“I Just Want to Practice Law” Postmortem

Like many lawyers, the author of I Just Want to Practice Law decided to start his own firm after he failed to land a job. According to his launch post, he had about $3,500 on hand when he started, so he decided to work at home, spending just a few hundred bucks on the essentials.

His budget left him about three months to start making money:

The point is, I don’t have money for anything right now … It really is bare bones. It is a weird feeling walking into the courthouse wearing my only suit, and knowing I am in poverty but having to pretend I am not.

As it turned out, he took down his shingle on day 103. Billing at $60 per hour (this is less than contract lawyers from India charge, FYI), he totaled up just over $5,600 in billables, but collected only about $400 of that. He took a job as a prosecutor.

I Just Want to Practice Law is a narrow but candid window into the life cycle of this solo practice. I don’t have all the facts, but I think I have enough to point out a few mistakes and comment on how the blogger in question could have avoided them.

Find a mentor

I can’t find any mention of a mentor on I Just Want to Practice Law. You need one. Or three. A mentor can help answer questions about the law and advise you on how to do about starting a successful law practice. Both are invaluable.

If you are serious about being a good lawyer and serious about having a successful practice, you cannot do it in isolation. Find experienced lawyers who are willing to answer your dumb questions. (Don’t forget to send a thank-you gift now and then.)

When I started my law practice, I sought input and advice from a ton of people, and two or three solos were extremely generous with their time. They shared forms, let me ask dumb questions and bounce ideas off them. With their help, I eventually became a decent lawyer. Without their help, I think my firm would have foundered in just a few months.

Plan for the long haul

Three months is not nearly enough time to find out whether a law practice will succeed or fail. Three years is closer. My own law practice didn’t truly turn the corner until a little over two years. And just before it turned the corner, I was about five dollars away from taking down my own shingle.

If you only have three months of expenses in the bank, you are going to have to call your firm a success or failure when that money runs out. And it will probably run out in three months, because the chances of you bringing in any real money when you are starting a firm out of law school are slim. That’s even more true if you are billing in advance. Most clients will probably take longer than you hope to pay you — possibly even three months longer.

Besides, the number one most-important rule of starting a law firm is don’t half-ass it. Spending “a few hundred dollars” probably doesn’t cut it, unless that includes some decent-looking business cards and a healthy budget for coffee, lunch, and happy hour with potential mentors and referral sources. You have to spend money to make money. This is just as true for solo practices as it is for any other business.

You also have to spend time to succeed at law practice. It takes a while to build a referral network. In 9–18 months, you should begin to feel the push of momentum if you have been actively networking. Three months is barely enough time to get started.

Get paid up front!

Speaking of billing in advance, getting paid up front is a no-brainer. I realize that if you are facing imminent starvation and value your time at only $60 per hour, you are probably taking any client who will put an X on your retainer agreement, but those clients are also the least likely to pay you, so you need to get their money up front.

If you demand flat fees, demand them up front and in cash (or with a credit card). If you are billing by the hour, demand an advance payment for at least half the amount you think the representation will cost, and tell the client when you expect the next payment.

My first client stiffed me $750. I still have the bounced check, and I pull it out every now and then to remind me why I insist on getting paid up front.

Don’t rely on your firm for income right away

The absolute best position to be in when you start a firm is married with a spouse whose job pays the bills and provides the benefits. That way, you don’t have nearly so much pressure to succeed on a short timeline. Second best is a spouse or partner who can at least absorb some of the slack if you have a down month.

If you don’t have that — I didn’t, at least not at first — you need some extra income. While you get your firm going, your income is going to come in fits and starts. Some months, you will make money; others you won’t see a dime. Until the highs and lows even out a bit, you need a cushion.

In my case, I was able to rely on unemployment for the first few months of starting my own firm. If you aren’t eligible for unemployment, you will need to get a part-time job. Get a job waiting tables at a bar or working retail. Make it something that doesn’t require any real critical thinking and doesn’t have any promise of upward mobility. You need to stay focused on your practice, not tempted to start a different career.

