February 27, 2009

Going Solo; Confessions & Inspirations - Charles Cochran, Jr.

How I Went Solo and Rediscovered My Love of Practicing Law

Guest Blogger - Charles J. Cochran, Jr.

It was January 15, 2008 and I was driving downtown to attend a pupilage meeting of the Scanlon Inn of Court, a social group of attorneys and judges to which I belong. My days were full of thinking about the direction my practice had taken when my two major retainer clients had ended our agreements. One of them, a major source of my income, had been sold to a major chain. The other had been transferred to the children and I belatedly discovered that I did not have a good enough relationship with them. However things were looking up as I had taken a specialist exam with the Ohio State Bar Association, for labor and employment law, and I intended to market that certification to the best of my ability. I thought things were looking up.

It was rainy and overcast and luckily I was only driving about 55 miles an hour when a car spun over into my lane and I struck them. At the emergency room the doctors indicated that I had only ruptured two disks in my neck and that I was very lucky to have only suffered those injuries.

My life changed almost immediately as I found that I could not safely drive the 20 miles which I needed to go to the office every day. When I was almost involved in another accident within two weeks of the first, due to my physical problems with driving, I decided that driving to work was no longer a choice for me. Over the months that passed my physical condition did not improve and my partner was complaining of my absence from the workplace. A solo practice was born.

I guess you could say that my motives in becoming a solo were not “pure” since I really never had a choice. Over the past year I enjoyed the opportunity to work as a solo and I must say that it has been very interesting. I did not realize that I had not been taking time to really think about the practice of law. I had been responding to my case load but had never really thought about what the practice means or whether I was really satisfied in being an attorney. I had time to think and I am glad to say that I do like being an attorney.

I have practiced for the past year doing all of the work myself and I drew a great deal of satisfaction from that. In essence I intend to keep my solo practice because of the satisfaction which it gives me in working on matters without the interruption, costs, politics and travel time which you find in a normal office setting. It is amazing how much of the cost which is associated with having an outside office is not really necessary to do the job and do it right. It is very surprising to me but it appears my clients are not influenced by their need to come to my house now instead of the office. Further, I am surprised at the number of new clients who have hired me since moving my office home and it appears my new surroundings do not concern them either. The only real comment which I have received from any client is that it is very convenient to have an attorney who can meet with them in the evening or on a Saturday. I would not have provided this type of service before since I believe it would take away too much of my time with my family.

I still dress up when my clients come to call and when it is necessary to appear in public but I have found that it is not necessary to put on a coat and tie in order to practice law. I handled a Court of Claims Status conference, in a Vaccine case, just the other day over the phone and, dare I say, in my slippers.

While I cannot say that I am glad that I was involved in an automobile accident last year I can say that if it had not happened I would probably not have tried to become a solo and I would have missed out on a very rewarding experience.


by: Charles J. Cochran, Jr., Esq. and distilled from his blog Ohio Employment, Labor and Workers' Compensation Law Charles is based in Ohio and has been a practicing lawyer for 18 years.

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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December 04, 2008

Going Solo; Confessions & Inspirations - Stacey M. Washington

This chapter of Going Solo; Confessions & Inspirations is brought to you by Michigan Attorney, Stacey M. Washington.  Her story is intimate and honest and one I think many will relate to.... whether they want to or not. 

Guest Blogger - Stacey M. Washington

http://www.climbyourmountain.org/img/Copy%20of%20women%20on%20top.jpgMany people ask me why I became a lawyer. I decided to become a lawyer in eleventh grade. I’d only met one lawyer and one judge in my young life. Other than plenty of Perry Mason, I knew nothing about the legal profession. But, I was inspired. It seemed like an interesting profession. After 21 years as a practicing attorney, I still believe it is interesting and know that it is what I am meant to do.

Almost exactly nine years ago, my life turned upside down personally and professionally. I had a young child and decided to get a divorce after ten years of marriage. Shortly thereafter, I was publicly humiliated, made a scapegoat and lost my job with a public employer. My back against the wall, I became a reluctant litigant. I went deep into debt, couldn’t get a job and had a child to support. I reluctantly and desperately hung out my shingle. I had no idea how to run a law practice. I had no real desire to be a solo practitioner. I was angry, depressed, and scared. Not surprisingly, I resumed my job search shortly after I settled my lawsuit (after three agonizing years). My first attempt as a solo practitioner lasted about two years – I’d wasted a year trying to find a “real” job.

