Helping Trial Lawyers Navigate the Appellate System

Adaptable Focus Is the Key to Long-Term Practice Success


Fourteen years ago this month, I left Big Law and went out on my own.

I was a “true solo” at first. I was fortunate to find an office sublease downtown, so I wasn’t completely alone. I had a few clients, but no staff, no one to answer my phone, and no dedicated support. I remember it took me an hour to figure out how to print an envelope.

It wasn’t long before I discovered there were other things I shouldn’t be in charge of. I hired a contract bookkeeper and a CPA to steer me clear of trouble with the State Bar and the IRS. My wife started handling administrative tasks that were a poor use of my time, like payables and receivables, dealing with insurance, and getting records from appellate courts. She’s been my firm administrator ever since.

I hustled to get my name out there. I went on a lot of business lunches. I became a student of legal marketing techniques and strategies. I set up a website and started a blog.

Eventually, I realized that a downtown office wasn’t necessary. I found a sublease close to home. We hired a full-time legal assistant. I was no longer a solo. The firm grew to four lawyers with offices in three cities. We offered benefits like a group health plan and paid vacation. We had grown into a bona fide appellate boutique.

Law firms change. That’s one of the few constants in this profession.

I’ve been back on my own—with support this time—for the past year. I cut overhead and ditched all the office space. We’ve maintained long-term relationships with a few trusted vendors, and we’ve brought people in to fill specific roles. Everyone on the team works from home. My executive assistant and our controller have both been tremendous assets during this new phase.

Before the pandemic, we were getting together as a team regularly. We weren’t able to do that for the firm anniversary, but we did host a “Zoom Happy Hour” for our core team and visit with each other and our spouses. It was great to be together, even if we couldn’t do it in real life.

What are the lessons in this tale?

  • Find your niche and stick with it. Become the “go to” lawyer in your practice area by niching down and developing expertise. Plenty of big firms do what I do, but my niche is well-suited to a solo or small-firm setting, and that has worked for me. I have the pleasure of working with a variety of trial lawyers across practice areas and am never bored.
  • Question the “why.” Don’t accept what others consider the normal way of doing things without question. “Because we’ve always done it this way” isn’t good enough.
  • Stay flexible. Planning is wise, but you may need to adjust to new circumstances. Going all-remote before the pandemic turned out to be a great strategy for us.
  • Relationships matter. Treat people well, and you will be rewarded. Investing in your team is never a mistake.
  • Stay determined. Things won’t always go your way. You will have to ride out challenges you didn’t see coming. The ability to persist is critical. Remember why you became a lawyer and apply that motivation to your new circumstances.
D. Todd Smith
About the Author

D. Todd Smith is an Austin-based civil appellate specialist who works with trial teams from the earliest stages of litigation. In trial courts, he takes the lead on strategic analysis and briefing, jury charges, and potentially dispositive motions, all with a focus on preserving error and positioning cases for appellate review.

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