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Women lawyers increasingly are turning from large firms and looking to solo and small firm law practices and other entrepreneurial endeavors as another career option. According to the most recent figures of the U.S. Census Bureau, about 20 percent of law firms were women-owned in 1997. These firms provide the kind of flexibility to balance career and family obligations in ways not often possible at large firms, some women say. But certainly solo or small practices create challenges not present in large firms. What are these challenges, and can they be avoided? What are the benefits of a solo or small practice? How does one get the courage to take this path? These questions as well as others will be addressed in the following profiles — two women who left large firms, one to go solo and another to start her own business, both hoping to find more-balanced schedules; another who after 35 years of solo work decided to join a midsize firm with dreams of a less-stressful day; and, finally, one who has spent her whole career with small firms and is quite content. ‘A MUCH BETTER LIFE’ “It’s nirvana!” exclaims Lisa Dunner. “I love what I’m doing!” Dunner, who is 42 and formerly a partner at McDermott, Will & Emery, started her own firm, Dunner Law, in June 2003 located in the heart of Georgetown. Her firm, which specializes in trademark, copyright, and Internet-related matters, did not take long to get off the ground. In fact, when she left McDermott, Will, all of her clients followed, she says, showing that “at least these clients are more impressed with the attorney than the big firm backing the attorney.” Dunner’s clients range from a large pharmaceutical and computer company to a “handful” of independent small business owners. For Dunner, a former professional tennis player who says for six years she was world-ranked in singles and doubles play, her firm has been the catalyst to a more satisfying career. “I have a much more manageable workload and a much better life,” says Dunner, adding, “Most important, I have time to exercise.” “The old-boy network was tiring,” claims Dunner when asked to describe her experience at a big firm. It wasn’t uncommon to be left out of conversations, she says. “I would be sitting at a conference table with several male colleagues, and the conversation would turn to sports. They wouldn’t even look at me!” exclaims Dunner. “As a former professional athlete, I had much to add to such a conversation. In fact, I probably had more interesting things to say.” Dunner also cites the stress of having a “billion requirements” as another significant reason she decided to head out on her own. Coupled with the firm’s billing requirements, serving on various firm committees made for a long day that allowed scant time for a life outside the firm. After a series of career moves starting as an associate at Pillsbury Winthrop followed by two years at McDermott, Will, and finally about a year at an intellectual property boutique, Dunner had had enough. “I used to think that the grass is greener on the other side or that life has got to be better at the next firm,” says Dunner. “But I got tired of looking for the greener grass, realizing that all firms have pros and cons.” With this realization, Dunner sought greener pastures on her own terms. A typical day’s work at a solo practice varies from firm to firm, depending on the type of law practiced. But the common denominator for all small and solo firms is the ability to have greater control over one’s schedule. “I don’t feel pressured to be in the office by 9,” says Dunner. “I can make as much money as I did before because the overhead costs are low and all the money I earn goes into my own pocket.” Dunner spends at least part of the day focused on business development, saying that this is another reason for her job satisfaction. “The firms had a ‘their way’ for targeting clients, and I didn’t like having this style forced on to me,” says Dunner. “I have a natural instinct for this and am now able to do what I think works best.” Dunner is also quick to admit that firm ownership doesn’t provide glamorous work every minute. A solo practitioner has to wear several hats. With only one law clerk working for her, it is not uncommon for Dunner to perform secretarial duties, like recording her own time. But this does not change her overall job satisfaction. “Yes, there are menial tasks, but there is nothing that I don’t enjoy, because it’s my own firm,” states Dunner. Networking appears to be another integral part of the job, as it helps to bring in new clients. Dunner is on the board of directors for the Women’s Bar Association of the District of Columbia. Membership in the WBA provides numerous networking opportunities — from monthly committee meetings to brown-bag luncheons. “At a big firm, it is usually easy to get work just from the people around you,” says Dunner. “However, I have become aware of the value of going to networking events.” Despite the positive aspects of her career change, Dunner says that there have been some