By Annie Butterworth Jones
A struggling economy may be the catalyst for the recent influx of practitioners launching solo practices and small firms, says Linda Hanson, secretary of the Bar’s General Practice, Solo, and Small Firm Section. The increase has inspired the section to create a series of initiatives designed for recent law school graduates, law students, and more experienced attorneys entering small firm practice for the first time.
Data released by the National Association of Legal Professionals showed that nearly 50 percent of recent Florida law school graduates — those graduating between December 2008 and August 2009 — employed by law firms began with a small firm. Nationally, law school graduates beginning their careers as solo practitioners comprised 5.3 percent of those employed in law firms, a 2 percent increase from previous years.
These numbers, Hanson says, call for training and mentoring programs to provide skills and guidance for those new to the small practice arena.
“It is essential to recognize that a solo or small firm practice is a business that requires a well-conceived business plan that includes the initial structure and setup, as well as marketing and technology goals,” she said.
“A successful solo or small firm practitioner should continue to expand their entrepreneurial mindset through networking and attending CLEs to learn new ways to bring in clients and well service existing clients.”
To aid practitioners in accomplishing these goals, the GPSSF provides its annual conference and interview program. The only program of its kind offered by the Bar sections, it’s a no-cost opportunity for lawyers to interview law students and recent graduates for potential employment.
“While Florida Bar CLE seminars and conferences do a great job of helping us stay educated on substantive issues, solo and small firm practitioners must be just as adept at running our businesses as we are at practicing law,” said Teresa Morgan, CLE chair and conference planner for the GPSSF. “We don’t have the luxury of a business manager — we must do this job ourselves, and we must do it exceedingly well in order to be successful.
“The speakers at our upcoming annual conference will address issues that are integral to our success as lawyers who own and operate our own businesses.”
This year’s event, “The Extraordinary Lawyer: Creating a Dream Practice in a Challenging Economy,” is scheduled for April 1-2 at the Bonaventure Spa and Resort in Weston. Attendees will learn about information management, social networking as a marketing tool, work life balance, and online ethics, and a panel — “The Extraordinary New Association: Landing and Keeping a Dream Job” — will be offered for law students.
“We are going to have lots of opportunities to get to know one another, to bounce ideas off of colleagues, to ‘pick the brains’ of our speakers, etc.,” said Morgan, owner and principal of Morgan Law Center for Estate and Legacy Planning in Lake City. “ Everyone who attends this conference can expect to leave energized and full of new ideas.”
Last October, the GPSSF Section also offered “Solo by Choice,” a CLE designed for attorneys and new graduates considering solo or small firm practice. The CLE garnered more attendees — online and live in Tampa — than anticipated, and with good reason, says Tampa attorney Jennifer Dietz.
“Attorneys are now searching for different avenues in the practice of law,” said Dietz, a member of the GPSSF executive council. “The conversations during the seminar were educational for all members of the audience, particularly corporate lawyers and new graduates.”
Due to the success of the CLE, executive council members have decided to offer “Solo by Choice” annually, and Dietz travels to Florida law schools to present similar but smaller presentations to law students.
“Today’s law students seem more open to admitting that large firm practice is unattractive to some of them. For them, small firm practice is not a default career path, but rather a conscious choice,” said Hanson, an assistant dean at the University of Florida College of Law.
“Generally speaking, small firm practice offers the young associate more autonomy and responsibility, as well as accelerated hands-on experience in the courtroom, and with full case management far sooner than a similarly junior associate would experience in the large firm.”
The GPSSF hopes that extra training and mentoring initiatives will help newer attorneys avoid mistakes that might result in disciplinary action. “One important step that a new lawyer could take would include to ask before they act if they are uncertain about a course of action,” said Hanson.
The section is also compiling anecdotes and information for a book to be published later this year. The Extraordinary Lawyer is designed to complement the April conference and compiles wisdom from experienced practitioners to help young solos and small firm attorneys “navigate the jungle,” said former GPSSF Chair Peggy Hoyt. “We wanted a way that the section could give back to the membership by having something tangible for members, some reference guide and real-life kind of experience.”
“Having seasoned GPSSF mentors available who are willing to provide guidance and perspective is invaluable to a solo or small firm practitioner who does not benefit from the formal in-house training or mentoring program common in larger firms,” said Hanson.