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The dearth of job opportunities for recent law school graduates has left many associate-level attorneys in search of other options. Newly minted lawyers, with a law degree in one hand and a natural business acumen in the other, have adjusted in the past by taking the bold step of starting their own firms. But how does that work, and how do you do it? Take a few lessons from survivors of the economic downturn of the early 1990s — and from a more recent example — of lawyers taking that big step. While the newfound freedom of starting a firm attracts some, it comes at a hefty price. Nina Wright Padilla, a 1992 graduate of the University of Maryland School of Law, recounted the period of the launching of her firm when she would have to run around the corner to make copies and return fast enough to keep clients from knowing that she didn’t have a photocopier. In a mad dash to the nearest copying services, the young trial lawyer attempted to find new angles for cutting costs while her clients waited patiently in her office. In 1994, Padilla left her job with the small Philadelphia law firm Atkins & Cohen, where she had been working as an associate since graduating from law school, to start a firm with her husband, Edward Wright. The firm is called Wright & Padilla. “I thought I could make more money on my own, and I always have wanted to go out and do my own thing,” Padilla said. In the beginning, the new set of expenses that the two encountered sapped their energy and bank account. The office machinery proved to be the most draining on her tight financial budget. She said that she had never fully accounted for the capital necessary to start a firm, having taken for granted the resources provided by Atkins & Cohen. “The hardest part was existing,” she said. “There were so many more expenses than we had imagined. In a large firm, the supplies are all there.” Padilla relied heavily on the assistance of others. In going out on her own so early in her career, she lacked the extensive client base and established networks that her older counterparts possessed. She said another disadvantage she faced was in accessing information. The employee could search within the firm for answers to legal dilemmas, but Padilla sacrificed that resource. To compensate, she made expanding her contact list a top priority. “Developing contacts was something we made an effort to do,” she said. “Even opposing counsel can be allies.” Padilla realized that the supposed “enemy” was willing to work with her for mutually beneficial solutions. In addition, she said that the presence of experience was a welcome asset in any form, even through the observation and study of opposing counsel. Another unexpected obstacle she encountered was the hills and valleys of a private practice. While a partner within a firm could rely on his fellow partners during moments of temporary duress, Padilla found that she lacked that cushion as a lawyer in a hard-pressed two-person practice. After weeks of settling extremely profitable cases, a dry spell would unexpectedly hit to which she had no answer but to simply wait it out. She said the best response to those wide variances in business was in maintaining her composure. “You need to just run on autopilot and not be influenced by the up-and-down parts of it,” she said. Often, the time commitment required for a new business would keep her at work during the week till about 9 p.m. and on weekends. The couple delayed having children for years until their practice began to stand on its own. Conditions are drastically different now. The 38-year-old trial lawyer leaves shortly before 5 p.m. to pick her children up from school and never works weekends. Brett Weinstein, another young lawyer with an independent practice, in King of Prussia, Pa., recounted similar meager beginnings. Limited financial resources forced him to create a makeshift filing system by taking down the door of his office and using cinderblocks for the ends. In addition, he shared his office space with a furniture repair shop. After graduating in 1996 from Thomas Cooley Law School in Michigan, Weinstein did some contract work for Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld for a year before opening his own solo practice, Weinstein Law Offices, when he was 28 years old. “I was young, and I had nothing to lose,” he said. “I just never considered joining a large firm.” Like many emerging businesses, Weinstein’s firm turned to more experienced lawyers for help. In forging connections with other small firms that had recently started, he compensated for the lack of partners within his firm to provide assistance. He said that sometimes even larger firms would answer some of his questions concerning legal dilemmas. Weinstein also lacked experience practicing law, having started his firm so early in his career. But he said that was a minor obstacle. “The experience comes with getting out there,” Weinstein said. “Experience is not necessary. You need a business sense more than anything … mainly, how to run a business.” Weinstein attributed a lot of his success to his father, an audiologist who started his own business years ago. Even more valuable than the experience accumulated from having practiced law, Weinstein said, is that he found the most useful lessons from watching his father employ his entrepreneurial skills. As the only attorney in the office at the time, Weinstein was responsible for everything from answering phones to dealing with paperwork for six days a week, 12 hours a day, until he was able to afford a secretary one and a half years later. He said that since he was single and didn’t have children, he could make the enormous commitment. His load has yet to lighten. Despite bringing in another attorney and shortening his workday to nine hours, he maintains the six-day workweek. Michael Shaffer, a lawyer with a practice