Shan Thever ()
About 200 attorneys attended the 13th annual Small Law Firm Practice Management Symposium this fall, which was organized by the New York City Bar Association’s Small Law Firm Center.
Presiding over the symposium was Shan Thever, a California transplant who took over as director of the center in mid-August.
The center (www.nycbar.org/member-and-career-services/small-law-firm-overview) was established in 2000 to serve the growing number of members who were solo practitioners or worked in small firms. The goal of the center is to provide the kinds of access to services and research tools that attorneys working in big law firms routinely enjoy and to foster networking opportunities among small-firm attorneys.
A graduate of UCLA Law School, Thever was admitted to the California Bar in 1977. As a litigator, he practiced business and immigration law. His firm, Shever & Associates, grew from a solo practice to a 13-attorney operation representing municipalities, medical groups, hospitals and private businesses.
Thever said he and his wife moved east to be closer to their daughter, and he joined the city bar because it gave him an opportunity to put his experience as an attorney and an entrepreneur to use. Thever, who was admitted to the New York Bar in 2015, said he still has a few cases, but spends most of his time on the center’s work.
Q: How many solos and small-firm attorneys are there in the New York legal community?
A: We don’t track data on the entire New York legal community, but approximately one-fourth of the City Bar’s 24,000 members are solos or work in small firms, which we define as up to 24 lawyers. Of this subgroup, approximately 40 percent are solos.
Q: Has the economic condition of these attorneys changed over the last several years? Has it become easier or harder to make a living?
A: The Great Recession hurt business for a lot of attorneys for obvious reasons, although bankruptcy and real estate attorneys had lots of work, again for obvious reasons. As the economy has picked up, the average solo and small-firm attorney seems to be doing better, at least anecdotally.
Q: Why did the city bar establish the small firm center?
A: We started the center in 2000, when we found that a growing percentage of our members were solos or worked in small firms, as compared to, say, a generation ago, when the great majority of our members were from large firms. We found that we could fulfill some needs for the solo or small-firm lawyers that large-firm lawyers got from their firms, such as career development programs, information on office management, products and services, and access to research tools. The center was also meant to provide networking opportunities that would permit lawyers to assist one another in solving problems and together serving clients with multiple needs.
Q: What services does your program offer?
A: The city bar’s Small Law Firm Center provides a wide array of programs, services and resources for small firms and solos:
• With our virtual law firm, which is available for an extra fee to city bar members, you get a great real-world street address: 43 West 43rd St. You can get your mail delivered here or have it forwarded to an address of your choice. You can have your own 212 phone number and have your calls answered with a script you write, for a fee.
• You can meet with clients and of course have access to the library.
• Members have access to Casemaker’s broad and comprehensive libraries which covers all 50 states and federal level materials, as well as access to a suite of tools that make research faster and easier.
• Additional resources include office, case and time management tools, as well as a list of vendors selected for their quality and with whom we have negotiated discounts, including for filings, calendaring, marketing, website design, bookkeeping, and more.
• You can sit down with the program’s director one-on-one and discuss practice management issues.
• Solos and small firm lawyers can also apply to be on our legal referral service panel, which can be a great source of new clients.
• And, as a city bar member, you can apply to serve on one of our 160 committees, where they can do great work and network with some of the brightest lawyers in New York.
Q: Why do attorneys become solo practitioners?
A: For many it’s not a choice—they are going solo because they cannot find a job. But for some it is a choice. I met one person who graduated from a good law school but turned down an offer from a big law firm because she felt she wasn’t ready. Another member decided to open his own office after working as a government lawyer for 20 years, and came to us to find out what tools were available to help him. A third, a fourth-year lawyer, wants to open an immigration law practice with a colleague. They are confident of receiving referrals and in their business skills, but need help in increasing their knowledge of the immigration field.
Q: What is the most important advice that you have to offer solos and employees of small law firms?
A: At big firms, lawyers pop into one another’s offices from time to time to brainstorm and explore what can be done to best serve the client. We advise solos and small-firm lawyers to try to replicate that dynamic as best they can, even if it’s online. By bringing together lawyers with various skill sets and connections, not only can valuable information be exchanged but new business opportunities can arise as well. If I get a referral for an area in which I am not completely confident, rather than turn down the case I can look for someone to partner with. Working solo can be lonely, so don’t be a loner. Be a part of the community of lawyers. Be a part of a group that shares your trials and tribulations and can help you crowd-source solutions.
Q: What are the advantages and disadvantages of working for a small firm?
A: Solo and small-firm life can be all consuming, but there can be more control and accommodation toward the work/life balance. It’s a perennial question: can the attorney pick up her kid from school and administer the office? Mobile technology can help; while waiting to pick up her child, she can input her time and invoice her client, and so on. It’s a tough balancing act, but of course big law often is not a day at the beach either in regard to work/life balance. A smaller environment can also offer a greater sense of camaraderie, which itself is of value in any working environment. And some people would just rather work for themselves. A disadvantage is that there is no one to cover for you when you want to take a vacation.
Q: Is it possible for a solo practitioner to be both a good business person and a good lawyer?
A: It’s not just possible; it’s necessary. I had a small practice in California, and at some point I realized I needed to develop my business management skills. I attended a mini business course at UCLA Business School and obtained a Management Development for Entrepreneurs Certificate which helped me to run my practice. We have programs and resources to help with developing the business side, from operations to marketing, and even including how to handle succession when you are ready to retire. It can be tough to wear two hats, and some are just better wearing one hat or the other. But if solos can do both and grow their practice, they will eventually have associates who can carry some of the burden.
The biggest challenge for solos and small firms is new business, so there’s a third hat. It’s important to find the right balance when dealing with potential clients. You need to balance giving free advice and selling yourself with assigning value to your time and knowledge, which are your stock in trade.
Q: You have practiced in California as well as New York. Is it easier on solos and employees of small firms there?
A: I am licensed in California and New York. While there are aspects that are unique to each community, the burdens and pleasures of solos and small law firm practitioners are essentially the same. California has more sun. And a lot more traffic.
Q: Do you have any plans for changes to the center?
A: On that very point, we are in the process of organizing focus groups to gauge what our members are looking for from our program, so stay tuned.