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February 12, 2022

Solos share the joys and challenges of small-firm life

Never rule out a small-firm practice and the many great benefits that come with it, said a group of seasoned solos at the American Bar Association Virtual Midyear Meeting.

Speaking on Feb. 10 for the session “Big Law is Not Your Only Option: The Solo and Small Firm Experience,” a panel of longtime practitioners shared the many reasons they love running their own shingle — and gave advice for those looking to take the plunge.

Kari Petrasek, of Petrasek Law PLLC in Mukilteo, Washington, said she worked at a couple small firms before opening her own practice about eight years ago. She doesn’t regret the decision — and loves her new life. “It was a bit scary at first, but things worked out.”

Petrasek and her fellow panelists said that one of the biggest advantages is flexibility. After experiencing the freedom to set their own schedules and choose which cases to take, they wouldn’t have it any other way, they agreed.

Mark O’Halloran is partner with two others at Gosanko O’Halloran & Lepore PLLC in Mercer Island, Washington, and said he appreciates being able to respond quickly whenever he gets a call from his 8-year-old daughter. He sets his own hours. “I usually practice during certain hours each day, but there are days when I don’t come in at all, and it’s very nice.”

David Levesque of the Law Office of David Levesque in Damariscotta, Maine, offered other benefits of eschewing Big Law.

As a solo, Levesque chose a rural practice in an area of about 22,000 residents and loves that his commute to work is either a three-minute drive or a 10-minute walk from home.

Practicing in a small town allows him to connect with clients in ways that just aren’t possible at a major firm, Levesque said. He often chats with fellow parents at local soccer games and can take the time to really listen to what people need from their lawyer.

Moreover, “You can be nimble, switching to another area of practice without having to run it by a committee.” And it’s easier to provide excellent service to clients in a smaller setting, which helps build your reputation through word-of-mouth, Levesque said.

Going solo can present challenges.  

Learning how to run the business side of a law firm can be difficult. To help, O’Halloran suggests looking for resources offered by the ABA for assistance with everything from templates for client intake forms, to buying office equipment and managing payroll.  

Membership with the General Practice, Solo and Small Firm Division is free to ABA members. See benefits.

The panelists also said there is a lot of learning on the job and figuring things out as you go.

“When I started practicing for a small plaintiffs’ firm, I had no idea how to do trial work,” O’Halloran said. “I didn’t know that that’s where my practice was ultimately going to lead.”

O’Halloran’s firm has grown gradually and now includes three partners and a paralegal support team, plus administrative support that the firm outsources.

Shashi Vijay, who runs VJ Law Firm in Issaquah, Washington, dispels the myth that lawyers can only get mentoring and support at a big firm. After law school, she worked at one, often 80 hours a week, with little say about her schedule and the clients she served.

“In a big firm setting, you’re on your own, sort of learning as you go,” Vijay said, emphasizing that she’s found all the support she needs by networking with other solos in her area and getting involved in the ABA and other organizations.

GPSolo Chair Stephen Curley said he, too, benefits from a community of like-minded others. He generates a sizable chunk of revenue through his contacts at the ABA. “I’ve had my own firm now for over 20 years, and consistently 30% to 40% of my revenue each and every year comes from bar association contacts.”

O’Halloran said there’s a special collegiality that comes with working in a small firm. His firm leases a floor in their building to other lawyers, and he said they are constantly in each other’s offices asking questions. “I find that there is never a shortage of people who are willing to be helpful, who want to give you advice and provide mentorship.”

“Big Law is Not Your Only Option: The Solo and Small Firm Experience” was sponsored by the ABA General Practice, Solo and Small Firm Division.