Young lawyer Errol Comafay Jr. says lawyers his age can mostly be found entering government service, assisting politicians, or working their way up in well-known firms. Starting out on one’s own is considered a "very unpopular career path," with difficulties similar to those that affect nearly every business startup. “But it’s the dream of every lawyer to have his own firm. [And] we’re in a hurry to realize it," he said.
When she took her oath earlier this year, Ngiyan Batala was already an entrepreneur with several businesses to her name. Accustomed as she was to being her own boss, she saw setting up an independent law firm as a logical next step, and her inexperience was not going to get in the way. "I had a big network, I knew a lot of people, and I knew I would be able to get a lot of clients, but I needed knowledge in law. So, I offered a partnership," she said.
She approached Mr. Comafay, another young lawyer from her hometown, Kalinga, who at the time had been practicing on his own for a year. "I have observed those who chose to be associates [in bigger firms]. They are not really that happy with their practice," he said. But he saw the advantage of having a partner when he found himself spread too thinly.
Mr. Comafay, in turn, tapped Frances Mae Cherryl Ontalan, a batchmate at the University of Santo Tomas, to round out the team. Ms. Ontalan's first year as a lawyer, which she spent working for the office of Sen. Vicente Sotto III, and then as a solo practitioner, had given her a taste for independence. "My brother is a prosecutor, and he gave me a few cases to start. Afterward, I felt that I could do this on my own—why would I bother applying to a [larger] law firm?" she said.
But keeping up the shingle of the Law Firm of Batala Ontalan Comafay & Associates would take much more than personal drive, and the trio knew it. "I told [the two], we will be starving for at least three months. We should be prepared for that," Mr. Comafay said.
The firm wanted to be self-sufficient within six months and profitable within a year. To do this, each lawyer held on to clients from their solo practices. Some, however, were reluctant to entrust their cases to the group. "Some of them ask, 'Can't we work with just you?' because they still don't know the other lawyers," Ms. Ontalan noted.
They had, by that time, reached the point when a marketing plan would ordinarily come into play, but the rules of the field bar lawyers from advertising. The most they can do is announce the firm’s opening—even signage is limited to a certain size. They can turn to other lawyers for referrals, but the bulk of getting the word out still lies on the partners' own initiatives. "You have to build your reputation from your own work, from the cases that you handle," Mr. Comafay explained.
It didn’t help that they had to go against veteral lawyers in court. But the trio was undaunted. Being in the same office had been an advantage, as it allowed them to bank on one another's experience with different types of clients and cases. Thus far, each has had their share of civil and criminal cases, as well as some more recent election-related ones.
The partners say they want to expand into a bigger office with more staff and full-time associates within the next four years. For now, however, the young law firm is still focused on making itself financially viable.
Mr. Comafay in particular is all too familiar with the troubles of getting a new practice off the ground. "When I was starting, every time I entered an office, they would offer me coffee," he recalled. "I happened to blurt out, 'Yeah, I love coffee.' Later on, one client kept paying me in coffee beans. I [had to start] saying, 'I also love money.'"
The firm currently courts clients from the mid-income segment, but the need to strengthen its bottom line hasn't blinded them to the needs of the general public. Handling pro bono cases every now and then has shown them that a job well done can be its own reward. "It's your profession to administer justice, regardless [of whether] the person has money or none at all. As long as you can see that he or she deserves the justice that the law will provide, why not help?" Ms. Ontalan said. "We just charge it all to experience."
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