A July 2011 discussion on SoloSez, the email listserv for general practice, solo and small firm lawyers
Hello Everyone, Happy 4th of July/Independence Day!
It appears that most of you jumped into solo practice whole-heartedly which, ideally is what I would like to do. However, financially, I cannot afford to do that just now. So my question is, what are your thoughts/experiences with part-time practice? I work fairly regular hours at my job (in legal field, but not as an attorney or paralegal... anything that would pose a conflict of interest) and have a good amount of flexibility during the day. Good/bad idea, path to nowhere?, thoughts...
I've give a program on part time practice. (I hate to leave the link but will do so at my perild because it is a for-fee program - cheap but I know I'm not supposed to sell here - http://www.pinkslipsanddetours.com/2009/08/10/start-your-own-part-time-practice-teleseminar/)
But here are the take-aways. With technology, PR practce it is very doable - you can work after hours, network via blogs and social media and keep in touch with clients mornings and after work. Many malpractice insurers offer part time coverage as well and the coverage is very reasonable - some plans as low as $400-$600 annually.
Part time practice offers pros and cons. Pros include having a stream of income so you don't feel cash-strapped or pressured to take every case in the beginning. Cons are you will work pretty hard and your practice may not grow as quickly as your colleagues who jumped in full speed.
Issues to look out for include checking your employer's policy on moonlighting (whether you're in the legal field or not), as well as potential conflicts. If you work for a law firm, I would not advise a part time practice unless you disclose to your employer unless you have full malpractice coverage and your job is remote from what you do at the law firm. Also, at some point you will need to make the leap from PT to full time and you may experience a revenue drop then as you bring your PT practice up to full time so be aware of that as well.
Carolyn Elefant, District of Columbia
Thank you for the link, Carolyn. I'm actually changing FROM f/t TO p/t now as my practice is so slow.
I just got a job with the county as a hearing officer. They have more property tax appeals than ever so they added another p/t position & I'll hear appeals 7-noon & work at my office the rest of the day.
The best part is having a regular income for once in my life!
I will check out what you have to say about it asap.
Sonja L. Jorgensen, Utah
I think it may also depend on the focus of your practice. I think transaction-oriented practice would lend itself better. I speak from a certain amt of experience. I was starting up my solo practice last year and still volunteering part time. OK. But...in October, I was offered a part time position where I was volunteering. I worked 4 days/week there and 1 day was devoted to my practice. I had a small debt case ongoing at the time, and I had a wrongful repo case that had passed the demand letter stage and was in the initial phases of litigation.
Several months later, I wound up settling the repo case. But honestly, the hours in my part time position, out of necessity (case demands, etc.) flowed into my one day for my solo practice. The other inhibiting factor, which I had less control over, was the nature of my solo practice. Not transactional. Consumer law. Which meant I could do some more piecemeal work in terms of demand letters and small things, but if the demand letter didn't work and I had to litigate, well, it just offered the potential for scheduling disaster.
So during this phase, my solo practice did not grow.
And this week I start full time in the staff attorney position. It's a 2 year position, the way it's funded, so I'm putting my solo practice on hiatus. Keeping the minimal infrastructure for the time being (like bank accounts and IOLTA), just so I don't have to re-set all that up again, but I cancelled my malpractice, for example, and will not be taking any new clients/matters.
If your hours are pretty predictable and you don't have a conflict of interest issue, and your time is more flexible, you may have a better shot. But these are my observations...
Lisa M. von Biela, Washington
You're right, Lisa. My practice is primarily bankruptcy so when I file a case, I know when the meeting will be 4-6wks later. So I can give plenty of notice to my employer.
It may be more difficult in other areas of practice.
Sonja L. Jorgensen
I took a series of "day jobs" after starting my solo practice, out of necessity for cash flow. they were legal-related, but did not present a conflict.
the downside was those jobs were 9-5 and when i was at those jobs, i could only work on my practice on breaks, lunch, before and after the day job. Result: I worked ALL THE TIME. And it was difficult even with transactional work to keep it from bleeding over into the other job. Ultimately, I felt like I was doing neither justice and that I never had a life. That's why I elected to join an existing business law boutique that could afford to pay me for associate work, provide referral opporutnities, and support me in developing my practice niche at the same time.
