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Solo & Small Law Firms

No, I Don’t Hate Biglaw If It’s A Passion

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Quite often, when I compliment when of my daughters on something she’s done well, the other will chime in “But mommy, aren’t I good at that too?”  My response, of course, is that praising one of my girls doesn’t diminish how I feel about the other.

More frequently these days, I find myself in this situation with my blog.  Often, my advocacy of solo practice is often regarded as a put down of large firms, a perception that is corroborated by my criticism of many large firm practices (such as bloated billing rates, elistist views and fast and loose conflict of interest standards to keep clients post-merger).  But in truth, I don’t hold a grudge against large firms; I believe that they’re a great career choice if that’s where you can find your passion.  Unfortunately, many don’t, but some do.

A few months ago, I read Mark Herrmann’s The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law.  Herrmann is a partner and litigator at a large firm.  The book offers a biglaw partner’s perspective on issues relevant to success at large firms and the legal profession in general, such as what associates should do to avoid failure, how lawyers should serve clients and some tips on marketing.  (also, the chapter, The Curmudgeon Argues is the best 10 pages I’ve ever read on preparing for an oral argument).  But what stands out about the book, in addition to the blunt tone (which is part of the curmudgeonly persona), is Herrmann’s passion for what he does.  Consider this passage when Herrmann writes about why he loves his work:

I’ll quote a movie.  Joe Gideon, the tightrope walker in “All That Jazz” was asked why he risked his life every day for his career.  He answered “To be on the wire is life.  The rest is waiting.”

That’s the life of a litigator too.  When I’m engrossed in the law, I’m alive.  I’m engaged; I’m attentive, I’m focused.  I can tell you now, decades later and with almost pathological recall, lines of questions that worked and others that didn’t at my earliest trials.  I can tell you the one time an appellate judge asked me a question I hadn’t anticipated.  I can tell you when, after wrestling with an insoluble issue for months, I finally saw the light.  Maybe those great events don’t happen often enough, but when they do happen, they’re unspeakably good.  To be on the wire is life; the rest is waiting.

My desire for all of us, myself included, is that we feel the same as Herrmann about what we do.  If like, Herrmann, you’ve found passion in biglaw, then stand proud.  But if you’re still searching for meaning, for a “life on the wire,” starting a law firm may be one place to look.  It’s not the only place, or the best place – but it may be the place for you.

Editor’s Note:  The LPM Committee of the DC Bar is sponsoring a session, Putting Practice Back into the Passion of Law, February 22, 2007, 12-1:30.  Visit DC Bar website at for more details (see events to register).

  • There’s another perfectly valid and good reason for lawyers to consider going to work for a big law firm. . . they’re a GREAT place to hang out your own shingle. No, I’m not crazy. You read that right, big law firms are great places to hang out your own shingle. It’s all a matter of perception. Let me explain. . .
    Let’s say you’re just getting out of law school, or maybe you’ve been out for awhile but your solo law firm hasn’t been performing for you as well as you might have hoped. Do you struggle out there on your own, ordering your own office supplies, managing your own IT, negotiating with your own landlord and managing your staff all by yourself, all the while trying to find time to practice law and have a life?
    Well, if that’s you then having a life is probably the first thing that got sacrificed a long time ago. So let’s take that out of the equation when comparing big vs. solo practice for our hypothetical lawyer who isn’t able to make enough rain to keep him/herself comfortably appointed.
    Now we need to touch upon an important subject which is often misunderstood by lawyers. Unfortunately, it’s a subject for which we don’t have enough space to give justice, here in a short blog posting. And that’s the subject of what it REALLY means to “own” or be a “partner” in a law firm? In reality, the only thing the Owner(s) or Partners of a big law firm actually “own” that is of any value, is the ignorance of their associates who never learned how to make it rain enough to be in a position to demand a piece of the pie for themselves. Oh yeah, and a collection of used furniture, old computer equipment, a lease obligation for the space, and a collection of accounts receivables. And what do you suppose each Partners’ slice of all that is really worth on the open market?
    Now once you recognize that the only thing that REALLY separates the Partners of big law firms from their Associates, is the ability to generate enough business to cover their own overhead and make a profit for the firm, it becomes clear that it’s perfectly possible to hang out your own shingle in a big law firm.
    Do you have to sacrifice some of the freedoms of being completely out on your own? Sure you do. But the trade-offs can be well worth it if you manage the relationship well and go into it with your eyes open. And keep in mind that just because you’re bound by someone else’s rules today, doesn’t mean you will have to still be bound by those rules tomorrow. If you learn how to generate enough business to have a say in the matter, that is.
    So how does one go about hanging out his/her own shingle in a big law firm? The Answer: Become a Rainmaker. Were you hoping for a more complicated answer? Sorry to disappoint you, but that’s it. . . Just bring in roughly double what you take out of the firm and for all practical purposes, you’ve achieved “solo” status. That is to say, you can begin to have a say on the rules of the firm which affect you, because at that point, the firm needs you as much as you need them.
    When you bring in three times what you take out, you can have a say on the rules of the firm that govern the lawyers who your work is keeping busy. Because at that point, those lawyers need you more than you need them. And when you tip the scales and are able to bring in more than three times what you take out of the firm, that’s when you make the transition and either become a “Partner” in a big law firm, or go out on your own and open your own shop because you want to have a say in the rules of all the lawyers in a law firm, except of course for the ones who bring in twice what they’re taking out of the place.
    So there you have it. Think of working for a big firm as owning your own shop in a mall. The mall takes care of security, HVAC, basic insurance, and maintenance of the roof over your head. And in exchange you agree to run your shop in accordance with mall rules. But inside your own four walls YOU still get to make all the important rules about strategy and how you prioritize your finite resources of time, energy and enthusiasm.
    So to any lawyers reading this or any of the other many great blogs for solos, if you’re ever tempted to feel like bashing (or being jealous of) lawyers in big law firms, remember that we’re ALL bound by the same Golden Rule Of Law Firm Management: Whoever Controls The Golden Clients Rules The Law Firm.

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