What do you think of when you hear “solo attorney”? You might picture a small-timer, a disheveled lawyer hustling behind-on-the-bills family law cases and barely making ends meet. Or you might picture a slick general practitioner who takes any case that comes in the door so long as they pay in cash and don’t ask too many questions.
The truth is that solo and small firm practices are as varied as the people you met in law school. There are born entrepreneurs tinkering with new practice models. There are bleeding hearts who take on immense caseloads and never cut a needy client off. There are soulless sharks who do nothing but count settlement and verdict dollars. The occupation of solo attorney really is whatever you make it.
But how hard is it to make it as a solo practitioner? Well, how do you define “making it”? And what substantive areas of law do you want to practice? And are you happiest scaling exponential growth in a volume practice or handling a small set of high-value matters with extra care and attention? Starting a solo practice is easy—but to grow it and scale it is a far different matter.
Should I open my own law firm?
That’s easy: Yes! Except for those of you who aren’t disciplined enough to run a business rather than a legal clinic. And those who have zero interest in money, those who want a strict 9 to 5, those who demand certainty and security in their livelihood at all times. And not to forget those who cannot handle stress, crazy clients, snafus with software and accounting, HR issues, marketing, business development, and all of the other little jobs that come with running your own business.
Seriously though, to quote the fictional lead character from Sister Act 2, “If you wake up in the morning, and you can’t think anything but [solo practice], then you should be a [solo], girl!”
My personal journey as a solo lawyer
For me, I started as a solo practitioner because I wanted to be a lawyer. Period. I graduated into the great recession and spent years working in alternative legal career jobs before getting so frustrated with life that I was ready to do anything to finally achieve that dream of practicing law. So I quit my job, sold everything, moved to Los Angeles, and opened a family law firm.
I did not want to be an entrepreneur. Money was not my passion. I just wanted to be a damn good lawyer and help people.
Fast forward a few years, and after temporarily retiring my shingle in order to move to New York for my wife’s career, I faced the same dilemma: Alternative legal marketing career or solo? I did it again, though this time I technically did both. It meant an extremely hectic schedule, and immense reliance on efficiency, automation of administrative legal tasks (retainers, invoicing, intake forms, etc.), and far too often, picking up the laptop after I put my two-year-old to bed to crank out another advertisement, a couple more emails, or to write a rambling blog post about my passion for law. (And along the way, I picked up a passion for entrepreneurship, scaling a volume practice, and marketing!)
Ask ten different lawyers their stories and they will give you probably ten different reasons for going into solo practice. I’ve heard things like, “I was tired of BigLaw,” “I didn’t want to work for someone else,” “I like helping people,” “My dad gave me his practice,” and “I wanted to make money.”
Last thing: It’s not the end of the world to start a practice, then fold it up. Many very happy lawyers I know got their start as a solo, then joined up with an established firm when they realized that they hated billing, marketing, H.R., business, etc. Launching a solo practice demonstrates a passion for the profession, a willingness to work, and many other fine qualities that may land you a job with a firm that ignored you just a few years prior.
What to consider when thinking about starting a solo law firm
Think about what’s important to you
When figuring out how hard is it to make it as a solo practitioner, first consider what is most important to you. I have heard people say that they went into solo practice for a better work-life balance, but quite frankly, most solos that I know that are making a substantial living do so by working very long hours. If you think that being a solo means you’ll be working 20 hours a week, that may be true, if you have a very large support staff and/or don’t care much about making significant profits. But most people work longer and harder as a solo than they ever did for someone else.
Speaking of profits, you really should outline your financial goals before launching your practice. If you want to be a millionaire, the odds are slim that you will do so through divorce law or DUI defense, though it has happened. For me, my benchmark was simple: Make more in solo practice in my first year that I did in the job I left.
It wasn’t a very hard goal to reach, sadly, and I actually did it that first year. I quickly seized upon another goal: like a friend of mine, I wanted to double my revenue each year from the prior year. He went $30k, $60k, $120k, $240k, $500k before leveling out running a fixed-fee volume-based practice. I’m currently on that same path since re-launching—I might even 3x last year’s revenue while weathering a pandemic.
You’ll also need to look at your seed money that you want to invest in your legal practice and what profits you’ll need to make each year to continue growing your practice and supporting your family. Revenue goals are great. But they mean very little if your overhead is so high that you’re running a million-dollar revenue business that leaves you personally on a McDonald’s budget. Profit first, a wise man once said.
