New kind of lawyer: legal eaglet

A rising number of young lawyers are skipping established firms to start out on their own. Should you hire a young, solo practitioner?

Illustration by John Kehe (with apologies to the Peanuts gang) / The Christian Science Monitor
Need a lawyer but can't afford big bills? Try a recent law school grad who's started his own firm.

For anyone who needs an attentive attorney but can't afford big bills, a growing breed of newly minted lawyers is offering a solution: Hire a solo practitioner.

Faced with a tough job market, lawyers fresh out of law school are increasingly hanging out shingles and soliciting clients. From the class of 2010, 6 percent went into solo practice, double the share of law school graduates in 2006, according to the National Association for Law Placement in Washington, which tracks employment patterns.

The trend means that those who need legal services have some intriguing new options. Example: In Evanston, Ill., landlords, motorists, and others hire Lara Trujillo Webb at rates 50 percent lower than those charged by larger local firms. A 2009 law school graduate, Ms. Webb brings experience as a former attorney for the city of Evanston. Working from a home office means she keeps overhead expenses low – and fees low, too.

"My clients care about the service that I offer and whether they can get me when they dial my number," Webb says. "They're not so worried about whether you're with a big firm or if you're [highly ranked] in the city. That kind of stuff doesn't seem to really matter."

Technology has made the solo practitioner route a viable career path for young, tech-savvy lawyers. Software and Web-based applications facilitate everything from organizing documents to billing. Although solos can't walk down a hall to seek guidance from a senior partner, they can turn to online communities to help them stay connected to mentors and lawyers with specialized knowledge.

Even so, prospective clients need to know what they're getting into when they enlist a solo lawyer with little track record in the field, says Suzanne Blonder, an attorney for HALT, a Washington-based consumer advocacy group focused on legal services. "You get what you pay for."

On the upside, Ms. Blonder affirms that new solos have a lot to offer, especially in situations where the legal needs are cut and dried. She notes that solos can negotiate fees efficiently since they don't have to seek approval from a group of partners. They also tend to be accessible to clients.

Tasha Buzzell, a solo practitioner in North Attleboro, Mass., since 2008, handles mostly divorce cases and makes a point to be available on nights and weekends, when clients can speak with her privately from their homes. Matt Fitzsimmons, a 2009 graduate with a solo practice in Boston, answers his own phone and gives out his cellphone number.

Some new solos add further convenience by enabling clients to take advantage of technology. Rachel Rodgers, for instance, has created secure online portals where her New York and New Jersey clients can submit documents at any hour to her "virtual law firm." When clients need a consultation, she pops up on their screens via Skype. She says her clients don't mind that she works from a home office that's 2,500 miles away in Phoenix. They're mostly young entrepreneurs who'd rather hold down costs than have meetings in fancy law offices.

On the downside, Blonder notes that new solos are by definition inexperienced and lack robust institutional support. Prospective clients who require specialized advice need to assess whether it makes sense to pay a solo to get up to speed on a topic.

"The chief risk is related to expertise in certain areas of law," Blonder says. "If a new practitioner ... says he is available to draft your will for you even though he doesn't have any experience in the practical world with that [type of work], that's certainly a 'buyer beware' type of situation."

Though solos routinely turn down cases that fall outside their areas of focus, some say clients get top-notch service even when a lawyer is learning as he goes. The logic: They take nothing for granted.

"One thing I've noticed about young lawyers is they don't want to screw up," Ms. Rodgers says. "So they work really hard: They do a lot of research and are extremely diligent.... I've also seen examples of [more experienced] lawyers who were not diligent and did not represent their clients well. And part of it was because they were accustomed to it."

Whatever the legal situation might be, Blonder suggests asking a few questions so clients enter the relationship well ­informed about the risks. For instance, ask if the lawyer carries malpractice insurance. Solos are less likely than larger firms to have coverage, Blonder says, since no state except Oregon requires lawyers to carry it. Other questions to ask:

•How many cases of this type have you handled? How were they resolved?

•Do you have mentors or others whom you'll consult in this case?

•If you collaborate with lawyers in other firms, how do I know who is representing me?

•Can I help contain costs by doing some of the legwork that doesn't require legal expertise, such as tracking down documents or making copies?

With pressure on companies to hold down legal costs, even large corporations are using small law firms, says Laura Farber, chair of the solo and small firm law division of the American Bar Association. "For a time, the 'big firm' or 'big law' – whatever you want to call it – was the predominant practice for corporate America, but that's changed," Ms. Farber says. "And I firmly believe it's not ever going back to the way things were."

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