Dispatches from the Y Chromosome - Dispatch #3: “I Don’t Know Why People Don’t Like Practicing Law”

Carolyn Elefant is a lawyer, blogger, mother, and innovator extraordinaire. One of the first people I followed on Twitter, always on the cutting edge, and a committed advocate for solo and small firms, I was a bit starstruck when I had the opportunity to meet and chat with Carolyn in New York City at ReInvent Law. Interviewing her was a great pleasure. More from Carolyn follows.

Dan Lear (DL): Tell me about how you became a lawyer.

Carolyn Elefant (CE): I used to write a lot in college. I wasn’t completely sure that I wanted to study law but I felt that law would improve my writing. When I got to law school I discovered that I liked the tangible quality of the law. I felt that it had more “power” in a palpable way I liked the idea of being able to take this tool and represent someone in court and change a judge’s mind.

DL: Tell me about starting your own firm.

CE: Back then, there were very few resources for people who wanted to start their own practice. In D.C. there was one class on the topic. The teacher was a woman who had been a partner at one firm who left that firm with an associate and a secretary so it was very different from the model that a lot of the people who came to the class were thinking about, i.e. hanging up their own shingle and operating on a shoestring.

So, there was a grapevine in which you learned about things like office sharing and virtual offices.

I took a three day class about how to handle court-appointed cases from the public defender’s office. I tried to take pro-bono classes that had training because I knew that I wanted to do something outside of energy, which is the area I’d been practicing in. I also tried to talk to energy lawyers who could pass work my way. It was very slow in the beginning. A lot of things that didn’t work out as I expected. For example I assumed that because I was lower cost attorney it would be easy for me to find clients. Instead, I learned that no one wants to hire an attorney who doesn’t have very much experience.

But I just kept doing it.

DL: And how did you manage being a mom and running your fledgling firm?

CE: My older daughter was born at the end of 1996 so I had a pretty much a full-time practice through the end of 1997 – my parents helped me out.

I used to work this crazy schedule. I would get up at 5 AM and work for two hours before my daughter got up. Then I’d feed her and play with her. Maybe I’d do another hour of work when she was asleep. Then I’d work from 9 PM to 2 AM. For a while I had a nanny for 3-4 days a week and but I spent a lot of time doing a “night shift.”

That’s around the time I started My Shingle.

DL: That’s impressive.

CE: I originally started My Shingle as a “www.solo.com,” like pets.com. I came up with the idea when dotcom’s were really big. By the time I figured out how to get a platform set up it really began to look like a blog.

I launched it in the end of 2002 and it was one of the first blogs. I worked on it for probably 8 or 9 months before I launched it. I remember working on it late at night in the summer. It was really hot but it was really exciting because I thought that the internet was the future. I put a lot of features up there. I reviewed all 50 bar websites and had information up there on the services that they had for solos.  It had a lot of content. Unfortunately, not too many people, particularly not solos and small firms, were reading content on the internet let alone the blogosphere.

Someone at American Law Media came across my blog and really liked it. They were putting together this blogging network for ALM around the end of 2003 and they asked if I wanted my blog included. And, of course I did. I thought, why not? It didn’t increase my readership all that much but it did give me more credibility because the blogs affiliated with law.com were like Howard Bashman “How Appealing” and other “real” blogs.

They just announced that the law.com blog network is ending but I’ve entered into relationships with some of the companies that were advertising on my blog and that should be a good continuing source of revenue.

DL: My Shingle Launches in 2002. You’re locked with this group of bloggers and you’ve also had your own practice. How much time do you spend on your practice?

CE: My practice has always been 70-80% of my total revenue but there were a couple of times when it may have been a little bit closer to 70/30. Today, it’s probably 80/20 although I wouldn’t mind changing that. I’m just not sure how to do it. The blog part would have to become more.

Tell me about MyShingle. What’s going on and where is it going?

CE: First, I do some speaking.

I also have a course on starting a law firm available on Udemy. I had it all ready and I put it up there mostly because most of those types of resources are so expensive for solos and smalls. I’ve been pleasantly surprised that people have actually taken the course.

I have a paid product, a course called “The Arts, Sciences, and Ethics of the 21st Century Retainer Agreement.” I’ve done that twice and it’s got an ebook that has generated some revenue. If I could get my act together I’d do more program/product launches. Otherwise, for the past year I’ve been trying to figure out what I’m going to do with the site.

I also have the Solo by Choice book. I plan to update it one more time to emphasize that being autonomous and proactive are keys to being a solo or small firm in today’s world.

DL: Tell me about your practice.

CE: My practice has evolved. When I started my firm I wanted to get experience outside of the energy industry so I did a lot of court appointed work – criminal defense work, trials and advising clients on pleading out, effectively going to jail “to get their 3 squares” as one of them told me.

Now, my practice consists of lots of different things related to the energy field and renewable energy. Small hydro or small marine hydrokinetic or small solar, a little bit of small wind.

I also have a small component of my practice in which I work with utilities, small energy companies, in which I work on social media compliance issues. I’ve been thinking about trying to expand that part of my practice.

