WLAM panelists give tips for going solo

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By Jo Mathis

Legal News

As president of the Washtenaw region of WLAM (Women Lawyers Association of Michigan), Ann Arbor attorney Rosemary Frenza knows many lawyers today are considering solo practice.

''But they're wondering if they can make it work in this economy,'' said Frenza, a mediator at Legacy Law Center. "It's obviously very daunting."

So the WLAM board decided to host a panel of four experts--two attorneys, a banker, and a professional networker - who met last week at the Ann Arbor Regent Hotel to share their tips for success.

Ann Arbor attorney Karen Valvo explained how she went from a stay-at-home mother of four to a law school student told she wouldn't succeed as a 43-year-old female graduate, to her life today as a successful attorney.

"I didn't really have a plan," said Valvo, a partner at Fink & Valvo, PLLC, referring to her early years in law. "I took whatever opportunities were available to me; whatever doors opened."

Valvo said she made a name for herself by working 16-hour days, volunteering, and proving herself to other law professionals.

Valvo interned for no pay at a circuit court, where volunteering in a judge's chambers taught her what was important to judges, and how the legal system and the court support staff work. That information would later help her serve her clients more effectively, she said.

Being flexible also helped, she said. The trial work she took on during her first three years as an attorney helped her become established with other attorneys as she began to focus in on family law and real estate law.

Another thing she did right: She immediately joined the Washtenaw County Bar Association and went to all its events.

"In Washtenaw County, we have terrific resources; we have a wonderful bar," said Valvo, acknowledging WCBA Executive Director Kyeena Slater, who was in the audience. "We have men and women who are willing mentor new attorneys; men and women who are willing to work with people who are trying to start their own practices."

Staying visible

Ann Arbor bankruptcy attorney Sheila M. Johnson said she loves having her own practice because when she worked for a law firm, she had no control over how things were decided, and many decisions seemed unfair.

But with her own practice, she can be as flexible as she wants while keeping her personal and professional lives separate.

Johnson has been a mediator and malpractice attorney, but much prefers what she's doing now.

"If you had told me I'd be doing bankruptcy law when I graduated from law school, I would have said, `I'm not going to do that. That's boring,'" she said. "It's not boring. It's so much fun because it's like a puzzle. People bring me this puzzle and you can put it together for them based on the rules and the laws."

Her advice to those just starting a solo practice?

Hire a CPA in order to prevent a paperwork nightmare. And keep overhead low.

"You should be frugal, but at the same time, don't be afraid to spend money where you really need to," she said. "You have to look good. You have to have nice clothes, and you have to look business-like, so you should have nice suits. This is not the time to be sexy."

Continuing education is an excellent thing to spend money on, as is membership in ICLE (Institute for Continuing Education).

Another essential? Malpractice insurance. Johnson said she's never been sued, but the insurance helps her sleep at night.

Years ago when she didn't have much work, Johnson would take her briefcase and walk through the halls of the Oakland County Circuit Court on Wednesdays (Motion Day) just to be seen.

"Every once in a while I'd get a case out of that; it was crazy," she said. "Just let other people see you."

For the mothers in the room, Johnson had this piece of advice: "Don't compare yourself to other mothers. Only compare yourself to other mothers like yourself."

She said she wasn't able to do the things stay-at-home mothers could do, so she simply opted out of it.

"I decided I had to be the kind of mother I was, and not compare myself to other mothers," she said. "And they shouldn't either. No mother should do that. You should just be in your own group, and make your own decisions about your family."

The financial side of going solo

It's important for those considering solo practice to ask some soul-searching questions, said Denene E. Smith, banking center manager and vice president at Comerica Bank in Ann Arbor.

She said the next logical questions are: How much is it going to cost me to be successful, and where are the resources?

Bankers and other lending sources love to see business plans, she said.

"The key piece is making sure you can tell your story, and that we as your financing source understand that you know what your projections look like," she said. "I like five years. I like to be able to see the time frame as to when you'll break even, and when your success will occur."

A detailed executive summary and proof of cash flow to support the debt are also important, as is a team of supporters that includes a business attorney, CPA/accountant, banker, and insurance agent.

When banks can't offer a loan, help may be available from organizations such as Center for Empowerment and Economic Development (CEED) in Ann Arbor, which offers government-backed loans.

Smith said clients have said again and again how important it is to separate business and personal bank accounts, and that it's important to realize how many expenses there will be at the start.

Networking: Be other-focused

If you think all networking is created equal, think again.

Networking is a powerful tool for any small businessperson because it will connect you with mentors, advisors, suppliers, vendors, and clients, said Greg Peters, founder of The Reluctant Networker, LLC.

But if you don't do it properly, the best you can hope for is that it will waste your time. he said, adding: "The worst you can hope for is that it will destroy your reputation."

Peters described himself as a longtime nerd and former computer programmer.

"I don't know if any of you know computer programmers, but if we're feeling particular extroverted, we're looking at your shoes when we're talking with you," he joked. "If an ex-computer programmer/mathematician/science fiction nerd can learn this stuff, so can you."

After he started his web development business in 1996, Peters failed at networking events until he learned the importance of being other-focused.

"You need to find ways of helping other people without expectation of immediate return," he said. "Because otherwise, it's called selling."

Published: Thu, Mar 1, 2012

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