Q: Is Starting a Law Practice in My Spare Time a Good Idea?

faq-spare-time

A: Among lawyers dissatisfied with their current occupation (hereinafter “Evil Day Job” or “EDJ”), it is a popular fantasy that it is a good idea to start a law practice in one’s spare time. Undoubtedly, some lawyers have done so successfully. This does not mean it is a good idea.

The problem boils down to time and focus.

Never enough time

To begin with, you need to figure out what “spare time” you actually have.

Assuming your EDJ actually involves daytime hours, you will be working on your law practice mostly in the evenings. Unless you have a lot of vacation time you can use on short notice, that means a litigation practice is probably out. A lot of transactional work will be difficult, too, since businesses generally close about the same time you will be heading home from your EDJ. There are plenty of practice areas left, of course. Plenty of clients would rather not take time off from their own EDJs to meet with a lawyer. If their legal needs don’t require daytime hours (estate planning, for example), it’s fair game.

And when will you meet with these clients? If you are single and — improbably — give up on your social life, you might clear up five or six hours each evening. If you have a live-in partner or kids, you will be lucky to get that. Even if you cut back on sleep, you will be lucky to get more than a few hours a day.

Here’s where the bad-idea-ness of starting a law practice in your spare time should start to become clear. In whatever time you have, whether it is three or six hours, you will have to do all of the following:

  1. Market your fledgling practice aggressively. Since you are getting started, this will probably take 25–35% of your time.
  2. Handle administrative tasks, which will probably take another 25–35% of your time.
  3. Meet with clients and do their legal work, which will probably take every moment you aren’t doing other things.

Along with #3, if you are starting a law practice without much experience, you will have a lot of learning to do, and you will have to fit that in somewhere, too. In fact, that may be the most-important thing you have to do. It’s difficult — and unethical — to serve clients if you aren’t competent to handle their legal matters. So do not even try.

So how long can you go without sleep? Because something has to give, and it cannot be any of the above, not if you actually plan to have a real law practice, at some point.

Focusing on your practice

Potentially the bigger problem, at least from a business perspective, is that starting a practice in your spare time subtracts any sense of urgency or commitment. You must fully commit to your practice, during whatever time commitment you have made to it. That goes completely against the concept of “spare time.”

Additionally, if you aren’t depending on your practice for income — if you aren’t hungry, you probably won’t give it 100%. And that’s what it takes. If you don’t give 100%, you have a hobby, not a law practice. That’s fine if you already know what you are doing and just want to take the occasional case on the side. It’s not okay if you don’t know what you are doing and aren’t committed to learning.

A better option: a part-time practice

If you aren’t yet ready to go all-in on a full-time law practice, there are other ways to get up and running. Perhaps the best option is to go part-time at your EDJ, or find a part-time job while you get your law practice started. The less your EDJ demands of your brain, the more you will have left over for your practice.

Then, you can work hard with the time you do have, and quit your EDJ as soon as your law practice starts to generate income.

I will write another FAQ post on part-time practice in the near future. There are definitely disadvantages compared to full-time practice, but it is much more realistic — and feasible — than starting a law practice in your spare time.

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  • Guest

    It can be done if you work a government job. I know a public defender who has a real estate closing practice on the side. I know an assistant state’s attorney who has an online trademark prosecution practice.

    Of course you have to hide it from the boss.

    • http://tuckerlegal.com/ Catherine Tucker

      “Of course you have to hide it from the boss.”

      In that situation, you are bound to cause yourselves more problems than it is worth. For example, how could you conduct a meaningful conflicts check? You may agree to write a will for John Jones, while your colleague down the hall is trying to put John Jones in jail. Huge problems–both logistically and ethically.

      Fortunately, in many states, both prosecutors and public defenders are prohibited from having private practices on the side.

  • Bob

    Darn it, you’ve thrown a big turd in my punchbowl. At age 49, with recent admission to the bar in my state, and with no previous legal experience, I’ve been doing all the things needed to set up a solo practice and try to get it going in my spare time.

