Nine Myths About Solo Attorneys

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 becoming a solo attorney 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. In fact, the lawyers in our Lawyerist Insider and Lawyerist Lab communities are often very successful and focused on building great firms and careers.

There are several myths about becoming a solo attorney how much solo practitioners make and we’re here to debunk them.

Myth 1: Solo Attorneys Couldn’t Get a “Real” Job.

I did not understand this stigma before going solo and I definitely don’t understand it now that I’ve run a firm for many 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 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 “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 know a 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 are positives and negatives on both sides. But don’t believe that solo attorneys couldn’t find another job.

Myth 2: Solo Attorneys are Slackers Who 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 a 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 you run your own practice it’s a necessity.

Frankly, it would be near-impossible for a true 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, managing your finances, etc. I’d say I spend about 30-40% of my time on all of those things.

So yes, most solo attorneys do not work 80 hours a week on active cases. But they probably spend 50-60 hours a week on lawyering and running a business.

Myth 3: Solo Attorneys Don’t Make Any Money.

I know plenty of solo attorneys that make just as much, if not 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, a solo attorney makes (takes home) $50,000 per year, but works 40 hours per week. Third-year associate takes 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 a solo attorney does not have the same benefit. If you are good with the 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.

Myth 4: Solo Attorneys Work out of Their Cars.

It’s possible I’m overly sensitive. It’s also possible that when you’re a solo attorney, you get asked lots of stupid questions. One of my favorite questions is “oh, you have your own practice, do you have an office?” Pay attention: I don’t get asked where my office is, I get asked if I have an office.

Yes, yes I do. I also have furniture, a website, a full caseload and I run a business in my spare time. I even wear big boy clothes when I go to court.

Ok, I admit, some solo attorneys do not have an office. Today, however, I would say those attorneys are in the minority. At a minimum, nearly every solo attorney I know at least has a virtual office. Even so, that still counts as an office and virtual offices are usually just a placeholder for new solos starting out.

All of the solo attorneys I know with full caseloads have actual offices. I need an office because I have a full caseload, but I also think I have a full caseload because I have an office and spend lots of time there. Go ahead and debate the chicken and egg theory, if you will.

The bottom line is that the next time you meet a solo, please don’t ask them if they have an office.

Myth 5: Solo Attorneys are Scared of Big Law Attorneys.

Nope. Not at all. Some big-name partner might “handle” my case, but I usually deal with a young associate. Said associate is usually younger than me, less experienced in the venue, and less knowledgable in the substantive law. Advantage: me. In other cases, it’s obvious that the other side is churning the case (billing time in order to bill time). I’m trying to win it. That’s always going to work out to my advantage.

Even in situations where I went toe to toe with someone, that went to blah blah law school and worked on the important case and is a partner at the firm of somebody I don’t know and someone I’ve never heard of, I’m not scared. The rules of civil procedure don’t change. I present CLE’s on my area of law—opposing counsel calls it the Fair Collection Practicing thingee. Advantage: still me.

I had a case last year where I represented a consumer against a debt collector. One of the big firms in town represented the debt collector. At the pretrial, the Magistrate came out and said: “nice to see you again Mr. Ryder.” The Magistrate then turned to an allegedly high-ranking partner from the big firm and said: “I’m sorry, what’s your name?” The Magistrate then proceeded to tell the partner that his client should settle the case, because “Mr. Ryder knows what he’s doing.”

On another case (different big firm), a partner sarcastically asked me why I was bringing my FDCPA case in federal court because the court doesn’t have jurisdiction over these cases. I politely informed them that it’s a federal statute, so I’m fairly certain a federal court will hear the case. At the pretrial, I asked them to explain to the judge why the pleaded lack of subject matter jurisdiction as an affirmative defense in their answer. All I heard was crickets chirping. I believe the case was resolved shortly thereafter.

But go ahead and keep thinking I’m afraid. Let me know how that works out.

Myth 6: Solo Attorneys Use Outdated Technology.

Of course they do, they can’t even afford to have a real office. Oh, wait.

By and large, solo attorneys use technology that is at least as cutting edge, if not more cutting edge, than big firms. I recently visited someone that worked at one of the large firms in town, and they complained about how lousy their computers and technology were. I think his laptop was running some outdated version of Windows. I’m pretty sure he drooled when he saw my MacBook Pro and Thunderbolt monitor.

