Going Solo: Debunking the Top Ten Fears

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Lawyers who cannot not find the courage to leave a law firm for solo practice usually have one fear that stops them dead in their tracks. They know the consequences of going solo, and they know in their heads and hearts that they should leave, but they can’t quite do it.

Most of those fears are well-founded, though, and none of the lawyers I have helped confront their fears have decided to stay at their firms. All of them left, and are happy they did.

In no particular order, here are the fears they overcame.

1. There Is More Job Security at My Firm

Have you read the newspapers recently? There is no such thing as job security in law. The lawyers who have the most job security are those with the most clients, because they can go anywhere and prosper.

The size of a firm or its revenues does not provide any job security. In fact, sometimes the larger firms provide less security because high overhead costs have weighed them down.

2. My Clients Will Not Follow Me

Don’t be so pessimistic. Clients (individuals as well as businesses) hire lawyers, not law firms. If your client relationships are strong, they will follow you when you go solo.

Probably not all of them, but most will — and if most will, why stay?

3. I cannot Afford the Start-Up Costs of Going Solo

Yes you can. You should consider yourself lucky that you are in a profession where the start up costs are relatively low.

Numerous articles on Lawyerist alone should be enough to convince you that you can be up and running by spending only a few thousand dollars (even if you probably need to spend a bit more).

Spend a little more to get help from consultants if you think you need to. Even so, starting a law firm is a relatively inexpensive venture.

4. My Former Partners Will Hate Me

So what. Every time I heard this excuse, the next words out of their mouths were that they wanted to leave in order to get away from these same people. You have always thought they were jerks; why should you care how they feel towards you in the future?

5. Prospective Clients Want to Know There Is a Firm Behind Me

See number 2, above.

Law firms do not develop relationships; lawyers do. Continue to develop strong relationships and convince prospects that you are capable to do the work. Few, if any, will care that you are no longer part of a firm with lawyers doing lots of other things that the client could care less about.

6. I Will Miss Bouncing Ideas Off My Colleagues

You still know plenty of lawyers at other firms who will be more than happy to talk to you on the phone or respond to an email. Join a listserv. Do some conventional and social networking.

Most lawyers — especially other solos — are happy to let you use them as a sounding board, as long as you are willing to return the favor.

7. I Do Not Have the Business Know-How to Run My Own Firm

You probably don’t. It is a skill set few lawyers possess. That is the bad news. The good news is that your competitors are just as clueless about managing their practices as you may be. They all somehow seem to make a nice living. You will, too, if you work at this.

8. I Will Miss the Prestige

Yes, there is a certain cachet to be able to tell others you work at Big Law Firm, P.A. But you just told me all of the reasons why you hate going to work there. Is the prestige really that important to you?

9. If a Big Case Walks in the Door, I May Not Be Able to handle it

You probably will, actually. Have you ever heard of co-counseling matters and referral fee arrangements? If you are lucky enough to have that big case walk in the door, there are plenty of lawyers who will be more than happy to help you. Ditto for expertise.

10. I Hate Change and Fear the Unknown

Join the club. But wouldn’t it be nice to proactively create a change in your career that you control? You cannot stop change. Sooner rather than later, there will be changes at your law firm creating many unknowns that you will have to react to with your partners. Wouldn’t you rather deal with change when you are in the driver’s seat?

Go for it and don’t look back. Life is too short. Although there are no guarantees, the chances are very good you will not regret it.

This was originally published on June 23, 2010. It was revised and republished on July 8, 2014.

Featured image: “Closeup portrait of young nerdy funny female” from Shutterstock.

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  • Tim Evans

    Re #7, I highly recommend you read The E-Myth Attorney. I’m in the middle of it and, like the original E-Myth, it will help you learn how not to run a business. You’ll still lack a lot of business sense, but it’s much better to learn from others’ mistakes rather than your own.

  • Jennifer Frantz

    Roy,

    I think one more worry should make the list: “How will I get clients if Big Firm isn’t feeding them to me?” That’s where networking with the other small firm owners really pays off. We trade clients whenever we can with other small firms with complementary expertise. If I have a call for a worker’s comp case, I know who to call. If a personal injury lawyer has a client that needs to set up a trust for a settlement, they can call me. It’s great!

    Jennifer Frantz

  • RE: 3. I cannot afford the start up costs of going solo

    True, but before you hire a consultant, vet them. Especially if you’re considering hiring an Internet consultant.

  • Going solo is very different than just working for someone else. I often recommend partnering… yes, partnering has its own set of challenges but one of the benefits is that some of the expenses and tasks of “Running” the business can be shared.