Almost immediately after I returned to work for two different employers, I knew I’d made a mistake but needed to prove to myself and others that I wasn’t “damaged” goods. Well, I proved that I could get a job and be a good attorney and employee. I was miserable. I had long commutes – no one in my small county would dare challenge the politicos and hire me. I suffered migraines. Extreme weight loss on an already skinny body. A pre-pubescent child who felt (and was) neglected because I was either working or driving. I feared I was going to die if I didn’t get off the merry-go-round.

After much thought, I decided that I was better off working for myself and closer to home. I gave my boss my notice twice because she didn’t believe me. How could I give up a good job and steady paycheck just because of a little stress? I immediately felt the monkey jump off my back. What a relief!

I realized I’d learned more about how to run a law practice. My boss even offered to give me some contract work. That contract work paid for my new computer and some other office expenses.

I’ve learned to work more efficiently. I rely heavily on technology – PDA, voice mail, remote email, web site, etc. My clients don’t seem to care that I don’t have a secretary. They seem to care more that I exude happiness and calm. Finally.

Six months ago, I dramatically shifted the focus of my practice. I’d practiced labor and employment law for more than a decade. Despite having at least one good year in that area, the calls lessened enough to give me time to realize I was burned out in that practice area. It involved a lot of work at a contingency fee. My attitude was becoming negative again. I made a business decision to become a family and criminal law attorney – hourly fees and retainers for more regular income!

After I decided to hang out my shingle because I knew that I really wanted to do it, I have been much happier. I have a flexible schedule. My bills are paid. My teenager even talks to me, sometimes. I’ve lost a few “friends” and naysayers along the way. I have no doubt that the practice will continue to develop in good ways. I’ve learned that the most important thing is I’m doing what I love on my own terms – the money will follow.

Stacey M. Washington

Attorney and Counselor

214 South Main Street, Suite 207

Ann Arbor, Michigan 48104

(734) 929-9730

http://smwashingtonlaw.com

(And in case you didn't see, check out our recent faculty announcements at Solo Practice University.

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November 20, 2008

Going Solo; Confessions and Inspirations - Elaine Martin

This is a wonderful, honest and uplifting story....just in time for Thanksgiving.

Guest Blogger - Elaine Martin

Why I went solo.

http://www.apartments-vela-luka.com/imidjis-croatia/croatia-001.jpgI blame Croatia. Or perhaps I should say that I thank Croatia.

Just over a year ago, I was on a cycling trip along the stunning Croatian coast when I had a serious accident. I shattered my shoulder, fractured my skull, and needed stitches to my chin. The skull fracture damaged my facial nerve, which caused half my face to be paralyzed temporarily. I had to fly home early for surgery, and now have a huge rod and screws in my right arm. (Yes, I’m right-handed. No, it doesn’t set off alarms at airport security!). The surgeon said it was the worst shoulder break he had ever seen and his prognosis for recovering range of motion was grim (I was determined to prove him wrong).

Bizarrely, I’ve been much happier since the accident than I was beforehand. I don’t want to sound like some Reader’s Digest inspirational-invalid story. I’m not sentimental like that, and I’m not an invalid. I regained far more flexibility in my shoulder than the surgeon ever thought possible, and it’s still improving. My facial paralysis disappeared far quicker than expected, and the scar to my chin is barely noticeable. If you met me now, you wouldn’t know anything had happened.

The amazing outcome of the accident was a new perspective on what’s really important. The overwhelming sentiment that I had after the accident was of being ridiculously lucky - lucky that I didn’t come home a paraplegic, in a wheelchair, given that I had a skull fracture. Lucky that I travel alone a lot internationally and speak a few languages, so getting back from Croatia wasn’t distressing for me, even in my condition (I’ve actually never been as happy to fly home from vacation!). Lucky that I don’t play tennis, volleyball, or other sports where raising my right arm high would be required. Lucky that my legs weren’t injured, since I’m a runner. Lucky that I had fabulous travel insurance, wonderful friends to take care of me when I got back, etc, etc.

I realized that life was way too short to spend it in a job where I was unhappy. I had become increasingly dissatisfied and disillusioned with my existing position, working for a large boutique immigration law firm. I had been there for over 7 years and felt that I was stagnating. It was good money and reasonable hours, but I realized that I was bored. Very bored, and consequently losing motivation and drive. I spoke to other law firms about joining their immigration departments, but my heart really wasn’t in it. Then I spoke to solo friends of mine who felt that I should definitely try going it alone, especially if I had any existing clients at all.

I had never had a huge desire to run my own business, even though my dad was a successful entrepreneur. I just never thought that I wanted to worry about whether we could afford a new copier or if we should change health insurance plans. Apparently I imaged a business with lots of employees and equipment, not just me and the PC! Once I realized that it could (and should) be just me and the PC, I got really excited about the prospect of setting up my own practice. I was in a better position than most: old enough to have lots of experience in my field, plenty of savings, and no debt other than my house. I didn’t have a family to support. I was in a field that allowed me to have clients nationwide - because immigration law is federal – so I could operate a “virtual” office.

