Some of us start law firms because we want to, others because we have no alternatives. I was again reminded of this dichotomy by a pair of inspiring stories, here and here, about two successful shinglers, now in the twilight of their careers, who each started law firms at different times and under different circumstances, but ultimately because they were determined to practice law their way.
Chester County, PA lawyer William Lamb began his career in the 1960s at venerated biglaw firm, Dechert LLP, but dreamed of practicing in Chester where he grew up. The firm’s chair tried to convince Lamb to stay, telling him that “you could be sitting where I am in 30 years,” but that didn’t persuade Lamb. He left to take a job as an assistant district attorney and eventually founded LambMcErlane, which has since grown to 29 lawyers. And while Lamb may not earn the stratospheric salary he might have gotten were he still at Dechert, firm partners earn $600,000 annually, so he’s hardly in the poorhouse. Plus, he’s held influential positions in government and been at the forefront of his practice, rather than one of many shareholders as would have been his fate if he’d stayed at Dechert.
By contrast, Catherine Murdock Dewey, who turns 100 this year, didn’t have the same options as William Lamb. She and two female law school “chums” opened a firm in 1933 because no one else would hire them. With referrals from family and the Legal Aid organization nearby, they built a practice in a male-dominated profession. Dewey no longer practices, but you can tell from the interview, that the law was something that engaged and excited her.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter how we start our firms, whether they’re born of great ambition or sheer desperation. It’s the finish that counts, and every day, it’s we who choose how we get there — just like William Lamb and Catherine Murdock Dewey.