How Hard Is It to Make It As a Solo Practitioner?
How Hard Is It to Make It As a Solo Practitioner?
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 a 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.
What to consider when thinking about starting a solo law firm
Think about what’s important to your lawyer’s work-life balance
When figuring out how hard it is 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.
You’ll also need to look at the 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
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, 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 are damned, then you probably won’t have the passion to turn this into a real business when you run into an 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 was 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.
The benefits of the latter strategy have been numerous:
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. 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 to a 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 GetLEGAL. For tracking time, hourly billing, trust accounting, and sorting out client files, a do-it 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.
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? 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, 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
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 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 of 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.