From Graduate to Solo: Hit the Ground Running

Vol. 31 No. 1

By

Julie K. Fowler (julie@juliefowlerlaw.com) is a solo in Bellevue, Washington, focusing on family law, estate planning, probate, and business matters. In 2009 she received the King County Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Division Outstanding Mentor Award.

I opened my law practice right after graduating law school. I went from kindergarten to law school without a break and then immediately took the bar exam following graduation. Upon passing the bar I gave myself three months to find a job. I determined that if I did not find a job in that period, I would open my own law practice. I didn’t have a business plan, money saved, or anything I would need to start a law practice. When no job opportunity materialized in the three months allotted, I opened my law practice by walking into my local city hall and purchasing a business license. Thirteen years later I am still in business as a solo attorney.

If you are considering opening your own solo practice straight out of law school, keep the following three things in mind: (1) Opening a practice is not as scary or as difficult as you think. (2) Solo practice is more rewarding than you can imagine. (3) You are more qualified to practice law than you give yourself credit for. You studied in law school for three years and then passed the bar exam. You are smart, capable, and competent. Do you realize that? Do you accept the truth of that statement? You should. You can do this!

What You Need and What You Don’t

The minimum requirements for opening your practice are a law license and a business license. If you reside in a state that requires malpractice insurance, then that would also be a minimum requirement. Helpful things to have initially are a computer and printer, access to a law library, and the number of your local law office management assistance program on speed dial.

You don’t need to purchase practice management software. You don’t have any clients yet to put into it. Use an Excel spreadsheet to track your clients until your client list outgrows it. You don’t need a Lexis or Westlaw account. Your local law library has that for you to use for free, and more than likely your local bar association has a free or low-cost case law research option such as Casemaker. You really don’t need an expensive software program for forms. Peruse the Internet for the forms you need, or get them from another attorney. Don’t be shy about asking—most attorneys will be happy to give these forms to you.

You don’t need to spend a lot of money setting up your solo practice. Do not rely on credit cards to pay your way until money is earned. It is better to go without than to incur a lot of debt early in your practice. You may have to live with mom and dad a couple of years or rely on someone else to foot your bills while you are getting established in business.

Required Reading

Every aspiring or newly minted solo attorney should read the following three books: How to Start and Build a Law Practice by Jay G. Foonberg (Fifth Edition, ABA, 2004); The E Myth: Why Most Businesses Don’t Work and What to Do About It by Michael E. Gerber (1986); and Minding Your Own Business: The Solo and Small Firm Lawyer’s Guide to a Profitable Practice by Ann M. Guinn (ABA, 2010). Foonberg’s book provides the practical advice you need to open a law practice; as a bonus, it includes basic law practice management forms. Gerber’s book reveals the stark realities of running a business of which you are the owner and sole employee. Guinn’s book teaches you how to set your billing rates, get paid, create a successful business plan, and monitor the financial health of your practice. These books provide you with the information you would not think to ask for but need to know about running a business. Being an attorney means practicing law, but your solo firm is as much a business as it is a law practice.

Defining Your Practice

Research the type of solo practice you want. Interview lawyers in different practice areas to determine your best fit. Some areas of law, such as estate planning, lend themselves to solo practice better than others. Many solos tend to handle multiple practice areas. If you are not sure what practice area is right for you, attend a variety of beginner-level CLE programs. This will educate you, provide you with basic forms, and assist you in identifying potential mentors in the speakers. Look into different models of solo practice such as virtual, semi-virtual, or a traditional office setting. If you are a social person or need outside motivation, look for an office-share situation. If you are shy, consider a virtual practice. Not sure you can handle a solo practice? Solo doesn’t mean alone. Isolation is a choice, not the norm, for solo practitioners.

Advice, Mentoring, and Networking

You do not need to reinvent the wheel. More experienced attorneys have done what you need to do, and they have done it better than you could at this stage of your solo practice. Ask for help. It may be that help comes from an attorney, a CPA, or your neighbor. Don’t confine your business questions to attorneys; they often don’t have a lot of business sense. If you do ask an attorney for help, explain that you are a new solo attorney. Many solos will bend over backward to give you a hand up. Join listserves for solos on the national and local level. An excellent list is maintained by the ABA: SoloSez (solosez.org). These lists are not practice specific; rather, they cover a broad range of law practice management topics. Become active in the solo section of your local bar association. Solos are not a competitive group such as you may have experienced in law school or at a law firm.

