By Amanda Robert
Dana Zivkovich Johnson called on severallife experiences as she created her own practice in estate planning, elder law and probate.
She grew up as the daughter of an elderly widow who emigrated from Bosnia in the former Yugoslavia to the United States. She saw people try to take advantage of her mother due to her age and nationality, and decided to tailor her profession to help others in similar situations.
"What really appealed to me about estate planning and probate was, as an attorney, you're usually in a position to help protect people who are in the later stages of life," she said.
Johnson also saw several of her family members open their own businesses. Her mother started an upholstery business on the South Side nearly 30 years ago. Her brother took over the family business, while her sister became a landlord and managed residential units. Her cousins also owned and operated their own painting and construction companies.
"My entire family has taken a course of self-employment," she said. "I was raised being exposed to that type of lifestyle, and that was something I wanted to create for myself and my family.
"You have a lot of control over what you do and when you do it, and with that comes a lot of responsibility. It's something that in the long run, I find worthwhile."
Johnson worked in corporate management for 10 years before attending Valparaiso University School of Law with the plan to start her own practice. She opened Atticus Law Firm - named after the character in "To Kill a Mockingbird" - in Norridge in October 2007, and expanded the firm to Glenwood in January 2010.
She joins other solo practitioners and small firms who favor a focused practice over a general practice. They claim that working in select areas of the law gives them a strategic advantage. They allocate their resources to a clearly defined target market, they say, while those in general practice spend too much time learning multiple areas of the law and, as a result, run a greater risk of malpractice.
General practitioners who work on their own or in small firms bring a different perspective to the practice decision. They argue that those who venture into multiple areas of the law find more diverse clients and career opportunities. They also adapt easily to changes in their careers, especially as some practice areas thrive and others struggle during an economic downturn.
Targeting a practice
Johnson admitted that establishing a practice is not an easy prospect. She suggested that solo practitioners and small firms start with a business plan that outlines their resources, as well as the size and scope of their practice.
"It's important to consider the definition of your business," she said. "What type of services do you plan to offer? Who is your target market?"
When Johnson opened her firm, she picked estate planning and probate as her primary practice areas.
She later added elder law, since it matched her mission of protecting senior clients from various threats and allowed her to explore what she considered an untapped section of the legal market.
"Elder law is, in my opinion, one of the newest developments in the legal industry," Johnson said. "Because our population is living so much longer than they used to, the issues that are pertinent and common in an elder law practice are ones that were rarely seen 20 years ago.
"As a result, there are fewer elder law attorneys available today as compared to attorneys who practice in other fields."
In addition to identifying clients who could support her business, Johnson decided it was important to find motivation from within the legal community. She invited a group of Chicago-area solo practitioners to meet every month, so they could become "one another's lawyers down the hall." In just three years, her group has grown from three to more than 70 members.
The vast majority of those members limit their practices to one to three areas, Johnson said. Many of them gained experience in those areas when they worked in larger law firms, and they wanted to build on that experience on their own, she said.
Johnson added that some members recently went solo, while others continue to weigh their options. They benefit from talking to others who have already "taken the plunge," she said.
Brett Scheive joined the solo practitioner group earlier this year after hearing about it from a former law school classmate. He also followed an unconventional route and found that the group provided him with advice and clients.
Scheive spent six years in finance and commercial real estate before he decided that a law degree could help boost his career. The economy turned south during his second year at DePaul University College of Law, further reinforcing his plan to open his own business.
"Things got so bad with the job market for new attorneys," Scheive said. "I started putting a lot more of my focus on building up a network of attorneys to learn the things that I would need to know to start a practice as soon as I got out of school."
He graduated from DePaul in May 2009 and started his own firm in November 2009. He brought his background in finance and real estate to his practice and began handling bankruptcy, short sales and some foreclosure defense work.
Scheive focused his practice in areas that were familiar to him, knowing that he could handle more than just legal problems for those clients, he said. As a new attorney on his own, he also understood that it would be too difficult to become knowledgeable in many areas of the law.
"Focusing on the few areas makes it a little easier in that I see the same kind of things come up a little more," Scheive said. "In talking to some older attorneys and the way I look at things, I try to pick areas that I can grow into as my career moves forward."
Tiffany Farber also started her own firm soon after law school and joined the solo practitioner networking group for support and guidance.
She graduated from the Indiana University Maurer School of Law in 2007 and started working as a staff attorney at the Center for Disability and Elder Law. She lost her job when the nonprofit organization downsized during the economic downturn, she said.
