GPSolo Magazine - July/August 2004

BEING SOLO
My Coffee with Ahmet

A hmet Sarap and I met one morning at a local Starbucks coffee shop near my office. He is a regular reader of my column and wrote to me with some questions. Ahmet’s path to becoming a solo attorney is probably not much different from many other solos’. We all start out the same way when we enter law school. Everything is a mystery. The case books, the hundreds of reporters full of strange decisions lining the law school’s library walls. Amphitheater-style classrooms with demigod figures at the head issuing demands of our intellect unlike we have ever experienced before.

But then law school is over. And like ants crawling out of an anthill, we all go scurrying about in different directions. Big law firms for some. Government jobs for others. Clerkships, a family law firm waiting with a job for a son or daughter. Some don’t even practice law, instead going into business or for another degree without ever looking back.

Ahmet became an associate at a large law firm in New York City. He found a specialty in intellectual property law, working on big litigations (albeit at a lowly junior associate level), trademark registration, licensing, and other areas. Life was good—until two years later when the law firm imploded and closed up shop. He was close to getting a job at another large law firm when they shed several dozen attorneys, leaving him out in the cold again.

Ahmet finally got the message and worked up his courage to open his own solo law practice, starting out in the Manhattan apartment where he lived.

With his Turkish roots, Ahmet was fortunate to be able to draw upon that community for a good amount of his initial business. This included a lot of restaurants and businesses in the textile industry. With new clients, however, came new challenges.

Ahmet’s big-firm experience did not fully prepare him for his solo career and these new areas of his practice. There was a fair amount of trademark and licensing work for the textile clients. But other areas were new to him. So he spent many hours in the law library and taking CLE courses, bringing himself up to speed. The Turkish community was helpful once again when an immigration lawyer from the community sublet some of his office space to Ahmet. More than just space, the lawyer has helped mentor Ahmet in his new solo law practice.

Ahmet and I sat in Starbucks among the latte drinkers hunched over their laptop computers. “I can’t support myself yet on just intellectual property work, but how do I branch into new areas when those cases take me so much more time while I am educating myself on the job?” he asked. “How do I get more into my specialty?”

“Ahmet, you are doing exactly what you should be doing now,” I replied. “You are building a practice. In the beginning you are going to run up a lot of unbillable time working in new areas, but as your practice develops you will be able to devote more of your time to IP work as you get more and more of those clients.”

I commented on how nice it must be to represent all those Turkish restaurants and get a lot of good Turkish food. “Yeah, but I can get that from my mom,” he replied. So young, I thought. He is first developing his career and has a lifetime of experiences ahead of him. Who knows where it will take him? While I am hardly about to retire, after more than 20 years of practice I have a pretty good idea of where I’m going. It is both comforting and just a little bittersweet at the same time.

Ahmet was making some of the classic mistakes of attorneys starting their own practices for the first time. He was charging too little for his services, even after allowing for the “young attorney” discount. But this was understandable. To even quote the lowest of attorney fees, one has to have a certain confidence; for many that confidence comes only with time. I recommended that he focus less on marketing and more on making sure that he was being paid what he deserved, which, at this point, would bring him far more money than his marketing efforts.

It seems that what Ahmet misses most is having the luxury of time to research every point thoroughly. At the large firm where he worked, Ahmet spent hours researching every issue, both large and small, because there were big clients that could pay for such research. Solo attorneys rarely have that luxury, and Ahmet is learning to be more efficient.

Ahmet would like one day to find other attorneys with whom he can create a law firm. He is taking his first steps now and seems to me to be shaping up to being a fine attorney. I’m sure that one day, with a lot of hard work and a little bit of luck, he’ll get there.

 

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. You can write to him at lefflermailbox@aol.com.

 

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