My Shingle: Inspiring Solo and Small Firm Lawyers

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What Solos Earn

I came across this Salary Chart for Solo Practitioners, updated as of January 21, 2007.  I can't say that it's all that scientific, since it sampled 244 respondents.  But for what it is worth, according to the chart, median salary for a solo 1-4 years out is $50k, 5-9 years, $80k, 10-19 years - 82k and 20 years or more, $110,000.  Not surprisingly, salaries vary by city, where Houston solos earn $100k, and and Atlanta solos down at $50k (it's not clear how experienced the solos in each city were).  As for practice area, all seem very close n range; family law is on the low end with a median of $55k, most others up around $75k.

The chart corroborates a couple of observations I've had about solos and salary.  First, for newbie lawyers (under 5 years out of school) who don't have the $160k large firm option, solo practice either matches or exceeds the salaries that these lawyers would earn at a small firm or working for a prosecutor or public defender.  Farther down the line, solo practice continues to match earnings at other alternative employment until leveling off at around the 10 year mark.  At that point, I think solos have a choice if they want to increase earnings:  either diversify their business model to take on alternative fee or contingency cases, or outsource or hire an associate, and earn a profit off that person's work. 

As for large firm attorneys, the comparison is obviously different.  Initially, you may take a pay cut moving from a large firm to solo practice, unless you can take one or two "anchor clients" who can guarantee a decent baseload income.  At the same time, you gain more flexibility over your schedule and more hands on experience.  And though you'll still work hard, you'll likely work less than the regular 60-70 hours that large firm associates put in on a regular basis.   And over time, having a "biglaw" specialty will give a larger payout in the future.  You may not regularly match the salary of a biglaw rainmaker/partner, but you can certainly earn 4-5 times what the average solo does.

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on January 29, 2007 at 04:43 PM in Marketing & Making Money | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

CDs for JDs: Soundtrack of the Legal Life Available From The Billable Hour Company

Ardsley, New York January 29, 2007-Having trouble figuring out what music to play in the background as you bang out that brief? Looking for some songs to psych you up on the way to court?  The Billable Hour Company has the answer to these interrogatories: they've opened a music store featuring CDs by and for members of the legal profession.

The Bar & Grill Singers are a group of practicing attorneys in Austin, Texas. On their three CDs-A Time to Grill, Grilling Me Softly and Licensed to Grill-they blend layered vocal harmonies with topics ranging from lifetime judicial appointments ("Appointed Forever") to somnambulant factfinders ("The Jury Sleeps Upright").

West Virginia lawyer Bob Noone-along with with his group, The Well Hung Jury-covers a lot of ground on his two featured albums, Wingtips Optional and Second Helping of Chicken Suit for the Lawyer's Soul, tackling everything from legal education ("Fifty Ways to Get Through Law School") to lawyer advertising ("Bring Your Case Here to Me") and more.

Both groups perform in a wide range of musical styles, from swing (Noone's "Lawsuit Riot") to 80's pop (Bar & Grill's "I'm Billing Time"), R&B (Noone's "My Will") to do-wop (Bar & Grill's "Mr. Foreman").

"We chose these groups to inagurate our musical offerings because their songs are simply hilarious," said Lisa Solomon, partner in The Billable Hour Company. Mark Solomon-a lawyer and actively performing musician himself-also noted the albums' tight arrangements and high production values. The CDs are available for $14.95 each at the company's website, www.TheBillableHour.com.

About The Billable Hour Company

The Billable Hour Company sells humorous gifts and greeting cards especially for lawyers, law students and legal professionals. Gift items include timepieces featuring dials marked in six-minute increments-the same way many lawyers bill their time. For additional information, contact Lisa Solomon or visit the company's website at www.TheBillableHour.com.

Click here to hear a music sample: 

Lawsuit Riot (sample) by Bob Noone & the Well Hung Jury

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on January 29, 2007 at 08:39 AM in Announcements | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

A Blog for the Dogs...and Their Lawyers!

Photo_81 I know that some people believe that law is for the dogs.  And that's even more true when you work from home, since dogs provide quiet companionship.  Attorney Michael Eisenberg has recognized the affinity between lawyers and their pups, and started this blog, www.amicuscanis.com, where you can share photos and stories about your practice and your pets.

