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Solo & Small Law Firms

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.