I decided to keep my initial costs as low as possible, and work from a home office when I wasn’t working remotely. The biggest expense - and it wasn’t big - was the all-in-one printer, scanner, copier, fax machine, though I don’t use the fax. Some people still want to use fax, however, so I signed up for E-fax, at about $16 a month. I now have a fax number that I can access anywhere, and that doesn’t spew out reams of junk faxes. I have a Skype number as my work number, which allows for call-forwarding to my cell phone, conference calls, and cheap international calls (very useful in immigration law). I could even do video calls – yikes. I have a mailing address with a suite number that looks like a real office address. It’s a local franchise postal center – I figured that would look better than a PO Box address, and they accept FedEx. I got a PDA that has Word, Excel and PowerPoint, although I will get a laptop soon. I signed up for QuickBooks online, again so that I could work remotely, even on my accounting.

I created my own website, and had a web designer friend review it and help with the hosting process. I was very anxious to have a professional website in place as soon as I notified former clients that I had left the old law firm. Most of those clients were companies, and I wanted my contacts to be able to see my spiffy new online presence immediately. I imagine that I could get a lot of business via the web, given that I can and do have clients all over the country. However, I’m still working on search engine optimization. I’m hoping that I don’t have to spend thousands of dollars to an SEO professional, but maybe I will. For now, I’m learning as much as I can about meta-tags, keywords, bots, spiders, Google Analytics, and blogging to try to improve my visibility.

It has only been 2 months since Martin Immigration Law went live, however I’ve had cases to work on and I got 2 new clients yesterday. I’ve had lots of fun learning to be my own bookkeeper, webmaster, tech support, paralegal, marketing guru, etc. The wealth of information online about all these areas, including information specifically tailored to solo lawyers, is fabulous.

It’s a challenging economy to start a business, to be sure. However I’m so glad that I did it. I’ve regained my excitement for the practice, for networking, for marketing, and most importantly, for client service. Life is good.

Elaine Martin
Martin Immigration Law
6333 E. Mockingbird Lane
Suite 147-910
Dallas, TX 75214
Phone:  (214) 329-4148
Fax:  (214) 276-7476

October 17, 2008

Going Solo; Confessions & Inspirations - Joshua Andrews

This next guest blogger's type of practice is an idea whose time has come.  Joshua Andrews loves doing legal work and doing the work for other lawyers as an associate.  But at the same time he knows unequivocally he must be his own boss. However, he doesn't just want to limit the work he does for others to just legal research and writing but doing all manner of associate work including court appearances.  So, he took his idea to the next level and branded himself and his practice as 'The Outsourced Associate.'  Read and enjoy his story.  It's a very smart idea.  Why?  How many times have you said to yourself, "I wish I had an associate but I can't afford to bring one on board."  Well, maybe now you can have all the benefits without all the overhead.

Guest Blogger - Joshua Andrews

I have always wanted to work on my own. After graduating from Cumberland School of Law in May, I took the July bar exam, and was admitted to practice in Alabama on September 26. Now, I have achieved my dream of working for myself - I have started my own legal outsourcing practice in Birmingham, Alabama. The road to freedom, however, was not always certain.

When I started law school, I knew I wanted to have my own law firm. When I mentioned wanting to go solo, however, to other students, professors, or worse, the career services office, I was discouraged from the idea. I was told to focus on my grades and not to work during the semester. Going into law school, I was married and my oldest daughter was almost one. I knew I had to work, and I wanted the practical experience that only comes from doing the things that I was learning in class. When I began working, I thought I was gaining experience that would help me when I had my own firm.

Somewhere along the way, however, I resigned myself to the traditional route of working for someone else. I comforted myself by thinking: “Someday, I can go out on my own.” After working the summer after my first year, I found a part-time position with a small firm in town for the school year. Over Christmas break of that year, I was hired by a new solo practitioner. By March, I was offered a full-time position with the firm. At the time, I thought this was the perfect situation. At this firm, I would be able to build the practice I wanted without having the initial worries of starting the practice. I worked full time through the summer and into the beginning of my third year.

I was encouraged by the firm to begin thinking about client development. Despite that encouragement, each potential client I brought for consideration was summarily rejected for one reason or another. I became discouraged and began to think that this dream job did not come with the freedom I wanted. In early January of this year, I left the firm for that and a number of other reasons. Always, in the back of my mind, was the knowledge I had gained from helping this upstart solo practice get off the ground. After leaving the firm, I embarked on what would turn out to be a fruitless job search.

