Flying Solo While Keeping Grounded

Challenges and Opportunities for Solo Practitioners and Lawyers in Small Firms

Changing world


I recently noticed an item of interest on the New York County Bar Association (NYCBA) website regarding an initiative of fundamental interest to SPU members: specifically its Small Law Firm Center.   Alla Roytberg, director, established her law firm in 1996, practicing in family and divorce representation, and mediation. and now divides her time between her practice and the work of the Small Law Firm Center. 

Alla recently represented the small firm contingent as a member of the bar’s Task Force on New Lawyers in a Changing Profession.   

I suggested Alla discuss her background and experience in the SPU blog, and she readily agreed.

GG: Welcome, Alla!  To get things rolling, I recently ran across an item in the New York Times with regard to several lawsuits brought by recent law school graduates.  Stated simply, their complaint was that the law schools they attended didn’t prepare them for the reality of the marketplace, e.g. that, upon graduation, they couldn’t find jobs in the law.  The suit was summarily dismissed.

This episode brings to mind an important issue that is well known to the readership.  Law schools keep churning out graduates in ever-increasing numbers into a market that has been shrinking, due, in part to the economic downturn.  The legal profession has been hit hard.  In recent years, many prestigious law firms, with staffs running into the many hundreds, have pared their ranks, not only of staff but, as well associates, even partners.  And there have been quite-a-few firm mergers, and other firms have simply closed-up shop.

In many instances, newly-minted associates are often doing the work of paralegals, and the paralegals, in turn are increasingly handling duties generally assigned to secretaries or administrative assistants. The downturn has especially hit hard attorneys who hung out their shingles with high hopes; a few I know have taken to waiting tables or other low-paying jobs while they wait things out.  To be sure, there are many sole practitioners and those at small firms who are doing relatively well–some very well–with the likely proviso that they had a viable game plan which they put it into play.  Comments, Alla, please.

AR: George, you are absolutely correct.  At the Small Law Firm Center, I see the challenges newly-minted attorneys face on a daily basis.  Many graduate with hundreds-of-thousands-of dollars in student loans and no job prospects in sight.  Ideally, the recent grads should have the opportunity to gain experience by working in law firms and receiving mentoring from seasoned partners before starting their own practices.  Unfortunately, the economic realities for many of these graduates are such that they literally were admitted to the bar in the morning and hung out their shingles in the afternoon.  They often come to my office for practice management consultations, and I help them brainstorm about the basics of small firm startup, how to get clients, and most importantly, how to gain a level of competence that they lack.

Over the last few years, the Small Law Firm Center has developed many programs to help new- lawyers transition to solo practice.  These include Mentoring Circles that provide the opportunity for fledgling barristers to network and brainstorm around a particular practice area during monthly meetings at the headquarters of the New York City Bar.

GG:  I noted in the following statement in the City Bar’s Small Law Firm Center overview:  “Many lawyers who become a solo or small law firm practitioner are idealists at heart, but soon realize that they need information and support crucial to running a successful business.”

AR:  How true!  When I first started my practice, I was one of these “idealists.”  I originally went to law school because I literally was in awe of the American legal system.  I felt it especially acutely as a recent immigrant, a Jewish Refugee, from the Soviet Union, and wanted to help people navigate the U.S. court system.   Upon graduation from Fordham Law School, I was more fortunate than many recent grads, as I had a job.  I only started my own practice five years after law school after working in two different firms and gaining experience.  This year, my firm will mark its 20th anniversary.

In law school, we were never taught the “business” of law.  My parents were engineers, recent émigrés from a country that had no private business enterprises at that time.  I literally knew nothing about how to run a business.  I remember that about a year before going out on my own, I attended a NYC Bar all-day CLE on “How to Start Your Own Practice” and used the handouts and checklists to get started.

GG:  In the bar website, it is stated that [among the roughly 130 committees at the NYC bar], the Small Law Firm committee is “an interdisciplinary Committee whose mission is to raise member awareness of high-impact legal issues and to create a forum for the exchange of best practices in business, financial management and client services.  Our guest speakers are carefully selected for their experience and knowledge.  We sponsor a wide spectrum of CLE programs and forums specifically focused on the needs and interests of solo practitioners and members of small law firms.”  Comments?

AR: The Small Law Firm Committee is a law practice management committee comprised of various small firm owners.  While the Committee and the Center are two separate entities, we work together on programs and to advance the interests of solo and small firm owners.  The Small Law Firms Committee works on reports and comments on legislation relevant to the interest of small firm practitioners and their clients.  It oversees networking groups that meet on a monthly basis at the NYC Bar and pull together small-firm owners and members of other industries.  The Committee also organizes ten law practice management luncheons on various topics of interest each year.

The Small Law Firm Center organizes other law practice management programs, breakfast, an afternoon tea series and a yearly all-day Small Law Firm Practice Management Symposium in November, and includes eight law practice management workshops on everything relating to law practice management of a starting, or already existing, firm.  It also includes a networking breakfast, a lunch, wine reception and a trade show of Exhibitors whose products specifically cater to the needs of solo and small firm practitioners.  The NYC Bar charges a nominal attendance fee for the event, which is usually attended by over 200 lawyers each year.

