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JANUARY 2014 - Young Lawyers Section
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Starting Your Own Practice: Common Traps, Ethical Considerations, and Business Fundamentals
by Julie Stromberg 


The legal market remains tough for all attorneys.  This harsh reality is true especially for recent law school graduates, many of whom face an average law school debt close to $110,000.[1] According to the ABA’s Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar, barely half of all 2012 law school graduates had full time, long-term legal jobs by February 2013.[2]  Further, law schools reported that only 56.2 percent of 2012 graduates were in jobs requiring passage of a state bar exam.[3] Fortunately, the figures show a slight improvement from 2011, when only 54.9 percent of 2011 graduates had full-time legal jobs, the lowest since 1994. Although the employment rate for the class of 2012 has improved, the National Association of Legal Career Professionals found that the large class sizes at law schools hurts overall employment rates.[4] Consequently, many recent law school graduates are hurting on a number of levels --- job prospects, insurmountable law school debt, etc.  

In my first year as co-Chair of the Young Lawyers Section, I observed a growing trend of recent law school graduates starting their own law firms. Faced with a poor job market and high student loan debt, these recent law school grads eager to practice law, but without any opportunities for employment, were taking matters into their own hands by starting their own law firms. Although I found their initiative bold and creative, my initial thoughts were: "Have they considered all risks associated with starting a legal practice?  What are the resources available to guide them in starting their practice?” My answer: a Young Lawyers program was in order.


I. About the Program

"Starting Your Own Practice: Common Traps, Ethical Considerations, and Business Fundamentals,” a two-part program, will cover poignant issues for all practitioners, regardless of years of experience in practice, to consider when starting their own law firms. The first one-hour component will feature a panel of three solo practitioners: Susan Hill of Hill & Piibe, Immigration Attorneys; Zein E. Obagi, Jr. of Obagi & Stodder LLP; and Matthew D. Umhofer of Spertus, Landes & Umhofer LLP. All panelist practitioners started their practices at different levels of their careers. For example, Susan Hill began her practice immediately upon graduating from law school, whereas Mr. Obagi began his practice a few years after practicing with private law firms, and Mr. Umhofer started his law firm after many years as Counsel at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP.  The first component will also feature Al Hernandez, Founder and President of Lawyers Pacific Insurance Brokerage, who will discuss professional liability insurance, including loss prevention and setting up malpractice insurance coverage when starting a legal practice. Some of the topics that will be covered in the first component include:

  • Risks associated with starting a legal practice;
  • the genesis of their respective law firms and the impetus for their decision to start their own law firms;
  • business aspects of running a law firm;
  • how they generate business and tips to help create a consistent flow of prospective business;
  • advantages and pitfalls in being a solo practitioner or firm owner;
  • a retrospective analysis of  what they would have done differently with their business;
  • when their practice started becoming successful;
  • how they handled conflict issues;
  • ethical considerations they encountered as solo practitioners; and
  • issues involved with hiring and departing personnel and attorneys, including partners.

The program’s second component will focus on ethical considerations solo practitioners and firm owners face as owners of a legal practice. The panel will consist of Ellen Pansky of Pansky, Markle, Ham LLP and a representative of the California State Bar, Supervising Trial Counsel Cecilia Horton-Billard.  Ms. Pansky will discuss ethical considerations for solo practitioners, including: (1) firm marketing; (2) hiring and terminating staff personnel; (3) client management in general; and (4) conflict issues (such as handling career transitions from plaintiff to defense and vice versa, or conflicts of former clients from prior law firm).  Likewise, Ms. Horton-Billard will discuss the process of when a complaint is filed against an attorney at the State Bar, including the statute of limitations for claims and how an attorney must defend him or herself.

II. Program Panelists and Moderator

To create a powerful, diverse, and all-encompassing panel, YLS chose panelists from varying levels of practice and firm size.  All panelists are high-ranking, prominent attorneys in the Los Angeles legal community, including attorneys who left positions at some of the top law firms in the United States to start their own law firms, and an insurance broker with over 20 years in Lawyers Professional Liability.  Panelists include:

i. Al Hernandez  – Lawyers Pacific Insurance Brokerage, Inc.

With over 22 years of specialization in Lawyers Professional Liability, and 18 years of managerial practice, Al Hernandez decided to found Lawyers Pacific Insurance Brokerage. Before Lawyers Pacific, acting as the managing Executive Vice President of one of California’s largest professional liability agencies, Mr. Hernandez managed business in excess of $25 million.

