For lawyers considering solo practice who are married or otherwise paired up, your partner can play a significant role in determining the future success — or failure — of your firm. Yet the role of a solo’s “silent partner” is rarely acknowledged or discussed. Here are some of the ways that a spouse, domestic partner or significant other can help make or break a solo practice.
First, the positives. Most obviously, a gainfully employed spouse can provide financial support to help get your practice off the ground. Even if your spouse’s income doesn’t cover start-up costs like fancy office space or state-of-the-art computers, not having to worry about health insurance or a place to live while starting out will spare you from the financial pressures that force many new solos into poor choices (like accepting an unsavory client or dipping into the trust account).
Still, while your spouse’s or partner’s ability to cover family living expenses can provide some breathing room for new solos, it doesn’t mean that you’ll be living on easy street. For example, if you have substantial student loans that your spouse’s income doesn’t cover, you’ll still have to hustle to earn enough to make repayment if you’ve taken a deferral. And if you were employed prior to starting your law firm and your lifestyle reflected your dual-income status, you’ll still have to scramble for a couple of years to attain the same earnings level that you enjoyed at your earlier position….
Last week, the New York City Bar released a report, Developing Legal Careers and Delivering Justice in the 21st Century. To the bar’s credit, it acknowledged the role that starting a firm can play in addressing joblessness in the profession. To this end, the bar proposes to create a New Lawyer Institute that will provide training and advice to potential small firm and solo practitioners. And while I realize the concept of starting a firm as a way to launch or continue a legal career in the absence of other options is hardly revolutionary (I’ve been blogging about it almost eleven years), in a universe where many law school placement offices direct students to unpaid internships or non-legal positions, the renewed focus on the startup option is refreshing.
But as I read more about the program, I began to wonder if the goal is to teach lawyers to start firms as an end in and of itself or as a means to expand access to justice. According to the Report, the program includes the standard “Starting A Law Firm 101″ fare – obtaining insurance, business forms, technical needs and “benefits and cautions of cloud computing” (but nothing about the benefits and cautions of housing files on site in a physical office). Meanwhile, substantive classes focus on “Divorce Law 101, Handling Cases in Family Court, Estate Planning Basics, New York Civil Practice, Introduction to Land Use and Zoning in NY, Basics Residential Real Estate Closing, and Everything You Wanted to Know About Landlord/Tenant. NLI participants will be required to take a set number of credits in both practical skills and substantive law areas” (page 113).
Herein lies my beef with the New York City Bar program….
Legal and industry conferences can provide great educational and networking opportunities for solo and small firm lawyers, particularly those just starting out. Sure, there are some conferences that are a complete waste of time, but in some fields, simply doing face time at conferences year after year is critical to keep business flowing. And in other practices, conferences may offer high-level, substantive training on new legal developments.
Of course, back in law school, you could take advantage of your student i.d. card to access almost any conference you wanted to attend. And if you ever worked for a firm, your employer willingly footed the bill for conference attendance.
But now, as a solo or small-firm lawyer, conferences are on your dime. And as many solos quickly learn, conferences can take a toll on your wallet….
Two weeks ago, Greenberg Traurig announced a lawyer residency program — one-year positions where lawyers spend a third of their time on training, are paid “considerably less than associates,” and billed out at lower rates. When the program concludes, residents may be offered a position as an associate, become a non-partnership track “practice group attorney,” or get shown the door. The program has elicited a range of reactions over its implications for Biglaw, ranging from potentially promising (David Lat and Toby Brown), to shortsighted and risky (Jordan Furlong), to a mixed bag for associates (Adam Ziegler).
But from the perspective of lawyers who want to start their own firms and have the option of handling traditionally “big firm” matters, residency programs like that offered by Greenberg Traurig are a boon. Imagine being paid to do little more than spend a year learning the ins and outs of big firm practice and practice areas by observing depositions and trials and accessing unlimited PLI content. Plus, residents have a chance to meet and network with other lawyers at GT and throughout the legal community; presumably, fewer billable hours means more time to hobnob. At the end of the residency, lawyers could move on to start their own firms — but with the benefit of a year of student loan debt repaid and a big firm credential on the résumé — which can be a selling point for certain types of clients (usually the kinds of clients who won’t experience sticker shock at your $250/hour rates because they’re accustomed to paying double that at a large firm)….
Although clients are a law firm’s raison d’être, believe it or not, having a roster of clients on opening day isn’t indispensable to, or even a predictor of a firm’s future success. Many lawyers — whether they are new graduates, or seasoned government attorneys, or moms re-entering the work force, or low level associates and non-equity partners unceremoniously and unexpectedly given the boot — launch law firms without a single client to their name and do quite well, thank you very much.
Still, wouldn’t it be a whole lot easier to start a law firm with one or two clients already locked in? Not necessarily….
Let me start my inaugural column here at Above the Law with a question: Why not start your own law firm?
To be clear, I’m not directing this question at those of you who are gainfully employed in a legal job, however tenuous or intolerable. Over the course of this column, I’ll discuss whether and in what circumstances it makes sense to jump ship — but for now, I’ll assume that your risk aversion is reasonable.
Likewise, my question isn’t targeted at those of you who have no choice but to work at menial jobs just to survive and simply don’t have the time or energy to get a firm off the ground. Again, there are ways that you can make starting a firm work, but it may take a lot more effort than you have to give.
No — for now, I’m just asking those of you who really have no choice. For example, if you graduated from law school more than a year ago and you’ve been sending out résumés constantly and haven’t had a nibble. Or those of you who have had a doc review job here and there, but nothing steady — but at the same time, you’re fortunate enough to have a spouse or partner or family who can at least cover your living expenses while you get a firm off the ground. Or maybe you’re more experienced — perhaps your law firm pushed you out as you were nearing 65 and you’re not ready or can’t afford to stop working yet, but nothing else has presented itself.
In these kinds of back-against-the-wall, nowhere-to-go-but-leave-the-law-entirely cases, is the horror or shame of starting a law firm worse than being unemployed or junking your JD?
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The Trust Women conference is an influential gathering that brings together global corporations, lawyers and pioneers in the field of women’s rights. Unlike many other events, Trust Women delegates take action and forge tangible commitments to empower women to know and defend their rights.
This year, the Trust Women conference will take place 18-19 November in London. From women’s economic empowerment to slavery in the supply chain and child labour, this year’s agenda is strong and powerful. Speakers include Professor Muhammad Yunus, Nobel Laureate and founder of the Grameen Bank; Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director of UN Women; Mary Ellen Iskenderian, President and CEO of Women’s World Banking and many other influential leaders. Find out more about Trust Women here.