Published in 2024 Kentucky Super Lawyers magazine
By Steve Knopper on December 28, 2023
While clerking for a Columbus firm during his last year of law school, Emmanuel Olawale was told he was being let go. “I asked, ‘Was there a reason? Of all the law clerks, I put in more time.’ I didn’t want to be seen as an affirmative-action hire. The HR person told me, ‘No, you were actually our best law clerk. But we just thought you didn’t fit.’”
This news was devastating for Olawale, who had come to the U.S. in 1997 from Nigeria, and had just married his fiancé, who then moved to Columbus from the U.K. “I was unemployed, she was unemployed. It got to a point we were getting food from the church pantry. We couldn’t afford to put enough gas in the car. We reached rock bottom. That was what inspired me to start my own law practice.”
The six Ohio and Kentucky attorneys who shared their hanging-a-shingle stories with Super Lawyers had varying reasons for becoming solo practitioners—not all of them harrowing. Example: Ann D’Ambruoso was looking for flexibility—as well as some office work for her mother to do. “She had recently retired and was twiddling her thumbs, and she was a widow,” she says.
Here are their stories:
Emmanuel Olawale, The Olawale Law Firm, Westerville, Ohio; Personal Injury – General: Plaintiff; went solo 2009: At the age of 14, when I got my first job, I ended up working on a construction site in Nigeria. I got there in the morning, I worked all day and, at the end of the day, I wasn’t paid, because the owner of the building just refused to pay me. That was the inspiration to become an attorney.
Ann D’Ambruoso, Family Law of Kentucky, Lexington, Kentucky; Family Law; went solo 2019: I used to be an archaeologist. I had always planned on going back to school, but when my dad got very sick, I realized I couldn’t go away to one of the archaeology programs that I was really interested in. Law is like archaeology in a lot of ways: You dig up evidence and you try to get to the heart of the matter, and you go through a lot of muck in the process.
William F. McMurry, William F. McMurry & Associates, Louisville, Kentucky; Personal Injury – Medical Malpractice: Plaintiff; went solo 1995: It was in my gene pool, I guess. My father was an attorney, my grandfather was an attorney, and my great-grandfather was a Methodist bishop presiding over the Southeastern United States. Preaching for the prosecution is how I got started in practice.
Anand Patel, Law Office of Anand Patel, Cincinnati, Ohio; Real Estate; went solo 2017: I took the law electives in high school; I was an English major in undergrad. It was either doing this or teaching.
Gregory S. French, Law Office of Gregory S. French, Cincinnati, Ohio; Elder Law; went solo 1997: I was very interested in doing something that made a difference in people’s lives. When I graduated, I started working for the legal services program of Northern Indiana. They had an opening for an attorney to do elder law.
Pamela Perlman, Pamela Perlman Law, Lexington, Kentucky; Criminal Defense, Personal Injury; went solo 1998: My father, Peter Perlman, had a long and distinguished career as a trial attorney. I could see, growing up, the way that his work helped people who had been injured to reclaim parts of their life that they wouldn’t otherwise have been able to reclaim. I wanted to emulate that.
Why Go Solo?
Olawale: I thought, “Well, I have good grades, I’m going to get a good job in a few weeks.” It took almost a year. I wasn’t even getting the callbacks. I had to change my name on the resume—add an apostrophe to the “O,” so it becomes O’lawale. So they thought I was Irish! But when I showed up, I didn’t look like an Irish guy. Even though it was one of the toughest periods of my life, it was the best thing that ever happened to me. Because it put me on the path that I am [on] right now.
D’Ambruoso: The flexibility and freedom were very appealing. And my mom answers my phone three days a week and does all my filing. Do you know how many people have tried to poach her from me when she answers the phone?
Patel: My wife took a job in the Cincinnati area. I grew up in Cincinnati, I’m a huge Cincinnati Bengals fan, love the area. What enabled me to follow through was the clients I had brought into the Columbus firm. My departure was on good terms and there was full clarity on what was happening there. I knew that could be the base for my own solo practice.
McMurry: Working for others was not my cup of tea. I had a passion for helping people, and I wanted to choose who I represented, which you cannot do in an insurance defense firm. I moved to Florida and began a practice with a plaintiff’s firm. I enjoyed it thoroughly. That law firm broke up and I got homesick and came back to Kentucky and spent the next eight years in a small plaintiff’s firm, then made the move to go on my own. I’ve never regretted it. I’m a nationally board-certified medical malpractice specialist as well as board-certified legal malpractice specialist.
French: I worked for two legal-services programs for the first 21 years of my career. In the late 1990s, I became involved with a group of attorneys, most of whom were in private practice, who also were doing elder law. When one legal-services program ran into some funding challenges, it just turned out to be a good time for me to open up my own practice as a solo attorney. It’s worked out for my clients; it’s worked out for me.
Perlman: I had been the chairperson of the young lawyers division of what was then known as the Association of Trial Lawyers of America. I had a lot of contacts and I thought, “This is the time to do it.” And I had been familiar with Dad’s office as well, because he was basically a solo practitioner for most of his career.
Early Challenges and Victories:
Olawale: I started my practice with less than $500 to my name.
French: It was scary. But sometimes it’s worth being scared.
