In one of those press releases-cum-SEO drivers that routinely crop up in my news aggregator, I noticed this announcement about Stephanie Fierro’s promotion from law firm associate to senior counsel at Frutkin Law, a mid-sized Arizona law firm. Nothing out of the ordinary there – but what most caught my eye was that prior to joining the firm as an associate a few years earlier, Ms. Fierro had operated her own practice.
That a younger lawyer would use her own firm as a stepping stone to employment isn’t anything new either. In fact, Fierro’s resume confirms what I and many other solo-supporter have long maintained: that starting a firm can help new, unemployed graduates find a full time job, if that’s their ultimate goal.
Still, at some point – and I’m not sure when – does solo and small firm practice go from the functional equivalent of an economy ticket on the bargain bus to the next point in your career to a near-worthless frequent flier voucher that you can’t redeem for a trip? Of course, that’s not always the case. Lawyers who run solo or small firm practices with a deep roster of six-figure clients will find dozens of law firms willing to court them. Likewise, a solo who’s started out handling occasional work for a tiny company that goes public might be invited on board to serve as general counsel. And even in today’s economy, it’s still possible that a highly skilled and experienced solo with an impressive track record but lacking a dependable book of business could transition to a senior advisory role or of counsel at a larger firm.
But what of other mid-career solos and smalls who are ready to move on. Not because their practice failed but because they tired of it and wanted to do something different – perhaps segue into a new practice area or manage a larger group or serve on a corporate board or work as a judge or in-house or even as a law professor? While lawyers at large firms or who’ve worked in advisory positions in government seem to have career mobility (for example, consider my co-columnist at Above the Law, Mark Herrmann, who went from big firm partner to in-house at an insurance firm (even though as I recall, Mark focused on drug and device law) or someone like James Sandman who went from law firm partner to counsel at DC Public schools to head of the Legal Services Corporation. Take a look at law school faculty list, and you see that many full professors, in addition to clerkships, have spent time at large firms – whereas most solos and smalls are hired only as adjuncts. Even most corporate boards — potentially a stepping stone to another position — are populated by big firm attorneys. There simply doesn’t seem to be as much flexibility for solo and small firm lawyers.
Of course, there is a solution – the same one that we solos and smalls have done all along. We can Build. We can Reinvent. We can, through sheer force of will, create a new job or business where none previously existed. Yes, we can do all of this – but sometimes, it might be a nice change to simply run on autopilot and have it done for us.
What’s your experience? Can solo and small firm practice become a dead end? Or are there always endless opportunities for those looking to take it? Share you experience below.