Also, long before you launch, do the research. Listen to legal podcasts, read the legal and non-legal books everyone recommends, scope out the competition in your market, and set aside some funds for startup costs and to carry you for the dry months.
Ask yourself if it is the right time to start a solo practice
I’m going to be a little controversial here and say that there is never a perfect time to start a solo practice. But if the idea doesn’t excite you enough for you to take risks, then you will never be ready.
Are you single? Perhaps you would like to work a more predictable job while focusing on your personal life—dating, getting in shape, finding “the one,” getting married, etc. Oh, you are married? Well, being a solo attorney entails a lot of risks financially, which you certainly can’t stomach with a new spouse, or a baby, or a mortgage.
Get my point? There will always be excuses not to make the jump and that is perfectly okay. If your gut is not saying that you have to do this, risks be damned, then you probably won’t have the passion to turn this into a real business when you run into obstacle, after obstacle, after obstacle. And that’s what running any small business is: Having the determination to find the answer to a million small problems that arise every single day, while focusing on the bigger pictures of revenue, profit, growth.
With all that said, there are some times that are terrible to launch a new venture. Yes, if you have significant medical bills, a new baby, or some other major life event going on right now that will take your time, attention, and money away from your business, then it is a terrible time to go solo and you should probably postpone it for a salaried gig somewhere else.
Consider an alternative legal career
I’ve heard more than one attorney tell me that they went into solo practice because they hated BigLaw. Fair. And there is a world of difference between that and running your own small shop, where you get to be your own boss.
But was it the firm? Or was it the law? Law can be a stressful, unrewarding profession at times and as someone who has worked both in law, and in a few alternative legal careers, the latter were much less stressful and much easier to balance with major life events.
If the practice of law is what excites you, and the work environment was what dragged you down, then by all means, go solo. But think really hard first and be certain that lawyering is the goal. Your JD can come in handy in so many other places:
- Legal Content Writer: I have been a legal content writer, a marketing director for a multimillion-dollar law firm, and a marketing consultant for a portfolio of more than a dozen firms.
- Legal Compliance: One of my best friends writes legal compliance documents for a major entertainment conglomerate’s intranet—all those internal legal policies and procedures manuals that have been published to the internal wiki are written by him.
- Take a peek at the legal tech industry: JD-toting startup founders are revolutionizing divorce, bankruptcy, legal research, intellectual property case filing, and so many other things right now.
Decide on what practice areas to focus on
When I first went solo, I picked family law. Why? Well, for one, my mother had been divorced seven times growing up, so it was pretty personally familiar. But also, I had worked an internship in the area during law school and I could see how all the pieces of business, caring for clients, and great lawyering could come together on a daily basis.
The next time I went solo, I picked a weird niche practice that nobody else does and that approximately half of the population needs: Qualified domestic relations orders. (That’s retirement account division pursuant to federal law after divorce, for those of you who don’t speak nerd niche.)
The benefits of the latter strategy have been numerous:
- I love being a nerd with a niche that nobody else knows. Nobody wakes up and thinks that a practice that focuses on post-judgment court orders that incorporate ERISA and state domestic relations law is sexy. But to me, somehow, it actually is.
- It was good business too. There are maybe two dozen attorneys in the country who do this well. In New York City, if you ask Google, I am pretty much the only one. I also practice remotely back in California, and I am maybe one of a dozen there. Consider that nearly all people have retirement accounts and roughly half of all marriages end in divorce, and you can see that there is a massive market opportunity there.
- Do you want to go volume or boutique? Given my fascination with efficiency, software, and start-up principles, a growth-focused law firm that builds its own tools to scale legal practice, communication with clients, and excellent service while simultaneously scaling making actual money, was the sort of challenge I’m into. Others prefer to have a small number of clients and bill immense amounts per case.
You should plan as much of this out as possible before going solo. And you need to be realistic: If you are fresh out of law school, you’re probably not going to be handling celebrity divorces, estate planning for billionaires, or business litigation for unicorn startups. You may have to move more volume cases now, then when you become a recognized expert in your field, leverage that experience to trim your caseload while maintaining your revenue.
Determine the tools you need to start off on the right foot
Are you already a practicing attorney? You may have ingrained preferences for certain legal software tools that you want to carry over to your solo practice. Check the cost and see if it is something that a solo can bear. This is also a good opportunity to migrate from an old school platform, like Time Matters, that your prior firm forced you to use because the partners were familiar with it.
Most solos will be better off starting with a cloud-based legal practice management platform, like Clio. For tracking time, hourly billing, trust accounting, and sorting out client files, a do it all platform like that will save you immense amounts of time over trying to handle things with an Excel spreadsheet.
