June 05, 2008

Going Solo; Confessions & Inspirations - Craig Niedenthal

This is a terrific entry into the Going Solo; Confessions & Inspirations category because it is the story of one 25-year veteran BigLaw lawyer who one day said, 'enough.'  Read:  Defying Gravity by new solo Craig Niedenthal.

DEFYING GRAVITY

Believe it or not, this path to going solo all began one night almost a year ago watching a Broadway play. Sitting in the dark theatre, mesmerized by a fairy tale story of all things, I heard these words in a song: .

Something has changed in me/>

Something is not the same.

I'm through with playing by the rules

Of someone else's game.

Too late for second-guessing.

Too late to go back to sleep.

It's time to trust my instincts.

Close my eyes: and leap!

             That was the start of my revelation. You see, I had been practicing for almost 25 years on both ends of the spectrum and it just was not working for me anymore. To understand how I got here after all these years of practicing it’s important to understand from whence I came. I went to law school to be a trial lawyer. From the time I could remember in school, teachers would always tell me what a great lawyer I’d make. I could argue anyone to death. Although law school did little to prepare or provide me insight into what it really took to be a trial lawyer, leaving the hallowed halls of Tulane Law School, I knew arguing my case to the jury was where my passion lied.

The first 18 years of my practice I worked for a boutique defense law firm in Florida that specialized in representing auto manufacturers in products liability litigation. Although I worked in that firm’s office in Orlando, I spent much of my time in cases based in South Florida. There is no better training ground for a young lawyer than the knockdown, drag out litigation haven of South Florida. I learned to fight hard, never give up, and do all within the bounds of the law and ethics to represent your client. I eventually became one of the youngest attorneys at that firm to ever be named partner. Yes, it was only a “non-equity partner” but it was the first step to what I saw as a significant goal: senior partner at a nationally recognized products liability defense firm.

I continued to fight and work hard, and yes that included billing 45 -50 hours a week for many years, till I made senior partner status about 3 years later. I had made it. I was in my early 30s and a senior partner at an excellent law firm, with great lawyers, challenging work and excellent clients. So why did I only feel more stress, more unhappiness, more lack of fulfillment than ever before? Things just didn’t make sense. I’d sit in partners’ meetings and listen to ramblings over issues big and small and think to myself, “You know what I think really doesn’t matter here. It’s all politics.”

Shortly after reaching senior partner status, my firm asked if I would move, with my wife and 2 children, up to Birmingham, Alabama and open and run a brand new office in a state where this firm had never had a presence. What better opportunity to show my value, to have the ability to create my own office with attorneys and personnel of my own choosing, and create a work environment that I felt would allow me and those who worked with me to thrive.

It was a great learning experience. I struggled not only on the outside to create a presence for my firm in a new state, but on the inside with my own firm to get the support of my fellow partners to assist in making this new office not only profitable to the firm, but valuable to the legal community. After 5 years of managing that office, and 18 years at the same firm, I needed change. I needed to find the passion I had once when I left those halls of Tulane.

I took a 180 degree turn. I went to a plaintiff’s litigation firm specializing in complex litigation including products liability and pharmaceutical litigation. As my fellow defense lawyers were heard to say “Craig went to the dark side.” As I saw it, I was going toward the light. Brought in as a shareholder at this plaintiff’s firm, I knew I could try any case they threw at me. What I didn’t know was how to be a plaintiff’s lawyer. You would think after having practiced for 18 years at that point, I had it all down pat. However, there was much to learn about how to handle a case from the plaintiff’s side, from how to care for individual clients who were uneducated in the world of lawsuits, to how to pay off liens after you settle a case so that the lien holders don’t later come after you and your client to get their money. Fortunately, I was at a firm which had all the tools to teach and guide me through the fine points of handling cases on behalf of injured and wronged individuals.

But after almost 6 years of being with that firm, I still found something was missing. It wasn’t working. Again, I’d sit in partner’s meetings and think, “I just don’t matter.” My passion for work, for helping people, for making a difference just wasn’t enough. Bottom line, it was not my firm to form, direct, move and lead where I thought it should be.

Which brings me back to that night in the dark theatre listening to Elphaba, the “wicked” witch declare how she was going to “defy gravity”, go “solo”, “fly free” and it all spoke to me. I finally knew it was time, after 25 years of seeing the world of litigation from both sides, to “trust my instincts, close my eyes…..and leap”.

It has now been over 3 months since I started my own law firm, Niedenthal Law Firm, P.C., specializing in complex litigation, products liability and pharmaceutical litigation. I cannot remember when I have felt so energized, so invigorated, so focused on the goal. I am doing what I love and now, I am doing it for me, the way I think it should be done. My clients and staff are treated the way I think they should be treated. The decisions are now all mine and whether they are right or wrong…and believe me there have been some wrong ones, but they are MINE. Everyone finds their inspiration in life in different places. I found mine in a dark theatre, one summer night in Chicago watching a witch “fly” as she was “defying gravity”. I have taken my leap, and I am not looking back.

