Battling the Solo Stigma
Good Work and Encouraging Words Can Deflect Snap Judgments
Posted Feb 1, 2004 1:30 AM CDT
By Margaret Graham Tebo
Carolyn Elefant knows what it’s like to be a solo attorney in a big-firm world.
Elefant of Washington, D.C., practices energy and regulatory law--a niche area typically populated by medium-to-large firms, not solos. Clients are sometimes surprised to find a solo attorney in this legal arena.
“I do sometimes get the impression that potential clients think they need a bigger firm as counsel to make an impression,” Elefant says.
It is a familiar problem for many solos, especially those who practice in areas that are traditionally the domain of larger firms: the stigma of being thought of as a lesser lawyer because only your own name appears on your firm stationery.
In fact, she once handled a case where opposing counsel, apparently intending a compliment, said, “Boy, that sure was fine work for a solo.”
Elefant has learned to take such comments in stride. She believes the quality of her work speaks for itself when she competes with bigger firms. Still, when clients seem flummoxed that she’s a solo, she lets them know that she has the experience of working in a bigger firm, as well as insider knowledge as a former employee of the regulatory agencies she deals with on her clients’ behalf.
“If you have a big-firm or agency credential, I would definitely trade on that with potential clients,” she says.
Elefant says it’s also important to explain to clients why she, as a solo, is their best choice as counsel on energy and regulatory matters. She reminds clients that she offers expertise and access that they don’t necessarily get at bigger firms.
“When clients call my office, they get me--not the first-year associate, the paralegal or somebody else who needs permission to give advice,” she says.
She also reminds them that she has more time to devote to each client, lower overhead and more issue-specific expertise than a lot of bigger firms can offer.
These days, Elefant gets most of her work through referrals from satisfied clients as well as former colleagues and others with whom she has built a solid reputation.
“I used to feel that stigma thing a lot more at the beginning of my solo career than I do now. It’s become almost a nonissue,” she says.
Washington, D.C., solo practitioner Joel Bennett also finds that the way to avoid being stigmatized is to earn and maintain a solid reputation with those in a position to send repeat business his way.
The employment lawyer says he gets much of his work from general counsel referrals. The reason, he says, is threefold.
“One, I do good work. Two, I’m not going to steal anybody’s client because I only do this area of law, so they still need the referring lawyer for everything else. Three, clients are afraid of bigger firms running up the bill,” Bennett says.
Like Elefant, he occasionally encounters opposing counsel who treat him “like a poor relation.” But, he says, he ignores the slights and lets his work speak for him.
“They make a very small settlement offer because they think I don’t want to go up against them in court. Then, when I succeed in defeating their motion for summary judgment, they get serious about dealing with me,” says Bennett, who represents both plaintiffs and defendants in employment and labor law cases.
High Tech Helps
Bennett says technology makes it possible for solos to compete on an even field with bigger firms. A few times, opposing counsel, knowing that he was scheduled to attend conferences out of town, attempted to intimidate him with multiple motions amounting to an avalanche of paperwork.
In one such instance, Bennett simply packed his laptop, complete with high-speed cellular Internet and Westlaw access, and answered the motions during breaks in the conference. He faxed his responses to the judge from his hotel and still managed to attend all of his scheduled conference events.
“Anything a big firm can do, I can do with technology. And clients appreciate that.”