In this episode, Stephanie Everett talks with Energy Lawyer, Author, Blogger & Legal Innovation Influencer Carolyn Elefant about her newest book, Solo by Choice: How to Be the Lawyer You Always Wanted to Be. In addition, Caroyln addresses a common question new lawyers often ponder—is going solo the right way for my practice?
If today's podcast resonates with you and you haven't read The Small Firm Roadmap Revisited yet, get the first chapter right now for free! Looking for help beyond the book? Check out our coaching community to see if it's right for you.
- . Why Carolyn wrote “Solo by Choice”
- . Biggest struggles for new firm owners
- . What should new firm owners do differently?
Welcome to The Lawyerist Podcast, a series of discussions with entrepreneurs and innovators about building a successful law practice in today’s challenging and constantly changing legal market. Lawyerist supports attorneys, building client-centered, and future-oriented small law firms through community, content, and coaching both online and through the Lawyerist Lab. And now from the team that brought you The Small Firm Roadmap and your podcast hosts.
Hi, I’m Jennifer Whigham
And I’m Stephanie Everett. And this is episode 382 of the Lawyerist podcast. Part of the legal talk network. Today, I’m talking with Carolyn Elefant about the latest edition of her popular book. Solo by choice
Today’s podcast is brought to you by Posh Virtual Receptionist, Law Pay and MyCase, we would not be able to do this show without their support. So stay tuned. We’ll tell you a little bit more about them later on.
So Jennifer, we have some exciting new is happening in the Lawyerist Lab world, which is our coaching program for lawyers.
Yes, we do. And this is something you and I have been working on for the last, I don’t know, no more than a quarter, for sure. We’ve been thinking about this, but not to, to tease it out too much, but we are, we have a new lab offering that. I think Wille to some people out there who maybe aren’t quite ready for our higher price tier, but still want some of the resources that we, we have available for the lawyers.
Yeah. So at this new self, what we’re kind of thinking of is the self-paced option or the gold offering. <laugh>
Yes, it’s $349 a month. And what it gives you is a roadmap strategy call with one of our coaches, cuz we wanna make sure that you have a good plan in place. And then it becomes a little bit more self-directed in that you have the access to our online courses and resources, but don’t worry. We’ve mapped that out in the call. So you know exactly what you’re gonna be working on. And when, and then you have access each month to come on to a group call with our coaches to get help if you’re stuck or whatever that might little extra push you might need as you’re working through the materials.
Yeah. And what I like about this compared to some other self paced courses out there is that quarterly roadmap call that you get with a coach they’re setting you up for success for that whole quarter. So it’s not like you have to go in kind of figure out every time what your goal is because that’s often why people join lab is because they need help and guidance figuring out what direction they wanna go to or what things are important. So you have that call every quarter, the sets you up for whatever you’re gonna do for the next quarter. And then you can take advantage of all the different resources we have. So we don’t set you out to see,
Yeah, it was super important to us. We wanted to have this kind of option that might be more accessible and available to people who needed help. And like you said, maybe weren’t ready for all the one-on-one coaching that we offer in our, you know, platinum level. But it was important to us that it wasn’t just an online course because there’s lots of those out there and we’ve all done. It myself included where you hit purchase and then you get access to this thing and you, we do it. And then you kind of stop mm-hmm <affirmative> and you know, it was important to us that if we’re gonna put something out in the world, we want it to work and we want you to get results from it. And so we needed to make sure we were setting up our participants for success, which is why you get that roadmap call and you get access to our coaches every month and that group call so that you have a place to go with questions. And quite frankly, you get access to the coaches through our online forum too. So you don’t even have to wait for the monthly call. You could come on and message us at any point.
