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Interview: Joanne Sternlieb on the Joys and Challenges of Solo Practice

Sternlieb Joanne R. Sternlieb's "flex-time" trusts and estates practice -- operated out of her home -- is a far cry from the sixty hour weeks she used to put in as an associate at Simpson Thacher & Bartlett. The practice employs four lawyers and two assistants who also work out of their own homes, on their own schedules, whenever they want. There are no set hours, no billable-hour requirements, no guaranteed hours, and no guaranteed pay - Sternlieb's only requirement is that they get the job done (whether at two in the afternoon or two in the morning).

Sternlieb's flexible schedule offers her the best of both worlds: more time with family and a successful career. Sternlieb says that her goal is "to use my firm as a role model for other law firms to show that you can create an environment where women (and men if they so choose) can work flexible schedules and be successful."

Click below to read Sternlieb's interview.

JD Bliss (JDB): After practicing trusts and estates law at a major New York firm, you started your own "flex-time" trusts and estates practice to allow you more freedom for family life. Today, The Law Offices of Joanne R. Sternlieb is a virtual, flex-time association currently with five lawyers and staff. What originally motivated you to attend law school and then to practice trusts and estates law?

Sternlieb: My original intention when I went to law school at New York University was to work for a charity when I graduated.  While I have done a significant amount of charitable work during my career, after law school I decided to work for a law firm.  I started out in the corporate department at Simpson Thacher & Bartlett and after a year and a half decided to become a trusts and estates lawyer.  What motivated me to become a trusts and estates lawyer was that I enjoy working with people and helping them.  I was a psychology major as an undergraduate at Amherst College and my trusts and estates practice allows me to balance my love of the law with my interest in psychology.   As a trusts and estates lawyer, you need to understand family dynamics and relationships.  I believe that you can help minimize or avoid family controversies by the way you resolve an issue during estate planning or in the settlement of an estate or a will controversy.  Being a trusts and estates lawyer also requires a lot of creativity, which also appeals to me. 

JDB: Having practiced at Simpson Thacher & Bartlett firm, what do you see as the plusses and minuses of big firm life?

Sternlieb:  I was with Simpson Thacher for 12 years as an associate and counsel and I loved my job there.  The training that I received at Simpson Thacher was extraordinary, and I welcomed the way I was challenged to achieve excellence.  I was fortunate to work with brilliant colleagues on a wide range of projects that were always on the cutting edge.  The training and client experience that I received at Simpson Thacher have enabled me to create a successful solo practice.   The price of all this, of course, was the 60-plus hour workweek that is expected at a big firm.  That wasn’t an issue for me until 1998, when Michelle, my first daughter, was born.  After Michelle was born, I worked part-time at Simpson Thacher, but that was still about 40 hours a week.  I realized then that I wanted more flexibility and a better work-life balance than would have been possible had I stayed with the firm.

JDB: Did you immediately start your own private practice after leaving Simpson Thacher?

Sternlieb:  No, I first took a position with a part-time schedule at Neuberger Berman Trust Company, which is now Lehman Brothers Trust Company.  At Lehman Brothers Trust Company I advised clients on all aspects of estate planning and trusts and estates administration.  However, I wasn’t practicing law and I missed it.  In addition, after my second daughter, Sarah, was born in October 2001, I wanted even more flexibility than I had in my part-time position.  While I was at Simpson Thacher and Lehman Brothers Trust Company, I was often asked for the names of lawyers to draft wills and trusts and to do estate administration.  People were looking for a lawyer who had good experience and didn’t charge big firm rates.  I concluded that there was a niche for someone with my experience to establish a solo trusts and estates practice to service these clients.  With that in mind, I decided to take the risk and pursue my dream of starting my own firm.

JDB: How familiar were you with the requirements of solo practice?  Were you prepared for the realities of what you found?

Sternlieb: I spoke with a former colleague of mine from Simpson Thacher who started his own litigation practice and has become incredibly successful.  Also, I took a seminar on starting your own law firm that was offered by the New York City Bar Association.  I thought I was pretty well prepared, but my biggest challenge was doing all the administrative work myself – dealing with technology issues, billing, and ordering supplies in addition to practicing law. I didn't realize how much non-legal work was involved in running my own law firm.

JDB:  How did you maintain your income when you started your practice, and how did you build visibility for it?