You do not need to look like you have it all together. However, a tip for looking competent while building your skill set is to ask your opposing counsel to draft the paperwork. The client is happy because the other side is paying the legal fees required for drafting a document, and you are not displaying your ignorance. Take the pleading and add it to your forms bank. Use this method for any form you’re too shy to ask for.

Find a mentor both in solo practice and in your specific practice area. Mentors don’t arrive at your doorstep like Mary Poppins. You need to approach someone and ask him or her to mentor you, perhaps even a stranger. I did it. It may be uncomfortable to ask for a mentor. You may get turned down, but ask anyway. Someone will say yes. At the start of my practice, three lawyers I did not know were referred to me as potential mentors. I asked all three of them. One said no and two said yes. I still have a relationship with the two lawyers who said yes. They were excellent mentors to me. In turn, I now mentor young lawyers and newly solo attorneys. It is essential to have an experienced attorney to ask about his or her own experiences when starting a solo practice. The mentor’s role is to provide oversight, encouragement, and practical advice.

Networking with other solos is also essential to success. You can do this through local bar activities, CLEs, non-legal networking groups, or law practice management classes. Author Ann Guinn periodically offers practice management classes to solo and small firm attorneys in Seattle, Washington. One of her programs a few years ago was designed to meet monthly for a period of 12 months. I participated in one of these classes, which happened to be composed entirely of female solo attorneys. Through the ensuing months this group of women became very close. We continue to meet regularly even though the class ended several years ago. Such a group of peers can provide support, a sounding board, and accountability for maintaining healthy law practices. Form your own group of new and experienced solo attorneys to help and encourage you. This group should also facilitate a confidential environment where you can speak openly about mistakes and fears. Having a support group made up of people you trust implicitly is an investment in your mental health, stress management, and longevity in the legal profession.

Developing a Business Plan

Having a business plan is an essential element of a successful solo firm. It does you no good to invest in equipment, law practice management software, and a lease if you don’t have a plan for finding clients and getting paid. Your initial business plan doesn’t need to be overly detailed. In fact, it may be more in line with “what do I expect from life now that I am a lawyer?” That’s okay; it’s still a barometer you can use to determine if the business decisions you make get you closer or farther away from what you want in life.

Timing

Do not delay opening your solo practice. You will never be “ready.” You don’t have to have everything in place to open your office. There are a few minimal requirements you should have in place, but everything else can wait. The reality is, when you first open your doors, you will have nothing to do. No clients, no phone calls. Don’t play solitaire and don’t work part-time at another job. Solo law practice is your business. Every day you will go to work and make yourself available for clients and prepare yourself to handle their cases. Use the time after you have opened your practice to complete work on the rest of your business plan until the clients come.

There is usually a delay between opening your practice and getting paying clients. Often that is because new solos do not tell people they have opened a law office. Finding an attorney is difficult and intimidating for the average person. Your friends, neighbors, and family will call you with questions about everything once they know you are open for business. Then they will send their friends, family, and neighbors to you. Don’t turn away potential clients because you think you are unqualified to answer their questions. Try to assist them. It is okay to tell clients that you have to research the matter before you can answer their questions or that you may have to refer them to another attorney. If you are not able to answer the client’s questions or handle the legal matter, then refer the client to another attorney; in doing so you have provided a valuable service. Both the client whom you referred out and the attorney you referred to will remember you for it. Those you cannot serve now will often come back to you later, remembering how helpful you were in sending them to an attorney who could help. Chances are you’ll be able to assist them the second time around.

Taking the First Step

The most intimidating aspect of opening a solo practice is that no one will do it for you. Developing a business plan, marketing, collections, answering the phones, and practicing law all fall to you. There is great responsibility in that. There is no one to fall back on if you screw up. Over the course of your solo practice you likely will screw up from time to time. Unless you get disbarred, that’s okay. You would screw up even if you went to work for someone else. Don’t let fear of failure or fear of the unknown hold you back. In opening a solo practice you have the freedom to create your dream job. The only real thing you need to open a law practice is the courage to take the first step. Everything else will fall into place naturally.

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