Ed. note: Please welcome Shannon Achimalbe to Above the Law. Shannon will be writing about the journey from solo practice to a larger law firm.
Some time ago, I met with a consultant to discuss how I could improve and expand my solo practice. I told him my future goals: to be recognized as an expert in my areas of practice, make lots of money, and have free time for my personal life. He said I could accomplish these goals, but it would depend on how much time and effort I put in. He then told me that I would need to “invest” money in marketing, blogging, networking events, and joining various organizations. I would also need to make plans to upgrade my office and get a staff. Finally, he told me to pick a religion, because I’d be praying often.
But when I looked at the projected costs to accomplish my goals along with the non-guarantee of success, I hesitated. A flurry of questions went through my head: Who do I need to connect with and hire? What niches are marketable and enjoyable? When would I start to see a return on my investment? Where are my potential clients? How many more networking events do I have to attend? Why am I doing this? Am I going to enjoy doing this? When I found myself asking that last question, I knew it was time to look at other options…
For the first few years, most small firm lawyers do not make a lot of money. Many barely break even and live minimally or rely on a side job or family to make ends meet. Thoughts about quitting happen often. But because most lawyers are either ambitious or stubborn, we nevertheless push on hoping to eventually get steady business. But if enough time passes with no results, those thoughts of quitting should turn into an honest conversation with yourself and others. Among the former solos I have talked to, most closed their practices for one of the four reasons below.
1. You Are Unhappy.
There are good and bad days in any job. And the adversarial nature of law practice tends to produce more bad days than other jobs. But if you’re not happy with your practice on a regular basis, you should think about doing something else.
Your unhappiness will show through your work habits and your work product. You won’t have the motivation to work the extra hours and comb through the details. You won’t care if you submit a shoddy brief at the last minute. Your work will seem like a chore and you will find yourself dealing with piles of procrastinated paperwork and eventually a bar complaint. Your mind will focus on social media and other things. And eventually, your unhappiness will manifest itself physically, usually turning to alcohol and substance abuse.
I think unhappiness is easy to guess on your own but may require outside confirmation. Ask your friends and family about your demeanor and confide with a trusted few. If needed, talk to a psychologist — if this sounds undignified to you, I suggest treating her to a round of golf or a few hours at the local spa where the two of you can enjoy the afternoon and “chat”.
2. You Cannot Accomplish Your Career Goals.
When I went to law school, my goal was to practice in certain areas — like class action defense, antitrust, or complex corporate international securities transactions focusing on developing countries in Africa. But as a solo, you don’t have the connections and resources to pursue these niches on your own. You can get some theoretical knowledge by reading treatises and practice guides. But you’re not going to get the critical practice experience that employers and clients are looking for: knowing clients’ needs, negotiation skills, preparing for all possible contingencies, and just dealing with the unknown. Also, you won’t know the key players of the industry outside of a few war stories at a cocktail party or a bar association committee meeting.
In certain niche areas of law, the cost, time demands, and the learning curve are so high that you will need the help of others. An on and off mentorship will not cut it. You will need to work under experienced professionals on a daily basis.
3. You’re Not Making Money.
Now you can be happy with your work, but it will be short lived if you’re not getting paid. Or not getting paid enough. The most common reasons for seeing red are: not signing up enough clients, spending too much on overhead and advertising, not taking certain risks, and not spending time efficiently.
The problem I see with many freshly minted solo practitioners is that they do not set up realistic business plans and financial goals for their practice. If they are young or have family supporting them, it is very easy to just say, “I’m going to do the best I can and let fate determine the rest.” This almost always leads to laziness and wasted time. Looking back, what I should have done in my first year was to set certain financial goals: I want to make $X by Year 1, $Y by Year 2, and $Z by Year 3. And if I didn’t meet these goals, I should look for a job.
I’m not here to tell you how to make money in this business. There are others who might, but no one has the golden goose and everyone has a sales pitch. But after a certain period of time, if you are not making the money you thought you would, you either need to step up your game or quit.
4. You’re Not Growing Professionally.
If you’re not growing, you’re dying. After a few days of going solo, you should be known among your friends, family, and acquaintances as an attorney looking for business. Within a few months, you should have a network of attorneys and other professionals you can turn to for help and reciprocate accordingly. You should know where to turn to for legal updates and research.
Also, your expertise should grow over time. For example, if you are a trust and estates lawyer, you should know how to set up a basic will and living trust within your first few months of practice. After a year or two, you should know how to set up special needs trusts, CRUTs and CRATs, be familiar with probate procedure, and know the tax consequences of gift and estate transfers.
If you’re still struggling with the basics of your practice after a year, you will likely never succeed on your own.
If you are having any of the issues mentioned above after a few years, running a solo practice might not be for you. You shouldn’t waste your time working for a firm that makes you unhappy, broke, or both. Even if the CEO of that firm is you.
Shannon Achimalbe was a former solo practitioner for five years before deciding to sell out and get back on the corporate ladder. Shannon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.