As proof that I'm part of this club, I've posted a photo of myself (after hours) in my messy office with my congenitally deaf Old English Sheepdog puppy, Francesca (Frisky).  At three, she's still a rambunctious baby, who's intent on squeezing her 85 pound body under the desk or cramming it between the wall and the file cabinet. 

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on January 29, 2007 at 08:02 AM in Announcements | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

The ROI of Blogging

Over at my Legal Blogwatch beat, I posted about measuring the ROI of blogging.  Specifically, should lawyers attempt to quantify the value of blogging in dollars and cents, or evaluate the benefits of blogging in the same way that we evaluate the benefits of other marketing techniques like dining with clients or networking.  Let me know what you think.

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on January 29, 2007 at 03:02 AM in Marketing & Making Money , Tech & Web | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Running A Law Firm on Web 2.0

In this article, Tools of the Trade:  Web 2.0 Top Ten List (1/29/07), attorney Lee Rosen shares his top ten list of internet tools that can "make the practice of law easier, faster and more convenient for attorneys and our clients."   For those unfamiliar with the term Web 2.0, Rosen describes it this way: 

Web 2.0 is a vaguely defined phrase, and there is not yet one universally accepted definition. I like to think of it as "software as a service" - sort of “borrowing” software and a server to run it rather than downloading the software to your own machine and being forced to maintain both the software and hardware yourself.

Rosen's list of Web 2.0 applications for small firm lawyers include Google Docs (http://docs.google.com) that allows for collaboration on word processed documents via Internet and  Google Spreadsheet, a related application for spreadsheets.  Rosen notes that neither Google program is as robust as its Microsoft counterpart, but "they have all the features required by the average lawyer."  Other applications include online meetings or web conference tools such as gotomeeting.com, Jacuba Charts (http://charts.jacuba.com) for creating full color charts for courtroom use and Wufoo (http://www.wufoo.com) which is a form building application.

As Rosen concludes:

In the Web 2.0 world, you can run an entire law practice without any software residing on your computer. Nearly every kind of application is now available online. It’s an exciting time on the web, and the opportunities for improving collaboration, productivity and freedom in serving your clients and managing your practice are greater than ever.

I have to admit that I personally have not sampled most of these applications.  I tend to get stodgy, set in my ways with whatever works and only learning about something new when I perceive a powerful incentive to do so.  There's simply no time for any more than that.

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on January 29, 2007 at 02:58 AM in Tech & Web | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

An Inspiring Solo

This article, In iron lung, lawyer forged iron will (Dallas Morning News 1/29/07) features
Paul Alexander, a remarkable solo who practices law, despite having been paralyzed from the neck down since childhood as a result of polio and breathing with assistance from an iron lung.  But how does Alexander's condition affect his clients?  Not much, from what I could tell from the article - and in fact, he's earned their respect:

One of his clients is Karen Pitts of Denton, who often refers him to friends and neighbors in need of an attorney.  "He really is really a wonderful individual," Ms. Pitts said. "He's overcome a lot. I really respect Paul in many ways. He is a more capable attorney than the ones walking."


Posted by Carolyn Elefant on January 29, 2007 at 02:45 AM in Profiles | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

If I solo out of school, do I pick the cheaper law school?

Q:  I'm only applying to law school now, but I am hoping to open up my own general practice as soon as I graduate.  Here is my situation:  I am fairly sure that I will be admitted to a law school in the city where I am intent on living and opening my firm (School A), as well as another law school in the middle of nowhere and hours away from my preferred location(School B).  School A costs 27k per year and School B costs 11k.  Both schools are similarly ranked 3rd/4th tier.  Should I go to the school with less tuition (and thus, less crushing debt) or go to the school where I can establish a network (potentially allow me to make valuable connections for business)? I want to take on less debt  so I can take bigger financial risks opening the practice, but I also want that network and feel that I should know the area before I begin to set up a firm there.  More specifically, I would like to know whether having prior local work experience in law school, through an externship or clinic helpful to starting a practice, or can I just pack up and move to any city and start drumming up business?

A:  Nothwithstanding the difference in cost of roughly $50,000 (figuring 81,000 in tuition at School A versus $33,000 for School B), I believe that you should attend School A.  Here's why.   

