Published in 2022 Pennsylvania Super Lawyers magazine
By Natalie Pompilio on May 25, 2022
By 2018, five years into her legal career, Jennifer Gomez Hardy had noticed something: She was doing a lot of work but wasn’t making a name for herself. At one firm, bosses wouldn’t even allow her to put her name on motions she was winning.
“How could I build my reputation if I couldn’t put my name on anything?” asks Hardy, 42, who practices personal injury law in Philadelphia.
Which is why she left her midsize firm on a Friday and opened her solo practice the following Monday.
“In my first year, I had so many cases I was referring some out,” Hardy says. “It was my name, not somebody else’s, that was bringing them to the firm.”
While Hardy opted to go all in, statistics show that some of her female counterparts trend in the opposite direction. A 2019 American Bar Association survey on why experienced female attorneys were leaving the profession found that women are “far less likely than their male counterparts to be chosen as first chairs at trial, or as leads on corporate deals.” And when it came to earnings, 93 percent of firms said their highest paid partner was male—and of their remaining top 10 earners, one or none were female.
The five Pennsylvania women featured here have varied reasons for going out on their own: Kristine L. Calalang believed she’d gained enough experience from firm work to make it alone. Heidi Villari saw a need for her services. Ann C. Flannery wanted to choose her cases and be flexible with her rates. And Judith Meyer, a mediator/arbitrator, says her work naturally sets her apart.
“I just wanted to make my own decisions, to decide which cases I took, which cases I rejected,” Hardy says. “I wanted freedom. I’ve always been someone who works six, sometimes seven days a week. My work ethic hasn’t changed. Now there’s just a bigger reward.”
No matter how exciting the idea of seeing your name on firm letterhead is, the nuts and bolts of opening a practice are rather mundane.
Before hanging her shingle, Calalang, 46, a family law practitioner, read several business books, took solo practitioners to lunch to quiz them, took a CLE course and made a 90-day spreadsheet detailing what to do and when. She hired a CPA and webmaster, acquired practice management software, and went office furniture shopping with her dad.
And when she finally launched her Philadelphia practice nine years ago, “It was like a breath of freedom,” she says. “You know those commercials where people are running on the beach in the sun? That’s what I felt like. I could do this.”
Heidi Villari, 50, had to make a few technical adjustments when she first started her medical malpractice firm focusing on catastrophic injury, wrongful death and birth injury. She opened an account at a national bank but couldn’t get customer service on the phone. The digital marketing firm she’d retained, which handled big firms and charged big-firm prices, wasn’t having an impact. So she left the national bank for a regional one and hired a marketing company that worked with small businesses. She got better service at a lower price.
“The vendors you select have to understand small-firm needs because boy, does that make all the difference,” says Villari, who set up shop in 2019. “If you’re trying to be a small firm dressed up as a big firm, you’re going to get eaten alive.”
Ann C. Flannery, who practices federal criminal defense, says managing a home renovation prepared her for hiring. “I learned to work with contractors and get bids from vendors, and not hire anyone who wouldn’t give me their cell number.”
Flannery hadn’t planned to go solo. But after a 10-year hiatus spent teaching and working as an internal corporate investigator, she found the way law firms worked had changed in the years she’d been away: white collar work, once frowned upon, had become more mainstream and most large firms had become too costly for individual clients to retain.
“If individuals are being targeted or asked to speak to the DOJ … the big firms refer them to other counsel,” Flannery, 64, says. “I’d rather be the counsel that receives those referrals. I get more satisfaction representing the individual.”
Still, she hesitated. “I first talked myself out of it, but I couldn’t get away from the idea,” she says. “I knew it would be a lot of work. Luckily I didn’t know how much.”
Knowing she’d miss being surrounded by colleagues, Flannery, in 2008, decided to establish her new firm inside someone else’s. Subletting space meant her office came with furniture and support staff, including a receptionist and a mailroom person, already in place. It also meant she wouldn’t be alone.
“There’s a kitchen to go to and someone to say, ‘Hey, how ‘bout those Eagles?’” Flannery says. “Even though I don’t have anything to do with my landlord’s firm professionally, it’s wonderful to have nice people around.”
Meyer began practicing in 1974. She added mediation and arbitration to her roster in 1980s, and made those her exclusive focus in 1995. She was one of the first full-time mediators in Pennsylvania.