    I have a fine EDJ, but do not want to work for “the man” for the rest of my life.

    I am realistic and realize everything you’ve written is true, nevertheless, I am going to try to establish some legal work in spare time, keep the EDJ until kids are out of college (4 more years), and then peace-0ut on the corporate world by June, 2017.

  • http://lawyerist.com/author/chrisbradley/ Chris Bradley

    I’ve been thinking of the “part-time practice” issue for quite some time, as that’s what I’ve done since graduating in 2006. I am not currently handling any cases (although that will soon change), but I’ve generally always had a couple cases “on the side,” in addition to my full-time writing occupation.

    But I’ve got this idea I intend to flesh out and post here on Lawyerist soon. That is, in the current lawyer “bubble,” if we want to call it that, a part-time practice is THE way to go.

    • John

      I’m looking forward to your idea. I’m a first-year attorney with a good non-law job during the day. Any ideas you can share about doing law part-time would be great.

  • http://phillylawblog.wordpress.com/ Jordan Rushie

    I think it’s a bad idea. If you don’t have enough clients to maintain a full time practice, then it’s not a good idea for you to start a law firm.

    The problem will be this – when you start out, things are slow. At first you will take in anything that comes through the door. A year later, you’ll have good cases, paying clients, and important matters. But you’re still stuck with having to deal with the smaller cases. That’s hard enough as is. Balancing a job with that is like next to impossible.

  • http://phillylawblog.wordpress.com/ Jordan Rushie

    Another thought…

    Let’s say by some random stroke of luck you get a great potential case in. Someone gets rear-ended with huge damages, or a guy is willing to put up a giant retainer to have you defend them.

    That isn’t going to happen when you meet them in a Starbucks or your living room, at least 99% of the time. They’re going to figure out real quickly that this is a part time thing for you, because you’re only available after 6pm and you can never meet them at your office. (or it’s a Regus office, which is weird because why aren’t your degrees hanging on the wall?) You have my assurance that the competition is very, very underhanded. If they consult with another lawyer, no doubt they will say “Oh, he’s just a part time lawyer, works full time as a blah blah blah… probably won’t have time for your case.”

    So, the clients you get in are the crappy ones. Maybe a landlord tenant hearing or small claims case. And you know what kind of referrals you get from crappy clients? Other crappy clients.

    My advice to anyone contemplating a solo practice is to do it right from the get go. Get an office with a conference room, and have enough clients to at least put beer on the table. You are better off finding overflow arrangements from other solo practitioners rather than trying to juggle a full time job and a law practice. Once your practice picks up, phase out the per diem work.

  • http://www.painjurycase.com Dave S

    My view, all in or don’t do it.
    Having your own firm or being a principal in a small firm can be very rewarding. However, you have to be prepared for when you are in a down time, the responsibility, pressure and burden is on you. If not willing to take all that on, then stay in your day job and think happy thoughts.

  • guest

    I have to respectfully disagree with Jordan. Every practice starts part time until you have enough business to go full time. Throwing away a salaried job and committing yourself to big expensive office is reckless. I would:
    1. Get a website, business cell phone and Regus part time office.
    2. Start marketing for client leads.
    The problems that Jordan identifies are easily remedied. Other lawyers won’t bad talk you as a part time lawyer because other lawyers won’t even know that you exist, much less that you have a day job (unless you are stupid enough to front it). You can go to Regus a half hour before the appointment and hang up a few diplomas. You will be far more desperate, and willing to accept shitty leads, if you are unemployed and burdened with an expensive office than if you have a salaried job and just cherry pick good cases on the side.

    • http://phillylawblog.wordpress.com/ Jordan Rushie

      My first office was $500 a month, split among two lawyers (me and Leo). It had access to a shared conference room on a different floor.

      I dropped a six figure salaried job to start my practice. I’m glad I did, and I’m glad I went all in.

