I mentioned that after psychologically exhausting myself with a doc review gig, I decided to go solo. I encourage jaded lawyers to consider opening their own solo practice. Although I do regret attending law school and becoming a lawyer, I still feel like my best option for digging myself out of this hole is as a lawyer. Facts are facts, and at some point I had to face up to them. I went to law school, I’m ass-deep in debt, and I’m licensed to practice. And at the very least, a solo practices provides a facade of respectability and some potential for income.
There are some good resources for starting a solo practice:
I think some of the participants are overly optimistic; after all these resources are run and populated largely by lawyers that have been able to make ends meet with their solo practice. To date at least, my experience has been less shiny. However, if you are sitting around wondering how you will ever make ends meet, it might be worth considering putting that law license to good use.
When I decided to start my own practice, I rented some cheap office space near the courthouse and bought some used furniture. I obtained malpractice insurance, which set me back about $800 for my first year. To finance this, I borrowed about $3k from family. I was reluctant to do this, but it was necessary. Thankfully I was able to repay this in short order. If you want to open a practice, you are going to need some start-up capital.
It will be nearly impossible to start a practice without a spouse/partner/parents that can provide for your living expenses for the first year or so. Jay Foonberg, in his book, says you should have a years salary saved up before opening your practice; obviously for most younger lawyers this is an impossible barrier to entry. I don’t think that is neccessary, but you do need someone to handle your living expenses for a while and you need to recognize that even then, your overhead expenses and student loan payments will probably eat up most if not all of your income.
Getting Clients and Advertising
The biggest problem any new practice faces is getting clients. Initially, I went around the courthouse and introduced myself to the judges and their staff. I signed up to receive criminal appointments and GAL work, and I actually did receive some appointments. The problem with these cases is that the DA drags their feet and the grand jury took forever to indict my clients, and I ended up doing a lot of work on cases with no prospect of getting paid for a long time. Even when I do finish an appointed case, it may be months before I actually get paid.
Another means of getting clients was to join networking groups. I absolutely loathe networking, but going to chamber of commerce functions and other networking groups provided me with some good local contacts and a few cases or matters. However, having a few flat-fee items can be a good way to get new clients. Wills/estate planning, no-fault divorces, organizing an LLC- these are pretty easy and suitable for flat-fee billing.
I think advertising is essential. Fuck anyone who tells you it is tacky to advertise, almost all major firms do it, or they have such a reputation that they have a steady stream of cases. You have to get your name out there. Admittedly, my attempts at advertising have been weak and half-assed, which is something I intend to remedy. But I have come to realize that advertising is your best bet for getting clients and making some money, and it is an example of spending money to make money. I have been reluctant to go into debt on something as risky as advertising, and now that I have some extra cash on hand I am more willing to spend on it. But if I could go back and tell myself anything at the start of my practice, it would have been to advertise as much as possible.
You will be tempted to spend money on phone book advertising; this is a waste unless you have a major advertising budget (as I can tell you from experience.) I probably spent around $500 my first year on small listings in the phone book, and I think I may have received two or three calls, none of which turned into decent cases.
The internet offers better solutions like free advertising on craigslist; you will get some weirdos but also a few paying clients. And this is a great place to advertise flat-fee services like no-fault divorces. Advertising with Google Adwords and Facebook seems promising, although I haven’t done so. However, it seems like a better use of advertising dollars than the phone book; most people I know tend to google something rather than pull out the yellow pages. And the capability of targeting your advertising to search keywords or status updates seems like it would allow you to narrowly focus your advertising.
Cable and broadcast advertising are also options. I have recently been looking into advertising on cable, and the prices are not as high as I would have expected. As an anecdote, I know a lawyer that started their practice at the same time I did (and went to a much crappier school); they borrowed like $50,000 and put it into lame TV commercials. They are bringing in at least six-figures a year, while I am rolling around in the dirt. TV advertising works.
Get your money up front, or make sure the client is someone you trust enough to pay your invoices when you send them. My best clients are corporate clients; I bill them hourly and they pay their invoices within a few days or so. However, when it doubt, take a retainer/prepayment and put it in your trust account. I have had to fire clients on more than one occasion after their retainer ran out and they refused to pay. Consult your state bar on how to handle client funds, but a general rule of thumb is that you will have to wait as long as possible before getting paid.
Knowing What to Do
The biggest obstacle to starting a solo practice is the fear that you don’t know what you are doing or that you are going to commit malpractice. It’s been two years, and I still feel this way a lot. This fear can be beneficial in that it forces you to be diligent in the way you handle cases. Still, make sure your malpractice policy is up to date.
I truly think the best thing you can do is to locate your new office in a building or area where there are other solo lawyers. I have found that most solos and small firms are quite willing to help if they can. And having friends or colleagues whom you can ask a question, borrow a book, or just shoot the shit with can be an enormous help, both practically and psychologically.
I’m not writing this to convince anyone to start a solo practice. It is up to you, and it will be informed by your own unique circumstances, and if you do take that road, it will be a difficult one. I started my solo practice because I was still committed to a career as a lawyer and I felt like I could make ends meet doing so. In some ways I have been disappointed. I certainly thought that a few years into my practice, I would be doing better than I am. It has been really shitty at times. On a few occasions, it has been fun. Most of the time, it is somewhere in-between. We have been fucked over by the law schools and the student loan cartel. We are deep in debt, and we have an education that largely didn’t prepare us to practice as lawyers. That is reality, and our only real option is to decide what to do about it. I started a solo practice, and for now, I’m muddling along and making ends meet.