Once upon a time, starting a law firm meant reading Jay Foonberg’s classic, How to Start and Build A Law Practice (affiliate link).  From 1976, when the ABA published the first edition, until very recently, Foonberg pretty much owned the law firm startup space, with over 300,000 copies sold — an unheard of accomplishment for a niche-market book.

What’s even more remarkable is that most lawyers of that generation who sought to hang a shingle never even purchased Foonberg’s hefty tome, which cost around $79. Instead, you either skimmed it in a law school library (surreptitiously, if you happened to be there researching for your day job at a law firm). Or maybe — as was the case for me, after the firm where I worked gave me six months’ notice –  a colleague pressed a copy into your hand and whispered, “You have to read this.”

And Foonberg covered all of it — from Foonberg’s Rule (get the money upfront!) to a pricing scheme that advised setting hourly rates with reference to the cost of a Big Mac at the local McDonald’s (I don’t remember the ratio — maybe 10 or 20 times the cost of the burger?). But Foonberg had other decrees also: a year of savings up front before starting out. Renting an office. Never let the sun set on an unreturned phone call. Family comes first…

As times changed, Foonberg eventually relented on some of these mandates.  For example, with students under heavy debt burden, the one year of savings rule softened, as did Foonberg’s opposition to a full-time office, as technology made the home office more viable. But Foonberg’s emphasis on honesty in dealing with clients, abiding by professional standards, and reading the ethics rules were values that he never relinquished in subsequent editions of his book.

Though Foonberg traveled the country and the world speaking about starting a practice and promoting his book, all of the proceeds of book sales went to the ABA. That attitude too reflected a different time where solos and smalls served, without expectation of compensation, as mentors to the next generation.

Today, one might say that Foonberg is a victim of his own success. The solo and small firm market — ignored for decades — is overrun with resources. A Google search of “how to start a law firm” yields over 150,000 results — from blogs by individual attorneys, consultants and coaches, bar associations and legal vendors — treading the same ground as Foonberg while covering new developments like the cloud, Internet marketing, and the rise of non-lawyer legal options like LegalZoom. Mr. Foonberg himself is still around — spotted a few months back on Twitter (where his pithy lines like, “Do the work and get paid. Don’t do the work and don’t get paid,” would fit right in) working on the next edition. Yet once Mr. Foonberg stops updating the book (and with the pace of change, the current edition is indeed quite outdated), I doubt that any one site will ever hold a lock on the solo market as he did.

Nor is that necessarily a bad thing. Back when I read Foonberg, truth be told, his book didn’t sing to me. Coming from a law firm, I was tired of being told what to do and eager to make my own way.  So I chafed at Foonberg’s hard-and-fast, black-and-white rules.  Plus, because I was starting a practice on energy regulatory law that would target businesses rather than consumers, some of the advice — join the chamber of commerce, seek referrals from family and friends, or write for the local newspaper — simply wasn’t directly useful. One of Foonberg’s suggestions — to have a party and invite other tenants in your building and suite — flopped miserably, when I scheduled a shindig and only eight people in my 10-floor office building showed (my husband and sister among them) and I had to invite the suite janitor and receptionist to eat all the food.

Now, after twenty years of solo practice, I realize that Foonberg in many ways was right. Even with technology, social media, and the millions of choices available for getting our name out and establishing a presence online, nothing has changed. Integrity and ethics still matter even though it often doesn’t seem that way. Clients are still just that — clients, not customers — no matter how much some marketers would try to persuade us otherwise. And even while serving clients and treating them fairly, we solos and smalls need to charge enough to feed our families and remain sustainable. We run businesses, not charities.

With each iteration of new “disruptive” business concepts for law — educational-based marketing online (a fancy term for blogs), the virtual law firm, the matchmaking platforms, social media — many of us pat ourselves on the back, believing that we’re doing something new and different, that we’re not running grandpa’s law firm anymore. But all of these advancements are tools that let us practice law the way Foonberg intended — but more efficiently and effectively, and with more convenience to clients.  In short, nothing new to see here.

Looking back, it was Foonberg who first articulated in the 1970s the sense of autonomy and possibility that hanging a shingle could confer on lawyers. Taking the time to speak those words out loud and commit them to print — that was the innovation.

How to Start and Build A Law Practice [Amazon (affiliate link)]

Carolyn Elefant has been blogging about solo and small firm practice at MyShingle.com since 2002 and operated her firm, the Law Offices of Carolyn Elefant PLLC, even longer than that. She’s also authored a bunch of books on topics like starting a law practice, social media, and 21st century lawyer representation agreements (affiliate links). If you’re really that interested in learning more about Carolyn, just Google her. The Internet never lies, right? You can contact Carolyn by email at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter at @carolynelefant.

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