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General Practice, Solo & Small Firm
The newsletter of the ISBA’s General Practice, Solo & Small Firm Section

September 2008, vol. 37, no. 1

Taking a leap of faith

Ask any solo or founding partner of a new firm what convinced them to take the leap of faith and leave the safety and security of their former employer for the “what if” opportunity of opening a new practice and you are bound to get a wide variety of responses.

Many get fed up with being under paid or overworked. Others believe they could do it better if they were in charge. Some run out of growth opportunities and want to expand their practice. An unfortunate few are pushed out and are left with no other option but to sink or swim on their own.

Then there are those who have the joy of dealing with “partnership tracks” and wondering if they will ever make partner. And my personal favorite, those who achieve “partnership” only to learn that can mean a variety of things. To some “partner” means what they thought it did – they share in the income, equity and control. To many it means much less. To a few it means nothing more than an empty title.

The list of reasons to make such a leap of faith into the wondrous abyss of starting your own firm is endless.

For me it was not an issue of being under paid (I was paid fairly well) or under appreciated (I experienced minimal second guessing and always felt respected within my office). I had control and discretion over my case load and how it was handled. The workload was extremely reasonable, outside of when I was on trial I rarely worked in excess of 45 – 50 hours a week. I know, to some of you this may sound like an ideal job; but, for me there was something missing.

So why would I leave safety, security, and a healthy paycheck for the “what if”? I suppose it came down to the personal mantra of a college friend of mine, “There are no big rewards without big risks.” Sure, I could have stayed at the same firm for as long as I liked enjoying a comfortable existence and good nights of sleep, but “what if”?

As long as I can remember I have imagined opening my own office, practicing in the areas of personal injury, civil litigation and criminal defense. I have imagined starting small and growing the office over time into a mid sized firm. Yes, I have imagined doing quite well for myself financially over time; however, I have also always been compelled to help people through desperate situations and provide legal assistance to those who really need it.

This image was not the result of naivety for I had seen first hand how tough life can be for a solo or small firm in two very distinctive respects.

My father practiced in southern Illinois for nearly thirty years before retiring from full time practice. While he had associates and partners from time to time the vast majority of his professional life was spent as a solo with all of its ups and downs.

In my prior employment I had numerous occasions to work opposite many fine solos and small firm attorneys as I defended auto accidents, premises liability and dram shop matters. While it was the exception far more than the rule, there were a number of occasions when I knew the other attorney was far too willing to settle their respective case short of what his client could receive if he or she held out a little longer. Pressure to pay overhead and put food on the table can certainly be motivators – but sometimes not for the best.

Then there is the public perception. While many solos and small firms believe they are the “heart and soul” of the legal profession, many big firm attorneys think otherwise and frankly look down upon them.

In spite of having seen these “realities” the desire to open my own office didn’t go away.

During the winter of 2006 I chatted with an opposing counsel who had opened his own firm within the prior year and I mentioned that I was considering going the same route. When I told him how long I had been practicing he said, “Joe, you have far more [guts] than I did at your age” (only he didn’t use the word “guts”). This particular attorney was in his mid 40’s and had practiced for a well known defense firm for a several years until he reached the partnership level. After being a “partner” for a number of years he ultimately grew tired of the continuous office politics and realized he needed to change directions. He encouraged me to not delay in making such a decision as it would only get harder over time as I continued to grow accustom to a healthy paycheck.

Prior and subsequent to this conversation I had countless others with attorneys who had made a similar leap of faith. One common thread was shared amongst all to whom I spoke—they were confident they had made the best decision and they encouraged me to do the same. It was around this same time that I committed myself to the idea of taking the leap.

My partner, Juan Ooink, and I had met initially in law school and were on the moot court trial team together. Juan was a licensed patent attorney; however, he truly enjoyed criminal defense and had ample experience within the field. While we had previously talked informally about opening our own office we started to commit ourselves to the idea and began making concrete plans for all of the logistical elements. Over the course of the next year we continued planning, meeting almost weekly to discuss everything from marketing ideas to technology requirements to who’s name would be first.

On March 5, 2007, we formally opened our office. I knew the moment I flipped the sign over to “open” the clients and calls would start rushing in… ok, so I was a bit delusional that day.

When we opened the office we had 10 – 12 cases between the two of us; hardly enough to keep one of us busy part time let alone both of us busy full time. We spent our free time focused on marketing efforts both traditional and non-traditional. We joined the local chamber of commerce and attended numerous associated events. We sent out announcements to our friends, family and colleagues reminding them that we were opening our office and what type of work we were interested in accepting.

Over the course of the next few months we had a few slow weeks here and there. When things were slow we concentrated on marketing. Remarkably, as the weeks went by business continued to grow. We connected with several key referral sources that regularly send us clients and made sure all of our current clients were kept happy with our services at all times.

Today things are good. Professionally I have gotten the opportunity to learn new areas of the law and run my own office. Business continues to develop every day and the future looks bright. We currently have a case load of around 80 cases at any given time. Our civil litigation files range from property damage defense matters for an insurance company to seven figure cases for plaintiffs. On the criminal defense side we defend everything from your routine traffic ticket to cases involving multiple felony counts.

Financially we’ve operated at a profit since the second month of being open and things have gotten progressively better. Salary wise this year I expect to meet or surpass my 2006 earnings.

While I do still have some sleepless nights I take comfort in knowing that I now play a substantial role in determining my own future. I no longer feel restricted in what cases I take on or what my potential could be.

My leap of faith has also far proven to be one of the best personal decisions of my legal career as I now work a mile and a half from my house, my dog goes to work from time to time, and I take time off when the mood strikes me.

So to those of you who read this article, as I would have a year ago, and think to yourselves “what if,” take comfort in knowing that it can be done. While as I complete this article our office has only been open for eight months, thousands of other attorneys in Illinois have previously taken this same leap of faith and countless numbers of them have been more than satisfied with the results.

Little is guaranteed in life and even less success comes without some risk; however, if you are one of the ambitious who wonders about the “what if” potential when it comes to opening your own office there’s only one way you will ever find out. Take the risk, the reward just might be worth it.

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About the Author: Joe Giamanco is a partner with the law office of Giamanco & Ooink located in Bolingbrook, Illinois where he practices in the areas of personal injury, civil litigation, criminal defense, traffic and DUI matters. He can be reached atjoe@golawoffice.com or at 630-679-0930.