Starting a firm: Where to begin?

Issue June 2003 By Krista Zanin

Experts say the first step in launching a practice is following your interests
For recent law school graduates or lawyers who have been practicing only a few years, choosing a practice area can be frustrating, particularly if you don't know how to narrow your interest or begin the process of finding something to choose.

But according to experienced attorneys who have developed successful practices after choosing an area in which to focus, the process does not have to be as intimidating as it might seem.

Amy Cashore Mariani, chair of the MBA's New Lawyers Section Council, said first and foremost attorneys should follow their interests.

"It makes no sense to do something 50 hours a week if it doesn't interest or excite you," said Cashore Mariani, who is of counsel to Fitzhugh, Parker & Alvaro, LLP and currently works as a contract attorney in all aspects of litigation matters.

Marc L. Breakstone of Breakstone, White-Lief & Gluck, who recently led the popular MBA seminar "How to Start and Run a Successful Solo or Small-Firm Practice," agreed.

"Rule Number 1 is follow your interest, because ultimately your objective should be to be passionate about your work, and if you are not interested it's hard to be passionate," Breakstone said.

For instance, Breakstone said he became interested in medical malpractice because he was always interested in medicine.

Patrick Francomano, chair of the MBA's Law Practice Management Section, said it's important to not choose a practice area based on one's perception of what the practice area is like. And, he said, know when to leave an area when you discover it's not for you.

"Before you become too committed to a particular area, you have to be savvy enough and brave enough to say, 'This is not for me'," said Francomano, who has a practice in North Attleboro that focuses on personal injury cases, including a concentration on workers' compensation, as well as divorce and criminal work.

"The worst thing you can do is trap yourself into something you hate doing," Francomano said.

'Know thyself'

To help narrow the options of practice areas, Breakstone said his second rule of the road to success is: "Know thyself."

"You have to assess your own personality and your own strengths and weaknesses to try to conform your personality to a particular type of practice," Breakstone said.

For example, if you don't like confrontation, litigation won't be the right career choice. And if you like being in a library as opposed to dealing with people, then a client-based practice also might not be the right option. However, other, more suitable possibilities might include appellate work and research.

Assessing interests is how Sarah A. Ricciardelli of Ricciardelli & Small of Charlestown became focused on a real estate practice.

Ricciardelli and her partner tried criminal work, but decided it wasn't for them after their first case. It was when someone approached them about doing a closing that they found their interest.

"Someone asked us if we wanted to do a real estate closing and we tried it," said Ricciardelli, who also served as a panelist for "How to Start and Run a Successful Solo or Small-Firm Practice. "I always liked figures and it seemed to work for us."

Find a mentor

After you narrow down a practice area you are interested in, Cashore Mariani recommends turning to a mentor.

"The best thing you can do is find a mentor in that particular field of law to help guide and direct you, because that person can give you the scoop of what it's like to practice in a particular area of law," she said.

Cashore Mariani said lawyers working for firms may turn to more senior attorneys for mentoring. She also recommends finding attorneys in the field who specialize in that particular area or by attending networking sessions, such as those offered by the MBA.

For example, the MBA will host a Mentoring Roundtable program on June 17 from 5-7 p.m. at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, 10 Lincoln Square, Worcester. The program will allow newer attorneys to meet and mix with colleagues while learning more about a variety of practice areas in small group discussions led by MBA mentors.

The discussion groups, guided by section council leaders and seasoned practitioners, are a prime opportunity for newer attorneys to ask questions and gain invaluable advice from legal professionals. Practice areas will include civil litigation, estate and probate, corporate business, real estate, family and criminal law.

Cashore Mariani said it is helpful to speak with experienced members of the bar, because of the insight they offer.

"If you are affiliated with a firm, look to working with people in the firm (who are involved in the area of law you are interested in)," Cashore Mariani said. "If not, look to people that you know in the legal community whom you respect."

Breakstone said talking with attorneys about their success stories can help other attorneys follow a similar path.

"Find the individuals who excel in the field in which you are interested and pick up the phone and call them and see if you can strike up some type of relationship that allows you to get insight into what their practice is like," Breakstone said.

Francomano said lawyers interested in a particular practice area also might call the chairs of the individual MBA section councils to find out more information.

Ricciardelli said if you are intimidated by calling someone randomly and asking them for career advice, you can look for attorneys who have similar personalities, which might make you more comfortable seeking tips from them.

Try different things at first

Cashore Mariani said finding a practice area is often a matter of trial and error as well as interest.

"Early in your career, it's important to try different things, because you may end up enjoying something you never thought you would," Cashore Mariani said. "It also helps you to develop different skills and increases your marketability."

For example, Cashore Mariani always knew she wanted to concentrate in litigation, but she tried a number of different areas of civil litigation before she found a couple of areas in which she was best suited.

"It's a trial-and-error process," Cashore Mariani said. "I had done some domestic relations work, commercial litigation and some employment and tort defense, and I really discovered my interests lie in the areas of tort defense and in the area of employment defense."

Watch for trends; gain experience

Breakstone said it's also important to be mindful of economic and other professional opportunities that are available.

"And if something is in an area on the decline, then it's probably not a good idea to start about thinking about that area," Breakstone said. "Step back and look at the big picture and figure out where trends are taking apart practice areas."

Breakstone also said that, for law students, work experience in a particular practice area can be invaluable to see the culture of the practice firsthand.

"Get work experience, even if you have to intern because there's not a paying job," Breakstone said.

Francomano said he learned that he was interested in litigation, but his experience clerking for Charles D. Kelley in Malden helped him discover he enjoyed personal injury and general practice work.

"I was fortunate in that what I was experiencing at the time when I was clerking was an area where I was able to have a lot of client contact and be able to make a difference in people's lives and that worked for me," Francomano said.

"The best thing that a law student can do prior to getting out is trying their hand at a variety of different areas, even if it means clerking for someone for free," he added. "If you have an interest in a particular area of law you are going to find out pretty quickly if you have a taste for it (after you see what it's really like)."