“No One Told You That Solo Practice Was Going To Be Like This”
by Jamison Koehler on September 24, 2010
Last year, while taking the first steps to launch my own law firm, I spent a lot of time on the ABA listserv for solo practitioners, Solosez. I followed the excited postings of other people who had just opened the doors of their new offices. I also took heart in the anniversary announcements of lawyers who had been on Solosez for a while. The prospect of surviving a year, much less two or three, seemed pretty dim, particularly for someone like myself who, while not brand new to his area of practice, was new to the jurisdiction. Despite everything I had read about networking, referrals, and other marketing strategies, I couldn’t quite imagine where the clients were to come from.
I was also skeptical about the prospects for some of the people making their announcements. Some people, for example, were opening their firms either directly out of law school or with very little prior experience and, while I realized that the right person can make anything work, the questions asked by certain people didn’t seem to bode well for their success.
There was one woman, for example, who gave all sorts of reasons why she didn’t believe she could succeed. She didn’t have any experience and, in fact, she didn’t really know what area of the law to focus on. She had no start-up funding to cover the costs of a computer and office equipment, legal research, malpractice insurance, etc. And she had what appeared to be insurmountable childcare issues.
I read the initial posting and, since I was new to the listserv and still lurking, I waited to see how people would respond. I thought that someone was finally going to have to say what I was thinking: Solo practice isn’t for everyone. Maybe you should try something else. This particular woman didn’t seem to have the self-confidence or initiative to compensate for her lack of experience.
To my surprise, the response the woman got instead was far more encouraging. Pick an area of the law that you feel passionate about, people advised her. You can get a bank loan or borrow money from friends or family. You can access free legal research services at the local library. You can meet with clients at their homes or at the local coffee shop. After all, one person reassured her, you passed the bar, didn’t you? If you passed the bar, you can do this.
I don’t know what happened to this woman. I don’t remember her name so I have no idea if she is still posting, much less still practicing. If she is, I’m sure she looks back on those initial postings with tremendous embarrassment.
But I can’t help noticing that the “opening my practice” announcements on the listserv far exceed the number of anniversary announcements. There are many reasons people would stop posting; top among them would be a thriving practice that makes continued participation on a listserv impractical. At the same time, I find myself wondering how many of the new firms announced on the listserv will still be in business six months to a year down the road. I have never seen any numbers on this. And of the people who given up or failed, there do not appear to be many who go back onto the listserv to say so.
It was with dismay, for example, that I learned the other day that one of my favorite people on the listserv has decided to call it quits. I had enjoyed reading what this lawyer posted on the listserv long before we became friendly after meeting at numerous Solosez and D.C. Bar functions.
Like me, this person entered the legal profession as a second career. After graduating first in his class in law school, he went on to work at one of the most dynamic firms here in town only to be let go 6 years later with the economic downturn. When he decided to go out on his own, he did it the right way. Taking a thoughtful and methodical approach to setting up his practice, he delayed taking on his first client until he was convinced that he was ready to do so. He didn’t want to gain his experience at the expense of another person. In other words, if there was one person who was going to succeed, it should have been this person.
I had no idea until he told me he was leaving the state for other employment that his practice had not been doing particularly well. Apart from the usual pleasantries (“how’s business?”), these are generally not the kinds of things you talk about with anyone but the closest of friends. He also practiced in an entirely different area of the law than I; I wouldn’t have recognized the signs even if I had seen them.
This is one of the stories you don’t read about often on Solosez.
Carolyn Elefant, the grande dame of solo practitioners, is probably personally responsible for many people deciding to take the leap into solo practice. Her book Solo By Choice certainly played a major factor in my decision. But there is never any false advertising with Elefant; she has always been extremely honest with her advice.
In fact, in an entry she posted just the other day on MyShingle, she laid out many of the challenges in her typically pleasant but candid way: financial struggles, the lack of respect within the legal community, and the jealousy toward other, seemingly more successful colleagues who are “flying out to depositions across the country and wondering how to bill the time on the plane.” While recognizing that many solos “soar right out of the gate,” many others “flounder and struggle until they hit their stride.” She suggests three years or longer as a “guidepost” for measuring success.
At the same time, while Elefant is honest about the disadvantages, she is most eloquent when she writes about the pros. Because that’s obviously where her heart is.
For me, an older person who spent many years in large organizations, there is something tremendously liberating about being accountable to no one but to clients and the courts. There are no meetings, no assignments, and no signatures but your own needed on any forms.
The hours are flexible, again depending only on the court schedule and the availability of clients, so that I can be home when my son gets back from school. I can fix him a snack and play Madden football with him on the Xbox for a half hour or so before he begins his homework.
In addition to this autonomy and flexibility, Elefant describes the practical experience you get right away as a solo practitioner. You are not stuck at the bottom of a hierarchy reviewing documents or drafting legal analyses that no one will ever read. She also talks in Solo By Choice about the ability to “feel like a lawyer” and to “own not loan your talent.”
There are always difficult days when you are a solo practitioner. Without the structure and hum-and-flow of a formal organization, the days in which I don’t have a court appearance, a client meeting or a networking event can loom long in front of me. There are days in which the phone never seems to ring. And for me, surprisingly, a man whose wife accuses him of being able to go days without speaking with another human being, solo practice has sometimes felt pretty damn lonely.
At the same time, there is the feeling of satisfaction I get every time I transfer funds over from my trust fund into my operating account that has nothing to do with however good I feel about the case I just completed. When I was salaried, there was always a disconnect between the work I did and the money that showed up in my bank account every month through direct deposit. When you are a solo practitioner, you know exactly what you did to earn that money. This must be part of what Elefant meant when she wrote that “no one told you that solo practice was going to be like this.” I realize now, with some experience, that she was talking about both the good and the bad.
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