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A Decade As A Solo

by Carolyn Elefant

Eleven years ago next month, I founded my law firm, the Law Offices of Carolyn Elefant. As I write this retrospective on my practice as my introductory column for smallfirmbusiness.com, I'd like to be able to describe a rags-to-riches rise: how I started out with nothing but a box full of cheap mail order business cards, a low-end laptop computer (a gift from my hopeful husband since I didn't have the confidence to invest in myself), a $100-a-month temporary office space, and a single, $10-an-hour client matter and transformed it all into a nationally renowned, multi-million dollar practice.

But while that's the kind of encouraging story that the various how-to-start-a-law-firm guides and articles convey to solos, it's not mine. My path as a solo has been far bumpier, strewn with some memorable successes and near disasters (such as the time that a huge contingency matter engulfed me and almost forced me out of business -- but that's a matter for another column). And yet for all of the ups and downs of the past eleven years, I wouldn't have spent them any other way.

The past decade has been one of the most exciting and tumultuous times in our generally staid legal profession. Change has roared through, uprooting longstanding traditions like the venerated seven-year law firm partnership track and biglaw's distaste for advertising, and chipping away at others, such as the assumption that attorneys (especially women) must subordinate family life to career in order to succeed. Practicing as a solo has given me a bird's-eye view of how solos have taken the lead in bringing these changes to our profession.

THE OLDEN DAYS

When I started my law firm in 1993, five years out of Cornell Law School, I knew of only one other attorney from my class who started his own firm. At that time, most of my classmates were toiling as associates at their respective law firms, striving for partnerships -- which at that time remained at least four years out of reach. The District Bar, my local bar association, offered only one course on how to start a firm, and it was of little relevance to most young attorneys just starting out.

The course was taught by a successful large firm partner who had broken from her firm, taking two associates and several major clients with her, and whose major business decisions were whether to spend $5000 per month on rent in a "Class A" building or save money by renting a more modest space. (She opted for the former.) Of course, most of us in the room didn't have $5000 a year -- let alone a month -- to spend on office space, and as a result, the course had the effect of driving all but the most foolhardy or desperate from a solo career.

I fell into both categories.

While my parents boasted with pride that their daughter owned her own law firm on the same block as the White House, I didn't have the heart to tell them that I spent only a minuscule amount of time actually practicing law at my fake Pennsylvania Avenue office -- these days, office-front arrangements such as mine are more politely referred to as "virtual space." In those pre-Internet days, I could often be found waiting for service in the bowels of the humid House Office Building Annex 2 to obtain a copy of proposed legislation or begging a court clerk not to close the door to the filing room five minutes early so that I could get in to file a pleading.

Back then, I could not afford LEXIS, and no other computerized legal research services were available, so I also spent plenty of time in the Library of Congress Law Library rummaging through digests, wishing that I took my first-year Legal Research course more seriously. And all the while, I took frequent breaks to use the pay phone to retrieve messages from my office voice mail. I also returned calls from the pay phone, and tried my best to wrap up conversations before being instructed to deposit more money.)

TECHNOLOGY SAVES THE DAY

By late 1995, however, technology began to slowly transform my practice. I recall cruising the then-nascent World Wide Web around midnight, pulling a copy of the Administrative Procedure Act from the Cornell LII's US Code, and being able to complete a brief that evening instead of waiting until morning to make a trip to the library to finish my research. (Back then, Internet research tools could not replace for-fee legal services like LEXIS and Westlaw -- and indeed, to date, they still can not.)

But by making at least recent case law and statutes accessible for free, the Internet introduced competition into the computerized legal research services market. New, cheaper providers like Versuslaw and Loislaw emerged, and better yet, LEXIS and Westlaw were forced to offer more flexible pricing packages to attract and retain customers. While full service LEXIS and Westlaw remains a bit of a price stretch, I am still able to satisfy all of my research needs through a combination of the lower cost services and access to limited or per diem LEXIS libraries. As a result, I can research more efficiently and effectively than I could in my early days of practice, when I relied on manual book research alone.

Technology also obviates the need for support staff and enables me to spend more time practicing law instead of handling administrative duties. With a cell phone, clients can always reach me; I don't need an answering service to handle calls; and I don't have to stay in close proximity to a pay phone to check my messages. E-mail provides another way to stay in touch with clients, and I can typically access it almost anywhere.

Finally, e-filing has eliminated those long waits in docket rooms and unpleasant encounters with surly clerks and balky photocopy machines, and the physical activity associated with filing a case that once took several hours, now is done almost instantaneously by clicking "send."

More than any other development, technology has reduced the barriers to starting a law practice. This means that more attorneys can realistically consider the option of starting a firm, and attorneys who have solo practices can provide clients with the same quality of service as large firms -- but at far lower fees.

Technology has improved my ability to serve my clients. As more of my colleagues integrate technology into their practices, I believe that it will substantially increase both the quality, variety and availability of legal services to the public.

SOLO PRACTICE BECOMES COOL

In the early years of my solo practice, solo attorneys were looked down upon by large firm attorneys as fly-by-night operators or worse -- losers who couldn't cut it at a "real" firm. By 1997, however, this changed. The dotcom era erupted full scale around that time. As the dotcom boom acquainted the public with the concept of a successful businesses growing out of a garage, I noticed that clients and other attorneys shifted their focus from superficial matters such as the physical location of an attorney's office to whether the attorney could get the job done. In addition, suddenly everyone -- even attorneys -- wanted to be part of a "start-up." Solo practice enjoyed new-found respect.

Just as the dotcom era helped enhance the reputation of small firms (thus enabling some to compete with large firms), it also introduced large firms to a practice model formerly limited to small law firms: contingency fees.

With so many attorneys eager for a piece of the dotcom pie, many began handling legal matters and financings for fledgling companies in exchange for shares in the company -- a deal that could prove quite lucrative if the company reached the IPO phase (as many did back then). Large firms could no longer, in good conscience, call smaller colleagues greedy ambulance chasers, when in effect, they adopted their tactics. In fact, in the late 1990s --perhaps by coincidence or perhaps due to the booming economy or healthier insurance industry -- the now common assaults on trial lawyers were not as pervasive.

MARKETING

Also in the late 1990s, biglaw colleagues borrowed another tactic long used by solos: marketing.

When I started my law firm, I diligently joined professional organizations and attended trade association conferences, hawking my business card, hand-made law firm information packet and resume wherever I went. My tactics drew puzzled looks from attorneys whom I encountered at bar events, but fortunately, at most trade events, I was the only attorney in attendance -- which enabled me to pick up new clients. I also submitted my name for speaking engagements and frequently was selected -- if only because no one else was interested.

Recent conference attendance lists reflect an increased presence of firms.Many even set up booths and like other vendors distribute trinkets emblazoned with the law firm's logo. Virtually every large law firm has at least a professional marketing director -- if not an entire marketing staff, and if a large firm attorney is not invited to speak at a conference, not to worry -- the firm will sponsor its own conference. Firms have even started running ads on radio, TV and in magazines -- domains long considered by the elite of the profession to be beneath them.

It's good to see that competition has entered the legal profession and that large firms can not simply rely on name recognition and reputation to generate a continuous stream of clients. Most solos, however, don't have the same marketing resources that large firms do, and for those of us who compete with biglaw, we may lose some ground. Web sites and weblogs offer one way for solos to compete, but once firms recognize the value of these tools, they can outspend solos on that front as well. For so long, many solos have harped that law, while a noble profession, is also a business, and we've mocked large firms about their passivity in going after new business. Now, I wonder whether we may regret clueing in large firms to the power of marketing.

FAMILY

As I mentioned, I went solo because no other options were available to me, but I stayed solo because of my two daughters, born in 1996 and 1999.

Around the time my first daughter was born, my legal specialty -- energy regulation -- was hopping, and a job offer from a large firm nearly fell into my lap. Flattering as it was, I knew that a fifty-hour work week and constant travel would mean that I'd have to relegate my daughter to someone else's care.

With my solo practice, I was able to not just maintain control over my schedule, but gradually change the nature of my practice to make it more child-friendly. For example, I gradually closed up whatever litigation files and criminal matters that I had pending. I cut my hours to part-time and focused more on appellate work, contract assignments from other attorneys and other matters with more predictable scheduling and fewer physical appearances.

If you ask many of my colleagues why they've gone or stayed solo, they'll also likely cite family as a primary reason. Only very recently -- within the past year or two -- have larger firms finally started to recognize that lawyers should not have to choose between career and family. Articles are being written about law firm retention programs, and various bar associations have set up projects to study ways that law firms can retain parents -- particularly women -- within the profession. The firms' efforts may be too little, too late to prevent more family-oriented attorneys from leaving firms -- or going solo -- but the recognition of a need for balance reflects a substantial change in attitude.

WHAT THE FUTURE WILL BRING: IS THIS WHERE WE WANT TO GO?

More and more, law firms are starting to resemble -- and behave like -- corporations. Large firms are increasingly merging with one another, claiming that mergers improve their ability to serve clients by offering one-stop shopping, and making it easier for firms to capture more revenue by engaging in cross-fertilization marketing. Firms have also created ethics departments to guard against conflicts (or, as cynics argue, to allow firms to skate closer to the edge of permissible conduct). And at least two firms are setting up programs in connection with business schools to give attorneys business training. But I wonder whether attorneys, acting in the capacity of business advisors, can do the job they're supposed to: Keep clients out of trouble.

As the practice of law becomes more like big business, service to clients, commitment to excellence and resourcefulness remain the only tools with which we solos can compete. We must use these tools not only to survive, however, but to lead.

Just as we solos drove our profession forward -- with our entrepreneurial spirit, our innovative marketing techniques, by integrating technology, and reminding us all of the importance of family -- now, I think, we must lead it back to the traditional values promoted by Abraham Lincoln, formalized in our Model Code of Responsibility: zealous protection of our client's interest, providing competent work for reasonable fees and promoting integrity and honesty within the profession.

Note: This article originally appeared in http://smallfirmbusiness.com.


About The Author

Carolyn Elefant is founder and principal attorney with the Law Offices of Carolyn Elefant in Washington, D.C. and counsel to the Law Offices of Scott Hempling in Silver Spring, Md. In 2002, Ms. Elefant created My Shingle.com, a Web log for solo and small firm practitioners and lawyers who dream of starting a practice. Ms. Elefant invites inquiries about her law practice or starting a law firm by email at loce@his.com.


The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.


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