Solo Practitioners

Keith Lee

Keith Lee

Lawyers, as a whole, tend to be a negative bunch. Reserved, contrarian, and antagonistic. It’s just part of the job. “But it doesn’t have to be that way!” some new lawyers like to say. “I’m going to have a optimistic attitude about my career! I’m going to follow my passion!” This mindset likely comes from being told for years by an over-eager education system (and overbearing parents) that they are special snowflakes and just need to have a positive outlook on things and everything will turn out alright.

And some research studies would indicate that they may be partially right, except for one fine detail….

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resume girlFor the first few years of my solo practice, I was a pure solo (also known as a “true solo”). This means that I had no associates nor support staff. I had a small number of clients with relatively simple matters, so I had no need for such luxuries. But later, I got a part-time assistant who handled the mail, deposited checks, and called a client from time to time. She is still with me today helping me close up my existing cases.

Solo practitioners and small partnerships seeking a lucrative practice will eventually have to hire employees, or at the very least, part-time contract workers, in order to expand. At some point, the grunt work becomes too burdensome for the solo to handle alone. The legal assistant or paralegal will handle the usual office paperwork and logistical client calls while the associate is in charge of smaller cases.

Some pure solos want the lucrative practice without the hassle and potential liability of employees. Today, I want to share some of the true solo business plans being thrown around — and why it’s hard to make them work….

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empty-pocketAt the risk of stating the obvious to this audience, the American middle class is in serious trouble. But why am I taking the time to state the obvious? Because it isn’t what we know, it’s what we do with what we know to reposition our solo/small firm practices for survival that matters most. Most solo/small firms are consumer-law driven. Since so much of the success of many a lawyer has been predicated on a stable middle class with disposable income, how a solo/small firm responds to their disappearing wealth is intimately tied to their professional success.

The middle-class share of national income has fallen and continues to fall, dropping many who were normally categorized as such into the lower middle class, even upper lower class. Middle-class wages are stagnant even though productivity time has increased dramatically, and we no longer have the world’s wealthiest middle class. I don’t even have to quote any sources on this information because you just have to Google it and you’ll get hundreds if not thousands of pages and articles on this alarming topic.

As painful as this squeeze is individually, multiply this by millions of families (your potential clients). Then aggregate this demand across all areas of the economy (obviously, the law), and you see why this will inevitably trickle down to cripple the following generations (also your potential clients).

But the story is much bigger than this and has another very important side….

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Key to successI just read Shannon’s article from last week about solo practice (and the comments, which got pretty weird pretty fast). It was a familiar story. I have been a solo for a little over three years now. There certainly are lawyers who make more money than I make, but for most of the last three years, I have been so busy that I refer away most of the cases that come my way. I have watched a lot of my lawyer friends who have different personalities and different skills meet the legal market with varied success. Here’s what I have learned as a solo, as someone who has worked in a firm, and as an employer:

Understand That No One Owes You Anything

I went to a top-ranked university for undergrad. I got into the highest-ranked law school in my area so that I could keep my part-time job at a 200-lawyer law firm. I felt poised to make good money as a lawyer. After law school, I went to work for a small but successful business litigation firm. It was successful because my boss understood that the practice of law is still a business. When I passed the bar, I came into the office Monday morning and had a talk with my boss about how much more money he was going to have to pay me now. His response was that he was not going to pay me anything more at all because my value to him had not changed. I quit a few weeks later and opened up my own practice, using that talk as one of the foundations of my practice.

Let me explain….

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resume girlA few weeks ago, I asked for stories from former solo practitioners who have closed up shop and their reasons why. I received a fair number of responses. Some did well, moving on to BigGov, better larger law firms, or decent non-legal jobs, and some even started profitable businesses.

Others dug themselves into a deeper hole. Some got further into debt. Others made no money for years. And others became estranged from family and friends.

From time to time, I want to feature these stories as case studies for people considering going into solo practice.

For today’s inaugural feature, I will profile a lawyer who became a solo practitioner because he had no other options. Things seemed to be going well until something went wrong….

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The terrible way women lawyers are treated in the legal profession has been described in these pages ad infinitum. Whether their necklines are too low, their hair is too long, they’re giggling too much, or their maternity leave is considered an inconvenience, women lawyers aren’t taken seriously, and they certainly aren’t treated with respect by their fellow lawyers in this profession.

But just how much sexism do women lawyers face on a day-to-day basis? It’s astonishing…

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Keith Lee

The first step in putting yourself out there is knowing what you are about. You absolutely need to be able to present who you are to people in a simple, cohesive fashion. Otherwise, it can be difficult to make connections with people.

If you are stumbling on who you are or what you do, people lose interest. You need to be able to simply, and quickly, tell a story about who you are. Something that communicates what you are about — as a person and as a professional. You need to be able to express your personal narrative.

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We all face technology choices, but when you’re managing a law firm, these choices are all the more important, since the tools you settle on become a regular part of your day-to-day life. Making a bad decision about technology in your law practice can be particularly unpleasant since the effects are often long-term ones due to the high upfront investment required.

That’s why your decision regarding which computers and operating systems to use in your law firm is such an vital one. Once purchased, you’ll use those computers and compatible software for years to come. Making the right choice for your law firm can make all the difference.

Because PCs and compatible software dominate the marketplace, PCs are the computer of choice for most law firms. But some attorneys choose the path less traveled and opt to go with Macs. Eric Gold, a California estate practice and family law attorney, is one of those lawyers.

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Sexism is pervasive in the legal profession, and it’s highly unusual if a week passes and there isn’t something to decry about the way women are treated by their male colleagues. From pay inequities and being passed up for partnership to constant lectures about the way they ought to dress, act, and speak, women lawyers have been given the short end of the stick in what was once considered a noble calling.

Worse yet, when it comes to achieving any sense of work/life balance, each action a woman lawyer takes is scrutinized with intensity — there are always questions raised as to her true dedication to her work. Should a woman lawyer be so bold as to become pregnant and then take maternity leave, then all bets are off. Colleagues will sigh with exasperation and fault their pregnant coworker for putting more work on their shoulders while the lawyer with child goes off to enjoy her “vacation” from the job.

It seems that even judges are fed up with women attorneys and their pesky maternity leave….

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A few weeks into my new contract job, things got extremely busy. A few of the partners assigned additional work to me, and I see 12-hour days coming in the near future. And when I am done there, I have to go back home to work on my own client files. Unread letters and email are piling up on my desk, and it is getting harder to respond to phone calls quickly. I needed to do something to reduce the workload. And I sure as heck am not going to tell the partners that I’m too busy with my own work.

Over the weekend, as I was reviewing my notes and preparing billing statements to my clients, I decided that some of them had to go. Some were not paying their bills as agreed on the attorney-client contract and giving me all kinds of excuses. Others were slow in giving me information and documents that I needed. And others had malignant personalities that I couldn’t stand. Like most unestablished solo practitioners and small firms, I previously had no choice but to be flexible and exercise temperance in these situations. But now I am in a position to fire them.

After the jump, I will tell a story about a client I recently fired, the reasons why, and how I ended the relationship. I was worried because of the things he could possibly do to me: a bar complaint, a malpractice lawsuit, or a negative online review. But I felt particularly bad about this because he was one of my very first clients and one of my strongest cheerleaders….

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