This is the second post in my new blog series about starting a solo law practice. The first was a general introduction to the series and topic, while this post is an introduction to my backstory, which I’ll tell before tackling a range to topics and tricks to make starting your own law practice easier.
When I graduated law school, I didn’t imagine nearly 22 years later I would be writing a series about how to start and grow a solo law practice. Since passing the bar I have started, grown and sold two highly successful law practices in two different states, and built two thriving legal technology companies. I currently serve as CEO of LawLytics, a legal tech company that empowers lawyers to get industry-leading results by participating in their own marketing.
I have enjoyed each step of my journey, but my favorite times were the early years of each law practice. The startup and building years can be a lot of fun. For me it was an adrenaline filled, nerve-racking, and highly satisfying labor of love.
As I start writing what I think will become one of the most comprehensive collections of online resources for solo practitioners, I think it’s appropriate and only fair to share my own story. We all see through our own prisms. My opinions and points of view will be naturally limited by my personality, background and experiences. By telling you my story first, my hope is to give you, the reader, a framework to parse the information and advice that I will give later on. Take what is useful, ignore what is not. There is no one “right way” to build a successful solo law practice, and ultimately you owe it to yourself to create your own definition of success to guide your actions and decisions.
My definition of success has changed over my years in the law.
1995 – 1998 – Law School
When I first started law school I wanted to graduate with the ability to pass the bar exam, and have the option, but not the obligation, to get a job as a lawyer.
1999 – Starting My First Practice
When I started my first solo practice in Seattle, my goal was to make enough money that I could afford to survive, and to have enough legal work that I could build my skills, confidence and reputation as a lawyer.
2000 – 2001 – Growing My First Practice
My practice was growing, and I found myself frequently burning the candle at both ends. I was making very good money compared to most of my law school cohorts, and I was my own boss. But I had no work-life balance. At that point my goal shifted to figuring out how to maintain or grow my take-home pay while putting systems and people in place so I wouldn’t burn out, and so that my clients would not suffer from having an overextended lawyer.
2002 – Selling My First Practice
In 2002, for a variety of reasons including that my wife, whom I married that June, was from Arizona and could not get warm living in Seattle, I decided to close my practice and move to Arizona, where I also had a law license. Because I had built significant marketing and practice infrastructure, I was able to sell my practice rather than simply finish my obligations to my active clients and closing shop.
2003 – Moving, Starting Over, Forming, Surviving and Dissolving a Partnership
After selling my Seattle practice, we moved to the Phoenix area. Almost immediately after moving I opened a law firm in partnership with an old law school classmate. That did not go well, and in a future post I’ll talk about the alignment mistakes I could have avoided, but didn’t.
2004 – 2009 – Growing My Second Practice
After dissolving the short-lived law partnership, I dove into growing a practice in the Phoenix area, using the same internet-driven playbook that had worked so well for me in Seattle. At it’s peak my firm had two associate attorneys, and two full-time administrative staffers, and I used contract attorneys periodically to cover the overflow. I was in jury trials at least once a month on average, and there was one period where I did five jury trials in five weeks, and (as a criminal defense attorney) got not-guilty verdicts or hung juries in all five trials. I was truly immersed in my practice and my clients, and it was an exhausting and adrenaline fueled labor of love.
2008 – Present – Helping Other Lawyers Grow Their Practices
In 2008 I started building a legal directory for DUI lawyers. The project started out as an attempt to help a friend in Seattle who was struggling to get business. I worked on it at night while I practiced by day. The directory grew quickly into the leading resource for defendants in every state, and also as a means of connecting those clients with lawyers (who paid to be listed in the directory). The feedback that I got from the listed attorneys was that it was having a significantly positive impact on their bottom lines. And I ended up having many conversations with attorneys asking for my advice on how to make their websites more effective. I enjoyed providing this help, and saw that many attorneys who were working with agencies were getting taken advantage of, and that most attorneys who were trying to do it themselves with general DIY website software were struggling with the technology.
The directory quickly grew to match and then exceed my law office revenue and profits, and I enjoyed my newly discovered role as tech entrepreneur and advisor to attorneys. I made the decision to wind my practice down, try my last several cases, and sell my practice assets to focus on legal marketing tech full-time.
About a year later the directory was acquired by a large internet company. I sold because I wanted to start LawLytics, and I believed (and still believe) that it’s a disqualifying conflict of interest for a company to provide law firm websites while at the same time owning a legal directory that competes with those websites. I used some of the proceeds of that sale to start LawLytics, which I would to build into the platform that provides lawyers with the easiest and most effective means by which to start and grow their websites and online marketing.
