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At 64, Allen Breslow is nearing the age when many lawyers are easing toward retirement. Practicing labor and employment law for 40 years would seem to entitle the Commack, N.Y., attorney to spend more days on a beach than behind a desk. Instead, Breslow is unpacking boxes and settling in as a budding solo practitioner, on his own for the first time since he graduated from Columbia Law School in 1964. “It’s a little scary,” he said, “but I wanted to represent my clients without the trappings of a larger firm.” Breslow’s former firm, Frank & Breslow, had eight attorneys and practiced primarily labor and employment law, representing both management and employees. Breslow’s work now focuses almost exclusively on management issues. Although Breslow’s concerns about going solo are common among most lawyers who launch their own practices, the challenges may be particularly pronounced for seasoned lawyers taking that step for the first time in their careers. The number of roles solos must assume can be a shock to newcomers, according to Carolyn Elefant, a Washington, D.C., solo lawyer and creator of Myshingle.com, a Web site designed for solo attorneys. “If you were a rainmaker or a minder or grinder, you’ve got to do it all now,” she remarked. BUSINESS SIDE OF LAWYERING The greatest concern for attorney William T. Ferris, 57, was putting food on the table. He opened his own office two years ago after working as a Suffolk County prosecutor for 23 years. With virtually no client base to offer prospective employers but with decades of experience, Ferris’ career choices were severely limited, especially since he was determined to remain in Suffolk County. At the time he hung out his own shingle in Islandia, he had one child nearing college graduation and another just starting. Ferris started a solo practice under an office sharing arrangement, but he had to hire his own secretary and solicit most of his own clients. For the first time in 23 years, he needed to put a dollar amount on his services and learn the business side of lawyering. He quickly realized the responsibility of a one-person operation. “I learned how important it is to be healthy,” he says. “Without being healthy, I could not have put in the hours and the work.” Recently, Ferris accepted a job with Bracken Margolin & Gouvis in Islandia, and he said joining the firm relieves much of the time and budget worries of running his own operation. When Frederick Eisenbud, an environmental solo lawyer, started his own practice about five years ago at age 53, he felt confident that he would bring with him “a book of business.” He worked for the firm previously known as Cahn Wishod & Lamb, where he had much of the 20-attorney practice’s environmental law clients. But he was inexperienced with marketing his services and he soon found out that bringing in new business required more than relying on the recognition he gained at his old firm, he said. “I had to make a name for myself,” Eisenbud said, explaining that he did “a lot” of lecturing and advertising in local bar journals when he opened his office, now in Commack. Marketing for solos is critical, even for attorneys who established solid reputations in their previous practice, said Elefant. “You really need to go beyond the people you know and expand your networking circle,” she said. One potential marketing snag for older attorneys who worked for many years at larger firms or government agencies is explaining the reason for their new venture. Many lawyers leave their old practices after disputes arise over money or personality differences. In Breslow’s case, he and his former firm, Frank & Breslow, are locked in a legal battle over compensation. Breslow is the plaintiff in the pending litigation. Although Eisenbud said he left his previous firm under friendly terms, a disagreement about “corporate structure” prompted his move. As for Ferris, he was a bureau chief under former Suffolk County District Attorney James Catterson, who was defeated by Thomas Spota in a particularly acrimonious race. Ferris’ departure coincided with Spota’s election. Ferris said that it was important to present a positive explanation for starting his own practice at age 55, especially since the Suffolk County legal community is relatively small. FEWER BELLS AND WHISTLES But marketing is just one part of the new experience when solos accustomed to years of working for bigger operations forge their own practices. They also should be prepared to trim costs in ways that they might have not considered before, Elefant said. For example, attorneys who practiced for long periods with other firms may have grown comfortable with performing electronic research with a full complement of databases, which can be expensive. Solo practitioners, acutely aware of their own bottom line, may be able to perform quality work with fewer “bells and whistles,” she said. She also reminds solo practitioners that they can negotiate electronic research rates. Established attorneys also may have grown overly fond of fancy office furnishings, which, though comforting, are unnecessary for some practices. “Not everyone needs a class A building with mahogany tables,” Elefant said. Attorneys who perform most of their work over the phone, for example, do not require leather studded chairs or expensive artwork. Breslow recognized those cost-cutting advantages. As an attorney who handles employment matters for small- to mid-sized nonprofit corporations, he decided to match his office to his clients’ expectations. “They’re not big money makers, and they can’t afford to pay a lot for humongous beautiful offices. That’s for a certain kind of client,” he said. Like many solos, Breslow is subleasing space from another firm. After stocking a library, hiring a reliable secretary, buying computers, faxes and phone lines, the basics were covered, he explained. “The office came with a desk and a chair. It’s not the greatest chair, but I’m sitting in it,” he said. One of the biggest surprises that these lawyers encountered when venturing out on their own was the amount of time required to handle the “non-lawyer” tasks. “I didn’t realize how many hours are consumed by unbillable time,” Eisenbud said, adding that he was unprepared for the effort it took to send out bills to clients. Ferris noted how indispensable a good secretary is. In addition, he said that he discovered that it would have been impossible for his practice to grow without taking on more help. Despite the struggles of going solo, the sense of autonomy seems to make up for the difficulties. “I want to be able to deal with my clients without going back to a management committee,” Breslow said. “I don’t need that.”

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