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Tips From a Female Lawyer on Going Solo From Big Law to a “Backpack Law Firm” As A Female Lawyer

Going solo – particularly if you’re a lawyer leaving the security (and pressures) of a big firm – are challenges that can be daunting.

But there are rewards. And professional satisfaction. And risk.

She started the law firm mid-year to focus on her clients and, as she told the NY Law Journal, to avoid the sort of problems that went along with being partner in a big firm.

AbovetheLaw’s Ari Kaplan interviewed Nancy Mertzel, former chair of Herrick Feinstein’s IP group who left to form an IP boutique, Mertzel Law PLLC.

Among the observations made by Mertzel is the obvious one that there are no departments in a startup boutique law practice that will handle technology, tech issues, marketing. It’s you and that can be challenging.

Law Firm Backpack

As someone who likes technology, Mertzel has had the flexibility to choose the tools she likes to work with.  And being cloud-based and subscription-based means the law firm “sits in my backpack.   And I can be anywhere and do the work that I need to do as long as I have a little bit of quiet and some electricity.”

Making the Right Choices

One of the key things that Mertzel, as something of a tech-geek, has been able to do is to choose the right tools to permit her to run a modern law practice efficiently.

I’ve tested out a bunch of different programs and products, including practice management software and technology to keep track of my clients’ trademarks. When I sit down in front of a new program, whether it’s local or cloud-based, I can usually figure it out and I have the determination to find solutions if they are not apparent to me.

The Keys to Success

So what are the keys to making a solo practice (run by a woman or otherwise)?

She says you need to be not only nimble and flexible, but also authentic.

 Bring your true self to every encounter and every engagement. Relationships are so critical. The people you know will be your clients. So, it’s really important to nurture those relationships and develop new ones. You give, you receive, it all comes through if you do that and work hard at it.

Developing skills and learning to manage clients, time, relationships, your own life and the accompanying requirements of solo practice are some of the things that will get easier over time, she says.

Solo Women

Mertzel is not the only one to have recently decided to up-and-leave a Big Law environment in her New York area.

Roberta Kaplan recently left Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison to start her
own New York-based litigation boutique, following the moves by high powered female litigators
Beth Wilkinson and Alexandra Walsh who started their own firm.

A short time earlier, Terry Mutchler left Pepper Hamilton to form her own firm and Steptoe
& Johnson partner Sharon Larkin and Bradley Arant Boult Cummings partner Elizabeth Ferrell and Steptoe & Johnson partner Sharon Larkin also left their respective firms last month to start Larkin
Ferrell, a female-owned government contracts boutique in Washington, D.C.

“I’m excited about being back in womenowned in law firm space,” Mertzel said to the NY Law Journal.
“I really sort of appreciated the interest that clients would show toward sending work in the direction of women-owned and diverse owned law firms.”

“Brutal” Experience

For men or women ‘going solo’ in law is a potentially tough experience.  As patent attorney Russ Kajec blogged, the most important aspect is the ability to successfully interact with current or potential clients.

But it can be tough.

Going solo is great, but the first couple years of it is absolutely brutal. Get used to worrying if the phone will ever ring or if you will get any work to do next week. Have an enormous credit line or cash reserve and the guts to dip into it. Eat a lot of Raman noodles and peanut butter. Hand out a ton of business cards. Figure out creative ways to meet potential clients, and spend the time, money, and effort to do it.

Other practitioners told me that it took them three years to build the practice to the point where their solo practice generated equivalent income to their previous job, and that is my experience as well. Going solo is a huge task, with many ups and downs. Get ready for the emotional and financial rollercoaster.

Technology and ‘smarts’ are increasingly leading to new lifestyle and law choices that are helping many female lawyers crash through the glass ceiling or do something altogether better – simply avoid it by setting up their own shops.

 

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  1. Great article, I agree with most of the points here, an article from a woman who’s been in the field and writing about her observations would be both more interesting and more valuable.

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