Owning a law firm requires flexibility and fluidity of goals.
Law school, practicing law and owning a law practice changes people. I think it’s unrealistic for most lawyers to maintain a rigid set of goals, or a rigid definition of success, that does not change throughout their lives in the law.
When I entered law school, I didn’t know what it’s really like to practice nor how well I would respond to being a practicing lawyer. When I hung my first shingle, I had no idea what it’s really like to own the bottom line or to be a boss responsible for paying employees before paying myself. When I tried my first case as a licensed attorney, I didn’t know whether words would actually come out when I opened my mouth, whether I would remember the rules of evidence, or get held in contempt for unwittingly violating a ruling in limine. I didn’t know that I would love trying cases, and that I would actually be pretty good at it. When I had my first potential client meeting, I didn’t know that I would truly enjoy working with my clients, and when I closed my last matter before moving into legal tech full-time, I didn’t know that (on most days) I would not miss being in court and working with clients.
My story is uniquely mine because of the assumptions I’ve made, the bets I’ve placed and the pivots that I have made along the way. Without variability in assumptions, bets and pivots, all stories about solo practices start to look alike. And, when it comes to success, happiness and fulfillment in the law, there are likely as many different paths as there are lawyers. So my story, and my choices, represent a single point of data, but one that I hope will provide you with some useful context to your path, and help you make better assumptions, bets and pivots.
In my next post in this series, which I expect will be long I’ll talk about my law school experience and how I used that time to set the stage for a successful early entry into solo practice. After that, I’ll move chronologically through my two law practices and my legal technology experiences.
If, at any time, you get tired of my story and want to skip ahead to the meat and potatoes about how the start, grow or fix your solo practice, I won’t be offended. Those how-to pieces will begin soon, so please check (or, if you’re reading this after the fact, just skip ahead now).
Before getting into how I prepared to start my own law practice during law school tomorrow, I want to use the rest of today’s post to add some background.
A bit of additional context: My personal and family history
As I write this I am 47 years old. I live in Tucson, Arizona, where LawLytics is headquartered, and where I graduated from law school in 1998. I am currently licensed in Washington State (admitted 1998) and Arizona (admitted 2000), and am a member in good standing of both bars. I maintain my law licenses on inactive status because I’m not currently engaged in the active practice of law. I could reactivate either or both licenses if I ever chose to do so. I have never been subject to any form of bar discipline, admonition or censure, and have been an invited presenter at many CLEs.
I grew up in the suburbs of Seattle, got a BA in English from the University of Washington, and returned home to Seattle after law school and started my first law practice. I have also lived in Phoenix (where I built my second law practice and started my first legal tech company). I also lived in the San Francisco area for about two years, which is where I started LawLytics.
I had a fairly easy early childhood. We were middle class. My father was an engineer at Boeing, and my mother a homemaker. I was average at nearly everything, and content not standing out. Although I felt like I could do most anything I put my mind to, I rarely challenged myself.
My seventh grade year was a wakeup call in life. My grades were bad and required hours of nightly intervention from my dad. I shot my mouth off and got my ass kicked by a classmate (thanks Paul, I deserved it and it helped!). Then my dad was diagnosed with Leukemia and died six months later.
That’s when I decided to get serious and challenge myself. My world had been ripped apart, and with it my illusion of entitlement. I got good grades. I studies martial arts. And I started to think about my future.
My grandfather Clyde, a child of the Great Depression and a successful self-made camera store owner, would constantly tell me that, if I wanted to ensure my future success and recession-proof my life, I should study hard, go to college, and become a doctor or a lawyer.
For those of you who are younger than me, it may help for me to explain my grandfather’s reasoning. Before the financial and tech revolutions of the past quarter-century, physicians and lawyers were looked at as the most successful members of society. Being a doctor or lawyer practically guaranteed wealth and respect and membership into an exclusive club of the elite.
I entered the University of Washington in 1991 and did very well in my pre-med classes. During the summer of 1992 I got a job in a physician’s office collecting bodily fluids and prepping patients for the doctor. This is after I spent the second half of my freshman year volunteering several hours a day at the University of Washington Medical Center. By the time I returned to school for my sophomore year, having collected hundreds of samples of blood from patients and having checked thousands of boxes on insurance billing sheets, I knew that medicine was not my path.
So, heeding my grandfather’s admonition, I decided to go to law school. At the decision point, I wasn’t truly inspired by the law. That would change, and in retrospect, I wouldn’t change a thing.
My next post in this series (but not necessarily my next blog post) will focus on how I optimized my law school experience to result in the opportunity and ability to start and build a solo law practice.