BY ANDREA SHAHEEN B.S. ’98, J.D. ’01
The term “entrepreneur” tends to be associated with the techies of the Silicon Valley start-up scene rather than an attorney preparing to start a solo law practice. However, solo practitioners, by definition, are entrepreneurs. They have to be risk-takers, driven, innovative, creative, and fearless— from hanging a shingle to generating a steady stream of clients in order to sustain a business with no angel funding.
Entrepreneurs from all backgrounds and experience levels convened at Santa Clara Law’s Fourth Annual Solo Practice Seminar in December 2013, a collaboration between Law Career Services and Law Alumni and Development. “The Solo Practice Seminar was created to fill student and graduate demand for specific programming to help them build their business,” says Vicki Huebner, Assistant Dean, Law Career Services. “This seminar is designed to present practical information to help attorneys make informed decisions about going solo, build their book of business, and steer clear of ethical pitfalls.”
Participants included speakers with expertise in a variety of practice areas as well as more than 80 attendees, including law students, recent law school graduates, and experienced attorneys. Some attendees came to explore the idea of starting a practice. Others had recently established a solo practice or small firm and were seeking resources, support, and ideas that they could implement immediately. Session topics included making the decision to go solo, legal ethics of a solo practice and social media, the logistics of starting a practice, marketing a practice, and evolving beyond a solo practice. The 2013 Seminar was sponsored by the California State Bar Solo and Small Firm Section, Thomson Reuters Westlaw, Sites for Law Firms, and several other organizations that offer support and education for small firms and solo practitioners.
“The Solo Practice Seminar reinforced the idea that success in the new economy will require attorneys to continuously learn, innovate, and act entrepreneurially,” says Robert Cullen, who moderated a panel, “Marketing Your Solo Practice,” at the 2013 seminar. Cullen, who is general counsel at JSI Logistics and an adjunct professor at Santa Clara Law, developed and currently teaches the nation’s first law course on leadership and is the author of The Leading Lawyer: A Guide to Practicing Law and Leadership.
CRAIG RASHKIS B.A. ’93, J.D. ’00
Craig Rashkis has served as a speaker at the Solo Practice Seminar in the past, and this year he was a speaker on the “Logistics of Starting a Solo Practice” panel. His firm, Farwell Rashkis, represents clients in a wide array of business, real estate, and estate planning matters, with an emphasis on alcohol beverage and construction law. “Starting a law practice is a significant step, and there simply are not many forums in which lawyers thinking about starting their own practice can talk with each other much less learn the ABCs of starting a law practice,” explains Rashkis. “Through my attendance at the seminar, I experienced an unexpected reconnection with the Law School, fellow alumni, and the University community as a whole. This reconnection has encouraged me to become more involved, not just as a contributor to the seminar but as a mentor to students and recent graduates.”
“Starting your own practice means you are going to be a business owner, not just a lawyer. It is an important distinction with its own required skill set,” he adds. “No matter whether you are actually a solo practitioner or in a small, medium, or large firm, a lawyer’s ultimate success depends on the ability to attract and maintain a book of business. The Solo Practice Seminar goes in depth on subjects related to this important truth—how to market yourself, the importance of networking (and how to get better at it), client relations, recognizing and addressing conflicts of interest, and more.”
Rashkis, who has been both an attendee and contributor to the Solo Practice Seminar, says it has reminded him of the importance of inspiring and encouraging other lawyers. “Having experienced the support and encouragement of other lawyers who took the leap before me, I am inspired to do the same for others,” he says.
TOM LAVELLE J.D. ’76
A growing number of attorneys are developing law practices that are more efficient and flexible than the older model of law firms. These solo practices or small firms specialize in areas of the law typically associated with larger firms. As a result, these practices are able to service clients that would otherwise not be able to afford big firm rates. This is true of experienced attorney Tom Lavelle J.D. ’76, who opened a solo practice, Thomas R. Lavelle Law Offices, where he represents and provides legal support to smaller Silicon Valley companies that cannot yet afford to hire an in-house general counsel.
“After many years of practicing high-tech law in-house for large local companies, I decided to start my own firm, going solo,” he says. “The SCU Solo Practice Seminar… has paid handsome dividends. The presentations provided a lot of practical advice on a variety of issues I had been contemplating. The practical and administrative issues in setting up a private practice are just not something I had been prepared for, and this seminar came at the right time to help in a big way. It is great to know that many years after graduating, the Law School is still there for me.”
DANELLA RUGILE J.D. ’11 and STEPHANIE WHITING J.D. ’11
Many recent law school graduates have decided to serve individual clients and have opted to go solo, or duo, in this case. Danella Rugile J.D. ’11 and Stephanie Whiting J.D. ’11 recently opened a family law practice, the Law Offices of Whiting and Rugile, and attended the 2013 Solo Practice Seminar. “Opening our own practice was appealing to us not only because of the flexibility, but also because it was an opportunity to learn how to run a business,” says Whiting. “Family law intrigued us because it offered us the chance to work on a broad array of complex legal issues. We get to work closely with our clients and find it extremely rewarding to be able to help people work through what may be one of the most stressful times of their life. We have enjoyed building a practice that represents what we stand for and believe in as attorneys.” Rugile adds, “My partner and I found the Solo Practice Seminar discussion on building a digital social media platform especially useful.”
CHRISTOPHER F. MORALES J.D. ’90
A criminal trial attorney in private practice based in San Francisco, Christopher F. Morales J.D. ’90 handles all types of criminal cases including murder and complex white-collar crimes. A board-certified specialist in criminal law, Morales was a speaker on the “Marketing Your Solo Practice” panel at the 2013 seminar. He shared a networking story from his experience. “I met a former public defender from the Central Valley, and she just moved up here. She needed office space, so I introduced her to a friend in Redwood City, and she now has office space. I have a jury trial next week, and she’s going to tag along with me, and I’ll introduce her to the judges and prosecutors. The networking is invaluable for the recent graduates,” he says. “If the attendees just make one connection or get one or two ideas that they implement, it can make a big difference in their first few years of practice.”
CAMELIA MAHMOUDI J.D. ’03
Camelia Mahmoudi has been involved in the Solo Practice Seminar as a speaker for the past three years, sharing her experience of starting her own solo law practice. She is also active in the planning of the annual Kasner Symposium with the Law Alumni and Development office. Her firm, the Law Office of Camelia Mahmoudi, focuses on estate planning, taxation, and family law.
“I am proud to be an alumna of Santa Clara University School of Law,” says Mahmoudi. “The relationships I made as a law student still make a positive impact on my law practice today. Santa Clara Law Career Services helps me stay connected with other alumni and the law school. I have received excellent education at Santa Clara Law, and currently, I am enjoying the benefits of that education by having my own practice.”
After more than ten years of law practice in the Bay Area and volunteering at Santa Clara Law, ANDREA SHAHEEN B.A. ’98, J.D. ’01 spent two years as assistant director for graduate employment in Santa Clara Law Career Services. She is now national law school recruiting manager for Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati.