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Carolyn Elefant Wants to Be the Voice of Solo LawyersWhile some attorneys may shy away from a solo career's less-than-glamorous trappings, others are attracted to the idea of building a career unique to their own interests, time constraints and even whims, without the restrictions a larger firm might impose. It's a career choice that Carolyn Elefant works to sell. In multiple ways, she's become a poster child for solo practice. Since 2002, she's hosted a blog designed for solo and small-firm lawyers. And now she has a new book, "Solo by Choice."
Legal Times2008-03-27 12:00:00 AM
There's no name on the door to Carolyn Elefant's K Street office in Washington, D.C. In the waiting room, a chubby man slouches on a black leather armchair, dozing. Elefant appears, smiling and gracious. She takes us on a slightly confusing circular journey through the halls before she finds the conference room where she left her coffee cup and briefcase.
The fact is this isn't really Elefant's base of operations anymore, although she occasionally uses the conference room to meet clients downtown. After her second daughter was born, Elefant started working out of her Bethesda, Md., home. But her business card still lists this K Street address, and her Web site describes her practice as "located in our nation's capital with easy access to the federal agencies and Congress."
Welcome to the pieced-together world of the solo practitioner. While some may shy away from its less-than-glamorous trappings, others are attracted to the idea of building a career unique to their own interests, time constraints and even whims, without the restrictions a larger firm might impose.
It's a career choice that Elefant works to sell. In multiple ways, she's become a poster child for solo practice. Since 2002, she's hosted a blog designed "to bring solo and small firm lawyers to the forefront of the profession, rather than leaving them at the margins." And now she has a new book, "Solo by Choice: How to Be the Lawyer You Always Wanted to Be," published in January by DecisionBooks. She dedicates it to "every lawyer who ever wanted to run the show but worried that going solo was career suicide ... every lawyer who never set foot in a courtroom but dreamed of one day practicing law their way."
Being a solo, writes Elefant, "makes you feel like a real lawyer."
A QUESTION OF CHOICE
Although Elefant's whole pitch is becoming "solo by choice," the decision wasn't entirely hers. She was five years out of law school, she says, when the managing partner at Duncan & Allen, a D.C.-based energy law boutique, told her that she wasn't "partnership material" and gave her six months to find a new job.
She describes what happened next in her book: "Before I knew it, these words tumbled out: 'I know that the firm's decision to let me go has nothing to do with my abilities. I know that I am a good lawyer. I was good enough for you to hire two years ago, and I'm just as good now. No matter what you think, I am a good lawyer and ... I will succeed at whatever I do.'"
When six months passed and she still hadn't found a new firm, Elefant decided to hang out her own shingle. She began with the usual solo's patchwork of what she knew and what she could get -- court-appointed criminal work, civil litigation and energy regulatory business.
From the start, she was careful not to burn bridges with Duncan & Allen. That came in handy when, a few months into her new career, she needed help with a case before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. The firm was happy to offer advice. And since that time, Elefant says, the firm has referred energy clients that it couldn't take because of conflicts.
She took on the criminal cases -- shoplifting, prostitution, small-time drug possession -- for about three years. "That was how I got a lot of my courtroom experience," she says. "It really helped improve my courtroom skills."
Today, Elefant mostly handles energy regulatory matters and advises on efforts to use the ocean's power to generate energy.
Solo work has forced her to focus on one of the trickier questions in the practice of law: how to bill. She has tried a variety of payment options beyond hourly billing, including flat fees, a mix of upfront payments and contingent fees and, once, shares in the client's company.
Even her hourly billing rates have undergone some tweaking. When she first started on her own, Elefant recalls, she marketed herself as "the cheapest bargain in town." She's pulled back a bit from that sales pitch, but still describes her rates as "more competitive" than the rates at larger firms -- ranging from $250 to $300 an hour.
To overcome some of the downsides of being on her own, Elefant has helped create networks of other solo attorneys, small groups based in Washington and other cities that stay connected, pass work around to each other and act in many other ways like office colleagues in a bigger firm. One e-mail listserv, SoloSez, has roughly 3,000 members, although only around 200 comment on a regular basis, she notes.
Moreover, as Elefant writes in one recent blog post, "[N]o solo is truly an island. Nearly every lawyer I know has at least one close colleague who can act as a backup in a case or can take a quick look at a brief or who can serve as a sounding board for ethics questions." Plus, there are contract attorneys and temporary clerical workers and law students looking for experience.
As an advocate for solos, Elefant also devotes a lot of her time to proselytizing for solo practice, from maintaining her blog to posting several times a week on ALM's Legal Blog Watch to speaking on panels, including at the ABA Techshow earlier this month.
Much of what she's learned over the years appears in one form or another in "Solo by Choice." Elefant calls the book both her "why to" and her "how to" become a solo. Besides advice on getting started, billing practices and solo networks, it's full of suggestions about marketing, outsourcing and the delicate task of leaving the old firm.
Some of the nitty-gritty might spoil the daydreams of dissatisfied big-firm lawyers looking to shed their golden handcuffs, but Elefant seeks to inform, not to discourage. "My feeling is that if people are working in situations that are making them unhappy, they should be aware that solo practice is a viable option," she says.
THE THRILL OF IT ALL
And she's not just talking about meeting the school bus, although that is part of it. When her children arrived a few years into the solo career, Elefant cut back on all of the criminal cases and much of the civil litigation, reasoning that trials wouldn't fit with her new scheduling demands. In their early years, she worked around their sleeping time and put in about 15 hours a week.
Today, with both girls in school, Elefant works nearly full time, but still makes sure to greet them at the bus stop and spend the rest of the day with them. "I realize that my afternoon curfew would brand me as inflexible or unreasonable if I worked for someone else's firm," she writes. "Fortunately, I don't."
Nonetheless, it's not just the work-life balance that Elefant cherishes in her work. A recent blog post describes the joy of going it alone: "There's nothing quite like those first few months of getting a law firm off the ground: the heady feeling of building something that doesn't exist, the thrill you experience the first time you introduce yourself to 'your client' and the wild optimism you feel once you take charge of your destiny."
That is perhaps Elefant's main message. Going solo isn't just about taking control of your career. It's about taking charge of your life.