Three Myths About Solo Attorneys (Part 1 of 3)

solo-attorney-biglaw-myth

In law school, the best and the brightest get jobs at Big Law, P.A., or get a clerkship with the Supreme Court and then move onto a glorious job at Big Law, P.A.

Usually the only talk of solo attorneys is “well, you can always go solo if you can’t find anything else.”

The truth is, some attorneys actually want to go solo and start their own firm.

And surprise, surprise, we work pretty hard—but we actually can make a comfortable living.

Myth 1: solo attorneys couldn’t get a “real” job

I did not understand this stigma before going solo and I definitely do not understand it now that I’ve run a firm for over two years.

To be fair, I think the strength of the stigma depends on where you practice and where you go to law school. I graduated from a Top 20 school that tends to send it’s graduates to big firms, awesome clerkships, and other highly-sought positions. Apparently, that does not include starting your own firm.

I can’t ever remember a lunchtime CLE presented by a solo attorney on how they went solo/why they went solo/why you should consider starting your own firm. Again, my school is known as treating going solo as “well, you failed.” To varying degrees, that stigma exists at other schools and within the legal community as a whole.

Dig a little deeper, however, and you’ll discover that many people at big firms and awesome clerkships have outright respect (and perhaps some level of jealously) for attorneys who run their own firms. The perception of “solo = loser” seems to be most prevalent amongst law students that have OCI ingrained in their skulls and relatively new associates that think working at a firm is the only way to go.

Talk to senior associates or partners at big firms and many of them understand just how tough it is to keep a successful solo practice running. I’ve been told by more than one person “there’s no way I could do what you do—I just couldn’t do make it work.” Some of even say things like “I’ve got it easy, your job is way tougher than mine.”

I happen to know a fair number of individuals that currently work at big firms as a fallback to their own failed attempt at starting a solo practice. Yes, working at a firm was their second choice, not their first.

Look, there’s positives and negatives about both sides of the fence. But don’t ever believe that solo attorneys couldn’t find another job.

Myth 2: solo attorneys are slackers that don’t work hard

If the comparison is between the life of a solo and a first year associate that works eighty hours a week, that’s not a fair comparison. I don’t work eighty hours a week. I usually work about 50-55 hours week and it’s rarely much less.

I’m usually in my office for about 8-9 hours a day, with no lunch break. I also usually work another 1-2 hours at night after the kids go to sleep. I also teach two classes at a local law school and write for Lawyerist—which usually happens at night or on the weekends (happy Mother’s day!). And don’t forget about marketing, networking, and presenting CLEs.

I’m not saying young associates at firms are not required to do marketing, networking, and all those extra things, but I think it’s much more critical to creating and sustaining a solo practice. At a firm it might be a plus if you do those things. If your run your own practice it’s a necessity.

Frankly, it would be near-impossible for a truly solo attorney (no support staff) to work on active cases eighty hours a week on a consistent basis. There would be no time for client intake, marketing, networking, blogging, fixing your finances, etc. Ballpark, I’d say I spend about 30-40% of my time on all that stuff.

So yes, most solo attorneys do not constantly work 80 hours a week on active cases. But they probably spend 50-60 hours a week on lawyering and all the other stuff that comes with running a business.

Myth 3: solo attorneys don’t make any money

I know plenty of solo attorneys that just as much, and more, than partners at big firms. I also know plenty of solo attorneys that only make enough to take home a minimal salary. From my entirely unscientific polling, I’d say most solo practitioners take home between $50,000 – $70,000 a year. My unscientific poll also indicates that most solo attorneys don’t work the same number of hours as big firm counterparts.

A successful solo firm probably generates six-figures (or close to six-figures) in gross income each year. If they know how to balance the books (which does not mean saving every penny), that should still leave a pretty decent amount of money left over.

Is that less than what a big firm counterpart makes? Absolutely. Do solo attorneys work fewer hours? Probably. So it’s quite possible that a successful solo attorney could work fewer hours but actually make more per hour than a big firm associate. For example, solo attorney makes (takes home) $50,000 per year, but works 40 hours per week. Third-year associate take home $80,000 a year, but works about 80 hours a week. The solo attorney is making much more per hour than the firm associate.

Of course, there are other important considerations when it comes to money. Working as an employee (at least in the short term) guarantees a set income as long as you are employed. Working as solo attorney does not have the same benefit. If you are good with cash flow you can control that to a degree, but it’s not absolute. On the flip side, working as a solo attorney can have a bigger upside (short term or long term) if you can get and continue to get “big” cases. To be fair, the same is true to an extent at a larger firm. If you are working crazy hours, you will likely be rewarded with a bonus at the end of the year.

It’s not that bad—I promise

There are plenty of positives and negatives about running your own practice—just like there are plenty of ups and downs about working at a big firm.

But the next time you assume that Sally Solo Practitioner couldn’t get a real job, just works when she feels like, and barely makes enough to put food on the table, think again.

In part two, I’ll tackle more myths about solo attorneys: including whether they work from their cars, if they are afraid of big law opposing counsel, and what kind of technology they use.

(photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/dharrels/2040057011/)

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  • David Sugerman

    So the one thing that is lost on many about the advantage of solo life is control. As a solo with a staff, I decide whether to take a case. Other than the constraints of overhead and taking care of my employees, I have wide flexibility to take or refuse cases. That strikes me as the ultimate luxury and the thing that I love best about being a solo.

    • http://consumerlawyer.mn/cgi-sys/suspendedpage.cgi Randall Ryder

      As a control freak, I would agree with that.

