Wanda J. Reif is a Washington lawyer, but hers is not the high-powered law of corporate boardrooms and behind-the-scenes Capitol Hill lobbying often associated with the Washington "superlawyer" image.
Instead, she practices law out of a small Dupont Circle office in the time-honored legal tradition of the solo practitioner. She is one of a growing number of attorneys in the Washington area who are leaving the confines of large government legal departments or huge private firms to find what many of them term the inner satisfaction of practicing law by themselves or with but one or two associates.
Joel P. Bennett, another lawyer who hung out his own private shingle, said his decision to go out on his own came from a "nagging desire to be my own boss." For Reif, it was the desire to work directly with people and take "control over the operation yourself -- make decisions, take responsibility."
It is impossible to determine how many of Washington's 30,000 lawyers have opted for practicing on their own. And the reasons for wanting to practice by themselves vary from attorney to attorney.
Last week, however, about 100 persons attended a seminar at the Georgetown University Law Center to learn how to start and build a law practice in the greater Washington area. A new publication by the voluntary Bar Association of the District of Columbia gives similar information, and the D.C. Bar Association -- to which all D.C. lawyers must belong -- has a new division that caters to small law firms and solo practitioners.
The Georgetown session amounted to a nuts-and-bolts discussion of everything from how to find office space and clients to how to set fees. It also provided a list of do's and don't's for attorneys who are contemplating setting up their own shop.
But there seemed to be as well an underlying attempt to instill pride in the persons who want to go out on their own, and an attempt to assuage the fears of those who want to take the plunge into the scary world of becoming the small businesspersons of the massive legal industry -- the free-lancers, if you will, who believe bigger is not necessarily better when it comes to law firms.
Suprisingly enough, the attorneys who are already in small firms or solo practice seem to welcome new members into their fold with open arms. They feel their type of personal-service-oriented work appeals to the untapped market of the middle-class -- the broad group in this country that isn't served either by cheap legal clinics or huge firms -- and that there is enough work to go around.
In addition, "it's the most intellectually challenging job I've ever had," said Reif, who worked with the Department of Transportation, a Hill subcommittee and a small firm before opening her office here in March 1977.
She emphasizes -- as do Bennet and Lawrence S. Lapidus, who also has his own office here, and all of whom are active in smill-firm bar groups -- that it is easier to survive as a solo practitioner in Washington only after getting several years' worth of experience and contacts rather than trying to open an office right out of law school.
Reif 33, likes the freedom of only taking cases that appeal to her. She tries to mix a wide range of interesting or unusual cases with a possible low-profit potential with other less interesting cases in which she can charge rates that will enable her to make a comfortable living.
She is a general practitioner who exudes self-confidence -- a trait that appears to be common to small practitioners who are continually having to "sell" themselves to new clients without the trappings many persons associate with larger law firms. She tells prospective clients to shop around, but also tells them that she will be on their case just as diligently as any 75-member firm if she is hired.
"I would never take on something I can't handle," she said, knowing her business often comes from repeat customers. She also is keenly aware that solo practitioners often get into disciplinary trouble when they overextend themselves.
Reif has somewhat specialized in tax planning for small businesses, and has expanded her practice to the point where she has hired an associate, a secretary and a part-time law clerk. Lapidus specializes in labor law and represents labor unions, which seem to like dealing with small practitioners who believe in their causes. Bennett has specialized in employment discrimination cases to some extent.
"You name a field of law and we've [small practitioners] got someone in that," Lapidus said.
One common thread running through discussions about small law practice is the warning that small practitioners must become business experts because they have to watch the bottom-line closely in order to survive.
Law schools are notoriously poor at training persons to run a law office or deal with clients in face-to-face situations, Reif said. "If you can't learn to organize your time, you'll never make it," she said. Experts in the field are now suggesting that persons who decide to practice law by themselves have enough money to live and pay overhead expenses for 15 months. The stories are legion of the failures and undercapitalization and the long-time wait for the paying clients to appear -- and survivors such as Bennett remember also that they felt they were doing nothing but writing checks for their own expenses for the first couple of months.
"I was terrified of going bankrupt," Bennett said.
Reif also remembers the panic and depression she felt when she went home from her law firm job with what she realized at the time was her final regular paycheck in her hand. But she remembers as well the next day when she walked into her new small office and felt right at home.
"I never looked back," she said. "I'm satisfied."
The D.C. Bar board of governors last week adopted bylaws for setting up a newly constituted fee arbitration board to deal with complaints between attorneys and clients over legal fees. The bar group postponed action for a month on another scheduled topic -- whether to adopt a committee plan to change the way attorneys are appointed to represent indigents in D.C. Superior Court.
Darrel Longest, formerly a partner of Mann, Larsen and Longest, has merged its practice with Brown and Bernstein; the new firm is Brown, Bernstein and Longest, with offices in Washington and Maryland. James Blair, formerly staff attorney with Western Union, and Georgia Wellington-Smith, formerly associated with Verner, Lipfert, Bernhard and McPherson, are now associated with Brown, Bernstein and Longest . . . Thomas Rawles Jones Jr., former assistant Alexandria commonwealth's attorney, has set up a private practice in Alexandria . . . Randolph J. May has been named acting associate general counsel at the Federal Communications Commission, replacing Terry Banks, who has been appointed chief of the commission's office of opinions and review. w