General Practice, Solo & Small Firm DivisionMagazine

 
Volume 17, Number 1
January/February 2000

SUNSETTING A LAW PRACTICE

BY LAURA GATLAND

For 16 years, David Vandagriff ran a solo practice in Monett, Missouri, a small town in the Ozarks where he practiced what he jokingly calls "hillbilly law." His caseload consisted of whatever legal troubles the community's 6,000 residents sent his way-divorces, bankruptcies, wills, and trusts. "There was virtually nothing that I turned down," he says.

Then one day in 1995, Vandagriff decided he'd had enough when yet another divorce client went ballistic because he was ordered to pay his ex-wife child support. "I'd had that discussion 500 times before with other clients. They all say the same thing: None of them ever want to pay child support," Vandagriff says. "That was when I said to myself, 'You know what? I want to do something else.'"

After six months of job searching, Lexis/Nexis offered him a position as director of technology alliances. Location: suburban Dayton, Ohio. Starting time: in 30 days. Somehow during the next month, Vandagriff managed to send out letters to clients announcing that he was closing his practice, field calls from lawyers wondering what he was doing, wrap up cases, and file more than 150 motions withdrawing from others. He even found a law firm to buy his office equipment.

"It was terrible," Vandagriff says. "It was a tremendous amount of work and effort and a very emotional experience, walking away from something you spent 16 years of your life doing."

When Vandagriff walked out of his law office for the last time in November 1995, he broke down in tears. "I thought of all the ups and downs during all those years," he recalls quietly. "I'm not the crying kind of guy...but it was really hard for me to say goodbye to that practice."

Vandagriff has since moved on to Ancestry.com, an online genealogy resource, where he is vice president of strategic partnerships. The former solo practitioner says the job is a good fit because the small company in Orem, Utah, is less bureaucratic than Lexis/Nexis, and he thrives on the ever-changing world of the Web. "I'm having a great time," he says.

Vandagriff is one of countless solo practitioners and small firm lawyers who close up shop during their legal careers. No one tracks precisely how many lawyers take down their shingles, but it's certain the numbers are significant, given the volume of small firms in the United States. Of some 634,000 lawyers in private practice, 47 percent are on their own, and another 22 percent work in firms of two to ten lawyers, according to 1995 data from the American Bar Foundation.

Why Quit

The reasons lawyers close up shop run the gamut from retiring to being fed up with practicing law to finding better opportunities elsewhere. Many small firms dissolve simply because the lawyers can't make a go of it. Whatever the reason, many lawyers like Vandagriff find the experience emotionally draining and physically exhausting. Others are jubilant to take the nameplate down from the office doors.

Anastasia Rivera opened her own law practice in Queens, New York, at the end of 1997, when she was just a year out of law school. She took on mostly matrimonial law cases, but her practice barely got off the ground. Less than 18 months after opening, Rivera decided to close her firm's doors. "It just required too much time," she explains. "I found myself working weekends and thinking about motions on a Saturday."

Rivera's son was just shy of a year old, and she wanted to spend more time with him and less time being saddled with work and worries about her business. "Plus, getting people to pay their bills in this area of the law was like pulling teeth," she says.

After wrapping up some of her cases and referring clients to other lawyers, Rivera closed up shop in June 1999. Today, she works for the city of New York handling child abuse and neglect cases, and she is much happier letting someone else be the boss. "I'm grateful to have peace of mind and not worry about [my own business]," she says.

Sometimes the overhead in running a solo practice is lethal, observes Fred Rooney, director of the City University of New York's Community Legal Resource Network, which advises solo practitioners and small firms that are struggling to survive. "So much time is spent trying to stay afloat that a lot of people find it's not worth it," Rooney says.

For many years, Nick Chrisos was so entrenched in running a general practice in the Chicago area that he didn't realize he was miserable. "When people asked me, 'Do you enjoy having your own practice?' I would say, 'What do you mean? I'm building my practice!' I kind of had blinders on," he admits.

After six years on his own, Chrisos was tired of shouldering the burdens of a law office. "There were too many hats, and I found it hard to concentrate on actually practicing law."

For nearly a year, he stopped taking new cases and began phasing out his practice. In 1997, he gave up his law office to do real estate closings out of his home in Arlington Heights, Illinois, for a lawyer with a thriving practice. "I'm much happier now not having to get new clients…or worrying about advertising, accounting, and all that other stuff," Chrisos says.

Often lawyers give up a small practice because of unrealistic expectations that clients would stream in their doors, says Hindi Greenberg, whose San Francisco-based firm, Lawyers in Transition, provides career counseling for lawyers. "A lot of them didn't think about the fact that they'd have to be cultivating business all the time, and either they're not good rainmakers, or they don't want to be," she explains.

Others close shop because they miss the stature of working at a big-name firm and all the perks, staff support, and resources that come with it, Greenberg adds. Some lawyers think that opening their own practice will cure their job dissatisfaction, only to find the source of their discontent is practicing law itself, she says.

A New Direction

Occasionally, lawyers close their small practices to parlay their expertise into spectacularly successful new businesses.

For 16 years, brothers Dan and Tom Prohaska had built up a thriving estate planning firm in northern Idaho. By the early '90s, competition in the field was becoming increasingly fierce from accounting giants with brand-name recognition and national advertising budgets. Professional ethics rules prevent lawyers from affiliating with accountants, so the siblings decided they'd be better off shutting down their practice and opening up their own trust company.

