Going It Alone: Attorneys Leave Large Law Firms to Start Their Own Practices
Mergers, movement and expansion – these terms could easily describe Kansas City’s business scene, but perhaps more accurately represent its changing legal landscape in recent years. Responding to and benefiting from an economic rebound, Kansas City’s legal field is growing alongside the nation’s recovery, both around the country and around the globe. Closer to home, industry observers are watching as Kansas City law firms take advantage of the opportunities through mergers, expansion and entrepreneurial beginnings.
Story by Susan Fotovich McCabe
Going it Alone
Market and human resource expansion is one thing, but the number of one-lawyer firms has grown as well. More and more attorneys have decided to hang their own shingles. In fact, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of one-lawyer firms in Kansas City increased nearly 25 percent from 2002 to 2011. In particular, highly skilled attorneys are leaving positions with large firms to start their own practices.
Virginia Stevens Crimmins left Stueve Siegel Hanson LLP to start her own firm, Crimmins Law Firm, LLC in Independence, Mo. Stevens Crimmins, who once served as a litigator for Spencer Fane Britt & Browne, continues to take cases in commercial litigation and unpaid wages. For Stevens Crimmins, the decision was fueled by the desire for work-life balance.
“It created more sanity in our lives,” says Stevens Crimmins, who has two children. “What I have found since starting my own firm is that you don’t have to be in a large shop to have personal and professional satisfaction.”
Planning-wise, Stevens Crimmins took several months to make her exit and open her own firm in 2012. While she was able to bring some of her existing clients with her, much of her case load has resulted through networking with other attorneys.
According to Stevens Crimmins, other local attorneys are leaving big firms to start their own practices – even men who want to strike a work-life balance too. Believing there is enough legal work for everybody, she says many are leaving because they want to provide quality legal services without all the overhead of a big firm. Stevens Crimmins says today’s Internet and digital resources allow attorneys to eliminate that overhead.
There is a down side to leaving a big firm, however. Stevens Crimmins says that having someone else in the office who knows your cases is helpful. Because she is used to working in teams, she sometimes has to pause and shift her attention. “On the flip side, one advantage is that I can make decisions quickly,” she says. “I’ve found that I’m more efficient in getting matters addressed on a case.”
Like Stevens Crimmins, Michael Williams and Eric Dirks both left larger firms to start their own, small wage and discrimination and personal injury practice, Williams Dirks LLC. Dirks, who was previously with Stueve Siegel Hanson LLP and Williams, who was with Lathrop & Gage LLP, met as opposing counsel.
Both Williams and Dirks believed they could make a bigger impact with a smaller firm, where they were hands-on. “At some point in your career, you have to decide what you want to do in the next 20 years,” Williams says. “At big firms, I couldn’t take individual plaintiff employment cases because it was a conflict of interest when you’re representing big employers. I wanted to feel like I was helping people again.”
According to Williams, the training at larger firms is an excellent start for developing an expertise. But, he says, “Eventually you want to do it your own way.”
Like Stevens Crimmins, Williams took just a few short months to plan before striking out on his own. He says 90 percent of his employment law cases are referrals from other attorneys and the remainder is referrals from people he’s already represented. Because the average individual can’t afford to hire a larger, by-the-hour firm, Williams works on a contingency basis. Yet, as an entrepreneur, his biggest challenge is finding balance between helping those individuals and taking cases he’s likely to win.
“It’s a tough decision because sometimes you know that what happened to the individual is wrong, but even though you want to help, you have to take cases that you feel will have a positive outcome and keep the lights on,” he says.
Dirks also understands the “small guy” challenge and the dilemmas of being an entrepreneur. “My parents were small business owners,” he says. “I saw that the small business owner needed help but couldn’t pay a large law firm. So, the ability to pay on a contingency basis is what got me going. I think the entrepreneurial spirit in my blood was just dying to get out.”
Both attorneys take satisfaction in working closely with clients and seeing a direct correlation between the effort they put in and the rewards those clients reap. Dirks and Williams say they enjoy being able to choose the cases they want to take and the flexibility of being an entrepreneur. “The hours are very flexible, as long as I’m getting the work done,” Williams says. “You actually work more hours, but you enjoy it more because you’re building it yourself. It’s freeing.”
With so many attorneys leaving larger firms and launching their own practices, some might worry about the competition. Not so, says Dirks, who claims there’s a sense of camaraderie among one-lawyer offices. That networking also serves as a forum for referrals and brainstorming, he adds. “If we didn’t have colleagues who didn’t help one another, I don’t know how we’d get anything done,” Dirks says.
Still, there are challenges. Both Williams and Dirks say that not having an army of colleagues in the office makes certain tasks difficult at times. For example, Dirks says it would be difficult to generate a 50-page legal brief at a moment’s notice – something he might have been able to pass off to an associate at larger firm. However, adds Dirks, his clients always work directly with him, from day one to trial.
“By the time I get to trial, I know more about the case than any single attorney in a large firm,” Dirks says. “What a single attorney practice may lose in horsepower, he or she gains in efficiency and personal knowledge of the case.”