But, she says, “I missed the comradery of a law office. I was never working with a team, and your colleagues aren’t just next door.”
Her solution? She joined the fledgling International Academy of Mediators, which three decades later has about 300 members. “I developed a community of colleagues,” she says. “You can’t talk about the mediations you’re doing, but we’ve learned to talk in a way that doesn’t identify parties. It identifies process problems.”
Villari’s sidewalk-adjacent office makes up the first floor of a building with its own entrance in Center City. “I called [a Realtor] and said, ‘I know I’m supposed to be in an office building, but I’m looking for a storefront,” she remembers. “I thought, ‘Why not an old-fashioned storefront that has my sign on the building for passersby to see?’”
But going solo can feel intimidating no matter how well prepared you are or how strong the team around you.
“Even though I thought I knew a critical mass of information, I had to embrace the fear,” Calalang says. “My mom said, ‘Couldn’t you go back to a firm if it doesn’t work out?’ I decided to give myself a chance and trust in myself.”
Villari decided to go solo because she saw a need for female trial lawyers on the front lines and out in public. “I’m a solo parent and you wonder if the phone will ring, but ultimately you have to believe in your product and the results will come,” she says. “And it has. It is always a scary big step to make, but there are times in life when change is needed. I knew that the change was going to maybe be uncomfortable for a minute, but worth it.”
It was worth it to the tune of $11 million just months after she’d opened her doors, after a jury awarded that amount to a client in a case many believed unwinnable. At issue was an incorrectly repaired birth injury Villari’s client suffered during delivery.
“When the verdict came back at $11 million, it was just one of those moments where you want to fall to your knees,” Villari says. “But I have never rested my laurels on one case or on one win.”
The win felt even more meaningful because it was just her against the defense.
“There are not many women in my field that can try a case to verdict from start to finish solo,” says Villari. “I have always felt better in a courtroom alone. I can achieve that David v. Goliath effect more easily. I believe that jurors want to see the solo win, or maybe I have just convinced myself of that over the years.”
She credits that initial case for putting the Villari Firm on the map.
“It was a great push, and it provided a little bit of street cred: ‘Yeah, she can try a case,’” Villari says. Now, she notes, her solo outfit goes toe-to-toe with some of the best, biggest firms out there.
Hardy launched her firm with 13 clients she’d worked with at her previous firm. She found her footing quickly, in part because of a lesson she’d learned from former colleagues: Each case is its own business, and you need to balance its value against how much time you would spend on it.
“Working in a firm was crucial to my development as a lawyer,” she says. “I learned organizational systems, how to handle cases, how to do things on time.”
Getting a big win early definitely builds confidence. In Calalang’s first year, she earned “a five-digit check” after a three-day trial. “It was the first time I really felt like, ‘Wow. I did this all by myself,” she says.
Solos don’t have the same resources as big firms, but since this leads some opposing attorneys to underestimate their abilities, this can be an advantage, too. Calalang remembers one custody hearing where the opposing attorney entered court with an associate, a paralegal and five boxes.
“The boxes were clearly empty. They were putting on a show,” Calalang says. “I thought, ‘That’s not going to change the law.’ I understand trying to look prepared, but that’s overkill.”
Then there’s the opposite tactic—not emptiness, but deluge. “Some opponents think they can bury me in paper,” Hardy says. “That’s when you have to fight back.”
She recalls a case in which opposing counsel sent her thousands of documents. “I went through each of those,” she says. “They were surprised. ‘Wait, didn’t we give her boxes? She did all that?’ Yes, I did.”
There’s also the matter of being a solo woman practitioner.
One potential client asked Flannery: “Do you think I’d be crazy to hire a woman? Because I hear there’s an old boys’ network of former AUSAs and it’s good to have somebody in that network when you’re negotiating with the Justice Department.”
“I reminded him that it was a male former AUSA who had given him my name, and I said, ‘So I guess if there’s an old boys’ network, I’m in it,’” Flannery says. “He hired me and we resolved the case without indictment.”
When Meyer launched her practice in the 1970s, female attorneys weren’t just underestimated; they were sometimes demeaned.