If any of those day jobs had been more part-time, I think I could have pulled it off, but as Carolyn said, eventually you have to pull the plug.
Ashley Dobbs, Virginia
I still work a day job and I can say the hardest parts are what Ashley said and the cost of transition.
It's hard to switch gears from one job to the other and adds to the overall stress.
I can't wait for the day to shed the day job.
This thread reminds me of a comment one of my friends made when he first started out full time...
"I need a night job to support my day job."
The good news is that it gets better.
David Allen Hiersekorn, California
I currently have a (non-law-related) day job, but I am lucky that it offers a lot of flexibility. I am able to take days (or even just hours) off to attend hearings, meet with clients, etc. On slow days, I can even work on things for my practice without anyone caring. The plan is to gradually decrease my hours as my practice grows. Again, I'm lucky that my day job offers me the ability to do that.
Tiana Pavlidis, Massachusetts
I had a part-time practice for a while when I first started while doing document review in the city. I have to say that I think a part-time practice is nearly impossible if you do litigation. I think it is much easier for transactional attorneys. I also found it very challenging to field business calls during the day. I suggest that folks interested in doing this explore a virtual receptionist and plan on taking long lunches everyday to return phone calls.
Cari B. Rincker, New York
I am planning to have a part-time practice when I start my firm. Whenever, I am not working on a case I will be watching my three young children or shuttling them to activities. If a conflict arises and I need to go to court then I will drop the kids off at an hourly daycare or hire a babysitter to watch them. My biggest concern is answering or making business calls when I am at home with the kids. I hope that Dora the Explorer or SpongeBob will take care of that problem.
Matthew Rosenthal, California
you'll want to be super quick on the "mute" button on your phone then. cause my 4 legged fur-kids did *not* get the memo about being quiet when i was working from home.
I'm not sure how young your children are, but it might be a good ida to arrange to make/return calls either very early before they wake up, during their nap time, or some other time where you can be assured of reasonable quiet. You might also consider putting a sign on your office door. If they're old enough, let them help you make it. You can take that time to impress upon them that when the sign is on the door, daddy is on the phone and cannot be interrupted.
Working from home with young children is challenging, but not impossible.
Good luck to you!!
DISCLAIMER: Not a lawyer. Had young children once upon a time. Lord only knows where that time went. :)
Anna D. Collins Ford, Paralegal
My kitten is part-Siamese and talks incessantly (and loudly!). Fortunately callers cannot hear her, but it doesn't help my concentration one bit.
To me the hardest part of giving up the day job was giving up the benefits. Health insurance is insanely expensive.
James M. Miner, New Jersey
Yeah. My short-term goal right now is to make enough to be able to afford health insurance just for my wife. She got laid off in March and she's freaking out about not being insured. I haven't been insured most of my life so I'm used to it. Buying it for me is out of the question. Thankfully they haven't yet taken away subsidized insurance for children in NJ or he'd be uninsured too. And no, before I get jumped on, that isn't a political statement, it's just a statement that I couldn't afford it otherwise and I'm grateful for it.
Hopefully my part-time practice will be full-time soon. I've been saving for months to have enough money to buy a newspaper ad, for some reason those have worked very well for a few of my peers. Then comes the insurance, then a real office. Or I fail and go on welfare.
Sometimes I miss the relative stability of being an underpaid paralegal.
Rick Silver, New Jersey
Before I left my former firm, one of my peers was laid off. Since I left my former firm, salaries have been cut and employees are now picking up more of the tab for their health insurance. The paralegal who took my place left for greener pastures.
Stability is indeed relative. I never thought I'd leave my former firm. But I never thought I'd be on the outside remembering what was and mourning the inevitable that is to come.
Anna D. Collins Ford, Paralegal
My two cents:
I think part-time practice is probably a lot easier to pull off if you have enough practical experience to hit the ground running. Although I had some relatively decent practical experience in law school, I solo'd right out of law school and am only a few months in, so I did and still do have to spend a lot of time figuring out what I'm doing before I do a lot of things. It's nothing I can't handle, but I'd imagine it would be a LOT harder to pull off if I had another job.
