Since Ada H. Kepley became the first woman to graduate from law school in 1870, women have found success in the legal profession—in government, in corporate legal departments, in academia and on the bench. Even so, women have yet to match the success of men in BigLaw, leading to countless studies and articles analyzing why that’s the case.
This article is different. It will explore the success of women in solo and small law firms, an area that is often left out of the discussion over diversity in the law. Take, for example, the ABA’s A Current Glance at Women in the Law (January 2017), which highlights the percentage of women in the legal profession overall (36%), women who are Fortune 500 general counsel (24.8%), women who are law school deans (31.1%) and women on the federal courts of appeal (35.9%). The study’s statistics on women in law firms, though, is limited to larger firms—looking at equity partners (18%) and female managing partners of the top 200 law firms (also 18%).
As lawyer-entrepreneurs, we know first hand about the vitality of the women-owned business community. The statistics confirm that we are in good company. According to The 2016 State of Women-Owned Businesses Report, there are now 11.3 million women-owned businesses in the United States, generating over $1.6 trillion in revenue. And, “[b]etween 2007 and 2016, the number of women-owned firms increased by 45%, compared to just a 9% increase among all businesses.”
More women are choosing to chart their own course by running their own businesses, in the legal profession and outside of it, and they have great reasons for their decision.
But first, our stories: As solo lawyers in Washington D.C., we each decided to take the risk of starting our own firms, and we have found the rewards incomparable. Four years ago, we both left comfortable, established positions—as an equity partner in BigLaw and as an ethics and compliance officer at a large professional services firm. We met by chance at a networking event and have shared our journeys building our firms ever since.
What we’ve found in the last four years is that despite the hand-wringing about women’s success in the biggest law firms, the same limitations are not inherent to the small-firm world.
First, we find it rewarding to make all of the decisions about how our firms operate—from the types of work we do, to the clients we accept and the hours we keep. That power and control can never be replicated in any large organization—a firm, corporation or the government. Fellow small firm owner Ellen Marcus, who left behind a BigLaw partnership to join a three-lawyer firm, Holmes, Costin and Marcus, PLLC, explains it well: “The challenges of running and growing a new business are exhilarating, as they require me to be creative in a way that I did not have to be for the first 15 years of my law practice.”
Second, running our own firms allows for the creativity and freedom to craft client development approaches based on our strengths, rather than on long-standing traditions. We are not building networks or client relationships over steaks and martinis, in luxury boxes at sporting events or as directed by a marketing department. Although we certainly seek out clients of all types, we often find ourselves getting together with other women, just as we always have, and introducing one another to friends and colleagues. Recognizing this natural community building, Margaret started an informal group of solo and small women firms in Washington, D.C. Although it is informal, meeting quarterly for lunch or a happy hour, it is a powerful group—referring countless matters to one another
This group typifies another reward for the lawyer-entrepreneur women we have met. Through this community, we have been able to share our journey with many other solo and small firm women who have chosen this same path. Having such a community mitigates the risk of starting a new firm, because we advise one another on practice management challenges, and we all learn from our members’ successes and failures.
And the community of women lawyers goes beyond our group. As sponsors of the National Association of Women Lawyers General Counsel Institute, we have met amazing in-house colleagues and firm lawyers who are impressed with our gumption. Through this event, we have expanded our community of supportive women to those who happen also to be potential clients. Many of the in-house counsel we met concluded that our risk-taking approach would be a natural fit with their business clients.
The perception that we are resourceful and courageous to run our own firms is true. To that end, we deploy it to construct our own brands, not ones dictated by corporate culture. Doing so assures that our voices shine through, allowing potential clients get a sense of who we are as people and not as “brands.” For example, Sara writes a blog about white-collar criminal prosecutions of executives. At its heart, it analyzes the key issues arising in these matters, but it also highlights her sense of humor and approach to representations.
Similarly, solo lawyer Beverly Davis went to law school to become an entertainment lawyer but found herself 20 years later in an in-house position. She decided to start Davis Law to focus her brand on providing legal services to the creative class. Although Beverly had an “amazing” in-house job, she wanted more: “My moment of truth came when my mother died from breast cancer in 2012,” she explained. “Before she died she said ‘I’ve lived a good life.’ That statement made me ask myself ‘If I was to die tomorrow, would I say that I’ve lived a good life?’” She realized that her answer to that profound question was “no,” because she had merely accepted what life brought her rather than actually “living.” She used the catalyst event of losing her mother to focus on a brand that would allow her to use her skills for the creative-industry clients she wanted to serve.
Are there risks in taking these unconventional approaches? Yes—a potential client may be skeptical about Sara’s relaxed tone in her blog, or Beverly may have to work harder to locate her preferred clients. But the choice to take that risk belongs to us and us alone.
Last, given the disposition of lawyer-entrepreneurs to be attentive and adaptive, solo and small firm women lawyers are uniquely situated to respond to our clients’ problems in innovative ways that are not beholden to the “traditional” law firm model. For example, we can work with clients to develop flat fee agreements, project-based fees, feasible hourly rates and payment plans for clients if needed.
We also can nimbly staff our engagements. Rather than staffing every matter with at least a partner and an associate (or three) to keep the firm busy, we craft solutions appropriate for the matter’s size and the client’s budget. This, of course, is a characteristic of many small firms—not just those run by women. But we have seen our female colleagues use this approach incredibly effectively. For example, when one of our D.C. networking group members encounters a matter that is outside her area of practice, she will frequently reach out to find the right lawyer to meet a client’s specific need.
Solo lawyer Heather Batzel is a former in-house and BigLaw lawyer who now has her own firm, Batzel Law, where she counsels entrepreneurs. She explains that she turns to lawyer friends who recently had children when she needs help on a bigger matter. She has found that these lawyers can handle the most sophisticated work, but may need a schedule that allows them to work from home, for shorter periods of time and during unusual hours. These lawyers still do a great job helping to serve Heather’s clients.
All is not rosy, of course. We face significant risk in building our practices and, at the start, may make less money. Some large companies maintain a “preferred counsel” list that excludes smaller and newer firms, since it is risky for them to rely on a firm with one or two lawyers. Finding ways to network with in-house counsel without the same marketing and sponsorship budget as a big firm remains a challenge. Finally, managing cash-flow and all the day-to-day minutiae of running a firm, while serving client needs, can challenge even the hardest-working lawyer.
We welcome these challenges. We keep meeting more women who embrace the risk of starting their own firm or joining a small firm after leaving more traditional legal jobs behind. Beverly Davis explains best the personal and professional fulfillment that comes from leading our own law firms: “Running an entertainment law firm is a lot of work, but well worth it. I started this journey almost 22 years ago and finally feel at home. This is what I’m meant to do. This is ‘living.’”
About the Authors
Sara Kropf (left) is the founder of the Law Office of Sara Kropf, focused on defending individuals and companies being investigated by the government. Follow her on Twitter @SaraKropf. Margaret Cassidy (right) is the founder of Cassidy Law PLLC, and counsels clients on the legal risks of working with governments. Follow her on Twitter @lawofcassidy.