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By Steven T. Taylor
Setting up a solo practice is a high-stakes gambit that's often fraught with potential for failure. Yet many who have succeeded-through both diligence and creativity-say they wouldn't have it any other way. Four lawyers who've set up their shops in recent years tell how they make their practices work.
But, of course, there is an alternative definition of success for a whole crop of other practitioners. Many lawyers, of every age and stripe, have come to understand that, when it comes to having a great career, their genetic composition may very well be better suited to the life of the solo practitioner. These are people who assay autonomy, confront conformity and revel in risk taking.
True, setting up one's own practice is often fraught with the potential for failure. However, many lawyers who have succeeded—through both diligence and creativity—say they wouldn't have it any other way. "Although I know very well that I don't have the safety of a paycheck, I love the autonomy my own practice offers," says Vancouver-based solo practitioner Nicole Garton-Jones. "Now that I've tasted the freedom of this experience, I could never go back to a larger firm."
So what does it take to make it on the alternate path and hit the high notes in solo practice these days? What follows are the success stories of four very different people—Camden Hall, Garton-Jones, Arthur Shaffer and Peter Klenk. They arrived at the solo life from varied backgrounds but they have two distinctive things in common: They love going it alone, and they're forthcoming in offering recommendations to others who might be flirting with the idea.
On many a workday in the late 1990s, Camden Hall found himself recalling that famous line from Henry David Thoreau's Walden: "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." Hall was a long-time partner at Foster Pepper, one of Seattle's larger law firms, and had been with the firm since he joined as an associate back in 1966. However, he was becoming increasingly disenchanted by forces in the changing big firm environment.
Among other things, Hall was disturbed by what he perceived to be the firm's transformation into an eat-what-you-kill culture. "I was generating work for others but it wasn't reciprocal; I felt this wasn't right," he says. "So more and more, I disliked coming to work, and that's not like me. I didn't want to become one of those quietly desperate people."
Then one day Hall read Who Moved My Cheese?, the lighthearted parable about change by Spencer Johnson, M.D., which shows readers that, like the mice in the book, when someone or something deprives you of happiness, or moves your cheese, you need to adapt. "That book basically changed my life because I realized that the reason I was at this law firm didn't exist anymore," he says. "Someone moved my cheese. So I said the hell with it. I need to take a big leap."
A big leap, indeed. After more than 30 years as a partner, Hall quit Foster Pepper and set up a solo practice ( www.camdenhall.com) in October 2002. It's a diverse practice that encompasses complex business litigation, family and media law, alternative dispute resolution and appellate work.
Such a move doesn't come without anxiety, of course, even for an established lawyer like Hall, someone with a big book of business and the ability to develop a strong client base. "I had many times," he explains, "when I'd wake up at 3 o'clock in the morning and say, ‘I move to this new office and I have these bills—jeez, what if the phone doesn't ring?' But I did it anyway. And my only regret is that I didn't do it 10 or 15 years earlier."
Hall used $50,000 from his savings and took out a $50,000 loan to bankroll his business. That initial funding carried him through the first few months until he started generating income to pay back the loan and his savings account.
In the scheme of things, Hall realized that an investment of $100,000 wasn't really all that much to get his own office going—and that's true with the start-up costs for most solos. "When it comes down to it, you're not talking about big dollars," says James Orlow, a Philadelphia-based immigration lawyer who wrote the chapter "Capital and the Capitalization of the Solo Law Practice" for the 2005 ABA book Flying Solo: A Survival Guide for the Solo Lawyer, 4th Edition . "Sometimes attorneys have to ‘take a haircut,' as they say in large firms, when you short-pay partners and pay them what they're owed later. The same is true for a solo; some months he doesn't take a regular draw."
While all law firms experience lean months, Hall knows that solo practitioners are especially vulnerable. And that's why early on in his new venture he set up a business savings account, which tides him over in the "thin times, and it's there for me to pay my taxes," he says. "If I get $100,000 from a client, I'll use some of that to pay my expenses, some to pay myself and put $50,000 or so in the savings account. I like to have a balance in the savings account to cover at least two months of expenses."
Those expenses currently total $40,000 a month and include the salaries Hall pays his two paralegals, another lawyer and a secretary-receptionist he calls a "jack of all trades."
His most important strategic move, Hall says, was to create a business plan. Any such plan must address several essential concerns, such as: What kind of business do you want to create and with what type of clientele? How will you attract those clients? How many staff will you hire, if any? What might your expenses be? What sort of office space is compatible with your practice? Hall thinks this is something that anyone considering a solo practice should undertake. He admits, though, it wasn't something that came naturally for him. "I didn't know a business plan from a hole in the ground," he says. "So I just got online and Googled ‘business plan,' came up with some forms and went from there." (See "Profitability" on page 53 for more about business plans.)
Hall offers another piece of sage advice for those who want to go solo: "Don't burn your bridges," he counsels. "The attorneys at Foster Pepper and I have a cordial relationship. One of the senior partners refers a lot of business to me. There's no reason to leave on a sour note."
Across the U.S.-Canadian border from Hall and his downtown Seattle office, Nicole Garton-Jones also left a big firm to set up her own law office. Her Vancouver, British Columbia, practice focuses on trusts and estates and real estate work, and like Hall, she does some family law work. Unlike Hall, however, she found her way to solo-dom early in her career.
After graduating from law school in 2000, Garton-Jones worked for one of Canada's largest law firms, Borden Ladner Gervais, in the corporate commercial practice area. Her experience there and at another partnership led her to a simple but significant conclusion: Large firm culture and high-powered commercial work didn't fit her style or skills. "I was trying to be someone I wasn't," she says. "The things that make me good at what I do now were not strengths there. I'm empathetic and soft-spoken. I like to work with families, and I like to work on residential real estate deals—not commercial ones."
Armed with this self-knowledge, Garton-Jones made a move to go on her own—sort of. She had a hybrid practice as a public affairs consultant and a contract attorney with another Vancouver firm, which helped her to build a law practice but charged her a percentage of what she made. Then, tiring of that arrangement, Garton-Jones broke ties with the firm and went completely solo in June 2005, naming her new enterprise Heritage Law ( www.bcheritagelaw.com) and capitalizing on the trusts and estates legal needs of the older members in her surrounding community. "I live in a high-net-worth community with a lot of people in the 55-to-75 age demographics. So I chose this practice area because I enjoy it but also because of the demographics. It fit nicely."
Nicely, indeed, with all the proverbial ducks in a row—or so it seemed. But the very same month Garton-Jones launched Heritage Law, her life took an abrupt turn. "I found out I was having a baby," she recalls. "It was a good surprise. But it was a surprise. I thought, ‘What am I going to do? I just started my own firm and I'm going to have a baby in nine months.'"
Realizing she would need to be extra-efficient and capable of working remotely so that she could spend time with her baby, Garton-Jones went to the Pacific Legal Technology Conference in fall 2005 for ideas. "I listened to all the speakers and thought the people who had practices like the one I wanted had paperless, highly automated offices," she says. "You didn't need as much staff that way. You can work remotely. That all sounded good to me."
Today, with her business a year and a half old and her baby girl turning one in March, Garton-Jones seems in complete control of her life and career. She shares office space with another Vancouver lawyer but often works at home, thanks to a "massive tech upgrade" she invested in with some $40,000 in savings. The two lawyers also share three paralegals and a receptionist. In addition, Garton-Jones employs another paralegal part-time—a T&E expert who works remotely—and has two lawyers on contract who help her when she gets a heavy workload. Also, she and her husband raise their baby with the help of a live-in nanny who she considers a team member and "equal partner," too.
Garton-Jones advises those considering a solo practice to first give themselves a personality audit. "This is only for certain people because you have to have the audacity to sell yourself to clients," she says. "And you have to be a multitasker, comfortable with doing the legal work and running the administrative side of the business."
That takes some by surprise, says attorney Reid Trautz, the practice advisor for the Practice and Professionalism Center of the American Immigration Lawyers Association and a co-editor of the ABA's Flying Solo book. "Solos," he cautions, "need to realize that they'll spend less time practicing law and more time marketing and developing the infrastructure to get the work done."
Garton-Jones apparently gets that, and she's convinced that solo is the only way to go. "I'm able to make a six-figure income, have a family, do what I like and determine the course of my career," she says. "I like it."
Of course, some practice areas, such as trusts and estates and family law, are more amenable to solo practice than other areas. Intellectual property legal work usually takes a team effort, given its complicated, constantly changing nature. But don't tell that to Arthur Shaffer. After a multifarious career, the Kansas City-based lawyer started a solo IP practice in 2002, well aware of the field's complexities—and, in fact, drawn to them. "The theme of my life seems to be whatever's more challenging, I go that way," he says.
And Shaffer's gone a lot of different ways. After working in a bakery making cinnamon rolls at 4 o'clock in the morning as a young man, he was told of a bakery sciences program at Kansas State University. (That's right, bakery sciences. Who knew?) He enrolled in the program but, wanting more intellectual stimulation, changed majors to earn a degree in physics in 1993.
Over the next several years, Shaffer went on to work as an engineer while cultivating a strong interest in computers. His engineering career took him to the Far East, where he worked on the new Hong Kong airport, then the largest construction project in the world. He then went to Kuwait to work on some fuel refinery systems. But after he married, he decided he didn't want to travel as much, especially in the volatile Middle East.
So Shaffer—who always had a strong interest in law—surveyed the directions the world was turning and came to a conclusion: "I knew from my interaction in the computer and electrical engineering arenas that the Internet was going to create a whole host of legal issues, both for users and developers. It was like the Wild West, and I wanted to be at the forefront of the legal changes that would occur, and protect this newest frontier."
Thus, back to school he went to earn his law degree. He gained admission to the bars of Kansas and Missouri in 2001, intent on entering the IP legal community. After a stint at a local prosecutor's office and a job as an in-house counsel for a Fortune 500 company, where he realized he didn't want to be in a big institution, Shaffer opened his own practice with his career savings and a tight-budget approach. He called it the Intellectual Property Center—and for some very specific, and savvy, reasons.