Craig P. Niedenthal, Esq.
Niedenthal Law Firm, P.C.
2015 Stonegate Trail, Suite 101
Birmingham, AL 35242
(P)205-977-8999; (F)205-977-5990

(And we need to congratulate Craig on his 17 year old son's great achievement.)

May 08, 2008

Going Solo; Confessions and Inspirations - Amy A. Breyer

This solo lawyer is one of a new breed focusing on animal law.  I say new breed (pun intended) because while there have always been lawyers who have defended animals they were always seen on the 'fringe' as animal rights was marginalized.  Now, however, animal rights are finally being recognized and creating an increasing valuable niche for lawyers who choose to defend the rights of animals. Our guest blogger is one of them.  I also encourage you to visit Amy's blog as she has created an impressive list of animal rights lawyers throughout the country.

Guest Blogger - Amy A. Breyer

I opened my office on March 1, 2002 and (fortunately!) have been in business since.  I have a niche in a small but growing area of practice: animal law.  In case you're not familiar, animal law is very much like environmental law: an umbrella designation that includes a wide array of topics.  For example, just like environmental law covers air, water, land, pesticides and so forth, animal law covers farm, research, wildlife, companion animals and more.  And just like environmental laws involve civil statutes, criminal penalties and massive regulations, animal laws range from pet trust provisions in estate planning laws to cruelty prosecutions to massive (albeit largely ignored or ineffectual) regulations covering use of animals for food or research.

When I decided to apply to law school in 1996, I had already worked in TV news for more than a decade. My “aha” moment came while I was reading a story on the wires about a defendant in Florida who was convicted on cruelty charges for beating his puppy to death for soiling a carpet. I realized I didn’t just want to tell people about what happened, I wanted to nail this guy’s *!*# to the wall. So goodbye journalism, hello law. At the time, not only was animal law still largely unheard of, even just admitting I was a vegetarian was often a pretty marginalizing experience.

Fortunately, the sudden rise in popularity of animal welfare and rights issues in the past few years has changed the social landscape dramatically, but I still run into plenty of folks who just don't “get it”.  Individuals who don't have companion animals frequently don't understand - or are unwilling to accept - the fact that the bonds people form with non-humans can be just as strong and meaningful as those we form with other people.  Moreover, just as the law has come to acknowledge that race and gender are not meaningful criteria for denial of all rights, I believe the law will eventually recognize that neither is species. This doesn’t mean that all rights should be extended to all species; it is pointless to suggest that my cat should have the right to drive my car. However, one day I believe that society should – and will – accord at least certain fundamental rights to at least some non-human species. And when I am able to genuinely persuade a judge to just even seriously think about any of these issues, it's a good day.

Case in point: several years back, I represented a woman on a veterinary malpractice claim.  The case was pending in a conservative county.  For the better part of a year, the judge - who was smart and clearly read all the briefs submitted in his courtroom - ruled against me on pretty much every issue, every time.  After about a year of motion practice where the insurance defense counsel brought every motion he could think of to try to dismiss or gut the damages out of the case, he brought a motion to transfer down to small claims, which had a jurisdictional limit of $5,000.  Figuring there was nothing left to lose, I told my client to come to the hearing.  I put her on the stand and began to question the client: a widowed, Holocaust survivor who lived completely alone because well, her dog was now dead.  When I got to the $64,000 question (ok, technically the "Plaintiff seeks in excess of $50,000" question...), I asked: What would you rather have? A million dollars or your dog? Opposing counsel literally jumped out of his chair to object (repeatedly).  The judge overruled.  I asked again, and (tearfully, of course), the client said she would rather have her dog back.  By the end of the hearing, the judge denied the motion to transfer her case down to small claims, ruling that he would not say as a matter of law that her claim was worth less than $5,000!

The Law Offices of
Amy A. Breyer, LLC
33 N. LaSalle Street, Suite 2020
Chicago, Illinois 60602
(312) 977-1400
(312) 977-1401 (fax)
http://AnimalLawOnline.net

Blog: http://AnimalLawOnline.blogspot.com

May 01, 2008

Going Solo; Confessions & Inspirations - David Little

http://www.abcteach.com/free/n/number1bnw.jpgThis new solo practitioner, but not new lawyer, tells the story of practicing in insurance defense (insert any practice area you want) and upon deciding to go solo faces the dual challenge of not only creating a business but shifting practice areas completely and learning something new from scratch.Many solos I speak to ask, "how can I do this?"  Well, David Little is beginning his fifth month of solo practice and is telling his story here.

Guest Blogger - David Little

Going solo has been just about the most gratifying and terrifying thing I have ever done. At times, I have wondered whether the trade off of money and security in exchange for freedom has been worth it. Although it has only been about four months, I have to say that it has.