    I also think its a good idea to inquire with your bar association.
    They tend to invite marketing professionals to speak and other attorneys in the room create good discussion and networking opportunities.

  • As one just about to take the plunge, I agree with all of this to some extent.

  • @lasheita RE: “inquire with your bar association.”

    I agree with regard to good discussion and networking opportunities with other attorneys, but as to marketing professionals, I’ve seen presenters at bar events range from bad to borderline unscrupulous.

    Don’t assume that because the bar “endorses” someone means that they are the best fit for you. They might merely be the biggest sponsor…

  • Kyle

    Thank you for writing this. It seems like ever since the recession began every legal blog has taken such a pessimistic tone about accomplishing anything what-so-ever. I’m planning to open my own soon, and this just made my day.

  • Jeremy

    My big concern is lack of savings to survive the first year, if I don’t get the revenue needed to pay the business and personal bills of the family. I have some clients that I hope would follow me, but not enough to pay the bills.

  • It would take some real effort not to get any clients for a whole year. You may very well have a few lean months, but if you go into it with a marketing plan, you should be fine.

    That said, most people going solo should cut back on expenses as much as possible. If you have been living on a big firm salary and making a car payment, consider a used Honda Civic, instead. If you do really well, you can just get a newer, fancier car once your practice takes off.

  • Jeremy

    I have an “emergency” budget setup that outlines what expenses can be cut, but its not much to be cut. Most of my expense is mortgage, student loans, and food for the family (and not counting health care additional expenses.) That being said, it seems I’d only need approximately 50 paid hours per month to net enough to pay personal living expenses. Thats about what I bill per week right now (though mostly for partner’s clients). Do most people wait until you have 3-6 + months cash reserves?

  • I think it’s good to build up some reserves if you can, but not essential, if you have a good plan.

    My financial advisor has good advice on this. Whenever you aren’t sure how something will affect your finances, practice it. You know your income will go down in the short term, so cut it now, while you are still pulling in a salary. Send everything into a savings account while you figure out if you can weather the change. Run your experiment for a few months.

    You’ll get two benefits: a lot of savings, and a good picture of what you are in for.

  • Sergio Camacho

    I’m very interested in your site. I don’t know how I found It,but I’m here.

    I have a Law Firm especialized in Family Laws in my conuntry, Mexico, It’have some clients but sometimes is not enought to pay the bills, like Jeremy saids.

    Your website has helped me to know some things that sometimes pass unnoticed.

    Thanks

  • As one who is now almost 5 months into solo practice (after 12 and a half years in government or at firms) I can strongly state that this was a great decision. I can’t say it would be for everyone, but working “without a net” has been great. I found that many of my clients followed me because clients hire attorneys, not firms.

    If you have good relationships with your clients, this should happen for you as well.

  • Thomas

    I noticed this article assumes that the lawyer is already working for a firm, and may be able to bring a few clients along to their new shop. What about those lawyers (such as myself) who have no hip-pocket business and have to develop a client base from scratch? I’d be curious to know how long it took before you started hitting your stride.

    • We’ve got lots of posts on marketing, but it looks like it’s been a while since we tried to address what to do when you’re just starting out with no clients. We’ll get on that!

    • Paul Spitz

      That is my situation. I started my solo practice in January, not just after not practicing for many years, but also after relocating 2200 miles to my hometown. The key is to keep your overhead low. Really low. My monthly overhead is about $400, and that keeps me from worrying about bleeding money during the lean periods. The other key is to get yourself out there and hustle, meet people. If you haven’t mastered social media like doing a blog, using Twitter and LinkedIn, now is the time. And you’ll have plenty of time to devote to it, too, before that first client calls. You’ll need to spend at least one evening every week at some kind of networking event. You’ll need to take someone to lunch or coffee once or twice every week. I’m six months in, and it’s a slow period. I’m finishing up with one client, and I don’t have anyone else on the horizon. That’s how it is. If that isn’t for you, then you need to do everything you can to maintain your status as an employee.

  • Joan Nyberg

    Great tips.

    I’d add that solos need to market themselves differently from big firms. Focus on your clients’ needs and your strengths as a solo (personal service, responsiveness, less overhead, etc.)

    Don’t try to mimic the typical large firm approach in your website copy (a cold, two-sentence practice area description followed by a list of bullet points). The client experience is different — and often better — at a smaller firm. Make the most of that advantage.

  • Maureen David

    Missing here is one of my biggest fears– getting paid! With a firm or a government office, you have a steady, reliable salary that is minimally impacted by the normal ups and downs of law practice. As a solo, if clients don’t pay you in a timely fashion, you don’t pay your own bills in a timely fashion.

