The Small Firm Lawyer

The Small Firm Lawyer

I come from a family of lawyers. My mother is a lawyer, my father, my sister, my brother, my uncles and cousins, on both sides, are all lawyers. They are all, like me, solo or small firm lawyers, except for my uncle who owned and ran the New York Marino Bar Review course. Unlike me, they are all civil lawyers. I am a criminal defense lawyer. I always have been.

Although I always wanted to be a litigator, being a criminal defense lawyer was never the plan. I envisioned myself coming to California from my native East Coast and being a glamorous entertainment attorney. I soon learned entertainment attorneys didn't go to court much and simultaneously landed a job with a criminal lawyer. It didn't take me long to recognize that if destiny indeed existed, this was mine.

Growing up, my father instilled in me the value of being your own boss. My mother, however, was my role model. She was beautiful, smart, and sexy. She was a powerful litigator; it defined her. She was fearsome to her opponent and always ready for battle.

Over time, the cost of always doing battle made her weary. She was at war, always; she was a successful woman litigator in a man's world. As a consequence, I thought being a successful litigator was synonymous with a fight. From my mother, I learned to be a warrior.

When I started out in solo practice, I knew I needed to be tenacious and tough, like my mother. I also knew based on my own life experience that I needed to be charming and likeable. I knew I could never be traditional.

I met my husband, Richard Kaplan, in court, at the beginning of my legal career. He taught me something that up until that moment I didn't know: that not every case needs to be a war. As Sun-Tzu in "The Art of War" says, "The side that knows when to fight and when not will take the victory." Richard taught me to pick my battles, that being reasonable and rational is a powerful asset, and that passion is most valuable when controlled. From Richard, I learned balance.

Having a small firm has allowed me to create my life professionally. For me, being a solo small firm lawyer means I determine my practice, I decide who my clients will be, and what cases to handle.

I did not start as a criminal defense attorney in the more traditional way. Many criminal defense attorneys start their career in government service, usually either the U.S. Attorney's Office or the Office of the District Attorney, City Attorney, or Public Defender. After passing the bar, I was fortunate and worked for a solo criminal defense practitioner, but ultimately, my aversion to working for someone necessitated my taking a different path.

I joined the criminal court-appointed lawyers lists throughout the county. There were days when I made three to four appearances in different courts from Torrance to Pomona to the San Fernando Valley. I worked tirelessly for the indigent who couldn't afford a lawyer. I listened to other lawyers and I learned, I read a lot of materials, and I was my own boss.

A couple of years and many jury trials later, my practice evolved from court-appointed cases to paying clients. The more skilled and recognized I became, the more referrals I received. After many years of state court practice, first as a solo and later as a small firm with Richard, I began to seek the next challenge. For me, the next challenge was federal criminal defense work. Again, I applied for and was accepted to the federal court-appointed lawyers panel, and history repeated itself. In this way, I continued to remake myself.

As a solo small firm lawyer, I have directed my practice and my life. Today, my practice consists of some state work, some federal work, and some appellate work, all of it criminal or quasi criminal. Today, there is no criminal or quasi criminal case that I can't do — even if I haven't done it before, because I know I can learn it. I always have my eyes wide open to new challenges.

Having a small firm has allowed me to create my life personally as well. The flexibility of our "own shop" has allowed Richard and me to attend school events and "be present" as our kids grow up. Of course there is the downside of no paychecks when we go on vacation, but I think the trade off is well worth it.

My involvement in bar association work has been a big part of my career and my life. I have sat on the boards of both the Beverly Hills Bar Association and the Women's Lawyers Association of Los Angeles, and chaired each of their criminal law sections. I currently sit on the Council of the American Bar Association, Criminal Justice Section, and have chaired several criminal justice committees. I have served as counsel to the Rampart Commission, as a Lawyer Representative to the 9th Circuit, and on the State Bar Committee to the Federal Courts. Bar service has given me the opportunity to give back to a profession that has in part, helped me identify myself. It has also provided me with lifelong lasting relationships and constant opportunities to forge new relationships.

Throughout my career, I have sought out, listened to, and learned from mentors and colleagues. Through these people I have garnered four rules to practice by: Maintain your integrity. Always have time to think. Be reasonable. Always outwork the other side.

In litigation, cases either resolve in some way or they go to trial. I am always preparing for the trial and simultaneously attempting to secure the resolution. By applying these four tenets in every case, I can achieve the goals of my client and preserve my core values as a lawyer. There is balance when the warrior picks her battles.

As a lifelong solo small firm lawyer, I have never felt the comfort and security of a paycheck. I have, however, felt the power of being in charge of my own destiny, of identifying my goals and attaining them, and for me, that's what I want. To quote Martha Stewart, "I have never thought about glass ceilings." (New York Times Magazine, May 9, 2010.) I guess that's because my mother broke it for me.