transitional challenges. “It’s scary,” admits Dunner. “There is no accounts payable office, so it’s up to me to make sure that the bills are paid and that there is money there to pay them. This can take a lot of time.” And the balance sheet isn’t the only challenge. Often the size of the firm can be an obstacle in attracting new clients. Without having a large support staff, which is often an attractive feature of a large firm, Dunner sometimes has to spend some extra time and effort convincing clients she can handle their job. To meet client needs, Dunner is planning to hire one or two paralegals in the near future. While law firm ownership requires one to be well-versed in both business management and legal matters, there is no formula for starting a small law practice, according to Dunner. “If you had asked me several years ago whether I could go out on my own, I would have said that there was no way I could do it,” says Dunner. “It took me at least seven years of practice to become confident that I could counsel clients in a positive way.” In fact, Dunner gives credit for her solo success to her previous experiences at the larger firms. “I couldn’t have done this without my experience at a big firm. I learned a lot from each firm that I worked at, and maybe I wouldn’t be where I’m at without the training I received.” ‘NOW, I GET TO DECIDE’ For Mary Legg, motherhood presented challenges to her legal career of seven years at a big firm. Ultimately, it was the burden of juggling new family responsibilities with her career that pushed her to consider entrepreneurial options. “I believed that with a nanny and strategic planning skills, motherhood would make no difference to my career,” says Legg, 45 and a married mother of two. “I was wrong.” After being required by a judge presiding over one of her cases to cut her maternity leave by two weeks and later having to work nearly 300 hours in one month for an important case, Legg realized that a baby did make a difference. “I started asking myself what else could I do,” says Legg. Soon after, Legg quit her job at Seyfarth Shaw and attempted to find a career that would help her make time for her family as well as provide satisfying work. After spending a year as an in-house counsel and later working from home, Legg was dissatisfied. “Sitting at home one day in front of the television, I decided that I had had enough,” exclaims Legg. “I needed to go back to work.” With this epiphany in 2000, Legg founded Firm Advice Inc., a legal staffing agency that caters to law firms and corporations. At Firm Advice, Legg supervises three other individuals in addition to performing her primary head-hunting and business development responsibilities. “What I love most about my work is that I can control the direction of my company,” says Legg. “There were policies that I didn’t like at the firm. Now, I get to decide how the employees should be treated and what business cards our company uses. This is what I love most about my work.” “The work and life balance issues are much easier to manage now,” says Legg. “I’m doing what I’m doing because of the flexibility that this type of career provides.” For instance, next year Legg will be a schoolroom parent for her child — a job with significant time requirements for monthly meetings and the responsibility of planning field trips and parties. “This would not have been possible if I was at a large firm,” she says. In addition to having more time for her family, Legg has more time for herself. She regularly plays golf and is able to take several vacations throughout the year. Recently, she has taken up the piano. Legg also cites the monetary benefits of firm ownership. “Working for yourself enables you to not have to work as hard to make as much,” she says. Legg is also an active member of the Women’s Bar Association, serving as a board member and chair of the Career Development Committee. Additionally, she is chair of the membership committee of the Washington Metropolitan Corporate Counsel Association. “I believe that more women are starting their own business or choosing to start home-based practices because they want to try to have it all,” says Legg. “This is definitely a more realistic possibility than at a large firm.” With all of these advantages, business ownership appears to be a great option for a working mother. But don’t be too quick to make this conclusion, says Legg. “Sometimes, I feel like Atlas holding up the world,” laughs Legg. During downturns in the economy, for example, she says she has worried about whether or not she would be able to keep the office doors open. “There is definitely more stress with the job,” admits Legg. “Everything is up to me.” Also, Legg emphasizes that legal entrepreneurs must still set boundaries in their life, saying that she has to make an effort not to take on too many responsibilities. “People are always asking me to donate my time, and it’s important that I honor my commitments,” says Legg. “I can’t do this if there is too much on my plate.” Like Dunner, Legg is quick to give credit to her experience at a large