Q: Can I Make a Part-Time Law Practice Work?
A: Part-time law practice comes with its own set of challenges, but you can absolutely make it work — and it is a heckuva lot smarter than trying to have a law practice in your spare time. In fact, if you can balance the competing demands of a law practice and whatever you need to do with the rest of your time, a part-time law practice can be pretty great.
I did full-time (read: anywhere between 20 and 120 hours per week) litigation for years. About two years ago, I dialed my practice back to part-time. So I feel qualified to have an opinion on this. Of course, like every other opinion you get about law practice, mine is affected by the kind of practice I have. My litigation practice was completely different than my small-business startup practice. And both are completely different than a family law or criminal defense practice. Filter my opinion accordingly.
In order to have a part-time practice, you must have a flexible definition of the term “part-time.” First, unless you are an ambulance driver (and perhaps even then) you have professional obligations as a lawyer that must trump whatever you are doing with the other part of your time. Your part-time law practice must take precedence over your other part-time stuff.
For example, if you have a motion hearing on Tuesday, but your boss at the EDJ wants you to work that shift, you are going to that motion hearing. If your client has a real estate closing on Thursday, when you would usually take the kids to afternoon swim lessons, your spouse is going to have to take the kids.
Sure, you can often work out your schedule, but not always. You will have conflicts, and your law practice will always win. You have to be okay with this.
Second, your “part-time” practice may require 40 hours of your time one week, and 10 the next. This fluctuation may not always be predictable. Almost 10 years out of law school, my wife (also a lawyer) and I still occasionally pull and all-nighter. This is not because we are procrastinators (well, not just that, anyway). Sometimes you just have too much to do, so you sacrifice sleep to get it done, because missing a deadline is not an option.
The extent to which these factors apply to your part-time practice will obviously depend on the kind of practice you have. A part-time litigation practice is a lot more intrusive and periodically time-consuming than a small-business startup practice. Your mileage may vary, but you will definitely have to contend with both of these facts.
As long as you are okay with that, start planning your part-time practice.
Actually, one more thing. Make sure your EDJ is okay with your moonlighting. This is especially true if your practice could be viewed as any kind of conflict of interest, or, obviously, if your employment contract prohibits moonlighting. It is also a good idea to tell your boss that, if something comes up, you might have to bail on short notice.
Different paths, same destination
Starting a law practice, part-time or not, is very different for a brand-new lawyer than for an experienced one. If you do not have to worry about acquiring experience on top of everything else that goes into building a practice, it’s not nearly as hard.
Starting a part-time practice as a new lawyer
If you are a new lawyer, starting a practice is a fundamentally different project than if you have been practicing for a while and already know what you are doing as a lawyer. It is much harder. In fact, you are far better off not trying to start a part-time practice if you just graduated from law school. (This is true whether or not you plan to practice part time.)
On the other hand, if you just said “Screw you, Sam, I’m doing it anyway” to yourself while reading that last paragraph, good. With that kind of attitude, you stand a fighting chance.
The single-most-important thing about starting a part-time law practice is the single-most-important thing about starting a full-time law practice: don’t half-ass it. You need to dive in, headfirst, and work you butt off with whatever time you have for your practice. Learning to be a lawyer is really really hard, and starting a business is really really hard. You cannot wait for business to come to you or drag your feet on tasks that are new to you. For a while, at least, part-time for you will probably mean full time, on top of whatever else you are doing.
Suck it up, lose some sleep, and work your tail off, and with a lot of hard work and a little luck, you can make it work.
Cutting back to part-time practice as an experienced lawyer
Everything is easier when you already know what you are doing and you have a reputation to build on. If you are an experienced lawyer (say 10+ years in practice), you will probably have a much easier time building a part-time practice.
You may be doing this for a couple of different reasons. Maybe you want to cut back at your day job in order to build a practice you can transition to, whether or not it stays part time. Or, maybe you have young kids and you and your spouse agree that one of you should pick them up from school. Or your dog needs more attention. Whatever.
Here, I think it is especially important to decide what part-time means for you, and carefully plan your business around that time commitment. Unlike the new lawyer, your problem will be learning to say no to more work than you want to take on. If you never want to have more than a part-time practice, pay special attention to the next section.
If everything goes as planned, your part-time law practice will eventually start demanding more than its fair share of your time. When this happens, you have a choice. You can grow your practice, probably by going with the momentum, taking on more clients, and going full-time. Or, you can find a way to stop your practice from growing in size or time commitment, probably by limiting the number of clients you have or raising your rate to keep price-sensitive clients from hiring you, or some other solution. Limiting your clients by setting a limit on the number of clients you will take can be risky, though. If referral sources get wind of the fact that your client list is “full,” they may stop referring business to you altogether. Just tell them you are always interested in meeting potential clients, and that if you cannot help someone, you will make sure they find a lawyer who can.
If you start getting busier and want to go full-time, just do it. As soon as you can justify quitting your EDJ, quit, and never look back. But if all you want is a part-time practice, you can have it. It will take a while to figure out the right mix of marketing, fee structure, and the number and size of clients you need to have to maintain your practice at its idea size, but you can do it. Just be strategic about it.