Lessons Learned Going from Government to BigLaw to Solo Practice

law-practice-lessons-learned

Starting a law firm after 13 years of practice in government and at a law firm is a very different proposition than going solo soon after law school. Chris Hill made it work. Here’s how, and what he learned. — Ed.

If you asked me almost 16 years ago as I graduated from Washington University School of Law (St. Louis, not Seattle) what area of law I would end up enjoying and practicing, construction law would have been so far from my mind that I would not have thought to reject it. Like many 3rd-year law students in what at the time was considered a tough job market (yes, I know that it has only gotten tougher), I was just looking to be a litigator. I didn’t even have a particular area, aside from “civil” in mind.

Of course, my law school had Moot Court and a couple of litigation clinics. I had also worked at the St. Louis Circuit Attorney’s Office and a small FELA plaintiff’s firm in the summers. Aside from this, I had nothing but theory in my head and what was eventually a pretty good transcript going for me. I also had a wife and a daughter on the way and needed a job.

So, I moved back to my hometown of Richmond, VA to take the bar (I passed) and start my employment at the Office of the Attorney General of Virginia.

The Government Job:  Representing the Virginia Dept. of Corrections

Like many new lawyers, I needed a bit of “seasoning.”  Luckily I didn’t have much of a chance to worry about it when my new boss pointed out the three file cabinets of open inmate-related civil lawsuits and simply told me to close them and ask someone if you have questions. My first question was “Where’s the courthouse?”

Basically, I was thrown into the deep end, and had to sink or swim. Unlike those that go solo right out of law school, I had two advantages:  (1) it is really hard to lose a lawsuit against pro se inmates in the Commonwealth of Virginia and (2) I had people to ask and a built-in support system of seasoned attorneys to lean on. Frankly, I can’t imagine starting from scratch way back then, so I am glad I was able to gain time in a courtroom in a fairly safe environment.

After close to five years and two elections, I decided I needed a change, and headed into private practice at a firm with about ten lawyers.

“Medium Law”

It was at this firm (at the time Meyer, Goergen & Marrs) that I got a taste for construction law and the BigLaw–style practice, with hourly billing and (informal) billable-hour quotas.

MGM had a fairly diverse practice for having such a small number of attorneys. However, the largest portion of the work (at least at the time) was in the area of real estate, small business, and the litigation offshoots of this practice. In short, much of the litigation that I assisted with and performed on my own was construction and development related. Mechanic’s liens, contract drafting, and construction litigation made up most of my day as an associate.

At MGM, I was first forced to hunt clients and took my first steps toward the marketing and client development skills that law school did not teach me and that close to five years in government practice had not required. I joined networking groups and handed out cards. Blogging and social media were still a ways off for me (and for most attorneys). Heck, WordPerfect was still being used on a regular basis. Lawyers did their marketing in person or not at all.

After about four and a half years, I left for another firm — DurretteBradshaw — that was about twice the size of MGM. I had a few clients, a practice area that was not heavily represented at this next firm, and a few marketing skills.

DurretteBradshaw, while not a huge firm, ran like a relatively typical BigLaw firm. I had hourly quotas for both marketing and billable time. The first of these was filled in many ways through heavy participation in the Associated Contractors of Virginia, an organization in which I still participate heavily. On the plus side, having the heavy emphasis on marketing further honed the “rainmaking” skills that I still use today. Furthermore, I began my blog while still a principal at DurretteBradshaw. (I paid all the costs myself to ensure that all of the posts were mine).

In 2010, after building a construction law practice for another four and a half years or so, I came to the realization that I was not gaining any additional business in my chosen field by associating with the firm, did a little math, explored the possibilities of further law firm employment, and journeyed out into the world of the solo practitioner.

Reflections on Solo Practice

I did not jump right into solo practice. In July of 2010, after 13 years of law practice, I opened up The Law Office of Christopher G. Hill, PC as its sole attorney and staff member. It has been the best professional decision I could have made.