Farber talked with her father's friend, who started her own practice, and decided to do the same in November 2009. She initially planned to focus on special education law, but she soon realized that she could handle many areas of law that blend together, she said.
"Someone with special needs often needs an estate plan," she said. "You also find that someone who hires you to do a will thinks of you as their lawyer, so they'll call you when they want to buy their house.
"Being open-minded is good, because something may come your way that relates to your practice area."
Farber pointed out that general practitioners who worked at a firm for 30 years before going off on their own have the ability to accept a wide array of cases. But new lawyers in general practice should use more discretion, she said.
"I try not to take everything that comes my way," Farber said. "I want to feel comfortable with what I'm doing. I don't know much about personal-injury law, so if someone came to me, I would feel ill-equipped handling that."
Farber said that, within reason, lawyers need to learn different areas of the law. She handles two to five cases at a time, relying on mentors to guide her through various practice areas and staying up-to-date on their cases and rules.
"When I do real estate stuff, my dad owns a title company and he's an attorney, so he can guide me in the right direction," she said. "I know attorneys who do estate planning, so they can show me sections in the probate act that I should pay attention to, or that this judge has certain quirks.
"It's something you can do, because lawyers are trained to learn and trained to research."
Keeping a focus
In his two-year stint as a solo practitioner, Tom Leavens learned the ins and outs of business development and gained confidence by building his own practice. He also discovered the things that he didn't want to do - like operate a general practice.
"It was too much to try to keep up with everything that I needed to in order to handle a range of matters," Leavens said. "It felt to me like there was a great deal of vulnerability being on your own, keeping up with real estate, divorce and other miscellaneous things you might handle as a general practitioner."
Leavens, who worked for a record company during law school and then for Lawyers for the Creative Arts, wanted to become a specialist in entertainment law. Over the next several years, he worked as general counsel for several companies, including Platinum Entertainment, MusicNow and LRSmedia.
Last year, Leavens joined Peter Strand and Jerry Glover to form Leavens, Strand & Glover, an entertainment, media and intellectual property law firm.
He first met his partners, who have backgrounds in music, entertainment, television and motion pictures, more than 25 years ago. They decided to form a strategic partnership since their practice areas complement each other, he said.
Leavens pointed to several other reasons why it made sense for their small law firm to focus on select areas, including the ability to play to their individual strengths.
"There's much less risk involved when you're working in an area in which you have deep knowledge," he said. "There is less time and cost to keeping up with developments in the industry or law.
"The efficiency leads to an ability to be more competitive, in terms of what our fees would be. It gives us more visibility and marketing leverage."
Leavens and his partners receive a lot of referrals from other attorneys. They find it important to gain recognition, but also to respect the scope of the referral and not take any general work, he said.
"To have a firm that is as specialized as we are, and to only do entertainment and media, it's relatively rare," he said.
Gemma Allen practiced in chancery litigation and worked as a lobbyist until her mother's best friend asked her to represent her in a divorce in the mid-1980s. She protested that family law was a sophisticated area, in which she had very little experience, but the woman "refused to take no for an answer," she said.
Allen faced a steep learning curve, but she ended up with an amicable settlement that both satisfied her mother's best friend and introduced her to a new practice area.
"I found out that this was a field where a woman lawyer could easily have her own book of business, and develop a reputation and attract clients without regard to leaning on a large firm," she said.
She practiced at McDermott Will & Emery and then co-managed the family law division at Pretzel & Stouffer with Ronald Ladden before the pair left to open Ladden & Allen in 1999.
Based on her experience, Allen said solo practitioners and small firms should develop an expertise. They can retain in-depth knowledge in a few practice areas and show their clients that they can handle all of the issues pertinent to those areas, she said.
She also argued that lawyers who enter a general practice can easily "spread themselves too thin" over the complex nature of the law.
"If it's an area in which you don't practice with some regularity, you have to educate yourself on everything from the most basic procedural rules to the most sophisticated case law on a pretty expedited basis if you want to represent a client well," she said.
"With that, I think there's always the danger that you overlook some procedural 'nicety' or some controlling precedent that might be well known to those who practice in that area and be effectively used against you or your client."
As an attorney who focuses on family law, Allen said she is "delighted" when she faces a general practitioner in court. Family law includes several nuances and interpretations, which can only be learned with time and experience, she said.
She pointed to child support as an example. There are guidelines in the statute, but there are also reasons for deviations from those guidelines, she said.
"An experienced practitioner would know which of the arguments are most compelling to the courts and the judges that hear those issues on a daily basis," she said. "The cost of insurance may be compelling, but the fact that someone has to commute to see their child may be irrelevant."