The Prohaskas took their time winding down their business, planning each stage in careful detail. "We wanted to make sure our clients knew that we weren't abandoning them," Dan Prohaska explains. First, they sent out some 5,000 letters and audiotapes the brothers had made explaining their decision to clients. During 1996, Dan Prohaska stopped taking on new business and wrapped up existing work, to phase out of the firm. At the end of the year, he left to open the Idaho Trust Company in Coeur d'Alene, the same town where he and his brother had their law office.

Tom Prohaska wound down his practice in 1998 and joined his brother early that year. The pair sold their law practice to an associate who had been working for them. As part of the deal, they required the associate to continue some of their policies, including not charging clients for telephone calls and offering free consultations when there was a death in the family. "Our clients had put a lot of faith and trust in us for so many years," Dan Prohaska says. "We truly felt we had a duty to provide for them in a way we had promised to provide for them."

Their dedication paid off. Seventy-five of their former legal clients have since become clients of their trust company. Their work now is more fulfilling than estate planning, adds Dan Prohaska; it allows them to get to know their clients better because they develop long-term relationships. And they don't have to wake up each morning worried about finding new business. As of September, their firm was managing $75 million in total assets.

Setting up the trust company was tricky because it required regulatory approval, explains Dan Prohaska. But on an emotional level, leaving the law practice was a snap. "It was very liberating. A big part of it was that, by and large, the financial pressures went away," he says.

Some Find Bigger Better

Some lawyers give up running a boutique because they worry about getting lost in the explosion caused by today's big firms becoming ever bigger.

When a headhunter first contacted Ellen Kearns in January 1999 with the news that a large firm wanted to acquire her employment and labor boutique in Boston, she struggled over what to do. "Anyone who says they didn't agonize about making the decision isn't being completely honest," she says.

But the idea of becoming part of a firm with offices nationwide grew on Kearns, since her roster of clients had expanded across the country. She liked that the New York-based firm, Epstein, Becker & Green, had a Boston office with only 27 lawyers, too. Kearns and another firm partner, David Rubin, gingerly tested the waters with clients. "The response was, 'As long as you and David still represent us, we don't care where you do the work,'" Kearns recalls.

Last April, Kearns and Rubin closed their office and moved across the street, becoming partners at their new firm. All of their clients have followed them, Kearns says. "I miss the freedom, but I really enjoy the challenge of a bigger firm," she adds.

The weekend before moving her practice, Kearns buzzed around the office with a camcorder to preserve memories of the business she had founded with her late father in 1982. "It was pretty emotional, moving over, because I was giving up control of a business that I had run for 17 years," she says.

Escaping Pressures

For Jamie Katz, a founding partner of a small Boston firm, closing his end of the business was all the more painful because he'd created the practice with two close friends. "I'd been practicing with these guys for eight years, and we'd built something," Katz says. "There were some close personal relationships that I knew would be altered forever, even if we remained friends."

Yet in 1994 tension was mounting among the three lawyers over their different expectations for the firm. To top it off, Katz's area of work-mediation-wasn't especially lucrative. At the same time, he was facing personal pressures to spend more time out of the office because he and his wife were adopting a child, and he was writing a book.

After a year of trying to resolve differences with his partners, in late 1995 Katz decided to become of counsel to the firm. The next year, he completely severed his ties and joined the Massachusetts Attorney General's office, where he is now a litigator and coordinator of the agency's alternative dispute resolution cases. Another founding partner has since left the firm, which is now known as Heller, Levin Seksay.

Katz's decision to close his piece of the practice was a long, drawn-out process because he'd had a lot of fun and invested so much time building the business. "I'd been everything: a lawyer, a paralegal, a messenger, and a gofer," Katz says. "To walk away from it was not easy at all."

As a lawyer in public service, Katz doesn't command the salary he could reach at his own firm. But he prefers sacrificing some income in exchange for giving up the pressure to rack up billable hours. "It's wonderful to be freed from that," he says.

The type of practice a lawyer cultivates makes a big difference in how easy it is to close the firm. Juan Boldizsar's solo practice in Chicago was mostly short-term, transactional work, which made it simple to wind down his caseload. "When you're doing real estate closings and you know you're going to be closing your office in two months, it's pretty easy not to take any more new [clients]," he notes.

After four years on his own, Boldizsar sublet his office space and shut down his practice in May 1999, moving with his wife to Atlanta for her job transfer. It was a welcome excuse for Boldizsar, who was tired of shouldering the burdens of running his own practice.

Boldizsar recalls taking a final look at his empty office in Chicago and feeling enormous relief. "I thought, 'Thank God all this stuff is gone,' he says. "On a psychological basis, it was liberating."

Ready for Change

Some lawyers are eager to move on once they've been on their own long enough to see drastic changes in the legal business.

Daniel Hourihan ran his own plaintiff's firm in Boston for 47 years before the public's increasing disenchantment with lawyers and personal injury cases drove him to wind down his practice. After reading in a weekly legal newspaper about one too many plaintiffs who lost straightforward cases, Hourihan decided to put away his tasseled loafers.

For the past three years, he has been wrapping up cases and rarely takes on a new client. He still goes to his office now and then, although he no longer has a paralegal or other lawyers on staff. He spent three months playing golf in Florida and recently returned to school to take courses in alternative dispute resolution. He planned to start mediating cases late this fall.

"It became no fun anymore trying the cases," he says. "If you don't have to do it, why do it? It was swimming against the tide."

Laura Gatland is a freelance writer in Chicago.

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