GPSOLO April/May 2010
Two Years after the End of the World
My April/May 2008 Being Solo column entitled “Recession 2008: Ten Steps Solos Should Take Right Now” ( www.abanet.org/genpractice/magazine/2008/apr-may/beingsolo.html) opened with the following: “Just this past week an article on the front page of the Wall Street Journal reported on a global sell-off of stock amid fears of a recession in the United States. For several months now there has been a steady drumbeat of bad economic forecasts for 2008.”
And so I suggested ten steps to prepare for a downturn and stated that “I’ll be happy to be proven wrong in my concerns.”
Sadly, we all know the rest of the story. Five months later, in September 2008, Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy, Merrill Lynch agreed to be acquired by the Bank of America, and AIG sought a bridge loan of billions of dollars from the U.S. Federal Reserve.
For this column two years later I reached out on SoloSez to my solo attorney brothers and sisters to see how they have fared. I received some remarkable replies, both of struggles and successes, but not one had given up hope no matter how tough the challenges they faced.
My Tiny Little Coffee Maker
Mirriam Seddiq took a job out of law school as a prosecutor at the New York State Attorney General’s office for a year and then worked for a criminal defense lawyer in upstate New York. Eventually she founded a successful three-person criminal defense firm in Baltimore, Maryland.
When Mirriam wanted to start a family with her husband, they had some difficulty, but finally, after five years and with the assistance of a fertility clinic, she had twin boys. However, her pregnancy required five months of complete bed rest, and then she stayed home with her sons for two years.
Last May she got a call for a document review project in Washington, D.C., that kept her busy until December. But after that, things went dry. No projects, not even any contract work despite more than ten years’ experience as a criminal attorney. The only thing that she got were a lot of calls to be a linguist or a translator in Afghanistan because she speaks Pashto.
Mirriam finally decided to open her own solo shop in Virginia, where she now lives, but when she tried to waive in to the Virginia bar, she didn’t qualify because she hadn’t worked for five of the past seven years owing to the time she took off to raise her sons. Mirriam feels that this requirement for waiving in unfairly hurts women who take a year or two off to raise their newborns and believes that there should be some flexibility for this situation.
So Mirriam is doing criminal law work in Maryland where she is admitted and is limited to doing immigration work in Virginia until she is admitted there. She is working on her website, brochure, flyers, and newsletter. She reports, “I find the biggest difference between my firm and being solo is the fact that I have to do everything!”
Getting the right tabs for court papers turned into what seemed to be an all-day project when she couldn’t find the correct ones. “Scanning, faxing, writing, mailing—all of it takes a lot of time away from the doing of the law. But, it’s a small price to pay for being able to let your heart and soul roam free.”
In one of the most charming descriptions I’ve ever read about what is attractive about being a solo attorney, Mirriam says that she would never go back to a firm because:
I love my tiny little office with my tiny little coffee maker. I love the kind of dirty carpet. I love my Pandora on my iPhone and the fact that this building isn’t filled with lawyers but it’s a cool mix of all sorts of small business people just trying to make a go of it. There’s a guy in this office building who makes Piñatas. That’s his business. How awesome is that?
You go, girl!
Learned My Lesson
Lewis Roberts did real estate closings in Florida and Georgia from 1998 through 2006 from his office in Orlando, Florida, where he also lived. He had a mortgage broker’s license as well and was doing refinancings “as fast as we could close them” through 2004.
However, things slowed down in 2005, so by 2006 he moved his family to Palm Coast, located 30 minutes north of Daytona Beach, which was an area reputed to be booming with housing starts. “What I did not realize was that the market was crumbling everywhere,” Lewis said, and that Palm Coast was a “false boom.”
With little business, Lewis was “wondering what awful situation I just got my family into by moving somewhere new and having no good reason to show for it.”
He struggled on from mid-2006 to early 2007, at which point he heard about residential short sales for the first time from a local broker. “Google was my friend,” Lewis declares as he searched the Internet for information about short sales and bankruptcy law.
He tried to learn as fast as possible by taking as many seminars as he could find, joining the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys, and signing up for their e-mail discussion group.