Big firms have technology committees and IT departments. I’m guessing the members of those committees read Lawyerist for advice on law firm technology. Take note: Lawyerist was started by a solo attorney writing about technology. Take another note: most of the articles written on technology are still written by solo attorneys.

I can only imagine the intense debates about if/why/how the firm should move away from BlackBerrys to iPhones or other smartphones. I’m assuming the debate took quite some time, which is why it took most firms years to start using iPhones.

Here’s it works at a solo law firm: “oh that looks helpful, it will save me time, I’m going to buy it.” Then we’re off to the races. I use technology as efficiently as I can, because I need to use it that way. I don’t have a secretary that files all of the documents in various cases, or a paralegal that can compare a revised document to a previous version. But I can use systems and programs to do those tasks efficiently and quickly.

And I don’t need an IT person to tell me whether or not Dropbox is a security risk. As noted above, I wear big boy pants. I read the rules, I read advisory opinions, and I decide if it’s appropriate or not (yes—Dropbox is perfectly acceptable).

Myth 7: All Solo Attorneys Practice Law as a Hobby.

Not only do people presume I couldn’t get a job for big law, but they also presume that my “practice” is some form of hobby-like operation (complete with no-office).  As in, I show up when I want, dink around the interwebs, maybe do some work, leave early, and bring home just enough bacon to cover some expenses. Wrong.

I don’t have an attendance policy, but I need to get in by a certain time every day so that I can leave at a certain time each day. And on most days, I’ll still have more work to do when I leave (depend on the % of time spend dinking around on the internet). And I need to bring a couple of pounds of bacon each month, otherwise, my family is eating boxes of mac n’ cheese (generic variety).

I know there are solo attorneys whose income is supplementary to another household income. I know there are solo attorneys that basically step back from a big firm gig and only take on a small caseload. But some does not = all. I’m not going to say my practice is my life, because my family is my life. But my practice is what feeds my family and keeps a roof over our heads.

And I have hobbies, like reading and collecting comic books. That takes up about an hour a week. The time spent running my practice is slightly higher than that.

Myth 8: All Solo Attorneys are General Practitioners.

When you run a solo practice, you tend to network with other solo attorneys. I cannot think of one solo attorney I know that operates a general practice. I can think of some attorneys that delve into too many practice areas, but even they don’t advertise themselves as general practitioners.

The overwhelming majority of solo attorneys I know have niche practices. In my office suite, there is a bankruptcy attorney, a consumer rights attorney that handles Fair Credit Reporting Act cases, another small bankruptcy firm, and another consumer rights firm that handles Fair Debt Collection Practices Act cases. I’m very familiar with the local consumer rights bar, and almost every attorney only handles a certain type of case: credit reporting, foreclosures, debt collection, repossessions, etc.

Frankly, I don’t think a solo practice would work very well as a general practice. My practice is growing and becoming more profitable because I am becoming more efficient with my cases and more experienced in my practice area. I regularly turn down other kinds of consumer law cases because I don’t have the requisite time to research a new area of law. I’ve seen young solo attorneys try to open a general practice, and they seem to spend their entire day trying to figure out one little part of some unknown area of law—in an attempt to get a client. That is not a good use of time.

Of course, there are situations where it’s possible. Attorneys living in rural areas typically run something close to general practice. Attorneys with years and years of experience could probably operate a more general practice because they’ve encountered a fair number of cases in multiple practice areas.

Myth 9: Solo Attorneys Don’t Know How to Run a Business.

True….and false.

You can’t really be a solo attorney without some basic business skills. To be fair, however, the vast majority of solo attorneys did not go to business school and/or previously run a business.

That means things like running finances, designing a website (and updating it), client intake (aka customer interactions), marketing/networking, etc., are all foreign concepts to most new solo attorneys. These are things that they Lawyerist teaches in Lab.

Learning how to interact with people and getting along with them is fairly innate. If you don’t get along with people, the solo route is probably not for you.

Frankly, many solo attorneys outsource many of the business logistics to other staff or professionals they hire. For example, hiring an accountant to do the books, or hiring support staff to answer the phone, greet clients, work on marketing, etc. But outsourcing doesn’t mean an attorney doesn’t know how to do it, it just means they recognize the value in having someone else do it.

I guess that means every solo attorney knows how to run a business, but not all of them know how to run a business well.

Randall Ryder
Randall Ryder is the Director of Appellate Advocacy & Lecturer in Law at the University of Minnesota Law School.