-- Deborah L. Cohen covers small business for Reuters.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org --
By Deborah L. Cohen
CHICAGO (Reuters.com) - The words "attorney" and "entrepreneur" are rarely uttered in the same sentence and the path can be daunting for lawyers who strike out on their own.
Susan Cartier Liebel, who had worked alone or in small firms since finishing law school at Connecticut's Quinnipiac University in 1994, saw this phenomenon as a gap in training that few law schools had attempted to fill.
"I heard what people were saying and I listened to the common refrain, which was, ‘They don't teach me this in law school,'" said Cartier Liebel, 50, who last March launched Solo Practice University (solopracticeuniversity.com/), an online educational community for independent lawyers.
Cartier Liebel's business has benefited from the economic downturn, as downsizing at many mid- and large-sized firms has swelled the ranks of independent attorneys. According to the most recent data from the American Bar Association (ABA), some 62 percent of attorneys in private practice worked on their own or in small shops through 2005.
"It was absolutely serendipitous," Cartier Liebel said, noting the unfortunate trend underscores a need for more extensive education in non-traditional legal areas like business development and marketing. While the ABA and other law organizations offer online networks oriented toward independent lawyers, Cartier Liebel says her site is the first comprehensive remote learning platform targeted to the solo audience.
"With this implosion, with this tremendous reduction in jobs, they don't know what to do, and they've been searching," she said. "All of a sudden, poof, there's Solo Practice University."
LARGE, BUT FRACTIOUS SEGMENT
Bruce Dorner, a Londonderry, New Hampshire-based solo practitioner who founded the ABA's popular "Solo Sez" LISTSERV electronic mailing group 15 years ago, believes that technological advancements are making it possible for Cartier Liebel to cater to the diverse needs of a fractious population of lawyers.
"Solos are a large market segment, but it is extraordinarily difficult to sell to them," said Dorner, who has run a general legal practice for 31 years. "She's trying to take an online university model and customize it for lawyers, and she's gaining traction."
He added: "Given the current economy, there's a lot of young birds being pushed out of the nest before their flight feathers are in place."
Cartier Liebel developed Solo Practice University (SPU) with the help of a tech-savvy lawyer, David Carson, who was one of her former students at Quinnipiac, where she taught a class on going solo. The two of them are the site's only full-time staffers; they rely on virtual assistants to help with ongoing development projects as needed.
"We had to take the feel of being at a tele-seminar or a retreat, and all the elements that are key for lawyers in learning and networking, and put them into a brand new customized site that was cutting edge technology," she said.
Besides virtual classes, there is a variety of networking tools that include online forums, discussion groups, RSS feeds and blogging platforms, as well as a purchasing cooperative that provides discounts on malpractice insurance, software and other legal products.
Subscribers have the opportunity to congregate in specific groups in their interest areas, like family law, or can form their own.
"You are networking with other like-minded individuals," said Cartier Liebel. "The idea behind it is if you want to go solo, all you need is a computer, a cell phone and Solo Practice University."
Lawyers' busy schedules make virtual learning an attractive forum, she said, adding that much of the learning - typically offered through pre-recorded video seminars - takes place in the wee hours of the morning.
Since its launch eight months ago, SPU has attracted nearly 500 paid subscribers, including working attorneys and law students willing to fork over regular subscription fees. For attorneys, a monthly subscription runs $97, the quarterly rate is $175; a full year goes for $595.
Cartier Liebel said those subscriptions will be the primary source of revenue and she aims to reach 1,000 subscribers by the end of her first year; a population she estimates could expand to 20,000 within five years. A secondary revenue stream will come through co-op advertisers, whose products must first be vetted and approved. To date, there is no formal marketing; Cartier Liebel creates buzz with awards of free subscriptions and is working to build alliances with law schools.
"We want to grow properly," she said, adding the site can prosper without the infusion of outside capital. "We want our technology to keep pace with our growth."
With more than 50 faculty members - all of whom have agreed for now to work without pay - SPU offers a catalog of some 250 online classes in everything from practice-specific topics such as "Jury Selection", "Trusts and Estates", and "The Basics of Real Estate Transactions" to softer skills like "Pen and Perception - Copywriting and Branding", "Partnering with Your Partner" and "Legal Sanity Career Strategies."
There are some high-profile faculty on the roster, including leaders in the solo field like Washington, DC-based energy attorney Carolyn Elefant, a prominent blogger and author of "Solo by Choice: How To Be the Lawyer You Always Wanted to Be". Also on staff is Jay Foonberg, an attorney and consultant to independent lawyers who has written numerous books for the ABA about going solo.
"This is the first of its kind and it's extremely cutting edge," said Craig Niedenthal, a Birmingham, Alabama-based attorney specializing in product liability who went solo in February after 20 years working in firms and was recruited to teach classes at the site. "When I first started out, I wish there was something like this out there for me."