My Shingle: Inspiring Solo and Small Firm Lawyers

What With Biglaw Layoffs and Rate Hikes, 2008 Will Be A Banner Year for Solos

Two factors are conspiring to make 2008 a break out year for starting a law firm. Factor 1: rapidly weakening credit and financial markets are causing law firms like McKee Nelson to offer voluntary severance packages to associates and leading other firms Thacher Profitt to give notice of impending layoffs. Factor 2: rapidly increasing hourly rates at large firms - now up to one thousand dollars an hour are spurring some lawyers to start their own practices to attract clients who can't afford big firm rates.

So, if you're affected by one of these factors - if your job is in jeopardy because you practice in an area that's going under, or if you can't find clients with sufficiently deep pockets to pay your current overhead, why not consider starting your own firm? Sure, there are other options - you could move to a smaller firm, switch practice areas, move to another firm or consider employment in academia or in house. Just be sure to that as you consider these options, think about solo practice right along with them.

And stay tuned for my upcoming book, Solo by Choice which contains a specific section on "Biglaw to Yourlaw," as well as several examples of lawyers who've taken that route, and found financial success and personal satisfaction.

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on November 28, 2007 at 02:16 PM in Trends | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Who Knew That Women Leaving the Law Would Need to Pay $9000 To Get Back In?

I knew that many law schools and bar associations were developing programs to help women who've left the law re-enter the profession. But have to admit that until I read this New York Times story (hat tip to Lisa Solomon), I had no idea how much these programs cost - as much as $9000. For that price, you could almost go back to law school - or start yourself a pretty nice shingle!

Do these pricy programs really provide women lawyers with the tools they need for re-entry. According to the Timesarticle, the program offers lectures on the law, advice on explaining resume gaps and computer training. And lawyers are also set up with an unpaid internship which can help them make contacts even if it doesn't result in a paying job. At the same time, I felt that at some level, this kind of program exploits women lawyers' fears that they'll never find a job in the law once they've left the profession - and charges extortionist rates to assist them.

As I've posted here for some time, today, there are plenty of options for women who want to work part tiem and keep a foot in the door, or for those who leave the law to raise a family. And you don't have to pay $9000 for them either. My upcoming book , Solo By Choice will have some materials on a part time practice. And you can also check out my past posts here at MyShingle on work life balance and on women lawyers, including Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor who found amazing success through alternative career paths. Finally, you can also check out my article on how young women lawyers can take charge of their careers.

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on November 5, 2007 at 07:59 PM in Trends, Work Life Balance | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Why Are So Few Women Lawyers Solo?

Since women lawyers pull their own weight in the genre of solo and small firm blogs (along with me, there are my colleagues and friends, Susan Cartier Liebel and Inspired Solo's Sheryl Schelin, I was surprised to learn that Few Women Choose to Practice Solo (NLJ 9/13/07). A recent study released by NALP revealed that women comprise only 34 percent of solo practitioners, while 77 percent of lawyers working for public interest groups are women.

Why don't more women choose solo practice? After all, you'd think that women looking for work life balance would find solo practice appealing, because when you work for yourself, you gain control over the hours you work and the hours you handle. My own belief is that women themselves are driving lawyers away from solo practice. As I posted here previously, when women demand equality in the profession, they're usually referring to equality at big law firms. Women who start and head their own practices, no matter how prominent, simply don't count. As a result, younger women don't view solo practice as an option.

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on September 13, 2007 at 11:40 AM in Solo Practice Trends, Trends, Work Life Balance | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Should We Rescue Biglaw, or Run From It?

At the Ms. JD conference that I attended last week, one woman responded to various remarks on the benefits of starting a firm (by some of us troublemakers in the picture) by saying something to the effect that "Starting a firm is all well and good, but if everyone flees biglaw life, firms will be left stranded as the last bastions of male dominated hierarchy." That comment has been bearing heavily in my mind since, making me wonder whether lawyers have an obligation to fix biglaw.

