Judging from casual conversation, an observer of the New York legal scene could reasonably believe that most attorneys on the payrolls of private firms have entertained the thought of hanging out their own shingles ? as solo practitioners, or at least in concert with a frustrated comrade or two.

But according to three separate national surveys conducted in 1997, 2002 and this year, few lawyers would actually take that particular plunge. And the number of the willing has dwindled dramatically over the survey period. (See accompanying chart.)

“I’m not surprised,” said Ronald D. Coleman, who three years ago started the Coleman Law Firm of New York and northern New Jersey. “It takes a lot of nerve.”

He cautioned, “Nerve covers both courage and being nuts.”

In 1997, when International Communication Research of Media, Pa., first ran a survey for Robert Half Legal of Menlo Park, Calif., 78 percent of lawyers queried answered no to the question, “If you had the necessary capital, would you start your own law firm?”

By 2002, the negative faction grew to 84 percent. And in a report released earlier this month, the number jumped to 93 percent.

In each survey, the same question was asked of 200 lawyers representing firms with annual revenues ranging from $10 million to $5 billion. According to the current survey, lawyers at the smallest firms are considerably less negative to the idea of going it alone than those at the largest firms ? 67 percent and 96 percent, respectively.

“Going off on your own is chock full of problems that most people can’t even begin to anticipate,” said Marya Lenn Yee of Donovan & Yee, an intellectual property boutique. “In addition to being an attorney, you’ve also become an employer and a commercial tenant. And you end up doing the whole motherhood thing ? nurse, cook, therapist.”

Indeed, the quotidian duties of entrepreneurship seem to be the main drawback, according to Charles Volkert, executive director of Robert Half Legal.

“Opening a law firm is opening a business,” he said. “For some, it’s a question of work-life balance when they consider the administrative duties involved versus practicing law with a firm around you to handle the day-to-day things like furniture and leasing space.”

There is also “the burn-out factor,” Mr. Volkert added.

“There are only so many hours in a day,” he said. “Let’s say you’re a rainmaking partner. Now, not only do you have to bring in business, you have to run a business.”

Happily on Their Own

Still, some lawyers say they are pleased with their decisions to trade the securities of a regular paycheck and somebody else running the shop for their new career situations.

Ronald J. Katter is in his 14th year of solo practice as a plaintiff-side personal injury attorney after working in securities and real estate litigation for two small firms.

“I just kept seeing that I really wanted to be the boss. I wanted to decide which cases to accept. I wanted to bring in my own clients,” said Mr. Katter, who is chairman of the Solo and Small Firm Practice Committee of the New York County Lawyers’ Association. “As an associate at a firm, even as a partner, you’re less able to pick and choose.”

Last December, after a 17-year career at Vladeck, Waldman, Elias & Engelhard, Larry Cary opened Cary Kane, a six-attorney labor and employment law firm that represents trade unions.

Mr. Cary’s decision to start his own firm represented what he called “my last window of opportunity, at age 53, to do what I wanted to do from the beginning.”

At the outset of his legal career in the economic recession of the early 1980s, Mr. Cary said he had exactly one job prospect after graduating from law school ? organizing mushroom workers.

“It paid poorly and I had to supply a car, which I didn’t have,” he said. “On the eve of the interview, I had to cancel because I just couldn’t afford the job.”

After teaching labor studies at Hofstra University and elsewhere, Mr. Cary worked as general counsel for a union, which led him to Vladeck Waldman “because I felt the need of a professional environment where I could learn to do things right,” he said.

Ms. Yee spent 15 years at Proskauer Rose before launching Donovan & Yee with her longtime colleague Mary A. Donovan.

“What it requires, apart from capital, is to turn to yourself and your own administrative abilities,” said Ms. Yee, whose office has five lawyers and a six-member support staff. “And you’d better do that well because you’ve got folks to feed and people need medical insurance, and you have to worry about who’s on vacation next week.”

No matter, said Ms. Yee, running her own firm offers “an amazing amount” of satisfaction.

“The person who can do something like this is more versatile, more adept at doing things beyond the realm of law,” she said.

Mr. Coleman, whose 3-year-old firm concentrates on trademark and Internet law, has the unique benefit of remaining of counsel with his longtime employer, Gibney, Anthony & Flaherty.

“Very few people are lucky enough to retain that sort of affiliation. There’s a flow of work for me,” he said. “Still, twice a month when I do payroll I have a miniature heart attack. It’s a lot of commitment, but I’m looking at a horizon when I’ll be able to break out in the next two or three years. And I’m going to be glad I did this.”

Mr. Katter said he began his practice with a business plan, a year’s salary in the bank and steady referrals from his network of colleagues at large firms who would steer business his way that might pose conflicts for them.

“In the first six months, my revenues were small,” he said. “But then over the next six months, I was beginning to pull in double what I earned as an associate. My colleagues knew I wasn’t going to be their rival, so it became a good symbiosis. You have to have those contacts at law firms or businesses.”

At Mr. Cary’s 9-month-old firm, business is going so well he is running an ad seeking an associate.

“So ask me, am I happy?” Mr. Cary asked. “Yes, he said.”

? Thomas Adcock can be reached at
tadcock@alm.com.