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High-Energy Solo Is Making Mark With High-Profile Energy Practice

Posted Sep 13, 2010 9:24 AM CDT
By Rachel M. Zahorsky

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Carolyn Elefant
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Carolyn Elefant is in the midst of growing her high-profile energy regulatory practice. She’s particularly keen to further her imprint in an area traditionally allocated to multi-lawyer firms. The Washington, D.C.-based attorney is also promoting her recent book, Social Media for Lawyers: The Next Frontier. She’s made changes to her popular blog, MyShingle.com, which has a new tagline: “Go solo, grow solo.”

And this summer she took a road trip from Duluth, Minn., to Omaha, Neb., to document the experiences of solo attorneys across America’s heartland. Elefant’s Twitter followers could travel along with her and colleague Lisa Solomon via the online location tracker Foursquare. (Solomon describes the trip as “more Blues Brothers than Thelma and Louise.”) Solos uploaded their own videos to the Web platform Elefant designed for them. (Video excerpts from the trip also appear on this Legal Rebels website.)

No doubt she has been quite busy, as she most often is.

Elefant, 46, has been able to orchestrate the ebb and flow of her practice since the firm’s launch in 1993 as other commitments and personal priorities have taken precedence, including the birth of her two daughters in 1996 and 1999.

Formerly an attorney adviser with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and an associate of the D.C. boutique firm Duncan & Allen, Elefant began her practice with one small appellate matter and zero incoming clients. Determined to be a success—which by her definition included handling complex legal matters and ensuring a salary comparable to her law firm compensation on her own terms and hours—Elefant immersed herself in learning everything she could about the marine renewable energy industry, which was a relatively unregulated trade then.

“I was the only person in the country doing that type of work at the time,” Elefant says. “So even though I was a baby lawyer, people would call me to do that type of work.”

Elefant soon fostered a pipeline of lawyers who would feed her projects and cases. To gain trial experience, she took on employment and court-appointed criminal cases. The superior income from the energy matters has allowed her to phase out her criminal caseload, although she is working on a couple of pro bono foreclosure defense cases through Maryland’s foreclosure prevention program.

To handle the complex cases and appellate work she prefers without overwhelming her single-lawyer operation, Elefant harnesses the support of informal affiliate relationships with other energy professionals, lobbyists and law firms.

“You can definitely leverage yourself and get very far with one person,” she says, “but at some point if you want to do more complex cases or grow your practice, you just can’t do it alone.”

Elefant contracts some work to high-end specialists and other matters to mid-range practitioners, depending on the case. She also employs a virtual assistant for roughly 40 hours each month to handle administrative and tech tasks such as coordinating travel arrangements and posting blog entries.

Aware of the potentially exponential marketing power of the Internet in a pre-dot-com world, Elefant taught herself the necessary code to build her firm website in 1995. Seven years later she was one of the pioneers in the legal blogosphere with the launch of the Renewables Offshore blog, which offers weekly posts on legal and financial trends about marine renewables such as wave, tidal and hydrokinetic energy and offshore wind. She co-founded the Ocean Renewable Energy Coalition trade association and serves as its regulatory counsel.

In 2002, Elefant added MyShingle.com to her arsenal, where she chronicles the “changes that have been roaring through the legal profession.” And her dedication to solo practice is reciprocated, says Solomon, a legal research and writing consultant in Ardsley, N.Y.

“Her passion for being a solo and helping solos is infectious,” Solomon says. “Carolyn and I first became friends through SoloSez,” the ABA’s online discussion group, and “we’ve become really close friends.”

Solomon adds that, as a solo, Elefant is “even forward-thinking in her choice of practice areas … getting into the ocean renewables, … especially after the oil spill. Alternate energy is just going to be picking up steam. And I know that she uses a lot of the tools that she discusses on MyShingle—the collaboration tools and the online tools. She walks the walk.”

Asked whether she would steer her career on a different course given the changes the legal profession has undergone, Elefant is reflective. “The world is so different now,” she says. “In some ways there are fewer opportunities at firms.

“For a long time, even though I worked for myself, I always thought it would be temporary,” Elefant says. “It wasn’t until I had kids that I realized I’d never have this kind of flexibility if I went back” to a multi-lawyer firm.

And although she chides herself for not “thinking bigger” from the start, today Elefant is in full-blown growth mode—which means bigger cases, broader issues and more support staff—but only one lawyer in the house.

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