“No One Told You That Solo Practice Was Going To Be Like This”

by Jamison Koehler on September 24, 2010
U.S. Capitol building

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.

More like this:

On the True Value of a Law Degree

Advice to an Incoming IL:  Humble Yourself Before the Law

Law School After the Age of 40

On Becoming a Solo Criminal Defense Attorney Right Out of Law School

My Career As A County Prosecutor

17 Comments on ““No One Told You That Solo Practice Was Going To Be Like This”

  1. I loved your post.

    Although not an attorney, I know exactly what you mean about the loneliness and isolation of working for and by yourself. Just like you, I am on the ABA’s (free and open to the public) listserv – Solosez. I’ve been on the list for years – and because of that list I get to participate in the banter and intelligent discussion I was so sorely missing. Due to that list, I never feel lonely anymore.

    Caution to anyone thinking of following the link in the first paragraph above, Solosez is a dynamic list, full of mostly legal types – this means you have to play by the rules at all times (or you will get called out for it!). Rules sent to each new person who signs up. READ THEM!! and don’t forget to tell us your favorite beverage and names/types of pets, if any.

  2. Mr. Koehler, I ran across your site accidentally. As are you, I am a solo practitioner in DC, but as a Consulting Engineer. I don’t get involved in law except to facilitate technical matters between communications attorneys and their clients from time to time.

    You have an attractive site with excellent content. I see you are on Twitter. Consider promoting that fact on your site.

    Also, have your site developers enable an RSS feed, and promote that. I bet you build up some subscriptions there.

    I do both of these on the home page of my site.

    Best regards.


  3. Hello Jamison-
    Well-written post on a great website. Thanks for “tooting your own horn” as I probably would have missed the post otherwise.
    Best regards,

  4. One of the frustrating and yet amusing aspects of starting your own business is having to learn how to do every damned thing by yourself. You have to handle all the money and file all the reports. When I went solo, I had to learn all the procedures for filing and paying employment taxes in my state even though I’m my only employee. I have a filled-out I-9 for myself in case the Immigration folks ask to see it. You have to get the office equipment and buy the office supplies. Run out of binder clips or pens or those folders you like? You have to get the replacements, which means you first have to find the replacements. If you need to send something by courier, you can’t just hand it to the secretary. Not only do you have to find a courier, you have to figure out how to pay them. Telephones, computers, advertising, business cards, internet, secure document disposal…it’s all up to you now.

  5. Windy:

    All of that is true, made worse by the fact that I am such a lousy and unreliable employee. I can never count on myself to do anything — I’m always off by the water cooler, filing my nails, or taking a cigarette break. And the gum-chewing really gets on my nerves.

    Seriously, though, my biggest concern has always been computer problems — no more tech guy to call up in an emergency. That was one of the main reasons I switched to Mac on starting my firm. Now if I have a problem, I run over to the Mac store nearby to see someone at the Genius Bar.

    And I bought a cheap printer. If I ever have any problems with that, I’ll just throw it out and buy myself a new one.

  6. Nice post. It’s true that a lot of new solos seem to be floating in some sort of reality-insulating enthusiasm bubble. I’m among the (fairly) recent-grad solo camp, and a bit of a pessimist to boot, so I tend to see the odds as stacked against me.

    The flip-side is there’s something gratifying about plodding on, step by step and odds be damned towards something you want. Plus, survival is a helluva motivator.

  7. Great post! If I remember right, you and I started on Solosez around the same time. I am still around — actually 13 months today — and still love the liberation of being on my own. I never thought I would have my own business, but here I am and still thrilled when I get a new client!

  8. My two best friends and I finally took the plunge six months ago. We consider ourselves a solo because one researches and writes, one advocates and argues, and one negotiates and solves — put together we are one hell of a lawyer. I would never have believed how steep would be the learning curve — especially for things I am not inherently interested in such as marketing. And we are still celebrating if we make our goal of even one new client a week. But, the hard stuff and the constant low-level anxiety don’t begin to compare to the satisfactions of autonomy, independence, flexibility and creativity made possible by working for … me.

    As a lifelong insomniac, it is like a pardon to finally be free to work from 1 to 5 in the mornings if that is when I am awake. My Basset Hound and Greyhound lie at my feet. I am loving this solo stuff.

  9. Every so often, I have to post about the downside of solo practice. Even though it isn’t necessarily a downside. One of the most rewarding parts of solo practice isn’t just solving my clients’ problems, but solving my own, and figuring out ways to do things differently if a particular method isn’t working. Thanks for the discussion of the post here.

  10. Really good post. And congratulations on making it this far.
    It is true that Solosez tends to hear about those starting out and those abandoning the solo life much more than the sucessful anniversaries. But that doesn’t mean that the sucesses aren’t out there. They are, they just aren’t posting about it. Instead they are doing their work and trying to help others on the list.

  11. As a current law student who entered school with the dream of one day hanging a shingle (placing me in the distinct minority among law students), I just wanted to say that I always find your posts refreshingly honest but inspirational.

    The “good” feels even better when it’s tempered by the uncertain.

  12. I am entering into my second career of practicing law after not practicing for the last 13 years since admitted. I had planned on working for somebody but then again I am thinking I am getting too old to want to work for anybody. Your web site and postings on going solo have inspired me to “just do it.” I am starting my own solo practice having never practiced before or criminal law for that matter. Instead I will charge low or lower rates initially, disclose to clients about my experience level, and work my behind off. I also plan to seek help from other practitioners and also professional associations’ listservs if necessary. I am also doing appearances for other attorneys just to get used to standing in front of judges. I am confident I will make it. Your site is also where I will get some inspirations from. Thanks, Jamison.

  13. Peter:

    While I hate to think I had anything to do with such a major decision, I wish you the best of luck in launching your own practice and hope you will let us know how you fare.

  14. I googled and found you. I am a former prosecutor (7 years with SFDA), who took a small detour to stay at home when I had my first child. I MISS being in trial, but I’m not sure if I’m ready to be a pitbull again, when I have two children under 4. So I stumbled onto your site while generally googling about whether or not to start up my own solo doing some light criminal defense work (i.e. DUI, general misdemeanors), so that I can remain more accessible to my girl & boy. You gave me some ideas to chew on for a while. Thank you!

  15. oh, and i’m new to d.c. area, so i have a lot of homework to do @ local flavor. thanks again.

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