My Shingle: Inspiring Solo and Small Firm Lawyers

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

Yes, You Can Solo Part Time

Conventional wisdom used to be that if you're going to succeed as a solo, you need to jump in with both feet. But the one rule of solo practice is that there are no rules, only millions of exceptions. And here's one of those exceptions: Danielle Colyer, a teacher by day, busy real estate attorney by night, as described in this article,
Her Homework: Law Practice
. According to the article, Colyer went to law school after she'd burned out of teaching. But after getting her law degree, she also received a "dream job" offer teaching law to high school students. Still, as a single mom, her teaching salary didn't go far enough, so she started a real estate closing business on the side. According to the article, these days, she juggles 100 closings with the aid of a part time assistant and earns as much from her part time practice as from her full time teaching job.

So if you're thinking about solo practice, but too nervous about cutting off your salary entirely, see if you can arrange a part time gig and use it as support to get your practice growing...before making the leap entirely or, keeping a slash career.

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on June 29, 2007 at 08:15 AM in Work Life Balance | Permalink | Comments (3) | 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

Summary of Ms.JD at Susan Cartier-Liebel's Site

I can't add anything except a big "me too!" to Susan Cartier-Liebel's exhaustive summary of the recent Ms. JD conference held at Yale Law School yesterday.  The conference gave me a chance to finally meet Susan and reconnect with Lisa Solomon, Brandy Karl and, briefly, Cathy Kirkman whom I'd met previously.

[Update] Lisa Solomon has also posted some of her impressions from the conference here.

My thoughts on women in the legal profession are too complex to digest in a single post.  I agreed with one of the panelists who suggested that we can't expect much on the law firm front until family structures change and women no longer presumptively play the role of the primary caretaker for children.  I also disagree with the proposition voiced on a couple of panels that women can't "run from inequality" at large firms or the entire big law institution will be left as a bastion of outdated, old boys' clubs.  At a time when law firms are losing associates, both male and female, in droves  (associate retention numbers are absymal), why aren't unhappy male lawyers urged to stay on and turn law firms into cheerier, more supportive environments?

I don't have much more to say right now, but if you're a female attorney, visit the Ms. JD site where you can share your experiences, and read those of others in the profession. 

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on April 1, 2007 at 06:35 AM in Work Life Balance | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Does work-life balance mean we need to settle for a B+?

My colleague and fellow solo blogger, Jill Pugh Employment Law Blog tipped me off to an interesting new resource, Ms-JD to address the growing number of women leaving the legal profession or failing to reach the upper echelons of the profession. The site seems promising, though thus far, there's little mention of the law firm start up as a way to empower women (a failing of other similar projects that I've critiqued previously here). Since Ms. JD is new, I'll give it some time....

Besides, I'm grateful to Ms. JD for introducing me to this outstanding essay by legal correspondent Dahlia Lithwick that speaks to the conflict that many struggling to balance work and life confront daily (myself included: whether we simply need to settle for doing less than our best, for getting the B+ rather than the A.

From Lithwick's essay:

I once read somewhere that the notion of “balancing” work and family is a misnomer. Two enterprises that require 100% of your attention can never be in balance. The real goal is to “integrate” them. But while that can work if you plan to start a daycare in your basement, it’s hard to pull off if you work in the law. I suppose, if I were to be completely honest then, the way I have chosen to “integrate” my work and my babies is by doing work that could always be better. Stories that could have stood another draft are sometimes filed as they are, so I can climb into the bathtub with baby Sopher. Conferences and dinner parties that would offer up contacts and opportunities are foregone for the chance to sit on the big stuffed bear and watch Superman for the 240th time. And aggregated across weeks and years, that is, of course, all time that could have gone to a spectacular career[...]

It is hard, particularly as lawyers, to accept B-pluses as mothers or as workers. We are capable of A’s. We expect them. We earned them. But until someone figures out a way to make one woman hold down two full-time jobs; we’re going to be overwhelmed and frustrated and torn. For awhile. And then – as I keep reminding myself – our babies gallop off to kindergarten and the prospect of focusing on a single task for more than two consecutive hours stops being a fantasy.

I agree with Lithwick. I often wonder where my career would be if I'd pursued it with all of my attention, just like I wonder what my daughters would be like if I'd stopped working entirely and devoted all my attention to them. And yet, at the same time, there's something about multi-tasking that makes you want to do more. I doubt that I'd have started MyShingle or had the opportunities that it's brought me unless I was working part time and looking for new ways to do more.

What's your view? Have you found the elusive work life balance or do you feel that you're burning the candle at both ends?

