Hanging Their Own Shingles
Who's the boss? Three area lawyers told us how they turned the answer into "I am." They left other legal jobs—or never really had them to begin with—and mustered up the courage to go it alone. Their firms are dreams realized, but entrepreneurship also means figuring out accounts payable.
Published in 2009 Ohio Super Lawyers magazine
on December 22, 2008
Updated on May 28, 2019
“Thank God I was naïve”
Ian N. Friedman: Ian N. Friedman & Associates
It was roughly a year after law school when Ian N. Friedman decided to open his own office in Cleveland. He worked with a part-time law clerk and focused on criminal defense, finding his first clients through family and friends. “It was rather bare bones,” he says. “We shared a desk. We shared a computer. We shared a telephone.”
He rarely found time for sleep. His typical day included half a dozen court cases in the morning followed by phone calls and legal work in the afternoon. After dinner, he’d visit clients in jail and then meet with their families later in the evening. “It went all day, every day, all week,” Friedman says.
He’d wanted to be a lawyer since grade school, and during his first years he was lucky enough to learn from more experienced lawyers. One in particular sat down with Friedman every Wednesday night to school him in DUI law.
“I had no idea what I was getting into,” Friedman says. “It was only after I started that I realized, ‘Thank God I was naïve.’ Otherwise I would have never done it.”
Working around the clock helped the business grow to three lawyers in under three years, and today it employs a dozen people, including four other young lawyers. The cases have gotten more complex, but Friedman’s hours haven’t improved. He’s now traveling to handle out-of-state work, and his work has spanned everything from financial crimes to disciplinary matters with other lawyers.
He’s also a pioneer in computer sex crime cases—one of the firm’s specialties—and teaches a class on computers and criminal law at his alma mater, Cleveland-Marshall College of Law. In some ways, he says, he believes these types of cases represent “the way of the future for criminal defense.”
Making the Break
Dianne Einstein: Einstein & Poling
Dianne Einstein and Karen Poling hatched their escape plan at Tim Hortons. For several months, they met for coffee on Saturdays and worked from a two-page list of tasks for starting their own firm. Each time they’d pick a few items, such as acquire legal malpractice insurance or sign up for phone service, to complete before their next meeting.
At the time, the two friends worked at the same Columbus law firm, but they were tired of the long hours and lackluster pay. Einstein says her breaking point came when she was promised extra compensation that never came through. “I thought, ‘I’ve got to get out,'” she says.
Einstein and Poling made their decision to go out on their own in the winter of 2006, and they made the break in August. “We were very nervous,” Einstein says. “I probably wanted to do it a year prior to actually taking this leap but finance was always a concern.” Another lawyer helped them crunch the numbers, and the pair figured they would have enough business to make it work.
Today they run Einstein & Poling in Dublin and focus on family and employment law. The firm is just the two friends, a paralegal and a dream realized. For starters, they’ve managed to carve out a better work/life balance. Einstein rarely works weekends now and says she’s less stressed. Last year she even managed to take some vacation time.
Plus, she loves being an entrepreneur. While Einstein deals with accounting and bookkeeping on top of her legal work, she can’t name a single thing she misses about her old job. Instead, she relishes being in control of her professional life.
“I’m working less and making more than double,” she says. “You can decide your compensation. You can actually decide on your own what cases you want to take and what cases you want to turn away.”
From Offense to Defense
Damian Billak: Billak Law Offices
Damian Billak landed at the Mahoning County Prosecutor’s Office right after law school, but for him, the job was just a training ground for another career goal: solo practice as a criminal defense lawyer. He saw the position as a two-year stint to build up his trial chops before going out on his own.
The universe, however, had slightly different plans. Billak’s boss lost the election, and a 24-month stint became 15. “He lost in March, and we were gone in December,” Billak says.
Fortunately, Billak still managed to use those months wisely, acquiring office space and seeking out business advice. He also spread the word to area courts that, come January, he’d be available to take on anything and everything in criminal appointments.
It was a quick-change act: One Friday he worked for the prosecution and, the following Monday, he was a 25-year-old out on his own. He spent that first year of Billak Law running from court to court to court with stops in-between at the county jail. Those were long and not always well-paying hours, but they laid the foundation for his business today.
“Some of my very first court-appointed clients have become some of my best retained clients more than a decade later,” he says. Billak now works as a solo lawyer with a full-time secretary in Youngstown, but now you’re more likely to find him handling a Medicaid fraud or federal drug conspiracy case than a misdemeanor traffic violation.
He loves getting to know the people behind the charges and calling the shots for his own business. “As much as I gained from the prosecutor’s office, I don’t know if I would do that again,” Billak says. “I think I would go directly into private practice, because I enjoy it so much more.”