Solos offer words to the wise and share insights on the economy and technology.
When John Davidson graduated Widener University School of Law in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, seven years ago after 25 years of “bumming around as a computer geek,” the job offers weren’t exactly pouring in over the transom. So Davidson struck out on his own and has built a steady practice heavily centered on family law, more custody battles than divorces, with smaller amounts of criminal and landlord-tenant clients thrown into the mix.
“I wasn’t feeling the love: basically, no one was giving me a job,” Davidson says. “I said, ‘I’ve got a bar card, I can be a lawyer.’ I had no idea what the hell I was doing. There’s all sorts of things they tell you that you need to do to start a solo practice. My answer is, all you need is guts—or ignorance of the possibilities. I don’t know that I can’t do it, so I probably can.” More seriously, he adds, joining your local bar association and availing yourself of resources like the ABA GPSolo SoloSez listserv help lead to mentoring and referrals. And then: “Some days you eat the bear, and some days the bear eats you.”
Although the economy was booming when Davidson graduated law school, the bust came not long afterward. In his family law practice, he has found it helpful to charge set fees for as many types of jobs as possible—$1,000 for a name change, for example, or $1,000 for custody reconciliation.
But a case going to trial means $3,000 to start, “and we’ll let you know because it’s going to get ugly, and it’s going to get expensive pretty quick,” he says. In a custody battle, “The biggest variable is, how big of a jerk is the other guy? I can control [costs]: We won’t talk for hours on the phone; we won’t send as many e-mails. But what if the other guy wants to file endless motions?”
Solo practitioners of different stripes offer myriad advice on how to get started and build one’s practice, while navigating economic changes and taking advantage of technological advances. A key debate: Are you best off concentrating your practice in one area and specializing, or remaining open to a few or several? Depends on who you ask.
Geoff Wiggs, a 2009 Santa Clara University School of Law graduate who launched his solo practice in June 2011 as soon as he passed the bar, drew from past business contacts and his prior interests in corporate reorganization and turnaround to build a concentrated bankruptcy-oriented practice.
The San Mateo, California-based Wiggs, who worked as a programmer for 17 years and also has an MBA, took on cases at first that were “favors for friends, willing to take a chance on a completely inexperienced attorney,” in addition to referrals from other bankruptcy attorneys when a certain case landed outside their profit center.
“You’ve got to be willing to take some risks,” Wiggs says. “That’s me to the core. Lawyers are traditionally a risk-averse lot. A lot of our job involves eliminating risk. When you start out, you have no comfort zone. The first year, I wouldn’t turn down any case that looked within my grasp. My biggest fear was always impacting somebody’s rights. I was willing to take on things that were more complicated and work my ass off to get up to speed on them.”
Wiggs also recognized the need to keep marketing himself while continuing to serve existing clients, which he refers to as the “dual burdens” of solo practice. “It’s knowing people, talking to people, talking to other attorneys,” he says. “I don’t think that [extrovertedness] is a prerequisite. It’s an individual thing.”
Stephen Terrell, a solo practitioner for seven years who graduated “a long friggin’ time ago” (actually 1980) from Indiana University School of Law, spent 13 years apiece at a large firm where he handled civil litigation and a seven-person firm where his practice areas expanded to contracts, regulations, real estate, and personal injury. Terrell does not believe he would have been ready to go solo in his early days as an attorney—and he also had less reason to do so, he says, because law school graduates had more opportunities.
“There has been a dramatic shift in the profession due to the combination of an over-supply of lawyers, based on how law schools have expanded their student base, and the changes in the economy,” he says. “All of that means that out of necessity, a lot of law students are having to hang a shingle.”
Terrell recommends that recent graduates with a bent toward solo practice find out what resources are available through their local and state bar associations and their law school career services offices. He also mentions a site called myshingle.com that provides resources and advice. Terrell has been involved with the Indiana Solo & Small Firm Conference, organized through the bar, which includes a track for law students.