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on March 16, 2007 at 06:33 AM in Work Life Balance | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Partners in love and law

We all know the song, Lawyers in Love, but did you ever wonder what happens to lawyers in love? With many of the dual lawyer couples whom I knew from the law school, once the couple had children, the woman either left the law or went on to an alternative career like teaching, while the man stayed in a high power job. That's certainly one work-life balance possibility, but as this article, Couples in Law Are A Case Study in Work Life Balance points out, a number of husband and wife lawyer couples have discovered that starting a firm provides a way to spend time together. The article notes that these kinds of partnerships aren't for everyone, but the lawyers profiled in the article do indeed seem happy together in life and law.

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on March 16, 2007 at 05:21 AM in Solo Practice Trends, Work Life Balance | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

This One's For All of You "Neglectful" Moms, Trying to Strike a Balance

Just when I thought that I'd probably found the right formula to work-life balance, I discovered that I'm really nothing more than a neglectful mom.  I spent much of yesterday pushing to prepare a motion already a few days overdue to the client because of more pressing deadlines earlier in the week.  Since my daughters have an afterschool activity on Friday, I could work a little bit past my usual 4:15 stopping point before picking them up.  Even so, I still couldn't finish, so I stopped work and went tearing through rush hour traffic up to the school, about twenty minutes behind schedule.  When I arrived, the school's security guard greeted me at the door and asked "Is there something wrong?  I see these poor girls left here all the time."  As I opened my mouth to respond, all kinds of thoughts raced through my mind.  I thought of my messy house, the nights that I worked on my computer with my daughters working along side me, the school events that I couldn't chaperone because I only have 6-7 real work hours to finish everything.  And my heart sank, because I felt that despite my best efforts to run a law firm and be home for my daughters after school, that I was failing, badly.

Before I could open my mouth however, my ten year old daughter responded for me.  "My mom's not always late," she said.  "She was supposed to be late on Tuesday because she had work but she came on time.  She was only really late once before, a few weeks ago."  The parent part of me wanted to reprimand my daughter for speaking rudely to an adult (which I did, albeit gently), but inside, I felt so proud that my daughter had stood up for me.  And at that point I realized that maybe this work-life balance thing was working after all.

So this post is for all of you who are struggling to keep it together, for wondering whether what you're doing even matters or whether you're giving both work and your kids short shrift, for feeling embarrassed about a messy house or ten minute dinners.  Keep it up, it makes a difference. 

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on March 2, 2007 at 09:13 AM in MyShingle Solo , Work Life Balance | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

No, I Don't Hate Biglaw If It's A Passion

Quite often, when I compliment when of my daughters on something she's done well, the other will chime in "But mommy, aren't I good at that too?"  My response, of course, is that praising one of my girls doesn't diminish how I feel about the other. 

More frequently these days, I find myself in this situation with my blog.  Often, my advocacy of solo practice is often regarded as a put down of large firms, a perception that is corroborated by my criticism of many large firm practices (such as bloated billing rates, elistist views and fast and loose conflict of interest standards to keep clients post-merger).  But in truth, I don't hold a grudge against large firms; I believe that they're a great career choice if that's where you can find your passion.  Unfortunately, many don't, but some do.

A few months ago, I read Mark Herrmann's The Curmudgeon's Guide to Practicing Law.  Herrmann is a partner and litigator at a large firm.  The book offers a biglaw partner's perspective on issues relevant to success at large firms and the legal profession in general, such as what associates should do to avoid failure, how lawyers should serve clients and some tips on marketing.  (also, the chapter, The Curmudgeon Argues is the best 10 pages I've ever read on preparing for an oral argument).  But what stands out about the book, in addition to the blunt tone (which is part of the curmudgeonly persona), is Herrmann's passion for what he does.  Consider this passage when Herrmann writes about why he loves his work:

I'll quote a movie.  Joe Gideon, the tightrope walker in "All That Jazz" was asked why he risked his life every day for his career.  He answered "To be on the wire is life.  The rest is waiting."

That's the life of a litigator too.  When I'm engrossed in the law, I'm alive.  I'm engaged; I'm attentive, I'm focused.  I can tell you now, decades later and with almost pathological recall, lines of questions that worked and others that didn't at my earliest trials.  I can tell you the one time an appellate judge asked me a question I hadn't anticipated.  I can tell you when, after wrestling with an insoluble issue for months, I finally saw the light.  Maybe those great events don't happen often enough, but when they do happen, they're unspeakably good.  To be on the wire is life; the rest is waiting.

My desire for all of us, myself included, is that we feel the same as Herrmann about what we do.  If like, Herrmann, you've found passion in biglaw, then stand proud.  But if you're still searching for meaning, for a "life on the wire," starting a law firm may be one place to look.  It's not the only place, or the best place - but it may be the place for you.

Editor's Note:  The LPM Committee of the DC Bar is sponsoring a session, Putting Practice Back into the Passion of Law, February 22, 2007, 12-1:30.  Visit DC Bar website at for more details (see events to register).

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on February 9, 2007 at 05:46 AM in MyShingle Solo , Work Life Balance | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack