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November 12, 2018
Focus: Law

Small but mighty: Startup law firms are making their mark in Maine

Photo / Jim Neuger
Photo / Jim Neuger
Elisa Ellis, at left, and Amanda Meader, at right, are founders of Augusta firm Ellis & Meader. At center is paralegal Kasey Nelson.
Photo / Tim Greenway
Opticliff Law, a three-person firm in Portland with a focus on advising business startups, was founded by Ezekiel Callanan, center. Hes joined by Adam Nyhan, left, and Andrew Kraus.

The "Girl Boss" throw pillows in the office aren't just for show — the women at Augusta law firm Ellis & Meader, two attorneys and a paralegal, mean business.

Elisa Ellis and Amanda Meader, business partners who spend so much time together they call each other "work wives," founded the full-service civil law firm in September 2017 and recently hired paralegal Kasey Nelson to help with the workload, which includes estate planning, business law and municipal law.

"We're three women from central Maine who came from rather modest backgrounds and made our way very much based on our own grit and determination," says Meader, who grew up in Fairfield on welfare and food stamps and now lives in Winthrop. Ellis was raised in Oakland and spent 10 years selling commercial insurance before going into law. They first crossed paths at the Maine Municipal Association, a nonprofit resource for local governments where Meader was a staff attorney and Ellis did an externship.

Today despite the long hours, hard work and challenges of running a small practice, they relish being their own bosses.

"I would never go back to a large firm, a medium firm, any kind of firm that isn't this firm," says Meader, who spent the first seven years of her career in private practice before joining the Maine Municipal Association in Augusta.

Ellis, who was used to coming and going as she pleased during her sales career and started a law practice right out of law school, says she can't imagine ever answering to a boss at a large firm.

"I don't ever want to do that again," she says.

Solo or small practice appeal

In Maine, the lure of launching a solo or small practice is popular, sparking a fresh crop of startups across the state. In fact, more than half of registered lawyers, 56%, work at firms with fewer than 10 attorneys, according to the 2017 annual report of the Maine Board of Overseers of the Bar.

That's welcome news to Danielle Conway, dean of the University of Maine School of Law. She aims to improve access to justice, particularly in outlying areas where lawyers are needed most amid an aging profession, through programs like the three-year Rural Lawyer Pilot Program launched in 2017.

"If you have a small firm or a solo practitioner in a community," she says, "they're likely to be affordable, more accessible, and understand the interests and the issues that are prevalent in those communities."

They also bring the rule of law into people's lives, "making all of us stronger, more resilient, and more capable of dispute resolution in furtherance of a more civilized society," Conway says.

While nationwide data on the proportion of small firms was not readily available, Thompson Reuters in its 2017 "State of Law Firms" study mentions an "extremely competitive landscape" and the challenges of operating and running a small practice. They include getting and keeping client business, spending too much time on administrative tasks, keeping up with technology and competition from self-service legal websites or services.

On the flip side, the vast majority of 300 survey respondents said they consider their practices to be at least moderately successful, with larger firms of 11 to 29 attorneys expressing slightly more concern about overall profit and revenues than those at smaller firms. And 90% said that client satisfaction was part of how they defined success, with 22% calling it the most important.

Some firms also track work-life balance. Looking ahead to the next 12 months, respondents said their top two areas of investment are increased business development and marketing, and technology and infrastructure.

Maine's small firms range from general practices, more common in less densely populated areas, to boutiques with a niche specialty. Though solo practitioners outnumber small firms, many who start on their own — including a handful of Maine Law graduates every year — join forces with others, says the school's career services director, Derek Van Volkenburgh. He notes that small firms handle almost all criminal defense and most family law work in Maine, along with the bulk of trusts and estates and non-corporate real estate transactions.

"To ignore small firms in a state like Maine is to miss a huge swath of the profession," he says.

Boutique firms with a big footprint

Within a few blocks of each other in downtown Portland are two niche firms with a big footprint — the three-attorney Opticliff Law, whose services include business, startup and copyright law, and business immigration firm FordMurray, which employs four lawyers and four support staff.

Ezekiel Callanan founded Opticliff as a one-man operation in June 2012, working from "the tiniest little desk" at Think Tank Coworking. He didn't spend much time behind the desk, though, making it a daily priority from the start to get out and prospect for clients at conferences and other networking events.

"On Day One, I went to a talk and got my first client right then and there," he recalls. "On Day Two, I did it again and got another one."

That's not to say it was all smooth sailing. After initially focusing on copyright law for creative-economy enterprises, Callanan quickly found that was "a little bit too niche" for Portland. Seeking a broader client base, he pivoted into services for startups and entrepreneurs, including help with business formation and raising venture capital funding. He thinks his first clients were a baker and a contractor or builder.

Now with Adam Nyhan and Andrew Kraus, Opticliff has a work culture in stark contrast to that of big firms. They're approachable and casual in how they dress — no suits or ties — and how they communicate with clients, many of whom are looking for advice on how to start their first business venture.

"My goal," Callanan says, "was to build a firm that was truly a different kind of law firm, one built on flat fees and transparent billing, built on value-added professional services, and one that was more relaxed and casual."

That applied both to the Think Tank setup and the second-floor Free Street suite the firm now calls home, with a welcoming reception area colorfully decorated by Callanan's wife.

Though the only one of the three with large-firm experience, Nyhan advises new lawyers to consider starting in a small market.

"You're probably going to be happier, and with better long-term economic prospects," Nyhan says.

Kraus did just that by joining Opticliff, where he started his legal career and quickly discovered the value of networking.

"If you want to be a small-firm attorney, you have to love the client interaction part, and you have to really want to put yourself out in the community," Kraus says.

Though attorneys do their own scheduling and clients can easily request appointments via the internet, Callanan is currently looking for a staff person to take on some administrative and legal responsibilities.

Nearby on Pearl Street, business immigration firm FordMurray has grown from two founders in September 2015 to four attorneys and four support staff, including three paralegals. More than 80% of its clients are outside of Maine — in 25 states — and include hospitals and institutions of higher learning.

Founders Russell Ford and Michael Murray came up with the idea when they were both with large firms and talked about creating their own practice. They wanted a firm that was not tied to billable hours, where everyone just gets on with the job, and where they try to hire only folks with a sense of humor — after they're vetted by everyone in the office.

Murray says that while they could be up to 15 to 20 employees in five years, that raises the question of where is the "sweet spot" in terms of size: "Right now I'm loving it — what's too big?"

Ford says that's a question they have yet to answer, adding: "Hopefully when we get to the edge we'll know it."

Small practices with a heart

In Presque Isle, Swanson Law PA consists of two attorneys — supported by an administrative staffer and a paralegal — with a bulging caseload of mainly criminal defense and family law. They recently moved into bigger space on Main Street.

"We outgrew the old space, which is a good problem to have," says founding partner Adam Swanson, who opened the practice as a solo in March 2013 and hired fellow Maine Law alum Cassie Rodgers as an associate last year.

Both put in long hours, and Swanson doesn't even go on vacation — with the exception of his honeymoon, though with his computer in tow.

To other lawyers thinking of hanging out a shingle, Swanson recommends having a business plan, while Rodgers — who handles a lot of child protective cases — says "a degree in social work would have been helpful."

Back in Augusta, Ellis and Meader are equally committed to serving their community, which also means charging what their clients can afford.

"If people don't have the money," Meader says, "we'll find a way to work with them."

Sitting next to her, Ellis says: "I have a disabled veteran, he pays $40 a month when he gets his check. That's all he can do, that's fine. We work with people."

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