Published in 2022 New Jersey Super Lawyers magazine
By Natalie Pompilio on March 17, 2022
When Abhisha Parikh went looking for her first job as an attorney, one firm said she wouldn’t have direct contact with her clients; others seemed more concerned with billables. She was intrigued by a firm that wanted her to head its immigration section, but that changed when one of the partners suggested she come to his country club where they could “discuss the opportunity poolside.”
“That was a breaking point,” Parikh, 32, recalls. “After six to eight months of interviews, I decided that if I couldn’t find the right firm, I was going to create it.”
Eight years later, Parikh’s solo practice is flourishing. She’s one of an estimated 14,000 New Jersey lawyers practicing alone or with one partner, according to figures from the Office of Attorney Ethics’ 2020 annual report. That’s about 40 percent of the total number of attorneys in private practice in the state.
A 2019 American Bar Association study, aimed to discover why experienced female attorneys leave the profession in their prime, hints at why women may choose the solo route. Based on the responses of more than 1,200 managing partners and lawyers with more than 15 years’ experience, the study concluded that women are far more likely “to report negative work experiences that resulted simply because they are women,” including being passed over for promotions, denied salary increases or bonuses, and being overlooked when it comes to prime casework assignments.
The five women we interviewed have various reasons for hanging a shingle. Some, like Samantha Mendenhall, left firms after realizing they had all the skills needed to go solo. Others, like Linda Mainenti Walsh, were encouraged to go out on their own by mentors and friends.
And then there’s Mary Ann Bauer, who went solo after the sudden death of her husband. With a child at home, she needed a more flexible schedule and an office closer to her Hunterdon County home.
No matter how disparate their stories, they agree on this: Opening your own shop can be terrifying, and being successful requires working more hours than you ever imagined.
“It’s been life-changing,” says Mainenti Walsh, 57, who opened her family law practice in Morristown four years ago. “I thought I was a firm person. I’d been working in firms for over 25 years. … Women lawyers are thought of—and this is changing—as being good at detail work: the charts, the prep. But then the stage doesn’t always become yours. It gets handed to a male partner or another associate. We’re trained to be the worker bees and not make noise; to bill your hours and work hard and hope you get rewarded. I talked to other lawyers [about this] and they told me that going solo was exactly where I ought to be.”
These attorneys say the first order of business is to lay a foundation: establish business entities, meet state requirements for escrow accounts and malpractice insurance, and print business cards and figure out how to market yourself.
“There was so much involved, everything from establishing trust accounts to figuring out the stamp machine,” says Bauer, who practices family law in Lebanon. “But I was a widow with a 5-year-old son, so fear was not an option for me.”
“It was terrifying for sure, not having a guaranteed source of income, but it was also very exciting,” Mendenhall, 35, says. “A lot of people aren’t comfortable with the ebb and flow, particularly in the beginning when you don’t know where the next dollar is coming from, but I was excited to set my own schedules and determine which cases I wanted and didn’t.”
One of the first things Ayesha K. Hamilton did was go shopping to fill her space, which she rented in an accountant’s office, and which she calls a “300-square-foot box with no windows.”
“I bought a big, fancy desk, bookshelves and a whole lot of law books to fill those bookshelves because I had this impression of what a law office should look like,” says Hamilton, 49, a Princeton employment attorney on her own since 2005. “I still have those law books because they cost a lot of money and I’m not just going to toss them out, but I don’t look at them because everyone has Westlaw and LexisNexis now.”
As for the accountant from whom she rented space? “It worked out because he sent me referrals,” she says. “That was my first great lesson in strategic partnerships.”
The office also proved valuable in the earliest days of Hamilton’s practice, when the phones weren’t exactly ringing.
“There were days where I just took naps with my head on the desk,” she admits.
If you build it, they will come. That might be true for magical baseball diamonds in corn fields, but not necessarily so with law practices. So each attorney had to grow the practice on her own.
Parikh’s growth initiative began by offering free immigration seminars at places like community centers and senior homes.
“I gave out a lot of value to people, to really tell the community, ‘Hey! I’m here. I want to help. You can trust me,’” says Parikh, whose first client was the banker who helped set up her business accounts. “After a few months, clients started rolling in.”
Mendenhall knew she could bring in clients—being a rainmaker at a small firm is one reason she felt confident she’d find success on her own.
“I realized I had a big network of people [in the community] who didn’t know any lawyers, so I told people the kinds of things I do. You’d be surprised at how many people would say, ‘Oh, wait. I do have a situation I might want a lawyer’s help with,’” she says.
Mendenhall now focuses exclusively on business law and estate planning. To grow her business, she connected with financial advisers, including Prudential and Liberty Mutual, and life insurance agents. She also does free seminars at churches and professional organizations.
“I found it more beneficial to target where my ideal client would be and position myself with people who would introduce me to my ideal client,” she says. “You end up getting clients just by engaging people where they are. You’re not going to get a bunch of clients that day, but they trickle in.”
Bauer and Mainenti Walsh were already well-established when they opened their business, so they had clients from the get-go—but not enough to stay afloat long term. So it was back to the basics.
“Network, network, network,” Bauer says.
“Go ahead, underestimate me” could be a mantra for these women.