If that sounds unattractive, the final option is to take on debt. You probably won’t be able to find anyone willing to give you a small business loan right off the bat, so it’s really down to credit cards or personal loans. Get a generous line of credit, because you are probably going to use it. At one point, I was $10,000 in debt (if that sounds like a lot, I know lawyers who regularly carry lots more as part of their business model). That was the turning point. The next month, I had paid it off and had $10,000 in my bank account. But without that line of credit, I never would have turned the corner. Since then, I try to keep my credit card balance under a thousand, but I have definitely needed it to absorb the ups and downs of my income.

Above all, hang in there

If you work hard, you will probably succeed. You just have to keep going. Keep serving clients to the best of your ability. Keep getting your name out there to potential referral sources. Keep chugging along. If you run out of money, find some to keep your doors open while you find new clients.

Take inspiration from Paul Graham’s classic speech to startups.

So I’ll tell you now: bad shit is coming. It always is in a startup. The odds of getting from launch to liquidity without some kind of disaster happening are one in a thousand. So don’t get demoralized. When the disaster strikes, just say to yourself, ok, this was what Paul was talking about. What did he say to do? Oh, yeah. Don’t give up.

Tens of thousands of lawyers have succeeded before you. Just hang in there, do your best, and don’t give up.

[via MyCase blog & Legal Skills Prof Blog]


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  • Lisa Espada

    Sam and Lawyerists:

    Last time I checked, working as a prosecutor IS practicing law. It sounds like this young man really wanted to get hired somewhere, got discouraged by the crappy job market, then decided to take a stab at solo practice, and then quit that because he was able to get hired as a prosecutor. I could be wrong.

    I would count him as lucky if he got a full-time job working as an asst DA. A lot of people would love to be doing that.

    Also: it isn’t always possible to have a spouse on hand to help with rent and living expenses, nor is it always possible to borrow $10,000 on a credit card (at usury rates)- and I’m not sure that is a great idea if you don’t know where the money is going to come from to pay that bill. I think it depends on where you are on that 2 to 3-year development timeline. If you have clients and cases and are just waiting for the checks – probably OK. At some point maybe it makes sense to admit that you are broke and therefore cannot run a law practice.

    Finally, it would be great if you could write a post for those of us who need to find mentors. Good attorneys in any field are usually really busy and have staff intercepting calls. Should we seek out lesser-known folks? Someone we just find on Google Maps? Do we have to search out our fellow alumni? Associations and professional groups are problematic for newbies – experienced folks want to connect with other experienced folks so they can get more work and learn more about specific issues. I just need a few tips on this. Thanks, Sam.

    • Although the title of the blog was I Just Want to Practice Law, it was self-evidently about starting a solo practice. Which he failed at. Hence the “postmortem.” If his goal was to get a job, I would have chosen a different title for this post.

      If you’re looking for posts on mentors, we’ve got lots already, but it’s probably time for an update.

  • C. Matthew

    I actually read all of his posts and I think that what this guy did was great. He opened up shop and was being appointed to cases by the courts in the counties surrounding his residence. He sought advice from a few local attorneys and did find himself some go-to attorneys to help him out. He took on something like 15 cases in that time and only billed for the actual law work he did. (I think he under-billed but I don’t know the rules in that state nor am I an expert on the billable hour) In the meantime he met enough people and did a good enough job to get himself a job in the D.A.’s office. He had a few hearings, at least one deposition and dealt with a myriad of legal issues in his 103 days practicing. By reading what he was writing, I have no doubt that he would have been successful as a solo and while it took longer than he anticipated to process, he still has about 5k coming to him from the state. By reading the comments you can tell he was an inspiration to Solos trying to make a way and I commend him for his ambition and ability to find a job in this market.

  • I would like to see a hortatory rule added to the Rules of Professional Conduct explicitly urging senior attorneys to serve as mentors, perhaps as an addendum to the current rule on pro bono service or as a free-standing rule.

