Keith Lee

Ed. note: Please welcome Keith Lee of Associate’s Mind, our newest columnist covering the world of small law firms.

Since Brian Tannebaum got too busy and important to keep feeding the trolls writing columns here, and Above the Law needed someone else to write a column about small law firms, I got asked last tapped for the job. Sure, Carolyn Elefant is writing a small-firm column as well, but Carolyn is much too nice and experienced, and knows what she’s talking about from years of practice. No way the typical ATL reader is going to listen to her. Far better to listen to me blather on about what it’s like to practice in a small-firm setting.

I practice law in Birmingham, Alabama. That’s deep in red state, flyover country, for you folks on the coasts. Yes, people and businesses actually have needs for lawyers in flyover country too. Next thing you know we’ll manage to get indoor plumbing.

I graduated from law school in 2010, right into the quagmire of the worst legal employment environment ever, but still managed to get a job. I was there for a year before I was downsized, cast off, s**t-canned. I ended up partnering up with two lawyers I went to law school with. We started off with three lawyers, no clients, crammed into a spartan 350-square-foot office. Two years later, there’s still just the three of us, but we’ve moved into an 1800-square-foot office and have steady, reliable business….

I’ve chronicled my faltering steps through this process for the past three years over at Associate’s Mind (maybe you’ve seen it mentioned here on ATL from time to time). One longtime practitioner frequently refers to the site as “Keith Lee’s Growing Pains,” which is an apt description. Being a new lawyer is hard. Being a new lawyer in the current economic malaise is harder still. Being a new lawyer, in the current economic malaise, and starting your own practice?! That’s likely just plain stupid. But we did it anyway.

And through grit, determination, hard work, sacrifice, and a fair bit of luck — we’ve made it work. Thus far.

So that’s what I’m here to talk about. The ups and downs of being in a small practice. All the little things you never think about, but become critically important when there is no one else to do it but you. Largely speaking, much of running a small practice comes down to taking personal responsibility for everything at your firm. Really, truly owning the problems that walk in your door. I know that personal responsibility is seemingly no longer en vogue with current generation. Far better to blame others — the economy, your parents, law schools, the ABA, Pokemon, etc. — for the problems in your life. But every successful, longtime practitioner that I speak with about their practice largely speaks of three things being critically important to their success: personal responsibility, impeccable ethics, and building strong relationships. Given the option of listening to the basement dwelling, Cheeto-eating crowd, or successful lawyers who have been in practice for twenty years, I opt to listen to the latter.

But I don’t expect that to appeal to everyone. I’ve been told multiple times, by multiple people, that what we’ve done is impossible. That it’s not realistic. That it can’t be done. (Aside: if your starting position is that something is unattainable, how likely is it that you are actually going to attain it?) But the nice thing about blogging these past three years is that I’ve met and spoken with dozens and dozens of lawyers in our exact shoes who have managed to do the same thing. They started from humble beginnings, dumpster-dived for furniture, took overflow for other attorneys, got appointed to cases — essentially doing whatever it took — until they managed to build their own client base and find some measure of success. That’s not to say that everyone makes it, of course. Some people fail. Being in a small firm can be hard, and not everyone is cut out for it. If you want the firm to succeed, you have to possess a fierce determination to make it happen.

Finally, it’s worth noting that the things I’ve done and the way I’ve managed to find success in a small firm is not the One True Path. There’s more than one way to skin a cat. What works for me might not work for other people. I know other lawyers in small firms who have successful practices and I could never do things the way they do. In that light, I could very well suggest something that you might find insane. In no way should anyone treat what I say as Gospel. Rather, you should look for what you can steal and make useful and discard the rest. There isn’t one right way to do things. But if you want to engage in systemic, continuous improvement in your career, then you have to be willing to keep an open mind and be willing to try, fail, and learn.

Being in a small firm is a grinding path to take, with many obstacles in the way. But if you have the will to see it through, it can take you to a very rewarding place.

Keith Lee practices law at Hamer Law Group, LLC in Birmingham, Alabama. He writes about professional development, the law, the universe, and everything at Associate’s Mind. He is also the author of The Marble and The Sculptor: From Law School To Law Practice (affiliate link), published by the ABA. You can reach him at [email protected] or on Twitter at @associatesmind.

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