Oct 15, 2012
Evolutions of a Solo Practice – Part 1
by Barry Seidel
I am in my 30th year of solo practice, having opened my office right out of school in 1982. I am in the 5th incarnation of the practice. There was no time when I ever “stopped” doing a particular type of case and “started” a new specialty. Things evolved, and they continue to do so. I had to make many business and personal decisions along the way. Sometimes they arose out of negatives (“I don’t want to be doing “that” any more) and sometimes the decisions were more prospective (I’d like to do ‘that’…or, I think ’that’ would work)
Things I moved away from were never for naught. I learned, though sometimes not fast enough. I like to think that over time I’ve learned faster, took action sooner, and became bolder. It’s hard to know. I do know that when you want to make things better, sometimes you have to think hard, end the cycle of reaction, and make changes happen.
How and why I started as a solo right out of school
In the early 1980’s, I was in law school at The University of Texas. I’m a native New Yorker, so going to law school in Austin was not the usual path for a job back home in NYC. I suspect most law students envision themselves actual attorneys only in the abstract, if they think about it at all.
Fellow students didn’t talk about practicing law, only about getting into a good firm and some day making partner. I listened intently and spoke little. The first inkling of an employment problem came during my second year. Park Avenue and Wall Street firms recruited on campus. I interviewed with 20 firms. Each time it was like a bad blind date. I wondered if they hated me as much as I hated them. Easy question to answer, I never got a call back from the ‘name’ firms. I did get a second interview with a firm that defended accountant malpractice cases, but I don’t think there could have been enough money for me to spend my days doing that.
During my second year, I took a part time job at a small Austin law firm, Montague & Smith* (*all names fictitious, all stories are true). On my first day, Joe Montague gave me my first assignment, to help his client, Mrs. Peterson. He told me she was a 50 year old woman with cerebral palsy who he had represented on her two divorces. He said she was a decent client who paid her fees, so he wanted me to solve her present problem, some kind of insurance question. He wasn’t sure exactly what it was because he couldn’t understand her over the phone. He said to drive over to her house, straighten it out, and keep track of my time so the firm could bill her.
Mrs. Peterson spoke loud and slurred. We walked slowly to her dinette table and she showed me stacks of papers. The whole situation was a mess; two years of Blue Cross claims unsubmitted, rejected, and neglected. Claim letters and lawsuits from doctors. No recollections, wrong recollections, mis-informations. This was not a case that required any research, just plain talk, patience and persistence. I was in my element. I put in some hours and got the mess organized. I showed Joe what was going on and we determined that some of the situations were appropriate for his associates to work on. I was an instant hero at Montague & Smith, mostly because I saved anyone else from having to deal with the messiest stuff. They were paying me $10 per hour, and I saw that they billed $100 per hour for my time. I had no problem with that, and was kind of proud that I “made money for the firm”.
Still thinking I wanted Park Avenue, I left Texas after two years to attend Fordham Law as a visiting student. I got another part-time job, with a Manhattan solo practitioner named Fred Shulman.* He had all kinds of wacky cases. My first assignment there was representative of the flavor of the place: Fred’s client owned a bar, which was about to be closed by the Liquor Authority because it was allegedly a drug dealing location. Fred had brought a proceeding to stop the liquor license suspension while the case was being reviewed. My assignment was to review the transcripts and write something to convince the liquor authority to let him keep his license. The problem was, undercover agents had recorded many conversations of people asking the owner where they could find “Joe with the good blow”, and the owner had consistently directed them to his back office. I asked Fred how we could possibly overcome this, and he said we couldn’t but we had been paid to buy some time to keep them open through Christmas season. I loved working for Fred. Park Avenue firms started to lose their appeal.
Meanwhile, I was still in law school and going to awkward interviews. I got a second interview from a firm doing surety law. I didn’t even know what surety law was, which may be why I didn’t get the job. (I actually learned what it was about 5 years ago, and it probably would have been interesting). It was a tight job market then too, with no jobs at the District Attorneys office or even at legal aid.
No jobs, but no panic, just an idea gnawing at me.I want to open my own solo practice. The facts were: I had no money, few contacts, no clients, and no clue how to do this. So I sat down with the Placement Director at Fordham, and told her what I was thinking. She said, “It’s an unusual idea.” then added, “Statistically only about 3% of graduates nationally do that, and I’ve never heard of anyone in New York.” She looked down, sorry that she had disappointed me. But she hadn’t. I stood up, hesitated, and said, “You mean, people actually DO it? 3%? Are you sure?” She replied, “I don’t know, I mean I never, I’m sorry, but wait a minute” She fumbled around in her desk while she spoke “I heard about a book…..I don’t have it….I haven’t read it….but I saw an ad……here it is, it’s by a guy named Singer, take a look at this, you could probably get it at Barnes & Noble”.
There it was, an ad for “How To Go Directly Into Solo Practice, Without Missing A Meal’, by Gerald Singer. Thirty years later I remember that trip to Barnes & Noble as a trail of smoke and dust. I flew out of her office, off on another mission. The book was in the back of the store, with a bright blue cover amidst the real law books. I bought the book and started reading it on the subway. When I looked up I was five stops past my station, with my heart pounding. This guy’s plan, conceived in Los Angeles, could actually work! Not only that, it would work even better in New York. I knew it.
Although my law office officially opened a year later (the day I was admitted to practice),
I wanted to get started. That day I started a subscription to the New York Law Journal. This is a daily newspaper for New York lawyers. Besides articles about law, it also had a huge classified section, filled with ads for jobs, part-time jobs, offices, situations wanted, business opportunities, seminars, and court calendars. I started reading the Law Journal every day, and I still do. It keeps you in shape for daily practice. It should be read carefully and with feeling, like it’s the most important thing you can do for yourself. The Law Journal was a business transformer for entrepreneurial lawyers; you just had to plug in.
I then set in motion the strategies of “How to Go Directly Into Solo Law Practice….”. In a nutshell, the idea was to find a ‘time for space’ arrangement for an office, including referrals of legal work and cases. Next, introduce yourself to other lawyers in the same suite and in the building and get legal assignments and referrals. If that didn’t get you busy, knock on doors in the rest of the building. Then, send announcements to every person and entity you’ve known in your whole life. Add in your own creativity and don’t look back. You could also get on some referral panels, do a little advertising, and otherwise think like a businessperson with a valuable product to sell.
I then called Fred and asked if he’d let me work part-time once I was a lawyer. Besides the cash flow from working part-time, I knew I’d need him for advice when real clients and cases came in. He was on board from the start. I used to call him all the time. Some of my best days later on were when he started to call ME for advice.
While still in school, I saw an ad in the Law Journal for a company called “Educated & Dedicated”. I don’t remember their exact ad, but it was basically “our clients need a messenger who can figure out what to do when they get there”. The description was accurate. One of their clients was a company called “Federal Document Retrieval”, who sent me to copy files at various places in New York, mostly the Federal Courts. Their clients were big law firms all over the country. I even made a few runs to the Federal Archives in Bayonne, New Jersey. “E&D” always wanted me to call them directly, never their clients, but one day I was stuck in Bayonne and couldn’t find what their client wanted. Nobody at “E&D” knew what to do, so I called Suzanne at Federal Document Retrieval directly. We got the info straight, and she started asking me about myself, and I briefly told her my life story. She asked me to talk to her boss Doug, the owner. He got on the phone, had me re-tell my story and then asked, “How would you like to be our exclusive agent in New York?”……. and from then on I was.
Next time - Everything and Anything Phase….
All opinions, advice, and experiences of guest bloggers/columnists are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, practices or experiences of Solo Practice University®.