I have been practicing since November 2000, and have spent my entire career as an insurance defense attorney. It was not what I envisioned I would be doing when I applied to law school. Several years ago, during a fit of job dissatisfaction, I was reading an article about how to jump start your legal career. It recommended reading your law school application essay for inspiration. I decided not to do that because it would just be too depressing.

As time went on, my general dissatisfaction gave way to burnout. I don't recall exactly how I came to it, but in about mid-2007 I decided my next step had to be going out on my own. My wife and I talked and thought about it a lot. She has always given me her unqualified support. She used to work in city government, but now works out of our house as a consultant, plus she has a part-time teaching job at a local college, which she finds very rewarding. She was very much in favor of me going out on my own. Her support and encouragement has given me the confidence to try this.

The next six months were spent planning, networking and learning. I decided that I not only wanted to leave firm life, but I also wanted to start in a completely new area of law. I have always been interested in estate planning, probate and litigation. I took all the CLE courses I could find on these subjects. I joined local bar associations and other networking groups. I have methodically been building a completely new network. I also talked with existing contacts about doing contract work.

To be sure, it has been stressful. Where were my clients going to come from? How would I make any money? Could I afford to get office space, or should I work out of the house? And speaking of the house, how were we going to pay the mortgage? All of these things were swirling around in my head. But I never doubted that going out on my own was what I wanted to do.

I decided that, for the time being, I would practice out of my house to save money. I set up telephone and fax lines through Vonage, which allowed me to use our home broadband internet access, and avoid the expense of having to run new phone lines in our house. It is also portable, so I can take it with me when I finally get an office of my own. I also decided to use my old laptop instead of buying a new computer. I opened up a post office box at a local mail box store. This has kept me from having to use my home address on my business cards (which I ordered through the internet for cheap). I obtained my professional liability insurance through the State Bar of California, which offers an insurance plan at a somewhat discounted rate. It is, however, my biggest monthly expense.

My new practice has been open since January 2, 2008 (I have established New Year's Day as a firm holiday). At times, the silence from the phone has been deafening. When it gets too quiet, I pick up the phone and start calling my contacts, new and old. I never networked much when I was working at the firm, but now I do it all the time. I really feel like I am constantly networking when I go out in public, even if I'm not telling people what I do or handing them business cards. Getting to know as many people as possible is the key to success in any business. I used to hate networking, but I have since come to enjoy it. The benefit of it now comes to me, not some partner somewhere.

My wife and I live more modestly now. We were never big spenders, but this exercise has forced us to re-evaluate what is important in our lives. Do we really need two cars? We don't have children, so does it make sense for us to live in a three-story, three bedroom house? We have concluded that the freedom of self-employment is more important to us than maintaining a certain lifestyle, so we have decided to adjust our lifestyle to new income level, rather than the other way around.

My practice is only now starting to build some momentum. For the first time in my career as a lawyer, I feel very hopeful about the future of my practice. Being patient and confident has been crucial, and has helped me through the various times when I have been unsure about what to do.

So my advice to anyone who is contemplating this is to talk to as many people as possible, make as many contacts as you can, and think about what kind of life you want to live. Despite the stress and uncertainty, I am glad I have done this, and I truly am excited about what the future holds.

David Little

Website: http://ddllaw.com/about/

Blog: Bay Area Estate Planning Attorney

January 31, 2008

Going Solo; Confessions and Inspirations - Michael J. Keenan

Michael Keenan is an Elder Care Lawyer in Glastonbury, Connecticut who has had his solo practice now for sixteen months.  His is a paperless office utilizing technology to better serve his clients, keep his overhead down and profits up.  He is a big believer in the power of blogging and is just thoroughly enjoying his professional life as a solo.  Here's his story: (and a sampling of why Michael is a great lawyer in my book.)

Michael J. Keenan Photo

Guest Blogger - Michael J. Keenan

First, I'd like to thank Susan for an opportunity to reflect on the past 16 months as a solo and share my experience with readers.  The good news from the world of solo practice is that I have found that it is nearly all good news.  I'm particularly loving solo life at this point as the stock market is continuously surging up, down and in all different directions, and the word "recession" is probably the most-used word on the internet these days.  It occurred to me the other day that if I were an associate in a law firm where business has slowed dramatically then I could be cut loose without warning (in fact, that;s exactly what happened to me five years ago).  As a solo, the only way that I would be "laid off" is if all of my clients fire me at the same time.  I might lose one or two here or there, but I'm not going to lose them all at once.  So, strangely enough, I feel like I have much more job security now than I did 16 months ago.