Yeah. I think I have five online courses that I’ve been taking for like 10 years because I <laugh>, so I’ve been for 10 years, I’ve been taking a physics course and like Chinese history and I’ll just occasionally every six months go in and be like, oh yeah, I bought that
Actually I know I should have a day where I just finish all of those and feel like a complete person, I guess, but that’s what is nice about this and the other nice thing about it is, you know, my favorite part about lab is the actual community that we have. And so you do get access to our community too. We have a forum where you can chat with people and then you also get discounted access to our lab events, including lab con, which is our 2.5 day what I call a work retreat, cuz we say conference, but it’s an on-conference people aren’t talking at you, people aren’t selling you things. You really go there to work on your business to implement things and work with other lawyers, just like you and our coaches. And so with this offering, you also get discounted access to that. So you get our community and I think that’s one of the, more to me important parts of the lab program.
Absolutely. No question of about it. So if you’re at all interested in this, wanna learn more, we’re happy to talk to you. You can always go to Lawyerist/lab and it will take you to the right place to sign up and have a conversation with us or if you’re not even sure about that, just hit us up with an email. firstname.lastname@example.org or Stephanie@lawyeristbackup.kinsta.cloud. We’ll, we’ll get you in the right spot, but we’re super excited about this and happy to, to talk to you more about it.
Yep. It’s gonna be great. And now here is Stephanie’s conversation with Carolyn.
Hi, it’s Carolyn Elefant. I’m an attorney in Washington DC and I’m the author of solo by choice, how to start a law firm and a longtime blogger www.myshingle.com.
Hey Carolyn, welcome back to the show. It has been a while since you were on, we looked it up and you were guest number three back when the show started
<laugh> yes. I, I remember that I had a, did the podcast with Sam. I, I can’t remember how many years ago it was, but podcast were still unfolding at that time.
Yeah. And I mean, I guess, you know, it, it shows that you’ve you also have been at this for a long time and helping lawyers think about getting their practice started. I mean, I guess I’m curious, what do you see as some of the biggest changes that are, that have happened?
Oh my gosh, there have been so many things that have changed since I started my firm. And also since I started the, my shingle blog, which was probably about 10 years, maybe eight or 10 years into my own practice. But first of all, I think there are just so many more resources for people who want to do it today. I mean, back then, it really was just Bloomberg and maybe a seminar or some kind of event that your, your local bar would have and maybe like 10 people would show up and they would be afraid to be there because they’d be afraid, they’d see a partner from their law firm whose other leaving to start something. So the web has really, um, allowed for an explosion of, of resources. And there are also just, you know, because of technology, it’s really empowered law to do different kinds of innovative things with their practices. So you see these really very different niches and business models and that’s something I think that has really changed over the years too.
Yeah. And so if we go all the way back to the beginning, when you first wrote your book solo by choice, you know, well, take us back to the beginning and why did you decide to write this book and to start your blog and, and to provide these resources?
The blog was actually intended to be kind of a portal site that time sites like pets.com and you know, toilet paper.com were, were pervasive. And so I just wanted to be the portal for everything solo and small. And the problem was I couldn’t figure out how to do the development. And even though my husband was a programmer that wasn’t his specialty. So eventually we learned about this blog package called slash code. And that allowed me to set up my shingle. But by that time, blogs were already starting to emerge in the legal profession and they were really a way of share information freely. There wasn’t like a monetization model behind it. So I kind of dropped the monetization part, but I thought it served a gap because again, um, back then you had, you know, publications like American lawyer and even the ABA journal at that time, really focused more on big firms.
And I didn’t think there was anything out there that really focused on solos and smalls and focused on their place in the legal profession, not just like the nuts and bolts, which honestly I find very boring <laugh>, but just like, you know, what’s the role of the solo and small firm in ensuring access to justice for the majority of Americans who use solo and small firms do regulators disproportionately target solo. So I felt like they needed that kind of voice. And, and with the book, the book was really an offshoot. Originally the book was gonna be more of like a, from big law to your law because my transition, I, I had worked at a government agency and then a small and a large firm. And I practiced in an industry that’s very big firm dominated. And I didn’t feel like there were a lot of options for people with that kind of background to start an open firm. So that was originally gonna be the focus and my publisher thought that that was too narrow. So we expanded it to talking about all different ways to start a practice. And, and it was also again, a new way of looking at opening a practice because Bloomberg was the only voice on the market back then in terms of books.
