Women Share Insight on Why They Started Their Own Law Practices

By Christian Nolan

Women Share Insight on Why They Started Their Own Law Practices

1.1.2019

By Christian Nolan

Solos and Small Firm Lawyers Conference_675

Instead of waiting around in hopes of making partner one day, women lawyers are increasingly trying their luck on their own and having great success.

“Best thing I’ve ever done,” said one female New York lawyer about her decision to start her own practice.

“My only regret was not doing it five years earlier. It’s been great,” said another.

The odds may have been in their favor, after all. In 2017, women accounted for 46 percent of law firm associates but just 30 percent of non-equity partners, according to the National Association of Women Lawyers. Even worse, only 19 percent of women were equity partners.

While the specific reasons vary for every female lawyer who starts their own law practice, one thing remains consistent – women are steadily leaving law firms in order to be their own boss.

Of the New York State Bar Association (NYSBA) members interviewed for this article, the reasons varied from control over their practice areas and caseload, to having a family and better work-life balance. One member did so out of necessity after getting laid off during the economic meltdown a decade ago.

The following profiles highlight four of the women’s decisions to go solo as well as some tips for those who may be considering a similar move.

Sarah Gold

When the stock market crashed in 2008, Gold knew she was in trouble. Business was quickly drying up for the small firm she worked at in Latham, which specialized in hedge funds. She was laid off in early 2009.

Gold began collecting unemployment benefits and was one of about 7 million “99ers,” who received the benefit for 99 weeks as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act passed by Congress in February 2009.

She sent out a couple hundred resumes during the economic downturn and had just a few interviews. Nothing materialized. Out of necessity, she decided to start her own practice. But since you cannot collect unemployment benefits while starting your own business, she waited until the 99 weeks were up. Then on 7/11/11, a date she vividly remembers, she walked down to the court clerk’s office and filed the necessary paperwork.

“It was slow. I’m not going to lie,” Gold recalled. “How do you start when you don’t know anything about anything?”

Other than her law school classmates, she did not know anyone in the legal community. She knew she needed to “network like hell.” So she networked on social media, including Facebook, to attract some clients and she crashed a meeting of NYSBA’s Young Lawyers Section at the Bar Center on 1 Elk St. in Albany.

“I’m an unemployed attorney. I need stuff to do. What can you have me do?” she told them.

NYSBA welcomed her with open arms and she’s remained devoted to the State Bar Association ever since, having chaired the Young Lawyers Section, Business Law Section and is now a member of NYSBA’s Executive Committee.

Her active membership paid dividends. Not only did she learn the skills necessary to survive with her own practice, she made connections that have opened doors to new opportunities, such as her job teaching business law at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Gold, whose firm name is the Gold Law Firm, focuses on business law in the Capital Region. She said initially she worked from home, bought a laptop and printer, used Skype and scheduled meetings with clients in coffee shops. Gold now shares office space in Colonie with another attorney.

“Wait until you get some clients, then buy (professional liability) insurance,” said Gold. “Take it as it comes. Don’t jump into the deep end right off the bat.”

As a transactional attorney rather than litigator, Gold still keeps expenses down.

“Even now I still try to keep the overhead pretty low,” said Gold. “I don’t have staff. Malpractice insurance and rent are the biggest costs.”

If going out on your own, Gold recommends patience and to not be afraid to admit what you don’t know or need help with.

“It’s not going to happen overnight unless you’re bringing clients in from another firm,” said Gold. “You’re starting from scratch. Don’t be afraid to admit you don’t know what you don’t know. Don’t make assumptions and hope they work out. Ask the question, whether to court staff, or another attorney.

“Chances are you know someone . . . Call them up and ask them the question or draft them an email,” continued Gold. “Nothing will get you in trouble faster than assuming you know and screwing it up. Someone will figure it out and it will come down on your head.”

Martha E. “Meg” Gifford

Gifford says that when she meets other lawyers who find out she’s a solo, “I’ve discovered there is an immediate reaction of surprise but also admiration when they find out what I do and how I do it.”

“Honestly, there’s a great sense of accomplishment when you pull off this kind of a move,” said Gifford.

