Hanging Their Own Shingles
For some lawyers, big-firm life represents a kind of security. For others, what's more important is independence, autonomy and flexibility. We spoke with three young attorneys practicing at small or solo firms to see what life is like on their own.
Published in 2009 Indiana Super Lawyers magazine
on February 17, 2009
Updated on April 18, 2009
Say Ni Hao to Jeffrey Hester
Jeffrey Hester never expected to end up practicing bankruptcy law in Indianapolis. A proficient (if now a bit rusty) Mandarin Chinese speaker, Hester studied the language at a young age and majored in Chinese in college. Though he started his legal studies in Indianapolis, he attended the University of Hawai‘i School of Law, which had a strong Chinese law program, as a visiting student before entering a program to obtain an LL.M. from the University of Hong Kong School of Law.
“I was prepared to live the rest of my life in Hong Kong,” Hester says. But he arrived in the territory just as the Asian economic crisis hit in 1997. “There were no jobs,” he says. “No law firms were hiring. Eventually I ran out of money and moved back to the States and never looked back.”
In Indianapolis, Hester checked with the career center at Indiana University for job leads. Bill Tucker, a local solo practitioner, had posted an ad for an associate. “I didn’t choose bankruptcy law,” Hester says. “I chose Bill. And I got fantastically lucky.”
Hester was the first to join what is now a seven-attorney practice at Tucker Hester. Since it was a small firm, he was thrown right in. “I got a lot of responsibility very quickly,” he says. “Within my first month, I was asked to put together a Chapter 11 plan. I probably couldn’t even spell ‘bankruptcy’ at that point. But I learned it, and I put together the whole plan.”
Now a name partner, Hester helped push the firm to the forefront of technology. Several years ago, he spent six months moving the office to a paperless system. “It works better than a paper system, ensures you never lose anything and provides you a whole new set of tools when documents are in front of you at any computer around the world,” he says.
He also led the process of developing an extranet that clients can use to view their documents, check a calendar for upcoming deadlines and see what the firm’s attorneys are working on. “I can’t imagine how you would do that in a larger firm,” he says. “To be so nimble and to really take the best of the new technology and set it up so quickly is really a lot of fun.”
For Hester, however, the best part of small-firm life has been the extraordinary mentorship and guidance he has received from Tucker as well as the opportunity to work closely with clients. “I really enjoy helping people through a very difficult, stressful time in their life,” Hester says.
Sink or Swim
Thanks to a job with a plaintiff’s attorney before he was in law school, Robert Boughter had any easy time choosing his career path. “Even before I went to law school, I knew I wanted to do plaintiff’s law,” he says. “I wanted to open up my own practice. I wanted to be my own boss.”
After graduating from law school, Boughter began working for other firms, gathering the experience and knowledge he would need to go out on his own. He started out doing insurance defense to learn how insurance companies evaluate, handle and defend cases. “It’s very useful in my practice today,” he says. “I’ve been on the other side of the fence, and I know what they look at.”
After four years in the field, Boughter started his practice by teaming up with a friend from law school who practiced bankruptcy law. “I didn’t know anything about setting up the business,” he says. “It was kind of sink or swim.” After two years together, the two split up to concentrate on their respective practice areas. Boughter hired an associate who had clerked for him and created the Boughter Law Office.
“The hardest part about being on your own is that you have to be able to handle the business aspect of the law firm as well as the actual practice of law,” he says. “It’s sometimes overwhelming—I spend large chunks of the day on all the essential functions of making an office run.”
In Boughter’s business, this means arranging for advertising—including print ads, phone book ads, and radio and television commercials, in both English and Spanish. It means balancing the books, doing the payroll and paying the rent. “You’re trying to reach that perfect balance where you find time to do the business end of it and actually engage in the practice of law,” he says. “And I do it, but it entails a lot of long hours and hard work. I’m in every weekend, mostly because those are the days I can get work done.”
Boughter relies on top-notch staff, including his right-hand woman Amanda Brennan. “One of the biggest hurdles in any business is being able to find good people to work for you who are dedicated to your success,” he says. His newly hired associate has also been instrumental in freeing up some of his time and allowing him to grow the business.
“We’re still a young firm, and we’re still a work in progress,” Boughter says. “Every day, the caseload grows and our cases get more complex. But it’s a real joy to be able to do what I do.”
Sticking His Neck Out
For Jeff Kooi, growing up in central Illinois in a family with seven kids turned out to be excellent preparation for the law. “I grew up arguing and fighting, so it came fairly naturally to me,” he says.
But after working for a few years at a small firm, and then a few more at a medical malpractice defense boutique, he was ready for a change. “The larger firms weren’t a fit for me, both in terms of the client relationships and the larger-firm mentality,” Kooi says. “In med-mal defense, even though you’re representing physicians and medical providers, there’s really minimal contact. You’re very much at the direction of the insurance companies—they provide instruction on how you practice. [Being at a large firm] just didn’t feel right to me.”
At that time, three of his friends who had a small firm offered to bring him in—not as an associate, but as an independent attorney who would lease space from them and take referrals for cases they couldn’t or didn’t want to handle. It was the start of a new life.
“The biggest struggle as a solo attorney is that you’re putting your neck out there, you’re reliant on yourself,” Kooi says. “If things don’t work out, there’s no one to turn to.”
Kooi was surprised to find just how high the business demands were for the Kooi Law Office. He was the human resources department. He was the accountant. He was the rainmaker. “Every Friday, I spend four to five hours doing the books,” he says. “I’m meeting with the Yellow Page reps, I’m meeting with the guys to design the Web site. I have to keep up on where technology is and where it’s going—I don’t have two or three people I can designate as IT guys.”
He quickly learned that he had to sell himself and his practice if he wanted the firm to survive. “A major source of referrals come from other attorneys, so it’s important to attend the trial lawyers association and get involved in local networking events,” Kooi says. “And not only take the time to do it, but make an effort to follow up afterward. You need to get your name out there, let people know what you’re doing and that you’re good at what you do.”
Kooi always takes off the week between Christmas and New Year’s to write a business plan for the coming year. He reviews his marketing plan and his annual budget, and looks at what has been successful and what hasn’t.
Right now, with three additional employees—including his brother, who works as his office manager and paralegal—Kooi is considering how much larger he wants the firm to grow. “There’s always this internal battle of ‘how big do you want to be?'” he says. “With success comes some quantity of cases. So do you continue to take on the caseload that’s available to you, or do you stick to a core group of cases? We’re starting to get to the point where we have to refer a lot of cases out. We put a lot of money into marketing and advertising, so it hurts to turn those cases down.”