On Their Own
Four attorneys on how they blazed their solo paths
Published in 2023 South Carolina Super Lawyers magazine
By Stephanie Hunt on April 21, 2023
You won’t find the route to solo practice on Google Maps or Waze. There’s no definitive path, no way to skirt the potholes or roadside hazards, and everyone’s journey is different. Lawyers are humans, after all, with distinctive motivations, family circumstances, GPAs, and levels patience and cold tolerance. Some may want to bring their anxiety-prone dogs to work; others have had it with missing kids’ soccer games for billable hours; others simply like calling their own shots.
Each solo practitioner’s journey offers insights for others pondering similar paths, because going solo need not mean going it alone. Here’s how four South Carolina lawyers charted the course to solo practice, and a few pointers they learned on the way.
“I never set out to be an environmental lawyer,” says Karen Crawford, a Columbia-based litigator who handles everything from regulatory issues and permitting to enforcement defense and real estate. “When I was an engineer in the late ’70s, there wasn’t such a thing.” Nor were there many female lawyers.
Crawford’s career defied expectations in western Kentucky, where she grew up on a farm. Though she excelled in school, “the guidance counselor was suggesting to girls who were good at math and science to become nurses, while the guys with the same skills were encouraged to become doctors.”
Fortunately, she’d had a chance meeting with the chancellor of Missouri University of Science and Technology, who recognized her potential and dangled a scholarship. Crawford was one of very few female engineering graduates at the college, earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
At her first job with DuPont, Crawford tackled OSHA, energy savings, safety, health and environmental concerns. “Back in the ’70s and early ’80s, big companies knew they needed to be hiring women, but didn’t know what to do with us. There was no effective training or mentoring,” she says.
While absorbing all she could in the regulatory arena, she noted that the legal department appeared to be an emerging pathway to corporate management. “Law, I realized, is also about problem solving,” says Crawford.
DuPont helped her get through Delaware Law School at night, after which she transferred to South Carolina. Three years after entering private practice, she hung out a shingle and got a taste of life as a solo lawyer. A year later, in 1988, she joined Nelson Mullins. “I was hired to build their environmental practice. Because it was a full-service firm, I got opportunities that I would never have gotten on my own. It was rewarding,” says Crawford.
Thirty-three years later, she used the pandemic to pause and consider next steps. “A year of remote work showed me that I could do on my own what I’d been doing all along,” says Crawford, who, pre-pandemic, had already been pondering what her final years in practice might look like. “It’s been two years now, and I’ve never looked back.”
Most of Crawford’s clients followed her, and her niche in environmental law brought a steady caseload. “Many people these days want to support women-owned businesses, especially clients who now have women at the helm of their legal department, and that also works in my favor,” she says.
“For me it’s not about the money, it never has been. It is about client service. My decision to go solo was very personal—I needed to make sure I could still provide the same quality service I always had, and after a year of working from home, I proved I could.”
Her biggest challenge? “Keeping all the balls in the air,” she says. “I have to figure out how to balance all the administrative tasks that support the substantive work I do. Fortunately, technology makes that easier these days.”
Charleston attorney Bruce Miller has been in solo practice since 2008, a move that meant greater control and satisfaction in his employment and labor law career.
Solo or not, his profession is a far cry from what his father had in mind. “He wanted me to be a dentist, back when then they didn’t even wear gloves,” he recalls with a laugh. “I said ‘no thank you’ to putting my hands in people’s mouths and standing up all day.”
The Mount Pleasant native got married right out of college and soon had a child; and while he’d always had an interest in pursuing law, the only law school in the state was two hours away in Columbia. “That wasn’t going to work,” says Miller.
Instead, he got a job as an insurance adjuster for injury cases, work that entailed frequently interacting with Charleston attorneys. One shared that he, too, had married young and started a family, but was able to borrow money and go to law school. “So that’s what I did,” says Miller, who served as editor-in-chief of the law review at the University of Memphis.
He returned to Charleston as an attorney with Barnwell Whaley. “I was sworn in on a Monday afternoon, and Tuesday morning I was in circuit court arguing a motion all by myself,” he says. “I got thrown right into the fire.” His mentor was slowing down and happy to shuttle work to Miller, including a major defense case representing The Citadel in the summer of 1988.
“At about year seven, I began doing more employment work and really liked it. It was like a plane on a runway, starting off slowly, then really lifting off,” says Miller. His talents were noticed by Moore & Van Allen, a 300-attorney Charlotte firm. “They made it sound great: ‘Here are these fields of harvest ready for you to come and do all this employment work for our Charleston office,’ they told me.”
Miller found the reality to be less idyllic, and left after nine years. “I simply was not happy with the bureaucracy of a big firm,” says Miller, who initially considered returning to a smaller firm. “Then a Charleston solo attorney convinced me that, with my 24 years of experience, especially as a certified specialist, I could make it on my own. So I bit the bullet, and have never looked back.”
Those first years were lean, however—“You have to be prepared for that, with a good business plan in place,” Miller says. To drum up more work, he initially dabbled in criminal and family cases, “but after a year I decided I need to focus on doing what I know how to do well and then do it well.”
Now he has carved a niche in representing tipped employees. “My clients range from people making $2.13 an hour to surgeons making seven figures.”
