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One year ago this month, I left a secure and interesting government job to open my own law firm as a solo practitioner. At that time, I wrote an article for Metro (“Make Sure to Look Before You Leap,” April 28, 2003, Page 34) to share my thoughts about why I set out on my own, where I saw opportunities for success, and where I thought the pitfalls might be. Now that I have a year under my belt, I would like to share with those who are thinking about taking the plunge my thoughts about where I was right and where I was wrong. Take it for what it’s worth: one person’s perspective from a year as a solo practitioner. AUTONOMY WITH A PRICE What ultimately motivated me to open my own firm was a desire for personal and professional autonomy. The professional autonomy I craved flooded in the day I opened my firm in that I am, quite literally, on my own. When strategic decisions need to be made, I am the one who makes them. When cases go to court, I am the one who takes them there — and I have been in court more in the past year than I had been in the previous five years combined. I find that I relish the victories and wallow in the defeats in a much more personal way than I did when I worked for someone else. For example, my first adversarial evidentiary proceeding after opening my firm was a preliminary injunction hearing on behalf of a physician client whose former employer had sued him to enforce a noncompetition agreement and shut down my client’s newly formed practice. My client, his wife, and his patients had all conveyed to me that a loss at the preliminary injunction hearing would have been devastating to my client and his family financially, and would have impacted the medical care of my client’s patients, many of whom were elderly and had been his patients for years. In the end, I was successful in keeping my client’s practice open, and I am convinced that the evidence we presented at the hearing ultimately led to a successful settlement of the case. Today, my client’s practice is thriving, and I feel great personal satisfaction in the trust and confidence he placed in me and the positive result we were able to obtain. I also get to choose the cases I will accept and turn others away. I focus my practice on employment law and tend not to stray too far from the practice area on the theory that I can be a more efficient and better attorney by limiting my practice substantively. A focused practice has also been an effective marketing tool for me. Indeed, rarely does someone ask for a referral to the best “take-whatever-walks-in-the-door” attorney in town. Rather, a person with a criminal matter wants a criminal lawyer, a person in a car accident wants a personal injury lawyer, and a client with employment law needs wants an employment lawyer. Limiting my practice substantively allows me to position myself in the minds of my referral sources as an employment lawyer when the need for one arises. I have developed a professional network of other small-firm attorneys and solo practitioners that helps me avoid the feelings of isolation I feared would come with being out on my own. I call on this network frequently when confronting issues I have not previously addressed, or to provide a second and third opinion on briefs that I draft. I have been overwhelmed by how generous skilled attorneys can be with their time when asked, and I would encourage anyone starting out on their own to look for and rely on a professional support network. Most substantive practice areas have organizations that bring together attorneys practicing in a particular area, and employment law is no exception. Those groups, and organizations focused on small-firm practice management, are a natural base for a professional support network. Becoming part of such a network has allowed me to leave big-firm and government positions without giving up entirely the sense of collegiality and team effort I had enjoyed in those jobs. The personal autonomy that I enjoy is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, I am free to come and go as I please, and I have certainly taken advantage of that freedom — for example, when my toddler has been sick (and for the occasional round of “business development” golf). I have also enjoyed the ability to get involved in civic organizations and other extracurricular activities without worrying that a breakfast meeting will make me late for work or that I will have to cancel an engagement at the last minute because of someone else’s schedule. On the other hand, being in business for myself means that there is no one else to pick up the slack. I cannot call in sick when I don’t feel well, and I work at least as many hours now as I did when I was an associate at a large firm. I am at the office late into the evening several times a week and work at least some during most weekends. Even when I go on “vacation,” it is impossible to truly get away because I am still responsible for minding the store. All things being equal, though, working hard for myself has been much more rewarding than working hard for someone else ever was. LAW AS A BUSINESS As a solo practitioner, I am the firm’s CEO, CFO, and the head of the information technology department. Wearing all of these hats, in addition to being responsible for all of the legal work my firm performs, can be quite a juggling act at times. I try to remind myself constantly that I am running a small business and try to set aside time each week to think strategically and to handle the administrative aspects of my practice, which include everything from going to the bank, to ordering more stationery, to sending out the bills. Effectively employing technology has helped minimize the time I spend on administrative matters. I will leave it to attorneys far more computer-literate than I to advise others on practice automation, but I have found that relatively inexpensive software has allowed me to avoid hiring a full-time administrative support staff. I have been able to automate my case management and my time-and-billing systems so that just about everything I need is at my fingertips, and so that my billing takes only a couple of hours a month. I happen to use Time Matters for case management and Timeslips for billing, but there are a number of quality off-the-shelf programs available. One of the lingering questions in my mind when I decided to go out on my own was whether I would be able to learn and enjoy the business aspect of running a solo practice. The learning curve was steep for me, particularly when I started setting fees. Deciding how much I should ask for in retainers and managing the firm’s cash flow were a challenge. I had enjoyed the luxury of being removed from the money at my previous jobs and at first was uncomfortable discussing fees with clients and prospective clients. As time has passed, however, I have learned that clients appreciate an open and honest dialogue about legal costs, and I have grown accustomed both to discussing fees openly upfront and to sending bills to my clients for the work I have done. In fact, I attribute the fact that I have only had one collection problem in the last year to the upfront and frank discussions I have with prospective clients about fees. Although it is hard to turn down work when first starting out, in my experience it is better to turn away the potential client who balks at a reasonable retainer or asks for a discount before any work has even begun than it is to enter into a relationship that you know will likely end badly. Another concern I had starting out was that potential clients would carry a bias against smaller firms and solo practitioners. Instead, I have discovered that the individual executives and small to medium-size businesses I target as clients seek out an individual attorney more often than they look to hire a law firm with a particularly well-known name. Indeed, I have found that even larger companies look to smaller firms for matters that cannot be handled cost-effectively by their regular large-firm counsel, and I have had the pleasure of representing three Fortune 500 companies in the last year. WHERE TO HANG YOUR SHINGLE I would encourage others thinking about going out on their own to select their office space carefully. When I began looking for an office to sublease, my primary goal was to find space where I would not compete with my business neighbors for clients. I considered the opportunity for cross-referrals as a nice potential bonus, but it was not my primary concern. Through professional contacts, however, I found space to sublease from West & Feinberg, a business and tax law boutique. My landlords provide a pleasant working environment, and as it turns out, the cross-referrals of employment law matters actually make the lease profitable for both of us. I happened to be very lucky in this regard, and I would advise others to focus more on the potential for cross-referrals in selecting space than I actively did. THE FIRST, AND NEXT, LEAPS The past year has been successful enough that I know I was — at the very least — not crazy to take the leap and open my own firm. As I look ahead to the coming year and beyond, I see opportunities and challenges similar to those faced by other small businesses. I am already struggling with the challenges of expanding my business. Do I have enough work to make hiring an associate profitable, or will an associate simply drain what would otherwise be profits into payroll? How can I ensure that the volume of work I have now will continue and increase? I do not know how to answer these questions today, and I am starting to realize that every successful leap of faith only puts me in the position of having to contemplate another leap. I can only hope that I am as fortunate with the next one as I have been so far with the last. Daniel E. Farrington of Bethesda, Md.’s Farrington Law Firm LLC can be contacted at [email protected].

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