I like to say that I went solo because I had no other options — but I chose to stay solo when I started a family.
I started my law firm at the end of 1993 because I’d been downsized for economic reasons and couldn’t find another job. Three years later, the economy picked up and job offers came my way — but I was newly pregnant, and the prospect of the 50-hour work week that one of my prospective employers described didn’t interest me at all. So I figured that at least for the time, I’d remain solo because I was certain that working for myself was the best option for raising children.
Fast forward seventeen years, and my conviction that solo practice is a family-friendly work option is no longer as black and white as it was back then before my daughter was born. That’s not to say that I regret my decision – because I don’t. But here, on the other side of child-rearing — with one daughter in high school and the other on the cusp of college — I’ve realized that there’s really no easy or perfect solution to balancing work and family — whether you’re a solo or a big-firm attorney. All you can do is evaluate the facts and make the best decision for yourself and your family based on the facts in front of you.
Of course, when it comes to research about work-life balance, that’s where things get tricky….
Despite the fact that seemingly everyone — from Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg to past ABA president Laurel Bellows to a slew of mommy bloggers — has weighed in on the subject, at the end of the day, these perspectives are limited. After all, parenting choices are uniquely personal, and no one wants to admit that they’re wrong (for example, that they shouldn’t have slowed their career or conversely, that they should have spent more time with their kids) or that their particular situation is not always attainable (like Sandberg’s infamous 5:30 quittin’ time or Marissa Meyer’s in-office nursery). So most of the work-life balance stories that abound online are smug, happy stories tied up with a neat bow.
But a more objective and less personal assessment is needed to make a decision about what work situation — including solo practice — works for working lawyer-parents. And with that, I give you what I see as the pros and cons of the solo practice option as a way to attain work-life balance.
Flexibility and Control
Flexibility is one of the most significant advantages of the solo option for parents. Solos in some practice areas — such as estate planning or small business counseling — can generally set their own hours, so they might close the office at three to be home when school lets out or, alternatively, open for business a few nights a week or on weekends when a spouse can provide childcare coverage. Solos with litigation-centric practices or handling criminal defense matters have less flexibility — but with planning, they can keep their calendar clear for their children’s school activities or other family events.
More importantly, solos have control over other aspects of their practice beside scheduling. They can frequently decide where to work as well — and may opt to spend several days working from a home instead of commuting to the office. Some solos who are parents choose to operate virtual practices, where they interact with clients online or by phone and never meet face to face. Finally, solos may have also have the ability to change or shift their practice focus to accommodate their family. Before my first daughter was born, along with my energy practice, I was handling court appointed criminal defense matters along with other civil litigation matters involving depositions and court time. But over the next few months, I transitioned away from court-focused work to appellate matters (which were more predictable and involved less court time) and of-counsel work for another energy firm.
Somewhat related to flexibility, solos can cram more hours into the day than lawyers who work at a firm or government. Not only can solos choose to work from home to save commuting time, but they also avoid office time-sinks such as sensitivity trainings, team meetings and interruptions from co-workers. In short, solos can accomplish as much as an employed attorney in a shorter amount of time — which means more time for family.
Freedom to Explore New Areas
Parents who work at a firm don’t have much spare time, so they’re often stuck focusing on the same practice area rather than expanding to new projects. By contrast, solos working part-time have more flexibility and may decide to reduce their schedule and use the time while their children are young to transition to other practice areas. Several of my female friends and colleagues whom I’ve met online have done just that, and used their solo practices during child-rearing years to segue way into legal technology, entrepreneurship and different practice areas. Solo practice can provide that opportunity.
Build Your Own Capital
As the economy remains flat, lawyers who can’t make it rain are sent packing more quickly than ever. For parents, particularly those working even a slightly reduced schedule (45-hour weeks rather than 60), it may be tough enough to meet billable requirements, let alone to continue marketing — and as a result, despite all their effort, many parenting lawyers (particularly women) may spend a decade on the road to nowhere. As a solo who’s a parent, you may not earn as much as a big firm lawyer — but you’ll work less. And more importantly, every hour spent at your firm is an investment in your future, not the law firm’s.
No Paid Maternity Leave
Many law firms and employers offer relatively generous paid maternity or parental leave policies. So new parents actually have a chance to spend three to six months of uninterrupted time with the new arrival before heading back to the office, without worrying about the financial cost of lost work time. By contrast, many solos may need to tend to matters — even if just checking email or writing a quick motion — within days of giving birth. And unless solos have staff to continue servicing clients during a lengthy maternity leave, the time away from the office can pack a serious financial punch.
Many times, I envied my friends who returned to work full-time after their children were born. While I spent every precious minute of nap time, nanny duty or pre-school (all part-time) furiously typing out documents or returning phone calls, my friends enjoyed lunch hours with colleagues or time at the gym. Of course, it’s not as if I was working more than they were; I spent the other hours with my girls. But during those crazy years, I felt that between work and children, there wasn’t time for much else.
Though the upside of soloing as a parent is the added flexibility, the downside is that you may wind up assuming disproportionate responsibility for household chores and childcare than your partner. Some part-time solos feel guilty that they’re not earning as much as a partner so they may try to overcompensate by voluntarily taking on more work. Others may sacrifice investment in growing their practice or hiring more childcare because they worry about the short-term financial impacts. Unless working solos make clear that they’re not willing to settle for second place simply because their schedule is more flexible, their careers may suffer more during child-rearing years than if they worked full time.
As I mentioned earlier, solo who are parents may not have to put in the long hours that they would at a firm — but the flip side is, they often don’t earn as much either. And while money isn’t everything, it can pay for household help to make life easier, not to mention other bonuses like private school and summer camp, exotic vacations and college tuition. (In my most cynical hours, I wonder if kids really care that parents spent time with them while they’re paying back thousands of dollars in student loans.) Of course, that’s not to say that these luxuries are out of reach for solos, particularly those who are part of a dual-income household. But these kinds of extras will require more budgeting and planning than would be the case with a hefty Biglaw income.
On balance, staying solo while raising my daughters worked out for me and my family. But it was hardly seamless, easy or tidy, and I’m sure I sacrificed some opportunities even as I gained others. But that’s my story. Whether solo practice is a better career choice for other parents… ultimately, that’s not for me to say, but for you to decide. I’d be curious to hear your experience in the comments below.
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.