The Time Trap: Going Solo Won’t Free Up Your Schedule


Personal Productivity for Lawyers

This quick-start guide to Getting Things Done and Inbox Zero also includes two shortcuts for those who want the benefits of GTD without having to learn the system.

Starting a law practice is hard work, just like being a lawyer is hard work. There is a veritable horde of coaches, consultants, and gurus, though, who are peddling the fiction that you can build a law practice in four hours a week by “building a practice that works for you, not the other way around” and similar baloney.

Can you cut hours and take vacations in the long term (probably once you’ve taken on a small staff — virtual, if you like)? Absolutely, and you won’t need a guru whose only qualifications are owning a copy of The Four-Hour Workweek and reading that Esquire editor’s article about virtual assistants.

In the meantime, you need to work your ass off.

Over the last 7 years, I have had a moderately successful solo practice, then a not-quite-as-successful, not-quite-solo practice, and now a successful-as-I-want-it-to-be solo practice. And I worked my ass off for this. Every year, my consumer law practice required (a little) less of me, and earned me a little more money. The same is true now, with my tech startup practice.

The secret? Not international virtual assistants. It was because I got more efficient as I made mistakes and gained experience. And my reputation grew, my referral network got deeper, and I just plain got better at lawyering and running a law practice.

In order to do that, I often worked 60–80 hours a week. Then, a slow week or two would show up and I would work less for a while and catch up before the next wave knocked me over. Of course, slow weeks often meant I didn’t have enough business to keep me busy, so I would be stressed out about making money instead of being stressed out about my next hearing.

To try to alleviate that stress, I would use my “free” time to focus on marketing. I would update my website and post to my consumer law blog, reconnect with my network and try to make new connections, and plan seminars for potential clients and referral sources. I may not have been working on cases, but I was still working as hard as I could to bring in new business.

When starting a law practice, the only way to ensure success is to work as hard as you can until your experience, reputation, referral network — and everything else you are working hard at — kicks in and results in some momentum. After a while, you can think about hiring someone (or a few someones) to help give you a break now and then.

It takes 3 years to get to find out whether your practice will survive and support you. And you have to work your ass off for those three years to find out for sure. The most successful lawyers I know are also some of the hardest-working lawyers I know. If you don’t want to work hard, you are in the wrong profession.

So when you hear from gurus peddling the magical, low-maintenance practice of your dreams, chuckle quietly to yourself, post about it on Twitter, and get back to work.



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  • Thanks, Sam. This is so true. My wife keeps asking me when we can take a vacation! I’m in the middle of year two of my first successful-as-I-want-to-be solo practice. I also had a moderately successful not-quite-solo practice. Second time around it much better. Recently, several “big firm” attorneys have asked me about solo practice. Apparently, there is no established partner track anymore and they can’t meet their billable hour requirements. So, they they feel they’re in limbo. And there seems to be the perception that a solo practice is a magic bullet to a perfect lifestyle.

    I’ve worked for two large firms. I’ve found the solo route is just as much stress and just as much work (if not more). But its a different kind of stress. I prefer going solo, but I can’t wait for a vacation. Nice to know I’m not the only one.

    • Different stress is about how I would explain it, too. Despite the time and stress, I definitely prefer solo (or mostly solo) practice to working for someone else.

  • Mike

    Love the old bookcover! Might get blocked by SafeSearch.

  • I agree, being a solo is stressful. Ever consider getting another solo to cover your caseload for a week while on vacation? This is what my circle of colleagues did. I would only recommend this strategy with attorneys you trust and have a close relationship with.

  • Phil

    I have to object to the back handed comments about working less, going virtual, making use of international assistants, etc.

    I used to work at a big firm and left to go solo. I work half as much and make 50% more. I’m totally virtual and make use of international (out sourced Filipino) associates. I vacation a lot. So, this is not a fiction.

  • I want to know Phil’s practice area!!!!

    • I’m guessing bankruptcy or debt collection.

  • Lisa Espada

    Being a solo is stressful. You can’t do it in 4 hours a week. You may have to worry about paying your bills. And you won’t know if your firm will be “survive” until you have been “working your ass off” for 3 years. I don’t get how this is useful information. There are so many subjects that can be covered that are useful and relevant, so this is a real disappointment.

    • That may be obvious to you, but it isn’t obvious to everyone. Some lawyers start a solo practice expecting to succeed within months — and then fail.

  • Tom P.

    I appreciated the article and the advice. Obviously it’s impact is going to be determined by the experience and history of the individual reading it; however, for a proto-attorney such as myself, I found it to be very useful and relevant. If this article is too elementary or obvious for some people – then maybe it’s time to move on.