  • Shaun Jamison

    I started a law practice right out of school (I looked so young the yellow pages rep urged me not to put my picture in any advertising). Six months in, I got a call from a real estate agent asking if I was looking for a home. I told him no as I just finally cleared some money I could call my own out of the practice. He laughed and said he had his business the same amount of time and was in the same situation. Six months was also about the same time I started getting more consistent referrals from lawyers I had met networking. Everyone’s experience is going to be a little different, but it’s important to avoid magical thinking about how quickly your business will build. Conversely, one shouldn’t assume marketing isn’t working just because it hasn’t hit the tipping point yet.

  • Thanks for a great post Sam!

    I’m 6 months in to starting my own practice out of law school and the emotions have been world-beater elation one day followed by my wife talking me off the ledge the next.

    For anyone starting out like this, I would say Sam’s advice is spot-on. GET YOUR MONEY UP FRONT. At 3 months in I had billed about the same amount as this guy, but I had collected every penny of it – which allowed me to continue.

    I think the most important thing is to go-big, don’t half ass it. If you’re gonna do this, you can’t be wishy-washy and trying to find a job at the same time. Get an office, and tell everyone in the world what you’re doing. A couple of times I have saved myself from quitting just by thinking of the embarrassment of everyone from law school finding out I failed. It may sound immature, but if that’s what it takes to motivate you – then so be it.

  • Mady J. Maguire

    There are plenty of worthwhile cases out there–some with court ordered fees and costs available–but lawyers don’t want cases they actually have to work at–and win–before collecting. Lawyers like this should be working for corporate defense–most are.

  • Julian


    I am the author of “I Just Want to Practice Law.” Your characterization of my venture is off, and you are missing some of the facts. Let me give you a few.

    1. My goal was to quit my non-legal job and actually practice law, hence the title “I Just Want to Practice Law.” I accomplished my goal. Nothing was stopping me from continuing. I met a county attorney who I really liked, and he really liked me, so I decided to change paths. It’s baffling to me that you see failure.

    2. Someone should tell Governor Branstad we should keep up with the Indians. The state of Iowa pays $60/hr for appointed attorneys, and they take forever to cut you a check.

    3. I have mentors. I called them almost every day. I would have foundered the first week without them.

    4. I hope your last bit of advice to “hang in there” is just general advice and not some implication that I “failed” for lack of fortitude. 100 days ago, I was making copies and coffee. 100 days later, I had my first criminal client, my first juvenile client, my first mental commitment case, my first CINA case, my first plea negotiation, my first deposition, my first cross examination, my first suppression hearing (which I found out a few days ago I won by the way), and on and on. And I did it all sitting in my underwear all day long. I wanted those experiences of actually practicing law, so I went out and made it happen. Nobody gave me permission, I just went out and did it, and I could keep on doing it, and I could go right back and do it again. The thing is, I found a guy worth working for, and worth learning from, and so I decided to change paths.

    In what world is that failure?

    • 100% of the posts on your blog are about starting your own firm. If it was about getting a job, that wasn’t clear, but you seem to have succeeded. If it was about starting a solo practice, you failed — or quit, if you like. I’m not trying to come down on you for that; many solo practices fail one way or another. My advice in this post is meant for people who want to succeed at solo practice. Maybe you could write a few follow-up posts about turning a solo practice into a job?

    • From your About Me page: “I’ll be documenting as much as I can, with the hopes that if I succeed, you can use this method to start your own practice, should you so desire.”

  • Jen

    I started a solo practice for about 6 months and then decided to close up shop and join a firm. I did this not because my business was a failure; to the contrary, it turns out I was pretty good at the business part. Rather I discovered that I didn’t like solo practice. I missed having co-workers to bounce ideas off of; the guidance of partners; the resources of a law firm and the steady pay-check. After being on my own for a few months I realized how much I valued these things and that I would be happier in a firm (just not the firm I was with when I first got out of school). I mistook the bad feelings I had about working for a particular firm for feelings I had about “working for other people.” I am now with a great firm and very happy. I do not consider my venture a failure, because I didn’t fail. I changed my mind, much like Julian, and there is no shame in that.

