Starting a Law Firm: A Woman’s Perspective
Solo practice is not for the faint at heart. Any solo will tell you that a successful practice takes one-third legal expertise, one-third good business sense, and one-third unremitting gumption. A healthy dose of lunacy always helps.
I have learned more in my solo practice than I learned in three very expensive years of law school. Here are some tips and advice that will (hopefully) be helpful to those of you who want to blaze a trail:
Lesson #1: Get Great Mentors. And Share Your Wit and Wisdom With Others.
Before I started my law practice, I sought the counsel of women in Maryland that I know to be Super Women in legal practice. They met with me over lunch, shared encouraging words, taught me the secrets of solo practice in the wee hours of the summer solstice, and probably even prayed for me—more than once. These are genuinely good women who freely and candidly talk about their experience in solo practice and the challenges of the family-work-life balance. These attorneys showed me that solo practice is a feasible career goal, that you can be a good person, yet fierce in the courtroom, and have a profitable law practice. They taught me to enjoy the benefits of working for myself. They taught me to develop and maintain a strong network and support system that would bolster me during the tough days of solo practice. They are mentors and friends to whom I owe a significant debt; without them, the formative weeks and months of my practice would have been significantly more difficult.
Your mentors have traveled this road before. That computer/scanner/fax issue that seems brand new to you is old hat to them. The office space debacle that you face is an issue on which they can calmly advise you. During those days when you have few clients, they will offer encouragement and try their best to send work your way. They will never judge you or harangue you about your decision, because they are business owners themselves. They understand the entrepreneurial ambition that drives you, and they want to help you succeed. Understand that you need them, and you will be well on your way to success.
A great place to find mentors (and get possible experience in the fields where you want to practice) is in national, state, and local and specialty bar associations. Getting involved with bar organizations gives you a chance to meet some dynamic movers and shakers.
Become a mentor to those who need mentoring. Each of us has something to share with the world. Give time to a local organization to mentor a high school student or get involved with your law school alma mater. Third-year law students are happy to get advice from practicing attorneys; there is a bit of hero worship for those of us who have passed a bar exam.
Lesson #2: Don’t Reinvent the Wheel. It’s Already Perfectly Round and Works Just Fine.
Solos have more than their fair share of work to do. Time spent reinventing the wheel is valuable time that is totally wasted. Solo practice is more of an art than a science. The same people who shared their “master” torts outline with you in law school are still willing to share with you post-JD. I’ve learned that being a solo is a misnomer—we feel a deep sense of camaraderie, and good karma returns twice as quickly among solos. There are attorneys who have a generous spirit who won’t think twice about sharing form contracts, pleading forms, and advice with other solos. I find these people populate the solo and small list serve with a helping hand and a listening ear.
Lesson #3: Partner With People Who Rock. There Is Strength in Numbers.
I partner with large law firms on cases. I refer a significant number of cases to other attorneys and get referrals back from them. I have developed of counsel relationships with attorneys who have experience in other legal areas that I am still learning. I continuously try to find ways to be a better staff manager, colleague, attorney, and team player. I have law clerks, legal interns, and a wonderful spouse—all of whom “rock” in my opinion.
Partner with your family too! Take inventory of their talents and use those talents to the good of the firm. For instance, my husband has created a database for my clients and a software program for billing and time management. He set up my server and DSL hub. He’s also done a whole slew of high tech things for my office that keeps the spam filters working, the website running, and the viruses at bay. My husband is my software engineer, IT manager, U-Haul office mover, and at times my career counselor. He has been there to lend a helping hand and is the most integral part of my support system. My grandmother is religious. She knows every prayer and clergyman this side of Lourdes. She has prayed to the patron saints of lost cases, lost briefs, and lost souls. I witnessed more than one miracle in my legal career. My mother is a budding interior decorator who has organized and decorated and office on a shoestring budget.
Solo does not mean alone. Indeed, those who find themselves alone might find themselves completely isolated from colleagues, friends, spouses, and even clients during the formative months and years of their practice. This is not a road to happiness or success; you can blaze a trail for your practice while maintaining positive and healthy relationships with those around you. It is those relationships that will sustain you on the days that you question your sanity for having started a practice in the first place.
Lesson #4: Don’t Be Afraid to Step Out of Your Comfort Zone.
