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Flying solo

Many attorneys soar with own practices

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As solo practitioners and small firm settings continue to be one of the fastest growing practice styles in the legal profession, it is not surprising that many of San Diego's top attorneys don't work for a big law firm.

It was front-page news in California and around the country when Michael Conger won a class-action lawsuit against the city of San Diego and its pension fund. Conger isn't part of a mega-national's legal team, but rather head of his own firm started in 1999.

He's far from alone. According to a survey conducted in 2006 by the State Bar of California, approximately 40 percent of its more than 200,000 members are solo or small firm practitioners, with many others aspiring to strike out on their own.

Path to independence

Why go solo, attorneys brand new and well established alike might ask? For Robert Ottilie, a 22-year solo practitioner, it is the freedom to take on the cases he wants and work more hands-on with a diverse portfolio of clients.

"It may sound corny, but I was lured by the idea of doing high-quality work on a small number of cases representing people who truly need help," said Ottilie, whose firm handles mayors and municipalities and also devotes between 500 to 1,000 hours a year to pro bono matters and public interest litigation.

While never regretting his decision to set up his own shop, he does caution those "with the spirit of independence and desire to call their own shots" that the obstacles to taking this route can be rough, but are usually surmountable.

The road he took, and one he advises for others, is initially to find shared office space with more established attorneys, if possible, not only to keep overhead costs low but also for mentoring and business management support.

Getting the word out to referral sources and potential clients also is essential. Ottilie sent some 2,500 notices and was lucky to get a couple-dozen cases right off the bat.

"Once there's a steady client base and a good cash flow, then you have the confidence to branch out into your own space and set up effective business systems," he said.

There also are free and low-cost resources that fledgling practitioners can tap into, such as those offered at the San Diego County Bar Association, including insurance, client referral services and discounted professional tools like Web-based LexisNexis research and archives, said the group's communication director Karen Korr.

Fast lane to slow go

While Ottilie has more than two decades of solo experience, it has only been two months since a conflict of interest issue prompted attorney Scott Harris to leave his position at the giant firm of Fish & Richardson.

Though the jury is still out on whether he'll long remain single or eventually join forces with others, for now he's enjoying the many perks -- including a shorter commute, more flexible work hours and greater pride of authorship.

"The best thing is that everything is all mine," said Harris from his home-based office in Rancho Santa Fe. "I get to touch all of it, unlike at a big firm, where you often only get a little piece of the action and rarely see the final product."

Along with that independence and authority, however, comes sole responsibility for everything from answering the phone and building a client base to filing briefs and collecting fees. "The administrative work in managing your own firm is just as important as the professional work," Harris said.

The go-go pace Harris was accustomed to at the high-power law firm has, in some ways, braked to a "stunningly slow speed."

"It is taking far longer than I anticipated to get things up and running," he said, noting that it was months before malpractice insurance was issued and he's still waiting for final paperwork to form a law corporation.

And don't get him started on how much of the computer software and business system packages designed for small law practices are not easy to install or user-friendly. He also found it "shocking" how much capital has been needed to launch his firm and how long it takes for some clients to pay their legal bills. Ten or 12 months of cash reserves and equal pre-planning time wouldn't be too conservative for those starting up a solo practice, Harris reported.

And at least for now, he's still putting in 10-hour workdays and a few on the weekends. "I have more work than I can handle even after turning down some clients.

"But every day I get a few more systems set up and kinks ironed out, and I know that eventually my lifestyle is going to be much better," he said.

From school to startup

Although any startup legal practice is challenged to make money immediately, it is even harder to do so for those who still have student loan debt.

The incredible cost of law school coupled with enticing big firm salaries for first-year associates make striking out on one's own a difficult choice for recent graduates.

And then there's a presumption in the legal world that the best students go into large firms.

But according to the State Bar of California, only a small percentage of law school graduates are hired by the big guns. Most end up in small or midsize practices, or in the government.

All of these were factors May Harris (no relation to Scott) considered closely before graduating from University of San Diego's School of Law in 2000 and taking a position within an intellectual property department at a high-tech company in Sorrento Valley.

"There seemed to be a perception that those who hung out their own shingle right after graduating just couldn't make it at a large firm, and so those at the top of the class just didn't do it," said Harris, who is now executive director at Kinder International Education Foundation.

As a mother of two small children, the lure of a steady paycheck and office support won out over her insecurities of making it on her own as a businesswoman and attorney.

However, if she did decide to return to practicing law full time, Harris would "only ponder a solo or partnership practice. I have no desire to work the amount of hours with the companion stress levels that a firm job represents."

Although many law schools are trying to prepare their students to start their own firms by providing networking assistance, mentoring, practice management and client referrals, among other services, some career advisers counsel students against jumping into it right away.

"It's not something we advise for every student right out of the gate," said Cathy Zingale, graduate career adviser at California Western School of Law.

Among the recent graduates who start successful legal businesses are older students for which law is a second career.

"In general, they seem to have a lot larger network and more resources than your average law student," said Zingale. "But every year we have many graduates -- both young and old -- who soar on their own."

Esterbrooks is a San Diego-based freelance writer.

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