In law school, the best and the brightest get jobs at Big Law, P.A., or get a clerkship with the Supreme Court and then move onto a glorious job at Big Law, P.A.
Usually the only talk of solo attorneys is “well, you can always go solo if you can’t find anything else.”
The truth is, some attorneys actually want to go solo and start their own firm.
And surprise, surprise, we work pretty hard—but we actually can make a comfortable living.
Myth 1: solo attorneys couldn’t get a “real” job
I did not understand this stigma before going solo and I definitely do not understand it now that I’ve run a firm for over two years.
To be fair, I think the strength of the stigma depends on where you practice and where you go to law school. I graduated from a Top 20 school that tends to send it’s graduates to big firms, awesome clerkships, and other highly-sought positions. Apparently, that does not include starting your own firm.
I can’t ever remember a lunchtime CLE presented by a solo attorney on how they went solo/why they went solo/why you should consider starting your own firm. Again, my school is known as treating going solo as “well, you failed.” To varying degrees, that stigma exists at other schools and within the legal community as a whole.
Dig a little deeper, however, and you’ll discover that many people at big firms and awesome clerkships have outright respect (and perhaps some level of jealously) for attorneys who run their own firms. The perception of “solo = loser” seems to be most prevalent amongst law students that have OCI ingrained in their skulls and relatively new associates that think working at a firm is the only way to go.
Talk to senior associates or partners at big firms and many of them understand just how tough it is to keep a successful solo practice running. I’ve been told by more than one person “there’s no way I could do what you do—I just couldn’t do make it work.” Some of even say things like “I’ve got it easy, your job is way tougher than mine.”
I happen to know a fair number of individuals that currently work at big firms as a fallback to their own failed attempt at starting a solo practice. Yes, working at a firm was their second choice, not their first.
Look, there’s positives and negatives about both sides of the fence. But don’t ever believe that solo attorneys couldn’t find another job.
Myth 2: solo attorneys are slackers that don’t work hard
If the comparison is between the life of a solo and a first year associate that works eighty hours a week, that’s not a fair comparison. I don’t work eighty hours a week. I usually work about 50-55 hours week and it’s rarely much less.
I’m usually in my office for about 8-9 hours a day, with no lunch break. I also usually work another 1-2 hours at night after the kids go to sleep. I also teach two classes at a local law school and write for Lawyerist—which usually happens at night or on the weekends (happy Mother’s day!). And don’t forget about marketing, networking, and presenting CLEs.
I’m not saying young associates at firms are not required to do marketing, networking, and all those extra things, but I think it’s much more critical to creating and sustaining a solo practice. At a firm it might be a plus if you do those things. If your run your own practice it’s a necessity.
Frankly, it would be near-impossible for a truly solo attorney (no support staff) to work on active cases eighty hours a week on a consistent basis. There would be no time for client intake, marketing, networking, blogging, fixing your finances, etc. Ballpark, I’d say I spend about 30-40% of my time on all that stuff.
So yes, most solo attorneys do not constantly work 80 hours a week on active cases. But they probably spend 50-60 hours a week on lawyering and all the other stuff that comes with running a business.
Myth 3: solo attorneys don’t make any money
I know plenty of solo attorneys that just as much, and more, than partners at big firms. I also know plenty of solo attorneys that only make enough to take home a minimal salary. From my entirely unscientific polling, I’d say most solo practitioners take home between $50,000 – $70,000 a year. My unscientific poll also indicates that most solo attorneys don’t work the same number of hours as big firm counterparts.
A successful solo firm probably generates six-figures (or close to six-figures) in gross income each year. If they know how to balance the books (which does not mean saving every penny), that should still leave a pretty decent amount of money left over.
Is that less than what a big firm counterpart makes? Absolutely. Do solo attorneys work fewer hours? Probably. So it’s quite possible that a successful solo attorney could work fewer hours but actually make more per hour than a big firm associate. For example, solo attorney makes (takes home) $50,000 per year, but works 40 hours per week. Third-year associate take home $80,000 a year, but works about 80 hours a week. The solo attorney is making much more per hour than the firm associate.
Of course, there are other important considerations when it comes to money. Working as an employee (at least in the short term) guarantees a set income as long as you are employed. Working as solo attorney does not have the same benefit. If you are good with cash flow you can control that to a degree, but it’s not absolute. On the flip side, working as a solo attorney can have a bigger upside (short term or long term) if you can get and continue to get “big” cases. To be fair, the same is true to an extent at a larger firm. If you are working crazy hours, you will likely be rewarded with a bonus at the end of the year.
It’s not that bad—I promise
There are plenty of positives and negatives about running your own practice—just like there are plenty of ups and downs about working at a big firm.
But the next time you assume that Sally Solo Practitioner couldn’t get a real job, just works when she feels like, and barely makes enough to put food on the table, think again.
In part two, I’ll tackle more myths about solo attorneys: including whether they work from their cars, if they are afraid of big law opposing counsel, and what kind of technology they use.