My Shingle: Inspiring Solo and Small Firm Lawyers

Letter to A New Lawyer

What advice do I have for a new lawyer?  That's the money question from my friend and colleague, Susan Cartier Liebel who's preparing this week's Blawg Review #142 on that very topic. 

To start, I asked myself what kind of advice I would have found useful two decades ago when I was a new lawyer.   Unfortunately, back then, I disregarded the little advice that I did receive, because I thought I knew better.  For example, one older and somewhat doddering professor at my law school regularly told students that if we wanted a job at a particular firm, we ought do what he did "back in the day" (which for him was the 1930s) - put on a nice suit, march up to the firm's office with resume in hand, ask to see the managing partner and introduce ourselves.  My buddies and I had a laugh over our professor's well intended words of wisdom, mercilessly mocking him as completely out of touch.  But would it have hurt us to try what he suggested?  None of us ever did.  And now...all these years later, I now see the nuggets of value buried in my professor's seemingly outdated advice: the importance of putting yourself out there, taking initiative and most of all, making a personal connection.  So my first piece of advice to new lawyers is that you should keep an open mind.  Most advice is well intentioned.  It may not be right for you, but don't reject it out of hand. 

Other advice, I've addressed in past posts at MyShingle.  It includes:

  1. Remember that sometimes the smallest things we do have the greatest impact;

  2. Sometimes you may have to do something desperate to succeed;

  3. While keeping in mind that law and running a law firm is a business, don't lose sight of the higher purpose we can serve as lawyers and;

  4. Like Randy Pausch of the Last Lecture , embrace karma !

Two final pieces of advice.  First, don't waste effort seeking certainty or waiting for "the right time" - whether it's the right time to change a job, start a law firm or get married or start a family.  Not only does surety always elude you, but in focusing on it with spotlight intensity, you miss the best part of the journey:  living the questions, as Rainer Marie Rilke writes in his Letters to A Young Poet (this is my very favorite passage):

You are so young, so much before all beginning, and I would like to beg you, dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now...because you would not be able to live them.  And the point is, to live everything.  Live the questions now.  Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

Second, always remember that you are a part of a profession that pays homage to  precedent.  That doesn't mean we're bound by old ways, but rather, that we have the ability to create new approaches with lasting effects.  New ways of doing business, of achieving justice, or serving clients.   As a lawyer, you have an opportunity to leave your own personal mark on the law that will remain long after you're gone.  Don't waste it. 

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on January 12, 2008 at 08:02 AM in MyShingle Solo | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Make 2008 The Year You Start Your Law Firm

As another year draws to a close, do you find yourself thinking about hanging out your own shingle? Perhaps the thought occurred to you the other night while you were polishing up a brief, wishing that you -- not the partner who isn't at all familiar with the case -- were going to argue it.

Or maybe after a year of working the temp circuit, using your Ivy League law degree to perform paralegal work, it occurred to you that you couldn't be any worse off if you started your own practice.

So what's holding you back?

I wrote these words three years ago in this article, Make 2005 the Year You Start Your Own Law Firm. But my advice still rings true today. Take a look and see if I've convinced you to make this year the one that you start your firm.

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on December 27, 2007 at 08:57 PM in MyShingle Solo | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Whatever You Call Yourself, Please Don't Sign Your Pleadings This Way

It's the perennial question for lawyers starting a law firm - what do you call yourself? As I wrote here over two years ago, Enrico Schaefer maintains that the term "solo" is inaccurate. And more recently, the topic has been discussed on Solosez. As for me, I've always regarded the term "solo" as a catch phrase for lawyers who start a firm - be it one lawyer or multiples. And my upcoming book, Solo by Choice uses the term "solo" in the title because it's the most universally recognized phrase for lawyers who choose to step out on their own to work for themselves, rather than others.