Mr. Hernandez takes pride in his experience in and handling of lawyer’s professional liability insurance for a variety of clients. Firms from one to one hundred attorneys have relied on his hands-on approach to minimizing insurance costs through effective Loss Prevention and Risk Management practices. His licensing as a Fire and Casualty Broker, Surplus Lines Broker, and Property and Casualty agent have garnered him recognition as an expert in professional liability for attorneys.

Mr. Hernandez has been integral in the introduction of several professional liability programs in California. He has been involved with the Association of Legal Administrators, ABA – Legal Standing Committee on Lawyers Professional Liability, and PLUS – Professional Liability Underwriters Society.

ii. Susan E. Hill  – Hill & Piibe, Immigration Attorneys

Susan E. Hill is a partner at the immigration law firm of Hill & Piibe.  In that capacity, she is in charge of appellate litigation before the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, as well as nonimmigrant visas and other business/employment cases, especially in the equestrian industries. After graduating from Pepperdine University School of Law, Malibu, California in 1993, Ms. Hill went immediately into solo practice and has been working exclusively in the area of immigration law since 1995.  She operates the firm’s Orange County office located in San Juan Capistrano. At any time, Ms. Hill has about a dozen or more cases pending at the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, and has handled more than one hundred cases in total, with issues often focused on procedural due process, jurisdiction, statutory interpretation, Constitutional challenges, and asylum issues.

Ms. Hill is Adjunct Professor of Law at Pepperdine University School of Law, where she has taught Immigration Law since 2005.  In addition, Ms. Hill is Founder and was Supervising Attorney for Pepperdine School of Law’s Asylum Clinic from 2008-2012.  The Clinic handles asylum, withholding of removal and Convention Against Torture claims based upon an applicant’s fear of religious persecution. 

iii. Cecilia Horton-Billard – State Bar of California

Cecilia Horton-Billard, Supervising Trial Counsel for the State Bar of California,was admitted to the California State Bar in 1983.  After 11 years working in the area of insurance defense, Ms. Horton-Billard started with the State Bar of California in June 1994. In the nearly 20 years at the State Bar, Ms. Horton-Billard has prosecuted disciplinary matters and handled appeals before Review Department of the State Bar Court. Last, she has worked as a supervisor in the State Bar’s Intake Unit and since September 2005. 

iv. Zein E. Obagi, Jr.– Obagi & Stodder LLP 

Zein E. Obagi, Jr. is a civil litigator with the reputation for aggressively prosecuting private and public interest cases against persons and organizations that have been wronged. Mr. Obagi has represented a wide array of clients in claims against governments, including for civil and educational rights violations, breach of contract, inverse condemnation and depravation of veteran’s service-connected disability benefits.  He has served as the unwavering strong voice of persons wronged by foreign countries, federal agencies, municipalities and local school districts.  

Before co-founding Obagi & Stodder LLP, Mr. Obagi practiced law with Allen Matkins LLP and Jones Bell LLP.  In 2010, he founded the Obagi Law Group, which was comprised of bright and experienced attorneys who provided value-based, dedicated legal representation.  In 2013, longtime friends and colleagues Zein Obagi and Seth Stodder saw the virtues that a partnership would bring to their clients and formed Obagi & Stodder LLP, as a firm with the wealth of experience, personnel and resources to provide unparalleled representation at a sustainable value. 

v. Ellen A. Pansky – Pansky Markle Ham LLP 

Ellen A. Pansky specializes in the defense of attorneys, bar applicants, and other professionals in regulatory and licensure proceedings and represents both plaintiffs and defendants in civil actions.  She consults with and advises lawyers in legal ethics and risk management.  She frequently serves as an expert witness in legal malpractice proceedings.  Ms. Pansky is certified by The State Bar of California Board of Legal Specialization in the area of Malpractice Law.

As a California State Bar certified MCLE provider, Ms. Pansky is a frequent lecturer on legal ethics and professional responsibility.  She has presented well over 100 continuing legal education courses.  She was selected as one of the Inaugural Fellows of the National Institute for Teaching Ethics and Professionalism (NIFTEP), and she also was an invited participant in Harvard University’s 2001 focus group on law firm ethics advisors.  Ms. Pansky is a contributor to Legal Malpractice Law Review.  She has published extensively in the area of legal ethics, including: as a contributing author (Conflicts of Interest Chapter) of California Civil Procedure Before Trial; CEB, a contributing editor to "Attorney Ethic,” California Practice Handbook, (Matthew Bender 1993), and has authored a number of articles.

Between 1978 and 1983, Ms. Pansky served as a prosecutor in the Office of Trial Counsel for the State Bar of California.  In that capacity, she handled approximately 100 formal disciplinary proceedings and thousands of investigations of California attorneys.  A number of the prosecutions conducted by Ms. Pansky resulted in California Supreme Court opinions.  In 1983, Ms. Pansky became an Assistant General Counsel for the State Bar of California, involved primarily in briefing and arguing disciplinary cases before the California Supreme Court, and other courts.