Yeah. I mean, if I’m honest, cuz I also started, you know, when I graduated, I went to a big firm and I’m not really sure where this mindset developed, but along the way it was assumed or to me that small firm practice meant, you know, shotty work that you weren’t worthy. There was this weird thing that, that they do in big firms of like being like we’re special, you know, we’re the ones who are supposed to be here and the ones who can do great work. And obviously I don’t hold that opinion anymore, but I <laugh>, but I remember we having it. And I’m, I wonder if you still see that, do you feel like that still exists or have solos and small firms, you know, is it more assumed that yes, this is an option. I mean, I love the title of your book solo by choice because that’s part of it, right. There was an assumption that if you’re out there on your own, there must be a reason it’s bad.
Yeah. So I think that attitude has changed to some degree, especially post pandemic when people are really questioning the meaning of work and really focused on wanting to do work that matters. I think that some of those stereotypes still persist, but they’re being eradicated. Part of the reason is because the work that solos models are able to turn out these days has been elevated. I mean the kinds of things that I have been able to do in my practice, just like through, you know, access to things like Google maps and terms of putting on, you know, presentations or showing how things look or, you know, being able to, you know, manipulate documents with just simple tools, it really has enabled solos and smalls to, you know, to make a better showing. So I think the quality of work for many have improved, although you do see, you know, these odd cases about, you know, people using the same template, not changing the names and you know, the judge calling them out.
So I think that’s changed a little bit, but I think also, like I said, I think people, there are so many more ex examples of people who are starting solo on small firms who are really succeeding in a big way. And I think that that’s very appealing to people who are working at large firms. I think also the, um, advent of entrepreneurship in general, where you see people like Steve jobs and um, the Google founders, you know, starting out of their garage and building these big empires. I think people at big firms, lawyers see that and they realize that, you know, it doesn’t take that much to start no matter what kind of profession you’re in. So I think those attitudes have changed, but not substantially, but to some degree
<laugh> yeah, no, I mean, to be clear, I’m a big fan now I see it. And, and I always think about this and, and I think you’d agree, like, especially when it comes to things like you’re running your business access to justice, I mean, small firms are like the speed boat versus the big barge, right? Like they can turn on a dime and they can do really creative, inventive things. And I think you’re right, like technology and internet, the resource gap isn’t as big as it might have been in the past where you had to have a lot of money to automate a document now, I mean, anybody can go do that.
Yeah, exactly. That’s been a big change. And I think also people are starting to see big firms for what they are. I mean, for years and years, large firms have done everything possible to retain employees, you know, certainly paying them huge salaries, having robust pro bono programs, having, um, you know, mater generous maternity leave policies. But in spite of all of that, a big firm is still a big firm. That’s the business model is always going to be serving C clients on a sort of pyramid scheme for generating billables, starting people at the bottom of the totem pole and letting them go up. And so I think people, especially women and people, um, lawyers of color are starting to see that, you know, even as far as they advance in that structure, that’s not necessarily something you can change. The lawyers I see who are women or law of color who are going out and starting their own firms or innovating these new models that are serving, you know, black clients or women owned businesses, they’re accommodating workers who are women and providing ways for those people to advance. So it’s like, it’s, it’s just, it’s a whole new thing that you can have when you leave. So I, I think that there’s a lot of, of people in the profession who are really very tired of that same business model and want to start something new to improve the profession in different ways.
Yeah. And so in the work that you’re doing and approaching this newest edition of your book, what continues to be the biggest struggles that you’re seeing that new firm owners are wrestling with?
So I think, I mean, you know, one of the biggest, the initial hurdles is just getting started. There’s a lot of analysis paralysis, people who have been planning firms for months and who are concerned about making the leap when they don’t have clients. And I, I get it. It is very scary to do that, but it becomes a vicious cycle because until you start, people don’t know you’re available for hire. I mean, if you’re thinking about starting a firm, but you’re still working somewhere, somebody isn’t gonna come to you and say, oh, I’m gonna hire you now. They’re, they’re gonna wanna know that you’re available to do it. So I think that’s one of the hurdles that people have. I think another challenge I think is just keeping pace with and making technology decisions without getting bogged down. I mean, now there’s so much focus on technology, so many tools and so many people promoting programs to automate, to automate workflows, to do the four hour work week.