Still, though I don't have a problem using the term solo descriptively, I'd never use it to describe myself. When I meet other attorneys, I explain that I'm an independent practitioner or (more preferable) that I have my own law firm. But even if you have a close attachment to the term solo, please - don't ever sign off on a pleading the way the way that this Phelps Family lawyer did: Margie Phelps, A Sole Practitioner. In fact, the entire pleading makes me cringe - and is an example of why, despite all of our best efforts, we self-starting lawyers still face image problems.

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on November 2, 2007 at 07:47 AM in Ideas & Tips , Law Practice Management , MyShingle Solo | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Don't Just Step Off the Partnership Track; Bypass It Entirely

I'm not sure whether any of you remember the TV show LA Law . Sometime in the second or third season, the firm's young associate, Abby, was told that she wasn't partnership material so she left to start her own criminal defense practice. A year or so later, Abby had established her reputation as a trial lawyer, and the firm that had once spurned her lured her back (though I don't remember if she became a partner or merely collected a higher salary). Though I watched those episodes before I ever started my own practice, the concept of leaving a firm to build your skills and credentials and then return later, on your own terms struck me as eminently smart.

Back here, I posted on how Supreme Court solo specialist Tom Goldstein brought his practice to biglaw firm Akin Gump - after he'd been on his own for five years and argued more than a dozen cases at the Court. And today, I saw this Press Release about Ely Goldin, a former solo specializing in issues related to the business needs of the Russian immigrant community, who was named partner at Fox Rothschild.

When you start a firm, you may dream of staying small...or building your own empire. But solo practice isn't just an end in itself, it can also be viewed as a phase of your career during which you build skills and increase your value. Making partner after toiling as an associate at a large firm is always a risk. Is it really any more risky to try to make partner after building your own practice?

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on October 3, 2007 at 05:10 PM in Biglaw Practice and Issues, MyShingle Solo , Solo Practice Trends | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

First Day, Fresh Start

For me, fall brings a fresh start - both the beginning of the school year and Rosh Hashanna, the Jewish New Year. Back when I was a student, no matter how bad the previous year had been, I'd always welcome the new school year with hope and optimism.

Of course, those of us in the working world don't have the perennial option of a fresh start. We need to affirmatively create one for ourselves as the need arises. Perhaps our fresh start might be as simple as closing out a file of a problem client and promising ourselves that you'll never take a case where you have a gut feeling that there's something not quite right about the client. The fresh start might involve shuttering a practice area that you never enjoyed or learning a new one. And sometimes you may not even make that fresh start at all, but you'll start to sense the need that it's time for change. Currently, I'm in that last category, knowing it's time for a change, but still contemplating my path.

As for my daughters, with their first day (depicted in photos), change still comes easily. My younger daughter who didn't like school much last year has declared that she "really loves third grade." My older daughter's binder is still tidy three weeks into the year; those of you who struggle with a disorganized child (or are disorganized themselves) recognize this as a major accomplishment. And actually, this school year brings a change for me as well: my daughters now ride the bus which means they're out the door by 7:20, which gives me an extra 30-60 minutes every morning. Now, that's a change for the better (and if you are wondering how an extra hour could make a difference...well, then, you're probably not busy enough!)


Posted by Carolyn Elefant on September 11, 2007 at 08:04 AM in MyShingle Solo | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Are Women Fighting for Equality At Biglaw Behind the Times?

I was looking through some of these relatively new books on getting ahead in business and entrepreneurship that Marci Alboher reviewed in her Careers Column for the NY Times. (If you recall, I reviewed Marci's book, One Person, Multiple Careers back here in February). What struck me about these three books - Anti 9 to 5 Guide: Practical Advice for Women Who Think Outside the Cube; The Parentpreneur Edge: What Parenting Teaches About Building A Successful Business ; and Grindhopping: Building A Rewarding Career Without Paying Your Dues - is that not only do they each have their own website (probably di rigeur for most new titles but they are all authored by women who are pushing the concept of entrepreneurship and jumping off the traditional career ladder as a way for women to get ahead. Contrast that "go get 'em," risk-taking mentality with the initiatives within the legal profession for advancement by women at a law firm - like begging for flex time or waiting for "the firm" to come up with ways to help women network.

