This is the fifth post in my blog series about how to start and build a solo law practice. At the beginning of the series I’m taking the time to tell my story, which I hope will frame the advice and opinions that I give in future posts. In the last post I covered the period between graduating law school and hanging my first shingle, during which I took and passed two bar exams, moved from Tucson to Seattle, back to Tucson, and then back to Seattle. In this post I’m going to talk about my decision to start my first solo practice and my preparations for doing so.
Why did I want to start my own law practice without first working as a practicing lawyer?
Old men in tank tops cruising the gift shops
Checking out the chiquitas down by the shore
They dream about weight loss, wish they could be their own boss
Those three day vacations become such a bore
– Jimmy Buffet (Margaritaville, Lost Verse)
I listened to Jimmy Buffet a lot during law school and in my early years of law practice. The lost verse from Margaritaville on the album Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays, resonated with me. My father passed away when I was thirteen. He was a brilliant mathematician, and had worked at Boeing my entire life. I had heard him and friends of his who were in middle management positions at Boeing lament that they wanted to, but could not start their own businesses. The window of opportunity had (at least psychologically) closed because they had mortgages, orthodontist bills and kids’ college payments to save for.
Going solo immediately would theoretically be the least risky time to do so personally. I had no mortgage or kids at the time. The risk of failure seemed huge, but when I truly reflected on it, the worst thing that I could think of happening was that I would be unable to make money as a solo practitioner. If I couldn’t make money in my own practice, I could always get a job. As an aside, I want to make it clear that, at LawLytics, we’ve worked with attorneys in all stages of their careers as they’ve made the successful jump from student or employee to law firm owner. In some ways starting a new law firm with the benefit of experience is easier than starting directly out of law school, in other ways it’s harder. I’ll go into the details of each in later posts in this series. For now, this is just my story, and it’s but one of about half a million solos who are currently practicing in the United States alone.
Atasha was making decent money teaching Pilates, and our domestic overhead was less than $1,000 per month (though living in a the back of her Pilates studio with a curtain separating our “bedroom” from her studio where she worked with many clients every day sucked). We wouldn’t starve as long we didn’t make any lifestyle upgrades until my practice turned profitable.
Later in this series we will go into great detail about the calculus that any attorney can apply to the questions:
“Should I open a solo law practice?”
“What do I need to do when starting a new law firm.”
For now, while I’m telling my story, I’ll try to keep the how’s and why’s brief and factual.
Securing My First Physical Law Office
In 1999 it was nearly impossible to have a virtual law office. And even though it’s easy to have a virtual office today (and most lawyers have been forced into it because of the COVID-19 crisis), the question of whether to get office space right out of the gate is complex as there are tangible benefits to having the right office space, and serious drawbacks to having the wrong space.
I thought long and hard about what my criteria for my first law office should be, and came up with the following list:
1. Above all, it should be affordable, preferably free (tall order, I know).
2. It should be in a building and suite that gave me credibility as a 26 year old baby-faced lawyer.
3. It should provide me with access to other lawyers from whom I could learn, and from whom I might get referrals and overflow business.
I found the perfect office situation in the offices of the law firm that I worked for the summer after my 1L year, Sternberg Thomson Okrent & Scher. They had space in a suite of small firms and solos who were subleasing the lower level of Oles Morrison in the Columbia Center, then the tallest and arguably most prestigious building in downtown Seattle. The floor shared a receptionist, and had two nice conference rooms that could be reserved by the tenants.
There was a very small internal office in the back of the suite that was just big enough for a desk and chair. I intended to do my work out of the small office, and, if I could attract clients, I would meet with them in the smaller conference room (I wasn’t important enough to be able to reserve the large conference room). This would give the appearance of a much more established firm as potential clients and clients would be greeted by the receptionist and ushered to a seat at a nicely appointed conference table after taking a rapid and ear popping elevator ride to our floor and entering through an impressive reception area.
In contrast to the impressive conference room, in my tiny office I had a used metal industrial desk and chair with rusty springs that had likely been left by a previous tenant. The arrangement that we made for the use of the space was that I would do a certain number of hours of work for attorneys on the floor each month in exchange for the office and the use of the shared receptionist and conference room. At that moment I had a lot of time and very little money. So it was the prefect deal (not free because I had to do the work to earn it each month, but nearly so). Plus, doing work for the attorneys on the floor would give me a chance to get to know them better, and to learn from them.
In addition to the attorneys in the suite, the Columbia Center was crawling with attorneys, including some great ones in pretty much every possible practice area.
It was an high rent building. We were in the middle of the first internet bubble, and Seattle was crawling with internet startups with crazy/stupid valuations. If memory serves, offices were renting out for around $60 per square foot at the time, which seemed crazy. While great for landlords at the time, businesses rented as if the party of 1999 was the new normal. One of the byproducts of the high rent was that parking also cost a fortune. If memory serves, the asking price for a spot in the garage was upwards of $300 per month. That convenience would be luxury that I couldn’t afford to give myself.
I resolved to find street parking and feed the meters. This resulted in me taking the elevator down 30+ floors and walking up to half a mile to wherever I found parking that day every two hours. It was a small price to pay for my otherwise perfect setup for starting my law practice. On days that I knew I didn’t have to drive to court (which would soon be few and far between because I was very quickly super busy because of what I’ll discuss in my next post) Atasha started driving me to work to save money when she didn’t have Pilates classes or clients that conflicted with the commute times.
Starting My First Solo Law Practice: The Small Things
With office space secured, I went about taking care of the small things. I formed a PLLC. I got business cards. I bought a desktop computer for my office. It had a single core Pentium chip, ran Windows 98, and took about 5 minutes to boot up, but seemed very powerful for the time.
My biggest office expense was phone lines, which were purchased through the resident phone company in the Columbia Center. I got three lines. One for phone. One for fax. And one for dial up internet, which was the only option at the time.
Lastly, I obtained professional liability insurance, which was reasonably priced because I didn’t need prior acts coverage.
And Just Like That, I Was In Business
And just like that, I was now the owner of a solo law practice. It was a great feeling. I relished the accomplishment. I had arrived.
With all of the logistics of hanging my first shingle out of the way, the adrenaline, pride and celebration turned to fear and self-doubt the moment that I sat down in my small internal office, booted up my computer and closed the door. At that moment it hit me, I had no clients, and no revenue. What I did have was a monthly office obligation to work off, and a few hundred dollars of phone and insurance bills a month.
I was building the airplane on the way down. In my next post I’ll talk about how I survived in the early months of my new law practice.