YOUR LEGAL WRITES: The not-so-lonely lawyer

By Kathryn E. Brown | Jul 20, 2006

CHARLESTON -- California lawyer Jay Henderson is adamant about practicing alone.

CHARLESTON -- California lawyer Jay Henderson is adamant about practicing alone.

On his firm Web site, Henderson states that he can do a better job for clients at a reasonable price, and he has the freedom to decide how that happens.

Henderson remembers a time when a solo practice was considered dangerous because of the lack of peer interaction, something that was once deemed necessary for sharpening skills and expanding one's knowledge of the law. That is no longer the case, he argues.

Being in a practice by himself allows him to do things for clients that larger firms routinely prohibit. Henderson's clients never pay for copies, faxes, postage, secretary time or mileage. Clients who are suffering financially are given a fixed rate for work that he performs, even if that means that he won't have as much in the bank afterward, either.

Henderson is protective of the time he can spend with family members, as he likes the ability to leave early on occasion to visit with his grandchildren or to enjoy his airplane. Lastly, he doesn't miss lawyer squabbles and other types of popularity contests.

Henderson states (in what he calls "John Wayne" style) that fitting into someone else's harness simply isn't comfortable.

When a lawyer leaves the comfort of a larger firm, one with numerous legal assistants, eager associates, private secretaries, and a steady stream of business, it is only natural to question their motivation.

However, for law firm marketing guru Mark Merenda, remaining with a mega-firm is the risky decision.

"As an employee, you can be fired at any time for almost any reason," Merenda began. "In your own practice, one or two clients might fire you, but they're not all going to fire you at once.

"There is actually greater security in having your own practice."

Merenda suggests that the single biggest challenge for a solo practitioner is learning to juggle two major roles -– the attorney and the business owner.

The skills required to be an attorney have little to do with the entrepreneurial skills needed to manage a successful company.

Merenda says that entrepreneurship requires boldness, action, and marketing. The practice of law requires prudence, careful analysis, and promotional modesty.

"Attorneys believe marketing is undignified," Merenda claims.

If so, then how does the lone lawyer communicate product, price, and place without promotion? How does a solo practitioner compete with the mega-firm? Merenda claims the key is intense specialization.

"Become thee attorney for car dealers, or the one who specializes in pet trusts, or the one who focuses on divorces for domestic partners, or the one who does construction litigation," he advises.

Another way to differentiate from larger firms with even larger budgets is to concentrate on customer service. By perfecting telephone manners, improving response time, creating a positive and encouraging office culture, and understanding how clients expect to be treated, a solo lawyer can expect word to spread and work to appear out of nowhere.

Merenda's company, Smart Marketing, assisted a lawyer entering solo practice for the first time in January 2005. Within the first year, the lawyer witnessed over $1 million in gross revenue.

Small firms are often characterized as "minor league law." Often, solo practitioners have to work harder than lawyers in larger firms to make sure that their firm image matches those in the "majors."

Corporate identity, brochures, Web site content, office atmospherics and the credentials of the lawyer are important to clients who judge on appearance.

Solo practitioner Henderson addresses this issue in his essay, Why I Practice Alone. He writes that he was "raised" by very old lawyers who believed that an attorney's first duty was to his client. A reasonable amount of money would come in because a lawyer was very good at what he or she did, but the lawyer's reputation would bring in more work and even bigger clients.

For most solo practitioners, the sense of autonomy makes up for the headaches of having to do everything for themselves.

"One of the great benefits of practicing alone is the independence it gives me to serve my client the way I think is in his or her best interest and bill what I think is fair," Henderson concluded.

There is a common corporate saying that has been heard in countless teambuilding pep rallies. There is no "I" in "we!" Perhaps it is time to adjust that mantra, keeping the solo practitioner in mind. Possibly ... there is no "u" in "me."

Kathryn E. (Katy) Brown is a former law firm executive. Today, she is the managing member of a professional writing and editing agency called The Write Word, LLC. She can be reached at (304) 344-5355 or at

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