And I think that sometimes you can feel like even if you’re re if you’re relatively tech savvy or you’re using some basic technology tools, you feel like it’s not enough that unless you have, you know, five Zapier connections to 10 different functions that you’re behind. And so I think that it’s easy for people to get so focused. I see people getting much more caught up in the process and things like that and making decisions about technology than just sort of getting things, things done. And I think also, I guess the last, I don’t necessarily consider a challenge. I know that lawyers feel challenged by, you know, some of the automation and how to compete with that and how to offer services that enable them to compete with the legal zooms and the other types of products that are serving clients that quite frankly, nobody ever wanted those people’s clients anyway, because they didn’t have the resources to pay, but lawyers feel that that’s kind of a threat to them.
So those are some of the, the challenges that I see. And I, I, I guess the fourth is, you know, there’s still in what we don’t realize like here in the internet world, there’s still lots of parts of the country that haven’t don’t even have Eile. I mean, I, I live in Maryland and my county, Montgomery county is one of the wealthiest, most advanced counties in the entire country. They only got eFiling like a year ago and Baltimore county is the biggest county in the state. Doesn’t have e-filing. I mean, I personally stopped practicing in state court a decade ago because I refuse to, I refuse to deal with that. So, you know, there are parts of the country that don’t have internet or decent, um, internet ban with speeds and solos and small firms are the ones that are dealing with that because you don’t have the big firms practicing in those courts.
Yeah. That totally makes sense. What do you wish new firm owners would do differently?
I think that the first thing would be to really find and focus a target client or a niche that they really want to serve. Because I think that makes all of the difference. When you feel like you have a mission <affirmative> for serving your clients a passion for making their lives better, it makes everything so much easier. It lets your services, sell yourself because other people will be selling you because they see that passion that you have. I think too many lawyers get caught up in. If I just focus on a niche, what happens if the criminal case comes through the door or the estate planning case, and they start taking all these cases and all of a sudden they get discombobulated. So I think just focusing on some kind of niche, and I think the second thing is just, it’s good to do what other people have done, but you should always be looking to do something different.
And thinking ahead, not just focusing on how other people have always done it. I see that there’s a lot of this bare follow the leader mentality in law. And a lot of programs are like, you know, they promote themselves as, you know, let me save you the time and expense of getting your estate planning firm started or your, your firm started, we’ve done it all and follow our $18,000 program and you’ll do it the same way. And yes, it works. If you wanna start the identical same thing, but if you’re trying to do something different, you wanna adapt those tools to what your, your vision is because running a firm and practicing law, I mean, it’s not just running a firm, practicing law is hard. You go to court, you give it your best shot. You make your best case and you still get that crazy judge who’s gonna rule against you.
And that just sucks. Yeah. I mean, it completely sucks. And so, you know, in order to get past that kind of stuff, you at least have to, you know, believe in what you’re doing in, in the clients you’re serving because that’s, what’s gonna make the difference. And I don’t think enough lawyers necessarily think about that either. So those would be things. And the third thing would be to just as soon as you start just be focused on how you’re gonna get money. Don’t think about your website, your fancy website, or, or making your automations perfect or anything like that. Just figure out how you’re gonna start getting money in the door. Cause the faster you get the money in the door, the more money you have on refining your, your service and you’re scaling it or hiring people or doing whatever you want to make your life easier without the stress of worrying. If you’re overextending yourself.
Yeah. I couldn’t agree more with all three of those things. Love it. We need to take a quick break and hear from our sponsors. But when we come back, I wanna talk a little bit more about the new edition of the book.
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All right, Carolyn we’re back. And you just recently published a new edition of the book. And so of course it begs the question like what’s new. What are you talking about if it’s different?