Sternlieb:  I formally opened my practice in September 2002 and for the first two years I made about 60% of what I was making working part- time at Simpson Thacher and Lehman Brothers Trust Company. I had prepared for the drop in income with savings.  To supplement my income, I worked part-time (20 hours a week) as an independent contractor at Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz for six months while one of the attorneys in their trusts and estates department was on maternity leave.  Today my practice has grown to the point where earnings are equivalent to when I worked part-time at Lehman Brothers Trust Company and at Simpson Thacher. The growth has happened through word-of-mouth about the caliber of our services and not through aggressive marketing.   Having been in the field since 1989, I had built up a substantial network of contacts, and I sent out announcements and letters to them when I started my practice.  I also participate in a small discussion group of trusts and estates lawyers who refer work to me.  Just as I had wished I could find good lawyers to refer clients to when I was at Simpson Thacher and Lehman Brothers Trust Company, I knew that many of my former colleagues had the same need.  So I’ve received a lot of referrals from Simpson Thacher, Lehman Brothers Trust Company, Wachtell Lipton and other firms, as well as major banks.  My clients are often people with significant assets, but not so large that they need the help of a major firm.  I also assist trust companies and banks when they need legal work done in connection with the administration of trusts and estates.

JDB: You started your practice to have more flexible hours.  What does a typical week look like for you?

Sternlieb:  I basically work full-time, but from a home office location that allows me the flexibility to meet family needs.  I typically drop my younger daughter off at school at 8:45 then go back to the office or to client meetings and work until 5:30 – with breaks for school events or family time.  My work time is divided between client and administrative matters, as needed.    If I need to meet with clients, I will go to their homes or offices or meet them at an office that I rent on an hourly basis.  Most evenings I’m able to share dinner at home with my family and then I go back to work after my children go to sleep.

JDB: As your practice has grown you’ve built up what amounts to a virtual firm of attorneys and staff with similar flex-time schedules.  Could you explain how that works, and how you keep everything coordinated?

Sternlieb:  There are four other lawyers, one assistant, and two law clerks who work for me – most are women like myself who have families and need a flexible schedule.  They work out of their own homes, on their own schedules, and whenever they want. It doesn't matter to me when they do the work as long as they get it done. They are independent contractors and work flexible schedules. There are no set hours, no billable-hour requirements, no guaranteed hours, and no guaranteed pay.   I generally pay my associates a pre-set fee for each project they do, and I generally charge clients the same way except for estate administration or court proceedings, which work better as hourly billing.  I keep track of everything with a super-notebook system that tracks matters and due dates, and I rely heavily on electronic technology which is essential for my practice to operate as it does.

JDB: What do your clients think of this business model, and how do you see it evolving?

Sternlieb:  Virtually all of my clients deal with me directly, so they are unaware of the size of my firm or how it operates.  However, those who know about it love it.  Many of my clients are lawyers, physicians and business professionals, and they fully understand the thinking behind the flex-time concept.  They understand that the way I practice law means lower overhead which allows me to charge lower fees.  Additionally, clients recognize that my background and training at Simpson Thacher enable me to handle sophisticated matters.  As for the evolution of the practice, I would like to see my practice grow to where we have several offices where firm members can come and go as their needs and work load dictate.  My goal is to use my firm as a role model for other law firms to show that you can create an environment where women (and men if they so choose) can work flexible schedules and be successful.  I’ve spoken at a program sponsored by the New York State Bar Association’s Committee on Women in the Law about the flex-time practice that I’ve created, and I plan to discuss it in more detail on my web site, www.jsestateplanning.com?

JDB:  What advice would you give to an attorney who is interested in establishing a flex-time practice?

Sternlieb:  First, you should have a business plan and understand that you are going to be running a business in addition to practicing law.  Make sure you have the experience and training to do the legal work, and network with everyone you can.  Have reserves in the bank and do a budget so you know how much money you are going to need.  Be prepared for all of the administrative responsibilities that are involved in running an office, even if it’s a home office, unless you have the funds to hire someone to take care of these tasks.  Also, be prepared for the mental and emotional adjustment you have to make to work on your own.  If you’re used to a large office with lots of colleagues and secretarial and technical support, a solo practice is a big change.  Certainly there are challenges in a solo practice, but I’ve learned to love it.  My income may be lower, but the flexibility and family benefits are well worth it.

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