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Answering the siren call of solo practice

By: Jack Zemlicka, [email protected]//April 23, 2012

Answering the siren call of solo practice

By: Jack Zemlicka, [email protected]//April 23, 2012

Kevin Martin adjusts the sign outside his new office in Oak Creek. He recently left a partner role at Cannon & Dunphy SC, Brookfield, to start his own firm. (Photo by Kevin Harnack)

Former Cannon & Dunphy partner abandons established firm for independent effort

Kevin Martin smiles while talking about his new firm, Martin Law Office SC. (Photo by Kevin Harnack)

Kevin Martin’s phone won’t stop ringing.

Martin quit his job as a partner and shareholder with Brookfield personal injury firm Cannon & Dunphy SC on March 5 after more than seven years to start his own practice, Martin Law Office SC, Oak Creek.

“I’ve had 125 calls today because all of the sudden this client receives a cold, unannounced letter that I left,” Martin said March 12, “and they’re wondering what’s going on.”

Seven days into the launch of his new solo practice, Martin, 37, was visibly exhausted, though excited about the steady influx of calls. The early success of his new business largely depends on clients choosing him over his previous employer or other competitors.

But Martin has a lot more than clients to lose if his new venture fails.

He’s gambled upwards of $20,000 on the success of the start-up, a portion of which is financed through a government loan from the U.S. Small Business Administration.

His pride also is at stake. In the ultracompetitive area of personal injury law, Martin Law is an infant in a grown-ups’ world.

“I think to myself, ‘Why in the world would you want to disassociate yourself from that?’” Martin said of leaving Cannon & Dunphy, a firm with 27 years of history. “But honestly, I was tired of renting my career instead of owning it.”

Taking a risk

Martin still rents. He has leased a four-room office in Oak Creek, where he also lives with his wife and two children, ages seven and four. Paralegal Cherise Remiszewski is the lone employee.

Leaving Cannon & Dunphy gave Martin professional and personal freedom but also limited his visibility and narrowed the scope of cases he can effectively handle. He began strategizing his departure from Cannon & Dunphy two months before leaving.

Sleep, he said, didn’t come easy.

In his time at Cannon & Dunphy, Martin specialized in medical malpractice cases, which often require resources beyond that available to a sole practitioner.

Kevin Martin looks over his firm’s website before it goes live March 23. (Photo by Kevin Harnack)

“In that sense, I was surprised he decided to hang out his own shingle,” said Martin’s former boss and mentor Pat Dunphy. “Because, as he and I discussed, med mal cases are extremely expensive to pursue.

“Therefore it will be a type of case he will be able to handle only in rare circumstances.”

Martin views the risk as calculated. He’s confident in his talent and plans to promote his background as a registered nurse to distinguish himself from the pack.

Martin earned his nursing degree in 1998 and spent more than three years working in an intensive care unit before attending law school. Nursing, he said, taught him to handle pressure.

Martin has no formal business training. He has never run a law firm. There’s plenty of pressure.

“There have been more 16-hour days that I’ve strung together where I never thought I’d be wrestling with Microsoft Outlook trying to get the darn thing to work correctly,” he said. “At that point, I think to myself, ‘I wish I could just pick up the phone and call my IT manager that I don’t have anymore.’”

Dunphy said the split was amicable, and he wishes Martin well.

“I hope for his sake and the sake of his family he is successful,” Dunphy said. “I will do what I can to help, referring cases to him when appropriate.”

Making sacrifices

Martin left cases behind. He was the lead attorney in lawsuits such as potential seven-figure ongoing mass tort cases tied to defective hip replacement implants and vaginal mesh.

Without a large staff to pursue those cases, it just wouldn’t work.

“It’s unfortunately just the business end of things,” Martin said, “and I had to swallow my pride and realize what’s in the best interest of the clients.”

There was no point in waiting out the litigation and then leaving, Martin said.

“It’s a perpetual cycle,” he said. “No matter when I chose to leave, I would have always faced that issue.”

Milwaukee attorney Daniel Finerty can relate. Finerty, 39, chose professional freedom when he opened a solo practice in September after 10 years as a labor and employment attorney with established local firms such as Godfrey & Kahn SC.

“In a firm, you are judging yourself by the 40-hour standard,” he said. “And when you run your own shop, you have to completely disregard the 40-hour standard and consider how to break up your time into buckets.”

Keeping those practice, marketing and administrative buckets from overflowing was a challenge, Finerty said. While his primary focus was practicing law, Finerty said, client contact inevitably suffered when, for instance, his computer froze or invoices needed to be mailed.

“I think it’s an unrealistic expectation to think that you are going to be able to go on your own as a solo and immediately bill 40 hours a week,” he said, “simply because you need time to be able to devote to not only the set-up, but the development of the practice.”

Finerty abandoned his solo practice after six months and returned to firm life Feb. 1 with Lindner & Marsack SC, Milwaukee.

Finerty said administrative burdens such as billing and IT, compared to the stability of working for an established employment law firm, made it an easy call.

“The reservations I had about giving up my practice were not realistic in terms of moving forward or growing as an attorney,” he said. “I wanted to prove to myself I could do it, and I did.”

Though the odds may be stacked against him, Martin said, he has no doubt about making it on his own. It all boils down to clients.

Through the first five weeks of solo practice, more than 50 of Martin’s Cannon & Dunphy clients retained him, and he landed more than 40 new cases in areas such as auto accident, products liability and medical malpractice.

Martin collected his firm’s first fee from an auto accident settlement during his second week on his own and signed his first new case, a medical malpractice case, March 23.

“I had hoped for 20 new cases during the first year,” Martin said. “It certainly makes me feel better and the bank a lot more comfortable because they are taking a risk on me, too.”

Sitting behind his new desk March 23, Martin appeared rejuvenated.

“We’re seeing growth at an acceptable pace we can handle right now,” he said. “In six months, I hope to have the problem of needing to bring on another staff member, associate or partner.”

While the firm is off to a fast start, in what Martin called the honeymoon phase, the thought of failure has certainly crossed his mind.

He won’t be reaching for the phone in a panic, however.

“But don’t get me wrong,” he said. “I’m not going to be handing in my curriculum vitae to Cannon & Dunphy looking for an associate’s position.

“That would be an awkward conversation.”


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