Hanging Their Own Shingles
Not every lawyer gets to stroll into the office at 10 or spend a few hours fishing for striped bass every morning. Then again, not every lawyer takes out his own trash, worries about the firm's cash flow, or plans her next wave of online marketing. We spoke to five young New England lawyers at small firms to see what life is like when you are your own accountant, bookkeeper, secretary, reference librarian, IT consultant and janitor.
Published in 2008 New England Super Lawyers magazine
on October 24, 2008
Updated on April 18, 2009
Judge, Advocate, Solo Practitioner
José Rojas: The Rojas Law Firm
José Rojas was on track to make partner at Hartford-based Shipman & Goodwin when the fourth-year associate decided to work for himself.
“I did it with very little planning,” Rojas says. “I had no savings. I went on vacation and made the decision and came back and told my boss.
“Of course, I don’t recommend that approach.”
Rojas already had a unique start to his legal career. After graduating from Quinnipiac University School of Law, he joined the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) Corps—which he calls “one of the best experiences of my life.”
After basic training and officer training, he was sent to Fort Bragg in North Carolina, where the 82nd Airborne Division makes its home, to operate a legal clinic for soldiers. Six months into his tenure, he was offered a rare opportunity—to join the U.S. attorney’s office as a federal prosecutor, bringing cases against civilians who committed offenses against the military or on military installations.
“I had complete jurisdictional control over what got prosecuted and how it was resolved,” Rojas says. “At a very young age, a tremendous amount of responsibility and authority fell into my lap. As I’m sure you know, large firms don’t work that way.”
In February 2004, Rojas worked with Shipman & Goodwin to smooth the transition as he started his solo practice. The firm referred to him some of his first cases, mostly criminal defense and tort litigation work.
Recently, he achieved his first big verdict—$1.3 million. “My focus is on the little guy,” he says. “I derive a lot of [pleasure] from getting someone compensated who’s had the tragedy of serious injury.”
The Madrid native is particularly interested in serving the local Spanish-speaking population. “I think it remains an under-represented group,” he says. “It’s very much in need of a real trial lawyer who tries cases, and that’s what I’d like to be for the community.”
Will Litigate for Gas Money
Jeffrey Eger: Attorney & Counselor at Law, “All Your Legal Needs”
Jeffrey L. Eger is a born entrepreneur. The law came later.
Raised outside Philadelphia in the Main Line area, he was the son of the first Subaru dealer in the country. “I was born to qualify and sell [to] people,” he says. “It comes naturally, I guess.”
As a kid, he remembers catching and selling blue crabs while on vacation with his family in Ocean City, N.J., making a couple hundred dollars in a half hour. (“I used the money to buy video games,” he says.) At home, he manufactured and sold “Jeff’s Skateboards.”
In college at UC Boulder, he ran two companies. The first, a residential radon testing service, was inspired by a friend’s older sister, who was in the radon business back home in Pennsylvania. Then 19, Eger hired a secretary, who drove him to his classes in the morning, spent a few hours booking appointments and taking messages, and then picked him up after class and took him to his afternoon and evening appointments. His second company was a business that helped people establish credit.
After graduation and a few years of work, Eger enrolled in Roger Williams University School of Law in Rhode Island. He was accepted as part of the startup school’s first class and arrived while the law school building was still going up.
Today, Eger’s Warwick-based consumer law firm, All Your Legal Needs, which he founded in 2000, handles divorce, custody, bankruptcy, real estate, personal injury and workers’ compensation claims. Every day, he sees his father’s influence on his approach to the business. “My father brought me up dealing with the public,” Eger says. “He taught me the questions you ask when you qualify someone properly. Today, I need to look at people’s income, expenses and lifestyle, and assess their ability to be forthcoming with the relevant facts. My job is to help flesh out what the issues are, what the facts are, and give the best advice possible.”
Running his own business also gives him a chance to spend time with his first love—his rod and reel. “I really enjoy the flexibility of working for myself,” Eger says. “In the summertime, I usually get up around 4 a.m. and fish until about 8, and then I’m in court by 9. I’m really a fisherman, but I practice law to pay for gas.”
Name Partner and Chief Envelope Stuffer
Jennifer Emens-Butler: Obuchowski & Emens-Butler
Every once in a while, Jennifer Emens-Butler’s husband, Brendan, will tease her about not taking the recruiting solicitation seriously from Weil Gotshal, the global 1,300-attorney firm with the deep pockets. After all, there’s a bit of difference between life in a big Manhattan law firm and a two-person firm where you have to take out the trash, answer the phones, vacuum the office and worry about the bottom line.
“I was just checking the mail this morning,” Emens-Butler says. “I was thinking, ‘OK, the bills went out on the third, and we have some regulars with big bills and they usually pay on time.’ You really do have to pay attention to how much is coming in every week and every month.”
