Resources Newsletter Archive Bonus Issue, December 2001

Bonus Issue, December 2001

  • The Ultimate Alternative to the Billable Hour — Practicing Law on Your Own Terms

Making The Hours of Your Life Worth More™

Bonus Issue:
The Ultimate Alternative to the Billable Hour -
Practicing Law on Your Own Terms


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1. "The Ultimate Alternative to the Billable Hour: Practicing Law on Your Own Terms" - An Interview with Helen Leah Conroy

2. "Of Counsel" Examines Coaching for Lawyers


ARTICLE SUMMARY: Helen Leah Conroy has a solo practice in the San Francisco Bay Area doing what she loves most - intellectual property licensing transactions. After spending 18 years in large law firms, most recently as a partner, she decided to break free of the billable hour.

In July, 2001, Helen started her own very successful practice. She granted this interview with to show other attorneys one way to achieve success on their own terms.

To find out how and why Helen left her large firm partnership to achieve extraordinary success AND a fulfilling life, read on.



Ellen Ostrow, Ph.D., Editor

Ellen is the founder of™ Personal and Career Coaching for Lawyers Determined to Achieve Professional Success AND a Fulfilling Life



Most attorneys -- especially women -- live impossibly busy lives. Finding a balance between work and life without sacrificing professional success, deciding on the best practice area or work setting, and making career transitions can be a daunting task, even for the most gifted and accomplished lawyer.

Just as every person deserves the best possible legal counsel, every attorney deserves professional, dedicated support in accomplishing her most important goals. You know how hard you've worked to get where you are -- you serve others, both personally and professionally. You've earned the right to both career success and a fulfilling life.

This newsletter is intended to help you create a satisfying life -- within, or outside of -- legal practice.



An Interview with Helen Leah Conroy Q: You're doing something that many lawyers think and dream about doing. Tell us what led you to make the leap from big firm life to your own practice.

Helen Leah Conroy A: I'd been thinking about it for several years - but more in terms of starting my own small firm, and doing it within a five-year time frame.

I wanted to build up the kind of practice that I could easily take with me, and that would support three or four associates. I'd find two or three partners in complimentary areas, and we'd set up a brand new I.P. boutique.

LLC Q: Things didn't unfold that way, obviously. What changed?

HLC A: Well, I realized that I just didn't want to wait that long to go out on my own. I've been very active in the women's business community here, especially with the Forum for Women Entrepreneurs and the Women in Business Roundtable of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce. Increasingly in my business development activities, I would come into contact with women my age and younger who had started their first, second and third businesses. What an amazing group of women they were. I loved their enthusiasm and energy, and began to see myself as one of them.

LLC Q: When did you actually decide to go solo?

HLC A: There's a funny story behind that. I joined a women's dinner group, which consists of ten women who have their own successful companies or professional services firms. Last November, I announced my intention to start the five-year transition from being a partner in a big firm to founding my own small firm. They all looked at me like I was crazy and said, "Five years?! You should do it next week!"

They lavished me with encouragement and support, and told me I'd be so successful, and that I shouldn't be thinking so long-range. So, I thought about it some more.

In January I made up my mind that I was going to leave by the end of the year, either out on my own or with one or two other partners. Again they said, "End of this year?! Do it next week!"

In February, I told them that I was leaving July 1. I needed that much time to close some transactions and to then focus full time on making a smooth transition.

LLC Q: Is your practice different now than the one you had in the firm?

HLC A: You bet it is. When I was in the big firm, I couldn't attract the kinds of clients I really enjoy working with the most - software developers, inventors, consultants and other creative people - because they neither needed nor wanted to support the large firm's high overhead. Interestingly, I'm doing deals where the big Silicon Valley firms are on the other side of the table, so in that respect, things aren't so different. But I'm actually working on more sophisticated deals now.

Another difference is that I do most of my work from a home office. When my clients need to see me, I go to their offices. They love it. I average working about five hours a day. On many days, that work gets done before my children awaken in the morning, or after they go to bed. I spend a lot more time with them during the day. We all love it.

My practice is also different, obviously, in that I don't have the enormous support infrastructure that the big firm provides. I like being self-sufficient; that's mynature. There aare a few occasions (very few) when I miss that, but I learned right away that with the Internet and all of the online resources available, the big-firm administrative support isn't worth the price.

LLC Q: What do you mean?

HLC A: I was leaving far too much money on the table. The overhead in a big firm can eat up 60-70% of your billings. My clients are paying 2/3 what they would pay if I were still in that gorgeous office building in San Francisco. I'm working half the hours that I used to, and I'm making the same amount of money. My practice has low overhead, and I'm enjoying the cost savings.

LLC Q: How large a book of business did you "take with you"?

HLC A: Actually, I started from the ground up, and didn't take a single client. For some reason (having to do with my inexperience in marketing, no doubt), I was doing very little of the actual legal work for all of "my" clients. I had brought them in by cross-selling my partners' expertise, and was essentially the "finder and minder" (and not the "grinder") for those clients. One of my primary concerns when I made the decision to leave was to make sure that all of those clients were properly cared for. In some instances, that meant transferring the matters to other firms.

LLC Q: How could you start completely from scratch?

HLC A: I put the word out to all my contacts early on that I would be leaving, and continued to do all the same kinds of business development activities I'd been doing for the past few years. Two weeks before I packed up my boxes and left, I had my first substantial project, which I knew would cover all of my overhead for the first year of my practice, with some left over. Ten days after I started my practice I got another huge project, and have had a variety of other matters coming in on a steady basis since then. I am confident that this pace will continue and that my practice will grow. I've been overloaded at times, and "underloaded" at other times - but overall it's working out just fine.

