General Practice, Solo & Small Firm Division

American Bar Association
General Practice, Solo, and Small Firm Division
The Compleat Lawyer
Fall 1997
copyright American Bar Association. All rights reserved.

From the Editor / jennifer j. rose
Firmly Speaking

jennifer j. rose, a sole practitioner in Shenandoah, Iowa, is editor-in-chief of The Compleat Lawyer. She can be reached by e-mail at jrose@giga.com.

Law practice ain't what it used to be. Time was, there were big firms, mid-sized firms, and lawyers practicing alone. Nobody thought much about the relationships of lawyers to one another within the firm: They simply pooled their efforts and divided the take. All was as gentlemanly and dignified as the drab leather bindings marooned in the library. Our fathers called the practice "professional." Or so it seemed.

Big firms practiced sophisticated kinds of law for corporate clients and institutions. Small firms handled bite-sized cases. And sole practitioners practiced everyday kinds of law. Today, some large firms practice criminal and divorce law, and certain sole practitioners may practice corporate securities law. The work has changed.

Back then all lawyers resembled one another: mostly white, male, and pin-striped. Today's lawyers come in a broad range of hues, genders, persuasions, and political stripes. The white-haired distinguished avuncular type is a rare specimen of the breed. The players have changed.

Lawyers ply their trade in a remarkable array of practice settings. Some do so completely alone, from their homes, without staff. Others bond together in tight-knit clans or multi-branch offices. Some law firms have a heritage predating the War Between the States, and others can't stay glued together long enough for the ink to dry on the new letterhead. What looks like a firm to the casual observer may be merely an office-sharing arrangement, which can mean anything from a shared reception room to common letterhead. "Of counsel" and contract lawyers have added new dimensions to the associate/partner equation. A sole practitioner may truly be just that - or the employer of several lawyers. The scenery has changed.

Lateral hires, permanent associates, professional corporations, and limited liability partnerships have changed the traditional notions of legal employment. Steven Brill's challenge made law firms' finances more than just a matter of hushed rumor. Lawyers dared their firms to practice what they counseled corporate clients, and they sued. Lawyers proliferated, and firms expanded beyond their founders' dreams. And some went belly up. Prepaid legal services, mallfront legal clinics, and courtroom alternatives redesigned the way lawyers work. The rules have changed.

When I was young, I couldn't understand for the life of me why someone would sacrifice one's own name on the marquee for a corner office at Baker & McKenzie or Coudert Brothers. Hanging up that first shingle, emblazoned "J. J. Rose, Attorney," marked a momentous step for me back during the Carter administration, when I had more guts than brains. By the nineties, I playfully referred to my solo practice as "The Rose Law Firm," fooling no one.

Two newly admitted friends, just two years ahead of me, who opened a law practice in a seedy part of town where the rent was cheap and the clients abundant, handed me the cues. Office management decisions centered around whether K-Mart or Target offered a better deal on plastic wastebaskets, which partner was going to "watch court" instead of tending the office, and who was going to take out the trash. Either of these lawyers could've landed "respectable jobs" at downtown firms or clerking for a federal judge, but their entrepreneurial spirit, fueled by the desire to maintain a certain tonsorial fashion of the early seventies, led them to practice in their own style. Their incomes may not have matched their classmates, but they had style...and nerve. Two decades later, one has sired a well-respected firm, and the other became a federal judge.

Sometimes lawyers make the decision to unite with little more forethought than Mickey Rooney's pals might have given before staging an amateur production in an empty garage on an idle Saturday afternoon. Other lawyers might join forces only after extensive, expensive, and ponderous deliberations using outside consultants and third-party negotiators, expending far more time and effort in creating this creature called "The Firm" than they did in picking a spouse. Who knows which route guarantees firm longevity and success?

What makes for a better working relationship among partners? Like minds and attitudes, or The Odd Couple's Felix and Oscar? Best of friends or simply co-workers? What chemistry works, and what doesn't? Is it satori or scientific method? The firm - whether one lone lawyer or 1,500 like-minded souls - takes on a life of its own. Shaped and molded not only by its masters but also by outsiders peering in and the government, law practices are valued in divorce cases, sold, divided, and rent asunder by internecine feuds. Nurturing and tending to the firm's health can be a full-time job. Who has time to practice law for outside clients?

This issue of The Compleat Lawyer, spearheaded by issue editor Vicki Porter, explores the practical aspects of the law of lawyering, looking after the firm's best interest. After all, how can we take care of others if we don't look out for ourselves?

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