Solo Network

It’s Not about Size

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Chicago area attorney Brian Garelli recently sat in a conference room opposite six lawyers from the law firm of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. He represented the buyer in the sale of a closely held business. The Skadden Arps team represented the seller.

A former partner at Chicago’s Lord Bissell & Brook, Garelli of Elmhurst, Ill., was comfortable in the surroundings and had handled complex transactions. But this time, he was flying solo.

Big-firm attorneys are often surprised when a solo is on the opposite side of a complex transaction such as this. It’s one of many misconceptions about solo practice. One myth is that people go solo “because they don’t have the opportunity to work for a megafirm,” says Enrico Schaefer, a Traverse City, Mich., solo who worked for large firms and now runs the Greatest American Lawyer Web log.
In fact, many bright, seasoned big-firm partners are opting to go solo. “You can keep up with the big firms,” says Garelli, who has been on his own now for seven years. With the advent of computers and the Internet, he says, “one person can do a lot more work now.”

What you need—and what solos have—is a nationwide network, including bar associations, blogs, chat groups and old fashioned networking groups.

Solos point out that they can be quicker to adopt new tech­nology than the big firms, where layers of bureaucracy and meetings slow down purchases. “I can conduct my partnership meetings when I am driving from one client to the next,” says Uniondale, N.Y., solo David Abeshouse, “or while I’m in the shower.”

Port Washington, N.Y., solo Arnie Herz says solos use technology not only to practice law, but also to establish contacts. “As a solo, you have to refine your social networking skills to bring in business and get the support you need as a lawyer in areas where you are not an expert,” says Herz, a megafirm refugee.

“I build teams of people,” adds Schaefer, who focuses on high tech civil litigation. “I’m not stuck looking within the walls of my firm to look for the best peo­ple.”

Experts at Multitasking

Another misconception is that solo practice is tedious. In fact, solos say, the breadths of their workloads can be more varied than those of most big firm lawyers.

“When you go on your own, you have to become more of a jack-of-all -trades,” says Garelli, who has expertise in mechanics liens, closely held shareholder disputes and con­tested estate litigation. “You have to be able to take on new tasks at a quick pace.” And solos believe they work as hard, or harder, than big and midsize firm attorneys.

“I am the senior partner, junior associate, the rainmaker, the worker bee, the office manager, the technology guy, the PR manager, the marketing coordinator, the webmaster and the bookkeeper, all rolled into one,” says Abes­house, a commercial litigator who was a partner in a mid­size Long Is­land firm for 14 years.

Despite the responsibilities that come with all those jobs, solos can enjoy flexibility. “You control your schedule,” Garelli says. His office is close to his home so that he can attend his kids’ events. “When you are in a large firm, there is a lot of rigidity that forces you to miss things.”

For Herz—who has been solo more than five years, it means daily yoga practice, walks in a local nature preserve and never missing events at his kids’ schools.

It is also about freedom to choose cases and clients. “If a case doesn’t interest me, I don’t have to take it,” says Ga­relli. “In my old firm, if it didn’t interest me, tough; you had to take it.”

And being on your own can be lucrative, Herz says. “You bring in the client. You bill the client. You collect from the client. It goes into your pocket.”

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