Volume 19, Number 4
Welcome to GP Mentor, GPSolo's new column expressly for law students-but some of you seasoned lawyers may find some helpful information as well. Look for our column in every issue of GPSolo. Want to see a topic covered in GP Mentor? Send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Consider Solo Practice
By Florencio (Larry) Ramirez
Although popular culture's typical lawyer is an impeccably dressed member of a large if not colossal firm, it is far from the only option for law school graduates. Many lawyers find the hands-on responsibility and freedom of solo or small firm practice suits them to a T. Having split my 25 years of law practice between the two, I am well suited to offer a perspective on the advantages and drawbacks of each.
I have been a solo since 1995 and before that practiced in firm settings of between four and 12 lawyers. When I first thought about going solo, I was very apprehensive. It would be quite a change not to have associates at my beck and call or not to have a managing partner to make all the management decisions and suffer all (or most) of the headaches associated with running the law office. Even with 18 years' experience under my belt, I found the idea of running a law office all by myself an intimidating and perhaps overwhelming prospect; but, nevertheless, I decided to go for it.
Overhead, including phone bills, rent, and salaries, was now my responsibility. Every decision (and I mean every) from toilet paper to letterhead, hourly rates to telephone rates, was now my problem. In addition, I had to concern myself with managing a caseload and meeting not only the deadlines associated with law practice but also business deadlines like taxes, rent, and payroll. At first, this was not a very appetizing proposition.
I was fortunate, however. Unlike many new solo practitioners, I wasn't trying to establish a new practice; I already had clients and a thriving practice. I had hired secretaries and legal assistants before, and having been a partner, I knew a little bit about the components of overhead and understood the need to control them and not overextend myself. I had seen many a young lawyer start a practice only to have financial and professional over-commitment quickly take their toll.
I spent time looking for office space that would really suit me. I knew the expensive space near the courthouse wasn't necessarily the best location. Clients will find you if you are a good and fair lawyer. When I found my space, I did not go out and buy expensive new furniture, computers, or all the latest technology. What I did was start slow. I knew that it would be a while before my billings would catch up with overhead, so I made sure I had a cash reserve to help with expenses until the money started coming in.
I also tried to plan ahead as much as I could. I looked into different phone plans and utilities and added up installation costs. I added in necessary costs like workers' compensation insurance, malpractice insurance, and renter's insurance. I wanted to be sure that practicing law by myself would be something I really could afford to do.
I realized there was a lot of stuff I had taken for granted when I was with the firm: letterhead, envelopes, and paper, for example. I needed a sign painter so that people could identify my office. And what about the Yellow Pages-I wanted people to be able to find me in the phone book. I had no idea how to go about setting up those things, so I had a lot of new projects to figure out.
I knew I needed to hire a secretary, but I was undecided what other staff I might need. Fortunately, I had hired secretaries before, but their salaries were always negotiated by someone else. I had a legal assistant at my firm-could I afford one now? (It soon became apparent that I couldn't afford not to hire one!) And benefits-health insurance and retirement plans for employees can be cost-prohibitive for solo practitioners, given that they come out of the fees you earn.
Despite all of my apprehensions, I now honestly can say that being a solo has been a good experience. One of the drawbacks about large firms is the way they can get bogged down in bureaucracy. Their several levels of decision makers sometimes mean that decisions take forever or are never made at all; the many levels of accountability can be similarly tedious.
Making all the decisions and having all the responsibility are both good and bad, but mostly good. I am accountable to myself, my staff, and my clients; but, for the most part, I have much greater control over my life. When I was with a firm, my bar activities were always an issue; because billable hour quotas are a thing of the past (as are nights, weekends, and holidays at the office) I now can use my time in a variety of ways. This doesn't mean I don't have pressures and concerns, but they're the result of my own decisions, not the management committee of my firm. I choose the cases I accept, and I choose the clients I represent. If I want to work fiendish hours or leave early to go to my son's baseball game or play golf, I am accountable only to myself. I'll probably live longer, and I'm certainly happier in my practice.
Solo practice has made me more flexible and patient in many areas. I don't take as much insurance defense work as I once did, and I am much happier for it. I've developed a greater interest in technology because solos have to be more organized and efficient with their time.
Solo practice is not for everyone, but don't let the "what ifs" keep you from checking it out if you're interested. Having taken the step, and liked what I found, I likely will practice the rest of my career as a solo.
Florencio (Larry) Ramirez is a sole practitioner in Las Cruces, New Mexico, and a former chair of the General Practice, Solo and Small Firm Section.