“We really work at trying to set a mentor for each law student who attends,” he says. “We have social events where we emphasize networking so they can develop relationships. We don’t want them to expect to go there and find somebody to hire them—it’s somebody they can call up, go to lunch with, ask questions about the real practice of law. So once they do go out, they have some resources when issues come up—how to deal with clients, how to do something in court.”
To Diversify or To Specialize?
Chicago-based Audrey Cosgrove, a 1990 John Marshall Law School graduate, mostly handles administrative, criminal, and real-estate law, although she has done business and juvenile work in the past. Before going solo in 1998, Cosgrove worked as a Cook County public defender but hasn’t done much in private practice because “it’s hard to get a lot of return business—people lose their jobs, homes and means of support and end up with the public defender’s office.”
Earlier in her solo career, when her children were young, Cosgrove says she simply worked on her cases and didn’t do enough to develop her practice. “I didn’t want to go out in the evening and network,” she recalls. “With a client, when I was done with a case, I never followed up with them or sent a card at the holidays. Now I do it, and I can see how important it is. In private practice, you’re constantly hustling and trying to get more clients. You can’t stop.”
Cosgrove advises those contemplating a solo career to diversify, which was underscored for her when she built a significant real-estate practice in the early to mid-2000s before the market crash. “Real estate was crazy-good for a while,” she says. “It was monopolizing my practice. It really hurt when it went away.” Certified as a woman-owned business, she bids on state contracts to serve as an administrative law judge, which provides some stability, as does subcontracting through the Illinois Department of Employment Security, providing services to claimants in unemployment hearings.
Diversification has not been the path taken by 2006 law school graduate Corrine Bielejeski, who launched the one-woman East Bay Bankruptcy Law in Antioch, California, in 2011. Her practice saw boom times when the economy went bust but has since slowed down, and she would not recommend it to more generalist-minded solos.
As for herself, however, “I love bankruptcy law,” she says. “I’m in this for the long haul. We saw attorneys who dabbled in it along with multiple other practice areas. They’re focusing on their other practice areas. We’ll see a lot of people leaving the [bankruptcy] bar who came here to get the low-hanging fruit [in the late 2000s and earlier 2010s].”
Bielejeski went solo to cut down commuting and gain work-life balance, but her former firm blocked her from taking former clients. She built her practice through referrals from judges, other attorneys, and the new clients she brought on board. For those new to bankruptcy practice, she has served as a mentor on behalf of local bar associations. “You need to find a mentor, unless you have really learned a certain practice area,” she says.
Intellectual property attorney Laura Winston, based in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, recently celebrated her third anniversary as a solo practitioner after gaining seasoning at both boutique firms and departments within larger ones. The 1990 law school graduate sees specialization as an asset for her practice and figures “it’s probably not impossible to develop a niche practice right out of law school, if you hook up with mentors willing to put the time in.”
Winston built her practice slowly, staying on contract at previous firm Darby & Darby and then working of counsel to what’s now Edwards Wildman from mid-2010 until April of last year. “At some point, I realized I can’t really do both of these, even though it was a financial gamble,” Winston says. Although her risk was compounded by the sputtering economy, Winston believes that tight times also made clients more receptive to working with a solo practitioner.
She echoes what other solos say about the value of networking, although she notes it has become a lot easier with LinkedIn and other social media. “I’m often surprised at where referrals have come in, from an attorney I didn’t know well,” she says. “A high school friend in Asia has hooked me up with a client. After I sent out holiday cards, a colleague in Germany has since referred a decent amount of work to me.”
21st Century Solo Practice
Those who have been in solo practice longer, naturally, have noticed more impacts from technological change. Cosgrove notes that marketing has shifted her from passing around a business card or putting an expensive ad in the Yellow Pages to concentrating on her (considerably lower cost) website and Facebook page. Unlike some solos, she remembers a time when doing research meant going to the law library—now, in addition to online sites, she also mentions resources like the SoloSez listserv as having been valuable.
In addition, contracts can be e-mailed, closings done electronically, and referrals gained through social media. “The speed of things has changed, the immediacy, and there’s more anonymity, too,” Cosgrove says. “People don’t know who you are. It used to be a friend recommended you. The clients are a little more suspicious. They really vet you when they talk to you for the first time.”