Of course, every new solo is going to have a different experience, but I am happy to report that my life, both professionally and personally, has improved dramatically since becoming a solo.  I enjoy making and implementing decisions about how the practice is run without having to propose ideas to the partners and waiting weeks or months for a response.  I no longer feel compelled to impress anyone by trying to be the first to arrive in the morning and the last to leave at night.  If I'm suddenly needed at home due to an illness or some other unexpected contingency, I can just quickly adjust the schedule and leave the office without worrying about what the boss is going to think.  I can charge what I think are reasonable fees based on the client's circumstances without having to explain myself to someone later.  The list of wonderful things that are associated with being your own boss goes on and on. 

Of course, there are going to be difficulties whenever you make such a big career change.  The biggest problem I have experienced so far is that I had more business than I could handle when I started out.  I remember Amy and I spending the better part of a year squirreling away as much money as we could, anticipating that business would be slow for at least the first six months of the solo practice.  Instead, it was gangbusters virtually from day one.  The news to my referral sources that I was hanging out my own shingle seemed to spur twice as many referrals than usual and I was quickly swamped.  Yes, this falls into the "good problem" category, but it's still a legitimate problem.  For a while I was not able to turn work around within a reasonable timeframe and there was a general sense of disorganization and chaos for the first ten months of the practice.  Then I hired some "virtual" paralegals and implemented some more technology into my practice, but I didn't truly feel like I was getting a secure handle on things until the first anniversary.  So the moral of the story is to make sure that you are able to handle a big workload on day one.

I would offer two big-ticket pieces of advice to anyone thinking about going solo.  The first is to master the available office technology out there, especially the tools that will allow you to have a paperless office.  My practice is as paperless as I can possibly get it.  My most expensive piece of office equipment is my Fuijitsu ScanSnap scanner (about $500) which is very fast, yet small enough to sit on my desk next to my monitors. What goes into and out of my office is immediately scanned and saved in the appropriate digital file.  I enter the data from all business cards that I collect into my Outlook contact manager and then chuck the cards.  I always use the notes function in Outlook instead of those sticky notes.  I only keep original estate planning documents, which is required.  Literally everything else is digital.  My information is safer that way since I have two separate online services which back up all of my data every 24 hours, so if the building burns down I can be up-and-running the next day.  And free services like LogMeIn.com allow me access to all of my files from any computer with an internet connection, so I can get a lot of work done at home in the early morning hours before the kids wake up.  A nice secondary benefit is that my office is always clutter-free and organized.  Visitors must think I’m a Zen-Buddhist; no paper or file folders anywhere in sight.

Other technology tools that I use: I have two large flat-screen computer monitors which allow me to have two different programs simultaneously running and visible, so that I can do computer work much more efficiently.   My Treo 680 smartphone has become invaluable since e-mail has become my main source of communication.  And my Bluetooth earpiece allows me to handle calls on the go and convert dead driving time into billable time. 

I try to pick technological tools and systems not because they’re the latest and greatest, but because they are practical and allow me to be more mobile and productive.  At this point I feel like I have put the right tools and systems in place and I know that they have greatly improved my bottom line.

The second big piece of advice I would offer is to blog. I have been doing so since May, 2006 and the amount of business my blog has brought in still blows my mind.  In fact there are some weeks where I get a call a day from people who have run into it.  I also have what I call a “recreational” blog on distance running (my other passion besides elder law) and even this blog has brought in a significant amount of business!  A blog will boost your Google ranking and it’s a “point of difference”, in marketing lingo.  In other words, it sets you apart from the approximate 98% of attorneys who are not blogging.  If someone does am internet search on your practice area in your town, they will find a bunch of websites for different law practices which all say essentially the same thing:  here are all of our accomplishments, our practice areas, our biographies, how we intend to deliver excellent service, etc.  But if your website is accompanied by a blog then you stand out from the other attorneys in a big way.  It tells the reader that you know you’re an expert in your field, and since more of your personality comes out in a blog than from a website the reader starts to feel like they know you.  And any marketing consultant will tell you that a client is more likely to call a lawyer who they feel they know than an attorney who they don’t know.

So…if you’re considering hanging out your own shingle I would say that the most difficult part is finding comfort on a psychological level with “taking the plunge”.  But heavy planning leading up to your launch tends to ease the discomfort.  And once you take the plunge, the resulting sense of independence and autonomy will feel terrific and you’ll find yourself busier than you thought you would be.  I would also recommend a business plan that incorporates a technology-oriented approach and blogging.  Good luck!

Michael J. Keenan, Esq.
Keenan Law, LLC

My website: Keenan Law, LLC

My blog: The Connecticut Elder Law Blog

January 24, 2008

Going Solo; Confessions and Inspirations - Dawn Elaine Bowie

Going Solo; Confessions and Inspirations - Dawn Elaine Bowie

Attorney Bowie is a solo practitioner in Rockville, Maryland who was a non-trad law student, a mother with three children.  She is also a solo who caters to a very specific niche market, the divorcing father who is passionate about being a part of his childrens' lives and helps them before, during and after the dissolution process.  She is also the author of a remarkable piece, The Father's Bill of Rights, which reinforces the rights and obligations of fathers in this country.

