Starting a Solo Practice: Five Things to Consider
Running your own solo practice can be awesome, but it is not for everyone. My firm is relatively new, but plenty of solo attorneys have closed up shop since I opened mine.
If you are thinking about starting your own firm, here are five things to consider before going solo.
You don’t understand how/want to run a business
If you want to spend 99% of your time reading cases, arguing things, and doing “law-talkin’” stuff, you should not start a solo practice. Most solo attorneys say they spend between 25%-50% of their time on things other than practicing law.
That include, but is not limited to: client intake, marketing, bookkeeping, cleaning/building an office, designing a website, and troubleshooting and fixing computer/website issues. During any given week, you are likely to do all of those things, along with twenty other things that I didn’t list.
Sure, you can pay to have someone else help with many of those tasks, but probably not right away. One of the keys to running a successful solo practice is keeping your overhead low. If you don’t know what that means, you should not go solo. If your idea of keeping overhead low is breaking even every month, you should not go solo.
For the most part, I genuinely enjoy running my own business. I also know lots of former solo attorneys who did not. Running a business is a totally different animal than practicing law. Make sure you’re up for the challenge.
You like/need/want a regular dependable paycheck
There are lots of good things about working for a firm. Someone else answers the phone, pays the bills to keep the lights on, and most importantly, writes you a check twice a month. If you take a vacation or slack off for a couple of weeks, you are still going to make the same amount.
If you are supporting your family, like to buy cars, or carry other financial responsibilities that require regular, consistent payments (a mortgage comes to mind), going solo might not be for you. If you handle your cash flow properly, you should be able to pay yourself a regular monthly salary. Note: you should be able to, but you might not be able to.
I have had months where I gross $1,000-$2,000. Take out overhead, and if I’m lucky, I’m still in the black. But I also have dip into the firm’s coffers to pay myself. I put aside excess income for a rainy day, but it still kind of sucks to dip into the reserves.
If the idea of not getting a regular paycheck scares the living bejesus out of you, going solo might not be your cup of tea.
You prefer to let someone else call the shots
If you like taking direction and following orders, you might want to stay put. Many associates at firms claim they hate taking orders, but actually fear making the big decisions and blazing the trails. Figure out which one you are before starting your own firm.
You should still have good resources—maybe a mentor—if you run your own practice. But you also have to make decisions, many of which are very stressful and difficult. You don’t get to defer to someone else, or rely on their experience. It’s your call.
By this point in your life, you know whether you like to lead or follow. If it’s the former, go for it. If it’s the latter, you may want to rethink your plan.
Marketing? What does that mean?
If you like to sit in your office and do the work that comes onto your desk, you should not go solo. When you run your own firm, business rarely walks into your office.
You need a marketing plan, which will include advertising in some form. That might mean tv commercials, billboards, or print media. Chances are, you won’t be able to afford that for quite some time. That means you might need to run a clever Google AdWords campaign or try and promote yourself by doing CLEs.
You will definitely need to network with other attorneys. You don’t have to go to every bar function, but you will have to grab coffee or lunch with other attorneys to let them know you exist. If you absolutely hate that kind of stuff, you should not start your own practice.
You like taking planned vacations and ignoring work for a week
As a solo attorney, it’s easy to come in late, or work from home when you feel like it. It’s relatively easy to take a spontaneous three-day weekend. It’s not that easy to take a planned vacation.
To be clear: it’s doable, but it can be tricky. You will need to arrange for someone to be your emergency backup, in case something blows up in a case. You may need to request continuances for a hearing(s). If you can’t access your voicemail remotely, you may need to hire a temporary assistant to answer the phones.
Even when you’re on vacation, you will want to check in. Chances are, your calls are just going to voicemail, and your e-mails are going unanswered. If checking in destroys your vacation, then going solo is not for you. I’ve gone one a few vacations and it definitely detracts from my vacations to check my e-mail and return phone calls.
But the flip side—ignoring everything—is more stressful than checking in and making sure everything is just dandy.
Be honest with yourself
Running your own firm is a ton of work and immensely rewarding, but so are lots of other legal jobs. There are many more considerations beyond these five topics, but it is a good place to start.
Think it through, and if you decide to go solo—welcome to the club!