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A refugee from a big firm, a startup solo who hung out her shingle only about a decade ago, and the oldest continuing law firm in the District of Columbia — Jeffrey Berger, Agnes Cowan Powell, and the lawyers at Hamilton and Hamilton are the faces of local practice in the District and its outlying suburbs. Of course, this is not to say that these lawyers are alone in the way they practice law. The ranks of local solo and small firm practitioners are sizable. According to the best estimates of the D.C. Bar, the Washington metropolitan area today is home to approximately 4,500 active solo practitioners and to nearly 6,200 lawyers working in small firms of from two to 20 lawyers each. Yet Berger, Powell, and two of the six partners at Hamilton and Hamilton collectively represent how almost all lawyers come to small practices — from large firms, from government agencies, and from law school without any previous experience as a lawyer. Their diverse career paths have influenced how they now practice law and how they view their solo and small firm experiences. ‘I DON’T REGARD IT AS WORKING ALONE’ D.C. solo practitioner Jeffrey Berger has never doubted his decision to open his own practice. “If you can hack it, you can create a practice a lot easier,” says Berger, 54, who earned a law degree from Rutgers School of Law and a master’s degree in labor and tax law from Georgetown University Law Center.
Many solos, like Berger, left posts at large firms to go to smaller firms or to open up their own practices. From 1974 to 1979, Berger was an enforcement attorney with the Department of Labor. Subsequently he practiced at Seyfarth Shaw from 1979 to 1981 and at the now-defunct Finley Kumble Wagner Heine Underberg Manley Myerson and Casey from 1981 until 1986. He left Finley Kumble to start a small firm — Shawn, Berger and Mann — with several other lawyers . In short order, he realized that he wanted to focus on labor and employment law with more regional clients, and he struck out on his own in 1990, opening an office in the central business district not far from his present location on 20th Street in Northwest Washington, D.C. But no man is an island. Echoing a theme voiced by many solos, Berger contends that although only his name appears on his firm’s door, he is still a part of a community of lawyers. “I don’t regard it as working alone because I really partner with other lawyers and get most of my work from other lawyers.” For example, Berger has fond memories of his time at Finley Kumble. Despite that firm’s contentious demise in 1988, Berger describes it as “a great place to learn.” And today, he still gets referrals from former Finley Kumble lawyers practicing at large firms. “I owe a lot of my practice to people at Finley Kumble,” he explains. He is also of counsel at Jackson & Campbell and gets some work from that source. “The key to success is creating a community of people, a regular group of people to brainstorm with,” Berger notes. And yet not being a cog in a large law firm machine has its benefits. Berger values the time he now saves “not arguing over copying machines, furniture, and how the profits should be split.” Going solo created a lot of time for Berger “to put my energy to better use,” he says. “I’m happy with the way things have gone,” Berger says. “Law practice management is a lot more pleasurable.” While Berger does not pretend that a solo practice is free of stress, he does say that it’s not the same kind of stress you’ll find at a big firm — where you might find yourself worrying about pleasing other partners or relying on the work of other lawyers whom you might not know or trust. When you leave a big firm, you leave the firm’s marketing department behind. Like all solos, Berger soon realized that marketing would be important to his business survival. “Marketing is not a God-given gift,” he explains. “Anybody can do it, but it takes diligence and trial and error.” Networking is always important. Like many solos, Berger is an active member of bar associations — for example, he is vice chair of the D.C. Bar’s Solo and Small Firm Practice Committee — and he publishes frequently. His Web site, www.bergerlaborlaw.com, reprints many of his articles. Berger characterizes his practice as “management-side employment law, with a lot of litigation.” He says his clients include highly educated professionals, government contractors, physicists, defense firms, dentists, and scientific societies, among others. Despite the downturn in the economy, business is good, Berger says. “Bad times often create good times for employment lawyers,” he explains. All of his work is performed on an hourly basis, for which his rate ranges from $330 to $345. Everything is billable, he says, and he does no contingency or retainer work. About 20 percent of his income comes from highly paid individuals like executives, lawyers, and doctors. One of his clients is Greenfield/Belser Ltd., which is known primarily for its law firm marketing, although it also has clients in the accounting, financial, and real estate industries. General counsel Donna Greenfield went to law school with Berger at Rutgers and was an attorney in private practice and for the Federal Trade Commission before founding Greenfield/Belser with her husband, Burkey Belser. She says that Berger has a unique way of relating to problems. “We get to a solution more efficiently than in situations where I’ve used larger law firms,” Greenfield says. “The myth is that a large firm has seen and done everything,” she adds. “I love working with Jeffrey.” COFFEE POT DECISIONS Such personal, result-oriented, and cost-effective service is a selling point of small firms as well. Take 10-lawyer Hamilton and Hamilton. According to its Web site, www.hamiltonlaw.com, the firm”[b]y choice, . . . has remained a small-to-medium sized firm in order to maintain close personal relationships with its clients, and some of the these relationships have endured for over a century.” Although it’s small, Hamilton and Hamilton has a deep and rich history. What’s