Ms. Pansky has been in private practice since 1985 and began her career as a solo practitioner in 1989 when she opened the law offices of Pansky & Markle, emphasizing professional liability defense and, to a limited extent, prosecution of legal malpractice actions.  In January 2009, Pansky Markle Ham LLP was formed with James I. Ham and Ellen A. Pansky as partners.  The firm continues to consult with, advise and represent clients in litigation, with a strong emphasis on legal ethics, professional responsibility, and legal malpractice and State Bar regulatory matters, as well as in other administration proceedings and litigation proceedings in state and federal court.

vi. Matthew D Umhofer – Spertus, Landes & Umhofer LLP

Matthew D. Umhofer is a founding partner of the newly-formed law firm of Spertus, Landes & Umhofer LLP, which handles both criminal and civil matters in state and federal court.  Mr. Umhofer is a former federal prosecutor and law professor who clerked for twofederal judges and handled high-profile cases for years at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP, one of the biggest and most prestigious law firms in the nation.

Mr. Umhofer started his career working with legend of the bar Plato Cacheris in Washington D.C. He has tried a dozen federal cases to verdict and argued several appeals in the Ninth Circuit.  He has extensive experience in civil and criminal litigation and has prevailed in several complex, high-profile civil and criminal cases. Mr. Umhofer was named California Lawyer Attorney of the Year in 2013. He is an adjunct professor at UCLA School of Law and Loyola Law School.

vii. Michele Ballard Miller – Miller Law Group 

Michele Ballard Miller of the Miller Law Group will be the moderator for this event. The Miller Law Group has offices in Los Angeles and San Francisco and employs over 25 attorneys. With over 30 years' experience practicing exclusively in the area of labor and employment law, Ms. Miller represents management in the full range of litigation, from wrongful termination to sexual harassment and disability discrimination. Ms. Miller also provides strategic advice on employment risk management and is a frequent lecturer on employment issues for clients and outside groups. Prior to starting her own law firm, Ms. Miller was an attorney with Crosby Heafey Roach & May (now Reed Smith) and Pillsbury Madison & Sutro (now Pillsbury Winthrop).  In 2013, the Daily Journal named Ms. Miller a "Top Labor and Employment Lawyer in California.” In addition, Martindale-Hubbell rates her as "AV Preeminent,” she has been selected to the Northern California Super Lawyers list each year since 2004, and was named to The Recorder’s 2012 "Women Leaders in the Law.” Last, from 2012-2013 she acted as Chair for the Federation of Defense and Corporate Counsel (FDCC) Employment Practices and Workplace Liability Committee and is a member of the Board of Advisors for Project for Attorney Retention (PAR).


III. Event Logistics

"Starting Your Own Practice: Common Traps, Ethical Considerations, and Business Fundamentals,” will be held on Thursday, January 23, 2014, at Loyola Law School, 919 Albany St., Casassa Building, Room C401, Los Angeles, CA 90015.  $6 parking in campus lot and street parking available.  Food and beverages will be served at 6:30 p.m.  The substantive program will be begin at 7:00 p.m. and will last for approximately two hours.


IV.  Why You Should Attend

The program will contain material that will be relevant to both litigators and transactional lawyers. In addition, the program will cover topics that will appeal to all attorneys interested in starting their own law firms regardless of level of experience. The program will offer one hour of general MCLE credit and one hour of ethics MCLE credit. "Starting Your Own Practice: Common Traps, Ethical Considerations, and Business Fundamentals” presents a unique opportunity for lawyers to gain access to invaluable information that will not only enable them to maximize their success as solo practitioners and firm owners, but protect themselves from liability. There is no better way than to learn from experience.  Attendees will be able to learn from individuals with years of experience and who have reached unique success in their careers. Don’t miss this once in a lifetime opportunity!


This program is graciously sponsored by: 


[1] Devan Haynie, 10 Law Degrees With the Biggest Return on Investment, U.S. News & World Report, Aug. 13, 2013.

[2] Mark Hansen, Barely Half of All 2012 Law Grads Have Long-Term, Full-Time Legal Jobs, Data Shows, ABA Journal, Mar. 29. 2013, available at:


[4] National Association of Legal Professionals, Law School Class of 2012 Finds More Jobs, Starting Salaries Rise – But Large Class Hurts Overall Employment Rate, June 20, 2013, available at:


Julie Stromberg is Co-Chair of the WLALA Young Lawyers Section.