Dawn Elaine Bowie

"For the past half year or more, I’ve been writing about why, how and what I do. All as part of my transformation from a run-of-the-mill divorce lawyer, to a solo who does what she loves representing fathers in custody cases. I’ve written about the same thing so often, in so many ways, that I find myself staring blankly at the computer screen trying to think of a new way to say what I’ve already said over and over. This is not a common experience for me. I write as reflexively as I breathe. So this may be a little less like all the promotional material I’ve put together over the past few months and more about what really drives me.

I am and have been for most of the time I’ve been in practice, a sole practitioner. I have to admit until very recently, I would have told you that the reason I’m a solo is because I had no other choice. There were tons of excuses: there weren’t enough jobs out there when I graduated from law school; the jobs there were didn’t pay enough for me to meet my expenses; the jobs that were out there were terrible, or not in my area of practice; I was too old; my law school grades weren’t good enough. By the time I’d have gotten done with the litany, it would have sounded as if I’m miserable being a solo. But in the past year or so, that has changed. A year ago, if some big firm in my area had approached me and said, “Hey, come join us, we’ll pay you six figures and give you a secretary and let you work 80 hours a week,” I might have taken them up on it. Now, I just can’t imagine it.

Why? Because I have done what I always dreamed of doing. I’ve become my own little boutique law firm of one. While I’m just getting started on my path to really making a success out of my narrow, little niche, I am confident that within a very short time, there will be no one in my area who can match what I do.

Over the past year, I’ve learned to mine my own strengths, both my legal abilities and my personal uniqueness. I genuinely care about my clients, I am responsive and communicative with them, my firm is rapidly developing into a cost-efficient, quality alternative to the pricier, bigger firms who are more frequently becoming my competitors. I’m beginning to gain recognition from folks in my legal community whose opinion matters to me. And I’m doing something on a larger scale that really does promote social justice and have the potential to change lives for the better. I’m doing it on my own time, my own schedule, in my own way. I’ve also learned to think in terms of myself as something separate and apart from what I do. Instead of, “I am a lawyer,” I’ve learned to say, “I practice law.” I don’t see what I do as an entitlement, or a right (albeit one I’ve earned) but as a privilege to serve others and to be able to learn new things every day. That perspective is the core of my work. It is something that makes me unique and it’s something my clients appreciate. It’s also something that probably wouldn’t translate very well to another firm.

So now, when I think about a job offer from Dicker, Dicker & Delay, L.L.C. down on Wisconsin Avenue, it doesn’t take more than about ten seconds for me to think, “Nope. Don’t think so.”

Dawn Elaine Bowie, Esq.

Maryland Family Law Firm
932 Hungerford Drive, Suite 13
Rockville, Maryland 20850
Tel: (301) 340-1050
FAX: (240) 556-0252
Website: http://www.marylandfamilylawfirm.com

Blog: http://www.marylandfathersrights.com

"Protecting Father's Rights is the Best Way to Protect Children's Rights."

November 01, 2007

Going Solo; Confessions and Inspirations - Kira Fonteneau

I wanted to introduce you to a fascinating young attorney, Kira Fonteneau, of Birmingham, Alabama, who authors Brilliant Color, a blog about diversity, the law and the legal profession.  Her firm website has the thoughtful and thought-provoking branding, "It's a world of brilliant color.  We will protect your place in it." 

Clearly, Attorney Fonteneau protects those who perceive discrimination and she speaks on issues of diversity, 'cultural translation' and the law as it applies to the work place and more.  I have had the pleasure of talking with Attorney Fonteneau on numerous occasions and she is sharply intelligent, eloquent and engaging.

Her stories on her blog entitled "Lessons from Billie" credit her grandmother for inspiration in helping her become a successful woman. They are a wonderful collection of true stories everyone should read and hopefully be inspired. There are six so far and I hope there will be more. (And she also has a fascinating post on Black Women and Their Hair and many other terrific posts on cultural translation.)

Attorney Fonteneau agreed to write a blog post for Going Solo; Confessions and Inspirations:

(Update:  Who says solos can't have fun?  When I e-mailed Attorney Fonteneau her post was up this week.she replied from her Blackberry stating she was vacationing in Maui and would contact me upon her return.  You go, girl!)

Guest Blogger:  Kira Fonteneau

Looking back on my decision to open a solo practice a year ago, I realize that a combination of events led me to hang out my shingle.  I went to law school in 2002 after working four years in management at a major bank.  I remember thinking that I wanted to be a lawyer in part because I knew that if I was ever dissatisfied with a job I could always hang my shingle. When I was finishing law school I toyed with the idea of starting my own firm, but I never put much thought into it. So when I graduated from law school, I took what I thought was the path of least resistance, a job with a regional employment boutique in Birmingham, Alabama.  I had never set foot in Birmingham, or Alabama for that matter, until I went for my second interview.  I started work the week after graduation and studied for the bar while working part-time.  After 18 months at the firm I realized that the less than positive experience I was having was not normal or acceptable and would never get better.  About the same time my grandmother died and her loss shook me to my core.  I had always looked up to her as a role model because she followed her dreams and she was never afraid to take risks.  At her funeral, I had a chance to speak and I talked about the lessons we could all take from her life.  I remember challenging the people gathered at the church to follow her example and go out and do something with their lives. 

