O Solo Mio

What enables young attorneys to take the risk of hanging out their own shingle––and succeed?

Published in 2007 Minnesota Super Lawyers — August 2007

"It’s exhilarating to be captain of your own ship,” says Lymari J. Santana, 38, of the law firm she co-founded in 2004. As a former captain in the Army Judge Advocate General Corps, she’s particularly qualified to speak to the joys of command. But all of the young lawyers profiled here would agree with her assessment. 

What enables young attorneys to take the risk of hanging out their own shingle––and succeed?

An ability to wear many hats for starters. “You’re going to be not only an attorney, but an accountant, a secretary, a bookkeeper and a therapist,” says Jessica Sterle, 35, who practices family law in Duluth. 

Matt Engel, 31, adds technology wonk to that list of roles. Under his magic wand the 150,000 to 200,000 pages in his biggest case have become––not a roomful of boxes with sticky notes dripping from them––but a database that he and his associates can search in the St. Paul courtroom, in the Maple Grove office and on the drive to the cabin up north.

All are enthusiastic networkers, but each brings his or her own twist. Engel’s practice focuses on small business issues, so he concentrates on meeting potential clients in his community and church. 

The bar association and its subgroups are, of course, a rich source of client referrals and support. Santana speaks of the Hispanic Bar Association as “family: anything anybody needs, we’re there.” Rebecca Fisher, who founded her criminal law practice in Roseville at age 32, particularly enjoys meeting with the female attorneys and judges of Juris Divas, and says of her participation in the Warren E. Burger Inn of Court, “I always leave there feeling re-energized.”

Mentors are critical resources, providing expertise on business management, client management, and of course, the law. Employment lawyer Nicholas May, 35, credits attorneys at his former employer Nichols Kaster & Anderson for teaching him to trust his own judgment. 

John Lamey III, 31, “got talked into opening my own shop in April of ’03,” by classmate Beau McGraw, who’d hung out his shingle right after graduating from William Mitchell in 2001. Among other contributions, McGraw convinced Lamey that a $900-per-month, quarter-page ad in the Yellow Pages would pay for itself in bankruptcy clients. But it sure hurt to shell out nearly twice as much for advertising as rent in the beginning.

These six young lawyers are a diverse lot, but they would all agree on this advice:

  • Don’t burn any bridges at your old law firm.
  • Keep your overhead low.
  • Doing it all yourself is a great way to learn the business, but
  • If your father is an accountant, grab him!

Jessica Sterle
Law Office of Jessica L. Sterle, Duluth

Jessica Sterle comes from a hardworking Iron Range family who saw entrepreneurship as a way to rise. When Sterle was in junior high, her parents bought two trucks, fondly referred to as “the honey wagons” and started a commercial garbage business. After that came the gas station. Her mother got up at 3:00 in the morning to do paperwork, then worked at the gas station from 6:30 a.m. till 4:30 p.m. Her father worked full time there, too, and took an afternoon shift at the mines. 

“I got to witness my family working very hard to create something of their own and really enjoying it,” she says.

She spent a year working for Paul Wellstone between college and William Mitchell. Then, she declares, “If I had a choice between three years in hell or three years in law school,” extreme warmth would have been preferable. Despite Sterle’s discouragement, her brother Chad Sterle, now in private practice in Grand Rapids, convinced her to apply for a clerkship with Judge John P. Oswald in Duluth. She landed the job and it reignited her enthusiasm for practicing law.  Then came a position in the St. Louis County attorney’s office and working for legal aid in Grand Rapids, where she came to love family law––especially when she sees that smile of relief on her client’s face.

But she was tired of office politics and personalities. If brother Chad could open his own shop, she could too. She began shopping her business plan around Duluth, and officially hung her shingle in 2006. 

Time is the biggest challenge. “I can take a week off. That’s great. But the negative part is that you come back to an office where you weren’t there for a week. It’s a tradeoff, but it’s also very exciting. Fear can be a wonderful motivator.”

Lymari J. Santana
Mack & Santana Law Offices, Minneapolis

When Lymari Santana joined the ROTC at age 17, she was certain she was going to be a lifer. With her mother, uncles and grandfather all retired from the military, “the ideals, the organization, the camaraderie, the loyalty attracted me,” she says.

After graduating from Detroit College of Law, Michigan State University, she spent five years in the Army Judge Advocate General Corps. Initially, she advised soldiers and their families on family law, wills and estates, consumer law and tax issues. Then litigation beckoned. She completed her tour of duty with the 82nd airborne, in criminal defense, representing soldiers in cases ranging from drill sergeant sexual misconduct to manslaughter. Her last case involved a soldier who “accidentally shot and killed his sergeant in Bosnia.”

But romance intervened––in the form of a Navy Seal from Minnesota. So the bilingual litigator who was born in Augusta, Ga., and raised in Puerto Rico, moved to the cold north. She brought her litigation experience to family law––which she finds as complex and challenging as criminal defense. She formed a bond with fellow attorney Laurie Mack, recently from Miami, also a fan of the great Latin singers. They formed the firm of Mack & Santana in 2004.

The toughest thing to learn was administration and collection of receivables. The staff has grown to include two paralegals and a summer intern. Conveniently, says Santana, “Laurie’s dad is the firm’s bookkeeper. He’s been amazing.”

Nicholas G.B. May
May & O’Brien, Hastings

“It never ceases to amaze me what goes on in the American workplace,” says Nick May. “I can’t say I’ve heard it all, but you get used to getting surprised.”

As an employment lawyer he’s involved in claims ranging from discrimination and retaliation to wage disputes to sexual harassment. As the employment lawyer in the firm of May & O’Brien, he gets to size up the potential clients and their claims and decide whether to take them on. 

May credits his six years at Nichols Kaster & Anderson for teaching him to pay attention to  “the red flag” in the back of his mind that tells him something is going to go sour with this one, even though it may appear to be a great case now. “The attorneys at that place have got some of the best instincts of any attorneys walking the face of this earth,” he says. He speaks with pride of second-chairing Jim Kaster in the Cline v. Clay County harassment case, which obtained a $1.5 million settlement for the client. 

May & O’Brien was founded in 2005 and brought Nick into practice with his father George L. May and classmate Terence G. O’Brien. They’re located in Hastings, which Nick vehemently points out “isn’t really that far away.” 

When asked about his most interesting case, he pauses, and the crusader in him replies, “I represent hardworking people who typically have run into an obstacle in their career. Every case is important.”

Matthew Allen Engel
The Engel Firm, Maple Grove

Matt Engel founded his own firm in June 2002, just six months after he’d been admitted to the bar. As a clerk and then an associate for Sjoberg & Tebelius in Woodbury, he had “ended up doing just about everything from research and writing to building shelves, and fixing doors, and working on computers and updating software.”

Now he wanted to reap the benefit of working long hours and generating his own clients. He was also driven to develop a paperless office, where all documents are scanned, searchable and available to all employees from anywhere. “I would never have been able to convince an existing firm to go to that length,” he says. 

Engel spends his spare time reading books on entrepreneurship and thinks of himself as a small-business owner serving small businesses––80 of them.

He works with his clients from start-up to grave––from business planning through contracts, leases and non-competes, to estate planning, wills, trusts and powers of attorney.

A case of his against the city of St. Paul charging racketeering, among other things, was recently joined with two other cases. Ten plaintiffs, 14 different defendants and nearly a quarter million pages of documentation.  But “by introducing technology,” he says, “you really get an upper hand in a case of such size.”

Rebecca Rhoda Fisher
Law Office of Rebecca Rhoda Fisher, Roseville

“In the prosecuting Q&A, I tended to feel bad for people,” says criminal lawyer Rebecca Rhoda Fisher. “I love the defense side of things. You’re working with clients and you’re helping them––not just in the courtroom, especially if they have an alcohol or drug addiction.”

After clerking for the Minnesota attorney general for two years, then working as an associate with Ramsay & DeVore for four, all Fisher could see in her future was “some glimmer of partnership down the road.” She had developed a good client base and solid referral sources. Independence beckoned. Now, “the flexibility is great. And the money that you bring in is yours.”

Women are a distinct minority among private defense attorneys, but Fisher “was overwhelmed with the amount of support both male and female colleagues showed me when I decided to go out on my own.”

She found the business side daunting in the beginning. She did it all, which is “not a bad way to do it at first. You learn all the elements that are involved in running your law office.” She now has a full-time assistant, but billing and accounting remain the biggest pains. Fortunately, her accountant-father has signed on as adjunct staff.  

DUI is her bread and butter. She markets by obtaining an arrest report and sending letters to potential clients. She also belongs to a raft of professional associations. The key to effective networking, she says, is to network “with groups you enjoy, not just because you’re looking for clients.” 

Finding enough clients simply isn’t a problem. “Just as the month’s ending and you think it’s a bad month, something materializes.”

John D. Lamey III
Lamey & Pacyga, Oakdale

Bankruptcy law gives John Lamey the satisfaction of using his financial skills while helping people through tough times.

“I work hard,” Lamey says, “but I grew up watching my dad work hard.” A doctor with two offices, John the Dad took John III on rounds, parking him in the hospital doctor’s office with chocolate milk and cookies.

For a year and a half out of law school, Lamey worked for others, in tax and banking law. Then Marquette Financial Companies was acquired by Wells Fargo, and Lamey was out of a job. 

Neither a “fresh grad” nor an experienced lateral transfer, Lamey thought a big downtown firm would see him as an odd duck. He rented space from a William Mitchell classmate, who fed him enough work in the early years to pay the bills.

He sees himself as a “counselor at law,” reassuring clients that bankruptcy law is as old as this country: The founding fathers emphatically rejected the English system of throwing people into debtors’ prison. He finds excitement in the new bankruptcy law’s means test: “The debtor gets to take all these deductions whether they have them or not,” he says. “If I see someone who’s on the border, there’s a chance to blaze new law by taking a position.”   L&P

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