For many lawyers, starting or owning a law firm remains at best, a consolation prize – sloppy seconds to employment as a lawyer – and at worst, an undesirable career path that ranks far lower than positions in legal ops or legal tech that don’t even require a J.D. At law schools, starting a law firm is synonymous with A2J – as evidenced by the 60 or so legal incubator programs established by bar associations and law schools to enable new lawyers to acquire the skills necessary to launch successful practices that expand access to legal services for those of low and moderate incomes.
But starting and owning a law firm offers so much more than that. Most of all, law firm ownership affords lawyers an opportunity to fight for what matters to us and our clients, free of conflict and compromise.
I don’t have to answer to anybody except the case laws. That gives me a freedom to fight against the system, because I don’t have that conflict.
Goldberg is a highly visible example of a lawyer who’s used law firm ownership to take on the world. But there are many others – some high profile, some not. Last month, CNN featured law firm owner Michele Raynor Goolsby in a story on lawyers to call when African Americans are killed by police officers. Kathryn Zellner helps the innocent reverse wrongful convictions, with her work currently the subject of Netflix’s popular Making of a Murderer series. There are solos who defend speech rights and the Second Amendment and the rights of immigrants. As for me, I fight pipelines, defend landowners’ Fifth Amendment rights and protect the environment.
There are plenty of ways to effect modest social change and legal reform as a lawyer. You can participate in your law firm’s narrowly-circumscribed pro bono program, or run for office or join a legal tech company that advances access to justice. But at some point, change requires a fight or the drawing of lines in the sand or the advancement of an unpopular or uncontroversial position that may lack institutional support. That’s where solo and small law firms step up. And for many of us. that ability to fight without restraint is why we choose to own it.