Ari Kaplan recently spoke with Carolyn Elefant, an attorney who focuses her practice on energy and environmental matters and the author of several books, including Solo by Choice: How to Be the Lawyer You Always Wanted to Be.
Elefant has been blogging at MyShingle.com for almost 18 years and is co-producing a virtual conference called the Lawyer Mom Owner Summit on Sept. 30 and Oct. 1 with Jeena Belil for attorneys who are mothers that own or want to start a firm.
Ari Kaplan: Tell us about your background and the genesis of your law firm.
Carolyn Elefant: I’ve been practicing law for over 30 years and started my firm about five years into my career. I had worked for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and for a national energy practice but was laid off during a downturn in the market. I started a firm, so that I wouldn’t have a gap on my resumé and wound up staying longer than I thought.
Ari Kaplan: You are the author of a popular book for law firm owners and are a long-standing blogger tracking trends and developments for solo practitioners and small firms. How has the practice of law changed in the years since you started writing?
Carolyn Elefant: When I started the blog, it was seen as very forward-looking at that time. There were only a handful of attorneys who were blogging, and the activity has evolved from a personal hobby to becoming a core part of a lawyer’s marketing. It has also become customary for lawyers to advertise online and to use social media for their networking as opposed to meeting in person. We are now at a stage where many tools that were once unavailable to solo and small firms because they were priced out of the market, such as sophisticated research tools, automation programs and virtual staff members are available at affordable subscription rates. As a result, the cost of starting a firm has come down tremendously.
Ari Kaplan: Do you think the acceleration of change within law firms during the pandemic will be sustainable?
Carolyn Elefant: I certainly hope so because it took a pandemic to get us this far. Even after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and Hurricane Katrina, law firms were still very suspicious or reluctant to move to the cloud. Many did not even want to use credit cards. They preferred a check, which meant they had to go to a bank that needed to be open. The pandemic has been so pervasive in scope that everyone has been forced to change, and some firms are realizing the upside. For example, there are firms that felt that their staff had to be on-site to be productive, which have come to realize that eliminating the morning commute may increase their work product. Legal professionals are also finding different ways to communicate, and attorneys who have been maintaining a large office space are recognizing that they may not need that extra overhead. This is especially true since clients are becoming more accustomed to visiting with attorneys online and not going into an office. After all, no one ever wanted to take an hour out of their day to visit their lawyer’s office. So the ability to work seamlessly online can enhance the client experience, and as long as clients are willing to ask for virtual meetings, they will continue.
Ari Kaplan: You are producing the Lawyer Mom Owner Summit on Sept. 30, 2020, and Oct. 1, 2020, for attorneys who are mothers that own or want to start a firm. What motivated you to create this event?
Carolyn Elefant: I’m really excited to be collaborating with Jeena Belil, an attorney who runs a Facebook group for solo mom lawyer owners. I remember back 20 years ago when I was a young mom, with a 3-year-old and an infant. I was really working between the cracks and would get up early in the morning, complete a task and then feed my daughter. When she took a nap, I would return to another task, and I went through the day like that. Meanwhile, I was producing material for clients but never told anyone what was going on behind the scenes because I felt that it might compromise my professional image or that clients just wouldn’t hire me if they knew that I was working from home. I thought they would think that I was not professional. Over the last six months, I have seen all of these mothers who are doing everything that I did, but it is even harder now because there is a pandemic, and there’s no escape. They don’t have the two hours of preschool that I had, or they may not even have someone who can help them out. These women are doing what I was doing—getting the job done—and nobody knows what’s happening behind the scenes and take it for granted. Ultimately, the main point of the conference is for women who are in this situation to be seen. Also, there is a lot of financial stress in this sector. Many people have taken pay cuts, and we are looking at another round of layoffs. So instead of having women who are moms, or anyone, remaining at a job in which they are not satisfied, I want to emphasize that ownership of their own law firm is something that they should consider, since it can provide amazing opportunities to really chart your own path. I want attendees to build the kind of career that they dreamed of when they went to law school. To support that, the conference will be featuring amazing women who have started firms in different ways and are all succeeding. We want to bring people together and let them know that the option to own your own firm is out there.
Ari Kaplan: What specific topics do you plan to cover?
Carolyn Elefant: This will be different from a traditional law firm conference. Having an event that just focuses on legal issues or personal issues in isolation doesn’t give you the whole picture, so this conference is going to have what you would traditionally expect at a lawyer conference, such as a panel on practicing during the pandemic, where we will talk about the legal issues associated with doing so, such as employment laws related to remote staff and cybersecurity. We’ll also have a panel on marketing in the pandemic, which will highlight substitutions for in-person networking. We will also have panels issues that are really impacting women and all practicing lawyers right now, such as whether you should be paying down your student loans or whether to invest in real estate. What is happening with a person financially behind the scenes has a direct impact on their practice. If you feel like you cannot pay your mortgage, you may be more willing to take an unappealing client into your practice. We also have a panel on balancing remote school and operating a law practice. Finally, there will be virtual speed networking and an emphasis on better leveraging video with an opportunity for attendees to record a two-minute video elevator speech that they can post on their website.
Ari Kaplan: Can you share some advice about balancing all of the competing priorities?
Carolyn Elefant: I was very isolated when my children were young because I was the only person I knew who was working most of the time at home. The key is to relax and do the best that you can. I see a lot of women in these groups who are too hard on themselves. They feel like their homes are messy, that a child is falling behind in school, or that they barely completed an assignment. Often, the fact that you were able to get part of a brief done and get your child fed during the day is a huge accomplishment. The most important thing is to prevent yourself from imposing unrealistic, judgmental standards on yourself. It is also important to realize that you belong in this profession. Imposter syndrome is a very serious problem for many women, but you have to believe that you have a law degree and are just as entitled to be practicing law as anybody else, and that the job you are doing is just as good as whatever everybody else is doing. Many of the issues associated with working from home can be addressed with the right mindset, which we hope to impact at the summit.
Listen to the complete interview at Reinventing Professionals.