By Sherry Karabin
It has been nearly 15 years since Moria Bernstein started her own practice.
"When I first started out, I thought to myself, 'How am I ever going to get any clients?' " she said. "I had a small office on the outskirts of Chicago, where I was in a middle office with no windows. I didn't want to spend much on the office so I rented a 200-square-foot office space."
That was the Law Offices of Moria Bernstein, which she opened in 1996 right after finishing law school.
"I remember being scared at night exiting and I used to run to my car since it was not in a great neighborhood. And, since the office did not have a storefront, I was not able to advertise to pedestrian traffic. I took out an ad in the yellow pages.
"But I always wanted to be a solo practitioner," she said. "I completed my undergraduate in less than two years and my MBA coursework by the age of 20, so I was a go-getter and used to hard work.
"In my first year of law school they had mock interviews to determine whether you should interview for a small firm, medium firm or large firm. The counselor said I should open my own firm. I never interviewed with any firms and simply took her advice."
The family law and residential real estate attorney serves as office manager and lawyer all rolled into one, using legal assistants to help her. She works primarily out of Chicago, where she shares office space in the Loop, but also has satellite offices in Northbrook and Oak Park.
"I have a business background so I know what it takes to manage a practice," Bernstein said.
"If you don't know how to administrate or are not organized it can be difficult.
"A lot of people think working for yourself is the way to go, but there are pros and cons. It does give you more control over the type of cases you take on, the administration of your practice and your schedule, but it is hard work and I often work more hours than someone working for a firm," she said. "Although you are free to make your own schedule, you have full responsibility for your cases and you have to find someone to cover for you if you want to go out of town or are on vacation."
Bernstein said the best way for those starting out to build a client base is to network and participate in legal activities such as bar association meetings and other events. She said it's a good idea for newcomers to find a mentor or do some pro bono work "to get your feet wet in the area in which you are seeking to focus."
Technology has changed the way solos like Bernstein operate, including making advertising easier, since websites allow attorneys to reach a larger audience.
"E-mail, scanners and faxes have also made it simpler to communicate and work out of a small office or from home, while being as effective as you would be in a larger office," Bernstein said. "There is also less client contact required because technology allows clients to communicate with less visits to the attorney's office."
But there's a downside to technology, she said.
"Computers, e-mail and other things are faster, so attorneys are now expected to respond quicker as a result. For the solo practitioner it means more work since you can get hit with emergencies much easier."
Daniel G. Austin started his own practice right out of law school as well, setting up The Austin Law Group in Chicago in November 2002.
"It was a concept I was exposed to when I was in college," Austin said. "I am now sharing office space with the same group of attorneys who I clerked for back in law school."
His business law practice includes three of counsel attorneys, an administrative assistant and an occasional contract attorney.
"I was lucky to have very good resources to rely upon when I completed school, including attorneys that I had known for years," he said. "I also maintained strong ties to my law school. Beginning as a solo practitioner, I needed global resources in order to handle all the challenges.
"The No. 1 thing that can keep you from growing is not having someone to perform the nonlawyer functions, like answering phones, sending out bills, etc. In the beginning I did not have that, but I do now."
Austin said his biggest challenge when starting as a solo was how to find clients.
"When you're in law school, the focus is generally on learning and understanding the law, and not on knowing your neighbors and networking with friends. The reality is that the person you meet on the street could be your next client. This is something you have to figure out on your own and it can be a challenge for any attorney."
He said over the past 15 to 20 years, the legal environment has changed, and much of it is due to technology.
"Today there are all types of software applications," Austin said. "It's made it easier to do research, find specialists or consultants in whatever area of the law I'm attempting to address. Small firms don't have the same manpower, but we can be more resourceful by going outside of our firm to expand on knowledge to help our client."
A poodle in a kennel
While starting a practice right out of law school may be the dream situation for some, Michael Jawgiel opted for a different route by working nine years at law firms before deciding to open an office on the northwest side of Chicago.
"I got tired of the bureaucracy and politicking," said Jawgiel, who handles mostly personal-injury cases and is building a real estate and estate planning practice.
"Going from a law firm to a solo practice is like being a pampered poodle that's put in a kennel. It can be a bit of a shock," Jawgiel said. "You have to be prepared to do everything, keep up with clients, payroll, supplies, manage staff, etc. The administrative aspect of the job increases nine-fold from a firm.
"You hear people talk about working for themselves so they will have time to play golf. If I get free time, I pull out a stack of bills. You have to take your responsibilities seriously or you won't be around for long."
Jawgiel said he would advise those just out of law school to get some experience with a firm before starting a practice.
