Some Solos Find They Need Big-Firm Life

, The Legal Intelligencer


Editor's note: This is the second in a two-part series.

While there has recently been a trend of lawyers leaving the midsized- and large-firm setting to start their own practices with alternative business models, not everyone finds being out on their own to be the answer for their practice.

But while some may view a solo lawyer or small boutique forgoing their independence to join a larger firm as an indication of struggle or weakness in their practice, the truth is often quite the opposite.

In reality, many small firm and solo attorneys join bigger shops because their practices are too busy and they find themselves hampered by either administrative duties or the inability to handle the breadth and volume of the work coming in on their own.

"Generally, if they were unsuccessful [in their small or solo practices], they'd be foolish to be out looking because no one would be interested," said Chester R. "Chip" Babst III, managing shareholder of Pittsburgh-based Babst Calland.

Babst explained that firms are typically looking for a "one plus one equals three" scenario, where a small firm or solo attorney brings in more business than they can handle on their own and their practice fits nicely into a larger firm's overall scheme.

Kathryn R. Doyle, who joined Saul Ewing as a partner in August a little less than three years after leaving Drinker Biddle & Reath to start her own flat-fee-only intellectual property boutique, had a similar take, noting that larger firms require, in nearly all cases, that attorneys have a client book worth a certain amount before they'll hire them as partners.

"They've got cutoffs, all large firms do," Doyle said. "If you don't have this amount of portable business, they won't look at you."

Doyle said that when she first left Drinker Biddle in 2010 to start Riverside Law Firm in Conshohocken, Pa.—which at the time consisted of her, another lawyer and two patent prosecutors—she was enamored with the idea of running her own firm.

"I thought I'd have a lot more control over my own environment and I didn't have to get permission to [charge] fixed fees," Doyle said.

While all that turned out to be true, Doyle said, her mounting administrative duties eventually began to encroach on her practice, which was growing rapidly.

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