-MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. – When Chaska, Minn., lawyer Dean Gavin decided to go out on his own, he turned to Terrie Wheeler for help marketing his new one-person firm. When Michael Weber and a partner needed office space, they sublet from a landlord who gives them office amenities they otherwise couldn’t afford.

From billing to bookkeeping, small firms and solo practitioners are outsourcing the business aspects of law that they were never taught in law school.

“Law schools don’t train lawyers to be businesspeople,” said Wheeler, who coaches lawyers in marketing techniques in person for $10,000 to $12,000 a year and online for $750 to $1,250 a year. Wheeler said she has 250 online clients.

Demand for freelance help is growing as law firms downsize, leaving experienced attorneys and those fresh from law school on their own.

“I call these involuntary small law firms,” said Julie Schaefer, a human resources consultant who works with the legal community.

While there is no clearinghouse for small law firms to record how many solo practitioners are out there, anecdotal evidence suggests that the number is increasing.

Wayne Freeman, whose family runs Executive Suites of Minnesota at five locations, said he’s leased real and virtual space to 27 small and single-person law firms in just the past 18 months.

“We’ve noticed a definite uptick in solo practitioners and small firms,” said Freeman, whose firm leases offices for $1,000 to $1,500 a month that include shared conference areas, office hardware such as copying machines, a furnished lobby and a receptionist, among other services.

Gavin, who is on his own for the second time in his 16-year legal career, said he sought guidance from Wheeler for developing new business.

“Terrie asked me, ‘What kind of work do you want to do? How are you going to make strategic contacts? Who are you going to talk to in the next month?’ ” Gavin said.

With that prodding, Gavin said he joined the Chaska Chamber of Commerce, got involved with a downtown business committee and focused on commercial real estate. He said he pays Wheeler about $3,600 a year for occasional one-on-one consultations and access to her Web site, which can be found at market yourlawpractice.com.

“It works for me,” Gavin said. “In a big firm, you could be paying 50 percent for overhead. On my own, I can make a good living and still control my own life.”

Another Wheeler client, the law firm Messerli & Kramer, dropped its internal marketing staff because it didn’t make economic sense.

“We did a lot of soul-searching and concluded it was exceedingly difficult to hire one or more people with expertise in marketing, so we decided to hire an outside consultant,” said Brett Perry, the marketing committee chair for the 50-lawyer firm. He said the firm cut marketing expenses by 40 percent from the $120,000 or so that it cost to have a full-time person on staff.

Judy Norberg is a longtime law firm consultant who provides administrative assistance to small firms.

“A lot of lawyers don’t understand the financial part of things,” Norberg said. “There’s a real disconnect between running a firm and collecting receivables. You have to be self-disciplined if you are going to be off on your own.”


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