D’Ambruoso: The biggest hurdle for me was the bookkeeping. I tried to do it on my own, then decided the more efficient use of my time would be to outsource it. Since my husband has a degree in accounting and does bookkeeping already, it seemed natural to let him take over that aspect of the business. I’m embarrassed I didn’t let him do it sooner. The couple of months I had to do it myself was just maddening.
French: I did it the cheapest way I could. We have a large house located in a quiet neighborhood in the geographic center of Cincinnati. My clients said, “It’s a whole lot easier finding your location, we don’t have to go downtown, the parking is free.” That was just good luck … that my wife and I had decided to purchase that home when we relocated to Cincinnati 39 years ago.
Perlman: Going from a firm to solo, you don’t have that paycheck coming in every two weeks, you don’t have anybody paying into your Social Security, you don’t have healthcare. You’ve got to be a manager, a lawyer, an accountant, a marketer—you’ve got to do everything. The firm I worked for in Atlanta was pretty cushy. I had everybody to do everything. Hanging up the shingle, there’s nobody. When I first started, I was doing appointed work for dependency, neglect and abuse cases—a variety of stuff just to make sure you’ve got the light bill covered at the end of the month.
Patel: I’m Indian American, and since I started my own practice, that demographic has grown [as a] part of who I represent. I speak Gujarati fluently, which is a dialect from India, and I can understand Hindi. It makes a difference. That’s something that has given me a niche in this area.
Olawale: By the time I started my practice, there were only two of us of African descent, to my knowledge, who were attorneys in central Ohio, and I was the only one in full-time practice as a law firm owner. The market was there. People from the immigrant community began reaching out to me. Six months later, I was able to afford a larger office. One year down the line, I was able to afford a real office. I stayed there for another year, then even a bigger office. It’s been 14 years. Now we have our own building.
D’Ambruoso: I brought all my cases and clients with me and had a very active practice before I went solo. Nothing’s ever slowed down. It’s just been very steady.
McMurry: About seven years into my solo practice, I became involved in the tragic reality of the Catholic priest sex-abuse problem in the Archdiocese of Louisville. A client came to me who was a survivor in his 40s, and after filing that lawsuit, within just a few months, we represented hundreds, and interviewed probably 2,000 victims. For a couple of years, I was inundated with these cases. By 2004, I joined forces with a longtime partner, and we sued the Vatican and successfully held the Vatican accountable for the conduct of all the bishops in the U.S. who hid these pedophiles and allowed this abuse to occur.
Olawale: It was a wrongful death case of a 2-year-old killed by an errant driver. I was able to take the case to trial. It was my first million-dollar verdict from a jury. It took years after the death of their child before the parents were eventually able to get a semblance of justice. I also had a little kid, so it wasn’t just a case for me. I connected with the loss.
D’Ambruoso: I had a client come in with a 2-week-old baby. She was from a culture where the women are expected to be quite subservient to the men. She told me she really needed to get some help in filing for divorce that day, because that night, her two weeks post-childbirth were up. I said, “What do you mean, your two weeks are up?” Her husband was to resume raping her that night, as he had been for months. We immediately got her an emergency-protection order, which turned into a domestic-violence order. We helped get her set up with an apartment.
French: I got involved in litigation matters by older persons who had been placed in facilities against their will and wanted to get out. We were able to keep one woman out of a nursing home for 15 years. We were able to block a guardianship attempt, and to establish a conservatorship, which is voluntary.
Perlman: There have been a couple of federal criminal cases—one went to trial in London, and there were five defendants, and I had one of five. It was an inside assault in a prison, and four of the five were convicted of the assault. My client was convicted of a misdemeanor. The conviction for the felony assault carried an additional 20 years, but my guy got 12 months. That was a pretty big result that validated: “OK, I know what I’m doing, I’ve conveyed this information to the jury in the right way, I’ve made the story understandable to them.”
Advice For Going Solo
McMurry: Solo practice is not for everyone. It is not for the faint of heart. It’s lonely when it’s all on you. But the rewards are yours to keep.
Olawale: Make sure you have a good mentor. I was lucky to have worked for a law firm for four years, and they got me rolling quickly. The day [after] I got my license, they had me going before the Court of Appeals. Within six months, I had my first jury trial; within a year, I had six jury trials. When I started my practice, I could try cases, I could do intakes.
Patel: Obviously, there’s working hard, but it’s important to try to work smart. That probably translates across the board for most jobs, but especially as a solo, if you’re inefficient, nothing is getting done.
French: Tap into the resources. As a member of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys, I never felt, “Boy, I’m really on my own here.” I felt, “Boy, I have a lot of people who can help.”
Perlman: Feel good about your skill level. Be as respectful to the court personnel as you would be to the court itself. Make sure your legal writing is as strong as you can make it. Have a strong support system of people that do the same kind of work.
D’Ambruoso: Don’t hesitate. I know it feels like a huge leap sometimes. Be brave and do it. It is absolutely the most fulfilling and best thing I’ve done for myself professionally. I take as much vacation time as I want, I keep the hours I want, and I still have a solid community of colleagues that I can bounce ideas off and vent to. I should’ve done it sooner. Years sooner.
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