For lawyers considering solo practice who are married or otherwise paired up, your partner can play a significant role in determining the future success — or failure — of your firm. Yet the role of a solo’s “silent partner” is rarely acknowledged or discussed. Here are some of the ways that a spouse, domestic partner or significant other can help make or break a solo practice.
First, the positives. Most obviously, a gainfully employed spouse can provide financial support to help get your practice off the ground. Even if your spouse’s income doesn’t cover start-up costs like fancy office space or state-of-the-art computers, not having to worry about health insurance or a place to live while starting out will spare you from the financial pressures that force many new solos into poor choices (like accepting an unsavory client or dipping into the trust account).
Still, while your spouse’s or partner’s ability to cover family living expenses can provide some breathing room for new solos, it doesn’t mean that you’ll be living on easy street. For example, if you have substantial student loans that your spouse’s income doesn’t cover, you’ll still have to hustle to earn enough to make repayment if you’ve taken a deferral. And if you were employed prior to starting your law firm and your lifestyle reflected your dual-income status, you’ll still have to scramble for a couple of years to attain the same earnings level that you enjoyed at your earlier position….
Another benefit that your partner can bring to your practice is free labor. My husband, a computer scientist, helped me set up a secure network and server when I started out; other solos I know conscripted spouses to web or logo design, bookkeeping, video editing and marketing. So long as your partner actually has the ability to handle tasks for your firm and is willing to do it, there’s no downside.
Finally, a spouse or partner can serve as a source of referrals when starting a firm. And although it’s probably best to steer clear of handling cases for your partner’s family members, co-workers and business contacts are a different matter entirely. Another great referral source? A spouse or partner who works at another law firm and who may be able to refer smaller cases and conflicts matters to you.
Still, your spouse or partner can complicate a solo practice as well. If your partner is the family breadwinner and employed in the military or another job that requires frequent moves, that can make it difficult to start a practice. These days, technology makes it easier for lawyers tied to constantly relocating spouses to establish a virtual practice serving clients online or to handle freelance work for other lawyers at remote locations. Still, lawyers who don’t want to live apart from a spouse but are set on starting a type of practice that’s not easily segregable from a particular jurisdiction face some difficult decisions.
In addition, your spouse or partner may not realize that even though as a solo you may have a more flexible schedule, you still have responsibilities to your business. Moreover, because you’re not contributing to the household financially at the outset, they may expect you to pick up the slack for chores and child and pet care, or they may discourage you from attending conferences or spending money on networking — which might save money in the short run, but can interfere with the long-term success of your business.
Starting a law firm is exciting, but it’s a tough and often lonely venture. Beyond money or free labor, the best partners are the ones who have your back — who accompany you to boring networking events and brag about how hard you work, who listen patiently to your complaints about loser clients, and who have confidence that you’ll make a go of this venture even when you’re not so sure of it yourself. Partners like that are priceless.
Carolyn Elefant has been blogging about solo and small firm practice at MyShingle.com since 2002 and operated her firm, the Law Offices of Carolyn Elefant PLLC, even longer than that. She’s also authored a bunch of books on topics like starting a law practice, social media, and 21st century lawyer representation agreements (affiliate links). If you’re really that interested in learning more about Carolyn, just Google her. The Internet never lies, right? You can contact Carolyn by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter at @carolynelefant.