There’s a lot of noise being made about new lawyers going solo straight out of law school. Considering the dismal market for legal jobs, many new law grads are headed towards solo practice out of necessity. A large number of the people I graduated with headed deliberately into solo practice, with no desire to work at a firm. NCCU 3L T. Greg Doucette, who I’ve corresponded with off and on over the past couple years, recently asked on his blog: Should I just go solo after graduation? (Part I) & (Part II).
All of this got me to thinking about solo practice. I only passed the Bar this past year and immediately went to work at a firm as an associate, so I have no particular insight regarding solo practice. My advice would probably consist of: do everything like you give a damn. But from what I’ve read around the web, the general consensus for the best place for advice regarding going solo is Carolyn Elefant’s book, Solo By Choice (and her accompanying website, myshingle.com). With that in mind, I purchased a copy to see for myself.
(Disclaimer: I have corresponded off and on with Carolyn Elefant over the past couple years in blogs/comments/emails/etc. However, this review will be as neutral as possible. Or not if I don’t feel like it. You’re here for my opinion not some wishy-washy neutral tone).
The book is broken down into 5 sections: The Decision, Planning The Launch, The Practice, Solo Marketing, & Solos in Transition.
Should you go solo? This section attempts to provide some guidance and answers. It’s divided between lawyers already with a firm and new lawyers. I’ll focus on the latter. The answer is…it depends. Elefant makes it clear that soloing directly out of law school is extremely difficult. There are also a number of personal accounts from lawyers who went directly into solo practice.The pros and cons are laid out with an objective approach. The general consensus? It’s hard. Like really hard. Other lawyers not taking you seriously. Stressful and overwhelming, combined with immense financial pressure if you took student loans.
However, it is noted that if you are willing to hustle, keep overhead low, are a self-starter, willing to run a business, etc. it can be done. The best advice I saw was this bit included from David Swanner, a lawyer in Myrtle Beach, SC:
Q: Will clients trust, or even hire, a new solo?
A: Yes. When I opened my practice, I was always candid with prospective clients. I’d tell them, “I’ve been practicing four months and haven’t handled a case like this before, but this is the approach I would take.” And then I would describe how I proposed handling their matter. When I finished, I’d say something like, “I just want to let you know up fron that because I’m new I won’t immediately know all the answers to your questions but I will get the answers for you.” And, then, depending on the size of the case, I might add: …”And if it looks like it’s going to be a difficult situation, I won’t be shy about asking a more experienced lawyer for help, or to call someone to take over the case if it’s appropriate. I won’t let pride get in the way. Handling your case correctly is the most important thing to me.”
If you can’t place your clients and ethics before your own need for cash flow, then you shouldn’t go solo.
Planning The Launch
This section is invaluable. It essentially provides a checklist approach to starting a new firm. Business plans, licensing, business structure, insurance, research, IOLTAs, office space, technology, practice areas, etc. If you have a question about it, it’s probably addressed in this section. If the book consisted of nothing else but this one section, it would be worth the purchase price. This, and the following section, are the real meat of the book.
Here it is. The day-to-day grind of staring at the telephone hoping it will ring. It’s also about how to conduct yourself as a new attorney. How should you structure your fee arrangements? Retainer agreements? Non-engagement letters? There’s considerable attention given to a very, very important rule when dealing with clients: manage expectations. Most people aren’t familiar with the law, make sure you communicate what’s going on clearly and succinctly in a manner that makes them comfortable (and definitely don’t speak down to them).
This section also delves more into the ethics of actual practice. Are you engaging in due diligence when accepting clients? Should you accept cases outside of you practice areas? How to appropriately check for conflict? How to handle referrals? You need to have these questions already answered before you hang that shingle.
There’s a good bit devoted here to marketing of a new practice, probably more than is necessary. Almost every form of it is at least briefly addressed (TV, billboards, yellow pages, networking, blogs, social media, etc.) Personally speaking, I think a lot of lawyer marketing is overblown, especially when it comes to any sort of online marketing. Sure, have a website, and a blog if you like to write, but you can skip out on all the social media stuff. The best return on marketing comes from going out, in person, and networking with potential clients and especially with client referral sources. Take people to lunch, join a club, participate in your local bar. Word-of-mouth is your best friend.
If your response is “But I don’t like mingling with new people/I’m not good in new situations/I don’t like networking/etc.” – Shut up, get off my website, and come back in a few year when you’re ready to be an adult.
Solos in Transition
The final, brief section is devoted to profiles of lawyers leaving one area of practice (prosecutor, Big Law, Government) for solo practice. Since I can’t speak to any of these, I won’t comment. However I’d imagine they are valuable reads if you are in such a situation. It also contains profiles of five lawyers who went solo.
All in all, it’s a fantastic book. It didn’t just answer questions I had about solo practice, it laid out the questions I didn’t even know to ask. I’m not a solo practitioner, but if I were, I couldn’t imagine starting a law firm without this book. Highly recommended.