Raised in Ohio by a single mom who put herself through law school, Emens-Butler grew up planning to be a paleontologist. But in college at the University of Wisconsin, she became increasingly interested in environmental issues, and applied to Vermont Law School, which had the top environmental law program at the time. Her first year in school, she met her husband, who was managing the local Greenhurst Inn.
After graduation, she took a federal clerkship with a bankruptcy judge. She loved the work. “People think it’s a very specialized area of the law, but money touches everything, so you get to deal with all kinds of interesting issues,” Emens-Butler says. She spent two and a half years in the job, drafting decisions and prepping cases for hearings. She also traveled with the judge to Florida and New York to work in other districts.
Through her work, she became familiar with Ray Obuchowski, Vermont’s premier bankruptcy attorney, and before long, she learned he needed an associate. She left the clerkship early and joined Obuchowski in January 1998, and quickly took on as much as she could. Just a few years later, she served as local co-counsel on a Chapter 11 case for Fiber Mark—the largest case in the district’s history.
The thing about working on that case that she enjoyed is one of the perks of working in a small firm—you get to do everything. Then again, doing everything can have its downside. Says Emens-Butler: “When I started here, we had a big mailing. Ray and I were working on it, and I said to him, ‘All these years of school, and I’m still stuffing envelopes!’ And Ray said, ‘Well, I’m licking them.'”
The King of Tortes
Donald Smith: Helme, Cole & Smith
Donald Smith’s first career was in the restaurant business, a field that rivals the law for workload.
After attending Kenyon College in Ohio, the Plymouth, N.H., native started cooking in restaurants, where he met his wife, Suzanne. Soon, they and another couple purchased the popular 103 Restaurant in Rochester, which they ran for about six years. “While I enjoyed it, it was a tough business,” Smith says. “I was working 90 hours a week at least.”
Before he burned out, Smith and his wife sold their interest in the restaurant and he started law school at Franklin Pierce Law Center in Concord, N.H. “I had no aspirations to move to the city or work for a large firm,” Smith says. “I pretty much saw myself doing what I do now—practice in a small firm in a small town.”
As Smith was leaving law school, Suzanne grew interested in returning to the restaurant business. They bought a building in Sanford, Maine, and remodeled it themselves, building the bar out of wood salvaged from old local buildings, including a bowling alley and a post office.
After Smith passed the bar exam, he joined experienced attorneys Wenda Helme and Peter Cole at their small firm in Ossipee, doing real estate work. He also took on some family law cases and a few criminal and civil cases. As he’d hoped, small-firm life also gave him the flexibility to continue working at the restaurant on Fridays and through the weekend, at least for the first few years.
The beginning of the end of his restaurant career came the day he waited on the same customer twice.
One Friday, a client arrived with a will that needed some work. “Wenda wasn’t here, so I [handled the will],” Smith says. “Then I jumped in my car and drove to the restaurant, which was about an hour away. I cooked that night, and my wife ran the front of the house. Afterwards, she told me that a customer had stopped her on the way out. ‘I had a wonderful meal,’ he said, ‘and your cook must have a twin-because someone who looks just like him did my will this morning.'”
After a few years, Smith and his wife sold the restaurant, and he concentrated full time on his legal career—which comparatively can seem like a vacation. “While this isn’t a 40-hour-a-week job,” Smith says, “it’s also not a 90-hour-a-week job.”
Joining the Community
Rebecca Pontikes: Davis, Pontikes & Swartz
Rebecca Pontikes grew up in Evanston, Ill., the daughter of a “cause attorney.” “My parents are politically active, and my dad used the law the way you think of people in the ’60s using the law,” Pontikes says. “He represented conscientious objectors during the Vietnam War. He was a criminal defense attorney for 20 years. He’s been to the Supreme Court five times. That’s what I grew up with. And that’s what I thought a lawyer was supposed to be.”
Today, Pontikes is her own kind of cause attorney, focused on employment discrimination against women and caregivers, male or female. “The way we treat women with children is reflective of our assumptions about their role in society. These can be stereotypes, and they can be wrong,” she says. “But it’s so ingrained that people do it reflexively.”
Pontikes met John Davis and Tara Swartz at Siegel, Wagner & Swartz, an employment firm she had joined as of counsel. They left to form Davis, Pontikes & Swartz in Boston in April 2008.
Pontikes and her partners have appreciated the support they’ve found in the small-firm and solo-practice communities in Boston. “Instead of looking at you like the competition, they support you,” Pontikes says. “It was very heartwarming to have everyone from the president of the Mass. Bar Association to committee members send flowers, send books to help with the startup, and give us ideas for organizing our IT resources or payroll.”
Of course, there have been some surprises along the way. The first day they opened, they tried to mail letters, only to discover that none of them owned a stamp machine. “There’s so much administrative stuff in running my own firm,” Pontikes says. “I want to practice law, not go over P&L statements. The biggest challenge is in being able to set the administrative stuff aside, put it out of your head for a day, and focus on what I really want to do—the legal work.”