Several years ago, I created the Virtual Law Firm Program (VLF).   I realized that many of our small-firm practitioner members worked out of their homes, met their clients at our conference rooms, and spent a lot of time in our library or at our events.  Many of them used Virtual Office spaces for mail, phone and address purposes, and I thought that it would be great to offer them the opportunity to have their address in our building as well.  They can meet clients in our Small Law Firm Center conference rooms for free, have access to Casemaker legal research and other resources remotely from their computers, and can use the library at the City Bar to access Lexis and Westlaw.   All of this helps starting solo and small firm owners to keep their overhead to a bare minimum as they work to develop their firms.  At present, the VLF program has more than 130 member-subscribers, who range from NYC solos who use it as their only office to practitioners who have offices elsewhere but also want a Manhattan presence via a satellite office as well.

GG:  Following up  with a set of related questions: There are obviously a myriad of practical, business-oriented details that have to be resolved:  Rent, supplies, hiring office help with HR-related issues, buying furniture, contacting an accountant,  tax considerations, credit card processing.   .  .and the list goes on.  There is also the option of consulting a variety of vendors, such as NexFirm, FedEx Office, ABA resources dealing with practice management.  Any tips?

AR: To be sure, fledgling attorneys with little business experience have to learn the ropes.  There are companies that provide assistance, obviously for a fee, that can put a crimp into the budget.  The bar offers programs to help maneuver.  Often, the lawyer is a quick learner and can catch on quickly.

GG: Then there are the legally-oriented “must do’s:  If applicable, the partnership agreement; retainer agreements, perhaps specific to the practice; pleadings;  scheduling; professional liability insurance; avoiding potential conflicts of interest.  (I recall that, at that my first job, the secretary handled everything:  forms, including bills of particulars and summary judgments, etc., in addition to running the office.  When she told partners as well as associates and administrative staff to do something, they did it.  And it worked.  A rare breed!)  What do you think?

AR:   This is an interesting question.  During my practice management consultations, I see different types of lawyers.  Some are seasoned attorneys who have spent years practicing in a firm and have a transitioning book of business.  They are usually the ones who have been used to “departments” to take care of their practice management needs – litigation support that knew all calendars, judges, filing requirements and how to put all papers together, billing department, IT, etc.   They are the ones that often like to outsource these tasks to back-office vendors and are also able to afford the cost of doing so.

For startup solos on a budget, this is not an option. They have to do everything, or almost everything, on their own. If they get help, it must be incredibly cost-effective.   In the last two years, the Small Law Firm Center has run a series of Hands-On workshops that taught lawyers how to create and update LinkedIn, create a blog, even a basic website.  They often reach out to their CPAs and bookkeepers not to do the monthly books, but to teach them how to use QuickBooks so that they can handle most of their entries themselves.

GG:  Technology.  What are your views?  Do you agree, as I do, that for sole practitioners and lawyers in small firms, being conversant with computer-ese is a “must.”  I daresay, that most lawyers starting out are “into it.”  I assume you agree.

AR:  Most younger lawyers are incredibly comfortable with technology.   Older lawyers may need a bit more hand-holding.  One most important component of  solo IT is to be as mobile and as portable as possible.  I am able to remote-access my office computer at all times from other computers– even from my phone.  My calendar, contact database, and even billing, can all be done from my phone as I move around between my office in Forest Hills and various courts and meetings I need to attend elsewhere.  I receive faxes in my email and send them out online.  My voicemail messages are emailed to me by my answering service as they are received.  All of these things are critical to the success of a solo on the move.

GG:  In a related vein, there has been some criticism over the years that a lawyer’s research skills are often compromised by push-button answers to complex issues.  (I saw some of this in dealing with West Publishing and Westlaw, as well as during a stint at Lexis/Nexis corporate HQ on the outskirts of Dayton.  Obviously, many users “swear by them.”  Your thoughts.

AR:  This may be true.  The problem that small firm owners face is often a juggle between the level of in-depth work product and the financial realities.  Many of their clients cannot pay enormous retainers.  There is no luxury of being able to have an associate do a research project for several days and then provide a legal memo.  Often, solos spend their days in court and meetings, and then have to return emails and calls after hours.   When can quality legal work get done?  The answer is, probably late in the evening or very early in the morning.

GG:  So far, so good.  On to another subject.  In your view, what is the impact, job-wise of picking up an LL.M. in tax or other specialty?  Or an MBA?  A CPA?  A background in intellectual property; familiarity with patent procedures?  Obviously, this specialized expertise is prevalent in some small boutique law firms?  Obviously, it won’t hurt.  (As an aside, the practice of medicine has dozens of  specialties–indeed, some sub-specialties.)  Your thoughts.

