Robert Gellman's 17-year career as a Democratic House subcommittee aide came to an abrupt end with the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994, leaving him with the choice of looking for a job or working for himself.
Then, "very slowly, people started calling up and asked me to do things," he said. Five years later, he has attracted enough work to nearly match his congressional salary. He may not be wealthy, but he has freedom he never had as a Hill aide, from small things such as not having to wear a tie unless he's meeting clients, to bigger things such as being able to turn down work he doesn't like.
"Working as a consultant, I can say `no,' " he said. "I like to say `no.' It's my favorite thing."
At the end of every year, he asks himself whether he ought to do this for another year or look for a job. "Every year it hasn't been a close call," he said.
Washington is teeming with people like Gellman -- former congressional aides, ex-members of Congress, lawyers, economists and others who have gone into business for themselves. If things go right, they get personal freedom, the latitude to do the work they want, the ability to set their own hours and, in some cases, a much bigger paycheck than they ever got when they were working for someone else.
On the other hand, before they can get any of this, they have to worry about nuts-and-bolts matters they always took for granted, such as a place to work and someone to work for.
Gellman solved his work-space problem the way a lot of new consultants do -- he opened his one-man shop in his Capitol Hill home. Former House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bob Livingston (R-La.), who was used to baronial office space and a large staff to whom he could delegate grunt work, resigned from Congress earlier this year to start his own lobbying firm and found himself wedged into cramped downtown quarters and struggling with a computer that he complained has crashed "no fewer than about 75 times."
On the other hand, Livingston had a much easier time finding paying clients. Within two weeks of beating the bushes in Louisiana, the well-connected and well-known congressman had enough work to allow him to start turning down business.
It can be a little more difficult for ex-aides. Rick May, former House Budget Committee Republican chief of staff, who quit the Hill to sign on as the second partner in the lobbying firm of Davidson & Co., had to take a crash course in pitching business. While the firm has plenty of work, he said, getting more is "an ongoing thing all the time."
Consultants say that finding clients can be as painless as networking with friends or as grueling as grinding out low- or no-pay speeches, articles and book chapters that raise the consultant's profile.
When Frederick J. Tansill left a secure partnership in a large law firm to start his own trusts and estate-planning practice, he took along some old clients but quickly found that an effective way to develop new business was to network with accountants, insurance salespeople and others who specialize in providing for the needs of wealthy clients.
"People will come to me and say, `Who do you think I should go to to buy a $4 million life insurance policy?' " Tansill said. "We all refer back and forth to each other."
Like Tansill, economist and business consultant John Tuccillo brought some business with him when he left the National Association of Realtors two years ago to start his one-man consulting business. To get more, though, he finds it "extraordinarily important" to do a lot of writing and speechmaking. "You kill yourself if you're going to earn a living that way," he said, but it helps generate more lucrative consulting work.
There is a truly dark side to self-employment, consultants confess: the nagging anxiety that the next paycheck may be the last.
"There's a cliff no more than three months out, and beyond the cliff is the abyss," said Tuccillo. That cliff is the end of the core business Tuccillo can absolutely count on. "If you're lucky, the rim of the cliff keeps moving out."
CAPTION: Robert Gellman abruptly lost his job on Capitol Hill with the Republican sweep of 1994. Now he is a privacy and information policy consultant who works from his home and has the luxury of saying "no" to work he doesn't like.