A Solo Blast from the Past: Professor Stephen Gillers and “I’d Rather Do It Myself”

No one will understand the loneliness and fears.  Or when it comes, the exhilaration.  One morning in the second month, you may leave for work morbid and depressed.  You realize that you’re spending more time dreaming about clients than getting them.  You are sure you are headed for economic ruin.  But then, you return home thoroughly elated.  A wholly unforseen$3500 retainer has fallen – a gift from heaven — onto your desk.  A week later you are depressed again because a similar large fee has not unexpectedly turned up.  You suddenly realize that in the past few days, you’ve multiplied $3500 by 52 weeks at least a dozen times…

Thus, begins I’d Rather Do It Myself: How to Set Up Your Own Law Firm, written back in 1977 by NYU professor and ethics expert Stephen Gillers back in the day when he was (gasp!) a shingle-er.  Like most solos starting out, I’d read Jay Foonberg’s classic How to Start and Build A Law Practice, first published in 1976, but until I stumbled across Gillers’ book through the magical power of Google, I had no idea that it existed, nor did I realize that Gillers (whose commentary on legal ethics I’ve read for years) was ever a practicing lawyer, let alone someone who’d penned a book on starting a practice.   

Back when I started my blog, Jay Foonberg graciously responded to this interview with MyShingle readers.  And now, continuing in that tradition, I’m pleased to offer an interview with Professor Gillers, in which he discusses his reasons for starting his own firm and writing his book, his transition from moving from his firm to academia and the advice from his book that still rings true.  You can read the interview in its entirety after the jump.

1.  Can you provide a brief overview of your background?

NYU Law School 1968, clerked for a district judge in Oregon for a year, Paul Weiss for under two years, some work with a public interest organization for two years, solo practice in Manhattan 1973-75; partner in 2-lawyer firm 1975-78; NYU faculty ever after. Oh, and grew up in Brooklyn, a very good credential for solo practice.

2.  At what stage of your career did you decide to start your own law
firm, and why?

Probably in Kindergarten but I didn’t know it yet. So after Paul Weiss, I realized I was not the sort of person who fit well in a seriously hierarchical organization when my place was on the bottom. By solo practice I could be the bottom, the middle, and the top.  Also I wanted to be closer to the action, savor the victories, accept responsibility for defeats. My personal expenses were low. I also realized that the product in law practice is the lawyer, me, not all the equipment and support services a firm offices. I was the product and I was already there.

3.  At the time you started your firm, how were solo and small firm lawyers perceived by the legal profession?  And was starting a firm regarded as a desirable option — or as a career choice of last resort?

I don’t know how the were perceived. I never asked. It was clearly the right thing for my personality and that’s all that mattered. I had no doubt I would succeed and did (although looking back I now realize I was probably a little too confident, which may however be why I succeeded). I earned more each year than I would have earned as a large firm associate, including the first year I did it. Including the first month. And when I started I had no client and no expectation of a client. Partly that’s luck, partly it’s networking.

4. You are now a well regarded ethics authority and professor at a top law school?  How did you transition from solo practice to that position?  Do you believe that starting a running a firm helped you succeed as a professor – or was private practice regarded as a negative?

Big question. How did I segue from my second best job to my best one? I went out for the newspaper one evening and ran into a former teacher who said that another former teacher was retiring and taught subjects that might fit well with my experience. Was I interested? I applied at NYU and other places. NYU made an offer. I was already living in Greenwich Village and didn’t relish moving so I withdrew my other applications and accepted. This is a true story. A lot of my career can be explained by serendipity. The Woody Allen joke that 90 percent of success is just showing up is overstated. I’d say it’s more like 50 percent showing up and luck, but you then have to recognize the luck and run with it.

I believe that my experience being personally responsible for the legal safety of my clients has made me a better law teacher (and all around better person!). My resume, however, is exactly what today would disqualify applicants from even the most cursory consideration for law teaching at elite schools and elite school wannabes. Which is most. I probably snuck intothe academy the last year a guy with my work history could have made it. Having a reputation at my school, as a former very visible student, probably helped. Being basically likeable and easy to get along with helped, he said modeslty.

5.  Do you believe that in today’s environment that a solo practitioner can realistically aspire to a teaching position in academia?  What advice would you have for a practitioner seeking to
take this path?

You have to write academic stuff. People who come through the appointments process have written at least one article post-law school, so far as I can see. But you also have to be interesting. Becoming quasi-famous, for positive virtues, helps a lot. People are impressed if other people are impressed..  Network like crazy. Teach adjunct for a while. Get great student evaluations. Do top drawer bar stuff. But if you can’t write serious scholarship, which you must prove you can by doing it, odds are slim. Of course, I wrote a great deal before coming to teach but it was more in the nature of popular stuff and journalism. I’m not sure I knew what scholarship really required until I had to do it.

6.  Why did you decide to write the book, “I’d Rather Do It Myself?”

Serendipity again. They asked me. I accepted because I was curious about the process of starting one’s own firm. Who did it? Why? By then, I had already done it.  I went out and interviewed 50 solos (and small firm lawyers) around the City to get their boiled down wisdom. It’s in the book. The book still sells. My annual royalties every six months are in the high two digits!

Today, the book is useless for the financial stuff and it was written before computers. (When I started, all I had was a portable typewriter. No secretary. Second hand furniture. Didn’t mind. Liked it. I felt powerful.)

The book is quite useful, I think, for the psychological stuff: how to make the decison, who should not do it, who should, how to have confidence. Also I talk a lot about how to treat clients. That may be the most imporant lesson. A lot of people mess up there. Clients are the main source of other clients, at least it was so for me after a while.

7.  Was your book published before or after Jay Foonberg’s book, How to Start and Build a Law Practice?  Did Foonberg’s book have any impact on your subsequent plans for your book, such as suppements and updates?

I don’t recall. I did not know about his book until after mine came out. I never opened it.

8.  How was the book received after it was published?  Did you market the book or otherwise actively promote it?

I never marketed the book and I don’t know how it was received. Once I wrote it, I got it out of my system. I wrote it in an 80 hour week in my parents’ Florida condo with them away. This was after I collected tons of notes and interviews. Then I spent a week in Aruba.

9.   What, in your view, are the one or two most important messages or pieces of advice in “I’d Rather Do It Myself?”

See above. 1. How to deal with scariness of it all. 2. Where clients come from and how to treat them. 3. You don’thave to make any money right away, though I did. You have to give yourself space to lose money at the outset (first 6 months) or just break even.

10.  In your book, you discuss that lawyers will need office space to start a firm.  Do you still believe that physical office space is necessary in today’s global economy and Internet Age?

Definitely. For your psychological well-being, well mine anyway. And you need a place to see clients. And even if you don’t see them there, you don’t want your address to be a residence. This is all so for New York. Maybe it’s different in Topeka. The fact that you have an office conveys your confidence in your own success. You signed a lease!

11.  What are some examples of advice in the book that still apply today?  What is now outdated?

As I say, the financial stuff – the numbers – are dated, as is the absence of the use of modern technology. But the broader financial information – the need to give yourself space and time – is very relevant. It is important to have fun doing  this. Don’t do it to get rich,though you may, relatively..  If you’re scared or dour, it’s self-defeating. It’s an adventure. You learn a great deal about yourself.

Last, remember that you are the product. You don’t need much else. I had no library (I used the bar library), no secretary, no copy machine, no water fountain, just a really nice room I rented in a small office. Oh, one other helpful piece of advice: I wrote articles for the local legal newspaper. They got attention.

12.  Do you believe that lawyers starting a practice today face more obstacles than at the time you wrote your book, and if so, how?  Or is it easier to start a firm today, and if so, how?

I think it’s harder because there’s more competition and because startup costs are higher.  Mine were mostly stationery, second hand furniture, a phone, and an office. But then again, it’s always been a battle to survive in a place like Manhattan.

13.  As a solo myself, I have long believed that the bar grievance committees disproportionately target and penalize solo and small firm lawyers, or adopt rules with disparate adverse impacts?  As an ethics professor, what is your view on how bar grievance committess treat solo and small firm lawyers?

I disagree. I was on one for three years. This is a big question. I do believe that small firm lawyers get more complaints because the clients are less able to look out for themselves, because volume may compromise quality, and because large firm clients have other remedies if they are unhappy.

14. If one of your law students approached you today and asked whether they should start their own firm, how would you respond, and what factors would you ask them to consider?

I don’t think anyone should do it right out of school unless they have no choice, at least not in a big city. Beyond that, it would depend on his or her personality. You have to be adventurous, curious, willing to take risks or able (like me) to fail to see that they’re there. Remember, too, no one else depended on me for support at the time. I was 29 when my solo practice fully launched, 27 when I began some of it.

15.  Do you follow any of the many blogs on solo practice?

Don’t read blogs unless Google tells me I’m mentioned in one.

16.  With the growth of large law firms and the globalization of law practice, what do you see as the role of solo and small law firms in the next two decades?

Representing small businesses and individuals. Those were mainly my clients.. I did every kind of work. But let me add this: Don’t be afraid of the big firms. The most remunerative case my partner and I had was an admiralty insurance case, an area in which we were totally ignorant. Our client was the insured. Our opponents, representing the carrier, were admiralty lawyers. We imagined that they  lived on boats in Greenwich CT and places like that. They wore ties with images of yachts on them. They had permanent tans, no doubt from working the sails.

We spent a year learning the law and won (before a judge who was a reserve officer in the  Coast Guard). Our  client’s prior firm, an admiralty firm, advised it to settle for a pittance. The client fired the firm and hired us on recommendation of another lawyer. We won several million in today’s dollars. On a partial contingency. 🙂

17.  Any final comments?

If you keep thinking you want to do it, you probably should. It’s a constant high. Also, don’t feel it has to be solo. It’s nice to have a partner. I had one for three years. And very important if redundant: You must love your clients as clients (even if you don’t like them as people) and they must feel that you care for them.

18.  Where can people buy “I’d Rather Do It Myself?

Published by New York Law Journal Press. Ignore the picture on the dust jacket. It’s old now and anyway it never resembled me.


  1. R Ramcharan on July 8, 2008 at 3:44 am

    Yes, things are definitely different in Topeka.

  2. R Ramcharan on July 8, 2008 at 3:44 am

    Yes, things are definitely different in Topeka.

  3. Maureen on August 17, 2008 at 6:01 pm

    I popped over for a visit having read an interview in Lawyer’s Weekly about your blog. I found this interview intriguing as I am contemplating having my own shingle too. I am teaching at a University starting Sept 2008 so will consider this option in 2009.

  4. Maureen on August 17, 2008 at 6:01 pm

    I popped over for a visit having read an interview in Lawyer’s Weekly about your blog. I found this interview intriguing as I am contemplating having my own shingle too. I am teaching at a University starting Sept 2008 so will consider this option in 2009.

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