In fact, from what I gleaned from Ms. JD, part of its mission is to ensure that female lawyers are represented in the upper echelon, power branches of the legal profession, such as the judiciary and biglaw. In other words, at least part of Ms. JD's goals is to help women with fight, not flight. And as I posted here at Legal Blogwatch, another group, Students Building a Better Legal Profession just formed, with a mission of changing the modern law firm business model to make it more sustainable and profitable and also allow for a more balanced lifestyle. I support these students and wish them the best. I'm impressed that they're taking charge of their future and that they're optimistic enough to believe they can change it. That passion will serve them well whether they succeed or not. And in fact, back when I was a student, I would have done the same - and indeed, in some cases, I did. But now, I'd rather just practice law than fight or rescue a system that's comprised of lawyers who ought to be smart enough and savvy enough to save themselves if indeed the system is failing (and I'm not convinced we're at that point).

What's your view? Are these students on the right track in trying to change biglaw from within? Or if you don't like how biglaw works, should you choose another option?

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on April 5, 2007 at 11:09 AM in Biglaw Practice and Issues, Trends, Work Life Balance | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Women Not Just Leaving Biglaw for Babies, But For More Opportunity

Susan Cartier Liebel posts about how Gen Y women are saying no to biglaw because it doesn't afford the kind of work life balance they demand.  I've posted on and written about this theme before, as well.  But what I don't think I've emphasized sufficiently is that for women, starting a firm isn't just a great way to accommodate work and family, but it also provides far greater business opportunities than are available at firms to begin with.

Consider this article, Three Longtime Buchanan Shareholders to Start Own Firm , (Legal Intelligencer, 2/7/07), which reports that Mary Kay Brown, Antoinette R. Stone and Jami B. Nimeroff will leave Buchanan Ingersoll Friday to start their own boutique on Monday.  And here's one of the reasons:  as a woman-owned business, the firm can qualify for set-asides and capitalize on large corporation's desires to increase diversity among outside counsel.  In fact, that's why other  women and minority lawyers have started law firms: to capture new business, either through diversity opportunities or the ability to avoid conflicts.  So despite all of the complaints about glass ceilings at biglaw for women and minorities, from where I sit, there's never been more opportunity for these groups than now.

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on February 8, 2007 at 08:56 AM in Solo Practice Trends, Trends | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

What Do You Do If Your Clients Want to Lead A Revolution? Join Them, Of Course!

Over at my Legal Blogwatch beat, I wrote about Cisco GC Mark Chandler's speech taking big law firms to task for their "guild" mentality and lack of responsiveness to clients.  You ought to read the whole post, which excerpts the speech, but Chandler argues that companies like his are concerned about legal costs, want fixed fees and access to information without having to pay someone to find it. 

You may think that if you represent consumers, that Chandler's speech doesn't apply.  But it does, even more so.  Consumers are becoming increasingly sophisticated.  Many want information about their case provided regularly, and expect that lawyers have the technology to provide it at no cost.  (Grant Griffiths and Greatest American Lawyer both recognize that, and they've each implemented Base Camp to facilitate client access to information).  And as David Giacalone points out here at Shlep (self help law express), as technology increases, more and more clients may start taking matters into their own hands. 

Used to be that we lawyers could denigrate pro se clients, and call them stupid or foolish for trying to handle matters themselves.  But no one's denigrating Marc Chandler - law firms are listening to what he has to say.  And that's what all of us lawyers need to do:  hear our clients' desire to play a part in their matters, or to keep their case on a budget that they can afford (no, not what they want to pay, but what they can afford to pay).  Because otherwise, we may just find ourselves supplanted, rather than supported by technology.

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on February 1, 2007 at 07:36 PM in Marketing & Making Money , Trends | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Good News for Solo and Small Firm Estates Lawyers?

It's not clear whether it's too soon to call this a trend, but Joel Schoenmeyer at the Death and Taxes blog notes that at least one large firm, Chicago-based Sonnenschein has decided to get rid of its estates group.  Shoenmeyer writes:

I wouldn't be surprised at all to see other big law firms start to follow suit (an exception might be firms like McDermott, which are built around their estate planning and probate practices). I enjoyed my experience at Sidley & Austin, but it was clear that the estate planning department generally was treated as second class citizens. My understanding is that compensation for estate planning partners is lower than for litigators and corporate attorneys. I suspect this is true at a number of big firms, many of which view estate planning as a "service group" (there to provide support to other groups, or planning to the firm's attorneys).

Schoenmeyer writes that part of this is money - estate planning, even the largest matters, don't generate the same million dollars in fees as do large corporate clients. 
It may be that big firms don't need estate planning groups.  But at this point, it doesn't matter, suggests Schoenmeyer, because "good estate planners don't need big firms either."  Trusts and estates boutiques are likely to be the wave of the future.