Gifford, of Brooklyn, got her start at Donovan, Leisure, Newton & Irvine in New York City before landing a job at the Department of Justice Antitrust Division’s New York field office. From there, during George H.W. Bush’s term, she went to Proskauer (at the time known as Proskauer, Rose, Goetz & Mendelsohn). There she practiced nearly 20 years and at various points either chaired or co-chaired their antitrust practice.

“There was not one day during the first 10 years when I did not have some criminal investigation that I was working on,” said Gifford. “For most of my clients, my relationship started out in an investigation or litigation or a merger and I ended up turning that into a counseling relationship. It was very rewarding.”

In 2006, Gifford became very sick with Lyme disease.

“After I recovered I was constantly exhausted,” said Gifford. “It was hard to get myself the time I needed to really get better when I was plunged back into my very busy practice.”

Additionally, Gifford has always been very involved with bar associations, having chaired NYSBA’s Antitrust Section (from which she has since received the William T. Lifland Distinguished Service Award) and served as president of the Women’s Bar Association of the State of New York and of its Manhattan chapter.

“I had built up a reputation among the antitrust community. It was a good moment to consider the rest of my career and my life. I thought I needed some time to myself and also wanted to practice law in a different way,” Gifford recalled. “I wanted to have the time to really contemplate the issues that were brought to me . . . without being pushed constantly by everything else that was on my to-do list.

“At the firm, I can’t say ‘No, I won’t take that on or take that client.’ It just doesn’t happen,” Gifford continued. “I realized the only way I could get control of my time and schedule was to limit the number of clients I work for and that meant practicing on my own.”

Gifford admitted the decision was a little scary initially and she was sad to leave her colleagues behind. She said she was anxious about the unknown, such as not having an IT department or other support staff like an administrative assistant. But she made the decision that she would do everything herself unless a complex case required her to hire someone for a short time.

As it turned out, she has represented clients in significant DOJ, Federal Trade Commission and state Attorney General investigations by working with the clients to put together teams of discovery experts, small litigation boutiques, local counsel or large firm co-counsel, tailored to the needs of each matter.

News of her starting her own practice made it through the grapevine before she even formally announced it. A number of clients followed her.

“Will you still be able to do our antitrust work?” they asked. “It was really a thrill to say to them ‘If that’s your choice, the answer is yes,’” Gifford said.

Between the clients that came with her and referrals, Gifford maintained a successful solo practice until recently becoming “semi-retired.” Gifford recommends getting a sense of what your clients might do before you decide to go out on your own.

“I don’t mean breaking the firm’s rules or soliciting clients in violation of ethical obligations, but certainly being sure you know your clients well enough,” said Gifford. “If you go out with the confidence that you’ve got some base that makes all the difference in the world.”

Jill M. Cicero

When Cicero began practicing law in 1984 at what is now known as Nixon Peabody, the firm had an associate rotation program where first-year associates switched departments every six months. After spending time in the estates department, she knew that was the area of law she wanted to focus on.

From early in her career, Cicero was active in the community, serving on various boards and having since served as president of the Monroe County Bar Association. It was clear that the firm’s emphasis on the billable hour would not allow her to commit the time she wanted to professional and charitable causes.

“I had done very well as an associate but in 1990 I told myself, ‘You know what, I cannot square my personal goals as an attorney and the person I want to be with the attorney that the firm needs me to be,’” said Cicero. “I had never previously been entrepreneurial. People just didn’t start their own boutique firms back then.”

Cicero said a confluence of factors made it possible for her to make the leap: the development of personal computers, law libraries accessible by computer enabling her to practice at a high level without being at a big firm and the gradual acceptance by clients that not every good lawyer was with a big firm.

“Had it been five years earlier, I don’t think I could have done it,” Cicero said.

Cicero took her administrative assistant from Nixon Peabody with her, hired a paralegal less than two years later and obtained a loan to open an office at Rochester’s Linden Oaks Office Park. She was the first lawyer to move into the new development on the east side of Monroe County. Numerous lawyers have since opened law offices there.

“To be successful, especially in the area of practice I was in, I believed I needed to have a certain image,” said Cicero. “I was able to borrow enough to tastefully furnish my office, purchase state-of-the-art equipment, and hit the ground running. Although I assumed I wouldn’t bill any time for three months, I was paying expenses by 60 days in, and went from there. Now I have 2,000 clients.”