In early March, I discovered Build A Solo Practice, LLC and began to think that it might be possible to go out on my own right after law school. This rekindled the dream I had allowed to be crushed by naysayers. I halted my job search, began researching business models and read material on how to write a business plan. I subscribed to the Build a Solo Practice E-zine, this blog and many others written by solos.

Once I decided to go solo, I needed to settle on a practice area. On March 27, the Janus Research Group guest posted on this blog discussing their legal research and writing practice. In that post, Susan mentioned Lisa Solomon, who also runs a legal research and writing practice. After reading the post, I read more about the Janus Research Group, and about Lisa Solomon on both her firm's site and Legal Research and Writing Pro. After reading about these practices, I became fascinated by the idea of outsourcing legal services. I was intrigued by the possibility of running a business that helped others achieve the renown and success they had always desired. I allowed myself to dream some more, and the idea that has now become my outsourcing practice was born.

After settling on legal outsourcing as a practice area, all that was left was to implement the details. I drafted my business plan, connected with a few people who were in solo practice and continued to read the Build a Solo Practice E-zine and every blog I could find on solo practice. I met a  graphic designer on the internet. I asked her to help me create a brand identity. She worked on my image while I took the bar. After the bar, I wrapped up the final details to launch my new legal outsourcing practice. On September 15, 2008, I announced that The Outsourced Associate, LLC was accepting clients.

I cannot say that I do not have fears about being out on my own immediately after law school with a young family to support and student loans to pay. By building my own solo practice, however, I know I am going to be there for my family in a way that I could not if I worked for someone else. Today, I do not have a large salary, but my family has me. I have another baby girl due in February. Now I know, when the time comes, that I will be with my family and not locked up in a library somewhere unable to get away. I love my family, and I love the practice of law. Now that I am on my own, I can keep them in that order.

 

The Outsourced Associate, LLC

P.O. Box 381474

Birmingham, Alabama 35238-1474

Phone: 205.533.7810

Fax: 205.533.7879

E-mail: jandrews@outsourcedassociate.com

Web: www.outsourcedassociate.com

 



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.

July 10, 2008

Going Solo; Confessions & Inspirations - Jerry Bartholomew

Jerry Bartholomew writes a beautiful post which will inspire even the most fearful.  He has five kids to feed.  He is living in Michigan with a seriously depressed economy.  Yet July 4th was 'his' independence day and as he writes this post he is just three days into his new solo practice.  Be very inspired.

Guest Blogger - Jerry Bartholomew

http://www.funonthenet.in/images/stories/forwards/inspirational/Inspirational%20Quotes%204.jpgLess than two weeks ago, I told my boss that, after nearly three years at his small firm, I didn’t see that it would work out for me to stay on. His response? An offer for partnership that I had until the following morning to evaluate and either accept or reject.

Well, this week I am, happily, a new solo attorney. July 4th became my own personal “independence day.” As I write this I am beginning the third day of my practice being in business. Though I can only develop the storyline so far from that vantage point, I can give you my thoughts on what brought me to this transition and where I see things headed.

I was for several years a Latin teacher and coach at a private school in Miami. As enjoyable as those years were, my wife and I really wanted a large family and knew that a private school teaching salary would only go so far to feed many mouths. The law certainly seemed to suit my analytical nature, so off we trekked across the country so that I could attend Ave Maria School of Law in Ann Arbor, MI. The education was great and the people were terrific. And I left with more than a degree—I had begun law school with three children and graduated with five, and I now had roughly a bazillion dollars in debt.

The fact that I was graduating amidst a collapsing Michigan economy didn’t help. I was offered an associate position with a small firm with whom I’d been clerking, and as I was gearing up to slide into that position, an attorney with whom I’d had intermittent contact over the previous year offered a position that seemed full of promise, including very good potential income and fast-track partnership. More than 18 months after joining that firm, I received an employment agreement, which, among other things, indicated that I would be considered for partnership once our two-attorney firm was handling more than 600 cases per year! (At the time we were handling perhaps 80 or so.) Life at this firm really began to deteriorate from that point on. Add to this that the boss clearly wanted me to remain a "back office" workhorse rather than do any networking or rainmaking. Although he made some offers to change that arrangement toward the end, I made the judgment that the relationship was too damaged to sustain and doubted whether the promises would ever come to fruition. So, with my wife expecting and the firm still not providing health insurance, it became clear that I could not invest any more time into a relationship in which so much trust had been lost, and a role that just was not the right fit.