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on January 19, 2007 at 05:09 AM in Marketing & Making Money , Trends | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Ivy League Solos

Whether you like Harvard Law School or not, you have to agree that virtually every HLS graduate can write their own ticket to whatever job they want.  So it's gratifying to see that with so many career options, young HLS grads are still choosing solo practice, as reported in this article from the HLS Bulletin, The Coming Wave  (11/5/06).  The article profiles  Luz Herrera and Eric Castelblanco, HLS grads who each opened solo practices to serve underserved, Hispanic communities.  From the article:

For both Castelblanco and Herrera, there was no road map for an Ivy-educated lawyer to start a viable law practice for low-income clients. “Traditionally, if you want to do public service, you are directed to apply for a Skadden fellowship, work for the government or go to a civil rights impact litigation organization,” said Herrera. “But for me, none of those options seemed like the right choice. I did not want to spend 90 percent of my time doing research or working in a direct-service organization whose approach I did not completely buy into. Working in my own law office allows me to provide legal services to individuals who may not otherwise have an attorney and tap into my entrepreneurial spirit while being an active member of the community.”

But before Herrera could help people navigate the legal system, she had to figure out the nuts and bolts of running a law practice, including how to set up a billing system—problems that a first-year associate at a major firm would never have to worry about. “The first year is very hard,” she said. “No one tells you how to set up a practice in law school.”

Now, Herrerra has taken a break from her practice and has joined the Community Enterprise Project at Hale & Dorr to develop a fellowship that will help law graduates learn how to start law practices in underserved communities (a project which sounds similar to the Law School Consortium).

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on November 12, 2006 at 06:39 PM in Trends | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Great News for Law Firm Start Ups: 80 Percent of Dotcoms Survived!

I've always likened the rise of modern day independent practice (call it the Third Wave if you will) to the dotcom era.  Before dotcoms, small entrepreneurship wasn't cool.  But the success of little garage companies forced our profession to look at law firm start ups in a different light.

And because law firm start ups have much in common with tech start ups, from shoe string budgets, to competing in areas traditionally handled by larger players, I was thrilled to read this outstanding post by Jeff Lipshaw at the Legal Profession Blog.  Lipshaw writes about a paper in the Journal of Financial Economics, authored by David Kirsch which suggests that the actual failure rate of dot.com start ups was far lower than perceived - roughly 20 percent.  But the steady survival of smaller companies was overshadowed by massive failures of sites like eToys and pets.com. (the post goes on to discuss potential business development ideas that might follow from these statistics, so read the whole thing).

So what does this mean for potential law firm start ups?  Simply, your chances of success are greater than you think!  Get out there and get started.   

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on November 8, 2006 at 07:06 PM in Trends | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Are Solos Helping Women At Law Firms?

The impact of solo and small firm practice is far reaching, so much so that in my view, it's helping women attorneys succeed at biglaw.  Don't believe it?  Consider these two stories that ran in today's news.  The first, Deciding to Go It Alone, (San Fernando Valley Business 11/4/06) reports on how more and more, women lawyers are choosing solo practice to accomodate families and to get to the top more quickly than they might by staying at a firm.  The article also notes that with technological advancements, it's less costly to open a firm than ever.  The second article, Part Timers Find Room at the Firm (Boston Globe 11/5/06) talks about how law firms' part time programs, some which enable women to work from home, are giving women incentive to stay at firms.

So what does one article have to do with the other?  Plenty!  Used to be that biglaw was the only option for smart women, so large firms could call the shots, demanding that women work full time or leave.  No more.  As the barriers to starting a law firm decrease, more and more women are successfully starting firms (as I've discussed here) and don't need to settle for the sham part time programs that some firms initially put in place.

The Globe article credits the firms as well as  "visionaries" who  work towards work life balance:

Effective change doesn't happen overnight, and almost always, it's powered by group efforts, policies with bite, leadership support, and visionaries, such as Williams and Henry, who keep their eyes on the ball.

But that's only a partial explanation.  Because of solo and small firm practice (and the technology to run a practice that serves biglaw clients), women have a real alternative to biglaw and they don't need to settle.  Programs like The Project for Attorney Retention  may never mention solo or small firm practice, but in truth, programs like PAR owe some of their success to the success of solo and small firm lawyers. 

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on November 5, 2006 at 10:00 AM in Trends | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack