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The Life and Career of Carolyn Elefant, Sole Practitioner, Washington, DC

published September 19, 2005

Regan Morris
( 75 votes, average: 4 out of 5)
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<<When Elefant was a student at Cornell Law School, she said professors often spoke of sole practitioners as something to be pitied. A sole practitioner for 13 years, Elefant has built a successful practice focused on energy regulatory law and an expertise in renewable ocean energy. She is also a champion of small, niche firms and works to raise the profile of solo firms.

Too many attorneys, especially women, leave the legal profession when they have children because they feel pressured to choose between firm and family, Elefant said.

“If you’re unhappy with what you’re doing in the profession, if you’re considering leaving the profession, that’s fine; but you should really see if solo practice might give you some of the excitement or the freedom or even the financial opportunities that you might be looking for outside of the practice of law,'' she said.

Elefant intended to become a writer and thought law school would help her craft stronger, more logical arguments, which it did. But she also discovered a passion for moot court, especially appellate arguments.

Interested in public service, Elefant joined the Federal Regulatory Energy Commission after law school. A few years later, she moved to a boutique energy firm in Washington, DC. Like many young attorneys, Elefant was frustrated and ambitious.

“I felt that after working for five years, I hadn’t gotten any experience,'' she said. “I’d never argued a motion. I’d never handled an appeal. And it didn’t really look like I was going to have the opportunity at the firm I was at because financially, things were not going well for them.''

When the firm gave her six months’ notice, she decided to hang her shingle instead of looking for a new job. One energy client moved with her, and her former colleagues referred other clients. She picked up a lot of court-appointed cases during the first few years, expanding into different areas of the law by trying criminal and civil cases.

She handled an energy case in the Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit, and soon former colleagues were sending her appellate work. In addition, she did contract work for other attorneys.

“I had done pro bono work very early in my career, and I had represented a homeless man in a dispute with a hotel,'' she said. “He had gone in to eat breakfast, and they kicked him out. And I wound up getting him a nice settlement. And he went on to move into an apartment, and he got a job at the Better Business Bureau.''

Because of that case, when people called the Better Business Bureau asking for attorney referrals, Elefant’s former client often referred cases to her.

Attracting and keeping clients is the most important aspect of running a solo practice, she says.

“A lot of lawyers are really very smart people who have gotten by and done very well because they’re so smart,'' she said. “But the thing is with law, the smartness only gets you so far because you need clients. And you can be a really smart attorney who makes partner at your firm; but if you don’t have the client base, you’re always going to be at someone else’s mercy.''

Elefant’s practice is about 70 percent energy law, and the rest is a combination of areas, from civil rights to criminal cases. She says going solo is easier if you have a niche like energy.

“Become an expert in something, and really develop a client base, because then you can call your own shots,'' she said.

She started to help solo practitioners network together and to offer advice to attorneys starting their own practices. She also hopes the website has helped advance the choice to become a solo practitioner as a smart career move for people who want control and freedom and not a last resort. When she first started, Elefant says many of her colleagues from big firms presumed she couldn’t find another job. Having her own practice gave Elefant the flexibility to raise her two daughters and bill hours around their schedules.

“Ultimately, in this profession, it’s money that talks. And when you have that, you can really do what you want,'' she said. “When I read about all these programs trying to help women work part time in a firm when they have children, the advice is to tiptoe around and be very polite; and if the firm says no, just listen to them. But my feeling is if a woman attorney has a base of clients, she can write her own ticket. They’ll let her do what she wants.''

Elefant says it’s never too early to start building a client base and urges first-year associates to attend bar meetings, write articles for legal publications, and start their own blogs.

“You can do a lot of things to really get your name known in the legal community,'' she said. “That is really the advice I have for anybody in the profession.''

With oil and gas prices so high, especially in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Elefant believes interest in renewable energy will increase and create more opportunities for energy attorneys. She is particularly interested in technology that generates electricity from either ocean waves or currents.

Elefant believes gas and oil prices will stay high in the foreseeable future and predicts North American energy companies will borrow techniques from their European counterparts, who have been more actively developing ocean energy.

“Ocean energy is the thing that has kept me interested in energy and gotten me into the renewable area of energy, which is a growing area now,'' she said. “It’s still something that’s developing, but it’s very exciting to be part of this emerging industry. It’s like how attorneys working with dot-coms must have felt.''

Find current opportunities for In-house energy attorney jobs in Washington.