Going solo: Bill Failey has no regrets about taking the sole practitioner path

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By Cynthia Price
Legal News

“Now that I’m here, I’m really happy,” says Bill Failey of the Law Offices of Bill Failey, which specializes in personal injury. “No matter how much a big law firm offered me at this point, I wouldn’t change.

“I have a lot of autonomy, and because 100 percent of my work is on a contingency basis, I get to help a lot of people who would never come to a larger firm.”

But, in contrast, he acknowledges that the path was often rocky and it was challenging to become established enough to avoid struggling.

“I probably wouldn’t recommend starting out the way I did,” he says. “It was pretty difficult. But, over time, it paid off.”

The reason he took the route he did is related to the economic circumstances at the time of his law school graduation.

A native of Indianapolis, Failey attended Valparaiso University for his undergraduate degree. When he graduated in 2008, he moved with his girlfriend Brooke to the Grand Rapids area so she could start a job at Amway, and Failey became part of the first full-time class at the Grand Rapids campus of Thomas M. Cooley Law School, now WMU-Cooley.

The story had a happy ending for Failey socially as well as professionally, as the two married and now have a 16-month-old son, Finn. Failey says he finds Grand Rapids similar to Indianapolis, although smaller, and he has a good feeling about settling here.

But unfortunately Failey went to law school at the height of the years  when the economy was suffering.

“I saw lawyers getting laid off, large firms merging, and a lot of the business litigation was starting to dry up. The main areas that were actually growing or staying steady were bankruptcy and personal injury, so I shadowed an attorney at a personal injury firm,” Failey explains.

“Before graduation I clerked for a small law firm, just three attorneys. The main guy I was working for was retiring, and they just weren’t in the position to hire a young attorney.”

Failey did not go solo immediately, instead teaming up briefly with a friend from law school, Will Hartwell. But, he says, the business practice they formed was not his ideal, and he already had his sights set on a personal injury practice.

“I always considered myself a personal injury lawyer, but when you first go out on your own you take any cases you can,” Failey says. “I had a client between June and August 2011 who had slipped and fallen, and we ended up getting a pretty good settlement, even going up against a big law firm.

“So I borrowed $10,000 from my dad and rented space in the Masonic building,” Failey says. “From there on, I got one case, two cases, three cases, and now I?have 37 active cases, with probably 10 to 12 actually in litigation.”

He acknowledges, though, that he found getting clients his largest challenge.

“How do people even know who you are? So what I did was, I pretty much tried to emulate the bigger firms –  I could see I had to have a really good web presence so I built a website. I started advertising that way, but I also dabbled in other types of advertising. But once you have success, word-of-mouth is the biggest source of new clients.”

Another key component of his practice growth was networking with more established attorneys, who not only provided him with mentoring but at times referred cases to him.

“I?met with guys from the bigger firms, went to lunch with people I could learn from,” Failey says. But, he adds, “If you’re going out as a solo, you really have to have a niche. I think if you have a niche, it’s much easier to get work that way.”

He especially acknowledges mentoring by Michael Kelly, the well-respected attorney who did personal injury as well as drunk driving defense. When Kelly retired last year, Failey purchased his building on Fulton Street, which he shares with others — another factor he sees as beneficial to those going it alone.

“It never hurts to share a building with other attorneys,” he says. “You really have to be willing to network.

“I also go to the solo and small firm section meetings of the Grand Rapids Bar Association, and many of the Young Lawyers meetings, and I joined the Michigan Association for Justice, and other organizations, where you can get on a listserv. But I also just have some relationships with attorneys I can call to cover for me if I’m on vacation or have something come up, and I
reciprocate.”

When he started out, Failey had no administrative help, and he did not find that particularly challenging. He was conversant with technology and easily able to type his own forms and briefs, but he has since hired someone full-time to help with organizing the larger number of cases.

Despite his comfort with technology, he hired out the creation of his website, www.billfaileylaw.com. “Thomson Reuters has a subgroup, FindLaw, and most of the successful bigger firms use it. So as soon as I saved enough, I hired FindLaw.”

A significant page on that website includes testimonials like the following: “One great quality that sticks out to me is that when I thought the fight was over, he didn't. Mr. Failey was still working behind the scenes of things. It definitely showed me, he is a ‘real fighter.’ Yes, he is a young attorney, and he has proven to me that he will put up a fight for his client.”

That alone is enough to make Failey happy with his practice. “I really just represent middle class and working class people who’ve been injured, and I enjoy being able to help them. We’ve grown steadily based on successes; it’s 100% based on results,” he says.

He loves the independent nature of the work. “As a lawyer, you don’t have to work for anybody – if you have the requisite knowledge, people will notice and they will come. It allows you to be an entrepreneur and still have a specialty degree.”

In addition, practicing solo offers lawyers a view of the best nature of their legal colleagues. “I’ve been really blessed to have attorneys who’ve been more than willing to help me,” Failey says.
 

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