All of this made me wonder whether women seeking equality at law firms are behind the times instead of on the cutting edge. Because if these books are any reflection of what's happening in the business context, it seems that in order for women to succeed, they need to break the rules, not follow them and make their own rules instead of forcing others to change theirs.

For a previous, related post on a similar topic, see And where were the women solos?

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on August 4, 2007 at 06:55 AM in Biglaw Practice and Issues, MyShingle Solo , Solo Practice Trends | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

What Solos Can Learn From The Recent Obesity Study

As you've probably heard on the news by now, turns out that obesity isn't exclusively hereditary; it's also socially contagious (US News, 7/25/07). A recent study to be published in the New England Journal of Medicine suggests that if you're close friends with people who are obese, you're more likely to gain weight yourself either because you adopt the same unhealthful lifestyle, you don't feel as much pressure to stay thin in front of an obese friend or you alter your perception of acceptable appearance when you see that your friends have gained weight.

All very interesting, but what does a study about obesity have to do with solos? Plenty. The study reinforces a basic concept: that our behavior, action and self-worth are affected significantly by those around us - even to the point where we compromise our health and well being. And we solos and aspiring solos, independent and bold as we may like to believer, are not impervious to this phenomenon. Thus, much as we believe in our ability to start and run a successful practice, if we surround ourselves with naysayers, we may begin to have doubts. And if we've already got a pretty decent practice up and running, we're more likely to look down on our accomplishments when colleagues belittle solos.

So just as you may want to seek out fit people if you're trying to lose weight, you need to seek out supportive, go-getting, self-starters if you're thinking about starting a practice or if you already run one. Doesn't matter if they share your practice area or if they're 20 years older or younger than you, but just that they share your drive and optimism. And fortunately, with blogs and listserves, this kind of supportive crowd is only an internet connection away.

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on July 26, 2007 at 12:07 PM in Ideas & Tips , MyShingle Solo | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Announcing....SOLOFORMANIA - now in beta!

My site has been dead for so long, that I couldn't wait to get some new content going. So here it is, in beta...SOLO-formania. What is SOLOFORMANIA? It's a cornucopia of forms for the busy solo - ranging from FREE sample practice guides, fee agreements and retainer letters, to court forms for all 50 states (some free, some fee) to general form files on the Internet. I'll put a link up at the sidebar for now, until I finish revamping the site. (Though the Online Guide should be upgraded soon).

You're free to link to SOLOFORMANIA at your site, so long as you attribute MyShingle.

Update: Caveat on using forms. Forms are a terrific starting place but for your practice, but they are just that - a good start. If you view forms from other jurisdictions (which is useful), be sure to check whether they comport with the ethics rules where you practice. And adapt forms for a particular task. For example, when I draft retainer letters, I always include a fairly detailed scope of work so that clients understand which tasks are covered and which are not.

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on June 19, 2007 at 05:55 PM in MyShingle Solo | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

A Tale of Two Lawyer Ratings Systems

Imagine a lawyer rating system that assigns lawyers different categories of grading and purports to provide an objective way to assess a lawyer and through "third party validation of ethics and legal ability provides that extra level of confidence that the right lawyer or firm has been selected." A ratings system that takes years of experience into account in issuing ratings and removes positive ratings where a lawyer has a negative disciplinary record. A ratings system that even generates enough profit to fund a fellowship. And a ratings system that includes some errors and omissions.

If you thought that the lawyer rating system that I just described would be the subject of class action lawsuits, you'd be wrong. But that rating system sure sounds like this one, which is the subject of a class action lawsuits. And indeed, many of the claims alleged in the class suit (which you can access here) would seem to apply to both ratings systems: such as complaints of arbitrariness of ratings or that the rating service makes deceptive and false representations that clients can rely on the ratings in choosing a lawyer.

So, one of these ratings systems is sued, while the other is not. And if you're wondering about the reasons for the differential treatment, I can think of at least one: consider the ratings of the class action's lead plaintiff by this ratings service and this one.

