Going Solo as an Attorney

 

Going Solo

 

Note:  The following are some pros and cons of having your own solo practice, mixed in with some tips from the experiences of several attorneys polled (from McGeorge graduates, attorneys on LinkedIn, and my current and former clients).  That means these may not be my own opinions, but are the opinions of other lawyers who are practicing, or have practiced, on their own.

1.       It’s not for everyone, there are many negatives:

  • Can you work alone or will you feel lonely?  Do you need colleagues down the hall to brainstorm with?  Do you need pats on the back?  (Know yourself and what you need.)
  • Will you get your own coffee? Fix the printer? Deal with the landlord? Clean the bathroom? Chase receivables?  (What resources do you need?  What does the job entail in addition to the practice of law?)
  • Are you a self-starter, self-motivated? Easily distracted?  Need inspiration or direction?
  • Can you do all levels of work if you have to do so?
  • Are you well organized?
  • Can you make decisions?  Prefer someone else to do that?
  • Are you happy to be the ultimate decision-maker & responsible party on everything?
  • Can you type your own letters, emails and docs?
  • Are you tech-savvy? Can you embrace innovation as it arises or must you be dragged into new things?
  • Can you tolerate (financially & emotionally) the cash flow roller coaster?
  • Can you keep your work separate from business?
  • Will your family support your business?
  • Do you need the prestige of the big firm?
  • Can you balance administrative duties with billable work? Do you greatly prefer working on files to billing and collecting?  Do you run away from accounting?

 

2.       Keep it simple & inexpensive: use a home office at first, or share offices; specialize in one or two compatible areas of law; keep all overheads down – used furniture, modest tenant improvements and equipment; hire independent contractors, not employees; avoid monthly payments, pay upfront for discounts if you can; don’t go for flash early, you can show success later, if you experience it.

3.       Get out and about, don’t hide in the office: go to clients’ offices, be active with community events, network & promote, mix with other lawyers and advisors, create a collegial circle to keep in touch with the real world.

4.       Be good to yourself on simple pleasures: good chair, nice, functional desk, good coffee, stocked fridge & cupboard, office dog, stereo, radio, tv, web – for attention breaks, not distractions.

5.       Avoid or fire difficult clients, suppliers, or agents: you just can’t afford the emotional energy, the expenditure of time and the potential costs.

6.       Have a plan, work at it relentlessly every day, fix it as you go.  If your “plan” isn’t in written form, it’s just an idea.  Ideas are a dime a dozen, they’re too easy to create, ignore and change.

7.       Use an iMac, iPad, MacBook, etc., avoid PCs because they crash, lose stuff when they do crash; you need a constant IT consultant; PCs wear out quicker, making peripherals obsolete more often, they get viruses and worms, software is less user-friendly for non-power users.  I use a PC laptop for my accounting, but it isn’t connected to the internet, to keep it clean and this works.  PCs will grind you down and spit you out.

8.       Don’t pretend to be a big firm, or part of a huge network. Be yourself: you’re going to be hired for who you are, you won’t fool anyone.  Make your website personal and real.

9.       Be very, very careful if you are dependent on one or two clients for 40% or more of your billings.  I’ve seen large clients exploit the dependence of small suppliers by stretching out payments, discounting bills, and giving instructions that are in the murky grey area of ethics and good practices.  They know when they have you by the neck.

10.     The pluses of being solo:

  • You can make changes (improvements) to almost anything, and when you want to, there are no policies, committees or bureaucracy
  • Don’t have to tolerate bad clients or colleagues or employees
  • Rewards come directly to you, undiluted
  • Financial success curve is exponential if you keep overheads steady
  • You can hunker down quickly if you need to for a dry spell
  • You will enjoy true independence in all aspects except financial
  • You will also enjoy total flexibility in all respects except financial (that is, you can do whatever you want so long as you can survive financially)

 

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Understand that you have to wear different hats. On top of actual lawyering, you have to be the office manager, the marketing director and the networking all star for the your own firm. It takes discipline, too. You’re not punching someone else’s time clock, you’re punching your own.

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My best advice for new attorney’s is this: Remember that we are a “service” industry. Clients come to us in a time of great stress (usually) and expect not only legal advice, but an empathetic ear. As their attorney, remember to show some thought for their position not only as a client, but as a person, and respect the hardship incurred by them when paying your legal bill. Clients pay the equivalent of a mortgage payment or more, at times, and should not be treated like ATM machines. Good lawyers understand the law and understand their clients. Forget about impressing them with legal terms and show you care about them. If you do, they will always remember you were there for them when it mattered and will think of you in the future.

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My advice would be to take your core values into your new firm and stick with them. It is very easy to fall into the trap of adopting the traits of others in the profession whose standards and values do not match your own.  For example, I see fighting and point scoring amongst lawyers for the sake of it.  Eventually that will wear you down. It sounds trite, but be the person you want to be, not the person you think you ought to be.

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Create processes and templates to improve efficiency.

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It is sometimes hard to draw the line between sympathy and professionalism especially when it comes to fees. Sometimes clients are in great distress and urgently in need of legal help but cant afford legal fees.  What will you do about that?  Be prepared for this type of client and know how you will handle him when you meet him.  How many discounts are you prepared to give and to whom?  One of the biggest challenges for many new attorneys is fearing they won’t be able to get enough work and so discounting their fees heavily.

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  • It is “shocking” to leave law school and discover how little you know.
  • Be open to new information.  Then take it out and experiment with it and track it and see what works.
  • Beware the notion that lowering rates means you will get more clients.  It doesn’t work.  This will make you question your value.  You must value your time enough to turn people away.
  • At first you won’t have work – your job is to find work, get organized for when you begin.  Treat it like a job even when you don’t have the work.
  • Set specific hours to work.
  • Can you run a business?  (See Emyth for Attorneys, Gerber.)  Just because you know something about practicing law doesn’t mean you know about running a law practice.  You have to be a businessperson too.
  • Find support – group, coach.
  • Be committed.
  • You can fire a client if they aren’t paying you.
  • Get clear on why you are doing this.  What is your vision for your practice and yourself in your practice?  Know what you want balanced against just taking clients who can pay.  Keep being conscious to readjust your goal and ask if this is where you want to be.  Know what you want and be intentional about getting it.