So I was really surprised. I mean, I kept putting off this update. The last iteration came out in 2013 and I started working on the update, honestly like around 2015, and then I put it off for a couple of years, but a lot of things really have changed. Most of all, I, I was shocked. I mean, I was really shocked at how much all of the technology has changed in the second book I was writing about, you know, social media and ways to market your practice on social media, but those types of things have really taken off. And of course there, you know, this whole emergence of new platforms, I think back then, you know, there, there wasn’t Instagram, or it was just getting off the ground and TikTok wasn’t a big deal. Video was still expensive to really produce. I mean, you could put up a camera or something, but you didn’t have really easy tools.
So, so the whole digital marketing concept has changed. The whole idea of remote services has changed. And one of the things, of course, that changed while I was writing the book with sand shifted underneath me was the pandemic as I was right, the finishing up the draft. So I, I had to sort of change that because that really turned a lot of assumptions on its head. I mean, even some of the discussions in the second book, you know, there’s a lengthy discussion of, you know, what to do about a law office. Do you wanna be near the court out far away somewhere? Do you wanna have a physical office, a virtual space, you know, and a lot of that discussion is really superseded. The first question is, do you really wanna have a physical office at all? The physical office is really no longer the default.
You have to be thinking about how you want your employees to work. I think another thing that’s really changed is, I mean, outsourcing was always available. I wrote about that in my first book. In fact, my publisher’s wife had written a book about contract lawyering, like back in, in the early two thousands. So it’s, it’s something that’s been around for a long time, but it’s never been as easy with all of these, you know, platforms like lock Clark legal and, um, Upwork and things like that. So there’s more of a focus on those kinds of outsourcing tools that people can use to get their practices up and running. And the last thing too, is the issue of student loan debt. I mean, it was a problem with the second book, but just become even, you know, more exposed about, you know, the kind of debt that people are operating under.
And those are considerations for starting a law practice also. So those were a couple of the things that I think it changed. And the last thing also that I did add a chapter on that I thought it was irresponsible not to is we’re now aware of the stress and the pressure that a lot of solo and small firms are under. There have been high incidents of suicide. There’s a lot of people who are very stressed, it’s impacted family relation chip. So there is a chapter on just work life balance and stress and the law practice management programs or the lawyer assistance programs that bar associations offer. Because it just seems like in today’s environment, not discussing those issues is irresponsible.
Yeah, no, that makes total sense. And listening to, to you to talk about those things, I’m having a little bit of a nostalgic moment because actually last night, the law firm that I helped start celebrated its 15th anniversary. So we were all together and talking about the days of when we started the firm and the project and, and back then, like I was buying Blackberry servers and, you know, we had physical that servers in the office in a telephone system and just thinking about all, and of course we virtual wasn’t even an option. Of course we had office space and that needed to be in downtown with a prestigious, you know, street address or something. And you’re right in just 15 years since I started that firm, like thinking about today, all these things that have changed that just made it so much easier. I think. Yeah. You tell me.
Yeah, no, it’s absolutely. I mean even, and even something like office space, I mean, today you have these, I, I mean, I’ve had for the past, up until the pandemic, I had a dedicated WeWork space for my office and my law clerks loved it. I mean, because it was like being in college again where they could sit in the cafeteria and do their work or work in this whole free roaming space. I mean, they would bring their, their friends to come look at the cool office that, that I had. So there’s also, you know, just more options, even if lawyers want a part-time space, a flexible space, a space out of their house, there’s virtual mail options. There’s just so many more things that have made it easier. And the other thing is, again, this whole vast array of technology tools. And I think I, I had a hand down or I think it’s on my website. It’s just, I mean, lawyers have tech stacks now. I mean, you know, they have all these different tools that they use to operate their firm that are not only cheaper than when I started, but some of the, the technology features like, you know, like a zoom, it’s not even something that I imagined would be accessible or could be a tool back then, you know, the, the document automations, all of those things. So that really, I think more than anything, it’s just made it much, much easier and definitely, um, eliminated, eliminated barriers to getting started.
