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Monday, September 12, 2011

Going Solo - Why You Need Not Be Afraid

I had the pleasure this week of attending my first Lawyers Connect event at the New York City Bar, and it really was the first time I was out and about talking with other attorneys or recent law grads about where I've come from and how I've moved my solo practice along.  And the one thing a lot of recent law grads asked me was:  weren't you scared?  And to be honest, I never really thought about it, because if you really do love the practice of law, which I do, then you'll do anything to get back into a court room and practice. 

I know many others have done this, but I wanted to do a little FAQ about what I needed to do to get a solo practice going.

How do I even begin to start a firm?

Now, although there are a bunch of side things to worry about (malpractice insurance, New York State DOS filings, taxes, etc.), ultimately you don't actually need to do anything to start a firm, but simply be a sworn attorney admitted to the bar in the state they want to practice law.  In terms of everything else - office, staff, advertising, law library, or company car - none of these are needed to actually start your firm. 

If a client or family/friend says to you "I need a lawyer for something" then you need only say "ok, tell me more" and you have a firm going.  You're not having the case given to you by a superior.  You're not getting this client because they're on retainer with the firm.  They came to you because they need a lawyer, and you just may be able to help them.  Now, go figure out what they need to have done and do it, and bam - you have a case under your belt as a solo attorney.  

Don't I need a lot of money to get a whole firm going?

Does money help build it faster?  Of course.  Will it help generate leads and advertising on a larger level?  It can't hurt.  But, is having a large amount of money saved up a prerequisite to starting a firm?  Not at all.  One of the first cases I took as a solo practitioner was a DWI case.  My client essentially just needed me to represent him in court for the hearings.  If he needed to contact me he called my personal cell phone.  If he needed to e-mail me, I had my personal e-mail address.  I didn't need any law books to read - everything I needed was available in some online database, whether it was through FindLaw or NYSBA or through NOLO.  But I didn't have to spend one penny to get this client, nor spend anything beyond transportation costs to help win his case.  Neither do you.

Well how much DO I have to invest to get something going?

You can get to build you a website and list you on their directory for $300 a month.  Once you get that website going, you can then figure out how much you have to spend left over each month and how much you need to invest.  Sites such as JDSupra and Nolo are great for the next steps - trend reports, client referrals, document sharing, etc.  You can also get tips and hints from other solo/small firm lawyers at sites such as Lawyerist.  After my website was created, I have bookmarked pretty much every single site, both legally focused and social media/marketing focused that I've used to help grow my firm.  You can find them all bookmarked on my Delicious account.

I didn't have a concentration in law school, so what areas should I concentrate on?

Nobody really has a "concentration" in law school.  And most of what you learned in law school school was more applicable to answering long questions on the Bar exam than that client who just asked you to do their Bankruptcy case, where you have no idea how to do a Bankruptcy.  But think back to your internships / clerkships / prior jobs, and think about how much you knew about what you were doing before you started doing it.  Usually....none, right?   We learn best by just "doing."  You know how you learn how to do a Bankruptcy without having taken a Bankruptcy course?  You go to the US Bankruptcy Courts page, you read the instruction booklet, and you start filling out the documents.  Need to do a divorce?  Everything you need to know and how to do it you can find online

The fact is, you'll never learn it better than by doing it yourself, and once you do it yourself, you'll be that much more "seasoned" on the topic and ready for the next divorce or bankruptcy client to contact you. 

That's not too bad.

No, it's not too bad at all.  So, for those attorneys who are:

- Unemployed.
- Underemployed.
- Not happy working in a big firm.
- Ready to take charge and do things on their own.

Then you're all set to start your own solo practice.  See, there's no reason to be scared.


  1. Hey Seth, I'm a recent law school grad out in Washington and am contemplating whether to open a solo practice. I was real frustrated earlier this month, because it had been a while since I had even gotten a message back from one of my numerous applications. And I started to think about alternatives to getting a typical associate or government job. One of the first things that came to mind was opening my own firm.

    I'm still awaiting results on the bar exam so I'm fully committed to the idea yet. I'm still trying to figure out how much it would cost and where I would get clients. But the one thing that has intrigued me about it since the idea popped into my mind is the fact that I would be my own boss. Is this what you find to be most rewarding about your own firm?

  2. I would say that the most rewarding aspect of running my own firm isn't necessarily not having to deal with any superiors, but more so that I have a direct handle over the whole case from beginning to end, and that I can speak directly to all my clients without them having to go through a secretary or other person before getting to me. When you are able to work that closely with a contact, you start to feel much more of a connection to them, their problem, and helping them reach the result that they want. You really develop and interest in the outcome of their case because you've had the opportunity to work on every step of their issue; not just bits and pieces, legal memos, research, etc.

    When I used to work in a private firm, I would sometimes be given a case after the initial client meeting, or have my case given to a superior once it was going to trial. When you only deal with piecemeal aspects of a case, you don't develop the same sort of interest in ensuring the best result you can for your client, which I now feel working in a solo firm environment.

  3. What is your suggestion for IOLA accounts? Should I establish one before I have a client paying a fee or retainer or actually open it with the payment?