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Success Story: Carolyn Elefant: How to Go Solo

JD Bliss (JDB):  You’ve been a solo practitioner for almost a dozen years.  Did you enter law school with the idea of having your own practice?

Elefant:  No, in fact my first position after getting my J.D. from Cornell in 1988 was as an attorney with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in Washington, DC.  My undergraduate degree from Brandeis was in political science, and I took the idea of public service very seriously.  Plus, during law school I had worked at a large firm in New Jersey and found the firm environment to be both too stressful and too limiting – I balked at doing the grunt research without the glamour of arguing the cases or meeting with clients.  At the FERC I focused on energy regulation for two years, then I moved to regulatory practice for three years at an energy law firm with a national client base.  By this time I was worried that being pigeonholed as an energy attorney would restrict my future career possibilities – for example, I had done some pro bono work while I was at the FERC, and I wanted to get more involved in litigation.  It was at that point, in November of 1993, that I started my own firm, because I felt it was my only option for career growth.

JDB:  Where did you enter practice on your own, and how did you handle the practical startup challenges?

Elefant:  I opened The Law Offices of Carolyn Elefant in a small storefront space – a virtual office, it would be called now – in Washington, on Pennsylvania Avenue a block from the White House.  I did have a client base to build on, because I took with me from my previous firm a client that had a case in federal appeals court.  Several attorney colleagues sent me contract work, and I signed up for court-appointed cases with DC Superior Court.  Within a year I had enough business that I could pay for more formal office space and some support services.  But, more than finances, I found the real challenge of solo practice was to overcome the negative attitudes about it.

JDB:  Negative in what way?

Elefant:  When I started my law firm in 1993, I knew of only one other attorney from my class at Cornell who had his own firm. At that time, most of my classmates were toiling as associates at their respective law firms, striving for partnerships they wouldn’t reach for at least several more years.  My local bar association offered only one course on how to start a firm, and it was of little relevance to most young attorneys just starting out.  Large firm attorneys looked down on solo attorneys as fly-by-night operators or worse – losers who couldn't cut it at a "real" firm.

JDB:  With such attitudes as a hurdle, why did you continue in solo practice?

Elefant: 
There were important personal reasons.  Certainly it was more personally satisfying to me to have my name on the top line of briefs and on the nameplate of my door as owner of my own business.  And, after my two daughters were born in 1996 and 1999, remaining solo allowed me to maintain control over my own schedule and to make it more child-friendly than it could ever have been if I was at a large firm and had to relegate my daughters to someone else’s care.  But almost as important was the overall change in the professional environment that made solo practice more attractive.

JDB:  How would you define that change?

Elefant:  The dot.com boom that began in the mid-90s brought much more respect to the concept of the independent entrepreneur – clients and other attorneys shifted their focus from superficial things like how big an office you had to whether you could do the job.  And the technology that the dot.com boom represented made it much more feasible to compete on my own.  When I started in practice I spent days at the Library of Congress doing legal research, but the spread of computer and Internet technology transformed my practice.  It gave me the latest research and cases available online, it eliminated the need for support staff, and it enabled me to file electronically rather than waiting for hours in docket rooms.  More than any other development, technology has reduced the barriers to starting a solo law practice.  A solo practitioner can realistically provide clients with the same quality of service as large firms -- but at far lower fees.

JDB: Your blog for solo attorneys at  Myshingle.com is a recent example of applying the Internet to legal practice, but haven’t you always been strongly involved in online technology?

Elefant:  I believe I was one of the first solo law firms to recognize and harness the power of the Internet.  My firm has had an email account since 1994, and with the upload of my web site (which I hand coded myself) in 1995, I joined the first generation of law firms online.  My husband, Bruce Israel, is a computer systems architect, and he helped me stay ahead of the technology curve by using slashcode, an innovative open source code that is the grandfather of all weblog technology, to help me start MyShingle.com in 2002 (http://www.myshingle.com). As far as we are aware, MyShingle.com represents the first legal site with a non-tech/non-Internet law focus to utilize slashcode for our operation – which is appropriate, given the pioneering goal of the site.

JDB:  MyShingle.com combines aspect of a blog, a web site and an online research center, all oriented to other attorneys in solo practice.  What was your objective in creating it?

Elefant:  MyShingle.com is really a reflection of my own experience on the difficulties and rewards of starting a solo practice.  Even with all the legal resources online, there was still, when I started MyShingle.com, no comprehensive web site directed to the needs of solos and small firms.  What little information there was came from marketers who had never practiced law, and it simply wasn’t geared to lawyers who start non-conventional small firms or boutique or corporate practices that directly compete with large firms.  MyShingle.com meets that need by providing a unique “On-Line Guide to Creating a Law Firm,” an archive of more than 300 articles and other resources, regular columns from our readers, surveys, links to other blogs and more.  Our design in slashcode lets us be interactive and to grow in response to our audience’s demand – just like small firms do themselves.

JDB:  What is the level of that demand, and what kind of interactive responses do you get?

Elefant:  In November of 2004 we took the major step of becoming a law.com affiliate.  Before then MyShingle.com received anywhere from 1,200 to 1,500 hits per week.  Now we get up to 1,000 per day, and once we’re able to convert all our online resources to be compatible with law.com I expect that volume to grow even more.  The questions and postings we get run the gamut from students who want to learn what solos do, to practicing attorneys who are either considering or about to start their own practice.

JDB:  As MyShingle.com grows, how has it impacted you personally – in terms of the time it takes, and the focus of your own legal practice?

Elefant:  The time demands aren’t that great.  I typically update the site two or three times a week, and it takes about four to five hours total to do that.  In terms of my practice, I still do an eclectic mix of energy regulatory work, renewable project development and permitting, appellate practice and civil rights and commercial litigation.  I’ve also had for years an of counsel affiliation with The Law Offices of Scott Hempling, a DC regulatory law firm.  MyShingle.com has led me in a few new directions, such as an increasing interest in helping solos avoid unwitting violations of professional ethics codes in their marketing activities.  By and large, though, MyShingle.com and my legal practices are two distinctly different areas of activity for me.  And I make sure that I limit the time I devote to them to eight hours a day, 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., so that I can spend the time I want with my family.

JDB:  You’ve been a role model for solo practitioners, both through your own career and the message of your web site.  What advice would you give to an attorney who’s considering a solo practice but is reluctant to make the transition?

Elefant:  I think many attorneys are reluctant to leave their comfort zone, even if they’re unhappy in it.  It’s important for them to realize that there is no such thing as failing.  If you have the desire to start a solo practice in your field of interest, you should do it – if you don’t, someone else in the same field will, and you’ll definitely be better off for having tried.  If you can identify what you’re most passionate about in the law, the chances are that passion can be the basis for a solo practice; and your level of passion is the best gauge for the degree of success you’ll have.



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