Perhaps you've been in private legal practice for years, lining the pockets of the partners while slaving away in document review, wondering when (or if) you'll ever get to actually try a case. Or maybe you're past graduation and the bar exam, without a single job offer in sight, wondering how you're going to start your career in law and pay the rent. Regardless of the situation, it's the rare lawyer who hasn't at one point wondered what life would be like as a solo practitioner.
While it's true that life as a solo can be sweet - self-directed, self-defined and self-reliant - those same characteristics can make it pretty scary as well. You're the boss, but now you have to make all those boss-like decisions, including the really hard ones like whom to hire and fire. You'll not only be making the decision to fire a person, but you'll also be the one who delivers the bad news. Your efforts produce cash that goes straight into your pockets, but if your clients dry up, you simply don't get paid.
Not only is it risky, but you may also have some unrealistic expectations at work. Images of the solo lawyer fighting injustice and revealing the real killer on the stand permeate our collective consciousness, making it somewhat difficult to separate fact from fiction. In short, being a solo isn't the same as being Perry Mason.
How do you know whether opening a solo law practice would be the right step for you? While every person's situation is different, and this is certainly a huge step that should not be taken lightly. Your answers to the following questions should help you sort out the realities of your situation from the Perry Mason fantasies you may secretly harbor.
- Are you a leader at heart? As a solo lawyer, you'll be the one leading the charge for your law practice, which you must think of as a business, just like any other professional services company. You are the CEO, the President of the Board, and the Managing Director all rolled into one overworked (and probably underpaid) person. Are you the kind of person who feels comfortable leading, or are you more at ease (and hence, doing your best work) when someone else is calling the shots? Give this question considerable thought. It's tempting to simply state bluntly, "Of course I'm a leader!" But pause a moment to consider these scenarios:
- As a solo, you need to market your business to new clients - your career depends on it. Do you feel comfortable making a pitch to a potential new client you meet in the elevator at a seminar?
- You need to get your name before potential clients, and one of the best ways to do this is by giving talks or seminars in the community. Are you confident in your abilities to reach out and make the necessary connections to organize such an event, not to mention actually lead the seminar or give the talk?
- You have six cases and three hearings scheduled for the same day and time. Do you have what it takes to work out this scheduling conflict yourself?
- As an associate, you can rely on your partners and senior associates to tell you when a case isn't worth pursuing, when to settle, or when to go to trial. As a solo, those decisions will be yours to make. Apart from whether you have the legal skill and experience to make those calls, are you comfortable being the decision-maker?
- Do you feel confident in your legal abilities? Don't say "yes" too quickly! Think long and hard about what you actually know and don't know. Chances are, you'll come to the conclusion that what you don't know far exceeds what you do. As a solo, you'll need to be responsible for a case from preliminary interviews through filing all the way to trial's end, and possibly beyond to appeals (depending on how you draft your retainer agreements). Are you sure you have the knowledge and ability to shepherd a case through all those milestones? Do you feel you've had sufficient practical experience? As they say, can you "find the courthouse?"
- Is there a legal services market that's being underserved in your target geographic area? Not even Perry Mason will make enough to feed the family if there isn't a sufficient market for his services. Make sure you have an idea of how much work will be available for you once you make the move. Whether you're starting from scratch, or taking a big book of business with you when you leave, you'll still need to develop new clients. If your heart is set on admiralty law, and you live in Iowa, you may have some trouble. If you really want to practice criminal defense and there's already a glut of criminal defense experts (half of them qualified to work death penalty cases), you may have some trouble.
That's not to say that you can't or shouldn't attempt to compete with others providing the same legal services. Don't let the mere presence of such competitors stop you if everything else compels you to go for it. But you must be aware of the obstacles you face. If the competition is plentiful, then you'll have to find a way to distinguish yourself sufficiently to win over enough clients to sustain your practice.
- Do you have the resources necessary to succeed, or can you acquire them either by outsourcing or learning the skills yourself? While it's not necessary to know everything before deciding to go solo, you should at least have a solid, workable plan to acquire these resources before committing your mental energy to opening a solo practice:
- Money. Estimates can range anywhere from three months' to a year's worth of expenses. By "expenses," we mean "everything that you have to pay for" - including personal expenses such as rent or mortgage, utilities, groceries, student loan and credit card debt, and those related to your business like office rent, equipment start up costs and legal research services. If you save too little, you'll risk having to find a part-time job or, worse, closing up shop and leaving your clients high and dry (and they won't come back as easily in the future when you try going solo again). But if you wait to save a year's worth of expenses or more, you can miss an opportunity or make yourself crazy working in a less-than-optimal environment. At some point, it makes sense to simply take the plunge and let your hunger (both literal and figurative) motivate you to get out there and market your practice. Regardless of which approach you favor, you will have to save something, and you should have a very clear idea of how much you will actually need. Spend a few hours crunching numbers and figuring out a per-month total for personal expenses, then use the many resources on the Web and in print to estimate both your start-up costs and per-month business expenses. Information is truly power in this endeavor.
