Does Starting Your Own Law Firm Have to be a Lonely Experience?

Starting Your Own Law Firm -- Lonely Attorney
I happened across an article entitled Thinking of Going Solo? Think Carefully, published on the American Bar Association website by an attorney named Jennifer Ator. It is important to read the introductory paragraph, because Ms. Ator specifically confirms that starting your own firm can be a wonderful thing, and states that once her friends “eventually made the leap of faith, they were glad they did.”

But Ator qualifies her statement by contending that the happiness of those friends came in part from the fact that they did not remain as solo attorneys for long, opting instead to “set up firms that were not structured that much differently than their larger firm practice.” The remainder of the article is a cautionary tale of how lonely it can be as a solo practitioner.

Nothing Ator says is wrong, per se, but the points she raises are akin to warning that you should really think twice about opening your own firm because, after all, you’ll need to have business cards printed. While true, the issues are so easily overcome, they don’t really warrant much pondering. I suppose being a solo could be a lonely experience, but it was never the case in my experience. I’ll set forth each of her bullet points, with my response.

“IT’S CALLED FLYING SOLO FOR A REASON”

As a solo, you’ll have no one to share your victories and frustrations with, Ator begins. She concedes you can share with your staff, “but they can’t give the kind of feedback and validation a fellow attorney can.”

This statement evidences Ator’s vision of solo practice, and it is very different than mine. You certainly could set up an office where it is just you ensconced alone in an office, but that is completely unnecessary and not a good idea for a newbie. I transitioned away from the big firm practice by finding a firm that would provide me an office from which to start my own firm, while working for them on a contract basis and giving them a cut of whatever I brought in. I thus not only started with very little overhead, but I was surrounded by fellow attorneys to give me “feedback and validation”.

Lest you say that was a unique circumstance, when I cut that umbilical and truly went solo, my first office was at an executive suite where dozens of other attorneys had their offices. We all referred cases to one another, and everyone’s door was open when one of us needed to bounce an idea off someone or to ask about a procedure. We put together an office lunch every week, where we consulted on one another’s cases. Indeed, I found the information much more free-flowing in that environment than I had at the big firm, where every conversation that wasn’t billable was viewed as an intrusion.

“FLYING SOLO MEANS NO COPILOT OR NAVIGATOR”

“Once you’ve gotten past the loneliness, a solo practitioner faces a disadvantage from the lack of readily available collaborators”, states Ms. Ator. She decries the loss of the attorney down the hall who can tell you about a judge, or opposing counsel “or even how best to handle a difficult client.” As set forth above, that is obviously not the case if you surround yourself with attorneys, or have them available to you through professional groups.

I did have to learn that even on the bigger decisions, like how to pursue a claim in an unfamiliar practice area, you don’t have to go it alone. I had a case where one of the defendants filed for bankruptcy, and I found myself having to navigate bankruptcy court. I was spending way too much time trying to figure out the vagaries of bankruptcy court, and finally brought in another firm to handle that part of the case. I see this sort of collaboration all the time. Attorneys unfamiliar with anti-SLAPP law bring me in to handle those motions. Attorneys who don’t yet feel comfortable in trial bring me in to first chair their first few trials.

“WHEN YOU FLY SOLO, YOU PUMP YOUR OWN GAS”

Ator uses the example that unlike working at a big firm, where the IT guy will deal with any problems with the Internet, when it goes down at your office, you will be the one waiting for AT&T.

Not really. Admittedly, this was another lesson I had to learn, but I soon realized that taking days to set up my computers and network was really expensive when that time could be spent on client work. Yes, you won’t have your own full time IT guy, but you can still have one on call. I just tried to recall the last time I had to spend any significant time on an administrative task, and nothing comes to mind.

Every advantage I had at the big firm can be duplicated. At the big firm if I hit a procedural logjam, for example, I could put a more junior associate on researching the task. Now I use contract attorneys. I don’t bill, order office supplies or deal with the landlord; it’s all delegated. Perhaps this is what Ator was referring to when she said that solos eventually structure their firms like big firms, but practicing law for yourself and under your own terms has no similarity to working at a big firm.

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