A: Among lawyers dissatisfied with their current occupation (hereinafter “Evil Day Job” or “EDJ”), it is a popular fantasy that it is a good idea to start a law practice in one’s spare time. Undoubtedly, some lawyers have done so successfully. This does not mean it is a good idea.
The problem boils down to time and focus.
Never enough time
To begin with, you need to figure out what “spare time” you actually have.
Assuming your EDJ actually involves daytime hours, you will be working on your law practice mostly in the evenings. Unless you have a lot of vacation time you can use on short notice, that means a litigation practice is probably out. A lot of transactional work will be difficult, too, since businesses generally close about the same time you will be heading home from your EDJ. There are plenty of practice areas left, of course. Plenty of clients would rather not take time off from their own EDJs to meet with a lawyer. If their legal needs don’t require daytime hours (estate planning, for example), it’s fair game.
And when will you meet with these clients? If you are single and — improbably — give up on your social life, you might clear up five or six hours each evening. If you have a live-in partner or kids, you will be lucky to get that. Even if you cut back on sleep, you will be lucky to get more than a few hours a day.
Here’s where the bad-idea-ness of starting a law practice in your spare time should start to become clear. In whatever time you have, whether it is three or six hours, you will have to do all of the following:
- Market your fledgling practice aggressively. Since you are getting started, this will probably take 25–35% of your time.
- Handle administrative tasks, which will probably take another 25–35% of your time.
- Meet with clients and do their legal work, which will probably take every moment you aren’t doing other things.
Along with #3, if you are starting a law practice without much experience, you will have a lot of learning to do, and you will have to fit that in somewhere, too. In fact, that may be the most-important thing you have to do. It’s difficult — and unethical — to serve clients if you aren’t competent to handle their legal matters. So do not even try.
So how long can you go without sleep? Because something has to give, and it cannot be any of the above, not if you actually plan to have a real law practice, at some point.
Focusing on your practice
Potentially the bigger problem, at least from a business perspective, is that starting a practice in your spare time subtracts any sense of urgency or commitment. You must fully commit to your practice, during whatever time commitment you have made to it. That goes completely against the concept of “spare time.”
Additionally, if you aren’t depending on your practice for income — if you aren’t hungry, you probably won’t give it 100%. And that’s what it takes. If you don’t give 100%, you have a hobby, not a law practice. That’s fine if you already know what you are doing and just want to take the occasional case on the side. It’s not okay if you don’t know what you are doing and aren’t committed to learning.
A better option: a part-time practice
If you aren’t yet ready to go all-in on a full-time law practice, there are other ways to get up and running. Perhaps the best option is to go part-time at your EDJ, or find a part-time job while you get your law practice started. The less your EDJ demands of your brain, the more you will have left over for your practice.
Then, you can work hard with the time you do have, and quit your EDJ as soon as your law practice starts to generate income.
I will write another FAQ post on part-time practice in the near future. There are definitely disadvantages compared to full-time practice, but it is much more realistic — and feasible — than starting a law practice in your spare time.