The Page Between Biglaw and Solo Practice, Between Life and Death

Even though I reside in Bethesda, Maryland and practice appellate law in Washington D.C. just like appellate lawyer Mark Levy,  the former Kilpatrick Stockton attorney who took his life after his firm downsized, our paths never crossed.   As a biglaw attorney and a small fry in a highly stratified town like Washington D.C., lawyers like Mark Levy and I travel in different circles, attend different conferences and represent different types of clients.  Yet in an odd turn of circumstances, our worlds nearly collide this month on the pages November’s ABA Journal, which reports on Mr. Levy’s tragic suicide in this article, A Death in the Office and interviews me (as well as some of my solo colleagues) in this piece  So You Want to Go Solo?  Are You Sure? just a few pages later.

In reading about Mr. Levy, oh, how I envied his career.  After all, what appellate lawyer walking this planet wouldn’t covet a CV that included a prominent position in the Clinton administration, high powered and likely lucrative jobs at AmLaw 100 firms and most of all, multiple arguments before the Supreme Court?  If I’d ever met Mr. Levy at a function here in D.C., I’m certain that I would have peppered him with dozens of questions about his cases, his appellate strategy and at what rate your heart pumps or your stomach flips over when you stand before a podium where few lawyers have gone before, with the prospect of vindicating a client or making history.

At the same time, I’m also certain that many of Mr. Levy’s colleagues at the big firms where he worked throughout his career wouldn’t have shared the same curiosity about my career.  Most likely, if we’d met , they’d tolerate a polite handshake before hightailing over to someone more important, or even ditching me to chat with a close colleague whom they just saw a few days earlier.  Perhaps a few of the more adventurous would politely take a few minutes to listen to me chatter away about my “little law practice” and how I leverage technology and social media to serve my clients.  But back at the office, they’d heave a sigh of relief about not having to aggregate and manage a half dozen small clients for an appeal (as I often do to make appeals and federal court cases affordable) or fritter away valuable billable time blogging or playing on Twitter in a desperate effort to compensate for the kind of credibility and connections that biglaw automatically confers.

These days, the arrogance of many (certainly, not all) biglaw attorneys no longer offends me or hurts my feelings as it did fifteen years ago when I was starting out.  What bothers me more is biglaw attorneys’ utter lack of curiosity about how the other side of the bar lives, and indeed, the unbearable obliviousness to any aspect of law practice that doesn’t involve big law.  Because it’s those attitudes that leave lawyers like Mr. Levy feeling as if they have no alternatives – that unless they practice at a big firm, they simply don’t count as a lawyer.

To those who would peg me as a cheerleader for the solo lifestyle, rest assured, my career and life are far from perfect.  I’ll probably never argue a case before the Supreme Court or earn the salary of a biglaw attorney or head up an office within an administration.  But on most days, I like what I do and I earn a living doing it.  I help clients solve problems, I’ve made some great friends through online communities and built opportunities for myself – like writing a book – that I never imagined I could do, all without compromising time with my daughters.  Surely, this counts for something.

In death, just a few pages separate my story in the ABA Journal from Mr. Levy, just as in life,  roughly eight blocks separated my D.C. office from Kilpatrick Stockton’s D.C. location.  Yet despite the short geographic distance, Mr. Levy was never able to cross the abyss that separated my world from his.  But perhaps other lawyers like him will take a moment to flip a few pages forward in the ABA Journal and see that outside the darkest tunnel, there’s a whole world of lawyers who exist outside biglaw and even though for many, it’s a last resort, the last place on earth they imagined they’d wind up, perhaps it’s not such a bad place to be.


  1. Susan Cartier Liebel on November 13, 2009 at 11:15 am

    Wow, Carolyn. What a thought-provoking and insightful piece. I have many similar stories to tell even though I only saw more envy from others of what I was doing, starting my own practice without having to answer to anyone.
    And I never envied those who worked at larger firms. I simply admired those who took on great cases (and they could be biglaw or solos).
    But, I agree, the perception is there is a lack of interest in what the ‘other half’ does. Strangely, in many instances I think they envy us, too.
    And the cheerleader comment…anyone who takes more than three seconds to understand you, your writing, your thoughts, your perspective knows you are emotionally and professionally a fully-fleshed out, perfectly flawed human being who simply and with passion shares there is more to one’s career then ‘getting a job’. While we all live it, you take the inordinate amount of time to share it so others don’t feel so isolated.

  2. Craig Niedenthal on November 13, 2009 at 11:28 am

    Carolyn: What a thoughtful piece. I too read the article regarding Mark Levy and my heart broke as I saw a man who appeared to have it all, but the harshness of Biglaw put him out to pasture. What a loss. Then to have this coupled with the article about Going Solo and what it takes provided such an interesting contrast. No doubt we have our stresses and moments when we are ready to throw in the towel, but one thing we know…this is ours to do with as we please and no one can make the decision to leave or get out but us alone. Our futures are not tied to anything but our own willingness to work hard and do what we can to improve our own futures. Thanks for putting such a great perspective on these two articles and how it corresponds to the 2 very different lives of lawyers.

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