THE CHAIR’S CORNER: The Growing World of Legal Entrepreneurs

Vol. 31 No. 1

By

Hon. Jennifer A. Rymell (jarymell@msn.com) is Chair of the GPSolo Division. She is a Civil County Court at Law Judge in Texas.

According to the National Association for Law Placement (NALP), there were 46,364 new law school graduates in the United States in 2012. Of those graduates, some 5.1 percent indicated that they planned to start their own solo practice immediately after passing the bar exam. Since 2008 the number of new law graduates going into solo practice has steadily increased, hitting an all-time high in 2011 of 6.1 percent. Before 2008, only 3.5 percent or less of law school graduates were starting their own solo practice right out of law school. It is no secret that the economic downturn has had an impact on law firm, government, and corporate attorney positions, but is there something else that has contributed to this trend? Is the economy forcing lawyers to become solo practitioners or are they choosing that career path?

The technology surge that we have seen over recent years has brought forth a new breed of professionals. Traditional legal career paths are no longer as attractive as they once were. There is no guarantee that law firm, government, or corporate employment will provide long-term job or financial security. Entrepreneurship is the new hot career choice, and lawyers who go solo are contributing to that trend by being legal entrepreneurs. A Wall Street Journal article written in September 2013 stated that a “record number of high school and college students say they aspire to be entrepreneurs. At Yale University 20 percent of the undergraduates indicated they are pursuing entrepreneurship as a career.” The article went on to talk about why entrepreneurship is so popular, and two of the most-cited reasons are the same as those given by lawyers who want to work for themselves instead of joining a firm: independence and control.

Professionals are striving to have a better work/life balance, and some only want to work part-time. Additionally, technology has made it easier to work from home with no support staff and only a few key pieces of equipment. Many lawyers say that a laptop, cell phone, and printer/scanner are all they need to conduct business efficiently. This translates into very little overhead and more money to put directly in their pockets. Don’t think this spirit of entrepreneurism is only for the young. It is not. There are also a growing number of baby boomers leaving big firm practice to start their own firms. Some baby boomers are forced to leave their firms owing to a mandatory retirement age, but they are not ready to leave the practice of law. Others seek the flexibility a solo practice can bring after many years of billing long hours.

Opening your own law firm can be an exhilarating yet daunting experience. Realistically, the needs of new graduates starting a solo practice are different from their more seasoned counterparts. More experienced lawyers going solo may be more challenged by the business and technology aspects of solo practice, while new lawyers are trying not only to master running a business but also educate themselves on substantive areas of law and procedure. The ABA Solo, Small Firm and General Practice Division (GPSolo) strives to provide broad-based resources that encompass the needs of both new and experienced lawyers who become legal entrepreneurs.

Solo Strong

In 2007 the ABA conducted a survey of solo attorneys and asked them what resources the ABA should provide to assist them in their practice. One of the overwhelming responses was that solo attorneys would love to have one place where they could go that contained a comprehensive list of specific products, services, publications, programs, and mentoring opportunities geared for solo practitioners. As the home to solo lawyers, the Division is undertaking that research on a national basis during the 2013–2014 Bar Year. It is our goal to be well under way by the summer of 2014 with posting a comprehensive list of ABA, local, state, and specialty bar resources that are particularly relevant to solo practitioners. We want to be your one-stop shop for providing that information. Below is just a sample of some of the great information we have obtained from state bar associations:

  1. The Florida Bar’s Law Office Management Assistance Service (LOMAS) has a web page on starting your own law practice. There is a wealth of information here with forms, checklists, white papers, and lots of references and links to ABA materials. The site also has a new law office checklist, which is a wonderful step-by-step guide on how to start a law firm. The LOMAS landing page also has recommended books of the month.
  2. The State Bar Association of North Dakota has a “Protect Your Practice Toolkit” on how to establish your law firm with an online presence and how to protect yourself from online attacks.
  3. The State Bar of Georgia has forms for various substantive areas of the law as well as several examples of engagement and disengagement letters. They also have a sample client satisfaction survey.
  4. The Washington State Bar Association Law Office Management Assistance Program has forms, checklists, articles, and short video clips on various aspects of running a law firm. A recent addition is a list of suggested questions to ask an online data storage provider.
  5. The Texas Young Lawyers Association has Office in a Flash. It is an online resource addressing such topics as how to formulate a business plan, office space considerations, money management, sources of revenue, and technology.

As you can imagine, it is a big job to compile all this information, and we would like your input. If your state, local, or specialty bar has a resource designed for the solo or small firm practitioner, please contact our Solo Strong Chair Jennifer Willner at jennifer@willnerlawfirm.com. She would love to hear from you.

Mix Business and Pleasure, Las Vegas Style!

This year for the first time the GPSolo Division is going to give you a chance to mix business and pleasure in Las Vegas, Nevada. We are teaming up with the ABA Standing Committee on Group and Prepaid Legal Services and the Group Legal Services Association to bring you CLE, entertainment, and most importantly business development opportunities. You will have a chance to meet personally with legal plan providers and network with attorneys who are experienced in providing prepaid legal services. What could be a better way to find out if providing services through a prepaid legal plan might be right for you?

As a solo practitioner, what are the benefits in getting involved with group legal plans? Group and prepaid legal services plans provide an efficient mechanism for matching lawyers with clients in need of services. These plans create panels of lawyers with expertise in various areas and match them with plan members/clients. The model is similar to a PPO in the health insurance industry. Clients find a lawyer with the appropriate skills on the panel and within the limits of the plan receive the legal services they need. The benefit for lawyers is that the bills are paid.

In addition, when a lawyer establishes a relationship with a client, that client may return for services not covered under the plan, for which the lawyer may charge his or her regular rates. Many lawyers have created a thriving practice solely based on their participation in group legal services plans. Others have supplemented with just a few cases. Either way, group and prepaid legal services are a great way to grow your practice without marketing expenses or accounts receivable. This information plus much more on group legal plans is on the Standing Committee’s web page: tinyurl.com/7gtppko.

Please plan to take advantage of this wonderful CLE and networking opportunity, May 1–3, 2014, at the beautiful Aria Resort and Casino. The Aria Resort is conveniently located in the heart of the Strip and contains world-class shopping, dining, and entertainment venues. Conference information and registration is available at ambar.org/gpsolospringmeeting. There is a discount for early registration through March 28, 2014, so register now. Hope to see you in Las Vegas!

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