“You must be freaking nuts!” This is exactly what I was told by a well-respected lawyer in Atlanta when I told him I was starting my own solo practice after leaving a great paying associate position at a big law firm.
Here are a few of the lessons I’ve learned during my first months in solo practice:
I admit that you have to be a little crazy to start a law practice. I never thought I would have the gumption, especially with a pregnant wife and 5 year old little girl, to actually take the plunge into solo practice, but these last four months have easily been the most terrifying and gratifying months of my life. I’ve made some mistakes along the way and learned some valuable lessons as a result.
Go With What You Know
First, decide on a practice area and focus only on that area. It’s hard to appeal to clients if you don’t know who your clients are, and it’s hard (read: impossible) to get lawyer referrals if you take any case that walks through the door. I once had a guy hand me a business card that read “Specializing in bankruptcy, criminal, family, corporate, environmental and personal injury law.” I doubt he gets many referrals, and I know he sure as heck won’t get a referral from me.
Deciding a practice area was easy for me. I clerked for a bankruptcy judge and survived a very brutal trial by fire “training” period as an associate in a larger law firm. As a bankruptcy attorney, I will refer out any almost every non-bankruptcy case that walks through the door. Why? Because it will generally come back to me three-fold. Taking “rent-money” cases is hard to pass up, especially in your first few months of practice, but take that DUI case now and regret it 6 months down the road when you are trying to run a busy practice in another area of law. Take it from someone who made that mistake.
Every Dollar You Spend is a Dollar You Don’t Have
Keep overhead low by spending only on the absolute necessities in the beginning, especially for people who only have 3-6 months of living expenses saved up. I designed my own website to save money. Some “law practice experts” snubbed their noses at this. “Why not pay a professional and spend your time “networking” and practicing law?” they asked. “You could be billing out at $250 per hour.” Yeah, well what’s $250 multiplied by 0 hours? Exactly.
In the beginning, if you can do it yourself and do it well, don’t pay someone else to do it. All you have is time. I spent a week designing my website. I probably slept a total of 12 hours in those seven days, but the end result was $5,000 saved and the first real sense that this solo gig was actually going to work.
What should you spend your money on in the baby stages of your practice? If I could make a list of necessary expenses, it would look like this:
- Andy is right. Get an office. Complacency won’t be an option.
- Malpractice Insurance.
- Laptop and Fujistu Scansnap 1500S (probably not necessary, but I’m not sure how I ever lived without it).
- Website Hosting.
- A small budget to take other lawyers out for coffee or lunch.
Set Weekly Goals
This was probably the most important aspect of my initial success. Having a goal to work towards and successfully achieving that goal is very rewarding. I did not do this in the very beginning and soon found great success by incorporating this strategy into my life. Here are a few of my weekly goals from the second month of my practice:
- Take three attorneys to lunch each week from another practice area.
- Write three new blog articles per week on my bankruptcy blog.
- Create 2 new forms and templates each week to help streamline my practice when the clients come.
- Retain first client!
Stay the Course
The first month of solo practice can be a very depressing time. You will have no clients, and the phone will not ring a single time. Stay the course. Keep meeting your weekly goals. Keep building meaningful relationships with other lawyers – in other practice areas and your own. Tell everyone what you are doing. Clients will come. Once you have your first client, the rest will follow. After three or four months, you will likely find yourself being able to pay your monthly business expenses. If you’re lucky, you may even be able to pay yourself a small wage. Even if it’s a tenth of what you were earning at a large law firm, that first month where you can actually pay yourself is unforgettable.
These are just a few of the lessons I’ve learned during my short tenure as a solo practitioner. Please share your thoughts by commenting below.
(photo: Illustration depicting a green chalkboard from Shutterstock)