  • Why are lawyers so contentious and why did Mr. Julian feel soooo slighted by Mr. Sam’s blog? Jeez Louise. Sam’s blog was chock full of useful content about starting out on your own, for ANY career. Dang, simply take it for what it’s worth. As a reader, I didn’t read “VAST FAILURE” from his article…

  • Andiswa Tube

    Thank you so much for all your comments, some make sense to me, some don’t. I am planning to open a solo practice next month and I have been getting different responses from experienced attorneys. I really believe I can do this especially with some of the advice I got here. But two days ago I recieved a call from a firm offering me a job, some say I should take it for experience as I’m have just been admitted as attorney three months ago, but I strongly believe I have what it takes to start solo and I am really not an employee type, I like being my own boss and I have quite a number of mentors to assist me. I really don’t want to give up my dream.

    • Jen

      Of all the advice in this article (and on much of Lawyerist–which I found indispensable when I started my firm), “get paid upfront” is the most important when you are starting out. Get yourself enough “paid upfront cases” (wills, contracts, etc.) to support the cases you have to wait to get paid on. This helps both economically and emotionally. Receiving money has as much of an impact on your self-esteem as it does your wallet (at least at the beginning). Finding a mentor or 3 is a close second (maybe even more important if you are coming right out of law school).

  • Emilie

    I think the problem is evident from the title. If you just want to practice law, don’t go solo. Owning a solo practice is owning a business, not just practicing law. If you want to practice law, work for someone else, if you want to be your own boss and run a business, start a solo practice, but assume you will spend the majority of your time as an accountant, bookkeeper, paralegal, secretary, web designer, etc. Even now that I have the money to pay people to do all those things I still need to understand the day to day of my business and run my firm like a business. I am always marketing, always trying new things, always thinking about ways to improve the efficiency, customer service, etc., and I love it. If you hate all that and you just want to be a lawyer, this solo thing isn’t for you.

  • Elizabeth

    I can sympathize. I opened my practice 5 weeks ago, 3 weeks after I was laid off from a firm job. I am blessed to have a husband who can pay the mortgage and provide health insurance. Right now I am spending about 80 percent of my time working on my website, attending networking events and calling people I have worked with in the past. Call me old fashioned, but I spent about 200 bucks printing and mailing decent announcements which resulted in numerous phone calls and will hopefully lead to referrals down the road.

  • Russell M.

    I graduated law school in 2010. I know of at least 20 fellow graduates from my class who went solo simply because they couldn’t find a job with a firm. Many of them, like Julian, did end up landing jobs with firms or government organizations within a year after venturing into solo practice, presumably because they had developed some practical experience that they did not previously have at law school graduation.

    Going solo can be tough enough, but going solo as a newly minted law school graduate seems immensely frightening. You don’t know how to control your clients, you don’t know how to properly interface with judges and opposing counsel, and you are spinning your wheels researching and asking other legal professionals for advice on how to resolve even the simplest of legal issues for your clients simply because you’ve never practiced law before. I believe it takes a certain amount of resolve and courage for a new graduate to begin a solo venture, and I’m sure many potential employers agree; hence, why some new solos are suddenly able to land jobs with firms when they weren’t able to even get an interview leading up to passing the bar exam.

    So, while Julian’s solo venture may have technically “failed” insofar as it now ceases to exist, I think he probably made the right move by getting into a legal office where he now has an in-house mentor and can receive training on someone else’s dime. I don’t think very many readers can fault him for that.

  • rob

    I have had my own plaintiff’s personal injury practice for about 7 years now and its not doing well. I won a big case early on and just dealt with my losses over the years with my savings. Now I’m running out of money and I’m scared to death. I’m 43 and am terrified that I’m too old to be an associate and don’t have enough cases to make myself attractive to a firm. I’m losing it big time. I’m in a perpetual state of “I don’t know what to do” and I feel like a total failure. Therapy and meds aren’t cutting it. I’m so upset. I just cant bring enough money or cases. My business sense stinks and I’m afraid to spend what little money I have left.