My wife and I have for well over a year now been devotedly taking advantage of a number of resources online: Susan’s incredibly inspiring blog, Enrico Schaefer’s posts on the new way to practice law over at the Greatest American Lawyer, numerous other bloggers on solo practice and marketing, as well as following the Solosez discussions on a daily basis. From all of this we took away one overarching lesson: the practice of law has entered a new era and a good many of the old rules aren’t rules any longer. And for that reason, solo practice is a possibility today in a way that it was not ten or even five years ago. The technology, the tools, the software, the mentors, the community, the social media—they all open the door to entrepreneurship for an attorney with a skill set and the passion to make it work.

So, after more than a year of being inspired, of learning and preparing, and then finally having made the jump, here are my take-aways:

  • 1. Big Law is not the only bad guy out there. Any job can be the wrong fit. Be true to your own ambitions and talents.
  • 2. Remember that the boss who keeps reminding you of “paying your dues” like he did didn’t get the memo that, though we don’t eschew hard work these days, there is a new practice model that utilizes technology, emphasizes what is right for the client, keeps overhead low, and thrives on collaboration. And yes, you can be up and running in about 48 hours, which is about how long it took me.
  • 3. This economy is scary. I live in Michigan where, in my area, unemployment hovers around 10 percent, foreclosures are rampant (I can see five from my front yard), and legal competition is fierce. Yet, there is tremendous opportunity, especially in those practice areas friendly to economic volatility (see Susan’s posts in the category Demographic/Economic Trends on bankruptcy, landlord/tenant, etc.). Look for the opportunities. In times like these, people need help, and attorneys are always in a good position to help people.
  • 4. Amidst an unstable economy and an evolving legal practice landscape, solos are in the best position to adapt. At my last firm, making the smallest change, such as updating an address on the website, would literally take months. Changing a practice model? Forget it. And that was a very small firm! One of the earliest observations Enrico Schaefer blogged about at the Greatest American Lawyer was his ability to innovate: he could wake up with an idea in the morning and have it implemented by noon. That is the speed of business today, and those who can’t innovate will feel the pain later.
  • 5. Fear is a huge factor in making the jump to go solo, and it’s palpable. First, I recommend addressing this fear spiritually. Second, it helps to have visual imagery. Enrico used the image of the Greatest American Hero and adapted it to the practice of law. For myself, with my family hanging in the balance, I looked inside for a fighting spirit and found the image of Ron Howard’s Cinderella Man for inspiration. Find your own image that will help keep you focused on your goal and able to face down the fear.
  • 6. Get connected. Build relationships, both online and offline. This is old school in many ways, but today this practice has a significant new dimension due to word of mouth marketing, blogging, and the ability to build trust virtually. But don’t just get out there to “network.” Be genuine. People can tell when you’re not.
  • 7. Take advantage of virtual offices, voicemail options, and tools like Basecamp to create a business model that keep overhead low and allows you to focus on your clients.
  • 8. Read Michael Gerber’s E-Myth books. Read Malcolm Gladwell. And Seth Godin. And Tim Ferriss. You’ll start to see possibilities you never knew existed.

Leaving my job was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. With many mouths to feed, lots of debt, a baby on the way and a depressed economic environment, most people would quickly conclude that I was crazy. But I disagree. The alternatives weren’t better, and this path is true to who I am. I find myself full of hope and a fighting spirit, standing on my own two feet for one of the first times in my life, deeply committed to making this work. I have some very good cases right out of the gate, and plenty of reason to think more will follow soon. I want to thank Susan and everyone else whose inspiration and sound advice has made this week possible.

Jerry Bartholomew

Priority Elder Law & Estate Planning, PLC
7 West Square Lake Road
Bloomfield Hills, MI 48302
Tel: (800) 475-1729
Fax: (866) 920-3087

 

jerry@mypriorityplan.com

http://www.mypriorityplan.com

http://michiganelderlaw.info

July 03, 2008

"Going Solo; Confessions & Inspirations" - Solomon Neuhardt

This Going Solo; Confessions and Inspirations comes from Montana solo attorney Solomon Neuhardt, someone who clearly could have had a career at Big Law with his credentials but realized right from the start it simply was not for him.  Sol's had a colorful career including being a criminal defense consultant for court TV. He also has some interesting experiences with completely outsourcing tasks to India as well as outsourcing his legal brief writing even though he has the skills to do a great job himself having been a sought after former law clerk and law review writer.

