Carolyn Elefant is a Washington, D.C., solo practitioner and author of a new book “dedicated to becoming the lawyer you always wanted to be,” as she prefaces the pages.
Never mind what she says are widespread negative perceptions about hanging out one’s own shingle.
Ms. Elefant, whose practice is focused on energy regulatory and enforcement law, suggested in an interview that this is a favorable time for solo practice – not merely for independent-minded attorneys but for law firms and clients as well.
“In the past 10 years or so, more and more large-firm lawyers are thinking seriously about leaving and taking a piece of their practice with them – not poaching or stealing clients, but maybe taking those not able to afford large-firm rates, or else clients conflicted out due to firm mergers,” said the “Solo by Choice” author. “There have always been lawyers who’ve done that, but now because of technology it’s easier for younger associates to do it.”
Ms. Elefant’s said her notion is buttressed by data in a recently released study of 4,000 law school graduates conducted by the American Bar Foundation and Harvard Law School’s Program on the Legal Profession that show apparent dissatisfaction among young lawyers at commercial firms.
The study found that large firms lose up to half their associates within as few as four years, though not because of dismissals or layoffs; nearly two-thirds of the defections are the result of associate choice.
“In these recessionary times,” said Ms. Elefant, who has worked at a mid-size commercial firm as well as a federal agency, “it makes sense for law firms who have to lay people off to watch where their associates go, and how they might build their own practices. If they were treated well, former associates might call in their firms on matters they can’t handle alone – or even go back to their firms after they’ve had valuable court experience.”
Speaking of valued ex-associates, Ms. Elefant added, “I know of small firms and solos making a good practice just taking conflict clients.”
Ms. Elefant’s book devotes four nuts-and-bolts chapters to the critical matter of marketing a solo practice, which she regards as an adventure in creativity. Nuggets of advice she dispenses include:
� “Elevator speech” as a means of quickly explaining one’s legal niche to non-lawyers, per guidance from the Web sites such as www.15secondpitch.com and www.elevatorspeech.com.
� Blogs are the most cost-effective means of increasing the engine search rankings of a Web site.
� See busy clients by appointment at off-hours, such as two nights a week from 6-9 p.m., or mornings from 7-9 a.m.
� Meet prospective clients at their offices.
� Send news releases to legal bloggers “always eager for new stories,” and distribute via free online services such as www.24-7pressrelease.com.
Ironically, Ms. Elefant counsels certain lawyers, especially recent law school graduates, against going solo.
If tuition debt is a serious issue, she said, it makes perfect sense to “go to the best big firm you can find that will pay you the most money you can get,” with the additional benefit of lifelong business contacts if not an entirely satisfying professional experience.
And it is hardly a good long-term decision, said Ms. Elefant, to forego a clerkship opportunity or employment with a prosecutor’s office or public defender, all of which provide “unparalleled hands-on training.”
- Thomas Adcock may be reached at email@example.com.