For one, Shaffer wanted to stay away from using his own name in the title of his business because, frankly, he didn't have much of a reputation. And he would advise anyone thinking of a solo career to think similarly. "Unless your name is instantaneously synonymous with the area that you're going to be practicing in," he says, "unless you have your own book of business, I would encourage you to think about a firm name that clients can find without knowing who you are but, rather, what they need." Which goes to another of Shaffer's recommendations: "The domain name and business name are things you want to consider hand in hand. Many businesses change their name because the domain name isn't available. I evaluated them together." As a result of his smart evaluation, Shaffer gets much of his business from the Internet, as people conduct Web searches with the words "intellectual property" or the letters "IP" and often hit upon his site, www.theipcenter.com.
Of course, like other solo practitioners, Shaffer has encountered obstacles. One of them strikes at the very heart of solo work, especially in the IP area. "The often-used phrase is that you're a one-armed paper-hanger as a solo practitioner," he says. "And in the area of IP with the law constantly changing, you're so much more challenged."
So how does he do it? Because he employs only a paralegal and a part-time assistant, Shaffer says key to his success are the relationships he's cultivated with people who serve as his mentors: "Because this is such a dynamic area of law, you need to have people to bounce ideas off of and other attorneys you can collaborate with."
Such relationship building is just as, if not more, critical when it comes to clients. Although sometimes all it takes to nurture a relationship is a simple show of appreciation. "I thank all my clients for allowing me to represent them because they do have a choice," he says. "People like to hear ‘thank you.'"
Peter Klenk sailed different currents to his solo practice—quite literally. After he graduated from law school, the Minnesota native left the Great North, joined the U.S. Navy, and gained much of his legal experience as a member of the Judge Advocate General Corps (JAGC) when the United States was engaged in Operation Desert Storm in the early 1990s.
"I had two brothers in the military," Klenk says. "All the people of distinction in my hometown had been in the military. I didn't want to be the kid in the family who didn't go into the military. And, I wanted to serve my country, travel and learn more about law in a hands-on way."
It was more like all hands on deck, since his assignment in the Navy was to be part of an extensive team writing wills for 10,000 people who were deployed and obviously in harm's way—something that enhanced an interest he already had in estate planning. "We did them all in four months, night and day, cranking them out," he recalls.
The work by Klenk's legal team did not go unrewarded. "With many duties in the JAGC, you never got a pat on the back," he explains. "But with trusts and estates, people were so relieved and happy to have it done, they appreciated you." What's more, he and the other lawyers won a Meritorious Unit commendation for their efforts.
After his stint in the Navy, Klenk worked for a 35-lawyer firm in Philadelphia and then a trusts and estates boutique that dealt primarily with high-end clients—clientele foreign to Klenk's working-class upbringing—before he decided to pursue the autonomy of a solo practice (www.klenklaw.com). "It's a personality issue in my family," he says. "We're all entrepreneurs."
He says his biggest challenge was devising a marketing plan that would help him connect with clients in a city, Philadelphia, to which he was still relatively new. "Because I was the new guy in town," he says, "I knew I had to get out and network, so I joined social clubs and the American Legion and VFW." There, Klenk met retired attorneys, who apparently appreciated his military service and his modest small-town sensibilities. "Lawyers are like plumbers," Klenk says. "We provide a service. And we have to do a good job."
These older practitioners served as casual, inexpensive consultants. "I needed to be able to ask someone, ‘What's this 401k thing? Do I need insurance? How do I fire this guy?" he says. "So I sought out ‘old-timers.' Now, I've got several World War II buddies who I can sit down with, buy them a cocktail, tell them what's going on, and they'll share their experience. It really helps me think things through."
Klenk also relied on what he had observed at the two firms he previously worked at and essentially did the opposite. "I saw that people weren't taking care of their referral sources; the attorneys took it for granted that [the sources] would send business their way," he says.
He adds that he launched his practice with his own money because he doesn't like debt. "I kept it simple and, luckily, my wife is a psychiatrist. Between the two of us, we weren't rolling in dough but we were fine."
Today, Klenk's practice is expanding with nine employees and access to reasonably priced, shared office space in several towns in the Eastern Pennsylvania/New Jersey/Delaware region so that he can travel closer to his clients. He also emphasizes communication with his clients, which he does in part through a newsletter with genuinely useful information—"nothing that's boilerplate"—as well as semiannual mailings that summarize all the clients' documents, a tactic that also "keeps my name in front of them." That, he says, maintains his client base and leads to new business.
Nonetheless, like most solos, Klenk experiences his times of both feast and famine. He advises anyone who may want a solo practice to understand that this is inevitable. "When you're on your own, you have to be comfortable with the fact that there will be months when the checks just don't come in," he says, casually. "If you're a person who's going to have ulcers over that, you shouldn't do it. You've got to know yourself."
And that may be among the best rules of thumb for going solo: Know yourself, your strengths, your weaknesses and, as the popular self-improvement book counsels in its title, "Don't sweat the small stuff."