My Shingle: Inspiring Solo and Small Firm Lawyers

A Solo At the Supremes

Over at The WSJ Law Blog, there's a nice profile of Richard Diaz, the Florida solo who represents Michael Williams, a defendant who is challenging the constitutionality of a federal child-pornography statute in United States v. Williams. Last week, Diaz argued the case before the Supreme Court.

But despite his moment of glory at WSJ Law Blog, Diaz took a bit of a beating over at Volokh Conspiracy, where Eugene Volokh termed Diaz's brief "pretty shoddy." The post generated 66 comments, which discussed whether a brief even matters at the High Court (where talented law clerks could just as easily do the research and analysis) and whether Diaz hurt his client by handling the case himself instead of passing it on to another lawyer.

I'll admit that Diaz's brief isn't a model of clear writing, but I've seen much, much worse. But how does Diaz's brief compared to others filed at the Supreme Court by more experienced practitioners? And why is it that solos who represent criminal clients at the Supreme Court are regularly attacked by "experts" convinced that they could do a better job?

And maybe they could, at least up at the Court. But first, the cases have to get there. And I think that many of the experts underestimate the time and the skill that into shepherding a case from the trial level up to the Supremes (the WSJ post describes the procedural history of how Diaz's client got to the court). Even where a case presents an interesting issue, most clients rarely "buy on." They want to understand the issue and get a sense of their chance for success. They need to figure out if it's worth the extra money and psychological toll to move ahead, or if they're better off just making the best of a result to have a case over.

And the way you get clients to move ahead isn't by pushing your legal analysis. Foremost, you've got to build a trusting relationship with your client so that they'll accept your advice when you recommend pursuing an appeal to begin with. And Diaz established that kind of bond with his client.

Consider this quote from the WSJ Law Blog story, where Diaz describes why his client chose him over a Supreme Court expert:

I got calls from all over the country from lawyers who called themselves First Amendment advocates. Some graciously offered help, others aggressively tried to take the case away from me. One lawyer accused me of not being an appellate advocate and threatened to contact my client and directly to solicit the case from him. So I wrote to Mr. Williams and I honestly told him that I was neither an appellate advocate nor a First Amendment expert but asked him what he wanted me to do. He essentially told me, “I’ve known you for 20 years as a street cop and I’ve seen you work in the federal court building for over 10 years. There’s nobody I want arguing my case in front of the Supreme Court except you.”
Perhaps Diaz didn't have the best Supreme Court brief. But he has something far more valuable: the thrill and honor of knowing that his client trusted him with one of the most important legal decisions of his life. And that's something that many Supreme Court experts will never experience.

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on November 5, 2007 at 09:52 PM in Criminal Law, Practice & Policy , Profiles | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Solos Practice Longer...But For Love or For Money?

One of the benefits of running your own firm is that you don't have a committee forcing you to retire. Perhaps that's why some of the oldest practicing lawyers are those who work for themselves. Today, Bob Ambrogi, my co-blogger at Legal Blog Watch posted here about Reuben Landeau, a Boston lawyer who just passed away at the age of 103. According to the article, Landeau opened his firm in 1926 and last year, attended his 80th law school reunion. Perhaps it could be said that Landeau had a mandatory non-retirement policy; apparently, his 70 something son (with whom Landeau practiced) wanted to call it quits in 2004, but dad refused.

And in New Jersey, Florence Forgoton Adams, Monmouth County's first female attorney, died at the age of 99, according to this
story. Like many female lawyers of that period, Adams started her own firm after graduating from NYU Law School, because none of the all male firms would hire her. Adams practiced law in Red Bank, NJ for more than 70 years, working a few days a week at her firm up until her death.

Mandatory retirement aside, why do solos stick with law for decades? Do they need the money...or do they love the law so much that they can't part? Do you think you'll be practicing law in your '90s?