"It's important to learn procedure in the area you want to go into even if it's only for a couple of years. It helps to shorten the learning curve. If you are fortunate enough to have an older attorney as a mentor, that can help, too.
"Technology has evened the playing field between solos like myself, and the large firms that I deal with on occasion," he said. "When I started out, it did not exist. Now without technology I could not keep up with the larger firms. The e-mail frenzy can be overwhelming and requires you to be in tune with your BlackBerry around the clock, but it helps tremendously."
Joel S. Rothman spent 13 years working at midsize firms before opening the Rothman Law Group in December 1993, specializing in trusts and estate planning.
"I always knew that I was not comfortable in a large firm setting," he said. "However, I did not start out with a desire to own my own practice."
But after working in a law firm, he decided it was time "to take control of my future." He arranged to share office space with a group of attorneys in downtown Chicago, hired an administrative assistant and got to work. Luckily for Rothman, many of his clients came with him.
Still, there were many challenges ahead. "I had to balance the responsibility of managing the business end, including billing and other responsibilities, with client services," Rothman said. "It was hard finding the time to do it all."
But Rothman dug in, not only managing to stay afloat but to grow his practice. Today he has two associates and five of counsel. While his hard work played a big part, technology made things a lot easier.
"Back when I started in 1980, I had to do all my work at the office, including research and drafts, which made for some late nights. Now you don't have to be in the office to get work done," he said.
"We have a largely paperless office. We don't keep client files. All documents and correspondence are in folders on a server so everyone has access and can review them and get up to speed. It allows co-workers to assist one another much easier.
"I strongly recommend that attorneys embrace technology since there are an enormous number of software products on the shelves that can help make a practice more productive."
Rothman has been able to expand his practice areas without adding partners.
"My goal was to be able to collaborate with other attorneys in transactional and real estate work - areas that I don't specialize in - without being part of a larger firm. So I have [of counsel] attorneys that are part of my practice, who serve the same function as partners, but I don't have the stress-inducing aspects that come with partnership. Our financial relationship can be handled on a project basis."
The entrepreneurial spirit
Kenneth J. Ashman left the large law firm scene in 1997, first working with a partner and then setting up his own practice, Ashman Law Offices, in 2001.
He now has three offices, including one in the Loop, another in Lincolnshire and a small office in New York. Ashman's firm employs between six and eight attorneys through a combination of associates and of counsel. "We're a boutique business law and litigation firm, catering to middle-market clients and entrepreneurs," Ashman said.
While Ashman spent more than six years at large New York law firms, he always wanted to open up his own practice.
"I have an entrepreneurial spirit," Ashman said. "My father is a federal magistrate judge in the Northern District of Illinois, but he once owned his own firm, too, which gave me the bug.
"For me it has been the best career move I could have made.
"I became a lawyer to offer a full range of services to clients. I did not want to be a cog in a large wheel, and that is what I would have become."
Like Rothman, Ashman brought a lot of business with him, enabling him to jump-start his practice.
"In the beginning I was very busy, but when the initial matters were resolved I had to replace those clients. Replacing those clients with a similar quality of work was difficult, but that was what was needed to be successful and grow."
Ashman also said technology has been a big plus.
"Right now, all paper that comes in gets scanned and placed on a network. This allows all the attorneys working on a matter to have access to it, and I can work from home, which is a big help since I live an hour and 15 minutes from the office. It is seamless.
"We also have case management software that keeps our cases totally organized. My smartphone is linked to my calendar as well, so if I'm in court and I need to return I can check my calendar to see when I'm available."
Ashman is a frequent speaker and author, and participates in seminars designed to help small practitioners at the Illinois State Bar Association and the American Bar Association.
"I would encourage new people to have a business plan, measure anticipated revenue versus expenditures and take pains to keep costs down."
But in the end, he said it really comes down to producing a good product.
"You need to care about your clients and service, and strive to produce only top-quality work. If you do that you will get recommendations."
Pursuing his passion
Chicago native Keith E. Horton is new to the solo scene.
He set up his sports and entertainment practice in March 2009.
"I had been working for large law firms," Horton said. "I left primarily to pursue my passion for sports and entertainment. One of the greatest challenges for me has been cash flow and collection. At the large firms you focus on billable hours. Now I have to concern myself with whether my clients are paying and on a timely basis. It can be unpredictable, so you have to manage it appropriately."
Horton takes advantage of all types of technology. "Mobile communications allow you to service clients in all time zones. In this economy you can't afford to be chained to your desk."
