Doing it for Themselves: For Some Woman, Going Solo is a Way to Strike Back at 'Sexism" in Big Firms--For Others, It Just Makes Good Business Sense

(Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly January 13, 1997)

By CLAIRE PAPANASTASIOU

Marcia S. Wagner is relaxed. She's in a new office. In a less stressful environment. Comfortably removed from the chaos of the downtown Boston area. And - wonder of wonders - her skin has cleared up.

Wagner has opened her own firm, Wagner & Associates in Boston, and the move has improved her quality of life - not to mention her complexion.

"I am a lot less stressed," admits Wagner, who hung out a shingle last August after 10 years on the large-firm scene. "I'm a baby company. It's great."

Wagner's professional life hasn't always been so wonderful.

"I have been all over the place," the ERISA lawyer says of her employment past. "I am a very independent person and kind of iconoclastic. And these are not attributes that are highly regarded in large law firms."

There's no need to read between the lines to gauge Wagner's opinion on big firms; she's thinks there's chauvinism lurking.

"I've never been a bra-burner type," stresses Wagner, a former Warner & Stackpole partner. "[But] women have to play politics much more. And in my case, if I were a man, every 'negative' attribute I had would have been considered positive."

Women rainmakers have to play the game even harder, says Wagner, who brought in a good share of clients as a lawyer for various firms.

"That intimidates the s--- out of men," says Wagner, adding that it's more likely that women rainmakers - like herself are more likely to leave law firms than those that play by the rules. "Women who suck up and carry the bags for men will succeed [at the big firms]."

Wagner considers herself a success today. She has two lawyers working with her. She has a boatload of clients, some of whom migrated from her previous employers. She's making twice as much money than at her former job. But the real benefit lies within Wagner herself

"I have been forced to become an excellent lawyer," she says of her new station in life. "It has made me a better person. ... The only way to be true to who I am is to do this on my own."

Not all women leave firms for the same reason as Wagner.

But many women who open their own shop will face similar challenges, according to Silvia L. Coulter, founder of Coulter King O'Neil planning/marketing consultants.

Although "it doesn't have to be more difficult for women," says Coulter, women are not "naturals at networking. ... They put up roadblocks. They say, 'I can't do that, what will they think?' Women start making these presumptions. They also tend to be a bit more detail-oriented and more perfectionist - as opposed to jumping into it."

Worry is a wasted emotion, adds Coulter. And women are worriers by nature. "They need to not worry so much and just do it," she says.

In addition to heightened competition among lawyers, another simple reason for the rise in women starting firms is more obvious, according to Newton attorney B.J. Krintzman, who started her own practice last year after a four-year stint at Hale and Dorr.

"There are more women lawyers," she says, noting, just as Coulter, that lawyers of both sexes are affected by competition. "The job market got really tight. And remember, some [women] may be solo practitioners not by choice."

Krintzman disagrees with Wagner's belief that large firms are fraught with sexism.

"That has not been my experience," she says.

Wagner and Krintzman, however, both sought more authority in their jobs - a theme across the board for women who have branched out on their own.

"I wanted more control over my work life," notes Krintzman, who founded the Women's Bar Association solo and small-firm group co-chaired by Coulter and Newton solo Debra A. Joyce. "I wanted a closer connection with my clients. At a firm, they are your 'clients,' but they are really not your clients. My clients now are really my clients."

There's more satisfaction on many levels.

"I like plying my trade without being an intermediary," says appellate lawyer Joyce, the co-chair of the WBA solo and small-firm practice section. "It's more authentic. There's more integrity. There's a closer link to who I am and how I earn my money. It really feels good."

Boston solo Kathleen C. Stone began her firm about six months ago. Stone was one of 50 lawyers in the corporate law department at Recall Management, which folded about a year ago. During the six months immediately after leaving Recall, Stone was contemplating her professional options when a friend referred someone to her for legal help. Stone helped, and then realized "I could do this" for a living.

It wasn't as blatant as the proverbial lightbulb going off, but Stone did have a revelation.

"It was a mental shift," says Stone, who started investing several thousands of dollars in setting up her practice at home. "It felt good."

She was greeted with an interesting response from colleagues.

"My friends were shocked," says Stone, laughing. "I had always had a top-notch secretary. I had never used a computer. I had to learn from scratch."

Equipped with only her high school typing skills, Stone signed up for computer classes. It was hard, but manageable.

Many women solos cite setting up a computer network as an unexpected frustration.

Wagner relays an episode in her office involving a vendor, herself and a male friend. 'One vendor said to me, 'Miss. I don't think you can understand Microsoft XT, I'll explain to him.' He said this in front of my staff. I told him to remember who was paying him."

Stone said she had similar experiences with computer vendors, but says she is not sure whether the treatment had to do with her gender or just whether computer vendors are arrogant toward the uninitiated.

"It was the most horrible experience," says Stone. "It was the least pleasant aspect. If I were really with it, I would set up a business helping people who are not computer aces. They talk down to you. They don't really don't seem to take an interest and they don't seem to want to spend anytime with you."

A mother of one, Stone hires a babysitter each day. She focuses on three areas of law, employment, commercial matters and litigation.

She, like Krintzman and Wagner, gets referrals from previous employers.

Stone's advice for anyone starting a firm: "Be able to make a leap of faith. There's a reasonable chance it will work if you make the investment of time and work. You have to make that kind of commitment, and you have to be an optimist."

Newton solo Merle Ruth Hass worked most of her professional life in a few appellate courts across America, including the First U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. She did, however, spend one year as a trial lawyer at a Boston firm and did not enjoy it.

"My life was not my own," says Hass. "I had a hard time setting boundaries and was feeling inadequate [at work and at home]. I felt like I wasn't satisfying anyone."

So Hass started her own appellate practice from her home last summer. She is also of counsel at a Boston firm.

"It's the best solution", she says, adding that the type of law she handles makes it easier. "The nice thing about appellate law with the exception of oral arguments is that you can do research whenever and wherever you'd like. If you are in trial practice, you have very narrow constraints in which you can work."

Joyce celebrates her first year as a solo appellate lawyer this month. She parted company with the 100 plus-lawyer Morrison, Mahoney & Miller for one reason.

"I left for my daughter," says Joyce, who knew she could fall back economically on her skills as a lawyer. "If I wanted to stay in the legal arena, I always had at the back of my mind that I could start my own practice. I already had the skills I needed to start my own practice. I just had to become cognizant of that fact."

Like attorney Stone, Joyce changed her thinking in regard to mustering up the confidence to work for herself.

"It was a sea change," she says, adding that her confidence swelled "once I had my business cards printed up and my first client."

Before going solo, Joyce returned to Morrison briefly on a part-time basis after becoming a mom. But as many working mother lawyers find out, at law firms part-time sometimes means full-time.

It's no secret that being a lawyer in large firm is demanding - for both women and men. However, Wagner is not alone in her assertions that the deck is stacked against women in large firms. Joyce somewhat agrees with Wagner's contention that firms inherently have a bias against or have imposed a "glass ceiling" on women lawyers.

"It exists in a big way," says Joyce, stressing that Morrison was "great" in her situation. However, "female partners were usually over child-rearing years or had never had children. They didn't have to split their focus like most women do. So most firms could argue that if a woman is not willing to focus [on the firm], you end up playing a secondary role by default."

Another area where women felt at a disadvantage was in the area of entertaining corporate clients - who tend to be men.

Stone remembers a typical night out with clients when she worked in the Hartford firm Robinson & Cole.

"A common way to entertain clients was to take them to a Hartford Whalers which is not something I would initiate as a form of client entertainment," she says. "It was sometimes hard to figure out how I could entertain clients in a way that was comfortable for me and the client."

Now it's not an issue, because she's the boss.

"My preference is food and the arts," Stone says. "So I try to think of a new restaurant. ... Food usually works."

As a Harvard Law School student not too long ago, Marcia Wagner was inspired by Prof Duncan Kennedy to "change the system." The erudite man was referring to big-law firm culture.

"I got news for Duncan Kennedy," she says, wryly. "There is no changing the system from within."

To Wagner, women attorneys will never be held in the same regard as men lawyers at firms - unless they go out on their own; and hit firms where it hurts - right in the pocketbook.

"It will change when more and more women will leave firms and start creating a client base - and start stealing clients from the larger firms," says Wagner. "They are not going to be able to ignore us."

Ironically, Wagner has been asked to merge by two "large Boston" firms since opening last August.

"You are going to acquire me?" jokes a flattered Wagner, as if talking to a large-firm type. "Well, no, I don't merge."

Reprinted with permission of Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly.