The Challenges Of Being A Solo Practitioner

by Jamison Koehler on January 14, 2010

I was sorry to learn this morning that one of my favorite legal bloggers – Michael McLees of Fast Texas Divorce – has decided to discontinue his blog.

Writes McLees on a recent entry:  “I’m just not sure that [the blog] contributes anything to my practice and since the novelty has worn off, it just isn’t fun anymore.”  McLees also mentions the “naysayers” who challenged his decision to focus on uncontested divorces (“no divorce is uncontested”) and who questioned whether a new attorney such as McLees could compete in this field.

McLees ends the entry with a quote from one of his naysayers:  “When you start your own business, you’ll work twice as hard and make half as much as you expect.”

I was sorry to hear this because I have enjoyed following Michael’s progress over the last couple of months, ever since I “met” him on the ABA listserv for solo practitioners.  While his practice area was very different from mine and while many of the decisions he made were different from what I would have chosen to do, he was facing many of the same challenges I was confronting in launching my own practice.

Yes, being a solo practitioner does have its challenges, at least initially.  There is no steady paycheck and no guarantee of future work.   And, unless you share an office with other practitioners, there is not a social network to support you through difficult times.

My wife came into my home office late one night while I hard at work on a client’s case.  “Don’t you get lonely working here all by yourself?” she asked.

No, I don’t get lonely.  I can work for hours at a time, accountable only to myself and to my clients, without meetings or interruptions.  I see clients and I go to court.  And if ever I feel the need for more human interaction, there is an enormous network of other criminal defense lawyers and solo practitioners throughout the Washington, D.C. area.  I have lunch with other lawyers.  I attend ABA and D.C. bar functions.

For me, benefitting from the perspective of having worked in two large organizations, the challenges of being out on my own are completely worth it.  I am accountable only to my clients and to myself.  If there is a decision to be made (whether or not to take a particular client, how to handle the case), I make it.  I don’t have to vet the decision through partners, colleagues, bosses, or, in the most extreme case, some type of executive committee.

In her inspiring book on starting your own law practice, Solo By Choice, Carolyn Elefant lists six reasons to go solo. First, as I described above, you have autonomy.  Second, you get the immediate, hands-on, practical experience it might take you years to get at a large law firm.  Third, by forcing you to become an “autonomous, can-do professional with the tools to solve problems, resolve disputes, and even improve the legal system,” you begin to feel like the lawyer you always imagined you would be when you first started law school.  Fourth, you have the flexibility to handle matters on your own time and according to your own schedule.  Fifth, by forcing you to handle different kinds of cases in many different areas of the law while allowing you to try out novel approaches, solo practice offers great personal satisfaction.  Finally (and my favorite), solo practice allows you to “own not loan your talent.”   Writes Elefant:  “Lawyers toiling away at firms lose a substantial portion of their earnings to firm overhead and partner profit.”

Working twice as hard for half the pay, as one of McLees’ naysayers put it?  Maybe, at least initially.  But I can guarantee you that my clients get far more value for their money than they would with a larger firm.  I have very low overhead, and these savings are reflected in the fees I charge.  And clients tell me how appreciative they are that they can reach me by phone, that I take the time to walk through their cases with them, and that I keep them involved in their cases as active participants, not annoyances.  I may not know everything, but I do know how to get an answer for the things I don’t know.

As for Michael McLees, it sounds as though his practice is heading in the right direction.  He speaks wistfully of spending some time out on the golf course in a couple of years.  While this is not what drives me (and in fact one of the things I enjoyed most out of following his blog was the different choices he and I each made), I have no doubt that he will succeed.

2 Comments on “The Challenges Of Being A Solo Practitioner

  1. The quote wasn’t from a naysayer… but from my own father of all people. It wasn’t intended to deter my from making the decision to Solo, but rather to put a a layer of reality into the decision. The fact is, when you’re working solo, you’re not only doing work for clients, but you’re also trying to be a rainmaker for the firm. Those are 2 distinct jobs, and it makes you appreciate all the non-legal talent out there promoting large firms.

    I wish you well on your practice and hope you find the kind of success you’re looking for, even if it isn’t golf.

  2. I always felt much lonelier when I worked at an office with people who were polite enough, but with whom I wasn’t particularly good friends. When I started my practice, I felt as if I was meeting people all the time. I did court appointed criminal work at DC Superior when I started out, and every morning that I had court, I’d hang out with the lawyers in the Lawyers’ Lounge – I met so many people many of whom later helped me out with cases. Between that and bar events, trade association events and a Citizens’ Committee that I joined, I couldn’t wait to spend time by myself!

    What people don’t realize about solo practice is that you actually get to pick who you want to hang out with. Instead of being stuck with people who you don’t like because of an office environment, you can pick the events you attend and the people you meet for lunch. I stopped being lonely when I started my firm.

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