firm, calling it a “necessary evil for one’s legal career.” In fact, she encourages others to spend at least three to four years at a large firm to gain “valuable training experience” before taking the solo career path. “The large firm experience helped me to be a better lawyer,” Legg says. “It still validates me today.” And don’t be afraid of failure when going out on your own, Legg urges, saying that most entrepreneurs are not usually successful in their first few tries. “Overall, my work is fun,” says Legg. “It is not only about winning. . . . I work at making people happy, and this makes me happy.” ‘NOBODY WAS IN MY WAY’ Linda Ravdin is no stranger to solo or small practice work. In fact, Ravdin has been flying solo for most of her career. Yet Ravdin’s story provides an interesting twist in that she recently left her solo practice for a larger firm. Ravdin, who is married and has one child, has had a fairly unique career path. Unlike most law school graduates who choose to work at a large firm to help pay off debt, Ravdin “hung out a shingle” and started her career as a solo. It didn’t hurt, she says, that law school was a lot cheaper 30 years ago. Ravdin, a graduate of George Washington University Law School, spent about $7,000 a year for tuition, with most of the money coming from savings. And it helped that Ravdin knew what she wanted to do with her career. Entering law school, she had already decided that she wanted to be a criminal defense attorney and that she wanted to “get into court” as quickly as possible. Her solo practice allowed her to fulfill this goal with her work consisting of court-appointed criminal cases. After near 35 years of working for herself, Ravdin is well-acquainted with both the positive and negative aspects of firm ownership. For most of her career, she was satisfied with the flexibility that her solo practice provided. She was able to travel and, most importantly, to choose the type of law that she wanted to practice. “Nobody was in my way to stop me from changing gears . . . to start focusing on domestic relations work when I became burned out by criminal defense work.” Ravdin is also adamant that working solo is not for everyone. “It’s hard to make a go of a micro-practice,” says Ravdin. “One almost has to have an entrepreneurial frame of mind. It’s an innate quality. . . . You can recognize it in people. However, with determination, I do believe that this can be learned.” Now with 15-lawyer Pasternak & Fidis in Bethesda, Md., Ravdin says she is “less stressed” because she’s not being pulled in “100 different directions.” “I don’t feel aggravated like I did when I was working alone,” says Ravdin. “Business management and client development, each of which is urgent and demanding, provided too much work for one person to do.” Although it is true that she had several financial advantages that allowed her to start working solo right out of school, she claims that others “can still do it” and serves up a few recommendations for those interested in opening their own practice. “You have to consider the sort of law you want to practice, and to be honest about whether or not a law education from an expensive school is really necessary,” says Ravdin. “Otherwise, you will be trapped by loans.” Similar to Dunner and Legg, Ravdin lauds the big firm experience, saying that it is smart for recent graduates to work for a large firm for a few years. “Perhaps I missed some opportunities to learn things from other people,” says Ravdin. “I was a little naïve, and maybe took a little more time to learn and do things than I would have otherwise if I had worked at a larger firm.” Despite her choice to finally leave solo practice, Ravdin has no regrets. “I had a great time working on my own and am very happy with how things have worked out.” ‘PLUM ASSIGNMENTS’ Solo or small practices are an increasingly popular career option for women looking to find better balance in their lives. Elaine Fitch, co-chair of the WBA’s Solo and Small Practice Forum and who regularly meets with several women solo practitioners at the forum’s bimonthly networking luncheons, says that many of the issues raised by these women’s stories are common for most women entrepreneurs. “One of the main reasons why these women decide to go out on their own is to have control of their schedule. This way they can have a life. They can work when they want, and they can take on as much as they want.” True, a solo firm can present extra work for the entrepreneur, especially when one has to do their own billing, but in Fitch’s opinion, this career choice allows one to better balance work and life issues overall. Fitch, who has worked in small firms for most of her career and is now with D.C.’s nine-lawyer Kalijarvi, Chuzi & Newman, praises the opportunities that she has had as a result of her career choice to stick with small firms. “After my first year of work, I was already getting plum assignments. For instance, I was able to argue a case before the 9th Circuit. This would never have happened at a large firm.”

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