Find Freedom: Open a Solo Practice

Check out this guest blog post from a reader who advocates for blazing your own trail by opening a solo practice.

Editor's Note: Thanks to the fact that “biglaw” is in the site’s name, many readers mistakenly believe I'm only interested in biglaw topics. That couldn't be further from the truth, as we're creating a community for ALL lawyers to talk about personal finance and investing. As the site continues to grow, we're getting better quality guest post submissions, including from some very successful solo and small firm lawyers. Today's guest post is from an anonymous reader that has done very well as a solo lawyer.

For many attorneys an array of unappealing opportunities presents itself. Work for a big law firm for big bucks but big hours, big egos and lots of strings attached? How about rejecting the big dollars and egos and working at a non-profit?

Unfortunately, these opportunities also come with big strings attached. If you are lucky, you might get a higher purpose in exchange for your long hours and low pay.

Is there a middle way? A government job, nice benefits, solid job stability that sounds like the ticket – if you can get it! Even if you can get it, does 30 years before your pension vests sound like a prison sentence? Well, it just might.

What about those student loan payments? Forget the payments, what about the principal! Yikes! At this point, despair and hopelessness are legitimate professional hazards and very likely to blame for the high rates of alcoholism, addiction and depression among even the employed attorneys amongst us.

There is a solution.

It seems radical possibly even crazy, but it is sitting right in front of every lawyer who is dissatisfied: GO SOLO.

In life we are constantly facing pressures from outside forces, such as our parents, spouses, children, law school classmates or current co-workers. These pressures almost always involves some sort of expectation that we will be “good boys and girls” and never do anything to rock the boat. Don’t do anything that would challenge their perception of the world and live your life in accord with their vision for reality. Even worse, you might be facing “pressure” from outside forces that really emanates from inside you! It is only your perception of the internal thoughts of others that you even feel. And we let that control us? Interesting to say the least.

What will they think when you quit your cushy corporate job? What will they think if you leave the non-profit and, gasp, go into business to earn a decent living? What will they say when you leave before your pension vests?! Oh my, my my. You will have their tongues wagging – or so your oversized ego says.

Let it all go. Go solo.

Here are some of the best parts of being a solo practitioner:

  1. You choose your cases and you choose your causes. Does it frustrate you that you must prosecute someone for a crime you think is highly questionable to the point of disgusting? How about defending a corporation that knowingly exposed people to harmful chemicals and caused cancer to innocent human beings on a massive scale, does that get you going in the morning? How about shuffling paper for some big transaction that has no immediate relevance to your life but is always a massive emergency requiring all of your life energy? What would it feel like to have the control to say “No” to a case or client like that? Let me give you a whisper of your future – it feels phenomenal.
  2. You control how much money you earn. So many of us are confused by money and attach morality to having and not having money. We assume we must earn less to do good and earn more to do what we rationalize as morally ambivalent – but which we know in our heart is bad. Reject that paradigm. You can make substantial sums of money while doing good. You must accept that simple truth into your heart. When you do then opportunities will present themselves. There will be a way to do good and make money all at the same time – never settle until you find it.
  3. You can start immediately without permission from anyone even though you know nothing and have no relevant experience. I know this scares you. But stick with me, the problem is not your lack of experience. It is your skewed perception of reality. When you hang your shingle and your first client appears you see a human being, with needs and big problems that need immediate solving. In your mind, solving means 100% disappearance of the problem. This is an incorrect perception of reality.

The first client that appears to you is in fact a lesson for you disguised as a client. What will you learn? I have total faith you will learn exactly what it is you need to know to become a successful solo practitioner – if you will only see the learning opportunity. You might learn how to conduct a consultation or spot a legitimate case. If it’s not a legitimate case, you might learn to say “no.” You do not need to know how to handle it all on day one. You need to know how to see a learning experience in everything, how to find answers to new questions, to find a network of attorneys to seek advice from and to refer cases. How will you do these things? Who will you call for help? These are the questions your learning opportunity disguised as a client will force you to answer.

The three points above are simply a glimpse into the journey ahead for anyone contemplating going solo. Many will read this and immediately reject it. However, those that are unemployed, underemployed or miserably employed – going solo is a major opportunity right now!

How can you get started?

Well, here are a few tips that might just light the path for you as you contemplate going solo.

Read some books:

[Biglaw Investor: Here’s a couple of additional recommendations for books:

Go meet some Solos!

  • You can join a solo group through your state bar or advocacy organization. For example, I am a member of the American Association of Justice (AAJ) Solo and Small Firm listserve.
  • Keep an eye out for the Solos who are not fulfilling their potential. Don’t let them drag you down. Seek the successful business people/solo attorneys. I guarantee you they will be way more generous with their time than you ever imagined. This is actually a signal they are the person you are seeking.

[Biglaw Investor: Also check out a great podcast called Let’s Start a Law Firm. Unfortunately it isn’t actively updated (the lawyers must busy running an actual law practice), but there are a full 13 episodes that will serve as a great guide to setting up your first firm.]

Joshua Holt is a former private equity M&A lawyer and the creator of Biglaw Investor. Josh couldn’t find a place where lawyers were talking about money, so he created it himself. He spends 10 minutes a month on Empower keeping track of his money and is currently looking for additional lenders to add to Biglaw Investor’s JD Mortgage service which connects readers with lenders offering special mortgages for high-income professionals.

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    One thought on Find Freedom: Open a Solo Practice

    1. The city where I had my first legal job – a judicial clerkship – actually has an unusually flourishing solo industry. Half of the great attorneys practicing in that county are solos who often share information and tips – sort of operating as a geographically giant and sparsely populated law office.

      Still, it’s extremely frightening to consider going solo – especially before reaching a minimum threshold of grey hairs. I know that I am a great attorney with valuable skills, but it seems unlikely that I’d be able to pull in new clients at anywhere near the rate my well-established firm does for me. Although I’m confident in my ability to keep overhead low with effective use of technology, confident with my ability to satisfy clients and get good results in court, and confident in my adventurous/curious nature that would enjoy the continual busy learning process of being a solo practitioner, I am not confident in my ability to pull in clients who think I’m fresh out of law school! And therein lies the hangup: No clients, no money. No money is bad with student loan payments.

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