy, but I did reach out to them within a few weeks of setting up my practice.  I was thrilled when I contacted my very first boss out of law school and he told me that he was looking for someone he “could trust” to go on court appearances for him in courts which were geographically undesirable for him to drive to.   The next thing I did is get onto the computer and soak up as much information about marketing as I could. Within a few months of opening, I found a phenomenal solo attorney list serve called “Solosez”, which is hosted by the American Bar Association..The Solosez firm is a constant comfort to me.  I also cracked the books and educated myself on running a law business.  I devoured How to Start & Build a Solo Practice by Jay Foonberg and Solo By Choice by Carolyn Elefant.  These resources not only gave me the nuts and bolts I needed, but A TON of inspiration as well.

4. I had my financial house in order. I am fortunate enough to have a husband who makes a good living as a medical malpractice defense attorney.  However, knowing that we had a mortgage and taxes on Long Island to pay, we knew that we would have to reign in our spending temporarily and cut discretionary spending.  OK, here I have a confession to make, I had always done a little moonlighting while working my day job.  That extra money helped me finance a wedding and purchase my first home.  Just before I was let go, I received proceeds from a small settlement with which I used to start up the firm.  Even with that little windfall, I started my firm in my house with spit and glue rather than spend thousands on commercial office space.  I spent as little money as I could, only investing in a new computer, Treo, Westlaw subscription, website, business cards and office supplies. After a year in my new homey digs, I can say that love working around the corner from the family room. I get to spend a lot of time with my daughter and can work at odd hours around her schedule. Because I do not have a conference room or office space, I usually meet my clients at their homes, offices or coffee shop.  Believe it or not, they appreciate the personalized and slightly casual customer service I provide.

5. I made a plan.  Alright, I have a little prior experience here as managing counsel. Although writing business and budgeting plans was part of my job at the insurance company, Business Plans for Dummies is in my library, and I refer to it regularly.  Business plans do not have to be novels.  They do not even have to cover an entire year.  What they do is lay a framework of goals you set for yourself.  A business plan for someone considering starting out can be extracted from this post.

Starting a solo career is not easy, but it can be done with a little research and a lot of planning.  There are many lawyers ready and willing to assist and support you through your journey, including me.  All you have to do is make the decision and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Best of luck!

Jeena R. Belil, Esq.

PO BOX 709

Mt. Sinai, New York 11766

Tel:  631-445-7380

Fax: 631-514-3615

http://www.JeenaBelil.com/

http://www.linkedin.com/in/jeenabelil

Twitter me @ jeenaesq

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Comments

Elaine Martin

Jeena - having got to know you virtually over the past couple of months, it's great to read your story. Best of luck, and I hope this article drives traffic to your site. It did with me, when my story ran near Thanksgiving last year.

Michael Bace

Jeena: well done! your tips, shoe-string operating style, and positive attitude seem to be a common theme for many successful solo startups.

JPM

"I am fortunate enough to have a husband who makes a good living as a medical malpractice defense attorney."

Those are the key words. So, you had to get a handle on discretionary spending. However, that's not quite the same as not knowing whether you will be able to pay the rent, eat and service your loans. I don't wish to be negative, but if you have a spouse making good money it makes it MUCH easier to start a solo practice. I am not saying it cannot be done, just being realistic.

Nevertheless I congratulate you on your practice.

PerGynt

JPM

Staying with your "realistic" theme, what are some of the things we can put in place of that sentence that would produce the same results? Being fortunate helps, but sometimes you're just not very fortunate and you have to work with what you've got. Try these:
"My spouse has a regular income and I immediately applied for unemployment benefits and that helped until I could start bringing in some money."
"We refinanced our house to lower our payments and we had some savings to draw on until I could produce an income."
"We sold a rental and put off our vacation plans and I got a part time job working at the bank and started my practice part time."
"We sold the SUV and bought a used Neon with cash, and I borrowed some money from my family so we could make our payments while I got started."
"I borrowed some money on my life insurance policy to help pay bills until I got started. I stepped up my moonlighting and that helped as well."
Stuff like that. It's never easy but it's usually not impossible. It helps to be out of options. People come up with great ideas when they're up against the wall. Just trying to be helpful, and realistic.

P

Jeena Belil

JPM,

All of your suggestions are extremely helpful and very realistic. Many people finding themselves in my position will have to resort to options just as you depict. Just for further clarification with respect to my own story:

Believe it or not Unemployment Denied me benefits because I advised the agency that was starting a practice.

We could not refinance our house because of the economy. But we did have savings that we are still drawing on.

I did not feel that working part time in a different area than the law would help me achieve my goals.

Vacation?

Asking family for help is essential. In fact, I live in a non traditional family setting where my parents live with me. They have given an incredible amount of support and assistance, including helping with shopping, cooking, a little babysitting and overall cheer leading.

Everyone's mileage may and will vary. Let's keep the ideas and dialogue coming.

Wes

I do not yet know for certain if I will go solo immediately after being admitted to the bar but it is undoubtedly a possibility. I've discussed my plans with my parents and thankfully they are infinitely supportive. They are by no means wealthy but they are solid enough financially to be able to continue to support me--they have always helped with school when necessary, etc.

I'm not too proud to live upstairs in the guest bedroom and continue driving my 150+k mile Camry for the foreseeable future. Of course the goal would be to minimize my cash flow needs so that I could more effectively bootstrap my fledgling solo practice from "me+laptop+printer" (OK, I may not start quite so bare bones, but you get the drift) into a more substantial legal services provider. Resources matter--save them anywhere possible. Don't scrimp on value or effectiveness, but limit yourself to what you truly NEED for your practice.

That's the mindset I force myself to take when I begin to feel overwhelmed by perceived (or imagined) start-up costs. Of course, I realize that I am doubly fortunate: I have the support of my parents and they have the ability to help financially.

If you think your parents may be able to contribute something to the cause (doesn't have to be money) and they might be willing, make the pitch to them. Every entrepreneur has to pitch their idea to raise capital. Find your likeliest sources of help and discuss your plans.

Just tossing in m .02

Dirty LAWndry

"Rather than thinking of myself as an employee, who would have to submit resumes to potential employers, I thought and acted as if I were going to embark on a solo career, free to answer to myself and my clients."

Excellent point! This is one of the things that most people who want to start a solo just don't do. When I knew my job was in danger, I refused to send out any resumes, even though everyone around me was sending out resumes and contacting employment agencies. I knew that I couldn't work for anyone else again and that it was time to start venturing out on my own. Accepting employment elsewhere would have defeated that goal. I am so happy now that I am a solo. It's not easy, but it's definitely not impossible!

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