Allen said that even the guidelines themselves can pose a challenge to general practitioners who try to keep tabs on more than one area of the law. She cited the Illinois Compiled Statutes chapter on child support, which is more than three pages, and its Illinois Institute for Continuing Legal Education supplement, which is more than 100 pages.
"It's an example of the depth of knowledge that you need to go into a child support case," Allen said. "If you're a general practitioner, you can't be walking into a lion's den."
Susan Brazas made her first foray into general practice as a clerk for a federal judge in Rockford.
She worked with the judge in many different areas of the law before moving into the more narrow area of personal-injury and malpractice defense work.
Brazas later returned to general practice, first with Bolgrien Law Office, a six-person firm in Beloit, Wis., and then with the Law Office of Christine Garner in Rockford. She started with the small firm in August and handles state and federal trial and appellate work in Illinois and Wisconsin.
"I prefer being a general practice lawyer," Brazas said. "With that perspective, I think I'm better able to recognize and analyze different and new legal issues that the client may have coming in the future or tells me about during an office visit."
Brazas, who started practicing law in 1990, admitted that general practice has advantages and disadvantages for both new lawyers and seasoned lawyers.
New lawyers can be more flexible as they search for and accept career opportunities, she said. They can adapt their practice to changes in the legal industry by veering toward areas that are busy and avoiding ones that are stagnant.
She pointed out that new lawyers in general practice face obstacles as they try to navigate twists and turns in each area of the law without much experience.
Brazas and other seasoned lawyers see several advantages to starting a general practice. They can identify and assist with many problems facing their clients, and they can usually count on those clients to return, she said.
"Any one person who, for example, needs help with the adoption of a child may someday need help with a prenuptial agreement, divorce, guardianship, will, probate or business contract," she said. "All of those tasks can come to the lawyer from one client."
These lawyers cannot always become experts in any one area of the law, since they're practicing in many different areas at the same time. However, she contended that lawyers can forge relationships with other lawyers and ask for their help with cases in certain areas.
Brazas said new lawyers need to call on mentors as they make their decision to focus on select areas of the law or on a general practice.
"A critical aspect is to align oneself with good lawyers, both within your own office and within your network of professional colleagues," she said. "People who you can model yourself after in terms of their professionalism and ethics, and the quality of their legal analysis."
Timothy Storm spent most of his 18-year practice working in general civil litigation. He started in plaintiffs' securities class-action work and then added individual securities, corporate governance and control disputes.
He later dropped the class-action side of his practice and moved into individual business control and ownership disputes, on both the plaintiffs and defendants' side.
In the past few years, he narrowed his practice to civil and criminal appeals as a solo practitioner in Wauconda.
"It's unusual, because they are fairly narrow practice areas for a solo practitioner, but that's how they have developed over the years," Storm said.
As an appellate practitioner, Storm encounters different areas of the law. But, looking at a complete record and researching to formulate two or three arguments differs from understanding all of the aspects of various practice areas, he said.
"If someone came with an appeal on probate litigation, I've done a number of those," Storm said. "If someone came to me to litigate a probate case in the trial court, that's a different thing than handling it on appeal."
Like Brazas, he also understands the factors involved in the decision to focus on select areas of the law or on a general practice.
He made his decision to focus on appeals, because after several years of practice he found it was his favorite area of the law. He also realized that not many other lawyers were handling appeals, he said.
"Most of the lawyers I know think of me as the appellate lawyer, only because I'm the only one they know," Storm said. "Having mostly a referral practice from other attorneys essentially means your cases are pre-screened.
"These are not lay people who may or may not have a case. When I get a call from another lawyer that has an appeal coming up, I can be sure it really is an appeal, and something I can get involved in."
Storm said attorneys make the decision based on their location. Those who work in Chicago match their practice areas to their interests, or to where they see less competition, while those in southern or central Illinois might not have that luxury, he said.
"Most people don't want to cover everything, but if you're in a small community, you're not going to be an antitrust lawyer," Storm said. "You can, but you're not going to get any business.
"I think the nature of practice in larger metropolitan areas forces people to specialize to some degree," he said.
Storm added that an attorney's client base also drives their decision to choose between a focused practice or a general practice.
Since he handles many types of appeals from individuals and small-to-midsize businesses, the legal issues that face these clients are typically the legal issues that he wants to handle, he said.
"If a client comes to you and says, 'I need you to do X, Y, Z,' it's very hard to send them across the street," Storm said. "You don't know if they're going to come back, and you know how difficult it was to get them in the first place."