Guest Blogger - Solomon Neuhardt

My reasons for starting a solo practice were multi-faceted. After I graduated from law school I clerked for more than two years and gained tremendous experience. I interviewed with several white shoe, silk stocking type large law firms in Seattle during my clerkship. I knew that I didn’t want to work at one of these firms because my hours were going to be incredible. The firms bragged about how I would get a bonus because I was a federal law clerk and showed me a picture of new associates from last year that was almost entirely federal law clerks, including one from the galactic Supreme Court. I envisioned myself buying a cot and having a shower installed in my office. I did not follow up with any of these firms and knew that this would probably never be an opportunity I wanted to pursue.

At about the same time, I interviewed with several larger firms in Montana but the politics of the firms seem run thick and deep. I received great support from the Judge I was working for. I ultimately took a job with a small firm in Great Falls Montana. I was only there six months. At the time there were serious ethical issues looming over the firm that resulted in several of the attorneys being publicly censured. I left before the cow turds hit the fan.

In May of 2002 I took a position as a Deputy Public Defender in Yellowstone County Montana. This provided several opportunities for me. I was able to obtain courtroom experience which I was not able to do previously and criminal defense was an interesting area of the law. It was exciting and fun. This provided a launching pad for me to establish my solo practice. Before this I couldn’t figure out how that I could establish a solo practice without working for a law firm and have some experience. I wanted to start a solo practice for several reasons: flexibility in hours (although now I am working more hours total but just not the traditional 8-5), flexibility in choosing my clients, being able to associate with other attorneys for their expertise but not having to establish a partnership or be in a firm to work with them, and for hopefully being to make a better income.

In April of 2004 I opened my own practice in Billings, Montana. I remember the first day in my office I was laying on the floor (because I didn’t have any office furniture yet) wondering if I had made the right decision. In hindsight this is the best decision I have ever made. My practice immediately started booming with criminal defense cases and now I have shifted to primarily personal injury. I would offer the following words of wisdom for someone opening their own practice:

  1. It is really true that networking is your best source for new clients. Establish great relationships with your existing clients and take care of them. Have lunch with them on your dime. Go to their place of business or home to talk with them about other things than their case and show genuine interest in them. This is absolutely the best method for building your practice.
  2. Keep costs low for yellow pages otherwise it will kill you. This can be extremely difficult to do. You will be bombarded with phone calls and visits from the yellow pages to web sites that want to promote you or your firm. It is easy to spend 10 or 20 thousand a month on advertising. The biggest killer is usually the yellow pages however I have received some great results from yellow page ads also. I ran full page and half page personal injury ads very near the front of the yellow pages and received very few good phone calls. I researched yellow page advertising and expected it to be a big hit. It is really hit and miss and more miss than hit. I am trying it again this fall in another yellow page book and using what are called metered ads (each ad has a unique phone number that rings to my office). On the other hand for criminal defense and dui I ran two very small but dramatic eye catching ads that have paid for themselves a thousand times over. I highly recommend the book      Effective Yellow Pages Advertising for Lawyers from the American Bar Association.
  3. Be careful about spending a lot of money on books, subscriptions, fancy furniture, and computer software. I bought an $800 calendaring, contacts, email, case management software that did not work out. I use Google Calendar and it works fantastic. My legal assistant and  I both have access to make changes and we are both looking at the same calendar. Some books you need but a lot of information can be found on the internet. You can buy many books used on Amazon.com or halff.com. You can potentially share subscriptions with other lawyers that you office share (and I highly recommend office sharing initially). I don’t recommend cheap furniture from the big box stores such as Office Depot because it will fall apart the first time you use it but much of my furniture was   made at Montana State Prison and is outstanding.
  4. Office share in a nicer space. I know I have been able to retain more clients with higher fees because I office share in a spot that looks great. Perception is reality for clients. I do recommend      on spending a decent amount of time and money on the aesthetics. If your office and lobby look great this makes a great impression for clients.
  5. Hire a great assistant. This can make or break your practice. Sometimes this may be someone with no experience but they have a great work ethic and they can learn from others. I have every horror story possible related to my previous assistants and don’t wish this on my worst enemy (or enemies). I travel overseas typically when I travel and I have been burned almost each time. Just because you pay them more money doesn’t mean you will get a better assistant. Their  interpersonal skill with clients, judges, other attorneys, etc. is critical and goes a long way. Treat them well and compliment them on a job well done. Do not hesitate to offer constructive criticism and do it right away. If you settle a large personal injury case for example, give them a bonus. Money talks and everything else walks.
  6. Outsource to India. This includes a virtual assistant for business and personal tasks, for your website, for maintaining computers in your office, for writing articles (except this one) and for any task that someone doesn’t have to be in your office. I started doing this recently and it will save you a ton of money and headaches. Hire a virtual assistant for $4 an hour to make appointments and make calls to clients. Have the assistant call clients to remind them of appointments. Have the assistant call your car dealership to set up a time to have your car taken to be repaired. Hire a good one and they are amazing. Outsource your brief writing. As a former published member of the Montana Law Review I think my writing skills are decent. I outsourced a brief I didn’t have time for and received back an amazing product that with some minor editing I filed for a charge of $400. These savings of course can then be passed along to the client. My website design and maintenance is done in India for $8 an hour. I was previously paying $50 an hour. I also hired someone to write articles on personal injury for $5 per article. The articles are consumer oriented and are one or two pages. It doesn’t get much better than this.