Keep in mind though that what works for one attorney might not work for another. I now run a volume-based practice that relies desperately upon automation, especially since hiring any support staff is difficult, if not impossible, during a pandemic. I cannot live without my CRM/marketing automation platform, Lawmatics, though many other attorneys I know, who are less focused on automation, prefer Clio Grow.
People frequently ask me for recommendations. Depending on the type of practice they want to run, one platform might be better than the other. But typically, it all boils down to setting up demos with all of your options and taking a couple of hours with each to see which one fits your ideal vision of a practice and workflow.
How to set yourself up for success as a solo practitioner
Create a law firm business plan
Few businesses ever succeed when they are governed by the whims of entrepreneurs and fate. If you are launching a law firm with no plan, your odds of success are going to be slim. Every single day will bring many surprises, not of the good kind. You will have cash flow issues, technology issues, business identity issues, marketing issues, basically nothing but issues.
There is a reason why every single book on business tells you to start with a business plan: You outline your goals, realistic projections for revenue and expenses, overhead, market and marketing strategies, and more. The plan serves as a loose map to success, one that you are free to deviate from, but which will likely redirect you back to the course time and again whenever those “issues” threaten to derail you.
A good business plan has to be realistic—nobody should be expecting to turn a million in revenue in year two, after starting year one with a laptop and a law degree. The business plan should also contain a budget that incorporates your seed money, the profits you will withdraw personally as your income, and projected overhead for software, staffing, and marketing.
Spend time working on your budget
Speaking of budgets, do you have seed money? A few years ago, I somewhat naïvely wrote that you could start a law firm with a laptop, a printer, and a law degree. Many people do. And you actually can. But if you want to turn it into a business (which is a different thing entirely, since it involves concepts like profits and growth, rather than just practicing law and churning enough billables to cover the bills), you will eventually have to invest in marketing, support staff, software that makes you more efficient, and all of the boring stuff that being a lawyer requires, like CLEs, malpractice insurance, bar dues, etc.
Take the time to budget all of those boring expenses. If you aren’t a tech-savvy nerd with a love of marketing (me!), you’ll probably need to add in a budget for a law firm website, and possibly for ongoing advertising on Google and social media, or any other marketing you think will pay off. And don’t forget budgeting for support staff! Answering your own phone every 15 minutes, while trying to focus on legal pleadings, really is a special place in productivity hell.
Decide how you’re going to market your business
I could write a book on law firm marketing. In fact, my brother (a lawyer) has been encouraging me to do so for years. The truth is, every firm and practice area will have a different path to marketing success. It might be LinkedIn advertisements and webinars to small businesses. It might be Facebook Ads with puppy dog faces talking about pet trusts.
Three things every successful marketing campaign needs though are:
- Proper tracking. Every dollar that goes in, and every dollar that comes back in the form of client revenue, needs to be tracked and compared. If you can’t answer what your cost per client acquisition is, or what your return on ad spend is, you are unlikely to burn money on wasteful advertising.
- The guts to waste money. It hurts to lose money on a marketing experiment, but if everything in marketing was a certainty, the three or four firms with the largest budgets would win every single time. Not every ad is going to resonate, not every social campaign is going to lead to lucrative cases, but if you have the guts to throw a couple hundred bucks at an experiment to gather data, you will identify a few winners that you can scale.
- Money itself. There are a ton of great strategies for building an online marketing presence that involves unpaid channels: Maps listings and search engine optimization are the two most effective. But both of these take years to build a strong, authoritative presence that consistently brings in the right kind of web traffic that turns into paying clientele. In the meantime, you still need clients. That may require you to spend a significant amount of money on advertising. It can be scary, but again, if you have proper tracking, you will know that the $300 you spent on Google ads yesterday, led to three cases that can be forecasted to $3000 in revenue.
Marketing will also require an overall brand-practice strategy (boutique with high-value clients or volume paper pushers) and likely an experienced hand pulling all of the levers behind the scenes, since you won’t be an experienced web developer, SEO and SEM consultant, content writer, and advertising genius with a gift for a perfect tagline. Even if you were all of those things, you don’t have time to be those and a lawyer.
Determine where you will work
I miss having an office. My brain would actually shift into lawyer mode when I walk through those doors. I felt like a business owner and professional. I also really enjoyed talking to my suitemates, spitballing case strategies, or just having a few beers and tacos with them after work.