Thanks to a streamlined operation with his paralegal/office administrator teammate, they can quickly run a conflict check when potential new clients call—often a deal-breaker in larger firms, Miller says. “At the end of the day, I can better serve my clients being solo. The efficiency is there—if the CEO calls, he doesn’t get a younger associate. He gets me.”
Jennifer Williams can fend for herself—a helpful trait in solo practice. But she learned it the hard way.
She grew up poor in Paducah, Kentucky, with divorced parents both battling addiction, siblings in Ohio with her mother, and her father with a girlfriend in a volatile environment. “There weren’t a lot of options other than to succumb to it and go down a road of bad decisions, or keep my head down and do everything I could to get out of there,” says Williams.
What resulted was a good student, bass player and star basketball player who bolted for the College of Charleston. “I’ve been independent for so long, having to protect myself, I’m just not intimidated by things others may be intimidated by,” she says. This led her to go out on her own relatively early—after being an assistant attorney general and state prosecutor for four years.
“The economy tanked right as I graduated. Despite finishing in the top 18 percent of my class, I was unemployed for two months after passing the bar in 2009,” says Williams. She was drawn to law partly because she saw it as a means of job security. “I never wanted to have to need anyone again.”
But she didn’t count on the Great Recession, which led to a tight job market in Charleston. After working as a prosecutor for a couple of years, she opened her own practice in Mount Pleasant. “I took a leap of faith, and I had some confidence,” Williams says.
In the 10 years since launching her transactional practice, Williams has built a steady client base. “I love sitting down with someone who has an idea for a small business or nonprofit and helping them make that happen. I love the art of negotiation in an asset purchase—how there can be room for contention but it’s more creative than litigious. Transactional law is often about finding a way to accomplish what everyone wants. You don’t see that in a lot of other areas of law,”
“I’ve gotten where I am by doing good work without taking shortcuts, by being genuine and authentically connecting and being present with my clients. That’s what’s important to me,” Williams adds. “I have my own expectations to meet and none could be higher.”
Solo From the Get-Go
There was never any question in Tyler Bailey’s mind. Growing up in Columbia, he knew he would pursue a service-based career in the vein of his parents, both pastors. “I watched them always serving their congregation in one form or another—often outside the four walls of the church,” he says. “They were there for people in good times and bad, and that was my introduction to servant leadership.”
Bailey was more intrigued by the business world than the ministry, and envisioned serving others as a business owner. A football scholarship brought him to Virginia’s Hampton University, where he studied business management and took a business law class. “That got me thinking,” he says. “I realized I could own my own business, but that business could be a law firm.”
Bailey ended up marrying his study partner at Southern University Law Center, and as they were nearing graduation, she, like everyone else, was sending out résumés to firms. She asked Bailey, who had clerked for a large firm, where he was applying. “Nowhere,” he replied.
“She wasn’t so comfortable with that, but I knew I wanted to start my own firm. I wanted to practice in the areas I wanted to practice, on my own terms,” says Bailey, whose firm has focused on personal injury, workers’ compensation and civil rights law since 2014. “I was brave and confident out of the gate. In retrospect, it’s probably good to do it early, before you know enough to be fearful.”
Two weeks before being sworn in, a good friend was in a car accident—Bailey’s first case. Since then, his statewide practice has seen steady growth, with referrals from word of mouth and connections he’s made in numerous legal and civic organizations.
While Bailey can attest to facing challenges as a Black attorney—“like the times I’ve walked into court in my suit and tie and had the bailiff assume I was the criminal defendant”—the decision to go solo wasn’t one of them. “Historically,” he says, “African Americans have had their own practices due to discrimination in hiring. There’s a rich history of entrepreneurialism.”
While he notes that hiring practices are now less discriminatory, the prevalence of solo Black lawyers has meant Bailey had ready role models and a network of colleagues. “They’ve helped teach me that you are essentially a business owner first. Many lawyers don’t understand marketing or how to reconcile the accounts. I’ve also learned a lot from seeing people who were running practices in ways I didn’t want to,” he says.
In the end, Bailey’s goal is “helping where real people need help,” he says. In college and law school, he was taught that “lawyers are either social engineers or parasites. I wanted to be the social engineer, an advocate for people in my community. I don’t litigate just to litigate, but when I’m fighting for a righteous or just cause for deserving people, litigation is one of the tools,” he adds.
“People will remember how they felt when they had an advocate beside them through difficult times. When they’re appreciative, that’s the biggest reward.”
Tips for Going Solo
Karen Crawford: Know when to get outside assistance. I hired professionals to design my website and get my office IT all set up. Make sure you have a list of resources and colleagues to call on when needed.
Bruce Miller: It’s great to control your own schedule, but you have to have the discipline to set your goals and objectives and have a structure and plan to put those in place. Also, be sure to do honest self-evaluation, since there’s no built-in annual performance review.
Jennifer Williams: For my first five years, I tried to do everything myself, from moving $5 million for a pending purchase to filling my stapler. You have to find your sweet spot about when to hire assistants, which means being responsible for someone else’s income, managing and delegating. The irony is that being solo is all about cultivating relationships and being mindful of those relationships day to day. You never know when you’re making an impression on someone.
Tyler Bailey: Don’t neglect your physical or mental health or your relationships. Our profession can be all-consuming, and it’s up to you as captain of your own ship to protect your time and spend it on endeavors that will bring you biggest value. Monetary value is the last thing. The money will come if you put the time in, do the right things, and stay persistent.
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