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ISBA conference attracts law students

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The ninth conference aimed at solo and small firm attorneys in Indiana was a success according to organizers and those who attended, especially going by the number of law school students in attendance compared to previous years.

The conference, which provides CLE credit, networking opportunities, and vendors of products that in many cases specifically cater to solo and small law firms, took place June 3-5 in Merrillville. Plans are already under way and organizers are seeking help for the Indiana State Bar Association’s 10th Solo and Small Firm Conference, June 2-4, 2011, in French Lick.

One of the major differences between this year and last year was the number of young attorneys and recent law school students in attendance.

conference Indianapolis solo attorney Marc Matheny, program development chair for the ISBA Solo and Small Firm Conference, addressed attendees in Merrillville. (Submitted photo)

One of the organizers, Ted Waggoner of the Rochester firm Peterson & Waggoner, said this year had 11 students who registered to attend, the most by far compared to other years. The 2009 conference had about 200 attendees total, which wasn’t the lowest or highest number the conference has seen.

Waggoner helped teach a weekend course at Indiana University Maurer School of Law – Bloomington to 2Ls and 3Ls about solo and small firm practice management. Students in that class learned about the conference, some for the first time, and attended based on recommendations of Waggoner and professor Bill Henderson, who helped organize that course.

Alice A. O’Brien, a solo attorney in Arcadia and the 2010 conference’s chair, said the conference has always tried to include younger attorneys and law students. She said Jay Conison, dean of Valparaiso University School of Law, has always been supportive, and it was helpful this year that the school was a conference sponsor.

Organizers also had more success this year reaching law students, thanks in part to law schools that offered scholarships to students for the conference, and also the close proximity of Merrillville to Valparaiso University School of Law.

donna bays Bays

Marc W. Matheny, program development chair for the 2010 conference and a solo practitioner in Indianapolis, said he also hopes to get more law school students involved next year and considers that – while not forgetting the needs of the practitioners – when looking at programming.

“As lawyers helping out future lawyers, it would be wonderful to have a large contingent,” Matheny said. “I would love to have 50 or 100 law students from law schools attend; it’s a great opportunity for them.”

Donna J. Bays, a solo practitioner in Indianapolis and the 2010 conference vice chair and 2011 conference chair, said one of her goals is to have an even better turnout from law students next year.

She added that for law students who attend the Missouri solo and small firm conference – one of the largest in the country with about 1,100 members of the legal community attending this year – course credit is available for attending various sessions on firm management.

Two recent graduates of the Bloomington law school, Jeremy Kridel and Angela J. Fox, said they are spending most of their time studying for the Indiana bar exam. However, both attended the conference on scholarships.

While Kridel received a job offer shortly after the conference, he still plans to open his own firm someday. Because he was a non-traditional student and earned his master’s degree before law school, he didn’t see himself joining a larger firm because he didn’t want to wait to make partner 10 years down the road.

Fox said she and a law school classmate plan to start their own firm in Avon after passing the bar. They hope to open early next year.

As to what kind of law she’ll practice, she said it would be what a judge had called “a threshold practice,” meaning she and legal partner Ben Blair would take on “‘anything that walks through the door,’ and I’m OK with that.”

Ideally, she and Blair have talked about her practicing business law and Blair practicing real estate law, so the two practices would complement each other.

ted waggoner Waggoner

Fox and Kridel said the conference was helpful in terms of what they’d be able to use for their own firms someday. They also enjoyed seeing other attorneys interact at CLE sessions.

The two also said networking was invaluable because they received helpful support from other attendees, whether it was another solo attorney who had specific advice or just getting positive reactions to the idea of starting a solo or small firm.

While some friends and family have expressed concern to Fox when she has told them she planned to open her own firm, she considered opening a solo or small firm practice something she’d eventually do. She just didn’t think she’d start one this soon out of law school. She added with nothing to lose at this time – she isn’t leaving behind another job and she doesn’t have any children she needs to take care of, this was as good of a time as any to get started.

When choosing their sessions, Kridel and Fox said they looked for ones that would apply to the business of law practice. Fox attended some of the boot camp and tech camp sessions June 3, and both attended marketing and other technology-related sessions.

Kridel did attend the session on family law mediation, which Bays presented with South Bend attorney Charlie Asher. That session was memorable to him because audience members mentioned cases and real examples of things that they experienced that related to Bays’ and Asher’s comments.

Another law student who attended was Jennifer B. Beinart, who is about to start her third year at I.U. School of Law – Indianapolis. Beinart is Bays’ daughter, which she said is more or less the reason she attended this year and in 2009. But even though she has no definite plans to be a solo or small firm practitioner, the conference has been helpful to her and is something she would recommend to other students as well.

A connection she made at last year’s conference helped her get the job she has this summer with Indiana Farm Bureau. She had another connection to her summer employer as well, but she said it didn’t hurt to have more than one connection.

She said she appreciated the networking opportunities because even if she doesn’t open her own practice, she knows she’ll eventually interact with attorneys at the conference in some way.

Of the sessions she attended, Beinart thought Beverly Hills attorney and Gary native Jay Foonberg’s discussion about client satisfaction “was applicable to all lawyers, no matter what you’ll do. It was aimed at solo and small firm lawyers, but it was also about how to be a better lawyer.”

She said she’d recommend the conference to other students, and that other than networking, she thinks some of the CLEs with an Indiana law focus will help her when she ultimately takes the Indiana Bar Exam.

“The connections, advice, and networking opportunities are incredible and the value is incredible as well,” she said, adding the law school student pricing, which includes all meals at the conference, makes it more affordable. “Plus it’s a lot of fun.”

To help with the 2011 conference or to get involved, attorneys can contact Bays at dbays@donnabays.com or (317) 630-3175; or Maryann Williams at ISBA, (317) 639-5465.•

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