around the bar
October 19, 2011

Women to Women: Help Establishing Your Own Law Firm

The number of jobs in the legal sector shrunk by 3,500 over the past 12 months, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. With legal hiring still in the doldrums, many women in the law are considering hanging a shingle, and a new book from the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession can help them make the leap.

roadtoindependenceThe Road to Independence:  101 Women’s Journeys to Starting Their Own Law Firms is a collection of letters by women lawyers from around the country who offer words of encouragement and advice to their sisters in law interested in starting solo and small practices.

Compiled chronologically, the book begins in 1954, with a letter from the first African American female attorney to practice law in Winston-Salem, N.C.  From there, the authors take readers on a journey through decades of challenges and changes, as tales of courage, commitment and lessons learned unfold.

These words of wisdom were brought to life in August by four of the letter writers during the ABA Annual Meeting in Toronto. While their motivation for striking out on their own varied, the panelists shared a common belief that taking risks was a necessary part of taking control of their lives.

Taking risks requires would-be entrepreneurs to have the confidence to succeed. Karen Lockwood, CEO and founder of The Lockwood Group, who edited The Road to Independence, challenged the audience to return to the mindset they had in law school, before they became discouraged with the profession. She asked the audience to self evaluate: Tell yourself, “I’m awesome. Do count the ways, and articulate them.”

While some say that women don’t like to toot their own horns, panelists agreed that marketing can make or break a practice.  “Marketing is everything,” said Julie I. Fershtman from Farmington Hills, Mich., whose book entry details getting her equine-related law practice off the ground in 1993. “Marketing is how you reel in and bring in clients.”

For Georgialee A. Lang from West Vancouver, British Columbia, marketing meant establishing herself as a topnotch lawyer  by writing and submitting articles to a local legal publication.  “It was really very simple,” she said.  “Write a good article and send it in.”  That was before the Internet, blogs and social media, which are inexpensive and effective marketing tools, panelist agreed.

When asked for their two or three most helpful hints, panelists shared advice on topics ranging from hiring an office manager and thinking like a business person, to formulating a business plan.

“Don’t underestimated the importance and the power of the organized bar,” said Fershtman, who touted the educational programs and networking opportunities that are benefits of bar association membership.

Amanda Green Alexander from Jackson, Miss., stressed the importance of of a solid support system. You need a cheerleadering squad of family and friends who can “tell you you look good even when you don’t” and remind you of the value you bring to the community, she said.

Roberta D. Liebenberg, former commission chair, conceived The Road to Independence to shine a spotlight on an alternate path for women dissatisfied by Big Law.

There are many reasons for this dissatisfaction, according to Liebenberg. Women experience disproportionately high rates of attrition from law firms; confront disparities in compensation, which increase with seniority; are often subjected to implicit bias in assignments and evaluations; and are grossly underrepresented in the equity partnership ranks and in positions of real power and influence in law firms.

“To hear the voices of these women authors who acted on their ambition and exercised their power and have found such fulfillment I think is such an antidote to the gloom and doom we always hear about women and the law,” said Liebenberg of the book.

Lockwood says the book debunks the myth that women strike out on their own because they can’t cut it at traditional law firms.  “And if you are wondering where to go with your practice or how to tell young women in your firm ‘stay in the law,’” she said, “this book will help you.”