  • http://www.royginsburg.com Roy Ginsburg

    Myth 4: Solo attorneys as a group are less competent than lawyers who work in firms

    In my day job, I meet lawyers of all shapes and sizes. With a few exceptions, all seem to me to be competent irrespective of the size of the firm where they practice. Sure, large firms lawyers may have graduated from more prestigious law schools and have higher LSAT scores, but some of them can be pretty stupid. The most recent exhibit A is the now defunct Dewey LeBoeuf.

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

      This is my biggest beef, really. Being a great lawyer has absolutely zero to do with the size of the firm you work at.

      • http://consumerlawyer.mn/cgi-sys/suspendedpage.cgi Randall Ryder

        If I had a nickel for every big firm attorney that insinuated that I was less competent, or outright said so, that would be a nice supplementary income.

  • http://fishtownlaw.com/ Jordan Rushie

    Randall, I am glad you wrote this piece.

    I used to have one of those big firm jobs with offices in several cities, where the biggest stress in life was billing, and we held firm meetings about typography used in briefs.

    On the one hand, it was a great experience for me. I learned attention to detail, how to communicate, the nuts and bolts of litigation, and many other things that have helped me greatly.

    But, I knew firm life wasn’t for me forever. I wasn’t happy. And I figured if I didn’t start a law firm when I did, I would never do it.

    I started my own because I wanted to build something. And I like what I do now much, much, much better. I actually work more hours now, and the work is harder. The money isn’t always consistent, but it’s not always bad either. Sometimes I make more now than I did then. There is nothing like being on your own. It’s incredibly rewarding.

    I wake up every single day happy to “go to work”, and I’ve never looked back.

    Thanks again for writing this.

    • http://consumerlawyer.mn/cgi-sys/suspendedpage.cgi Randall Ryder

      It’s nice to hear your perspective—given that you have been on both sides. I’ve always been solo (or nearly solo), so I’m _slightly_ biased.

  • http://fishtownlaw.com/ Jordan Rushie

    I’d just add one thing…

    Having one attorney who is immensely immersed in a file is often a lot better than having 5 attorneys working (and billing) on a matter. I know this probably gets said all the time, but it’s true – I feel that I can give clients, better, more individualized services in a much more cost effective way in my own firm. I’m not going to charge you $250 to write a letter, and then ding you for the 46c of postage.

    It also allows me to come up with more flexible fee structures, work with clients, and there is no pressure to bill bill bill.

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

    Wait, are we on a Nintendo post image kick, here?

    • http://consumerlawyer.mn/cgi-sys/suspendedpage.cgi Randall Ryder

      Super Schnittjer Brothers was on SEGA Genesis.

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

        It’s a real thing?

        • http://consumerlawyer.mn/cgi-sys/suspendedpage.cgi Randall Ryder

          Nope. I thought it went with the “misconception/wrongful assumption” theme.

          I’ve been getting lots of questions about the image. Maybe I’ll make that game now.

  • http://cindywolfdotcom.wordpress.com Cindy Wolf

    There’s a reason why law schools don’t invite solos to give talks at law schools about going it alone right out of school. It’s because they know they aren’t training their students to practice law. I’m solo now, have been before, but spent most of my career in house. I would have floundered on my own right out of school. I’m now smart enough to know what I don’t know and also have an extensive network of lawyers I can refer clients to and get additional help from when a client needs legal advice I’m not prepared to give. Solos need good networks as the days of the GP lawyer who handles wills, complex commercial litigation and cyber crime are long gone (except maybe on TV).

    • http://consumerlawyer.mn/cgi-sys/suspendedpage.cgi Randall Ryder

      I’d agree with that—I do not think it’s a great idea to go solo right out of law school. I’ve written about that over the last couple of years.

      Frankly, I think that’s exactly the type of CLE law schools should provide to students. Let solos come in and explain to students exactly how difficult it is to run a solo practice, but give them ideas on how to go solo sooner rather than later.

  • Derek Medina

    One must practice law to become a master of it. It is Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours theory. My biased view is that solo attorney’s, especially those who practice in rural areas, practice law everyday by necessity. Thus, they naturally become masters.

    As for the real job issue, I purposely took the legal clinic course so I could learn practical lawyering skills. That year of legal clinic did more for my abilities to do a real job than all the other courses I took combined (exceptions being legal writing and accounting for lawyers course).

    One point about myth 2. People may confuse flexible scheduling with being “lazy.” My work schedule is inconsistent. Sometimes I may work close to 80 hours to prepare for trial. Other times, I may barely make part-time since business is slow or I’ve just finished a big trial and had not taken as many clients. I have control of my time. Being a solo works for those who do not need a rigid structure.

    I’ve managed to support my wife and child for over a decade, and now support several employees. I have obligations, but am not beholden to the whims of a corporation or a boss. I don’t know how that could be considered losing; but if it is, I’m glad I’m a loser.

  • DW

    What law firm pays third-years only 80K to work 80 hours a week? Do you mean 180K?

  • Solo1

    I’m in my first year as a solo attorney, and already on pace to make over $100k in a small town… Am I a complete aberration? lol.. I was surprised that you gauged the average around $50-70k, based upon my own experience, I would have guessed well over $100k… It really doesn’t take many cases to add up fast. I’m charging $170/hour, usually $1-2k for all retainers.

    • J. Flanders

      Sorry, just found this post. I don’t know if it is just me, but I made over six figures last year, and I am on pace to do it again this year. I worked at a firm and I know how they bill. I actually bill less aggressively than I did at the firm, but I make a good living. I feel like I am an abberation from the norm too. I guess the moral of the story is don’t listen to anybody and go out and kick butt.

  • lockhorns

    After my deposition Friday, the other guy said, “I have 159 lawyers at my disposal and I cannot see how you do what you do.” Easy, solo with three paralegals. I do just fine and have a life.