“I was told, ‘I can’t take you to the cemetery board meeting even though you’re doing all the work on this matter because they’ve never had a female lawyer at their meeting.’ So sure, no male lawyer would say that to a female lawyer today. It’s changed in that way. But what does get said is just more subtle,” she says.
Being a solo means taking on unexpected tasks.
Flannery once represented a businessman accused of fraud who was detained during the four-week trial. The man’s family in Michigan sent Flannery a box of clothes that the presiding judge allowed her to store under the clerk’s desk. After a long day at trial, Flannery played fashion adviser.
“I crawled under the clerk’s desk and pulled out a shirt and tie and my client would either nod or shake his head depending on what combination he wanted to wear the next day,” she recalls. “It epitomizes a solo practice: You have to have a sense of humor, and you have to have a ‘No job is too big, no job is too small’ attitude.”
You also have to know when to call in reinforcements.
When Flannery has a case that requires more than she can give, she’ll put together a support team. “I’ll bring in researchers from local law schools. I have a contract attorney I work with when needed. I have a forensic accountant. I had an insider trading case and I relied heavily on a Drexel business school professor,” she says. “I’ve learned to bring in the kind of help I need. If the case is too large for one attorney to handle, I partner with another solo practitioner.”
Many of Flannery’s cases are complex and document-intensive, so she works with a private company that handles technology needs. “If you get the right tech help, you can be a solo office and still do very complex cases,” she says.
Villari says maintaining solid relationships with her predecessor firm and other local medical malpractice attorneys is crucial. “I can go to them and say, ‘I need you to pick up this case’ or ‘Do you want to collaborate?’ They know the quality of my work,” she says. “At the same time, The Villari Firm still has its own identity.”
In Calalang’s second year as a solo, she hired a “secretary plus” who acts as both a gatekeeper and an empathetic listener.
“She doesn’t give legal advice, but she’s someone my clients can talk to. She can be a bouncing-off point, someone to reassure them,” she says. “I think they like when somebody knows them. The service is personal. It’s more than ‘We’ll pass along the message.’”
Even with the ups and downs of solo practice, these attorneys wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I love the solo life,” Calalang says. “I choose my clients—I don’t have to represent so-and-so’s lying neighbor, I can find another attorney for them.” She can do pro bono work for people she thinks deserve it or craft a reasonable payment plan for a client suffering a financial hardship. She has time for her 14-year-old son. She was the homeroom mom throughout his elementary school years. She chaperoned school trips. “I wouldn’t trade that for the world,” she says.
Villari, too, says having the time for her 12-year-old son is one of the best parts of being solo. In her pre-solo life, even when she was there, she wasn’t always totally there: During one of her son’s baseball games, she remembers, she drew attention to herself in the stands when she asked a potential client loudly, “Did you lose your uterus?”
“Now I am more available to him than ever,” she says.
While Flannery says that being solo gives her more day-to-day flexibility, there’s big-picture inflexibility to tussle with. “I can’t tell you how many vacations I’ve had delayed and delayed because of trials that do or don’t wind up happening,” she says. “I don’t have someone else to tell, ‘You take this trial.’”
But such trials keep her sharp. Currently on her plate: opioid prescriptions, investment advisors, insider trading and pharmaceutical manufacturing. “It’s fascinating to learn each world on each case,” she says. “Being solo allows me to choose cases not just for what’s going to bring in money, but also what interests me. If there’s a case I really want to work on and feel I can add value to, I can fluctuate my rate.”
Calalang enjoys family law because every case is different and she likes to help people solve problems. One couple needed to divide an estate that included a jet. Another had to divvy up a herd of llama and horses. There are always “interesting collections,” she says, like the couple that collected statues—of people and animals—and kept many of them in the basement of the family estate. That was a slight problem when it was time to sell the property. Only Calalang could solve it.
“The realtor was concerned,” Calalang remembers, laughing. “It was hard to find someone to sell and move all those statues out.”
Other featured articles
The signs that guided Jennifer Salvatore to open her own employment and civil rights firm
Irene Y. Lee’s motto is ‘avoid drama’; opposing attorneys don’t always help
Greg Westfall repurposes photos into bold pops of color
Find top lawyers with confidence
The Super Lawyers patented selection process is peer influenced and research driven, selecting the top 5% of attorneys to the Super Lawyers lists each year. We know lawyers and make it easy to connect with them.Find a lawyer near you