Given my earlier words and my growing unhappiness with my job, I knew I had to take action. For a while I was indecisive and unsure of myself.  I did not know where the clients would come from or even what I would do with them if they did. I was concerned about my lack of ties to the Birmingham Community and my lack of experience as a lawyer/business owner. What I did know was that I had a few months of savings and a supportive boyfriend who would back me up financially if I got in a pinch. (He is now my husband.) Every time I got a little scared, I simply told myself that I would not fail because failure was not an option.  I also resolved that I would spend all of my time making sure I did not fail and that if things did not go well initially, I would not be too proud to take a second job.

By the end of August of last year, I had made the decision to go solo. First, I found and re-read Foonberg’s How to Start and Build a Law Practice.  I scheduled a tonsillectomy for early September and made all of my plans to leave while recuperating. I leased a new car (probably not the best idea), rented an office in a serviced office building, bought a new laptop, printer, malpractice policy and some business cards and on October 1, 2006, The Fonteneau Firm opened for business. 

After a year in business, I realize that I will probably not be looking for employment in the near future. I would be lying if I told you that starting this firm was not risky or that failure really is impossible.  I would also be lying to you if I said it was easy.  It was and is hard work, but it is doable.  What I found was that the only real obstacle in my way was fear.  I had to leave my comfort zone and trust my instincts.  Luckily things have worked out. It is a year later and I have never missed a payment on that car I leased, and I have enough clients that I am pretty sure that I won’t. Most importantly, I have the freedom to follow my passions.  One of those passions is my new blog focusing on issues of diversity. You can reach me and my blog at www.kirafonteneau.com. I think my grandmother would approve.

the fonteneau firm

Kira Fonteneau

Attorney & Counselor at Law

2229 Morris Avenue

Birmingham, AL 35203

205.533.9202

kira@kirafonteneau.com

www.kirafonteneau.com

September 21, 2007

Going Solo; Confessions and Inspirations - Tessa Shepperson

This week in we have a solo practitioner from Norwich, England, UK who caught my eye several months ago when she wrote this blogpost.  Knowing she was a solo practitioner I knew she would tell a great story...and we learn the issues and feelings of working in Big Law and the emotional motivations to become a solo practitioner are not limited to lawyers in the United States.  And she has also successfully parlayed her expertise into 'membership only' income with her unique skill set. So, I introduce you to Tessa Shepperson, solicitor.

Hi, my name is Tessa Shepperson. I am a solicitor and sole practitioner across the pond in Norwich, England, UK. Here is my story.

I qualified in 1990 after doing the practical stage of my training (then called articles) in a medium sized firm in Norwich, and was asked to stay on in their litigation department. It is a lovely firm and initially I was very happy. However gradually I began to feel dissatisfied, although I was not really sure why. I realise now that it was my independent nature starting to assert itself! Then I became aware that some (or rather one) of the partners wanted me to develop as an advocate, which was not something I really wanted to do, and I felt uneasy about being pushed in a direction I did not want to go.

Then one evening in February 1994, sitting by the fire on my own (this was before I married) I suddenly became convinced (as you do) that I was going to be made redundant (get laid off and go on unemployment). “What would I do” I thought, panicking, “if this happened?”. If I joined another firm I would probably go to the bottom of the queue promotion wise, and I might not find another firm as nice as the one I was with.

This go me thinking about setting up on my own, at first as a fantastic daydream. However gradually the idea took hold and I began to wonder if I could really do it. I spoke to a lady sole practitioner who lived locally, and she encouraged me. The more I thought of it, the more I liked the idea, and it become more and more compelling. Also, I decided, I did not want to be an old lady on my deathbed regretting bitterly that I had not had the courage to follow my dreams. So I decided to give it a go.

Needless to say my firm had had no intention of ever making me redundant, which actually was a bit of a shame as I could have done with the redundancy money! But I managed to raise some finance to keep me going at the start, my parents bought me a brass plate with my name on to go by the door, and I set up in sole practice on 1 August 1994.

Initially I had a standard litigation practice with an emphasis on property work. However as part of setting up in practice I had bought a computer, and I discovered and became fascinated by the internet, which at that time, 1994-5, no-one (other than techie geeks) had every heard of. I read as much as I could and went on some basic courses on web design. My first web-site I did myself with all the html code written manually in notepad. I was already a touch typist which helped (since setting up I have always been my own secretary, which has saved me a lot of money).