Note: for the record, I have criticized both ratings services for various reasons here and here and here. In my view, ratings systems aren't worth much because choosing a lawyer isn't like picking a restaurant or buying a house. So if we lawyers allow ratings system, we should explain that they're one of many, many factors in picking a lawyer. But more importantly, if we allow ratings systems, we must tolerate all systems; we shouldn't be able to pick and choose by filing class actions between those ratings systems that we want (because they grade us better) and those we don't.

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on June 15, 2007 at 04:03 AM in Ethics & Malpractice Issues , Marketing & Making Money , MyShingle Solo , News | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Do Something You Stink At...And Become A Better Lawyer

Yesterday, I spent a beautiful Saturday outdoors, helping to build a house with Habitat for Humanity as part of an Energy Bar Association pro bono service project. I have to admit that I didn't seek this project out: my decision to participate was a spur of the moment response to an email that came through my inbox, and was motivated not by true benevolence, but rather, by a realization that I haven't attended many energy networking events in a while and this presented a convenient opportunity. While I can't say that I made many business connections yesterday (it's hard to talk shop when you're trying not to hammer your finger, plus, energy lawyers only comprised about a third of the partipants), nonetheless, I came back with something better - a little bit of color on my pallid lawyer's complexion, a few good lessons learned, and a lot of satisfaction, as I'll describe.

In the past, I've done my share of pro bono for indigent clients, primarily throught the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, representing them in public benefits cases, eviction hearings (I kept two families in their homes), discrimination actions. I even helped crack a scam by a vocational school that would sign up homeless people for the program and student loans. The school would take the money and either fail to follow through on the training promised, and wouldn't let people rescind after one or two classes, leaving the homeless people with insurmountable credit problems and the school owner with a fancy lamborghini (it's funny the things you remember...). At the same time, I'd always ruled out other service projects, like serving food in soup kitchens or cleaning up a dirty river constituted true pro bono because they didn't make use of my legal skills. After my experience yesterday, I still believe that my time spent on pro bono is most valuable when I provide legal services, because that's where my competency lies - but just because I'm best at providing legally related pro bono, doesn't mean that I need to limit my service to law projects only.

Of course, this doesn't hold true for all lawyers. As I saw yesterday, some lawyers have skills, like house building, that extend beyond the law. I am not one of them. As a general matter, I'm not much of a crafty person, and not surprisingly, I was fairly inept at yesterday's task - building the frame for a house. I bent nails, broke them trying to remove them, misaligned the pieces of the frame and didn't even know the proper terminology for the various components. And needless to say, I was slower than everyone, embarrassed and frustrated trying to get my nails into the board while the others on the team stood around waiting. Fortunately, the Habitat people were incredibly patient, waiting quietly as I finished my tasks, and encouraging me along.

On the way home, I got to thinking that the way that I felt on that construction site must be how many of our clients feel in the litigation process. Like me, our clients our competent people in their own right, thrown into a world which is foreign to them and which they don't comprehend. Just as I didn't undertand the importance of a perfectly aligned triple board, and grew impatient about having to always stop and even it out, most of our clients don't understand why they need to respond to an interrogatory in a certain way, or answer a depo question or not talk to so-and-so or why the process takes so long. So these clients call or email to ask questions or complain...sometimes a lot. And though we often mock these clients, or grow impatient with them, we sometimes forget to consider that perhaps, they're just struggling to grasp a process that's second nature to us lawyers.

After yesterday, I realized that most legal procedures can make even the most capable of our clients feel stupid, just like building a house made me - a lawyer with 19 years of experience - feel like an utter clod. We should remember that the next time we get impatient. And every so often, we should go out and do something publicly at which we're completely inept, be it constructing a house or swimming laps or taking a knitting class - to remind ourselves of how our clients feel, and to figure out ways that we can help them through.

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on May 13, 2007 at 06:53 AM in MyShingle Solo | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack