Starting a solo law practice is an exciting and scary time for lawyers. Some lawyers jump in without much thought or planning, while other lawyers spend years pondering but never acting.
If you’re a lawyer or law student thinking about starting your own practice, let me first say congratulations. You are contemplating a venture that is rich with rewards and satisfaction, and that, in my opinion, can provide the best quality of practice and of life in the law. The journey to a successful solo law practice starts with a single thought, and if you’re reading these words, you’re likely well on your way.
Between that initial idea about starting a solo practice and a thriving and established law practice are many decisions, obstacles, pitfalls and challenges. I went through many of them myself. There were moments of doubt where I second-guessed whether I choose the right path. But looking back, I can say with absolute confidence that it was the right decision for me. I can also tell you with 100% confidence that there is nothing special about me. The fact that I was able to build two successful law practices, from scratch, in two different states is evidence that you can as well.
Why I’m writing this blog series about starting a solo law practice now
This blog post is the first step in a new journey of mine. I have long wanted to share my experiences and hard-earned lessons in starting and building my own law practices with fellow attorneys. With this post I am declaring that I am going to do that, starting right now, right here, with these words. I am doing this right now, in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis for several reasons:
1. As I explained in my COVID-19 series, I’m working from home along with most of the rest of the country, and therefore have several hours each week available that were previously consumed in my commute.
2. The response to my ongoing COVID-19 for lawyers blog series has been extremely positive, and I’ve been told by many lawyers that it’s given them hope and called them to take action now to serve their clients and communities, and secure their futures.
3. I know that there are a lot of employee attorneys who have lost their jobs or are at risk of that happening imminently. If information that I’ll share in this series can help those displaced lawyers (as well as unemployed recently barred attorneys) open their own law firms rather than trusting their fate to the government and the hiring plans of other lawyers, then I feel that I will have contributed to making their lives better.
This is the first post in what I anticipate will be a lengthy series that will take any lawyer or law student from the idea stage to successful solo practice. The information in this series will not be geared specifically towards starting a law practice during the COVID-19 crisis, nor in recession, but should be applicable to both as well as in future boom times (and those times will come no matter how dark today seems).
The information that I will share in this series draws heavily on my own experiences (which spanned recessions and boom times), as well as experiences and observations of my law practice colleagues from my years practicing in Seattle and Phoenix, and from the thousands of lawyers with whom I have had the pleasure of sharing the growth journey as members of LawLytics and as customers of my previous legal marketing technology company.
Starting a solo law practice is not a solo endeavor
One of the most important lessons that I was fortunate to learn early on is that, although the phrase “solo practice” implies going it alone, for successful solos, success is always built from community. My hope is that, through sharing my story and what I have learned, I will be able to contribute to the community of solo practitioners. I owe my success to lawyers who came before me, who mentored me, who gave me contract and appearance work, who gave me office space in exchange for labor before I could afford an office, who gave me forms, who gave me best practices, whose examples I followed, who talked me down from ledges and through messes of my own making, and from whom, at times, I took ideas and drew inspiration.
The word “success” is a flexible word when it comes to starting and building a solo law practice. For some attorneys it means being their own boss and having control over the matters they accept. For others it means making a decent living, say $300k per year. For others, starting a successful solo law practice is a stepping stone to building a much larger firm, filled with many associates, that generates tens of millions in yearly revenue. And each lawyer’s definition of success may evolve through their years as a solo practitioner (or later as the owner of a small or medium sized law firm). Some lawyers look at success as a constantly moving goalpost, while others are quite content to reach their’s and maintain it over the course of decades while enjoying the fruits of their labor outside of the law.
Defining success for a solo law practice
In this series I plan to take an agnostic approach to the definition of success. Where differing definitions of success prescribe different approaches to building a law practice, I will note the divergences, and offer alternative paths. I will draw on real examples of both successes and failures, including some of each from my own practice experience. When I use examples that are not my own, I will alter the names and other identifying information to protect the identity of the lawyers I write about, except in cases where I have received permission from the lawyer to share both their story and their identity.
They call it the “practice of law” for a reason. As attorneys, we all strive to get better at our profession. That’s the obvious part that they teach us in law school. We learn how to learn, how to adapt, and how to improve. Provided that we care about our clients and our work, as lawyers our early clients are rarely as well-served as our clients later in our career. That’s natural and necessary.
What they don’t teach us in law school is that, as law firm owners, we are also engaged in the “practice of business.” When we first go into business for ourselves, we are practicing on ourselves. All aspiring solo practitioners will make mistakes in business — lots of mistakes. My hope is that this series will help you, the reader, avoid many mistakes that you would otherwise make. And when you do make mistakes, I hope that these posts will empower you to recognize them earlier. And, I hope that it will give you a strong foundation to make the corrections and pivots you’ll need to make to arrive at your version of a successful solo law practice, and, if it’s part of your plan, to grow into being a successful employer and small law firm owner.
As a practicing business owner, the good news is that there are well-defined playbooks for nearly everything. Your practice may be unique because you’re a unique person and lawyer, but the things that you’ll need to do (and avoid doing) are easily definable. It’s rare that, as a solo practitioner, you’ll be in a position where you’ll have to get creative or fight against established tried-and-true business principles and practices. And when you do find yourself in such position, it’s a golden opportunity to take your practice to new levels of success. But even if you never have a single creative business moment, you can have a rich and rewarding business experience as a solo law practice owner.
Through my conversations with thousands of law firm owners, I’ve come to realize that most think that the business part of their practice should be predictable and boring. Most attorneys would rather apply their creativity and passion to their clients and cases. If you’re in that camp, the good news is that mastering the basics of business won’t take a lot of time, money or energy, and you’ll have plenty of gas left in the tank to be a passionate advocate.
I’ll focus on starting a solo practice because it’s foundational no matter how big you ultimately grow your law firm
In this series, I will focus almost exclusively on starting and growing a solo law practice. However, it bears mentioning that, for most lawyers, mastering the learnings and skills needed to succeed as a solo are foundational for successfully owning a small or medium sized law firm. I have seen many law partnerships fail because none of the owners had the foundation to run the business. If you are considering embarking on a partnership, I hope that the information in these posts will be of use to you and your partner(s), and will help you avoid the business problems that torpedo many partnerships.
I have a quote in a picture frame hanging on my office wall that I’ve had since my my first law office. The quote is attributed to Abraham Lincoln, and says:
“As a peacemaker the lawyer has a superior opportunity of being a good person. There will still be business enough.”
Being a great business person and being a great lawyer are not mutually exclusive. In my experience, those lawyers who appear to have the trappings of business success despite exhibiting behavior that is ethically questionable rarely manage to hang onto their business success. Sooner or later we all end up reading about them at the back of our state’s bar magazine. And with predictable frequency some end up trading overpriced suits and plush offices for a jumpsuit and jail cell.
When it comes to building a successful solo practice, I’m a firm believer in slow and steady wins the race. When it comes to building lasting success and wealth in the law, I believe:
“Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.”
I believe that, the moment a lawyer thinks that she has a “business hack” or a “law hack” or a shortcut to success is the moment that she should ask herself what bad things could happen to me. No business success in the law is worth risking your reputation, your bar card, or your freedom.
As a solo practitioner, you, the lawyer, are your law firm’s brand
When you’re a solo practitioner, or a lawyer in a small firm, there is no differentiating in your clients’ minds between you and your firm. You are the brand, and, assuming that you want to have a long and successful career as a law firm owner, you should protect your brand.
Fortunately, one of the most lucrative thing that any solo practitioner can do is to be, or become, a great lawyer. No lawyer starts out great. Great lawyers are cultivated through years of consistent and conscientious work. Every lawyer has the capacity to be great as long as you choose a practice area that suits you, and in which you are able to create enough business to get in the “reps” that it takes to develop a high level of competence. For example, I was able to make myself a standout criminal trial lawyer. It was an area of practice that I was passionate about. Had I chosen something that I was less passionate about, for example estate planning or tax law, I likely would not have been able to achieve an equivalent level of competence. In future posts I’ll get into my journey to, and through the law as a solo practitioner and small firm owner.
Being a great lawyer is not enough to make you a successful law firm owner
But being a great lawyer, in itself, will not make most solo practitioners successful in business. Many great lawyers have been forced out of business, or have endured unfulfilling lives as under-earning solos, because they clung to the belief that their legal skills and ethics alone would win the day. Unfortunately, being a great practitioner isn’t enough, and hasn’t been since the Supreme Court allowed attorneys to advertise. As frustrating as this is for many great lawyers who couldn’t care less about business, if you’re in this group you’d do well to acknowledge the reality of the law practice ecosystem around you so you can build a consistently financially rewarding solo practice. And the good news is, as foreign, or scary or distasteful as the business side of being a law firm owner is to some great lawyers, once the basics are understood and put into practice, being great at the business of law demands little time away from being a great lawyer.
There are hundreds of business details that the average solo practitioner must deal with when starting or growing a practice. The sheer number can seem overwhelming. It can lead to analysis paralysis and a failure to launch or thrive. I frequently see new solos stuck on minor details such as choice of business entity, or what type of paper stock to use for business cards.
This blog series will cover all of the details in a way that, I hope, will make it fun and easy for lawyers to cover each item competently without getting bogged down. Each topic will draw on real examples, and also offer encouragement and motivation to simply make a decision and move on. Most business choices that you make as a solo practitioner are low-impact or reversible decisions. I’ll try to provide clear warnings about decisions that have serious consequences. For everything else, I hope to inspire you to take action, because every second that you don’t is time and progress that you’ll never recover.
As lawyers, we frequently advise our clients to make decisions that seem difficult. When our clients are too close to the problem, or too emotionally involved, it’s our job to see the big picture and to counsel them, encourage them and sometimes administer tough-love. Sometimes we have to forcefully guide them to simply do it.
I hope that you’ll take a “do it!” approach to building your practice. The “do it” attitude is, in my observation, the most significant factor in building a successful solo law practice. And the more you practice “do it,” the easier it gets.
Starting a solo law practice can be a fun, rewarding and memorable experience
Starting a solo practice and seeing it grow into everything that you’ve dreamed of is, in my opinion, one of the most rewarding and fun things a lawyer can do. You have the power, the education, the license, and all of the tools you’ll need to create your own success story. I hope that I, through this blog series, can contribute in some small way to your solo practice adventures.
In future posts in the series, I’ll start telling my story of how I became a lawyer, a solo practitioner and small law firm owner, a tech entrepreneur, and ultimately the CEO of LawLytics. I will go into detail about my experiences:
• In law school building a foundation to go solo.
• Starting my solo law practice soon after law school in Seattle.
• Surviving the early days of my new practice.
• Growing (including growing pains) that solo practice, including adding employees and an associate attorney.
• Selling my Seattle law practice.
• Starting a new practice in Phoenix.
• Having law partners and surviving a nasty firm breakup.
• Rapidly growing a thriving practice while maintaining a grueling trial schedule.
• The technology experiments that shaped my practice and my future career in legal tech.
• Starting my first legal technology company while practicing law.
• Winding down my law practice and reinventing myself as a full-time tech company owner.
• Selling my first legal technology company.
• Starting LawLytics, and learning how to be the CEO of a rapidly scaling tech company serving lawyers (and what I wish my 26 year old self knew when I hung my first shingle).
• What I miss about not owning my own law practice, and what I don’t.
I think it’s important to tell my story first, as it will provide context and points of reference as we later dive into a range of topics including:
• Making the decision to start a solo law practice
• Earning respect and credibility as a solo practitioner
• Solo practice economics
• Structuring your law firm
• Offices for solo practitioners
• Insurance for solo practitioners
• Banking and money management
• Staffing and HR issues
• Practice area, geographic area and client selection
• Law practice management and technology
• Client communication
• Ethics and professional responsibility for solo practitioners
• Work-life balance and practice longevity for solo practitioners
• Marketing for solo lawyers
• The solo practitioner business plan
All of the topics in the above list will inform the last topic, the solo practice business plan. By the time we get there, I hope you’ll have a practical framework that you’ll be able to apply whether you just passed the bar exam, whether you’ve been a government lawyer, in-house counsel, or working in a law firm that you don’t own for years, or an attorney who has recently been laid off. And, if you are already solo and struggling, my hope is that you’ll use this material to get out of survival mode and methodically build a better future.
I hope that you’ll find the series useful, and, if you have questions, please let me know.
Until next time,