Annual solo and small firms conference reaches out to law students

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When planning the Indiana State Bar Association’s 10th Solo & Small Firm Conference, Ted Waggoner wanted to bring some new faces into the fold. Waggoner, long-term development chair for the conference planning committee, said the committee got enthusiastic responses when it contacted law school deans about inviting students to the event.

Law schools tend to focus on large firm practice, Waggoner said, but at a time when hiring at large firms seems to have stalled, students may be looking for new career options.

“I think there are opportunities out there, and the students are starting to realize that, and the law schools are starting to realize that,” Waggoner said.

Last year, only 11 students registered to attend the conference. This year, about 30 students from Indiana law schools attended the conference in French Lick, June 2 through 4. Donna Bays, conference chair, said the students “brought a vibrancy that 50-year-olds just don’t have.”

soloHamilton Superior Court Judge William Hughes chats with law student Anahit Behjou. (Photo submitted)

Many law school graduates begin their careers as associates at mid-size or large firms. But with the number of associates outnumbering senior partners, Bays said, it’s clear that those entry-level lawyers must end up somewhere else. Solo and small firms may be a place for them to land – particularly in rural areas.

“It’s difficult to get young lawyers into rural areas of the state – it just historically has been difficult – and there are opportunities in the Rensselaers and the Salems,” Waggoner said. “I was even talking to a lawyer in Warsaw – which is, from the Indianapolis perspective, a small town – there are lawyers there who are either looking to bring new lawyers in or bring lawyers in to replace lawyers.”

As lawyers in small, rural firms retire, the need for new attorneys may increase. But Bays said that while many solo and small firms see their business beginning to pick up again after weathering the recession, at the moment, they are not confident about hiring. While she doesn’t think firms in small towns are faring any worse than those in cities, Bays said in close-knit communities it may be easier for people to detect financial woes.

Small-firm education

The adjunct staff in law schools generally comes from large firms, Waggoner explained, and students may not be learning about small firms. At least two law schools have taken steps to introduce small firms to the curriculum.

Last year, Indiana University Maurer School of Law invited Waggoner to teach a course on solo and small firm practice. Ken Turchi, assistant dean for communications and marketing, said the class will be offered again.

Indiana University School of Law – Indianapolis offered a course this summer in law practice management that focuses on solo and small firms. Jonna Kane MacDougall, assistant dean for alumni affairs and external relations, said that the course is not yet a permanent part of the school’s curriculum but will be proposed to the faculty as a permanent addition. If that happens, it would be offered again in the spring semester of 2012.

Perks and drawbacks

Bays enjoys being her own boss because she is not beholden to keep particular office hours. She said she appreciates that flexibility, which has allowed her to attend family events. “When you work for someone else, they may not value that the same way you do,” she said.

solo Law students Courtney Benson-Kooy (left) and Yana Spitzer (middle) chat with Indiana State Bar Association President Jeff Lind. (Photo submitted)

She gets to choose her clients, and she passes on those that aren’t a good fit. In large firms, she said, lawyers may not have much say in which cases they handle.

A primary challenge small and solo firms face is a lack of on-site peer support. Lawyers may not have another person in the office to turn to for advice and they may feel disconnected from others like them, who are spread out across the state. Bays said the ISBA’s small firm section has a listserv that solos and small firms can use to stay connected.

“Anyone can reach out at any time,” Bays said. And the conference committee made sure to develop activities to create bonds between solo and small firm attorneys.

“We had them doing all sorts of things that would make the bonds and cause them to remember one another later on,” Bays said.•


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