Attorney Kent Dean opened the Law Office of Kent Dean in Oak Park in January 2008. The former Cook County public defender decided to stay with what he knew best: criminal and juvenile law.
Most of his work comes from clients who are facing Illinois Department of Children and Family Services allegations. "I am also involved in a program that provides attorneys for juvenile protection and delinquency matters. About half of my cases through this program involve representing kids in DCFS custody as well as guardian ad litem. It's not what I expected to be doing but I'm happy with it."
For Dean, the biggest shock of setting up a practice was health insurance. "When I was at the public defender's office, the benefits were incredible, but when I left no one wanted to cover me. I'm pretty healthy, but I have arthritis. I'm on a subsidized program. It's a huge problem. In fact, among my former peers, the No. 1 reason they stay where they are is health care."
Social media and a virtual practice
Computers and smartphones may make it easier for some lawyers to set up and run a solo or small practice, but others said social media opens up new avenues for advertising and networking.
Newcomer Travis Life said social media helps him grow his practice. He set up the Life Law Office in Chicago in early 2006, focusing on art law, working with artists and businesses.
"Social media is huge. If I can reach out to, say, one client, or even a group and post something, even if it's not legally related, and it causes people to look me up, that can translate into business.
"In my field especially this has been a big help. It's free, and it's a tool I can use to market to everyone, not just lawyers, and that's fantastic."
Office space can be a major expense for solo and small firm practitioners. As a result, some lawyers now look to flexible workplace providers, like Regus, to save on overhead. With 28 centers in the Chicago area and various plans available, lawyers can obtain office space in a corporate setting for as little as a few hours at a time or on a more permanent basis.
"Each one of our centers has 60 to 70 furnished offices ranging in size, plus multiple conference rooms, video conferencing facilities, lounge and café," said Jeff Doughman, vice president, central region, Regus Americas. "Our centers include a staff who serve client needs like greeting guests and phone and mail management services.
"Our virtual office program gives [practitioners] a professional address to put on their business cards, and they can opt to utilize our meeting rooms or private offices on an as-needed basis, without making a long-term commitment."
Horton said he takes advantage of virtual office space.
"It's great because it helps cut costs. Over the last year, I have handled cases in California, New York and Illinois," he said. "Virtual officing allows me the convenience of having a dedicated office space to meet with clients in other cities. If I need to meet with a client in New York, for example, I call the virtual office company's New York location to reserve a conference room, phone, etc., in New York.
"If I need to meet with a client in Chicago, the client comes to my business office, which is in Chicago, and I also lease through the virtual office company. The goal is to be as flexible as possible in order to meet clients' needs in a competitive business environment."
Other tools of the trade
The American Bar Association has a host of resources designed to help solo and small practitioners. This summer the organization launched its "Smart Soloing Center," an online resource that provides information on substantive law areas, as well as topics ranging from technology to law practice management.
"Solo Sez is another good resource," said Joseph A. DeWoskin, chairman of the American Bar Association's General Practice, Solo & Small Firm Division.
"It is a virtual water cooler where solos can hang out and talk to others in their situation, seeking advice on a case or other tips. We have over 3,000 lawyer subscribers."
Billie Watkins, branch manager for Robert Half Legal in Chicago, which provides project and full-time legal professionals for law firms and corporate legal departments, said she gets more calls from solo, small and midsize firms looking to supplement their practices with contract attorneys.
"It's a great way to manage your workload," Watkins said.
"If you are successful and bring in a large client, you can contract labor to help. Contract resources can include administrative staff and paralegals. Once your needs are fulfilled, you can always scale back later."
Jawgiel, who does not employ any attorneys, said he relies on contract attorneys to occasionally handle status calls in court.
Austin also uses contract attorneys, which keeps costs down, while offering a fresh perspective on things.
"I like to use contract attorneys that are right out of law school because they bring a different focus to a question, even more than a seasoned attorney sometimes. I want the perspective of new technology-savvy attorneys to make sure I'm not missing anything."
Some law schools now have courses to allow those planning to open their own practices to hit the ground running.
Since January 2009, The John Marshall Law School has offered "Law Practice Management."
"We began with 12 students, we now have 25," said assistant professor Clifford H. Scott-Rudnick, In fact, he said, the class has become so popular that a second section has been added this semester.
"In our course, we ask future lawyers to do some serious reflection and make sure they are really committed to opening a practice. We ask them to decide what they hope to get out of it, and have them develop a business and marketing plan so that they see how much work is really involved.
"Being your own employee does not mean you don't have a boss. You are still responsible to yourself. The business of law is very serious. It can't be a hobby. It can be tough coming straight out of law school, but it can be very satisfying."