      A year later, we have much bigger offices and a private conference room.

    • http://tuckerlegal.com/ Catherine Tucker

      ” You can go to Regus a half hour before the appointment and hang up a few diplomas.”

      And don’t you think maybe that this would be a tad misleading to clients? Can’t imagine that bar overseers would be too pleased to hear this.

  • guest

    There is another advantage to taking it slow and starting part time. Marketing has a learning curve. It takes time to master HTML, CSS, AdWords, and SEO. It also takes time to master going to parties and associations for in person marketing (if that is your thing). Once a lead comes in, it takes time and practice to learn how to close effectively.

    Isn’t it better to draw a salary while you are learning to do this?

  • https://www.sendoutcards.com/b2b/ Ira S.

    Excellent article. Another tip I would recommend is service the heck for your EDJ clients and make your client relationships deep nd personal. When you are ready to go out on your own, some clients will send you some or all of their work. The ones that can’t will refer others to you.

  • Fred Kruck

    No discussion of the ethical issue?
    Many employers — at least if you are employed by a law firm – will view your part-time practice as stealing the firm’s business opporunities. And in some situations the firm might be right. In those situations — fortunately not all of them — you will be fired for disloyalty and sued for the earnings you took away from / failed to give to your employer.

    Sure, if your written eployment contract allows for such ‘extra-curricular activity’ then that’s fine; but this is a potential minefield which bears a column of its own. Starting a practice in the evening is a recipe for failure and and a lawsuit. If you are going to do it, do it for real.

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

      Since most lawyers employed as lawyers are happy just to have a job, I don’t think there are many considering a spare-time practice. I think this post mostly applies to lawyers employed in non-legal fields.

  • Anon E. Mouse

    What we don’t see mentioned here is the ethical concerns for a public sector employee engaging in practice outside the scope of their public sector employment. Be very careful about how you proceed along this path if you are a public sector employee.

  • http://tuckerlegal.com/ Catherine Tucker

    There are many things you can do potentially do while employed in a EDJ to get ready for solo practice. Take CLEs. Write template motions/contracts that you will use in the future. Prepare your website/blog (without publishing it). Start connecting with people in the field. Read everything you can get your hands on. Write articles in your area of interest.

    But once you go solo, you really need to be fully committed to it, and not just doing it in the evenings. Part-time practice can work (I’ve done it), but it won’t work as an adjunct to a full-time job.

  • http://www.workmadeforhire.net Katie

    I have a part-time legal practice and an EDJ (more of a DJ). My DJ boss knows about my practice and my clients know I have a DJ and that my law office is in my house. I do transactional work for freelancers and I have a good book of clients who provide me with regular work and pay their bills nearly immediately. It’s not for everyone and it’s not without its difficulties, but it is doable.

    It is not a practice if you want to look like every other lawyer or if you you are committed to the idea that there is one “right way.”

    It’s not a practice if you want to cut corners and hide the fact that you’re doing this part time.

    It’s not a practice for new lawyers. I just went to my 10th year reunion and I’ve always had legal or legally related jobs. I’ve got a lot of experience for what I do. I also have a great network of attorneys for the things I don’t have a lot of experience doing. If you are a new lawyer, make pro bono work your part-time practice. You’ll get good experience and build up that network.

    It’s been a super helpful way to see if I really want to start a full-time practice or stick with the DJ. I now know that I do because it’s incredibly rewarding work; I feel like I’m genuinely helping my clients and that makes working 7 days a week much easier. (Yes, I’m married, no kids; my wife is a freelancer who works a ton, too.)

    The practice is providing safety net cash that I’ll use when I give my notice at the DJ. Having a year and a half of experience managing a practice, marketing, dealing with clients and juggling administrative duties will all make going full-time a bit easier; I feel like I’ll be able to hit the ground running.

    Again, it’s not for everyone and it’s definitely got its challenges, but it’s totally doable.