- Support network of other attorneys. One of the best things about working in a firm or any office with other attorneys is the coffee klatch - that 10 minutes or so spent in one another's offices or in the hallway, discussing the latest wrinkle in the Smith case. As a solo, you'll lose out on that, but you can make up for it by cultivating a network of other attorneys who can help you via telephone or email. However, a word of warning: While most attorneys will be happy to help out once in a while, don't abuse the privilege. Their time is money, too, and if you call too frequently, without some sort of quid pro quo in return (a referral, perhaps, or an offer to sign up as joint counsel in a particularly lucrative case), you'll soon find them out of the office, or too busy to take your calls.
- Support network of friends and family. Is your spouse in favor of this move? Do your friends think you're crazy? While a lack of support might not seem like a deal-breaker, you should be aware that it will just make things harder for you in the long run. You need at least one or two people in your life you feel comfortable approaching when things aren't going so well. Practicing law in any setting is stressful, but going solo exacerbates the stress. Make sure you have a safety net - someone who will listen to your complaints and crying without automatically telling you, "I told you this was a crazy idea!"
- Practical knowledge. It's not just about knowing the law of Title VII - you also have to know how to file a discrimination complaint at the federal courthouse. It's not enough to know the rule against perpetuities - you also have to know how to actually record the deed. If you're going solo straight out of law school, and didn't learn this stuff during a summer clerkship (and most of us don't), then come up with a plan to shadow a practicing attorney for a few days, or simply ask a particularly helpful colleague at the next bar meeting.
- Familiarity with the principles of running a business. Do you know what a business plan should include? Are you familiar with the principles of marketing? Do you know how to set up payroll? Accounting? Manage a client trust account? If not, you should plan to acquire this knowledge before you open your doors. There's a myriad of good sources, both on the Web and in print; a few suggestions are noted on this page, but a few hours in the local bookstore can be time well spent. Also, think about your pre-existing clients who might know this information - other business owners, CPAs or bookkeepers, or your college roommate who went into marketing. It might be helpful to start a networking file, using either index cards with an alphabetical or functional filing system, or Microsoft Outlook or any of the other contact management software programs on the market. It's very helpful to list your contacts and have all their relevant information in one place.
- Stress management skills. You might think you're stressed now, with the deadlines and the client calls and the kids being sick. Try managing that same stress when you're the boss and the owner, and the buck literally stops with you. If you don't work, then no one gets paid. Being a solo practitioner can be extraordinarily stressful. If you think you might have a problem managing stress, you will definitely want to come up with a plan to remedy that deficiency before you go solo. Start with a trip to your doctor, to find out whether you already have stress-induced health problems, and to enlist his or her aid in combating the problem. Most doctors will be only too glad to help you be more proactive. A good stress-reduction plan will include meditation, physical exercise, a mind-body practice (such as yoga, Pilates, or tai chi), sound nutritional principles and a good sleep pattern.
- Do you have an idea of what sort of practice you'd like to have? Practice area, type of business you want to run, clients you want to attract and serve, transactional versus litigation, boutique - it doesn't matter what it is, you just need to have some concrete plan in mind. If all you have is a fantasy of you in an office somewhere giving direction to attending paralegals and worshipful baby lawyers, this is a good clue that you have some more work to do sorting out your plans. If, on the other hand, you can talk for hours about serving the burgeoning Hispanic community in your city with immigration and family law assistance; or how the small-business owners in your town need one-stop shopping for all their litigation needs; or how there's really no one practicing construction law in your area who's truly familiar with the construction industry - if, in short, you have concrete, specific desires and intentions that you can articulate and that generate a fair level of excitement for you, then you should proceed to planning your transition to solo practice.
- Does the idea of being a solo practitioner really excite you? It's incredibly hard to run your own business, and especially difficult when the business is the delivery of legal services. Not only do you have to be an expert in the provision of those services, but you also have to devote time to necessary tasks such as marketing, managing your practice's cash flow, and administrative case management tasks that you are probably not familiar with now because they're most likely being handled by unseen support personnel in your current office (or by the partners). Whether or not you're familiar with them, these services are necessary for the practice to grow and thrive. Basically, it's a lot of hard work, so if the idea of your own actual law practice doesn't thrill you to pieces, you're in for a bumpy ride.
- Are you sure you want to move forward to a solo practice, as opposed to moving away from your current position? Sometimes it's hard to tell the difference between running away from a bad situation and running toward a good one. If your current job is lousy, or if you feel underpaid, unappreciated or underutilized, then you might want to consider whether you really want to practice law solo or simply need a new job. Going solo won't save you from dealing with a particularly loathsome client, for instance; solo practitioners often feel more pressure to accept questionable clients because they need the money. And going solo just to escape one particularly brutal boss is overkill. Consider whether a new position - without the brutal boss or a particular client, or with a better pay scale or even in a new practice area - might solve the real problem for you. Going solo is much too big a hammer to wield against an ant-sized problem.
These questions aren't necessarily a firm-and-fast checklist, but more of a list of topics to get you started on what it takes to start your own law office. Take a few weeks, at least, and devote half an hour per day to pondering these issues. Using these questions as writing prompts for journal entries can also help you sort through your thoughts on these subjects. Get clear on these issues, and then, if the timing seems right and your answers (and the others your answers bring to mind) reassure you that this is a positive move for your career, by all means go to the next phase - planning your brand-new law firm.