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on October 24, 2007 at 08:34 PM in Profiles | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

GAL's GAS (Great American Success) Continues

Some of my favorite blogs are those with a continuing story line. And there's no greater story line than that shared by over the past few years by Enrico Schaefer, who revealed himself as Greatest American Lawyer. Enrico's blog takes us from the
the day he quit his job at a firm to start his own
to his firm's recent growth into a full fledged, three lawyer practice. When Enrico started his firm, he vowed - as his tagline says - to change the way law is practiced. That's a tall order, but one which I think accounts for his firm's success. The lesson here: even if you're starting small, be sure to think big; as big as you can.

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on September 24, 2007 at 05:49 PM in Profiles | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Still Solo At 100

When you start a firm, sometimes, it's hard to imagine lasting 60 days or months. But some lawyers, like 100 year old, Richard Bird, who's profiled in this article has been running his own firm for more than 60 years! After graduating from Harvard Law in 1933, Bird held a variety of jobs, before starting his firm in 1943 and even now, he still works 9-5, Monday to Friday. And he's even argued a case before the Supreme Court, though for him, it wasn't a big deal, just part of serving clients.

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on April 17, 2007 at 08:12 AM in Profiles | Permalink | Comments (14) | TrackBack

A Solo Who Inspired

Many people dream of starting a law firm to make money or achieve work-life balance, but for me, it's always been about immortality:  finding a way to leave my own little, but indelible mark on the law.  I'm still working hard on that goal, but if you want to get a sense of the heights that you can reach by starting a law firm, take a look at the legacy of this trailblazing, independent African American lawyer, Mahala Ashely Dickerson, who ran her own firm for over 40 years and just passed away at the age of 94 according to this article, Pioneer Alaska Lawyer Dickerson Dies at 94.

According to the article, Mahala was divorced and already had young children (6 year old triplets!) when she went to Howard Law School, graduating in 1936.  She worked in Indiana and Alabama before moving to Alaska with her sons, where she opened a law practice in 1959.  According to the article:

Dickerson had a reputation as an advocate for the poor and underprivileged. She argued many cases involving racial and gender discrimination, taking on the Anchorage Police Department and the University of Alaska, among other institutions.

According to the article, Dickerson was still working twelve hour days at age 71 and finally retired from her practice at 91.  She mentored young lawyers and represented clients who didn't have the means to pay and for whom she fought aggressively.  Said one attorney quoted in the article:

I remember one lawyer telling me one time, he said, 'Rex, you see those mountains out there?' He said, 'Those mountains are littered with the bones of lawyers who underestimated M. Ashley Dickerson.'

The article concludes:

Dickerson's legacy will be the way she overcame obstacles, giving back to the community, said Celeste Hodge, former local head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, who now runs Mayor Mark Begich's office of equal opportunity.

What legacy do you want to leave?

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on February 21, 2007 at 06:19 AM in Profiles | Permalink | Comments (3) | 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

48 Years As A Solo Come To A Close

"If you love what you do, you'll never work a day in your life."

That's the standard that Sauk Center, Minnesota attorney John Mayer has lived by throughout his 48 year career as a solo, which will now come to a close with his retirement, according to this profile from the Sauk Herald (11/21/06).  Articles like this make me wonder where I'll be in 30 years (I've already been practicing 18) and what kind of career I'll look back on. 

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on November 23, 2006 at 08:16 PM in Profiles | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Making the Legal Profession Better, One Solo at a Time

You don't have to join an organized pro bono program or set a grand mission like getting rid of the billable hour to improve the practice of law.  Jennifer Sawday of the California Estate Planning Blog is changing the practice of law just by being in practice, by charging fair rates and doing a good deed for a couple ripped off by another attorney and giving in to a couple of hagglers because it wasn't going to make or break her.  Of course, much of kindness that Jennifer's posts describe are what many solos do everyday, without fanfare (post re: reception for biglaw pro bono efforts) or publicity or press releases, yet it's something that too often, our profession forgets.

