I participate in at least one group discussion per month where a lawyer — employed or not — asks the collective for advice about starting a solo practice. These nonbelievers envy our independence and our ability to adapt quickly to client needs and changing trends.
We respond with the usual tried and usually true advice: Get ready for uncertain income. Don’t overspend. Don’t underspend. Find a mentor. Find another one. Practice in a unique niche you are passionate about, but also serve the needs of the community. Have a sales mentality. And did I mention network?
After the jump, I will talk about a few other things an
unemployed lawyer aspiring solo practitioner should also consider — and rant about the worst reason to start a solo practice….
Business Development vs. Job Search – With the exception of the most connected and loaded people, starting a solo practice from scratch will require substantial investment of time and money. You will need to go to networking events, buy and read practice guides, have an office, advertise, go to relevant CLE seminars, and participate in several organizations, to name just a few things. And all of the effort you put in may not lead to immediate results.
Perhaps the time and money could be better spent searching for a job and turning yourself into a marketable employee. Finding a job isn’t easy these days, and one could easily spend three months to a year or more searching. You will have to spend money going to networking events, job fairs, getting fancy résumé paper, and possibly traveling. While you are job searching, you can make money on the side by doing doc review or doing contract work for other attorneys.
It is possible to have a practice while searching for a job, but your clients’ issues can take years to resolve, and you will need to plan accordingly. So be sure to find substitute counsel in case you have to withdraw. You don’t want to be in a situation where a firm offers you a job but you cannot accept it because the firm cannot represent your existing clients and you cannot legally withdraw representation.
I can’t make this decision for you, but you should think about your future career goals and figure out if you can accomplish them by starting your own practice or being a member of a firm.
Do Some Market Research – I get the impression that most larval lawyers do not do any kind of market research before starting a solo practice. This is probably because it is so easy and cheap to start one. Conversely, if you are going to spend $100,000 or more to start a business, it would be negligent not to survey the market.
Market research is important because it will help you determine what you will need to do to develop your business. For example, if a Google search of “[your city] attorney” shows you are going to be one of forty civil litigation attorneys in your neighborhood, you will have a difficult time getting steady business. Especially if thirty-eight of them have been practicing for more than ten years and are well-known in the neighborhood. So you will either have to specialize, advertise hard (which can get expensive), or take a risk on some weird gimmick.
You should also survey the demographics of your surrounding communities as part of your market research. If 99% of the local population is not part of the 1%, you will have to focus less on your “Estate Planning for High-Net-Worth Individuals” practice and start seminars on “Estate Planning for Broke People.”
“But What Else Am I Going To Do?” – Finally, I suspect that some people start a solo practice on a whim because they think they have no other options, particularly because of this economy. This is the worst reason to start a solo practice.
Some of these people are repeating a mistake they made several years ago: going to law school because of the perceived lack of alternatives for a solid career. And because it is theoretically cheap to start a solo practice, this is also the path of least resistance. For these people, their life’s mission statement may as well be “But what else am I going to do?” That does not sound like a productive or fulfilling way to live.
If this offends you, please hear me out. I understand that you spent three years and at least $100,000 in nondischargeable debt to get your law degree and you want to do something meaningful with it. I also agree that starting a solo practice — even on a whim — is better than sitting at home watching TV all day. And I’m sure you know or have heard of people who started their practice with similar predicaments and succeeded nonetheless; you should find those people and ask them to be your mentors.
I concede that I could be wrong about this and going solo is worth a shot — if you do it right. But before you do, if you want to do something else with your life, even if it is not related to the law, pursue that first. I know that the voyage of life has its storms that throw you off course and you cannot do anything about it. But you should have control over your goals. If it doesn’t work out, your law career will still be available.
The decision to start a solo practice should not be made lightly. There is no certainty in solo practice. Even if you do everything right, you can still fail. You should do your own research and consider all other employment alternatives.
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.