Solomon Neudhardt

www.neuhardtlaw.com


June 20, 2008

Going Solo; Confessions and Inspirations - Annie Tunheim

This post will resonate with many women, wives, mothers....those pregnant while in law school or studying for the bar.  Annie Tunheim is a solo practitioner in Colorado who writes a very uplifting and inspirational post for those women who are making those hard decisions about motherhood and the practice of law.... as a solo practitioner.

Guest Blogger - Annie Tunheim

Competing Loves

I’m going to come right out and admit that I fell in love my first year of law school. I was completely smitten with my legal studies--my brain felt so alive, and the style of thinking came naturally to me. I was in my mid-twenties, newly married to an art teacher (a great balance for my analytical mind—the attorney/attorney relationship would never work for me), and we had just bought a small 120-year old fixer-upper in an up-and-coming neighborhood near downtown Denver. Like many of my fellow students, I had visions of working at one of the big-name firms upon graduation and paying off my rapidly mounting debt with no problems; I had my career path all figured out.

But then, at the start of my second year, I found myself unexpectedly pregnant with our first child. To be honest, the tears that fell upon finding out were not ones of joy, the way one might expect. Although there were some nontraditional students at my school that had school-age children, I had never once seen a pregnant woman on campus, and law school seemed far from an ideal time to have a child.

Nevertheless, as my second year of school came to a close I found myself in love again, this time with our new little son, Jackson Tate. When school started in the fall, I juggled baby duties while taking advantage of University of Denver’s night classes, working as Managing Editor of the school’s Journal of International Law & Policy, and participating in the Civil Litigation Clinic. Jackson never took a bottle, so my husband drove him to campus in the evening so I could breastfeed between classes. My initial concerns of having a child while in school never panned out; instead, it was surprisingly convenient to have a student’s schedule and an infant. My grades never took a hit, and I was solidly in the top 25% of my class.

In early spring of my third year, we made the decision to have another child. I was pregnant at graduation, and then capped off each of my bar review courses with a nap on a library couch before waking up to study. I took (and passed) the Bar exam, and was blessed with my second son, Alexander James, in December.

Some people told me that having kids meant career suicide, and when I think back to my original plan of working for a big firm, they might have been right. But that vision of my career didn’t have the same appeal it once did. I wanted to be around to watch my children grow up, and couldn’t picture myself coming home from work with just enough time to read a quick story and send the kids to bed.

At the same time, I also couldn’t picture myself turning into June Cleaver. I get antsy and impatient if I’m cooped up in the house too long with the kids, so I knew that life as a stay-at-home mom wasn’t in my future. My love for law and need for a challenging, rewarding career was still present, but my love for these little boys shifted how I had originally seen my path.

I spent one year at a small litigation firm, specifically chosen for its reasonable billable hour requirement and supposed family-friendly atmosphere. I enjoyed the litigation process, but found the firm dynamics -- the demands to ‘come up the same way’ the older male partner came up and the pressure to treat the support staff as below me – incompatible with how I wanted to contribute to the firm. Besides, I made less than half of what my friends at the big firms were made, but I dealt with many of the same hassles. I left that firm and haven’t looked back.

So I don’t hunt for case law anymore, I hunt for bugs in the front yard with my boys. I traded lunches with the firm’s partners for family picnic dinners with our neighbors. It’s not what I envisioned in law school, but I know in my heart that this is what life is truly about. I recognize now that I don’t have the desire to chase billable hours because I’d much rather chase my boys around the yard while their superhero capes trail behind them. And that’s not a negative thing to admit.

This spring, I welcomed two new loves into my life: my solo trademark practice, and my third son, Kenyon Edward. At first I found it daunting to go off on my own, but I have quickly learned to enjoy the many benefits. It allows me to be the kind of attorney that I want to be, and that I naturally am. I enjoy my clients, who are small-business owners with fantastic products. And many of them are women like me, also carving out a niche of their own in an industry while balancing family life. I take pride in helping these businesses protect the brands they are building, and I believe my clients feel more comfortable working with someone like-minded – not someone who acts as an attorney with a capital A.

