Volume 20, Number 3
Voices of Experience
Too many mentors? That’s an oxymoron for law students and new lawyers setting up practice. In the coming months, GP Mentor will give you the benefit of experi- enced voices from general practitioners, solos, and small firm members who’ll be able to tell you what they know now that they didn’t know then.What is your background, and what inspired you to become a lawyer?
My undergraduate major was photojournalism. I went to law school because I thought it would give me a leg up in finding work as a journalist during the post-Watergate era, when it seemed that everyone wanted to be a reporter. I have always been fascinated by what happens when information is disseminated, be it in written, spoken, or graphic form. Today, when I represent whistle-blowers, essentially what I do is disseminate the whistle-blowers’ information using a legal mechanism that communicates it only to the proper party, with a minimum of damage and disruption to the whistle-blower’s life and career.What influenced your decision to pursue a general practice/
solo/small firm career?
After working for about a year in the state attorney general’s office, I obtained an associate position in a medium-size law firm, and several years later I moved to one of the largest law firms in Maryland. While I enjoyed the perks and the pay at these firms, the downside was working brutally long hours in relative anonymity while focusing on the same subject or product day in and day out. I also found the culture of law firm life in general to be cutthroat, and the office politics blistering.
After seven years at the bar, I decided to open my own practice when I became pregnant with my first child. I yearned for the freedom to manage my time according to my own priorities, and to select the type of cases I would work on, without being pigeonholed into a specific practice area. I started out sharing office space with two other women who were also hanging out their shingles for the first time, and we had a ball. That was 16 years ago. I continued as a solo until 2001, when I entered my current practice setting as a principal in Cohan & West, P.C., a four-lawyer firm in Baltimore that does corporate law, civil litigation, and estates and trusts.What did you find hardest about setting up as a general practice/solo/small firm lawyer, and where did your biggest help come from?
The hardest thing for me was (and still is) not knowing from month to month how much money I will make. Working on a contingent fee basis exacerbates this problem. My biggest help came from the skills and procedures I learned while working in larger firms: how to check for conflicts of interest, monitor statutes of limitation, obtain insurance, track time, do billing and contingent distributions, set up file systems and form files, and perform similar routine—but potentially problematic—office tasks.What are the biggest changes in law practice you have observed through the years?
Technology now makes it possible for solo and small firm lawyers to do complex litigation they could not attempt ten or 15 years ago. Affordable computers and database software perform tasks such as deposition indexing and searching that would have required a small army of skilled paralegals when I first started practicing.What early lawyer experiences have helped you in your career?
Very early in my career my firm sent me to Alaska for four weeks out of every six during a two-year period to take depositions and argue motions in a multi-
million-dollar product liability/fire case. Because of the six-hour time difference, I could not easily call my boss to ask for advice. As the only woman attorney, and by far the youngest attorney working in the discovery/motions trenches, I was the target of all kinds of interesting “tactics.” I quickly became very self-
FBI Special Agent and whistle-blower Coleen Rowley. She believes in doing the job right.What was the best professional advice you ever received?
“There is no comfort in the law.” No matter how much research you do or how many people you ask, you can never be sure what the result will be. As lawyers, we like to think we can control the situation at hand, but most of the time, we can’t. It’s important to accept this and not expect miracles from yourself. Otherwise, the stress can eat you alive.Who or what got you started with ABA and/or GP Section involvement?
While working on the original ABA Task Force on Solo and Small Firm Practitioners, I met former General Practice Section Chair Cameron Gamble, who introduced me to what was then the General Practice Section. I was so taken by the way that Section members relish life as solo and small firm lawyers and by their diverse perspectives on life and law practice that I became an active member.What can the ABA and/or GP Section do to be a good home to young lawyers?
Emphasize communication using online technology: build on and refine Solosez and similar knowledge-sharing tools.What personality traits have served you best through the years?
Tenacity, optimism, and gratitude.What area of general practice/solo/small firm practice would you like to see changed?
The stereotype that general practice, solo, and small firm lawyers are less capable than large firm lawyers. Outstanding lawyers can be found in any practice setting, as can lousy ones.What is the one thing you cannot stand regarding the law/lawyers?
The fact that lawyers as a group often get blamed for societal ills such as the “insurance crisis” or the “malpractice crisis” that are actually caused by the stock market and other economic factors.What advice would you give new lawyers?
l Communicate with your clients often.
l Make a point of discussing your cases (without breaching confidentiality) with lawyers in other firms so you can get feedback, and to let them know what you are doing so they may send referrals.
l If in doubt, take on less work and do it better, rather than taking on so much work that you can’t do it properly.
l Keep life in balance and don’t allow your law practice to eclipe friends, family, community, exercise, and a proper diet!