the oldest home-grown firm in the District? The six partners at Hamilton and Hamilton, which was charteredin 1876, believe that their firm holdsthe record for having the longest continuous practice of any D.C. firm. And it possesses some of the longest continuous clients as well. Catholic University of America, the Southern Railway Co. (now the Norfolk Southern Corp.), the Capital Traction Co. (now the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority), and the Archdiocese for Military Services U.S.A. — all were clients of the firm at the time of its incorporation and remain so today. Does the size of a firm matter? According to partners George Masson Jr. and Patrick Kavanaugh, in addition to allowing a more personal relationship with its clients, a small firm fosters a more pleasant working environment for its lawyers. “One of the main benefits is the opportunity to have a more collegial work experience,” says Masson in an interview at his firm’s Pennsylvania Avenue offices one block from the White House. “One of the advantages of a small firm is that decisions can be made quickly,” offers Kavanaugh. Both Masson, 60, and Kavanaugh, 55, arrived at Hamilton and Hamilton, which has a reputation as a strong litigation firm, after tours of duty at the D.C. Corporation Counsel. Masson’s stint lasted from 1971 to 1979; Kavanaugh’s, from 1976 to 1981. Both believe that the crisis-oriented local agency provided good experience for a trial lawyer. After so many years in a litigation pressure-cooker, life at Hamilton and Hamilton seems, if not relaxed, at least more humane. “It’s a real nice environment,” says Masson. “We are in control of our own time, of our own lives. “We’re pretty unstructured, informal,” he adds. Both Masson and Kavanaugh suggest that such a loosey-goosey chain of command is not for everyone. Those who have been on a managing committee at a big firm might not like the way Hamilton and Hamilton operates, but it works there, they say. “We tend to make decisions over the coffee pot,” Kavanaugh says. “But we do have more-formal gatherings to plan long-range policy.” Both lawyers suggest that this built-in flexibility has helped the firm keep up with the times.
Pointing to the increase in in-house lawyers and more captive law firms, Masson, who earned his J.D. at the University of Michigan, says, “The nature of law practice has changed in recent years. “Our practice has changed over the last 10 years, as well. There’s less actual litigation,” he adds. “We try to be more responsive to the clients.”
“There are a lot of alternatives to full litigation,” says Kavanaugh, who received his J.D. from George Washington University Law School. Mediation, arbitration, or just facilitating the parties in the resolution of their dispute are all options he and other firm members may suggest to clients. “We just do what responsible attorneys should be doing,” he says. The duo also point out that, in small firms, overhead and costs are lower so we can be more competitive, cost-wise. Hamilton and Hamilton lawyers generally don’t have a fixed hourly rate, and alternative billing arrangements are offered when appropriate. Networking is perhaps the most vital marketing tool at Hamilton and Hamilton. “Our lawyers get involved in a lot of bar activities,” says Kavanaugh. From such visibility come referrals, say Masson and Kavanaugh. Hamilton and Hamilton stands to benefit whenever a larger firm is conflicted, whenever a potential client can’t afford a big firm, or whenever another small firm can’t offer its client the needed expertise. ‘I PUT LOTS OF HOURS IN’ From the moment Agnes Cowan Powell hung out her shingle, she recognized the value of networking. She had to be an advertisement for herself. How else would she be able to get business? A solo practitioner in Greenbelt, Md., Powell specializes in trusts and estates. When she became a full-time lawyer in 1993, she did so without the benefit of ever having worked as a lawyer. No law firm experience. No government experience. No in-house counsel experience. Powell, who possesses a law degree and a master’s degree in taxation from Georgetown University Law Center, had worked only at the legal publisher BNA. Powell had long harbored a desire to practice law on her own, but she didn’t want to rush headlong into practice. When she started working at BNA in 1989, she drew up a five-year plan for herself, vowing to leave BNA after that period of time. Dissatisfaction with the job caused her to make the leap into private practice after only four years. “I left [BNA] and never looked back,” Powell says. Reflecting on the early days of her practice, Powell doesn’t even know where some of her clients came from, but she knows she was always working hard to cultivate them: “People hire you because they connect with you. I work hard at building a good reputation. That results in referrals.” In order to pay the bills, she resorted to taking some family law cases, although she would have preferred not to. Then a friend gave her the best advice she says she has ever received. As Powell tells it, the friend said, “Agnes, when they ask you what kind of law you do, don’t tell them what you do. Tell them what work you want them to send you.” Soon, she was able to limit her practice to trusts and estates. Powell belongs to bar associations and professional societies in the District and in Maryland, and publishes in legal journals whenever she can. And her book of business, she says, is solid: “I don’t have a shortage of work. I’m swamped.” Earnings vary from month to month, Powell says, but “I’ve never had a month where I didn’t have money.” For estate administration and probate work, Powell bills hourly. For estate planning, she charges a flat fee, which varies depending on the complexity of the document she needs to draft. “I put lots of hours in. . . . But I feel blessed I can make a living.” “And,” she says, expressing a sentiment widely held by solos and small firm practitioners, “I have the best boss I ever had.” Photos by Stacey Cramp.

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