In about 1999, partly due to changes in the legal aid system in England, I decided to change the direction of my practice and concentrate solely on residential landlord and tenant work, mainly for landlords. I bought some domain names and set up a web-site for landlords initially just to try to drum up some extra work. However on the site I had a Q&A section where I answered questions from the public, and it became apparent from this that many UK landlords and tenants had no idea of their legal rights and obligations. It occurred to me that I could develop a subscription web-site where they could find these things out. And so my online service Landlord-Law (www.landlordlaw.co.uk) was born!

The internet is brilliant for women. I can work from home, which I love (so much more convenient for making meals and for being around for children) but still have an interesting career. As we grow older we find out who we really are, and I have discovered that what I am is a writer. Not a fiction writer, but a legal writer. I enjoy writing and explaining things so that the complex is made plain to the reader. I am also an ‘ideas’ person and enjoy thinking up new and imaginative ways to develop my online service (not all of which have worked!). Most of my income now is from membership subscriptions, however I still do a certain amount of legal case work, plus I sell ‘do-it-yourself’ kits via the site, and get a modest amount of advertising and affiliate income. I am gradually getting known as an ‘expert’ in my field. I probably don’t earn as much as I would have done had I stayed at my previous firm and become a partner, but I have a much nicer life, and that has to be worth a bit!

So would I recommend solo practice to others? The answer is “yes, if you are the right sort of person”. If you are a solo you are responsible for everything, and must live with the possibility that work might suddenly dry up and you will go bust. There have been many, many times when I have had no idea how I am going to pay the bills (although somehow the money has always come, and after over 12 years I no longer worry quite so much). However, if you can cope with this, then sole practice is wonderful. It gives you freedom to do what you want in the way that you want, without having disapproving male colleagues suggesting that you might be better doing something else. Plus of course there is always the possibility (which you do not have as a wage slave) that you could do brilliantly well and make a fortune! I love it.

August 30, 2007

"Going Solo; Confessions and Inspirations" - Emily Finger

Another fairly new attorney, Emily Finger of Minnesota, will inspire you with her story about going solo because chances are her story will ring true for many of you who have already gone solo or are thinking about it.  And the goal of this category is to let you know you are not alone.

Guest Post:  Emily Finger, Esq.

I can't remember everything I was envisioning when I applied to law school.  I'm sure a gorgeous corner office, nice suit, and fabulous house factored in there somewhere.  I suppose I also liked the idea of joining such an old profession, and I know that I was looking for a job that would be intellectually challenging.  I was two years out of college and I needed to figure out my grad school plan.  I chose William Mitchell College of Law in Saint Paul, Minnesota (Warren Burger, Class of '31). 

I really loved law school.  I was in the part-time program at William Mitchell, which gave me the chance to work full-time during the day.  The part-time students were all very supportive, with none of the cut-throat competition that seems to plague other schools.  I graduated cum laude in 2004, excited to join the legal profession (with rosy cheeks, stars in my eyes, etc.)  But the afterwards-part left much to be desired.

Like many people, I hated my job.  I was a "creditors' rights attorney" (euphemism for collections), but try as I might, I could not find another job.  It was partly the tight job market, and partly that I was lacking experience in the practice areas I was considering.  So I was stuck there because I wasn't crazy enough to give up benefits and a salary for the pain of self-employment.  And then I lost my job.  And it was the best thing that ever happened to me.

I never really intended to open my own practice.  My parents had their own accounting practice, and they seemed to do alright, but I liked the luxury of a regular check.  I also really liked the ability to budget and plan that came with the regularity of a "normal" job.  But I still didn't have the practice experience that hiring attorneys were looking for.  So, I thought, why not try things on my own?

My first case was a divorce, pro bono.  I had never worked in family law, but I wanted to stay busy and I like a challenge.  Turns out this family law thing isn't too tough!  Then a bankruptcy and some businesses came my way.  I was working out of my house so my overhead was low, and I was able to find some contract work here and there to pad my bank accounts.  Now, less than one year out, I'm very happy with my decision.  I can make a big-firm salary by working regular hours, and I get to decide when those hours are.  I can choose some of my matters and clients, and I've finally managed to get solid experience in my practice area of choice: helping other small businesses make their way.

I have learned more than I ever thought I would.  There are far more resources out there than you know, so you won't really be "alone."  This blog is a great place to start.  You'll have to do some things out of your comfort zone, but when you do, you will see that you're better than you thought you were.  It will help if you're smart, know your way around the internet, and friendly enough to talk to people about yourself and your practice.  You don't need a ton of money, but have an emergency fund because it's just good sense.  For a while, you will spend a lot of time on non-billable activites, especially business development - but that's okay, because no one expects you to bill 2000 hours and you already are a "partner."