Yeah. So if I were, you know, to give you a magic wand, what would you change about the industry or the practice?
I think the first thing that I would do is I would reevaluate a lot of the more onerous rules that apply to law firms because they disproportionately burden, solos and smalls, as easy as you make things for trust accounts, it’s still a pain in the neck to, uh, trying to keep my letters clean. Oh, it’s
Still a pain in the neck,
A pain in the neck to me manage them. And there’s so many easier tools. I mean, people can pay on credit card sites like Upwork, people are accustomed to like this online escrow account. Why does it have to be micromanaged by like 50 different regulators who don’t have anything better to do whose bar dues are being paid for them when they should be out like with a real job? So that’s something that adds the cost add to the cost and to the complexity of running a so and small firm practice, the advertising rules. I mean, I, I know the trade name rules have finally, you know, been eliminated. There’s just so many other things, depending on what state you’re in. Can you say you’re a great lawyer? Can you have the testimonial? Oh, what if there’s a link on your page to the testimonial? It just like seriously.
I mean, you know, people can figure this kind of stuff out. Clients are accustomed to using testimonials to make decisions about Amazon products, you know, and other online services. So, you know, eliminating rules like that and just allowing lawyers to compete on the same plane as a lot of these new automated services. As I think the second thing would be also for courts, at least for people who are doing litigation, one of the reasons why it costs so much money to get a divorce in a court, as opposed to going through, you know, a site like a service like hello divorce, which, and, and I am a big proponent of these services, but you know, if you have a litigated case, doesn’t matter if you’re using hello divorce or hello, whatever you’re gonna still have to pay for depositions and a court reporter. Right. And all of these things that we don’t really need anymore, we can record depositions.
I mean, that that’s, that is one of the things that really gets my go is, is having these reporters. And it can add, especially in the work that I do, which you know, is, can be very complex with multiple witnesses in these 50 day hearing. Extravaganzas it can add five or $10,000 charge onto the cost of a case, which, you know, is prohibitive for small organizations. So I think, again, the courts have to relook at, you know, email, hopefully courts will continue to do things remotely, at least for status conferences and things that are of less consequence. Those are also things that they’re just more burdensome for solos and smalls, cuz there’s not a lot of ways around them. They’re their hard stops.
Yeah. I hadn’t thought about like the court reporting cost and you’re absolutely right. Let’s end on a positive note looking into the future. What’s got you most excited or hopeful.
So the first thing is, is, oh my God, I love the new generation of lawyers, the who I see on Instagram and TikTok the creativity, the diversity, the way that they really, their stuff. I think that just, that is so cool. I remember how I spent so much time trying to hide that I was working from home hide that I was a mom hide all those things. And now it’s like way out in public that can only completely change the profession for the better. So I’m really excited about that. I’m also about the deregulation movements in states like Utah and Arizona. I know that a lot of lawyers are afraid of them, but I think it is gonna open the door to this just burst of creativity and innovation. Um, being able to offer like hybrid services, you know, if you’re, uh, like doing special education law, offer a bundle package with a, a tutor, or if you’re doing family law, you know, work with a psychologist or just, I think it’s gonna just create this whole new level of partnership and, and innovation. That is really exciting to me. So I guess those are, are two things that I think are very exciting. And, and the third, the third thing is, is again, there is more of a focus on ownership and entrepreneurship. And I think that, you know, as we will see in the next few years, more people deciding to take charge of their talent and own it. And I think that’s just really gonna change the profession for the better.
Yeah. I’m excited too. I love all that. Your latest edition is the book is solo by choice. If you haven’t picked up a copy yet, it is just packed with really great practical advice. I enjoyed reading it and seeing, I mean, you just give so much away in this book and so it, it’s definitely a guide that everybody should pick up and use. If you have a practice or you’re thinking about starting one, Carolyn, I can’t believe it’s been 378 episodes since you’ve been on <laugh>, But we’re, I’m super glad you came and talked to us today.
Yes. Thank you so much for having me on again.
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Is Going Solo the Right Way?, with Carolyn Elefant
Last updated June 28th, 2022