AR:  I can’t really comment on this.  It’s probably more of a question for the career people. At the same time, you have opened up an interesting dialogue.  I will say that an LL.M. from a top law school, such as a Tax Masters from NYU, is a good career move.  At the same time, there are an abundance of schools offering LL.M. degrees that, for a variety of reasons, such as the quality of the program, or the lack thereof, are not of much help, with the significant downside of adding to the student debt.

I would add another thought.  As mentioned, fledgling lawyers with thinking of going solo or forming a small firm, often need some practical experience beforehand.  But getting a job at a law firm can be dicey.  Indeed, at my firm, I want lawyers with clinical experience in law school, who can hit the ground running.  I just don’t have the time to train them.

GG:  As to your last point, I emphatically agree.  This point was driven home during reunion at NYU Law.  At an Awards Luncheon, Dean Trevor Morrison emphasized the importance of  business grounding for students.  He then announced that incoming students would be required to take a course in Accounting.  (When I attended school, the closest I came was a course in Corporate Finance.)

In a related vein, I attended a national law school, using the Socratic method, not geared to passing the state bar.  The emphasis was to train us tyros how “to think like a lawyer”.  The theory was to the effect that utilizing a logical thought process is invaluable in addressing legal issues.  I agree (although my wife has a different “take” on this, at least as applied to everyday interactions.)

In any event, following the current literature, I believe that getting friendly with Socrates doesn’t ordinarily take three years.  I believe Dean Morrison was right in adding Accounting to the first-year NYU Law curriculum .  As NYU and other law schools have done, I favor putting in a slew of clinical education options in the third-year course of study so that, as you have pointed out, fledgling lawyers who need real-world experience  to hit the ground running at a small firm.  Also, it obviously won’t hurt if they go straight from school to setting up an office.

GG:  This is all the lead-in to a key, fundamental question.  Getting schooled on all the business//legal aspects of a law practice is obviously a good idea.  Now, where will the clients come from?  Sure, you can listen to marketing  pitches from various vendors (including those who are trying to “sell” marketing tips) which might be helpful.

When I started my practice, I contacted family–first, cousins, second cousins, third cousins to the second degree–you name it, I called them.  I got a smattering of business, some with provisos for offering a family discount.  Enough of that!

The issue was brought into sharp focus some years ago in a comment by Harold Seligman, in his book, “Building a Practice,” published by the Practising Law Institute (PLI):  “You will not get clients if you stay home six nights a week.”  How prescient!

As I have often said in various SPU blogs, “get out there.” Join bar committees, other legal organizations, attend conferences, run through the exhibit areas for ideas and to meet people. From a civic  or related point of view, if you own a home in a state with a Homeowners Association, become active.  (I did it to meet people; also because HOAs have a lot of power, and I wanted to know what was going on from the inside.)  What about a Lodge?  Sign up to become an election official?  Local libraries are often looking for volunteers.  Social service, environmental associations.  Attend legal conferences in a field of interest on the national, state, or local level. Possibly, volunteer for a panel.  The list of possibilities goes on.

I took an early interest in estate planning, and joined three Estate Planning Councils and advanced underwriting groups.  If you write well, submit a ms. to a legal or industry publication. (I wrote a piece on the “Common Disaster.”  Much to my surprise, it “took off” and I was on my way.)  Look for a mentor who can open doors.  I had three, one a senior partner in a leading NYC firm, a former president of the New York State Bar Association.

Overall, I strongly believe in the axiom, “Network, network, network, and when you’re finished, network some more.”

Alla, I don’t want to steal your thunder; it’s just a passion with me.  Please include your “take” on this.

AR:  I usually tell people, write a list of everyone you know since you were born–from your kindergarten, high school, law school, religious and community organizations, family members, hobbies (sports, arts, music )….These are the people who already know you and trust you, and  are likely to either become clients or referral sources.  This is your initial contact list.  These are the people to whom you will send your office announcement, with whom you would like to schedule a lunch or coffee meeting.

Then,  you have to network, within the bar associations,  other professional associations….Do as many speaking engagements as possible, write blogs and articles, become known in your field.  I tried it all.  When I first started my firm in 1996,  I tried all types of ways to get clients, from ads in a Russian-speaking newspaper and even coupons that are sent to people’s homes.  I found advertising to be a waste of money and effort.  There were few calls and they rarely converted into clients.

The best referral sources for me over the years have been prior clients, lawyers and other professionals.  It will not happen overnight, but I think demonstrating high quality of legal work, being really present for your clients as a caring and considerate person, and developing a reputation in your professional community will ultimately result in a “quality” client base.

GG:  Thanks very much for taking the time to speak with me, and sharing your incisive views with the SPU audience.

The Take-Away:  You might think, “That’s all well-and-good,  but I don’t live or work in New York City, don’t belong to the bar association.”  Point well taken.  In response, the discussion may well be helpful in pinpointing your situation, or that of a colleague or friend.  Moreover, you may opt to check with the ABA, ALI-ABA, your local bar, or state bar regarding helpful programs that they might offer.  Doing a little digging might help.  Moreover, many of the initiatives mentioned by Alla are not state-specific.  Practice building and management precepts apply to all lawyers wherever they call home.  Good luck!

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®.

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