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on June 4, 2006 at 09:45 PM in Profiles | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Solo Wins a $4.7 Million Verdict

Last months, one of our readers, solo Scott P. Schomer of Schomer Law in Torrance, California won an amazing $4.7 million dollar verdict for his client, a grandmother who'd been left homeless after being defrauded of her Beverly Hills home by her former attorney who along with his wife moved into his former client's house after stealing it out from under her.   To win the case, Schomer went up against four attorneys who represented his client's former lawyers.  Details on the case can be viewed here in an article from the Los Angeles Daily Record. 

Schomer was generous enough to submit to an interview with MyShingle by email, which I've posted below. 

My Shingle:  How long have you been in solo practice?

Schomer:  I started my solo practice in January 2002.  Prior to that time I had spent 8 years at big firms and then 3 years at in-house positions and felt I preferred creating an entrepreneurial atmosphere over returning to corporate life.  I found another solo attorney in need of assistance and practiced for approximately two years under his umbrella, although essentially operating my own practice.  In April 2005 I officially unveiled my own professional corporation although I continue to share space and other resources with this same solo.  I had an extensive real estate litigation background and focused my practice on probate and real estate litigation, particularly in the area of financial frauds against elders.  Elder abuse is a growing problem and an area where I enjoy helping those who are really in need of my services.

MyShingle:  Was this your biggest verdict?

The Lederman is my biggest verdict to date; my next largest award was a $1.5 mil. elder\abuse verdict I obtained in March 2005.  When Ms. Lederman arrived in my office, I initially found the story hard to believe—I was shocked that an\nattorney could have so mistreated his client.  After I reviewed the facts, I was certain that defendants would settle quickly because the allegations (which I believe were all proven true) were so outrageous.  Instead, defendants fought me tooth and nail through the entire procedure.  It was not until after the jury verdict that they offered to settle for anything more than a small percentage of their potential liability.  I took the case in December 2003 and we only obtained our jury award in March 2005.  Unfortunately, the case is still going because on May 10th, defendants filed a petition with the US bankruptcy courts.

MyShingle:  Did you handle the case on your own?

Schomer:  I have a paralegal I share with another attorney who helps with office support (answering phones, ordering supplies, filing, service, etc.) but in terms of substantive work\non the case, I did everything from soup to nuts—trial & exhibit binders, briefs, witness preparation, opening & closing statements.

MyShingle:  What advice do you have for other solos who find themselves up against a larger team of lawyers

Schomer:  I spent enough time in big firms and fighting big firms to realize that at the end of the day, you are still matching wits against individual attorneys. Most cases are won and lost on the facts and the preparation work.  The best advice I can give other solos is the importance of community—developing a network of other solos.  The Lederman trial lasted almost three weeks and without being able to call on the services of other attorneys to cover some of my other cases, I would have been in serious trouble.  I also find these folks are a great source of business.  By building a good network, you are in essence creating your own virtual law firm; you get the intellectual resources of a big firm without the administrative or political headaches that accompany a more fixed partnership arrangement.

If you have any other questions about the case, feel free to post them in the comments section and perhaps Scott will follow up.  Also, if you have a recent victory and would like to be featured at MyShingle, drop me a line at carolyn.elefant@gmail.com

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on May 21, 2006 at 10:02 PM in Profiles | Permalink | Comments (55) | TrackBack

A Public Interest Law Firm Solo

So, you want to work in public interest, but can't find a position or afford to take one?  Why not start your own firm instead, with a public interest firm on the side?  That's what Scott Levine of Aegis Professional Services did as reported in this article,  Scott Levine Fulfills dream of starting public interest firm, Gail Appelson, St. Louis Post Dispatch, (4/13/06).  The operation is a combination of a law firm that provides one stop shopping for entrepreneurs (at reasonable rates) and the Stetin Center, a public interest entity to be funded by donors and staffed by law firm attorneys and volunteers. 

If you've always dreamed of a public interest job, you don't need to give up on the dream because you don't think you can afford it or because your present firm doesn't approve.  Build a firm like Levine and create those opportunities for yourself.

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on April 16, 2006 at 12:54 PM in Profiles | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack