Sara Schmook worked for years as an accountant before opting for a career change in her mid-30s when she enrolled at the University of Tulsa’s College of Law.
Fast forward years later to her swearing-in ceremony, and she took a class put on by the Oklahoma Bar Association titled “Opening Your Law Practice” by Jim Calloway, director of the OBA’s Management Assistance Program.
Her first step was one that more newer attorneys are doing now, Calloway said. Instead of joining a firm, she established her own, Schmook Law Firm, which handles family law, business transactions and estate planning.
“Law school, as it was conceived decades ago, was really more of a curriculum that assumed an apprenticeship,” Calloway said. “Now because of the economic changes and the different ways that law firms are staffed, we have a large number of people going directly into their own practice after law school. A solo lawyer can function at a quite high level now.”
The circumstances around being a nontraditional law student are ultimately what clinched her decision to open her own practice, Schmook said. Entry-level jobs at law firms paid significantly less than she was making as a CPA and didn’t offer much scheduling flexibility.
Her accounting background and family history of entrepreneurship — her father is also self-employed — have buoyed her efforts in starting a practice, she said. Looking back at the five years she’s been in business, she said that she thinks the biggest challenge came early when she was still building a network of mentors.
“You need to find people working in your field and find some people who have been doing it long enough so that you have some resources to tap when you run into stuff,” Schmook said. “Because you are going to run into stuff for a good two to three years that you’ve never seen.”
Kelley Feldhake had been out of law school and working as an associate attorney when she decided it was now or never. If she didn’t go ahead and open her own law practice, she wasn’t sure if she would ever take that leap.
“‘If this doesn’t work, it doesn’t work, but I want to say that I’ve tried it,’” Feldhake said she remembers saying. “And I tried it, and I love it.”
That was back in 2013, and Feldhake’s solo practice has since combined with another small firm to become Reddy & Feldhake P.C., a law office she runs alongside her friend and business partner, Sarah Reddy. Practice areas consist of family law, estate planning and probate, property litigation and general contract law.
“I think you really get to find out who you are as an attorney when you own your own small firm,” Feldhake said. “In this you’re investing in the clients and you’re really finding out who you are and what you’re made of.”
Reddy, who like Feldhake has owned a firm since she was in her 20s, said that the experience has helped her come into her own as an attorney. “You really get to be more in control of your professional career path and what that’s going to look like from your clients to your practice to who you align yourself with professionally,” Reddy said. Both said that they’ve found one of the most challenging aspects of running their own firm to be striking the balance between practicing law, something they both love, and unrelated but necessary tasks they’re less versed in — like marketing.
“I feel like we get caught in this cycle all the time of you buckle down and you do your marketing and you network and you get out there and you get all these clients in and you think ‘Wonderful, I want to work on my clients, I want to be a lawyer now,’” Reddy said. “And then all of a sudden you close all of those cases and you realize we haven’t done any marketing recently. Law firms are just, I think, a little bit of a different animal from other businesses.”
Carrie Luelling opened up her family law and civil litigation practice, ClueLaw, in 2013 after she and her husband moved from Portland, Oregon, to Tulsa. She noted the potential cost savings by clients going with a smaller firm.
At large firms attorneys typically have billable hour requirements, she said, which can lead to lawyers doing work that paralegals could be doing. At ClueLaw, she pushes many tasks that don’t require an attorney to her paralegals, which means clients pay less than half the hourly rate.
“I think small firms, believe it or not, can do it cheaper,” Luelling said. “My paralegals do discovery — things that are kind of time-intensive. My client doesn’t have to pay me to touch that unless it looks like we’re going to get close to having a hearing or trial, and then they’re really only paying you to review it once. I think there’s a cost savings for sure.”