    • Paul Spitz

      The salary may be reliable, but the job isn’t. Not anymore. Getting paid in a timely fashion is a matter of planning and discipline. You need to demand a retainer covering the expected full amount up front, before you do anything (if the expected total amount is really large, you might do an evergreen retainer). If someone balks at paying you a retainer, do NOT take them as a client. If they don’t want to pay you in advance, you can be sure they won’t want to pay you once they have reaped the benefit of your expertise and labor. So always get money up front.

      Remember, you are a lawyer, not a bank, not a credit card company. You are in the business of providing legal services, not lending money or financing your client’s lifestyle. They have VISA, they have Mastercard, they have AMEX. If they can’t get a credit card, then why on earth would you take the risk that the experts in lending won’t take?

      My problem so far, and it’s something I need to rectify, is defining milestones and deliverables in my projects, so I can tap into the retainer earlier. Up til now, I’ve had to wait until the project is complete before I can transfer the retainer. Those days are over.

  • Great article. When I left “Big Law” I had the same fears. After serious consideration, I decided NOT to go solo, but also not to stay with the traditional law firm model. I found a third choice with an entrepreneurial model within which I am thriving. I definitely don’t want to hijack your thread, but check out this: http://tinyurl.com/pjxd5tn

  • Kevin Broyles

    Great points, but there is an even better solution for most than going Solo. James Fisher and I started a firm 12 years ago and we’ve created what we believe is the ideal solution between the traditional large firm and going solo.

    1. There Is More Job Security at My Firm

    Couldn’t agree with Roy more. Job security is having your own client relationships. That can’t happen in an in-house position. And it can be precarious in a traditional firm. How much is ever enough for them? At FisherBroyles, we have no billing quotas, no book requirements — it’s about being able to succeed. Our interests are aligned with our partners. The firm doesn’t make money unless the partners make money. And we don’t have a huge overhead monster to feed.

    2. My Clients Will Not Follow Me

    They are more likely to follow when they view the firm you are joining as another large, national firm. I agree that client development and retention is about relationships, but the attorney only gets the door open; it takes a legitimate firm to get invited in —
    at least into the big houses. That is where I disagree somewhat with Roy. It
    helps to have a team.

    3. I cannot Afford the Start-Up Costs of Going Solo

    FisherBroyles has the overhead covered, while allowing our partners to keep the vast majority of what they generate and only are responsible for their personal technology. Lower overhead, cloud-based, and a 21st century business approach is the secret.

    4. My Former Partners Will Hate Me

    When you become a FisherBroyles partner, the most likely scenario is that former partners want to join you. We have seen that happen frequently.

    5. Prospective Clients Want to Know There Is a Firm Behind Me

    This is absolutely true of substantial clients. See 2. GCs have to answer to CEOs and Boards. They don’t want to have to explain why they hired a solo. We have almost 100 partners from Palo Alto to Boston.

    6. I Will Miss Bouncing Ideas Off My Colleagues

    See 5.

    7. I Do Not Have the Business Know-How to Run My Own Firm

    We’ve already got the business setup and have refined things for 12 years.
    All our partners do is focus on client development and client service.

    8. I Will Miss the Prestige

    FisherBroyles is the largest and oldest alternative law firm in the United States. We represent Fortune 20 companies. We have a brand-name client list. Our partners
    also come from some of the most prestigious firms in the U.S.

    9. If a Big Case Walks in the Door, I May Not Be Able to handle it

    We can. Our firm’s biggest recent growth area is in litigation.

    10. I Hate Change and Fear the Unknown

    Better get used to it. Read the headlines. Traditional firms are suffering and it is
    only going to get more intense and clients push harder against ever soaring fees
    and as technology continues to make it much easier to leave the mother ship.

  • Roy

    I want to thank all of you who have commented fours years after I originally wrote this. All very good ones. I do want to respond to a couple though that have not been addressed by others. One question was how long does it take to hit one’s stride when a newbie. My thought is that you need to give yourself 3-5 years before most will have a respectable income. If you haven’t figured it out in five years, chances are you never will. As for clients following you without a “team,” I agree that can be a problem for certain clients, as well as certain matters. However, I do think it is still possible as a solo. One can market the firm as informally affiliated with other solos or small firms that creates the perception and reality of a “large firm.” One can also be “of counsel” to a larger firm and still remain solo.

  • Stone Gossardish

    Going solo is bad if not fatal advice for more than 66% of lawyers, especially new ones who’ve done mostly disposable work. They are usually undercapitalized, not experienced enough, and simply don’t know what they’re doing well enough to look like anything but a chicken running around with its head cut off. And then they’re told to fake it till they make it…splat.