Going solo: What it takes to succeed in your own practice

Issue April 2003 By Lynne Feibelmann

In the early 1990s, opening a private practice was not the average venture for a new attorney.
But that didn't stop Marc L. Breakstone and David W. White-Lief from leaving their large-firm jobs in Boston to start a referral practice, Breakstone, White-Lief & Gluck.

And it wasn't long before they became a success.

Just last year, the pair secured a $7.5 million medical malpractice settlement brought against three doctors and a Framingham hospital, representing the largest reported medical-malpractice settlement in state history.

Now, as the legal community is facing new economic and management hurdles, Breakstone and White-Lief are finding many of their colleagues wondering just what it takes to become a success in their own practice.

To help answer that important question, Breakstone and White-Lief will co-chair a panel on April 10 for the MBA-sponsored seminar "How to Start and Run A Successful Solo or Small-Firm Practice." The all-day session will run from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Radisson Hotel Boston, 200 Stuart St.

"In a robust economy, law firms were hiring, so people were not considering starting their own firms," said Breakstone. "Now they are forced to go out on their own. This is a good time for this kind of seminar. It gives the nuts and bolts in one day about the mechanics of setting up a firm."

The seminar will highlight how to begin the process of starting a firm - from selecting a practice area to financing the venture.

Panelists - who also include attorneys Patrick Francomano, Sarah A. Ricciardelli, Melissa Sindeband, Jose Vazquez, Risa Sorkin and Denise I. Murphy, as well as Terence Welsh, president of the MBA Insurance Agency - will tap into how to run the firm, delving into topics such as docket control, accounting and bookkeeping, and fees and billing.

Other features include client relations, avoiding malpractice and marketing. During lunch, participants will have an opportunity to network with colleagues and talk representative from a select group of legal-services and practice-management companies.

According to White-Lief, the timing of this conference is critical because many attorneys have been "thrown out alone" due to diminished opportunities at firms.

"The legal economy has shrunk," he said, adding that many attorneys who previously chose not to start their own firm now need to in order to survive. "The seminar is a primer for anyone willing to make the leap."

Breakstone agreed.

"It gives a practical, ground-level view of how to start your firm from lawyers who did it," said Breakstone, who was selected by Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly as one of its "Lawyers of the Year" in 2002. "The secrets to success are not that daunting after you overcome perceived hurdles."

Leaving the comfort of an existing practice, where business is distributed and delegated, is difficult for many attorneys. Yet Breakstone said many attorneys are unhappy at large firms and need to overcome the fear of failure in order to start their own firms.

"You have to find your own business. There are proven strategies for mitigating the risks," he said.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Breakstone was a plaintiff's personal-injury attorney at Sugarman & Sugarman and worked with White-Lief, who at the time was thinking about finding work in another city.

Breakstone suggested that his colleague find another lawyer and start a firm.

One day after work, the two Northeastern University Law School graduates met for a drink and drafted a plan on the back of a cocktail napkin.

Although they had "next to no business" in the beginning and both had mortgages and children, Breakstone said his independence was worth the financial risk.

"I had a desire to practice law the way I wanted to practice, to create a firm that reflected who I was," Breakstone said.

Breakstone and White-Lief tested the market and talked to lawyers at high-volume firms who could refer malpractice and conflict cases to them.

Breakstone called attorney Ronald E. Gluck for a referral and found a third partner instead. Shortly after, they formed a three-lawyer plaintiff personal-injury team. That April they took their two-year, five-year and 10-year visions and started a referral-based practice.

"It was a great opportunity to grow professionally," White-Lief said. "We were hungry, young and energetic. There were a lot of promises that weren't kept from (referring attorneys) but there were also many opportunities that turned into something big."

Breakstone said the only real asset attorneys have is their reputation.

"The key to success is turning your reputation into business and understanding how to tap into the potential reservoir of good will, something you don't realize when you're working at a firm," he said.

Breakstone advises others not to put too much emphasis on devising a business plan.

"Developing a professional practice is about execution," Breakstone said. "Too many people don't make the move because they anticipate the pitfalls and get lost in the details."

Approaching people who needed niche work and participating in programs at the Massachusetts Bar Association contributed to their success.

"You have to market aggressively, build relationships in new ways and be where you can be found," White-Lief said, adding that creating an informative, tasteful Web site is a good marketing tool.

Breakstone, White-Lief and Gluck, which is located at Two Center Plaza in Boston, specializes in and tries cases involving Consumer Protection Act violations, medical-malpractice and personal-injury law on the state and federal levels.

According to Breakstone, the firm has had "phenomenal results" in the last two years, including the medical-malpractice case Uluan v. Columbia Metrowest Medical Center, a case involving a five-week-old baby who suffered from brain injury and spastic quadriplegia during surgery. The case settled for $7.5 million.

Overall, Breakstone said, his vision is about being able to balance his professional life with his family and not the bottom line.

"I look forward to coming into the office everyday; that is my definition of success. The rest is gravy," he said.