To be honest, with all of the changes in the legal profession, one thing I’d like to do more of is 21st century ethics issues.  There are some interesting issues out there and all these “old” ethics people” (not that I should be calling anyone old myself!) are clueless. They still think in such an antiquated way. They’re not troubled by the fact that you can’t access so many legal opinions online!  It’s outrageous. They’re like “Well, we used to have to look them up in a book and now we can get them on a CD!” Those issues are really important. It’s really important for solos and small firms to have access to that information. Most people think solos and smalls go around violating ethics rules right and left but, in reality, most of them are very risk averse. No one wants to be a test case risking having an ethics complaint filed against them. I’d like to figure out a way to get rulings to resolve those issues or act as an outside counsel to smaller firms or be some kind of a resource where these issues can get resolved because as long as you have some kind of uncertainty, it’s hard for that part of the industry to evolve.

One last part of my practice: In 2005 I met a lobbyist and a communications guy at an oceans energy conference. The communications guy was looking to leave the nuclear industry and get involved in renewables and he suggested we start a trade association. That’s what we did. I wrote up the papers and did the website. It’s been relatively successful. It’s been around for 8 years now. It got me a lot of visibility in the renewables community and a couple of clients. If people don’t want to start a law firm, I think starting a trade association or a non-profit legal group is a good close second. Those are other ways to make money in this industry and it’s very easy to do with technology.

DL: And you say that’s a good alternative to a law firm because as you review regulations or, if you want, you participate in the lobbying, that’s work that the association pays you for?

CE: Yes. Our association has always struggled to raise funds but we do have some annual revenues. The theory was that when we got to a point of critical mass (and that can vary depending upon how many people are involved) I would serve as general counsel and be on a retainer and the same would be true for the lobbying firm. We haven’t scaled quite that well but, for example, if I work on a piece of legislation, I will bill for something like that and I have a contract with the association by which I can provide services piece-by-piece. It’s not unreasonable for a membership to charge $500 - $1000 year because if the company had to hire an attorney or a lobbyist it would be much more than that.  Depending upon the industry, if you can get 20 or 30 people together for $1000 and maybe get some vendors involved, you’ve got the basics of a going concern. There are other things that you can do on top of that to generate revenue, for example you can have a conference.

DL: Tell me about your experiences as a woman as a mother in the legal profession. You’ve had a very interesting path.

CE: I know that my experience is not typical. I don’t really feel that I’ve ever been treated differently. Though I know that there are women who have. There are definitely women who have had difficult experiences.

I’ve never been deterred from participating in a meeting or asking questions or being assertive either. I think that maybe that’s part of it. Once I had kids I would take them with me to file a document. Once or twice I had to bring my daughter to court for a status hearing but generally, I rarely mentioned that I had kids at all. I felt very awkward about that.

DL: I know that you have two daughters. Perhaps a couple of questions about them: What do you expect or how do you think their general professional experience will be different than yours?

CE: It’s interesting with my daughters. I’m not sure whether they’re different from me or whether I was different but they both have a group of male and female friends.  My daughters are very good at math and science so their colleagues and competitors are often guys. Even my younger daughter, who is very collaborative person (a bit out of character for a youngest) she’ll say to me “I’m going to do better than Eli and Noel on this math test!”  Both of my daughters feel very comfortable on the same footing with boys. My husband is very good at math. I wasn’t horrible at it but I was drawn more to other things. They’re confident about those abilities. So, I don’t think that when they’re in the workforce things will be different for them than they are now. I’d like them to be more assertive about childrearing being shared by both parents. In my situation, I was working for myself and had more flexibility so naturally more of the childrearing and household chores fell to me but if things had been different I might have wanted things to be a little more split.

DL: What would you think about them going to law school? If you did, would you steer them away?

CE: I watch The Good Wife with my daughters. They think that those cases are exciting. They think my cases are really boring. My older daughter wants study chemical engineering. I do worry about employability for today’s kids but I think that with an engineering degree or a math degree even if you do go to law school, you will always have something else in the bag.  I’m glad that they’re thinking about pursuing those avenues.

DL: What I’m hearing is that you’re pretty agnostic. If they want to go, you would support them, correct?

CE: Yeah. I don’t know why people don’t like practicing law. There are certain aspects of it that I don’t like and there are aspects of working for myself that I don’t like. After a certain time, always finding your prey in the “eat what you kill” model becomes a grind. My practice area is very complex and constantly changing but when you’re a lawyer you challenge yourself intellectually. You can work for yourself or at a big firm. You get to work on cutting edge issues and anybody can argue cases just about anywhere. I wouldn’t necessarily endorse going because they have nothing better to do. Going for that reason worked back when I went to law school. What’s very surprising about that is a lot of the friends that I had who went to law school because they “didn’t have anything better to do” actually became rather successful lawyers.

DL: Parting thoughts

CE: The one thing I’d say to women lawyers is this: There were so many women lawyers in my class at law school who just gave up. They were more successful than I was in law school, they went to work at big firms, and then they walked away. I don’t know if it was because they didn’t like the law or because they felt like they didn’t have a choice, but I do think that women lawyers should be aware that there are a lot of options. It’s not just the difference between working fulltime at a law firm and working for the government. There are a lot of options to use your law degree. If you want to give it up or not use it, that’s fine but there are a lot of things you can do with it if you broaden your horizons.

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