The rise of the self-employed lawyer

To move to a new law firm or go into business for yourself? This is a question a lot of lawyers in their 30s ask themselves. Two that have gone independent, Alexandre Brochard and Cristine Méjean, speak candidly to Leaders League about this watershed moment in their careers.

Posted jeudi, mars 16 2023
The rise of the self-employed lawyer

Taking control of your career, proving yourself, forging stronger bonds with clients, bringing balance to your professional and personal life… the reasons why lawyers go independent are many and varied.

After spending a decade at international firms including Baker McKenzie and EY, inheritance tax specialist Alexandre Brochard took the plunge a year ago. “I wanted to preserve the technical approach to my profession and also be able to work more closely with the clients I represent.”

Like many young lawyers to go independent, Brochard did not fall out of love with his firm per se. “It was a pleasure to work for a big law firm. It gave me the chance to work on international cases which were complex and interesting; I was able to be part of these cases because of the notoriety of the firm where I worked, and didn’t necessarily have to push myself to be involved,” remarked the Paris-based lawyer.

Except that, over time, Brochard began to ask himself if he didn’t want more out of his professional life. “I began to realize that I was seen as a kind of technical resource in these firms, while as an inheritance tax lawyer, I wanted to be a 24/7 advisor to clients. That’s when I started to seriously consider becoming independent.”

For Christine Méjean, who opened her own firm a decade ago, one of the reasons for the surge in lawyers going independent is that, in today’s hyperconnected world “going it alone” is not as daunting a prospect as it might once have been.

“I wanted to find a balance between my professional and private life. To answer to myself and do something which had a deeper meaning for me.” After deciding to become a lawyer later in her career, after almost a decade as a financial expert, Méjean joined Metzner Associés. She did not stick around for long. “After two years I left as I wanted to embark on an entrepreneurial adventure,” remarked the Sciences Po graduate.

Now or never
Cultivating and maintaining one’s client base is a primary concern for any lawyer, more so for one contemplating striking out on their own. Due to his strong track-record representing clients over the years, Brochard was able to bring many of his existing clients with him when he left. “Working for major firms allows you to develop an international network. Without the cachet of a major legal brand behind me, I feared I would struggle to keep hold of them. But I needn’t have worried, a significant proportion of my former clients and professional partners, appreciative of my expertise, trusted me enough to remain with me.”

For Méjean, going independent gave her the chance to showcase her hyper-specialization in a way that would not have been possible working to satisfy the demands of a large law firm. “I’d always had confidence in my technical ability to handle complex assignments, but after becoming a lawyer I lacked a professional legal network of my own, and found it very difficult to make a name for myself in the legal market.”

Cultivating and maintaining one’s client base is a primary concern for an independent lawyer

Confronted with the difficulty of accessing legal networks, she decided to set up her own, called 1900, named after the year France saw its first female lawyer. Then, in 2019, she established Abyl, a community of independent lawyers and financial experts, which helps members work on complex cases. “Together, we make working as independent lawyers easier, especially as when you are an independent starting out, you don’t have much of a professional network.”

With initiatives such as those mentioned above, does the thought of being a sole practitioner still fill lawyers with a sense of dread? It depends on who you ask. While he works for himself, Brochard doesn’t feel isolated. “I have peers that I work closely with, and am never truly alone when it comes to providing the right legal advice, because I am constantly bouncing ideas off other lawyers. I would go so far as to say that my practice is more collective than before, because I work more closely with clients and my fellow lawyers and partners in the legal ecosystem (notaries, family offices, accountants).

Timing is everything
The decision to go independent is not always the correct one. Some lack the organizational or managerial ability, while others are not ready or operate better in the law firm environment. “Long before I’d even considered having my own practice, I had the impression that being out on your own after working for a major law firm represented a professional setback. Now I think differently and believe that these people, who I was quick to judge, actually have the same outlook as me,” remarked Brochard.

Having the freedom to organize your own work schedule, set your own priorities, not have to report to a superior: there are no shortage of advantages to working for yourself, as the Rennes university graduate affirms. “I work with family offices, notaries and expert accountants, and the avenues of communication have never been more fluid. If I want to write an article or give a training session, I don’t need authorization, I just do it. Because I get to decide everything, I am freer now I have my own practice.”

In today’s hyperconnected world “going it alone” is not as daunting a prospect as it might once have been

Mastering your art, trusting in your ability, cultivating a sizeable clientele… lawyers need to get their ducks in a row before leaving the security of a law firm, however. And additional entrepreneurial training may need to be carried out once you’ve made up your mind to go for it. This is why it’s rarely a good idea to attempt opening your own firm straight out of law school, as it’s akin to trying to walk before you have learned to crawl.

“It takes at least five years before a lawyer can work autonomously. You need to pay your dues, and a major law firm is a great place to acquire the experience and know-how, not to mention the interpersonal skills, you will need if you are to make it on your own. The danger in setting up as an independent before you are ready is it goes badly and you are so burned by the experience that it permanently sours you enthusiasm for law,” warns Brochard.

An opinion shared by Christine Méjean. “I worked two years in a law firm and that was short. If I’d started my career in law and hadn’t already eight years of professional experience to my name, I doubt I would have gone independent quite so soon.” For those seeking to follow in her footsteps, she has this advice: “Surround yourself with people so you don’t find yourself alone.”