LLC Q: Many women lawyers are uncomfortable with marketing - at least as they envision it. You seem quite comfortable. What has made this easier for you?

HLC A: Marketing has not always been easy for me. In fact, I didn't do any at all until about two years ago. When you're trying cases one after another, billing 2200-2400 hours/year, commuting, and trying to manage a household with two small children, there's little time to even think about marketing, much less do it.

I made a conscious decision to commit time to marketing, and not worry about billing over 2000 hours. My firm wanted me to become a rainmaker, and therefore supported that.

When I first started, it was a bit daunting to go out to a meeting or event where I didn't know a single person. The more you do that, though, the more people you'll recognize and before long, people will be coming up to you, having seen you at other events, etc. I admit, though, that it takes courage to step out of your comfort zone when you're taking the first steps.

It gets easier with practice. I do a lot of public speaking at conferences and trade associations, (most recently at Comdex Las Vegas). I speak on a variety of topics, which I later use in articles (or which were derived from articles I'd already written.)

Finally, if you realize that marketing is nothing more than going out and meeting people whose line of work interests you, and talking about them and their needs, it's easy to find joy in it. And then, of course, there's the satisfaction of watching it all pay off when the prospects call and the work rolls in.

LLC Q: Is your billing any different than it was at the big firm?

HLC A: Yes. For most work I'm charging on a project basis, using "value billing" as some other professional service providers call it. No more time sheets! The clients love it and I love it, and economically, I'm doing splendidly.

LLC Q: What is the lesson for law firms from your experience with value billing vs. billable hours?

HLC A: The lesson here is that corporate consumers of legal services are becoming wise to the "racket," and are demanding better value alternatives. They would not tolerate inefficiencies or incentives to inflate ("bloat" is how one client describes it) fees in any other service provider, and they are learning that there are some of us out there who can offer them excellent services that are priced on a more rational basis.

[For an excellent piece on the benefits to clients of value pricing, take a look at this page on the website of Alan Weiss, a terrifically successful consultant, speaker and writer:]

LLC Q: Do you miss your former life?

HLC A: Well, a few months ago I was in the actual offices that my former firm had occupied until the end of 1999. Another firm had taken over the space, and I was in a conference room just a few feet from the place where my room had been. Someone at the meeting asked me if I missed the big firm life. I told him that when I had walked the ten blocks or so through the financial district to the meeting that morning, I'd looked around and felt sorry for all the people going to work.

LLC Q: Why was that?

HLC A: Because in starting my own practice, I've given up a ten-hour day (sometimes, but not always, including commute) for a five-hour day. And I'm doing exactly what I want to, and charging the way I want to for it.

LLC Q: Do you miss having colleagues? You'd originally planned on a boutique firm with a couple of partners and a few associates.

HLC A: I don't miss having colleagues because I still have them. They are just not my partners. I have a network of women (and a few men) in complimentary areas of practice, and some who do the same kind of work that I do, with whom I correspond, speak and have lunch or see at meetings on a regular basis. I don't spend as much time in the office as I did when I was at the firm, and I like it that way.

Since July, I have not felt lonely or isolated once, and if I ever do, the phone is right there on my desk. I have dozens of people who I could call and catch up with, or bounce ideas off of, if I had the time or interest in doing so.

LLC Q: Any words of wisdom for others thinking about alternatives to the billable hour?

HLC A: Sure. Find an area of practice that you're comfortable doing on your own, if you're not in one already. Develop expertise in that area and make sure the world knows that you're an expert. Get out there into the business community (specifically, in the businesses that would need your work), and make yourself known. People will always remember you, not your law firm, if you market yourself and your skills. Keep good records of everyone you meet, and make sure your good friends and business associates know that you are looking for referrals.

Then, take a deep breath, and JUMP!

Helen Leah Conroy practices law in Oakland, CA. She can be reached by email at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or by phone at 510-601-8847.


2. "Of Counsel" Examines Coaching for Lawyers

Steven T. Taylor has written a wonderful editorial about coaching for lawyers. Read his in-depth interview with Ellen and his clear analysis of the process and value of professional coaching for lawyers in "Of Counsel," Vol. 20, No.6, June 2001.

You can also read it on line at:



The legal field needs to hear your strategies. If you are willing to share them, I'd love to hear from you. You can send e-mail to This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Lawyers Life Coach is dedicated to sharing practical strategies that lawyers are already using -- from something as small as hiring a virtual assistant to something as large as leaving the profession.

Of course, I will only share your strategies and any identifying information with your permission.


BEYOND THE BILLABLE HOUR™ is published monthly by Ellen Ostrow, Ph.D., founder of She brings 20 years of experience assisting women attorneys to her work in Lawyers Life Coach™. is a professional and personal coaching firm specializing in working virtually (by phone with email and fax backup) with women attorneys interested in developing strategies to find greater satisfaction in their careers within the law or in exploring career alternatives for lawyers.

Ellen Ostrow, Ph.D. established to coach busy lawyers who might benefit from the insights gained from 20 years as a psychologist combined with her experience and familiarity with the legal profession.

Ellen holds a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from the University of Rochester and is a managing member of Metropolitan Behavioral Health Care, LLC., a multispecialty, multidisciplinary psychotherapy practice in Washington, D.C. and suburban Maryland.

She is a member of the International Coach Federation and a graduate of the Mentor Coach Program™.


NOTE: BEYOND THE BILLABLE HOUR™ is intended for informational and educational purposes only. It is not a substitute for a personal consultation with a mental health professional and should not be construed as a form of, or substitute for, counseling, psychotherapy, or other psychological service.



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Ellen Ostrow, Ph.D.
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