And I actually did have another job. Before getting licensed, I was driving a cab full-time, which was actually paying surprisingly well before the Spring. (It's in a college town, and is very busy while the students are around.) The cool thing about that job was that the schedule was completely open, so I would go in whenever I wanted, and there would usually be a cab available for me to take out. So my plan was to keep doing that part-time until my practice started to pick up. I figured I would keep doing it to make sure the bills were paid and would slowly phase it out completely.
That did not work at all. One problem was the shifts were really long, like ten hours, so it would essentially steal an entire day from me. I would eat, go to work, then come home, eat, maybe watch TV, then sleep. I didn't have the energy for anything else.
But I found I had so many things to do to get my practice running that the cab thing was too demanding, even for one day a week. So I just stopped doing it completely. It might not have been the smartest thing money-wise, but it's done wonders for me mentally and physically. I can devote all the time I need to my practice and still have adequate rest and occasional leisure.
I have a part-time practice and I must confess that it's harder than I thought it would be. I have a new baby, so I cut my hours to spend time with him. But the reality is that I need 40-hours to earn the money that I want to make. So, I squeeze 40 hours into a 20-hour work week. It's tough. I have a litigation practice, but honestly this part-time business would be tough even if my practice was transactional. (I used to be transactional before the economy tanked.) Based on my experience, I recommend the following:
1. Admit you are powerless over other people. If you start the day out with this reminder, you will spend less time cussin' people out. The world does not care that you are a part-time attorney. You still have deadlines, opposing counsel, clients, and judges to deal with. Set a schedule for your practice and stick to it. Don't make excuses for practicing part-time. I recommend that you set aside a few day-time hours each day to deal with your practice. This way, you don't drive yourself crazy trying to mentally switch gears between your practice and your day job (or in my case, a baby).
2. Know your numbers. You need to know exactly how many clients you can handle at any given time. My biggest problem is over-booking. I only have 20 hours. Period. If I overbook, cases are not handled and I commit malpractice. You also need to know how many prospective clients to have in the sales funnel to replace your exiting clients. Bills are due every month. You need consistent cash-flow. You have to find your rhythm quickly.
3. Recognize that efficiency is your mantra. You don't have the luxury of wasting time. -Upgrade your Internet connection; get the fastest in your area. -Sign up for online legal research; use one of the big guys because you don't have time for Google Scholars. -Purchase a document automation system. I recommend Pathagoras, but there are several out there. I haven't found a reliable web-based program, but I suspect one is on the horizon. -Use a voicemail transcription service. You don't have time to listen to a client's long-winded message or telemarketing solicitations. With transcription, you can quickly scan the message and respond appropriately. Google offers this service for free; I am sure there are others. -Install a search indexing program on your computer. You don't have time to browse through File Explorer looking for documents. I use Copernic, but again there are several great programs out there. -Contact your bar association's law practice coordinator and ask for a start-up list of recommended software. They have already researched the options and compared programs. Treat the coordinator like your favorite, highly-trained assistant. -Devote your free time (i.e. while brushing your teeth, taking a shower, commuting on the train) thinking about how to make your practice more efficient. -Browse regularly www.feedmyapp.com for new web 2.0 applications that may help your practice.
4. Hire staff. (gasp...). Yes, you can't be in two places at once. Hire an attorney to cover your court appearances or meetings that fall outside your office hours. You can advertise for a newly admitted attorney or establish a mutual relationship with a colleague to cover each other. I heard of a service called www.*mymotioncalendar*.com <http://www.mymotioncalendar.com> that offers back-up attorneys on demand.
That's about it. You will have headaches; but you can avoid some with a little planning. The rest can be solved with a glass of wine at the end of the day.
Sharmil McKee, Pennyslvania
Thanks so much to everyone for the wonderful advice on this subject. I (hopefully) will not be part-timing it for too long, but for right now, it's the best option for me. And thanks to you tips, I'm sure I can improve upon my efficiency. Thanks again!!
Kamisha M. Mickey, Texas
This is great advice (even for full-time practitioners)! I scaled back my practice during the time my son was a baby/toddler, and I had to learn this stuff through life experience. It would have been so helpful then to have had this overall "game plan".
Caroline A. Edwards, Pennsylvania