I didn’t know exactly what I was getting into when I got appointed to serve as the Deputy Chair of the Real Estate Committee of the American Bar Association’s General Practice and Solo Small Firm Division. There are 183 members of the Committee—attorneys who practice throughout the United States, many of them who started practicing long before I was born. At one ABA Midyear Meeting, I found myself on a panel of commercial real estate attorneys who have probably closed higher dollar deals than I could ever imagine. I was sitting in front of an audience of solo practitioners who could have eaten me alive. I was the only young lawyer and was quite nervous. Needless to say, I made it through. Whether I was memorable or witty, I’ll never know. I could not tell whether they were laughing with me or at me, but I was satisfied to know that not a single person threw a tomato from the audience. That experience allowed me to develop the courage to perhaps do it again.
Lesson #5: Work Hard, Play Hard, and Make No Excuses for Either.
I work long hours and often think about my work when I am not actually at work.
Admittedly, I am still working on the “play hard” part of that phrase. When I do have time to play, I indulge myself with facials, manicures, pedicures, massages, and yoga. I also travel (though, admittedly, most of my travel has centered around bar association events). I have even been known to take up a foreign language here and there. These activities not only rejuvenate my awesomely tired mind, but they also give me the incentive to do the administrative and financial management tasks at my office when I’d much rather be writing a 600-page treatise on the Rule of Perpetuities.
Tidbit: You will work hard when you work for yourself. Expect it, but know that that is the trade-off for having your own business. When you work for yourself, you work for a tyrant, which is evident in the fact that it’s two a.m. and I’m writing this article.
Rule #6: Generate Good Karma.
Karma is like a boomerang. Either it will come back to you and land safely in your hand, or it will come back and smack you in the forehead when you least expect it. One thing holds true: it always comes back to you. Extend professional courtesies when you don’t have to, and realize that good deeds generate good karma. After all, you never know when you will need that extension or when you might need to cut in front of someone to make a postmark deadline.
Good deeds also build relationships. And in the legal business, relationships go a long way. That lawyer who seems like such an adversarial nut could be the one who sends along a much-needed client at a much-needed time because that lawyer remembered your tact in dealing with a difficult situation. That mother at the grocery store with the twins who have thrown themselves on the floor in a screaming fit at 6:30 in the evening over some Twizzlers could be the CEO of a company who needs your services. Let her cut in front of you. The service clerk at the post office that postmarks my clients’ letters, the dentist who appeared at career day, my husband’s coworkers, the mobile notary I used for a closing, the motivational speaker at our a nonprofit Board of Directors’ retreat, and on and on . . .
The golden rule cannot be more important than in the legal field.
Rule #7: Keep Yourself Going. Laugh Out Loud and Have Theme Music.
When I need to get focused, centered, or motivated, I have what I call theme music. It’s the music I play when a pleading needs to get completed, my nerves are shot, and the phone is ringing off the hook. It puts me in the zone. Besides, all good guys have theme music in the movies.
Laughing is key. I still make prank phone calls—on my friends and staff. My nephew and I invent our own knock-knock jokes. I make fun of myself; unfortunately, other people don’t hesitate to make fun of me as well. When something funny happens, I laugh hard and loud. It really is a sin to take yourself too seriously.
Rule #8: Learn to Roll With the Punches and Have a Plan B.
I had a huge setback at the beginning of the year when a merger my business partner and I had been planning for a year and a half did not happen. When I was nine, I wanted to be a lady of G.L.O.W. (the female version of the WWF). After law school, I tried out for a women’s professional football team.
Well, the G.L.O.W. career never took off, and the football team disbanded before the season started. None of those ventures worked out for me. My mom always says have a Plan B. Thomas Edison said that he would rather fail at something he loved, than succeed at something that he hated. While I don’t anticipate failure as a solo, I do have a Plan B—early retirement.
Lesson 9: Say Thanks.
Be generous with praise and gratitude. Although I grew up in California, I went to school in the South. I found that people were liberal with greetings and kind words and unexpected good deeds. I believe I practice in one of the most challenging cities in the country. Not because D.C. has the highest number of lawyers per capita but because people are overcommitted and barely have time for themselves. Anytime someone takes a second to help me or encourage or motivate me, I try my best to let them know that it’s appreciated.
Lesson 10: Dream Bigger.
Even a small star shines in the darkness (Danish proverb).
Youshea Berry is the principal of the Law Office of Youshea A. Berry in Washington, D.C. She has been an American Bar Association Diversity Fellow, assistant editor of the Young Lawyer newsletter of the ABA GPSolo Division, and vice chair of the ABA Young Lawyers Division’s Law Practice Management Section.
Originally published in The 101 Practice Series: Breaking Down the Basics by the ABA Young Lawyers Division. Copyright © 2008 by the American Bar Association. Reprinted with permission.
© Copyright 2008, American Bar Association.