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ABA president: What small firms can do to survive and thrive

aba_feamainComing from a five-lawyer firm in Butte, Montana, Bob Carlson is different from what many expect when they think of the leaders of the American Bar Association.

Carlson maintains he shovels his own snow, and he has been shoveling a lot of it lately, considering the weather in his part of rural, southwest Montana.

One of the things that sets Carlson apart from his peers at the ABA is the fact that he is the first small-firm president of the organization in many years. This puts him in the unique position of being able to offer insights into both large, national legal issues as well as to discuss the needs of small, rural firms.

He recently spoke at the University of Richmond. In an interview later he talked about what small firms can do to survive and thrive in a legal market where large firms typically dominate. He said that great service, specialization and efficient use of bar resources all go a long way toward leveling the playing field with larger outfits.

Carlson said that serving clients well is the number one thing that small firms and solo practitioners can do to ensure success.

Part of that service extends beyond the practice of law and involves being active in the community, whether it be coaching little league, attending church or getting involved in local politics. He said this is doubly true of small firms in less-populated areas.

“One benefit small lawyers have is they are in the unique position to become a part of the fabric of the community,” he said. “In small communities, the impact a lawyer can have is more apparent, and that brings you business.”

He said that sometimes being a big fish in a small pond can be beneficial because it is easier to get to know the community and take on leadership roles. Beyond doing good work, Carlson stressed the importance of treating clients with the utmost respect and dignity, which, in turn, leads to more referrals.

While small firm attorneys, by necessity, handle what walks in the door, Carlson used his own work in products liability and insurance defense as evidence that rural firms can specialize.

He said that lawyers should do the work that interests them, even if that means specializing. Even in a rural community, attorneys who are active in bar organizations can develop a niche for themselves by looking outside their communities for opportunities. And when national law firms come looking for local counsel, it is also worthwhile to be the person in town with knowledge of local court procedure.

When it comes to attracting young talent, Carlson said small firms should take advantage of the experience they can offer to young attorneys that they often cannot find at a big city firm.

“You are more likely to get into court and to meet with clients, you’ll be taking depositions sooner than you would in a large firm,” he said.

In addition, working in a small firm also allows for more autonomy and independence.

“The pace can be hectic, but you have the ability to control it more,” he said.

Carlson stressed the importance of using the internet to create a web presence to draw clients but said there is no magic trick to small firm success. Whether the work is being done in a big city or a suburb in Virginia or in Butte, Montana, legal success takes hard work and skill.

“There will always be a place for solo and small firms,” said Carlson. “Find what you like and work in the community and you’ll be alright.”