First, School A offers the advantage of a city location (which happens to be the city where you want to locate, but I'll get to that point next)whereas School B is located "in the middle of nowhere."  When you attend school in a metropolitan area, you have access to many more job opportunities during law school, where you can earn money while going to school (you may not want to do so during your first year, but you can probably manage it as a second or third year).  Cities will have large and small firms, which hire students to work part time, as well as state or county agency offices and prosecutor and public defender departments.  As a result, a city gives you the option of finding law related jobs that you can take on during law school and cover living expenses and potentially, part of your tuition.

Second, and more importantly, as you anticipate, attending School A will give you access to externships and other opportunities during school that will help you build a network of mentors and potential referral sources.  School A probably has programs where local practitioners come to speak on different topics (and if it doesn't, you can start one as a way to meet people) or judge moot court competitions.  These activities provide terrific opportunities to meet people who can help you out later on.  By contrast, at School B, you won't have the chance to start building these relationships.  And when you move to your preferred City, you'll have to start from scratch and break into networking circles that local grads have already created.  As Susan Cartier Liebel points out, anyone who's sufficiently persistent can succeed at starting a practice (and here, I agree).  But you can also better your odds by positioning yourself early on in law school, instead of playing catch up.

Third, though you should never plan for failure, if for some reason, your practice does not go as planned, having attended School A will make it easier for you to get a job locally.  It is very difficult to find a job from a third or fourth tier school, but typically, these schools do well in placing graduates locally.  What will happen if you do in fact need to find employment from School B?  You will have few contacts and opportunities.  Also, though you want to go solo right away, you may decide that it could make sense to clerk for a judge for a year.  Again, with your School A contacts, you leave that option open.  However, I doubt that you will find a clerkship in City A having attended School B.

On the other hand, I realize that $50,000 in debt is nothing to sneeze at.  At the same time, over the long haul, it is not an insurmountable barrier either.  You can probably defer payment on loans for a time, and if need be, spread them out over a longer repayment period.   Examine the debt implications more closely, and also evaluate financial aid options.  Be aggressive in seeking out financial aid options; in your case, a $10k grant each year could make a tremendous difference.  In addition, some schools do provide loan forgiveness for grads who serve indigent populations.  Investigate whether School A has ever explored this option? 

One selling point that we lawyers constantly harp on is that we should not compete on price.  Yet when it comes to evaluating schools, many prospective lawyers automatically default to the lower cost option, even though the higher cost one may offer more opportunities in the long run.

And now, readers, I open the floor to you and your opinions...Comment away!


Posted by Carolyn Elefant on January 28, 2007 at 02:09 PM in Questions & Advice | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Phew, Six Posts At Once

As you can see, I've been busy with lots of posts.  It's just added up over time.  I know that I should space them out and post them every so often, but once it's written, I want to get it live.  But you don't have to read all my posts at once; come back a few times and read at your leisure.

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on January 19, 2007 at 08:57 AM in MyShingle Solo | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Can Solo and Small Firm Lawyers Anchor Social Movements? We Already Do.

Professor Alan Childress of Legal Profession Blog emailed me a link to his post on an article by Brenda Bratton Blom entitled Cause Lawyering and Social Movements: Can Solo and Small Firm Practitioners Anchor Social Movements?  My answer to the question posed by Blom's title is that solo and small firm practitioners by our very being and the ideas that we put into action already anchor social movement and drive change in our profession.  However, the impression that I get from the article is that solo and small firm lawyers aren't truly cause lawyers because we're not adequately integrated into fights for social justice, such as the civil rights movement of the 1960s or (possibly), the big impact cases that advance big causes (personally, I always thought that was what lobbying, not litigating was about).  If that's the definition of cause lawyering, we solo and small firms aren't cause lawyers, nor can I see why we'd want to be.  My  lengthy analysis follows.

From Blom's article (at 1, citing Austin Sarat and Stuart Scheingold) "cause lawyering" is about:

using legal skills to pursue ends and ideals that transcend client service - be those ideals, social, cultural, political, economic or indeed, legal."

And from another quote (Blom at 17):

Cause lawyering cuts against the grain of a widely accepted belief that law and lawyers are supposed to be apolitical agents for resolving society's conflicts while somehow remain unsullied by them...Cause lawyering is not about neutrality but about choosing sides.  Put another way, cause lawyers are focused on the broader stakes of litigation rather than on the justiciable conflict such as such or on the narrow interests of the parties to that conflict.  Cases have significance to cause lawyers not as an ends in themselves but as a means to advance causes to which lawyers are committed.

Blom then describes that most solo and small firm lawyers, because we're focused on our tiny little cases, struggling to survive economically and isolated from the rest of the world, have difficulty acting as cause lawyers. (Blom at 25).  Blom does suggest, however, that groups like The Law School Consortium (which finds an enormous fan in my colleague Jon Stein) which trains new law school graduates to represent lower income clients can also help to mobilize solos and bring them together as part of a team can help them engage in cause lawyering.

Though I myself have actually authored scholarly articles, I have to admit that when I read pieces like Blom's, it's clear why I have no future in academia:  it's simply too divorced from reality.  For example, where does Blom get the idea that solos are scraping by on the edge, living at the mercy of markets by selling our services?  Apparently, she's not reading the same blogs that I am (and since then, there have been even more entries, from Chuck Newton, Susan Cartier Liebel, Basquette Case, Victor Medina and many more I'm sure).  Moreover, what's wrong with "being at the mercy of markets?"  That makes us entrepreneurs, savvy business people who have found a way to engage in a noble profession and earn a good living to boot.

At the same time, the whole concept of "cause lawyering" is, in many ways, anathema to solo and small firm practice.  What makes us solo and small firm lawyers stand apart is that we build relationships with our clients, who are real people with real problems.  And that's what clients want, as evidenced by the proliferation of blogs focused on client service like What About Clients?, Legal Ease Blog and Golden Practices (again leaving many out).  A client who's been arrested and faces 10 years in jail because of evidence resulting from an unconstitutional search cares about the so-called "narrow issue" of avoiding incarceration - not the broader principles of the Fourth Amendment.  We solos and small firms survive and thrive by focusing on what our clients want and educating them about other possibilities; not by subordinating their issues to the big picture or a matter that we personally find more compelling.

So does that mean that we solos are doomed to handling tiny little matters, never leaving a mark on the law?  No way.  First of all, sometimes, the smallest cases have the biggest impacts, anyway.  Second, as I've shown, simply by practicing law and offering alternatives to large firm practice, we lawyers are changing our profession.  Consider the impact that solos have had on lawyer marketing (it was, after all, a solo who pushed ahead with Bates v. Arizona), on the advancement of women at large firms, we have lawyers like Greatest American Lawyer who's changing "the way law is practiced," solos are way out in front in terms of using blogs, and now, using video blogs.
 
Seems to me that solo and small firm lawyers are cause lawyers already - and in the best possible use of the word.  The cause we serve is improving our profession, improving the quality of service that we provide to clients an improving the quality of life for lawyers generally.  What better cause is there than that?

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on January 19, 2007 at 08:31 AM in Solo Practice Trends | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Will Video Kill the Blogging Stars?

I always loved this song, Video Killed the Radio Star.  But I never thought I might be witness a paraphrased version of it someday. Specifically, is video going to kill the "blogging stars" - and maybe even the "lawyer stars?"

Consider this trend.  Lawyer bloggers  Imke Ratchko of  New York Small Business Law and Nicole Black of Sui Generis have stepped way, way out in front of others, with video greetings on their blog.  (I tried my own shaky little video experiment but here, but have yet to add one permanently as Imke and Niki have done).  The greetings are short, but they give us information about each blogger looks and sounds, and even what their personality is like.  They're a way for each blogger to step off the page and outside the screen and introduce themselves to the world.  If, as blogger Craig Williams said, blogs are a handshake to the world, then video greetings are a huge embrace.  And though some might say that an embrace isn't appropriate in the business setting, technology hasn't replaced our humanity.  Quite simply, people crave the human touch, we still remain intensely curious about how others look and sound, indeed, even more so after we've read what they've written. And in a world that's become increasingly one dimensional, as we conduct many transactions remotely by email, the video blog captivates our attention and satisfies our curiosity.

According to reports like this, YouTube will play a huge role in the upcoming 2008 elections, and indeed, had some impact in 2006.  And it's going to be a huge marketing tool for lawyers, because the more information that we can share with our clients, the more likely we are to be hired.  So follow our leaders, Imke Ratschko and Nicole Black into this brave, new visual world while it's still wide open.  And I'm looking forward to seeing all of you (at least virtually) on the web this year!

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on January 19, 2007 at 05:39 AM in Marketing & Making Money | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack