GOING IT ALONE
YOUNG LAWYER FINDS SOLO PRACTICE WORTH THOSE 12 HOUR DAYS
FIERCE COMPETITION FOR JOBS FUELS TREND; MR. CURIELLI SHUNS ‘BURIAL’ IN A FIRM
No Assignment Is Too Small
By Frederick C. Klein
Staff Reporter of The Wall Street Journal
CHICAGO – Whenever John Peter Curielli leaves his office during the day, he places one of those radio-activated beeper devices in his suit-coat pocket. When the thing goes off, he hurries to call his telephone answering service.
Mr. Curielli isn’t a physician or police detective. He is a young lawyer in solo practice, and when a client calls he answers – pronto.
“I tell my clients not to have me paged unless it’s an emergency, but if they think they need me right away, I want to be there,” he says. “Service is mostly what I have to offer, you know. If I don’t deliver, they’ll go to one of the big firms downtown.”
That is the way it has been for the last five years for Mr. Curielli, an earnest, slightly built man of 31 years. For him, being a lawyer doesn’t mean conferences in mahogany corporate board rooms or leisurely lunches in expensive-account restaurants. It is a string of 12-hour days writing collection letters and articles of incorporation for small firms, and handling house closings, wills and divorces for people who live in the middle-class residential neighborhood where he has an office.
After a couple of lean years he is doing all right, getting into some major deals in his specialty of real-estate law. He cleared more than $30,000 from his practice in 1977, and he is hoping to double that figure this year. Still, he isn’t immune to the kind of anxieties that plague other lawyers in his position.
“When I see my file of cases getting low, I tend to slow down,” he admits with a smile. “I have this horrible fear that when I’m done with them I’m out of business.”
Mr. Curielli’s experiences in establishing his own practice are pertinent to a lot of young lawyers and law students these days. Solo practice was the way most lawyers did business 25 or 30 years ago. It is on the rise again.
Law schools are continuing to turn out graduates in record numbers. According to the American Bar Association, the lawyer population in the U.S. numbered almost 432,000 last year, up from 355,000 in 1971, and new lawyers are being admitted to the bar at a rate of about 35,000 annually. No slowdown in this pace is in sight; the ABA says some 120,000 persons are attending law schools around the country.
A Litigious Society
Work for lawyers is expanding, too, especially in the areas of criminal law, consumer protection, taxation and issues relating to the environment. It also is widely believed that Americans generally are becoming more litigious, partly as a result of living in an increasingly complex and rule-bound society and, perhaps, partly because there are so many lawyers around. “Put one lawyer in a town and he’ll starve; put in a second one and they’ll both get rich,” is a favorite lawyers’ maxim.
During the 1950s and most of the 1960s the big law firms, government and business soaked up new attorneys in large numbers. They still do, but, apparently, not enough to keep up with production.
One consequence has been an increase in legal unemployment, though figures are hard to pin down; when opportunities to practice their profession aren’t available, many lawyers will take nonlegal jobs. But the California Young Lawyers Association found in a poll last year that 25% of a sample of the men and women graduated from that state’s law schools in the previous five years were unemployed, couldn’t find a job in law or didn’t have enough work to make a living.
A Caste System
Another is what James Kilmer, vice president of David J. White & Associates, a Chicago firm that does recruiting and management-consulting work for law firms and corporate legal departments, calls “a developing legal caste system.”
He explains: “Ten years ago, just about any graduate of a decent could find a position in law, but no more. Now, almost all the jobs in the large, big-city firms and the federal government are going to graduates in the upper third of their classes at about 20 top law schools and the top few kids at the regional schools. They’re the Brahmins, and they’re doing great. Starting salaries are averaging about $20,000 a year, and go as high as $28,000.
“The middle caste is made up of lower-ranking graduates of the top-20 schools and people in the upper third of their classes at the regionals. They usually can find something, but at less than top dollar.”
“Just about everyone else is getting to be an ‘untouchable.’ Their starting salaries are as low as $700 a month, and if one of them turns down a job two other guys are there to take it. Even some graduates of the best law schools are down here, too, if they don’t measure up in terms of personality. There’s a lot of scuffling going on in this group.”
Mr. Kilmer says the most widely used avenue of escaping the caste system is solo practice, and statistics back him up. The American Bar Foundation, the ABA’s research arm, says that solo practitioners accounted for about 60% of the profession in 1948. That declined to about 35% in 1970, but it now is up to about 40% and rising.
Many young lawyers are entering solo practice out of choice as well as necessity. “When jobs with firms were plentiful, few students gave much thought to setting up their own practices, but more are now,” says Gerald M. Singer, a Los Angeles attorney who teaches a course in the practicalities of legal practice at Loyola University Law School in that city. “They are coming to see the advantages of being independent, which, after all, is what being a professional is all about.”
To be sure, very few lawyers hang out their shingles the day after they pass their bar exams; just about everybody in the profession agrees that a year or two of apprenticeship is needed before an attorney can adequately represent clients. Chief Justice Warren Burger of the U.S. Supreme Court has been particularly outspoken of late about the shortcomings of fledgling lawyers. He says that allowing a first-year attorney to appear in court is like allowing a first year medical-school graduate to perform delicate surgery.
Most young lawyers get the required experience by taking a salaried job with a firm or corporate legal department, or serving as a local prosecutor or public defender. Mr. Singer recommends what he calls “proselytizing” – soliciting routine assignments from established lawyers who have more work than they can handle but not enough to make up a full-time job.
Mr. Curielli took another route. Once he got his degree from night law school at DePaul University here – a Catholic institution with a reputation for turning out practical-minded lawyers (he ranked 32nd in a class of 105) – he rented office space from a medium-sized downtown firm with the understanding that the firm’s partners would give him advice and supervision when he asked for it. After two years of that arrangement, he moved to his own office, and total independence.
Working for No. 1
“I always intended to practice on my own,” he says. “In a firm, you’re just an employee, no matter how much money you make. Your life isn’t your own. I didn’t sweat through law school to work for somebody else.”
Mr. Curielli had a leg up on other aspiring soloists when he started out. His father, Peter John, was a lawyer, although his private practice was limited to the nights and weekends he could spare from his full-time job as a tax supervisor with the Illinois Department of Revenue, which he held for 37 years. He died while John was still in law school, however, so the young lawyer had no ready-made practice to inherit.
In addition, Mr. Curielli worked his way through law school by running his family’s small insurance-brokerage firm. He maintained that business until last year and the resulting income, averaging about $10,000 annually, helped support him while he established his legal practice.
The insurance business also brought him his initial clients. The first, he recalls, was a grocer to whom he had sold a policy. “When he wanted to buy another store, he let me handle the negotiations.” Mr. Curielli says, “Now he’s got 15 stores and some apartment buildings, and I’ve handled most of them. Then his cousin went into the grocery business, and he came to me. So did the cousin’s brothers. They’ve got about 35 stores among them now. That’s one nice thing about big Italian families.”
Being a lawyer’s son helped a bit, too. “I still get calls from people in the old neighborhood who think I’m my father,” he says. “Most of them are pretty old. They want wills.”
Spreading the Word
Mr. Curielli does things other young lawyers do to spread their names. He hands out his cards whenever the opportunity arises, and he has joined about every organization in sight, including several bar associations and law-school alumni groups, the neighborhood Kiwanis club, and a half-dozen Italian-American societies.
In the lawyers’ groups a young attorney tries to make friends who will refer work to him and to whom he can confidently refer clients with problems outside his expertise. Such contacts are especially useful to lawyers in solo practice, without partners to fall back on.
In general-membership organizations, “You can’t be pushy, because the other members resent it if you act like you’re just there to get business; you’ve got to like them for their own sake,” he notes. “If you’re patient, the business will start to come.”
He also has been active in politics, particularly in the recent campaigns of Frank Annunzio, the Congressman who represents the district where he has an office and who is the father of a law-school friend. “In Chicago, it’s nice to know people in high places,” he says. “A couple of months ago I had a zoning matter. I called Mr. Annunzio, and he gave me the name of a man at the county building who made sure I got all the right forms filled out. If I’d come in cold, I’d have wandered around for hours looking for the right office.”
Mostly, though he accepts just about every piece of business that comes his way and tries to do a good job with it. The only kind of things he rejects out of hand are those that require extensive trial work (“It’s too time-consuming, and I’m not that good at it”) and criminal matters. “Being an Italian, I don’t want the reputation of dealing with criminals,” he explains. “You know how people are.”
Little Things Count
He takes pride in being well prepared, no matter how small the assignment. “Take a will,” he says. “If you don’t put in a line waiving bond for the executor, that will mean $200 or $300 for the guys heirs when he dies. That’s a big deal to them.
“Or take a house closing. Most lawyers think it’s small stuff and act like they’re doing their client a favor by handling it. Not me. When I show up for a closing, I’ve got the papers and I’m set to go. The client appreciates it, and he’ll come back with more work.”
Being meticulous pays off in other ways; one of Mr. Curielli’s biggest current clients is a home builder he met while representing a buyer at a closing. “I was there on time and ready. The builder’s lawyer, from a big downtown firm, was late and really disorganized. The builder had to do his work for him. A month or so later, I get a call from the builder. Now I represent him.”
He has also picked up some useful tricks of the solo lawyer’s trade, such as how to bill. “When I first started in practice,” he recalls, “I’d bill by the hour. I’d put down six hours of work at $50 an hour – $300. That might work at a big firm, but my client might be making $6 an hour at Western Electric. He’d think, “What makes this kid worth eight or nine times more than me?’ and he’d beef. Now my bills just list the work I’ve done – documents prepared, meetings attended – and a total. Very few people complain.”
Small but Tidy
Mr. Curielli works out of unprepossessing quarters in a one-story building on the north side of Chicago, with a plumbing supply firm and a bill collector sharing the building. But it is neat, and cheap – $195 a month to rent an office and waiting room.
Add the bills for telephone service, malpractice insurance, postage and incidentals, and the overhead comes to less than $600 a month. The biggest economy is Mr. Curielli’s wife Catherine, who does his secretarial work free, putting in almost as many hours as he does. When school is over, their four-year-old son Peter is brought to the office, and the waiting room becomes a playroom. The family usually doesn’t get home until 9:30 or 10 p.m.
But business is improving. Mr. Curielli and his wife are getting to the point where they can afford a few luxuries, such as a new home in the suburb of Barrington (they used to live in a city apartment) and a just-purchased Cadillac automobile (which he sees as good for his practice – “makes me look successful”).
He is working on a 150-acre suburban land-development project that is worth more than $1 million, and he hopes bigger things will follow. “When I’m 45 or so,” he says, “I’d like to have a gentleman’s practice – a few big real-estate cases, a little corporate work, things like that – but right now I don’t mind scuffling.”
“I see some of my classmates getting buried in big firms, and I’m glad I’m not them. I get a kick out of seeing my own name on my door.”