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November 27, 2006

For The Brave, There Is Life After Big Law

Connecticut Law Tribune/Law.com - August, 2006

If opening your own practice was portrayed as a MasterCard commercial, it would go something like this: Virtual Office: $150.00, Cell Phone: $49.99 per month; WiFi laptop $799; taking your five-year-old to his first Mets opening day at Shea Stadium (without derailing the partnership track): Priceless.

Solos work very hard, 24/7 but this is the reason most will tell you they work so hard. Freedom. Not having to apologize for, nor feel guilt about decisions that put their family first. Not having to risk their promotion or job because life means more to them than eighty hour work weeks. Not having to ask anyone’s permission to live their life the way they choose.

One of the most amazing benefits of being a lawyer is the ability to be an entrepreneur and all the rights and privileges that go with the professional title of lawyer. And most who have done so will never turn back. Some recent statistic states there are over one million lawyers in this country; 74 percent are in firms of four or fewer lawyers. (The 2003 Census states four or fewer "employees.") However, the statistic is powerful in that it shows the personality of the lawyer is predominantly one of less, rather than more, supervision and reliance upon corporate life; greater autonomy over their work schedule and income. There is less dependence upon employers "promoting" them and more reliance upon themselves. They prefer to take a greater share of the dollar they work so hard to earn. They prefer more interaction with clients and more control over their working lives which in turn gives them more freedom in their personal lives.

However, we also live in a culture of fear. Fear we won’t meet our student loans, fear we won’t be able to pay our living expenses, fear we won’t have clients, fear we won’t know what we are doing, fear of not having a steady paycheck and health insurance, and so on. And then there is fear of what others will think if we try to go out there and make a go of it. We absorb all that fear to our detriment. And in turn, we sell ourselves to anyone who will hire us rather than trust ourselves. We sell out because of fear and usually too cheaply. I say, "No deal."

I recently met a lawyer who has been out one year. He received a full scholarship to an Ivy League undergraduate school, the first college graduate in his immigrant family. He then received a substantial scholarship to a mid-level law school. His ethnicity made him attractive to a law firm who, in his words, "hired me to fill their quota." He makes $45,000 or so per year traveling to a city to which he has no attachment, feels isolated from the law firm "click" while practicing the type of law he really does not enjoy. Why? He was too fearful not to take the job. Yet, everyday he returns home to a culturally vibrant community filled with a large family, friends, previous co-workers all begging him to take on their legal work because they trust him as one of their own. He has potentially built-in success and the lure of real freedom to design his life as he chooses, to create the balance that will allow him to work and raise a family and be an active contributing part of the community he loves without selling his soul to the highest ( or lowest) bidder. And he is selling his soul if every day he dreads going to work and sees no future. Instead, he caters to his fear rather than venturing forth. And noone will disabuse him of the fear. The legal community, from law school right through to big law, feeds the fear.

Balance of life and quality of life issues are major pluses for the solo and small firm practitioner and it is impossible to put a price tag on the freedoms enjoyed as well as all the other psychological bank accounts that get hefty deposits every day. Apparently, seventy four percent of all private practice attorneys have done Ben Franklin lists when making the decision to work for themselves. If the statistics tell the tale then independence, autonomy and a day at the ball park is winning by a long shot.

Susan Cartier-Liebel is solo practitioner, adjunct professor at Quinnipiac University School of Law and a business consultant for solo and small firms. She can be reached at SCartier_Liebel@comcast.net. Copyright © Susan Cartier-Liebel (2006) All Rights Reserved. No portion of this material may be copied, transmitted, posted, duplicated or otherwise used without the express written approval of Susan Cartier-Liebel.

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