Lessons Learned as a New Solo (Part 1 of 2)

“You must be freaking nuts!” This is exactly what I was told by a well-respected lawyer in Atlanta when I told him I was starting my own solo practice after leaving a great paying associate position at a big law firm.

Here are a few of the lessons I’ve learned during my first months in solo practice:

I admit that you have to be a little crazy to start a law practice. I never thought I would have the gumption, especially with a pregnant wife and 5 year old little girl, to actually take the plunge into solo practice, but these last four months have easily been the most terrifying and gratifying months of my life. I’ve made some mistakes along the way and learned some valuable lessons as a result.

Go With What You Know

First, decide on a practice area and focus only on that area. It’s hard to appeal to clients if you don’t know who your clients are, and it’s hard (read: impossible) to get lawyer referrals if you take any case that walks through the door. I once had a guy hand me a business card that read “Specializing in bankruptcy, criminal, family, corporate, environmental and personal injury law.” I doubt he gets many referrals, and I know he sure as heck won’t get a referral from me.

Deciding a practice area was easy for me. I clerked for a bankruptcy judge and survived a very brutal trial by fire “training” period as an associate in a larger law firm. As a bankruptcy attorney, I will refer out any almost every non-bankruptcy case that walks through the door. Why? Because it will generally come back to me three-fold. Taking “rent-money” cases is hard to pass up, especially in your first few months of practice, but take that DUI case now and regret it 6 months down the road when you are trying to run a busy practice in another area of law. Take it from someone who made that mistake.

Every Dollar You Spend is a Dollar You Don’t Have

Keep overhead low by spending only on the absolute necessities in the beginning, especially for people who only have 3-6 months of living expenses saved up. I designed my own website to save money. Some “law practice experts” snubbed their noses at this.  “Why not pay a professional and spend your time “networking” and practicing law?” they asked. “You could be billing out at $250 per hour.”  Yeah, well what’s $250 multiplied by 0 hours? Exactly.

In the beginning, if you can do it yourself and do it well, don’t pay someone else to do it. All you have is time. I spent a week designing my website. I probably slept a total of 12 hours in those seven days, but the end result was $5,000 saved and the first real sense that this solo gig was actually going to work.

What should you spend your money on in the baby stages of your practice?  If I could make a list of necessary expenses, it would look like this:

  1. Andy is right. Get an office. Complacency won’t be an option.
  2. Malpractice Insurance.
  3. Laptop and Fujistu Scansnap 1500S (probably not necessary, but I’m not sure how I ever lived without it).
  4. Website Hosting.
  5. A small budget to take other lawyers out for coffee or lunch.

Set Weekly Goals

This was probably the most important aspect of my initial success.  Having a goal to work towards and successfully achieving that goal is very rewarding.  I did not do this in the very beginning and soon found great success by incorporating this strategy into my life. Here are a few of my weekly goals from the second month of my practice:

  1. Take three attorneys to lunch each week from another practice area.
  2. Write three new blog articles per week on my bankruptcy blog.
  3. Create 2 new forms and templates each week to help streamline my practice when the clients come.
  4. Retain first client!

Stay the Course

The first month of solo practice can be a very depressing time. You will have no clients, and the phone will not ring a single time. Stay the course. Keep meeting your weekly goals.  Keep building meaningful relationships with other lawyers – in other practice areas and your own. Tell everyone what you are doing.  Clients will come.  Once you have  your first client, the rest will follow. After three or four months, you will likely find yourself being able to pay your monthly business expenses.  If you’re lucky, you may even be able to pay yourself a small wage. Even if it’s a tenth of what you were earning at a large law firm, that first month where you can actually pay yourself is unforgettable.

These are just a few of the lessons I’ve learned during my short tenure as a solo practitioner. Please share your thoughts by commenting below.

(photo: Illustration depicting a green chalkboard from Shutterstock)

Starting a Law Firm

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  • http://adamlillylaw.com/ Adam Lilly

    I’d also suggest starting out with Quickbooks. It’s a lot easier to learn how to use it before you get busy, and keep your systems running than it is to pick it up later on, and try to incorporate all your old info into it. I made the mistake of buying it early, but not learning how to use it for several months.

  • http://www.andrewmitton.com Andrew Mitton

    Do as much as you can in the cloud. I use Clio (goclio.com) for practice management, Outright.com for bookkeeping, Google Apps for email, calendar, contacts, and Capsule CRM for business development. I don’t keep original documents. So I don’t have paper files. So I don’t need a legal assistant. Works great.

  • http://atcounseltable.com Alex

    Great post. I’d also recommend doing a formal business plan that includes a 3 year projected cash flow analysis. Much of this might be guess work, but it helps to see what it will take to be/stay cash positive.

  • Abdiel

    I like this article–you have learned some important lessons. I have been out of law school 21 years, most of that as a solo, and I have some observations that may fly in the face of conventional wisdom.

    If you are doing ch 7 and 13 cases, you need to market much more than many practice areas. For most, if you still need marketing after four or five years of practice, you are doing something wrong.

    I’m not sure malpractice is necessary right off the bat. I wouldn’t say “don’t get it” but I would say it’s not as important as other things if you are on a tight budget. You don’t have a lot of clients, and malpractice claims can almost always be avoided if you promptly return clients’ phone calls.

    I also suggest that you not get so caught up in purchasing the next thing on your list of things you need/really want/would make you more efficient that you forget to take money home. Be disciplined with you revenue.

    This leads me to my final thought and why I disagree that you have to do everything on the Cloud. Sometimes we get so excited with the newest technology that we jump right in and buy before thinking much about it. I use Needles for my case management/office management software. It is the best I’ve seen and is not on the Cloud. I work in a building with attorneys who have practiced five to 15 years longer than me–they all specialize and they all make great money. Some of them don’t even have computers in their offices. Their paralegals do, but not the attorneys. I couldn’t live without my pc, but I don’t have a smart phone, web page, or blog. My point is that newer isn’t always better, cool tech stuff doesn’t always make you more profitable, and nothing replaces referrals as the best way to build a practice. The best way to get referrals is to take care of your current clients before prospective clients and be a great lawyer.

  • Jay

    Great post. Cannot wait for part II. I’ve been in a law firm now 8 years. I was not terribly happy so a year ago I moved to a new firm over my initial desires of going solo. I still daydream about going solo – but in the end I chickened out. I also have young kids and the thought of not bringing in a steady income made me flinch. How did you get over this initial reaction? Did you have a nest egg to survive on or a wife that is working and paying the bills? Did you open an office right away – or work out of your home a bit until cash started to flow?

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/willgeer/ Will Geer

      I had only three months of savings when I started out, and fortunately, I have not had to dip into any of it! I was lucky to have a friend let me use his office for free for a few months, and I marketing the hell out of my practice. I had lunch or coffee with dozens of attorneys. I still do, but not to the extent I did when I was first opening shop. My wife is actually in school and brings in no income, and I have two small children (a 5 year old and a 1 week old). Was it risky? Yes. But totally worth it.

      I can’t really explain how to get over the fear. I still recommend having at least 6 months of living expenses.