Emily Finger is a solo-practitioner in Minnetonka, Minnesota.  She focuses on the interests of small-businesses and their owners.  She can be reached at emily@emilyfingerlaw.com, www.emilyfingerlaw.com, and through her blog at www.mnlawyer.blogspot.com.

August 23, 2007

Going Solo; Confessions and Inspirations

We are starting a new category at Build A Solo Practice, LLC called "Going Solo; Confessions and Inspirations."  This category of post is dedicated to those who've decided to stop treading water in the over-chlorinated and crowded Biglaw, Government or "Employed" Pool and going swimming in the salty, huge and invigorating ocean of solo practice.  So with that we are coinciding this post with the debut of a new solo, Renee C. Berman of Hamden, Connecticut.

Freefalling: One Attorney's Decision to Go Solo

Renee C. Berman, Esq.

When I turned 20 years old I decided I needed to do something a little wild to rouse the relative calm in my life. So I flung my jumpsuit clad body out of a plane at 10,500 feet. The drop was exhilarating and then strangely serene once the parachute was pulled and I sailed to the ground drinking in the astonishing scenery and blissful moment of solitude. My landing was surprisingly clumsy and heavy but I landed on my feet, intensely proud of my flight.

Ten years later, when I turned 30, I decided once again I need to stir things up a little. All was too calm in both my family and work life; so I took another plunge and decided to open my own practice. This time I didn’t need an airplane, but the ride has been just as exhilarating.

After graduating from Suffolk University Law School in 2003, I spent a year working for an insurance defense firm. It was the first job offer I received and without any other prospects, it was my best offer. I was thrilled to return from my honeymoon employed although the harsh reality of firm life smacked me squarely in the face soon after starting. Fortunately, my stint revering the almighty billable hour was over after one year and I moved onto a small, private firm located about 40 minutes from my home. It was here that I was allowed to taste a little of every practice area and where I eventually ended up acquiring an appetite for family and matrimonial law. I always knew one day I would like to devote my practice exclusively to family law, but I just didn’t realize that day would come so soon. I decided to take the leap when I met another attorney looking to share office space in a magnificently remodeled building that was only two miles from my house. As soon as the opportunity presented itself, I knew I had to grasp it immediately despite the gut wrenching fear and anxiety that was surfacing at a much quicker velocity than the excitement of it all.

The moments of panic now are not much different from the moment the plane hatch opened ten years ago. While I desperately gripped the side of the plane while peering into the vast blue, I questioned my judgment to engage in such a hapless activity. Likewise, my decision to go solo vacillated between clinging onto the familiar and yearning to explore the unknown. Again, I slowly released my white knuckled grip and cast myself into the unknown, this time better equipped for the invigorating and jarring ride that I was sure would follow. What I did not expect were the equally prevalent moments of serenity and satisfaction that likewise transpired as I began this expedition.

My moments of utter panic always have a similar theme; my singular ability to manage all business functions of my office, specifically the accounting aspect of it, and my ability to bring in clients so that I can somehow manage to bring home a paycheck. On the other hand, the moments of gratification occur unexpectedly and during simple moments; glimpsing a sample of my letterhead; driving by my future office on the day the new sign is erected; telling the IRS that I am the owner when calling to acquire a tax id number; shopping for a desk for my office; purchasing a domain name; and perhaps, most importantly, realizing that I can go to the Halloween parade at my son’s school this year. Seemingly small moments like these ease my doubt, hesitation, and apprehension.

When announcing my decision to go solo, I was met with varying responses. Most people were supportive; however, I did hear a few comments infected with doubt and reservation similar to the comment I heard ten years ago: "What if the parachute doesn’t open?" Risk is an unavoidable component to going solo. As a prior adrenaline fanatic, I suppose it was the closest thing I could do to nurture that part of my character since skydiving and bungee jumping were blacklisted from my repertoire of leisurely activities following my son’s birth. I remind myself everyday that I am not the first person to take this plunge. Many have done it before me. Many will do it after me. Some will succeed brilliantly. Some will falter disappointingly. But all will have experienced the same initial trepidation and elation and I am sure all will have regretted it immensely had they not taken the risk.

As I prepare for my opening day, I am immeasurably proud that single-handedly I am making this happen. Nonetheless, I also credit my family for nudging me along the way. I am eternally grateful to my husband who has encouraged me to pursue this path even if it means restructuring our family finances a little. I am grateful to my father who spent an entire Saturday shopping for the perfect office chair and to my mother who did not deny her support when I first proposed this scheme even though she knew it might mean a delay in another grandchild.

The next few months will provide an exhilarating launch and perhaps some clumsy landings along the way. However, I am reminding myself everyday to relish the small accomplishments and enjoy the flight.

Renee C. Berman opens her practice on September 1, 2007. She is dedicating her practice to family and matrimonial law. Her office is located at 2653 Whitney Avenue, Hamden, Connecticut. She can be reached via email at rberman@bermanlawct.com. http://www.bermanlawct.com

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