As a home-based solo practitioner, the work hours are flexible but the work day is never over. I take calls from clients after my children are in bed and on my way to soccer games. My husband jokes that he should invent some sort of laptop hip-holster, so I can always have my laptop attached to my body. (If he does, he’ll know where to go for the brand trademark!)

I’m sure my story is a common one: Ambitious woman struggles to balance a satisfying career with a loving family. Becoming a solo practitioner has allowed me to achieve that ideal balance and cultivate my love for family and law; I’m proud to call myself a great mother, wife and attorney.

Annie Tunheim

Tunheim Law LLC

info@annietunheim.com

www.annietunheim.com

June 12, 2008

Going Solo; Confessions and Inspirations - Sarina Gianna

Guest Blogger, Sarina Gianna talks about her decision to leave a law firm she considered 'family' to start her own practice.  This describes her 'aha' moment and how she transitioned from employee to self-employed.

THAT'S IT. I AM OUT OF HERE!

             In 1972, When my parents emigrated to this country from Sicily, they had two young children (my older brother and sister), a few bucks in their pocket and faith that they would somehow find work and offer their children a better life than they had in their small farming village in Sicily.  I was born the following year as the first generation American born citizen in my family.  As the second person in my family to ever graduate from college (second to my older sister), I felt an obligation to make something of myself.  Immediately after graduating from college, I began working as an employment coach with developmentally disabled adults.  I found this work to be very rewarding and I thoroughly enjoyed working with this population.  However, after three years I realized there was no way to be self-sufficient in the State of New Jersey working as a social worker.  As a result, in 1999, I decided to take the LSAT and was admitted to Seton Hall University School of Law.

I attended law school and worked part to full time as a law clerk at a small general practice law firm for three years.  In 2003, I graduated from law school, passed the bar exam and accepted an offer to stay on as an associate at that small general practice law firm.  I was sworn into the State Bar on a Wednesday afternoon and Thursday morning, I was in a courtroom.  For the next four years, I worked my tail off as an associate.  I learned everything I could about running a law office and about every area of practice I came across.  I worked late, came in early, drove all over the state taking depositions, covering motion hearings, going to real estate closings, workers' compensation court, conducted a jury trial, won a jury trial, got married, bought a house, had back surgery, got tired.  Despite all of that, for most of those years, I envisioned this firm as a place I would stay for a very long time.  After all, we were a family, a dysfunctional office family. 

On an undisclosed day in 2006, after a series of events that mean nothing to me now, I distinctly remember telling myself, 'that's it, I am out of here!' and I actually meant it. 

Why am I recounting this history of my life?  Believe me, it's not to illustrate how special I am.  To the contrary, It's to demonstrate how incredibly average my experience was and is.  It's to demonstrate that it doesn't necessarily take any special skills to start your own practice.  In fact, I would not have felt prepared to go solo had I not worked for all those years at that small general practice law firm as a member of that small dysfunctional office family.  Despite what I did learn, it still took me almost a full year to plan my graceful exit.

It was not until August 1, 2007 that I officially opened the doors to my new law office.  For almost one year, I searched for space, spoke to colleagues about office sharing arrangements, read books about running a law practice, designed stationary, picked out office furniture, put together a marketing plan, prepared a business plan and struggled with when and how to give notice to my bosses.  It was an extremely exciting but stressful few months.  Despite how much planning I did, I still felt utterly overwhelmed with the idea of going solo.  The bottom line is, just like most major life events, there never is an ideal time to jump.  You will always feel apprehensive.  You will always feel a little unprepared. That doesn't mean you shouldn't do it.  I cried my last day on the job.  I'm okay with that. 

So if you are an associate working at a firm somewhere, it's because you are meant to be working there.  Learn from it.  See it for what it is, a potential stepping stone to something better.  No matter how overworked you feel, go to work smiling and make all the business connections you can. Rest assured, if you are meant to go solo, there will come a day when you say to yourself, 'that's it, I am out of here!'   Don't walk out of the office mad on that day.  Don't tell the managing partner off.  Don't kick in the computer on your desk and NEVER COMPROMISE YOUR WORK ETHIC.  Instead, mark that day on your calendar as the beginning of the end of your career as someone else's associate.  It will take time to adequately plan your exit.  It will take skill to exit gracefully without burning any bridges.  And it will take perseverance and guts to actually walk out the door on your last day at a firm and know that from here on out, you are responsible for generating your own paycheck.  I guarantee you will not sleep very much for a few weeks following that day.  But, believe me, it's worth it.

Law Office of Sarina Gianna, LLC
74 Brick Boulevard
Building 2; Suite 103
Brick, New Jersey 08723
Phone:  732-477-6202

Website: http://www.sgianna.com