Management Assistance Program on www.OKbar.org

Management Assistance Program

Success in Solo and Small Firm Settings

by Jennifer Heald Kirkpatrick

Many who enter law school have “Big Law” dreams: to graduate and land jobs at big law firms in major metropolitan areas. However, statistics show that a majority of law school graduates will be forced to take different paths. For example, statistics gathered by the American Bar Association show that only 55 percent of the class of 2011 were employed full time as lawyers nine months after graduation. Because the number of “Big Law” jobs has decreased in recent years, schools outside major metropolitan areas are urging students to consider a Main Street solo law practice.1

Regardless of whether you had dreams of becoming a big firm lawyer or always knew you’d hang your shingle in small town Oklahoma, opening your own firm can be daunting. However, sometimes knowing that others have forged a trail before you and achieved success is comforting and inspiring. I am fortunate to know three such young lawyers: Bryon J. Will, LeAnne McGill and Faye Rodgers.

Bryon J. Will, a 2008 graduate of the Oklahoma City University School of Law, was one of many in his graduating class who did not have a job waiting for him. Rather than waiting for a spot to open up at a firm, he decided to open his own practice in Oklahoma City. Bryon now has a busy and thriving practice in estate planning, probate, real estate and bankruptcy.

Bryon said, “Being a young lawyer and a solo-practitioner does have its challenges. I didn’t have the opportunity to make a name for myself by learning from senior attorneys at law firms after graduating law school. I had to both earn a reputation and learn how to practice law at the same time. However, after hanging my shingle right out of law school and after four years of practice, I believe I have been able to overcome most obstacles that most young lawyers have to face when beginning to practice anywhere. I have tried to surround myself with multiple attorneys, young and veteran, to be able to learn those same skills that any new lawyer working in a firm would learn as well. I would be lying if I were to say it is not overwhelming, because it is. But by working hard for my clients and networking with the right people, I have not only been able to make a living, but I have been able to build a law practice at the same time.”

Other law school graduates decide to open their own practices after working as associates in law firms. For example, LeAnne McGill and Faye Rodgers, both 2006 graduates of the Oklahoma City University School of Law, started their own firm together in Edmond in 2009. When asked to comment on opening her own firm, LeAnne said, “Having the courage to go out on your own and open a firm is intimidating. Law school does not prepare you for the realities of practicing law, let alone for running your own firm. And working for someone for a few years is very different from running your own firm. In the beginning, there is a new challenge to overcome every day or a new problem to solve; and a lot of times, it has nothing to do with a case.”

Despite such challenges, the two-person family law firm of McGill & Rodgers is flourishing. According to LeAnne, “After a while, you start to get the hang of it, and everything begins to fit together. That feeling of accomplishment makes all the hard work and long hours worthwhile.”

Her law partner Faye Rodgers agreed. “Opening a law firm with my best friend was the scariest, yet best decision of my life,” she said. When asked specifically what advice she would give to young lawyers considering a solo or small practice, Faye said there were three key ingredients that she and LeAnne relied on heavily in the beginning:

  • Determination
  • Realistic mentors
  • Jay Foonberg’s book, How to Start and Build a Law Practice.

Despite the differences driving these three young lawyers to open their own practices, there are commonalities in their success: hard work, willingness to learn and finding mentoring attorneys. Faye also stated that a guiding principle was the desire to be an attorney of which her family and friends would be proud. At the end of the day, that’s what we should each strive to be, regardless of whether we have our own practices or work in firm settings — attorneys who make our families, friends, clients and bar associations proud.

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES:

  • OBA Management Assistance Program
    Jim Calloway, Director
    jimc@okbar.org
  • American Bar Association’s Solo and Small Firm Resource Center
    http://ambar.org/soloandsmallfirms
  • SoloSez — ABA email listserv for solos and small firm lawyers features approximately 3,000 solo and small firm e-mail subscribers discussing everything from tech tips and legal opinions to what to wear to court.

1. J. Maureen Henderson, “Why Attending Law School Is the Worst Career Decision You’ll Ever Make,” ForbesWoman, June 26, 2012.

Ms. Kirkpatrick practices in Oklahoma City and chairs the YLD. She can be reached at
jkirkpatrick@hallestill.com.

Originally published in the Oklahoma Bar Journal, October 6, 2012 - Volume 83, No. 26