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Solo Is the New SoHo

If solo practice was a neighborhood, trendy restaurants would be opening next to long-established pizza parlors and coffee shops. A small art gallery would be setting up shop next to the old corner bar. Apartment buildings would be turning into co-ops and young urban professionals would be snapping them up. As big firms slice jobs, solo is suddenly hip, it seems.

But don't just take my word for it. The National Law Journal reports this week that starting their own firm is becoming layoff option number one for many lawyers who see pink slips coming their way. "Experts say it's a good time to be in solo practice or at a small firm," writes reporter Karen Sloan. "Cost-conscious clients are more willing than ever to retain smaller outfits that offer lower rates, and new solos can build their practice on that foundation."

My colleague in writing this blog, Carolyn Elefant, sensed this was happening. As she wrote just last week at her other blog, My Shingle, her gut had told her that the number of lawyers starting their own practices was on the rise. Then she found some numbers to back up what she was hearing anecdotally -- a report in the Charlotte Business Journal that the number of solo practices and boutique firms opened in that city in 2008 was up 30 percent from the year before.

As Carolyn notes, most of the lawyers mentioned by the Business Journal left their big firms voluntarily, not because of layoffs. Not so Omair Farooqui, who is featured in the NLJ piece this week. He was laid-off from the Palo Alto office of Manatt, Phelps & Phillips. Within a month, he had teamed with another lawyer to start their own firm in San Jose. "I just didn't want to sit at home, looking for jobs or swatting flies," he said.

Technology consultant Ross Kodner has come up with a name for this new breed of large-firm refugees who start their own firms -- the BigSolo. "These folks aren't ordinary solo practitioners in the way we've come to think of the category ... BigSolos have pinnacle level substantive knowledge in their single chosen practice area," Kodner says.

So hip are solos that they are even getting their own university. Practice management consultant Susan Cartier Liebel announced yesterday that her long-planned Solo Practice University will open its doors March 20, which happens to be the first day of spring. SPU, she explains, will be "a web-based educational and professional networking community for lawyers and law students staffed with outstanding faculty ready to teach you how to create and build your solo practice."

With trendiness comes opportunism -- those chic eateries and fashionable shops that cater to the newcomers. As Carolyn Elefant observes, the surge in new solos carries with it "the near daily launch of all kinds of marketing products and consulting services purporting to help lawyers who want to start a practice." I can attest that there is no need for the newly minted solo to beware her book, Solo by Choice. It is a worthwhile and comprehensive reference for anyone starting out. Another book well worth the cover price is Jay Foonberg's, How to Start and Build a Law Practice. When I started a solo practice many years ago, Foonberg's book was my instruction manual. Sure, this suddenly trendy neighborhood may have some appealing new bistros opening up, but often it is the old standby establishments that still serve the best food.

Posted by Robert J. Ambrogi on March 3, 2009 at 11:28 AM | Permalink | Comments (12)


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