Changes in technology haven’t affected Davidson’s practice profoundly, although he appreciates the increase in the ability to do electronic filing and cloud-based applications for billing, and he’s planning to get a high-speed scanner to become more paperless. But overall, “Online research was already here,” he says. “The technology hasn’t changed that wildly [since the mid-2000s]. There’s nothing that I’ve adopted or thought, ‘Oh, I’ve got to do that.’”
Bielejeski appreciates electronic filing, which she’s been able to do since 2005, along with the rise of virtual paralegals and virtual receptionists. “One of the things I love is the ability to use just a cell phone for my work phone,” she says. “It’s easy—you can work anywhere.”
Winston enjoys the same feeling of being untethered, toting around a lightweight laptop that’s “pretty much the nerve center of my practice,” she says. “It’s a great innovation, although I do have some concerns about security. It’s going to become a big issue with ‘cloud’ applications over the long term.”
But the technological “cloud,” in which documents and other files are stored in cyberspace rather than on one’s own machine, has made it easier to respond to clients. That’s good in some ways but not in others, Winston notes. “I go on vacation and can be responsive to my clients,” she says, and then considers her previous words before adding, with a laugh: “I’m saying that like it’s a good thing: you go on vacation, and you’re still answerable.”
Wiggs’ office is almost entirely paperless so he can work from wherever he happens to be. His reasons for this are not simply lifestyle choices; his two-year gap between finishing law school and starting his practice occurred because his daughter was diagnosed with a brain tumor, and his full-time job—including a temporary move to Houston for radiation treatments—became helping her fight cancer. Wiggs remains her primary caregiver.
“My office is anywhere I am,” he says. His daughter’s cancer battle “was a hell of a fight” but certainly brought his life focus. “You just do it. You cut away all the stuff that doesn’t matter and do what has to be done,” he says. “I find that [frame of mind] useful in my practice, as well.”
Globetrotting Solo Says International Market Too Often Overlooked
Her husband’s work as a foreign-service officer with the US State Department has taken Vonda K. Vandaveer to Bosnia, Tunisia, Kuwait, and Afghanistan for periods of one to three years since she received her JD from Georgia State University College of Law in 2000. And her law practice has traveled along with her, thanks to the steady march of economic globalization and spread of high-speed Internet access to far-flung corners of the globe.
Her clients, who bring work in areas like immigration, federal government contracting, and international business—with an increasing percentage of litigation-oriented matters—are both foreigners doing business in the United States and Americans doing business abroad.
Having the world as your client base also helped Vandaveer ride out economic downturns. “Large foreign companies will use the big law firms, but the small companies, who are doing or want to do business in the United States, do not know where to find US lawyers,” she says. “They need legal help, but solo and small firms are not fully marketing to this group.”
At first, Vandaveer went looking for full-time jobs and landed first at a Kuwaiti business law firm and then at the US Embassy in Sarajevo, Bosnia, where she mostly handled immigration matters. After moving to Tunisia in 2004, however, she decided it seemed silly to pursue a position given how often the couple would be moving. “I spent half my time looking for a job,” she says. “I decided the best thing would be to find a practice that goes with me, instead of reinventing the wheel.”
With clients in the Middle East, Europe, and the United States, Vandaveer’s practice has traveled well as her husband has been reassigned every so often. Changes in technology—and business culture—have helped this along.
“I’ve never had an Internet problem in the past five to seven years,” she says. “That alone has enabled it. Law is something where normally you would want to have one-to-one interaction, but people are getting more used to dealing with one another by e-mail and phone.” And cell-phone capability has spread rapidly in developing areas of the world that never had landlines in the first place and have “skipped over” that phase, she notes.
Bottom line: “Don’t be afraid to do it,” she says. “Don’t be afraid to compete with all the big firms. Plenty of small companies can’t afford big firms. … They would be using US services more if they could find somebody who could handle the work they need at a price they can afford. There’s a whole client base out there looking for your help.”
Ed Finkel is a freelance writer/editor in Evanston, Illinois.
Vol. 41 No. 8