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Solo Firm
If you haven’t landed a job or have always wanted to be your own boss, here’s what to know about opening your own shop.

Your plan has always been to go to law school, study and work hard, get great grades, and land a solid legal job—the natural result of the careful execution of a good plan.

But too many law students are learning the painful lesson of what can sometimes happen to the best-laid plans. If you haven’t found your dream job, you still have options. One is taking a leap of faith and launching your own practice.

Before you take that bold approach, however, you should understand the pros and cons, evaluate your own personality and network to see if you’d be suited to building your own practice, and think carefully about the best way to set up your office and get the on-the-job experience that’s critical to solo success.

Good points on both sides

There’s no consensus on whether recent law school graduates should strike out on their own. Some experienced lawyers recommend it, while others think it’s a terrible idea.

Carolyn Elefant, who has been a solo in Washington, D.C., since 1993 and who operates the myshingle.com blog for solos, is bullish on the idea. “My position has always been that if you know going solo is exactly what you’ve always wanted to do, you should do it and not delay,” she explained.

“But if you have an opportunity for employment, it could be worthwhile to pay down loans, make contacts, and leverage those to start your practice.” With advances in technology, launching your own firm may be less expensive than it has ever been.

“You can start a firm with very little capital,” said Elefant. “Many law students have the equipment when they graduate. Most have laptops and cell phones, and there are a lot of ways to keep your expenses very low. You can get by with spending little each month combined on the pro rata share of your malpractice insurance, legal research tools, internet service provider, and phone if you work at home. Then, as you make money, you can build up your practice.”

Marshall R. Isaacs, who has run a solo New York City firm for nearly 20 years, strongly disagreed. “With few exceptions, going solo out of law school is a flat-out bad idea.”

Isaacs rattled off his concerns. “People forget that the law is a business, and a law firm is one of the most difficult businesses to run,” he said. “You have enormous overhead. You have to cover malpractice, software, advertising, telephone, office supplies, and various other expenses. It’s no different from saying to a finance major, ‘You’re done with college, open a hedge fund.’ You still have to have the know-how.”

It’s that know-how that Isaacs said most recent grads haven’t acquired. “The biggest problem is new lawyers aren’t taught in law school certain things about the profession, and practicing law is entirely different from what you study in law school,” he said. “I practiced for nine years before going out on my own, and even then it was complete shell shock.”

Getting clients was just one challenge. “I started with no clients,” said Isaacs. “I contacted every colleague and adversary I knew and said, ‘You know me. I’m good. Can you refer some of your smaller cases to me?’

“But that was nine years out, and I had trial and appellate experience,” he added. “I also walked from Broadway to city hall in Manhattan and went into every skyscraper, stopping in law practices and asking if they had overflow they couldn’t handle. That’s how I got my first 50 cases. I don’t know how I would have ever convinced a client right out of law school to go with me.”

The right personality

Not only must you understand the business challenges of going solo, you must also ensure that your personality is suited to being on your own. “People who have an entrepreneurial spirit or background are more likely to be successful,” said Ed Poll, a lawyer, MBA, and legal practice consultant at LawBiz Management in Venice, Calif. “In law school, if you were responsible for a number of different projects or built a team of people to work on a project, you may have the entrepreneurial approach. Those who have what I call the employee mentality are going to be hard-pressed in an entrepreneurial setting. Those are people who have always worked for someone else and been told what to do.”

Just as important is your personal skill at attracting clients. Don’t expect to land big corporate clients without “ins” to help secure that business. “Unless new graduates have a strong background filled with family members who may refer business to them or they’re able to have a conversation with the general counsel of a major corporation,” said Poll, “they’re not likely to get that kind of business.”

If you plan to focus on consumer clients by practicing in such areas as family law, bankruptcy, personal injury, or intellectual property representing inventors, your people-management skills are even more critical. “Those are areas where you can develop a nice business,” said Poll. “But they’re more stressful, too, because you’re dealing with people who are so involved in their own subject matter. They’re stressed, and that gets passed on to their lawyer.

“You’re learning a new subject—the practice of law— but you’re also learning how to deal with people in a way you’ve never done before,” he said. “That’s a tough thing for any new lawyer to handle.”

Tailor a practice to suit you

One of the first practical issues you’ll face when you consider going solo is where you’ll work. Few recent grads who go solo can afford to open a full-fledged office on their own.

Instead, many choose to share space; lease a virtual office for a monthly fee, selecting among a menu of services, such as a receptionist or an office or conference room for client meetings; or operate as a home-based business.

Bruce Cameron opted for a variation on a space-sharing arrangement. He spent more than a year researching and mapping out the launch of his firm, Cameron Law in Rochester, Minn. He originally planned to purchase a commercial building to house his firm, but the negotiations fell through after nine months.

“That left me at loose ends until my law school mentor offered me the chance to rent space from him,” said Cameron. “We had a shared lobby and conference rooms, so it was like a virtual suite deal, except that I worked out of there daily.”

In the early days of his practice, Cameron also paid monthly for an phone service. “It allowed me to have one telephone number for clients to reach me that rang into my office, cell, or home,” he explained. “It also covered my voicemail and faxes and did voicemail-to-email translation. I could give the office presence without actually being there.”

Another plus of space sharing is that it often allows new solos to tap into other lawyers’ expertise. “During law school, I started working for one of the attorneys in the same office I’m in now,” says Jeffrey Taylor, a 2008 graduate and founder of Absolute Legal Services LLC in Oklahoma City, Okla. “My supervising attorney was my mentor. Plus, three other attorneys had been practicing 15 years or more, and a few had been practicing 5–10 years. I knew I had mentoring there, and it was great to be able to ask questions.”

Operating out of her home in Monticello, Minn., is Jennifer R. Lewis Kannegieter, who practices estate planning and family law. “For the first year or so,” she said, “I was committed to keeping my overhead low, and I’m still committed to that.”

When Kannegieter needed to meet clients, she used coffee shops or headed to their workplace. When local meetups didn’t work, Kannegieter took advantage of an arrangement with a lawyer she worked for during law school, using the lawyer’s office.

Lawyer, teach thyself

Another big feat for new solos is gaining the on-the-job experience necessary to handle matters professionally and competently. Some achieve that by taking court-appointed and pro bono assignments. Others team up with experienced lawyers under a variety of mentoring or payment- and work-sharing arrangements.

“I encourage new law grads to consider doing court-appointed work to get their feet wet and to build up a reputation and client base,” said Isabel Kaldenbach, a juvenile and family law practitioner in Arlington, Va., who did that when she launched her practice. It’s a guaranteed source of income, no matter how small.

“But more importantly, I’d almost pay to have the experience I got,” she said. “In addition, I got my name out there. I met other attorneys who referred matters to me when they couldn’t do them, and I met judges who gave me assignments. The first case will take a colossal amount of time, for which you can’t bill. But if you do a good job, clerks, other lawyers, and judges will notice.”

Kaldenbach also took pro bono cases in exchange for continuing legal education credit. “I agreed to take three uncontested divorce cases, and they were great learning experiences,” she explained. “One of those clients recommended me to a friend, so it was a client-building effort, too. Overall, I got experience and CLE credit, which is important when you’re not getting paid.”

Taking an alternative, but still common, route was Wes Farrell, who started his own general practice with a focus on criminal, immigration, and entertainment law that has grown into Farrell & Patel. However, he turned to experienced lawyers when he felt he needed guidance.

“I wouldn’t undertake a case I didn’t feel confident I could do,” said Farrell. “I worked with other experienced attorneys who would work with me as I brought cases in. I sat in with them on their trials and cases and learned how things work.

“As I brought in cases, if they were things I could handle, I did them myself,” he added. “If they were complex and I wasn’t confident to handle them on my own, I let others take the lead, but we shared the case and handled it together.”

With each matter, Farrell negotiated a division of work and payment with the lawyer he worked with.

Kelly McDermott also created a personal mentoring arrangement after learning the painful way that she wasn’t suited to being a true solo. “I graduated and had been looking for a job the entire time I was waiting to be sworn in,” said the Minneapolis lawyer. “I realized I needed to strike out on my own, and that’s a scary proposition. My stomach was constantly in knots, and I struggled to find cases. It soon occurred to me that traditional solo practice wasn’t for me, but I didn’t know what to do.”

McDermott continued to work out of her studio apartment and meet clients at coffee shops, but she also began volunteering for pro bono groups. Through that work, she happened to meet an experienced lawyer who wasn’t looking to hire a new lawyer but was impressed with McDermott.

That gave McDermott, a lawyer at Messinger & Ojile, what she called the best of both worlds. “I got paid an hourly rate to work on cases with him, and I got the firm’s name behind me. I was expected to earn my keep by bringing in clients, but I also had a mentor down the hall.

“I think it’s probably the best way to go out on your own,” she said. “Mentoring is the key, and that’s what is missing for most solos.”

Five Steps to Prepare for Solo Practice

Here are five tasks you can complete before you graduate that will help you get a running start when you open your doors.

1. Soak in practical experience. “Take clinical courses to get hands-on experience by working at any type of clinic your law school offers,” advised Carolyn Elefant, who has been a solo in Washington, D.C., since 1993 and who operates themyshingle.com blog for solos. “If you have the opportunity to work somewhere—it could be in the public defender’s office, a government agency, or for a solo—take it. It’s not the substance of the work that’s important but the experience.”

2. Build expertise in a practice area. “Start investigating potential practice areas and establishing yourself as an expert,” said Elefant. “The advantage law students have is that there are a lot of emerging practice areas, and you’re at no more of a disadvantage than others in learning the issues.

“Talk to professors about where the law is going, and start a blog on those areas so that when you graduate, you already have a name in an area of expertise,” she said.

3. Lay the marketing groundwork. Even before he was licensed, Wes Farrell of Miami Gardens, Fla., who opened his own firm that has now grown into Farrell & Patel, began to build his marketing tools. “My plan was to have referrals and cases coming through the internet,” he explained. “I bought a number of websites and worked on developing them for about eight months. My goal was to grow those sites organically through links and search rankings. That’s something you can do before you’re licensed.”

4. Get expert help. During the year he spent planning his firm’s launch, Bruce Cameron of Cameron Law in Rochester, Minn., sought advice everywhere he could find it. “I talked with my local SCORE branch,” he explained, referring to the nationwide organization of volunteers affiliated with the U.S. Small Business Administration who offer free advice on starting a small business.“It’s a bunch of retired executives who are a great resource, and it’s free. I went to them for expertise on how I should price services, find a CPA, network, and develop a business plan.”

Cameron also took Elefant’s Six Weeks Til Solo Practice course, one of many resources she offers.

5. Develop your budget. “I just kept thinking about the things I’d need, and I kept listing all the numbers,” recalled Cameron. “I began to think, ‘I can do without that,’ or ‘I really need this.’ You come up with a number, and then you gasp and do the whole process again.”

Cameron’s budget was about $50,000 for the first year, and that included not only what it cost to run his office but what it took to keep his family fed, clothed, and housed.

Timeless Advice for a Successful Solo Practice

Whether you open your firm tomorrow or years from now, follow these three rules for building and keeping a successful law practice.

1. Make true connections with people. “This is a relationship business, and people want to do business with people they like,” said Ed Poll, a lawyer, MBA, and legal practice consultant at LawBiz Management in Venice, Calif. “Network with people, but don’t sell yourself. Educate people about what you do, that you understand what they need, and how what you do provides a solution to their need. “Most times, people won’t need a lawyer right then, so maintain contact so that when they do have a need, they remember your name,” he said. “Use technology—enewsletters, social media, and websites—which level the playing field.”

2. Be smart about fees. “Always charge something that’s reasonable and fair,” advised Carolyn Elefant, who has been a solo in Washington, D.C., since 1993 and who operates the myshingle.com blog for solos. “I usually tell newer lawyers not to offer bargain-basement rates but to charge a little less per hour as an incentive for people to refer to them. I’ve referred cases to new attorneys, and I’d have no reason to refer to them if there weren’t cost benefits.

“Also offer flat-fee packages, getting an idea from others waht to charge,” she suggested. “The first time you work under a flat fee, you’ll probably lose money. By your fourth time, you’ll start to become more efficient.”

3. Pay attention to collections. Give as much attention to your outstanding invoices as you do to getting business. “The realization rate is how much you collect versus how much you’ve billed, and it should be higher than 90 percent,” said Poll. “Many lawyers have 82–86 percent, which isn’t all that bad, but the realization rate goes down when you don’t pay attention to collection.”

G.M. Filisko G.M. Filisko is the editor of Student Lawyer Magazine. She earned her law degree in 1998 from Loyola University Chicago School of Law. She practiced civil litigation at two large Chicago firms until 2005, when she became a freelance writer and editor.