I gave that up many years ago when I married a medical resident. My firm has been fully virtual since the relaunch, and the reaction two years ago versus today is starkly different. Two years ago, I had to explain how remote work was possible on every consult, how it was that I came to be a California licensed attorney living in New York, and the clients would still be ambivalent. Today, it’s a thirty-second conversation. “You handle it over email and Zoom? Great.”
Many people question how the practice of law will change due to the pandemic—I’m not sure about lawyers and their ability to change. But I will say that clients have changed already. Someday, when we are done moving, I will get that office back. I won’t need it—my firm is growing exponentially with remote practice and support staff literally spanning the globe — but it’s great to have that space for my comfort, even if clients don’t so much demand it anymore.
As for you and your new firm, if you need to work from home, most practice areas will be amenable to the idea, as will the clients these days. Consider saving yourself the office rent and building a virtual law firm instead, especially in the first year that you are in business.
Make sure you get malpractice insurance
I really don’t know how so many lawyers do it. But I know plenty who do. They practice with no insurance coverage, assuming that the worst will never happen.
Here’s the thing about that insurance coverage: Even if your state does not require it, you know that it is a good idea for yourself. The insurance policy will provide you with an attorney and some financial backing if crap hits the fan.
If you are new to practicing solo, shop around and check with your local bar. Many policies will have extremely discounted rates for first and second-year solo attorneys since you don’t have the ghosts of old cases following you. Sometimes, state and local bars will have discount programs as well for young lawyers.
Don’t turn down opportunities for contract or part-time work
I’m sure, at this point, you’ve heard the term “side hustle.” For my generation, having a side hustle is a must if you want to get ahead of student loans, start a business, or save for rainy days.
Starting any new business is going to mean ebbs and flows of the cash flow. You might have one week where you bring in $13,000 in new business, followed by three or four weeks where you bring in zero dollars.
Hence, the side hustle. It’s a great way to cushion the blow of irregular cash flow.
There are countless start-ups catering to part-time legal work now: Companies that provide appearance counsel, law clerks, or just temp gigs for lawyers. Or ask around to other lawyers in your community and see if they need help with research on big cases, or sorting through crates of discovery. Also consider doing some freelance attorney on work the side.
Take on some of this work, if you can, so that you don’t end up in dire straits when your law firm revenue slows down for a month or two. But, don’t overcommit either—many of us overconfident lawyers tend to think we can handle every single job that comes in the door, leaving us with seventeen side hustles and no clear path to building a successful, sustainable law firm business.
It’s time for the fun stuff
Are you going to go with a branded name? Maybe something in Latin? Or perhaps you want your name on the door. Whatever you pick, make it memorable so that people searching for your business online can actually find you. (Sorry Smith and Anderson, LLP.) Note: Be sure to check ethics rules around trade names for law firms in your jurisdiction
You’ll probably need to register your business with your local government, so that they can extract business license fees from you. You’ll want to register for federal and state tax IDs, which really only takes a few minutes online these days.
But the real fun comes with bank accounts. (Try setting up trust accounts that comply with the ethics rules of seven states, without actually hopping on a plane to each of those seven states to open the accounts. That alone will burn six months of your life.) Some people say to keep your trust account and one bank, and your operating account at another bank, to minimize accidents. I think that’s more trouble than it’s worth, especially since having them at the same bank makes it easy to transfer funds and to convince your bank to charge any and all banking fees to the operating account. Most practices will need at least a trust account and an operating account.
Last, and most fun: Announce the grand opening. Reach out to your social networks, throw a mixer with family, friends, and professional networks. You want to make sure that everyone knows that you are open for business, as referrals really are the best source of quality cases.
Overwhelmed? Now it’s time to get started.
If reading this article already has your head swimming, that’s perfectly normal. Take a deep breath, maybe take a few days, and then ask yourself again whether you should become a solo attorney.
For me, no job has ever been as exciting as my career as an attorney. I really feel that the most happiness I have ever gained professionally has come from being a lawyerprenuer. Every night, I’m thinking of new marketing strategies, new technology I can plug in to make my practice more efficient, new verticals or products I can launch, etc.
So I guess it’s back to Sister Mary Clarence’s advice: “If you wake up in the morning, and you can’t think anything but [solo practice], then you should be a [solo], girl!”
It’ll take planning, it’ll take a budget, it’ll take more time than you ever expected to deal with all of the business, marketing, lawyering, and technological barriers that get in your way, but at the end of each day, you’ll know that all of the work you put in was towards building a business that is uniquely you. It’s hard to make it, but it’s absolutely worth it.