One of Hamilton’s first major solo cases was representing an employee against a Fortune 500 company for a wrongful termination whistleblower claim. Soon after filing the suit, Hamilton received a Rule 11 sanctions letter from opposing counsel.
“The purpose,” she says, “is to scare the life out of you: ‘The complaint you’ve signed your name to is frivolous and we’re going to dismiss this case and seek counsel fees and you’re going to be on the hook.’”
It worked for a second; then she realized it was a standard defense move. “It’s how they rattle their sabers at you,” she says. So she rattled back.
“The case settled very favorably because these large firms make a mistake of underestimating solos,” she says. “Their tab is being paid for by an insurance company and they think they can come in, assign all these paralegals and associates to do the work, and just overwhelm you until you give up and settle for a low-ball number. That’s not fair to my client, that’s not fair to me. We stick it out and we fight.”
Mendenhall says she is often disregarded as a threat not only because of her small practice, but because she is a woman of color.
“If you come from a big law firm, they’re like, ‘OK. She must be really smart because she was hired by this great law firm that everybody’s familiar with,’” Mendenhall says. “When you don’t have the backing of a large firm, even when it comes to just stepping into the courtroom, people assume you’re the domestic violence victim or a social worker or court reporter. They never think you’re the attorney. And when you tell them what firm you’re from, they’re like, ‘OK, who’s this random fly-by-night?’”
Her response is to be the better lawyer.
“I’ve gone up against certified trial attorneys practicing 25, 30 years, and they don’t even want to have a conversation before we go into the courtroom sometimes. They don’t want to respond to emails,” she says. “When it comes to presenting their case, they don’t even try because they think, ‘This girl doesn’t know what she’s doing.’ Then I win, and they can’t even look me in the face.”
Going solo doesn’t necessarily mean working alone. The women say hiring staffers and working with other lawyers has improved the quality of their lives, their work and their bottom lines.
Hamilton was a “true, true solo” for almost a decade—she had no office or legal support staff. If she could have a do-over, she says she would have hired help sooner.
“I’m starting to wise up. If you build a team around you, you’re supported and you’re more efficient, and you can provide a much better level of service,” she says. “Four years ago, I hired the best paralegal on the face of this earth. She has allowed me to increase my revenue because I’ve been able to hand stuff off to her that I shouldn’t have been doing, that I wasn’t billing for.”
Parikh employs one paralegal and plans to hire two more office support staff. She’s also opening an affiliate office in India, although the pandemic has stymied the timeline.
Managing, however, has been a whole different beast.
“I’ve never had to tell anyone what to do,” Parikh says. “I’ve been trying to find the balance between ‘I’m your boss’ and ‘I want this to be a nice environment to work in.’ It’s been trial and error.”
Mendenhall, too, went without a paralegal or legal secretary for about six years before hiring in 2020.
“It’s not easy to relinquish the stuff you’re used to doing and turning it over to another person,” she says. “It’s essential, but not easy.”
For Bauer, leaving a stable job and opening an office close to home was a tough move, particularly on the heels of her husband’s death. But she had a lifeline in the form of her long-time assistant, who twice took chances on Bauer—first, leaving an established firm in Somerville, then leaving one in Warren to go out on their own.
“You need to be surrounded by people who are trustworthy,” she says. “Over the years, my assistant was at times a sister, a mother, a best friend to me. We were together for 20 years before she retired. Her last act was to hire my current office manager.”
Even with the ups and downs of solo practice, these attorneys say, the benefits tends to win out.
“If I were working at a big firm, it wouldn’t be acceptable for me to leave to drive my kids to swim practice and sit there and work, yet a man who leaves to coach his kid’s soccer game is a big fancy hero,” Hamilton says. “Both my kids swam competitively, with meets all weekend, and I could sit there and work and that was fine by me.”
Larger firms have approached Hamilton with offers to absorb her practice, but she feels the numbers aren’t worth it.
“I’m not giving up my freedom,” Hamilton says. “Why would I? I have the ability to earn a living, be active in my profession and be part of my kids’ lives.”
Another bonus of being the only name on the letterhead means there’s no question about who did the work.
“I worked with very good firms and very good people, but I had the feeling I wasn’t getting full credit for what I was doing,” Mainenti Walsh says. “After years of practice, you want that recognition, as well as deciding the selection and how to handle each case.”
While the women say they probably work more hours than their big-law counterparts, it hits different.
“One hundred percent of your hours are yours,” Mendenhall says. “As an associate, you bill 2,000 hours to one client and you probably billed your salary in a few months, and all of the other work is going to the partners, the paralegals and everyone else.”
“I do firm work Monday through Friday,” says Parikh. “Saturdays and Sundays, I focus on marketing, either by working on posting schedules for social media and planning out videos and blog posts, or reaching out to clients to see how they’re doing and if they can leave the firm a review.”
Solo practitioners are their own marketers, billers, HR officers, IT professionals and hirers.
And landscapers too, adds Bauer, who is fresh from planting mums in the flowerbeds and had her leaf-blower in hand this morning to clean off the sidewalks.
“I do my own snow-plowing, too,” she says, with the help of her Jeep, named “Lovey.” “I do a lotta bit of everything.”
Second Place Award in the feature story category of the Pennsylvania Press Club Communications Contest.
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