The guts to go it alone // Best Practices

Employment lawyer Hermie Abraham is part of a loose collective of lawyers redefining how to work and live as sole practitioners

By Crystal Luxmore

On Wednesday March 14th, 2012


 In 2001, The internet startup where Hermie Abraham worked as director of human resources was sold to Sun Microsystems just as the dot-com bubble burst.

“The owners were millionaires, but the rest of us were lucky to have jobs. Our shares were worthless,” says Abraham, who had been lured from her post in human resources at BMO by the prospect of building an entire HR system from scratch.

“It was then I realized that you can spend a lot of time building something, but if it’s not yours, you don’t have claim to it,” she says. “I wanted to have a profession that was mine, so I decided to become a lawyer.”

In 2005, Abraham started law school — and after she graduated three years later, that same entrepreneurial spirit drove her to become a sole practitioner. Nearly everything the 40-year-old does — from how she sets up her office to how she charges fees — breaks the rules of conventional law practices. She shares her fresh ideas with a group of self- proclaimed “gutsy” lawyers who are pioneering a more affordable, flexible legal industry.

Still, even for a renegade like Abraham, the decision to withdraw her name from the hireback list at Cassels Brock & Blackwell LLP, where she’d enjoyed articling, was tough. “I was dating a dentist at the time who had his own practice, and he said to me, ‘If you don’t do it now, you never will.’ ”

To finance the risky transition, she rented out her east-end home and moved into a one- bedroom, carving out space in her sunny living room for a small office.

When she launched Abraham Law two years ago, she found it a challenge to set up a business, figure out what to charge and establish credibility. “LinkedIn’s sole practitioner forum became my best friend,” says Abraham, who also devoured books by other sole practitioners.

She hired a work-from-home assistant who’s also a law clerk and secured a Bay Street address by joining Regus Group, through which she books out office space for meet- ings. That’s also where her mail goes.

Abraham keeps redefining her practice with the help of 20 or so other sole practitioners who call themselves The Gutsy Lawyers Group. Every month, Abraham absconds to the pub with these new lawyers (all members have been called to the bar within the last three years) who see small firms and sole practitioners as having the upper hand in an uncertain economy. “People are looking for fixed fees and flexible arrangements,” says Abraham, “not billable hours where the lawyer does great at the client’s expense.”

The group has inspired Abraham to truly differentiate herself from traditional firms by charging fixed fees for standard projects, such as negotiating a severance package.

This new crop of soloists also mentors one another. “I look to a fellow sole practitioner who is billing six figures in his third year of practice, because his model is very relevant to me,” says Abraham, describing his web, social media and business development prowess.

Although Abraham has little free time, the marathoner runs three days a week and recently took up golf. Last year, when her sister who works in Phnom Penh needed a fill-in for her au pair, Abraham spent six weeks caring for her three-year-old nephew while practicing remotely.

As she devises plans to build a plaintiff-based boutique employment litigation firm in the next five years, Abraham is keeping that flexible motto front of mind: “I can still practice and be engaged, but also do what’s important to me.

The Lowdown: Hermie Abraham

Year of Call: 2009
Current Job: Sole practitioner at Abraham Law
I spend my spare time: Volunteering on the board of On-Track, an employment initiative for new immigrants
Newest passion: Golf — “I want to learn a sport that I can still play when I’m 90”
Favourite item in closet: My leopard-skin print corduroy pants — someday I might get the courage to wear them.

Photography by Markian Lozowchuk