Ready for Launch

When I “launched” my practice I (along with invaluable family assistance) did all of the usual things: explored office space, incorporated, found malpractice insurance, registered the firm with the Virginia State Bar, opened bank accounts, etc. I also sent out actual announcement cards. I did not send e-cards or some e-mail blast that I was sure would end up in the “Spam” or “Trash” folder. I also plastered the move up on my blog and on the other social media sites at which I have profiles.

I also hired an accountant to take my expenses and income and keep track of profit and loss for the firm. He also uses this information to make sure I stay up-to-date with my taxes and to produce a business return and K-1. Even better, his monthly fee is a fraction of the cost of lost productivity that my performing this task on my own would cause.

Aside from those listed above, my “preparations” involved printing cards, signing up for Clio for my billing and document management, finding a comfortable chair, and buying a computer and multi-function printer (the ScanSnap would come later). My transition was a quick one once I made the decision to go solo, so I really didn’t follow any particular formula. I asked if my existing clients would stick with me, and struck out on my own.

These days, I’ve got a two drawer file cabinet that is half full of old files and am as paperless as the practice of law allows.

Clients, Clients, Clients

Luckily for me, just about all of my construction clients decided to make the move with me. I thought not having a firm behind me could be a liability to my ability to gain business, but it turned out to be a bonus for many of my current and potential clients. My status as a small-business owner made me more — not less — attractive to contractors and subcontractors who were small business owners, too. Furthermore, because I was basically a one-man construction division of my old firm, these clients did not know many (if any) of the other lawyers at the firm, so I did not have any internal, client-related struggles when I left. To the extent that the firm you work for allows it, make as much personal contact with clients as possible to cultivate relationships. By doing this, you will hopefully have a similar experience to mine.

As far as new clients were concerned, a combination of Web 2.0 marketing and handshakes (read: face-to-face meetings) were the key. From the beginning I took other attorneys, clients, and potential clients out to lunch and coffee. I always paid, no questions asked. While this was an expenditure of time and money, I felt that face-to-face contact and a chance to answer questions about my new firm were more than worth it. I also believe that while the internet has great advantages when used correctly, the personal touch closes the deal. This combination has served me well over the last three-plus years.

Lessons Learned

The last three years have been an education in many things, not the least of which are time and cash-flow management. Law school does many things, but teaching its graduates how to make money as lawyers is not one of them. I’ve been able to experiment with fee structures and client service methods so that I can do more than keep the lights on while actually seeing my kids. This flexibility helped me to overcome the challenge of differentiating myself from other attorneys.

Mistakes? What Mistakes?

While the transition to a solo practice was a wonderful time, it was not without stress and the occasional (heh heh) mistake. I’ve spent money on unproductive marketing and spent more than necessary on a sponsorship. I’ve also made the mistake of falling into the “I need money in the door so I have to take every client” trap. This last just made me miserable and I realized that I am better off foregoing the client than fighting that client for payment or pulling my hair out.

Another easy mistake to make is not asking for help. This can be from the clerk’s office, your significant other, or another lawyer. While you went solo for a reason (namely, you wanted to steer your own ship), you can’t know everything; so don’t try. When you have a question that you can’t find an answer to, ask someone. You’d be surprised who will help. I remind myself of this at least once a week after spending two hours on the Internet when a five-minute phone call would have done the trick. You may be solo, but you are not alone.

The key — and this is something I am not always good at — is being able to assess your mistakes and still get some sleep at night. I know that this is hard to do when you don’t eat if you don’t bring in the dough. I’ve spent many a sleepless night or cranky day after which my wife gets an apology because I act short with her or the kids. Just taking a deep breath and talking out the issue with a trusted colleague or spouse (without violating privilege, of course) goes a long way.

Stuff Done Right

The first thing that I realized on going solo was that I like my clients as a general rule. I know; this is not a prerequisite to a successful law practice. For example, it would be hard to like all of your criminal clients. Just be sure that you are able to smile during the day.

