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Lessons From a Solo Practitioner

by Robert J. Derocher

Law students and lawyers often seek advice from Jay Foonberg, author of the ABA’s How to Start & Build a Law Practice. His message is relevant for all who are finding their way in the legal profession.

For the lawyer getting ready to launch his or her own law practice, “The Golden Rule is dead,” Jay Foonberg declares bluntly. “The Platinum Rule is here: Do unto others as they want done unto them.”

The Platinum Rule is one feature of the latest edition of Foonberg’s book, How to Start & Build a Law Practice, set for release this spring by the American Bar Association. It marks the fifth edition for the ABA’s highest-selling book-and the one most stolen from law libraries, Foonberg proudly claims.

While there are new chapters on topics such as working with foreign lawyers, serving aging clients, and making a first trip to court, many of Foonberg’s tips, rules, and checklists have been developed and modified over the last 28 years, filling more than 600 pages. Thousands of solo practitioners and other lawyers have used the book, a source of pride for a man who “never, ever wanted to work for anybody.”

Although the book is clearly aimed at lawyers striking out on their own-whether they’re recent graduates or veterans-Foonberg thinks the book is more relevant than ever for all lawyers. It offers advice and direction in an age of escalating client expectations and longer work hours, he says, at a time when lawyers seem to be getting less mentoring than ever before.

It’s also a vote of confidence, he says, for the thousands of lawyers contemplating going out on their own.

“I hope that when they read this book, they will have the confidence that whenever anybody calls them on the telephone or walks in the door, they can use this book for a few minutes and be ready for that person,” Foonberg says. “If you enjoy helping people, you’ll do well, because you’ll do it enthusiastically, it will be fun, and they’ll appreciate the help you give them. They’ll hire you, they’ll pay you, they’ll recommend you.”

While the thought of starting and building a law practice might seem daunting to some, it’s one that has been around for a while and one that is very much a part of the legal profession. Solo lawyers account for nearly half of the private practitioner population in the United States, according to the ABA Market Research Department.

The research shows that a common path for solos is to work for a large firm and then gradually move to a small or medium-sized firm before going it alone. Quite often, lawyers are forced into considering solo careers by downsizing law firms and a soft economy.

The Massachusetts Bar Association offers one example of how the current weak economy has potentially affected the solo market. After going dormant for two years, the bar association’s seminar, “How to Start Your Own Firm,” attracted nearly 200 lawyers last summer.

But it’s more than the loss of a job that drives people toward solo practice, Foonberg says. A big market for his book consists of lawyers who have been in a big firm for a few years.

“They’re sick of what they’re doing,” he says. “They hate their job. They hate everything about it. They can’t look in the mirror any more. Then they walk out and start their own practice.”

But what does it take for a lawyer to hang out the first shingle, and what is he or she likely to expect? That’s where Foonberg comes in.

Jay Foonberg got the work-for-myself bug at an early age, growing up in working-class poor communities in Chicago and southern Michigan in the early 1940s. It began when he was about 8 years old, when he would park his little red wagon outside stores and offer to tote packages for women to earn money. Now 68, Foonberg can’t remember a time when he didn’t work.

His experiences not only taught him to thrive on his own, but they also gave him empathy-a key ingredient of his success.

“I understand what it is to need something and not have the ability to pay for it,” he says. “I know what it is to walk through the snow for 2 or 3 miles because you haven’t got money for a bus.”

Foonberg moved to the Los Angeles area as a teen, graduating from high school and then going to the University of California at Los Angeles, where he earned an accounting degree. He became a certified public accountant and started his own practice, later deciding to get his J.D. at UCLA School of Law after finding a niche in financial law.

Seeing little value in apprenticing at a firm, Foonberg went right into his own practice in Beverly Hills in 1964. He believed his personality didn’t mesh with working for and taking orders from others.

“If you’re working for someone, they’re always right and you’re always wrong,” he says. As a solo, he adds, “You’re not subject to their whim and control.”

Foonberg began his law practice by concentrating in the work he did as a CPA. That’s when he began to accumulate the knowledge and experiences that would lead to his book. It took him five years to reach the point where his cumulative earnings as a solo practitioner equaled what he would have earned in a firm. He has never lost pace since then.

Those early years, he says, were challenging-something budding solos should prepare for before going into practice.

“I’ve had disastrous years economically…. I had to borrow money to stay alive,” he says. “But I never thought about going to work for somebody else. It never crossed my mind. I would have gone back to being an accountant before I did that.”

Today, Foonberg practices business law, business litigation, estate and probate litigation, and legal ethics. He also has become an expert in partnerships involving jet ownership while of counsel to Bailey & Partners, a Santa Monica, Calif., business and aviation litigation practice.

The seeds for How to Start & Build a Law Practice were planted in the mid-1970s, as Foonberg and a small group of CPAs who were lawyers discovered that the other thing they had in common was that they all started solo practices. Packed seminars they led at ABA meetings were followed in 1977 by the first edition of his book. Since then, the book has gone on to become the ABA’s best seller and made Foonberg a household name for thousands of lawyers.

Anyone picking up the book will soon discover that it’s not a get-rich-quick primer. It hews to the guiding principle in Foonberg’s career. “If you look upon the practice of law as a way to make money, you’ll make a mistake,” he says. “You’ve got to put helping people first. Making money will follow. If you put making money first, you will not be around long.”

The book, he says, “is not intended for the number-one-in-the-class Harvard graduates-although it’s a very popular book at Harvard,” he says with a chuckle. The book is for a variety of lawyers looking to work on their own for a number of reasons, from quality of life to personal accomplishment.

He also makes it clear early on that there’s more to starting and building a law practice than being a good lawyer.

“A successful law practice is similar to a three-legged stool,” he writes. “The three legs are legal skills, practice management skills … and client relations [marketing] skills. Unless all three legs are present, the stool will topple.”

While Foonberg leaves legal skills up to the individual lawyer, he has plenty to say about building, marketing, and managing a solo practice. Structuring the book so each chapter can stand on its own, Foonberg uses a nuts-and-bolts style to convey his points.

“One great thing about this book is that it’s not a lot of public policy,” he says. “It is the truth. It is what’s out there. It is reality. It is not dreams. It’s not the party line.”

What’s out there, he says, are plenty of issues to face the new solo practitioner-from things as important as upholding ethical canons to things as unusual as what to name your practice. He discusses thorny issues such as doing work for relatives as well as business issues such as whether or not to work out of a home office. (He doesn’t recommend it.)

From a practice-establishment point of view, Foonberg says it’s easier than ever to go out on your own, even since the last edition of the book published in 1999. The continued rise of the Internet, wireless telephones, and home office technology makes marketing and practice management less of a burden-a fact confirmed in Spotlight on Solos, a 2002 white paper from the ABA Market Research Department.

“Affordable technology enables the solo practitioner to compete on a more even playing field,” the paper states. “Not only are solos able to match large-firm capabilities through technology, but technology allows the solo practitioner to tap into the new global marketplace in ways that were never before possible.”

One of the 12 new chapters in Foonberg’s book addresses the “global marketplace,” offering advice for working with foreign lawyers. Also updated for the new edition is the issue of rapidly evolving technology-a major reason why it’s the shortest time between editions.

Development of a practical web site (or sites) that provides information to potential clients is absolutely vital for a budding law practice, Foonberg says. The public now has the easy ability to shop for legal services on the Internet, scrolling through scads of information to find a lawyer to represent them.

And it doesn’t take a fancy web designer or a lot of flash to get the job done, he says. For example, a relatively simple site he developed––produces about 45,000 hits a month and has attracted visitors from 110 countries. That, in turn, has led to billable business.

With so much knowledge at their disposal, clients regularly expect lawyers to meet their needs in ways that were much different when Foonberg published the first edition of his book.

“The major change between this and other editions is learning how to listen to your clients and learning how to understand what they need,” he says. “Stop talking and start listening. There’s been a tendency by lawyers to BS a client like crazy, but the client didn’t come to listen to you. The client came to talk to you.

“Clients are empowered, and I’ve got to get that message across,” he adds. “Unless you can comply with the Platinum Rule, you’re not going to do a good job of helping them.”

What also has changed over the years, Foonberg says, has been a distressing movement in law school away from the positive values of solo and small-firm practice as a way to achieve experience and career success.

“I’m finding increasingly that more people fear that they’re not competent to represent a client because they haven’t worked for a law firm,” he says. “I have to assuage them and tell them that they are competent, just not experienced.”

There also appears to be some irony for new associates at large firms, he adds. His discussions with young lawyers found that many receive little mentoring from more senior associates-many of whom are consumed with bottom-line financial issues and unwilling to sacrifice time for new attorneys.

That prompted a new chapter in the book.

“They’re told, ‘Go to court and handle this matter,’ and they say, ‘But what do I do? Will someone be there?'” Foonberg says. “‘No,’ they say to them, ‘you’re on your own.’

“They’re totally clueless about what to do, and they’re scared,” he says. “This book tries to give them a little bit of self-confidence; how to interview a client, how to go to court.”

What also continues to change from edition to edition, Foonberg says, is the ever-increasing debt load law students must deal with upon graduation. “It forces them to look for a job, instead of a profession,” he says. “They don’t come out of law school looking for a womb-to-tomb profession. They come out of law school looking for a job to pay off the debt. And in two or three years, they’re not happy people.”

Not only are they unhappy, he says, but many also begin to lose their sense of calling and the desire to help people-a loss that Foonberg deplores. It is that desire, he says, that will not only help lawyers make money, but also help them help their clients while giving back to the profession.

Foonberg’s long association with the American Bar Association-as a section founder and member, House of Delegates member, and author-is an example of giving back that he hopes all lawyers can do in one way or another. In another nod to the ABA, all profits from previous editions of How to Start & Build a Law Practice–more than $1 million-have been given to the association’s Law Student Division and Law Practice Management Section. “This is my way of giving back to the profession I love,” says Foonberg, who has won numerous awards from the ABA and other organizations.

Despite the debt load and other challenges, Foonberg believes there’s a big need for young lawyers in solo practice. “The biggest problem is the ability to stay financially afloat,” he says. “They’ve got to be able to keep the first 100 to 200 clients and then set up the practice to grow.”

But Foonberg remains characteristically confident. “If they use this book,” he says, “they will be successful.”