Starting a Practice: What it Takes to Succeed

Starting a practice right out of law school has become more common since the bottom dropped out of the legal market a few years ago. Only a small percentage of the new lawyers starting a practice succeed, though. The reasons why can mostly be boiled down to one thing: most of those starting a practice half-ass it.

In other words, too many are starting a practice just until “something better” comes along, or because they just don’t know what else to do. This is a recipe for failure. At least two things are essential for anyone starting a practice:

  1. You have to want to start a law practice; and
  2. You have to be fully committed to starting a practice (and to your clients).

These are especially important if you go solo right after law school. At that point, you know next to nothing about the law—much less applying it to real-life situations. You probably know nothing about running a business (not to mention a law practice). If you had a summer job in retail or food service, you may know a few things about customer service—but many of them are the wrong things when it comes to client service. And so on. Despite your three years of expensive legal education, in other words, you are basically a complete novice at everything to do with starting a practice, and a dubious value proposition.

That is why desire and commitment are so important. You can overcome your novice-ness, but only with a lot of hard work.

You should want to start a law practice

You don’t need to come to the conclusion that starting a practice is your true calling. You just need to decide that, of all hte options you have, from panhandling to flipping burgers to starting a practice, this is the option you want to take.

It probably seems as if this should go without saying, but I am still surprised by the number of solos I have met who will admit they don’t really want to have their own practice. Most of them fail, obviously.

Basically, you must decide that going solo is not just a fallback option, but a good option—at least for you, under the circumstances. That is because this is what you are going to be doing for the foreseeable future. You need to get at least a little excited about that.

The proximate cause of me starting a practice of my own was when I was let go from a firm I had worked at about a year. By then, I had been thinking about going out on my own for a couple of years. As I applied to more and more jobs I didn’t really want, anyway, starting a practice gradually emerged as the most attractive option. So I went for it, and it was the best decision I ever made.

Something a former boss—now friend—once told me helped me get to the point where I wanted to start my own firm. He told me that if I ever wanted to make real money, I should plan to start my own practice. While not every solo can make a killing, starting a practice comes with many other rewards you can’t get working for someone else.

Make a commitment to your practice

Commitment is even more important than desire. Even if you don’t want to start a law firm, you can still succeed if you throw yourself into it. Commitment is especially important for new lawyers with new practices because it is especially challenging to go solo when you have no experience and few practical legal skills.

So that you can commit, one of the first things you should do is get a sense of your timeline for starting a practice. Here’s the thing: you will be starting a practice for quite some time. While it is theoretically possible to make a pile of money during your first month in practice, you are more likely to earn an ethical sanction if you try. Give yourself some time.

When I started my firm, I talked to everyone I could find who was in business for themselves. I wanted to know how long it felt before they were satisfied with their income and had a few months of cushion in savings. all said 2–3 years. So that is what I planned on—and I made sure my wife was on board with my timeline. Be prepared to scrape by for a year or two while you gain experience and learn how to run your firm.

Commitment is also what will keep you going through all the mistakes you are going to make (and the refunds that sometimes go with them). You will have to do a lot of learning, which means you will have to make some mistakes (most of which, hopefully, will be correctable). The first time you review an employment contract for someone, it will probably take you a couple of days and several phone calls to attorneys who actually know what they are talking about and who are generous with their time. And you will probably charge $100. It will get easier, and you will get better, but only if you stick with it.

You also have to commit to spend money on your practice—or at least on technology, office supplies, rent, advancing costs, and more. You have to spend money to make money, and starting a practice is no different.

Go forth and practice—with desire and commitment

To sum up, if you are starting a practice, give it a real chance to succeed. You have to be committed, and if you decide that starting a practice is actually what you want to do, your chances of success will go up considerably.

Whatever you do, don’t half-ass it.

(photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/fanz/3624311607/)

Starting a Law Firm

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  • http://smartbusinessrevolution.com/ John Corcoran

    Great advice, Sam. I don’t know why a solo would admit in conversation that they aren’t really happy doing what they’re doing. That certainly is no way to earn referrals.

  • http://lawyerist.com/author/andymergendahl/ Andy Mergendahl

    The only aspect of hanging out a shingle that proved very difficult for me was probably the most important part of starting any business: sales. If one is not a natural salesperson, (in the positive sense of that word, meaning one who loves to meet people and befriend them for the purpose of growing the business) one will struggle. I found that while I enjoyed representing my clients, I disliked the merger of my work and personal lives and the need to constantly, actively network. I am happier when I can keep my work and personal life separate. If you feel that way too, hanging a shingle is not the best choice for you.
    There’s nothing at all wrong with working in a non-law job while doing volunteer legal work and networking for a law job down the road. If you don’t burn to work in the law (and many JDs don’t, if they are honest with themselves) you should just move on. You’ve only got one life. Don’t let law school debt or others’ expectations steal it from you.

  • http://www.robertbrookslaw.com Robert Brooks

    I went into law because it was an easy way to be self-employed. I was ALL-IN from the beginning. That is the only way to do it. Otherwise you WILL fail.

    But I do a criminal appeals and habeas practice, so I let my clients do my networking for me. The best of both worlds. And that is no accident.

    Now if I could only make a lot of money.

    Not going to happen.

  • http://JacksonandWilson.com Mitch Jackson

    After 25 years of having my own practice, I believe success and happiness are all about passion and having a very strong desire to blaze your own path in life. If you enjoy running your own business (admin, marketing, litigation…) then you’re on the right track to long-term success. What’s really cool about having your own practice is the flexibility it gives you to enjoy your life. Early afternoon Little League baseball game- no problem. Last minute family vacation- not problem. The number of people you can help and the amount of income you can earn is only limited by your imagination and effort. Sure, sometimes it’s tough but because you’re always working for yourself, there’s always an upside. I can’t think of a better way to practice law other then having my own practice! Mitch

  • Marissa

    In your post you said “If you had a summer job in retail or food service, you may know a few things about customer service—but many of them are the wrong things when it comes to client service.” Are there some examples of these “wrong things” or could link to another post on converting customer service into client service? As a law student with an eye to start my own practice – and ONLY retail and food service experience – it’d be good to know what skills don’t transfer.

  • http://stephaniecoradin.com Stephanie

    Great advise Sam – The one thing I can say is just because you are going Solo doesn’t mean you shouldn’t surround yourself with a team to support you! Doing everything by yourself is the fastest way to burnout.

    Stephanie
    Administrative Specialist

  • Sannestine

    Hello all!

    I am looking to start my solo practice soon. I always knew before going to law school that this was the prime plan for me. However, it is a little intimidating because I do not have any real experience. I am looking to focus primarily in criminal defense, personal injury, and entertainment law. Any suggestions on steps to take to become knowledgeable in these areas? Thanks!