I also like my area of law, and I plan to stick to it. I don’t try to be all things to my clients. If you’re a criminal lawyer, be the best one you can be, and refer out other matters to trusted friends and colleagues. Many solos and boutique firms specialize in practice areas you don’t handle. I have cultivated this fact, and it’s helped me immensely.

Hiring my accountant was also one of the keys to success. Aside from the increased productivity because I don’t have to spend time every month to determine profits, this decision taught me that outsourcing some things is not a bad idea. Spending money is okay when the alternative is less production (read: influx of cash) and more stress. Life without a net is stressful enough without making it harder on yourself.

That said, start small. Do a careful analysis of what a certain expense (whether a subscription to Westlaw or Lexis or a new gadget) will add to the bottom line, either in peace of mind or in dollars. Try many things, but stick with few. Be ready to jettison those things that don’t work for you. I had to have an office, you may not. I use a Blackberry, but you may prefer an iPhone. It would be a mistake for me to think that my setup would be perfect for you.

Treat the latest technology advice as just that: advice. Just because the cloud is a big buzzword these days does not mean that everything in the cloud will work for you. While I can’t imagine running my practice without cloud-based tools, I also can’t count the number of web-based ideas I’ve tried and dropped over the years. I have probably gained more by simplifying than I ever would have through addition for additions sake.

You Left the Firm for a Reason

Are there days where I wonder what I’m doing? Yep. Are there days I sit there and wonder if my clients will ever pay me? Yep. Do I sometimes wonder if just getting a paycheck would be more secure? Uh Huh. These are the constant psychological challenges to starting and maintaining a solo practice after being at a firm with the (at least seeming) security that that provided.

Are there cash flow ebbs and flows? Yes. Do you have to keep from spending money on that shiny new Mac when cash flow is good to keep from having an issue when there’s a lull? Sure. Do you get ornery clients that take more of your time than they are willing to pay for? Absolutely. These are just a few of the business (yes your firm is a business after all) challenges that need to be overcome, and none are insurmountable.

For every challenge, there’s an upside. I have more flexibility. I keep what I make and don’t have to pay for the overhead and salaries of others. I can decide what to charge and work with clients on what is a good billing basis. I smile more because I don’t report to anyone. If I don’t want to take a case, I don’t have to. These are just a few of the benefits of solo versus firm (for me).

Most of all, remember that if you are like me and left a firm to go solo, you did it for your own reasons and no one else’s. What works for one solo may not work for you. Now that you’re not at a firm, you get to define success and determine how to move forward. You decided to work without a net so that you can decide how you bill, what clients you want, and how you want to work.

Keep that in mind when making decisions and you’ll have a great time as a solo. I know I do.

(image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/poetprince/3388645449/)

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  • Craig H. Durham

    Very well said. I opened my own shop four months ago, 15 years after graduating from law school. My path was a little bit different — public defense followed by a federal court clerkship — but my new solo practice experience has been similar.

    I second this:

    “That said, start small. Do a careful analysis of what a certain expense (whether a subscription to Westlaw or Lexis or a new gadget) will add to the bottom line, either in peace of mind or in dollars.”

    One of the most often heard pieces of advice for new solos is “keep your overhead low.” Very true, but like all things, this advice must be seasoned with a dose of reasonableness. I’m frugal but not so cheap that potential clients will believe that I’m unstable or fly-by-night. I have a small and modest office in a good location, but I don’t yet have staff. For every significant or recurring expenditure, ask yourself how that expenditure will help you become more efficient and support your bottom line.

  • Laurie Runs Life

    Fabulous article Chris, and I have learned from my (now 5 year!) journey into working for myself and outside of more traditional paralegal employment, many of these lessons the hard way. Hopefully what you have shared will be a beacon of light for some struggling new solos :)

  • http://www.ekglaw.com/ Evan Guthrie Law Firm

    Good info on the transition to solo practice.

  • Francisco Rosa

    Great advise. I’m working as a solo attorney and the last two months have been very positive and look forward to successfully developing a practice that will grow.

  • Jameika Mangum

    Very informative article. I was a prosecutor prior to solo practice, and your article contains helpful advice.