California Lawyers Association

Lessons Learned as a Small Firm Lawyer

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June 2023

By Sabrina Green
Chair of CLA’s Board of Representatives

It’s hard to believe, but my law partner and I have had our small practice since 2005. We did not come by our firm in the typical fashion, hanging up our shingle from scratch. Instead, we inherited our firm from a preeminent trial attorney who decided to retire from private practice to public service. So we had a lease, office furniture, computers, and even a few clients, along with a large amount of debt on the books. It was a fair trade-off, but we still had our work cut out for us.

Having come from large and mid-sized firms, I found running my own firm a rewarding, albeit very challenging, endeavor. It was perfect because I was just starting a family, and the autonomy of making my own schedule was amazing. I could take my kids to their doctor appointments, go on class field trips and pick them up from school. My partner and I could also choose what kinds of clients we wanted as we began to build our brand in the community.  

However, we soon learned that having a small firm means you don’t just get to practice law. You become the billing and payroll departments. You navigate the complexities of managing law firm finances, procuring licenses, insurances, vendors, leases, and learning firm budgeting. You discover how to fix the printer and spend countless hours on hold with vendors trying to understand why your telephones aren’t forwarding, your website is suddenly down, or why the marketing you carved out for in your budget yielded virtually no results. 

The most significant learning curve hit when the 2009 recession arrived. My partner and I learned we had to practice at least one area of law that always brought in stable income. Before the recession, we provided plaintiff employment services to the community on a contingency basis, so we didn’t bring in money unless we settled or won a case. Steady income was elusive for all but the largest firms with many cases in the queue. Once the recession hit, we began practicing regular business law again. I began to offer the bankruptcy, business start-up, and litigation services I practiced at my previous firms. Pivoting saved us.

Since then, our little firm has steadied itself. Beyond expanding our practice areas, we began to invest in technology. Document automation and practice management software that coordinates time tracking and billing software has been a godsend. We have also cultivated a strong legal network through the various bar associations. 

My volunteer hours for the past six years are primarily devoted to CLA—with the Solo Small Firm Section and the CLA Board of Representatives. This has made a tremendous impact on my career. I have met amazing attorneys in every area of practice to refer my clients to all over the state if needed, and I have a solid referral base from those same attorneys. I stay current on legal trends and in my education, and I have the privilege of working with some of the best attorneys in the state. Most importantly, I feel I am a part of a community and have the honor of counting many of these fantastic attorneys and the staff of CLA as my friends. 

For those of you who are already solo or small firm attorneys or if you’re thinking about becoming one, I am very excited to invite you to this year’s CLA Solo Small Firm Summit taking place virtually June 15-16th. This year’s theme is “Build, Launch, & Grow Your Practice.” Fabulous programming offers separate tracks of education specifically curated toward those looking to launch a new law firm and those looking to grow and develop their existing firms. 

I hope to see you all there.

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