Because she didn’t litigate, she needed fewer resources. She used good periodicals and Continuing Legal Education (CLE) courses to improve her expertise and keep current with changes in the law. She said she went into her practice with the full intent to compete against her old firm for high-end estates clients. Conversely, given that era, she said they did not view her as a threat when she left, even holding a nice luncheon for her.

Cicero believes she received important training at Nixon Peabody that prepared her to practice on her own at a high level. It helped her understand what it meant to practice “in a first class way” and she couldn’t imagine starting from scratch out of law school without training or mentoring.

Cicero, a longtime member of NYSBA’s Trusts and Estates Law Section and 2009 recipient of NYSBA’s Attorney Professionalism Award, said the best advice to give anyone starting their own practice is to “just put yourself out there.” Cicero said that she agreed to speak at any event or seminar that invited her, and joined several additional boards and bar associations.

“Every single person out there is a potential client and you learn how to make sure people understand what you do,” said Cicero. “I don’t think I have ever served on a board that I didn’t get clients from it even if I wasn’t specifically looking for that.”

Because Cicero was a trailblazer when it came to starting her own practice, she said many attorneys have consulted with her since. She’s been happy to help them.

“I would encourage people to think about what it is they want out of their professional lives and how it meshes with their personal lives,” said Cicero. “They have options. I worked at building my professional reputation both within and outside the firm so that when I did make the decision to leave, I had a presence and was already known in the community.”

Linda Redlisky

Redlisky left a mid-sized New York City firm in 2005 “to follow her passion.”

“Unfortunately when you are at a firm, oftentimes you can’t pursue your passion if that’s not an area practiced by the firm,” explained Redlisky. “I wanted my work to directly impact the elder population, and the path to that service was to go out on my own.”

Redlisky was introduced to elder law at her firm but they had no Medicaid planning practice. Through her involvement with NYSBA’s Elder Law and Special Needs Section, she soon learned she had a strong interest in serving the elder population “not only with respect to guardianships but also advanced directives and Medicaid planning in order to make sure seniors were able to age at home in a manner that is consistent with their wishes and preserve their dignity.”

Another factor for Redlisky was her family, as she had a baby the year prior to leaving her firm. Telecommuting was not nearly as prevalent then as it is now, and felt she needed to be at the office.

Redlisky decided to partner up with her husband, Robert G. Rafferty, who had his own solo practice. Together they formed Rafferty & Redlisky, based in Pelham. They employ a paralegal, administrative assistant and various per diem attorneys.

“I wanted the flexibility of setting my hourly rates and not have to discuss it with 30 other partners,” said Redlisky. “We meet monthly to discuss cases, business development and other firm business. We’re transparent with each other regarding our fiscal budget and our revenues. However, we both respect each other’s business decisions with regard to hourly billing and retainers. That’s the beauty of running your own firm. Of course we have to get the bills paid but it’s gratifying to help a client and reduce your rate when you feel it’s warranted.”

Redlisky had numerous tips for other women considering starting their own practice.

She said first make sure your finances are in order and recommended giving yourself six months cushion when starting out. Also, familiarize yourself with Interest on Lawyer Accounts (IOLA) and all relevant ethical rules.

“NYSBA offers a wide variety of programs throughout the year. There’s always a CLE on managing your IOLA accounts and tips for small practitioners/solos,” said Redlisky. “I think I’ve taken at least three courses as a small firm owner, and learn something new each time.”

Speaking of bar associations, she also said to join the bar that’s right for you and then participate in a section related to your concentration like she did with elder law.

“As a woman practitioner, the women’s bar has been a tremendous resource for me,” said Redlisky. “I owe much of my success to the women I have met in the Women in Law Section who have promoted me.”

She admits it’s a daunting task to balance your time but marketing yourself and networking is especially important when starting your own practice. She credited others for helping her along the way and tries to pay it forward now.

“You learn how to promote yourself in a way that you’re comfortable with and doesn’t feel inauthentic,” said Redlisky. “People need to know what you do and what your skills are for referrals to come through the door.”

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