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February 23, 2015 Practice Points

Small Firm Practice Can Blend Public Service and Profit

Jumping off of prescribed attorney paths toward risk can bring great success.

By Diana Adams – February 23, 2015

Lawyers train to be risk-adverse for our clients, and also in our own professional choices. In law school, I had a vision of tracks that must be followed for a career at a big firm, in public interest, or in academia. I feared stumbling off the prescribed path. Several years into my public-interest career, I discovered to great alarm that the jobs I had desired and obtained were not fulfilling to me, because in overburdened legal-services offices I was not able to solve the systemic multi-layered crises facing my clients, and I worked extremely long hours while barely able to pay my bills.

I decided to find my passion in law and figure out how to get paid for it, rather than just apply to available jobs. I became a legal entrepreneur and took massive risk. It was the best professional decision I could have made. Eight years ago I started my own solo law practice in family law and alternative dispute resolution, which I expanded to a small firm two years ago. I chose clients for whom I wished to advocate. I represent many LGBTQ and nontraditional families who may not receive support under the law without creative advocacy. I work with domestic-violence survivors. I practice mediation and collaborative law to keep families who are divorcing out of the court process whenever possible to preserve the dignity of their relationships. I work with families over generations with prenuptial agreements, adoptions, estate planning, and referrals to colleagues in other practice areas, and get to feel like Atticus Finch while developing this trusted close relationship with families in my community. I work on a dramatic sliding scale for clients based on income level in LGBTQ family law, a social-justice issue that affects clients at all socioeconomic levels. I stay involved in legislative and media advocacy and academia on this topic as a frequent lecturer and an adjunct professor. When I work long hours, it is my decision, as it is my decision when I need a long weekend away from work.

Small firm practice offers a powerful possibility for a sense of self-direction in legal careers, and passion for what we do. It is possible to believe we do important work that serves justice in the world and makes positive impact, and make money, too. Small firm practice has also given me a chance to heal the business-professional dichotomy, which juxtaposes a profession as one that serves the public good versus a business as one that serves an amoral profit motive. In 1984, Chief Justice Warren Burger declared that the practice of law had become a business and was no longer a profession. As lawyers, we deserve a more positive identity than feeling like a hired gun. Contrary to my original assumptions as a law student, I have found my own service to the public interest and professionalism most effective through starting my own small business. Jumping off of prescribed attorney paths toward risk has brought me my greatest success.

Keywords: litigation, civil rights, young lawyer

— Diana Adams, Diana Adams Law & Mediation, PLLC, New York, NY

Copyright © 2015, American Bar Association. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or downloaded or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association. The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the American Bar Association, the Section of Litigation, this committee, or the employer(s) of the author(s).