in Philadelphia, recounted similar endless days and weeks upon the opening of his firm. Shaffer said that trying times were not confined to his own life. A patient wife played a vital role in those new beginnings. While he now devotes more free time to his wife and 2-year-old daughter, free hours were once scarce. Shaffer started his firm in 1996, six years after obtaining his law degree at Temple University. Before opening his own office, the trial lawyer worked at two Philadelphia law firms — Hoyle Morris & Kerr and Feldman Shepherd & Wohlgelernter — before realizing that the liberty of a solo practice was enough incentive for him to go out on his own. Unlike Padilla, he was not starting from scratch. He had established a significant client base at his two previous firms, but it was not enough on which to center an entire practice. “I had a small base of clients when I first went out,” Shaffer said. “Then, I hit the pavement and had to look for work from other sources … other lawyers.” Former Dilworth Paxson associate James Elam, whose practice focuses on entertainment and intellectual property law, started his firm May 1 after being bombarded by a long list of mishaps leading up to its establishment. In dealing with problems ranging from missing phone lines to computer delivery lags, Elam found that nothing comes easy. “Right now, we’re living off of laptops,” Elam said. “My first landlord completely flaked out on us, and we had to find a new place to practice, and we’re on our sixth phone number.” While many young lawyers who lack a business degree venture out for assistance with the entrepreneurial aspects of starting a firm, Elam singlehandedly composed his own business plan. He said his experience from having previously started a music production company prepared him for the tasks involved in such an undertaking. He said starting a new firm engenders a whole new list of responsibilities, “from finding your own computer system to taking out the trash.” Having grown frustrated with his previous position at Dilworth Paxson, Elam decided to embark on a new plan, taking virtually all his clients along. “It was a mutual decision” between him and Dilworth Paxson, said Elam, whose new firm is called Elam Reavis. “They didn’t understand the nature of my practice. Entertainment lawyers have a problem with big firms.” Since the client base and array of services so greatly differs from those of other associates, Elam said, entertainment lawyers often struggle to find their place within a large law firm. He said the time commitment was similar to the extensive hours he had previously put in at Dilworth. While at Dilworth, he said, he felt as if he were already practically running a private practice within the firm. His departure came as a natural progression within his career as an entertainment lawyer. After graduating from the University of Delaware in 1992, Elam started a music production company. While it was not extremely profitable, it turned into a learning tool for future prospects. “I did it for the experience,” he said. “I enjoy and have a background in music business, production and songwriting.” Elam received his law degree from Widener Law School in 1997 and immediately joined Dilworth. During his five-year tenure with the firm, he said, he realized he could better achieve success within an independent venue. He said his role within the firm’s structured model was too constricting, pushing him to yield his set paycheck in exchange for the freedom to expand his range of services. Elam Reavis now services such entertainers as the Grammy-nominated R&B performer Jill Scott. All four aforementioned lawyers looked to the Philadelphia and New Jersey bar associations for the networks and contacts that were vital to the growth of their firms. For instance, Elam’s prior position as chairman of the Young Lawyers Division of the Philadelphia Bar Association heightened his name recognition within the Philadelphia community. Padilla and Shaffer said that by involving themselves in the community and meeting experienced lawyers, they gained from their advice and expertise. Each of these young entrepreneurs said the risk involved in starting a firm was one of the major deterrents to making the leap. Elam started his firm to expand his business and acquire more clients at the expense of a stable paycheck. He said that while the stability of a large firm is difficult to give up, the expansion of financial possibilities weighed in as a more valuable asset. Padilla and Shaffer also expressed their initial frustrations with the endless administrative duties that opening and maintaining a firm required. Without room in their hard-pressed budgets for secretarial assistance, the lawyers had stacks of paperwork to deal with on top of everything else. Their body of knowledge was limited to the practice of law, and the entrepreneurial skills and responsibilities that tagged along with opening a new firm overwhelmed them in the beginning. Having grown tremendously from their meager beginnings, both firms are now equipped with full-time staff to handle the administrative work. Elam and Weinstein, who also started his own firm, said they had faced a host of unforeseen barriers at the start. But they maintained that the most crucial element to their success was in keeping their frustrations under control. Arranging integral elements for the firm, ranging from supply deliveries to phone service to office space, did not come smoothly for Elam. The barrage of obstacles hit Weinstein just as hard. But, he said, he never considered giving up despite the fact that the lack of financial resources forced him to stretch his already expanded budget. “The most important thing is in being prepared for the good and bad months,” Weinstein said. “When you think that things are bad, they will eventually turn around and vice-versa.”

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