Before launching into the mechanics of starting your own law firm, let’s first take a look at a so-called “solo practice” and define the term.
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 she then goes on to list what she perceives as the problems with going solo.
I published an article in response Ms. Ator’s article, and I will use that as a starting point for this article, providing some additional details about my own “solo” experiences and that of others.
Nothing Ms. Ator wrote was wrong, per se, but the points she raised 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 she raises are so easily overcome, they don’t really warrant much pondering. 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. It was our own version of the sort of calendaring meeting you’d have at a big firm, and even though we did not generally work on one another’s cases, the attorneys would discuss the cases that were causing concern, and the other attorneys would offer their insights. 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.
There are going to be moments, no matter how long you have been in practice, that you just don’t know how to best deal with a legal issue. You’ll have lots of those moments when you are new, and while they diminish more and more as you gain expertise in your practice area, inevitably a fact pattern or procedural issue will present itself that leaves you scratching your head.
Those moments can truly make the solo practice of law a lonely experience. For this reason, I would avoid if at all possible a situation where you are a true solo. Find an executive suite with other attorneys or some other sharing arrangement. If you move in and find that all the attorneys work behind closed doors, then you may have to be the one who gets them to open those doors by showing how beneficial collaboration can be.
Attorneys are human and run the spectrum from helpful saint to arrogant bastard, but the helpful ones can be extremely so. During my time at the executive suite, I ran into an attorney on the elevator from a large firm on another floor, and he invited me to come use the firm’s library anytime I wanted. This was a huge deal, because his firm had a set of books called California Forms of Pleading and Practice that were far too expensive for my meager library budget, and I had always planned trips to the law library at court in conjunction with hearings, so I could use the books there.
The first few times I used the firm’s library, I felt like a trespasser, thinking it might be one of those offers that someone makes, assuming you’ll know it is not expected that you will take them up on it. But it turned out that it was a genuine offer that was extended to other attorneys in the building, and again it acted as an informal networking opportunity when attorneys from the various firms would introduce themselves.
The point of all of this is that unless you are a complete introvert and can’t extend your hand to introduce yourself, opportunities abound to surround yourself with other attorneys so you don’t have to be an absolute solo.
You can find even more access to other attorneys through professional groups and listservs. A listserv, if you are unfamiliar, is basically an email list whereby when you submit a question or comment, it goes out to every member of the list. Most will let you get the emails in real time, or in a one-a-day or week digest format.
The advantage of a listserv over, say, belonging to the litigation group of your bar association, is that you can get answers almost instantly. I belong to a listserv called SOLOSEZ. When I signed up, it offered a warning that I might want to consider using an email address created just for SOLOSEZ because the volume of messages could be overwhelming. I ignored the warning, and the next thing I knew 95% of the messages to my inbox were from the listserv. I created a rule that sends them all to a special folder in Outlook, so problem averted, but there are indeed a ton of messages.
I have never submitted a question to the group, but I do provide answers to others, and they can sometimes be the most basic of questions, such as, “how do I create a proof of service?” Even such basic questions are answered by others, with no judgment. With such groups available to you, you do not need to worry about being stuck without an answer when you work as a solo.
“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.
So in answer to the original question, “Should I go solo?”, the answer is a resounding yes. By all means go solo, just don’t go it alone.
With our term appropriately defined let’s move onto the next topic. We just talked a little bit about office space and various office space arrangements, but let’s get down into the details of how to choose the best office space for you and set yourself up in your first office.