Lewis now has a thriving bankruptcy practice. He handles the bankruptcy cases, and he has an associate attorney who handles all of the foreclosure defense cases. He is also beginning to handle cases that relate to debt issues, such as creditor harassment suits.
As to his real estate practice, during this period he has had no more than one closing per year.
“I learned my lesson, I hope, and will not get caught in only one practice area.”
Trying to Figure It Out
Laura Mann opened her solo practice in New Jersey in March 2008 after about ten years at legal services. She says that “the first year was slow, though it built up pretty well as the year progressed.” She met her goals in 2009 but suddenly she is “getting killed right now.”
She has a general practice serving individuals, small businesses, and nonprofit corporations, but she finds herself in “a financial tailspin.” She is using a business coach who specializes in working with solo lawyers and has stepped up her marketing activities, including blogging, website development, and attending networking functions. She’s had to borrow money to tide her over but says that “it’s that or not buy milk for my three-year-old daughter.”
Laura has taken on some contract work with a national firm that offers unbundled legal services to consumers facing collection efforts from creditors, which she hopes will pay the bills while she builds her practice.
She admits that she has an office with a somewhat high overhead, but she believes that she wouldn’t have done as well in 2009 without that office. She is uncertain as to why business is at a standstill right now but is trying to figure that out.
Often all you need for a solo attorney’s law practice to pick up is a bit of luck—being in the right place at the right time where someone needs a lawyer—so let’s hope that this bit of luck comes your way soon, Laura.
Starting from Stone-Cold Zero
Ward Council is a former partner at an Am Law 100 law firm and a former general counsel. After making some money he decided to quit the practice of law and make his living as a private investor—unfortunately, in the stock market and residential real estate.
Ward tells it best in his own words:
I was wiped out and anguishing over my options. As I hadn’t practiced law in years, I thought it unlikely anyone would hire me given the economic environment. So, my back against the wall, I hung out my shingle. I’ve been struggling mightily to build a practice as a solo corporate and securities lawyer, starting from stone-cold zero, having no experience building a legal practice, with a wife and three kids to support, during the Great Recession.
It takes a lot of courage to open a solo shop after not practicing law for years. Having been a partner at a major law firm before that doesn’t make it any easier. Let’s hope that all of that hard work pays off as it should, based on my experience.
A Couple of Solos Who Didn’t Hit the Speed Bump
Shell Bleiweiss, an environmental and OSHA lawyer from Chicago, tells how the years 2008 and 2009 were among the best ever for his law practice. He says, “I’m not entirely sure why, but you couldn’t tell there was any downturn from my practice.”
He reiterates what I said earlier about luck playing a part in the development of a solo practice. All he needed was a couple of good clients with significant OSHA issues during those two years.
Michael Caccavo is a solo attorney in Barre, Vermont, who focuses on estate planning and Medicaid planning. He has been in practice in the same location for 31 years, and last year was his best year ever.
He describes some changes he has made in his law firm operations. Late in 2008 he decided to charge a fixed fee for most initial consultations, and he hasn’t lost any significant business because of that. He also increased his fixed fees slightly but added value to his services by, among other things, including as part of his responsibility duties that he used to have clients do, such as circulating tax forms for signatures by clients’ children and sending copies of documents to various people.
He also has spent some money on improving technology in his office. He continues his marketing activities, which include being on a number of e-mail discussion groups, such as SoloSez and its various spin-offs, as well as those for his practice areas.
The Solo Lawyer
Although my highly unscientific survey does not present a complete profile of today’s solo lawyers in the United States, it reveals that there are a wide range of solos out there and a sense on a personal level of their concerns, struggles, and hopes for their solo law practices. It is my hope, dear reader, that these experiences will give you some ideas, hope, and inspiration when dealing with the ups and downs in your own law practice.
David Leffler is a member of the New York City law firm Leffler Marcus & McCaffrey LLC, which represents clients in business matters and litigation. Prior to that he was a solo attorney for more than a dozen years. In his spare time he blogs at staringatstrangers.com . You may write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.Copyright 2010