Being a solo attorney was never the plan. I was a feisty environment-loving student in college and wanted to take any water-related job I could find. Well, the job I found was at a large corporation.
I worked at the corporation during the “transition year” between college and law school and realized that while the sense of security of working at a corporation was comforting, the people in power were constantly resisting progress and, in fact, shunning it. The workplace culture I experienced was not the right fit for the vision I had for my life. In my one year at the corporation, I personally experienced blatant discrimination on various fronts, including ageism, racism, and institutional elitism. After experiencing more biases firsthand than I thought people were capable of, at the end of the year I knew I would be hard-pressed to go back to the traditional corporate world. As a side note, I am grateful that the start-up boom that happened after this time has awakened many corporations into changing their work culture.
By the time I graduated from law school, after having focused all my energy into environmental law with no job openings in sight, I decided to take the first job I was offered with a solo who practiced business defense litigation. While the learning experience as a young litigation associate was invaluable, I grew weary of the litigation lifestyle. I saw colleagues from law school loving the adrenaline from litigation while I dreaded the deadlines and court appearances. Around the same time, the passing of a close family friend propelled me to start learning about estate planning. I saw a need in my community that was going unfilled and would continue to grow, and I saw that I had developed a knack for spotting business law issues that gave rise to litigation and had the ability to prevent that for other business owners.
With encouragement from my parents and savings from my associate job, I started looking into starting my own practice. My father has been a business owner his entire life, and while there were financial ups and downs in our family life, the presence of loving parents and the bonds of a tight-knit family were something I had grown to treasure. If being a business owner allowed me the ability to be present for my family and enjoy my life, I was willing to take the risks that came with it.
Armed with a positive attitude, a lot of help from Google, and some amazing cheerleaders from my bar associations, I dove into solo practice as a transactional attorney in 2015. Despite all the preparation, I encountered two things that took me by surprise within the first six months. One was attorneys who were ever ready with advice, ranging from doomsday scenarios to unrealistic positivity. The second was the speed at which your savings can start to deplete despite having a business plan and a budget. I will candidly share my experience with both.
Support and Criticism
Let’s start with the advisors first. I wish I could say that every attorney I came across was well-meaning. This was absolutely not the case. I reached out to several attorneys who practiced transactional law within the same practice areas I wanted to practice. I reached out to attorneys in Los Angeles and Orange County by phone, e-mail, social media, you name it. I offered to take people to lunch or coffee. A few agreed, but none who had the time or desire to develop a long-term professional relationship or a mentor-mentee relationship. I ended up enlarging my reach and e-mailed an attorney 70 miles away in San Diego, who responded positively and mentored me for a short while before I started my practice. I will not forget her kindness and enthusiasm in mentoring a younger attorney.
Overall, I remember being surprised by the various reactions I encountered at bar associations and networking events when I announced that I was about to or had just started a law practice. I am so grateful that my family, siblings, and most friends were encouraging because the reactions I received later could easily have deterred me from diving in. Here are just some of the categories of attorneys I encountered.
The naysayers. “How old are you?” “How much money do you have saved up?” “I couldn’t even dream of starting my practice until I had 15 years of experience.”
These were just some of the conversation starters I encountered and any other young attorney might encounter. I had to remind myself constantly that everyone’s experience is different and I was ready. I knew I was, but encountering the naysayers made it easy to doubt myself. And it made it difficult to continue networking when I knew before every event there would be one person who would be ready to start a conversation about how unlikely I was to succeed. I had to remember the mantra my sister gave me, which was “assume positive intent,” which allowed me to carry on a conversation without becoming frustrated or discouraged.
The know-it-alls. The Big Law partner who shared advice on running a solo practice because he had been practicing for more than a decade comes to mind as the primary example. “Billing regularly is key,” “keep track of every minute of your day,” “make sure your assistant follows up and knows your entire schedule.” Well, none of these applied to me in my flat-fee, lean law practice but did provide me with a connection with an attorney later, in case he had referrals for me. Again, the key was not to shut down a conversation before it started and to assume positive intent, regardless of whether it was misguided or came from an unwelcome source.
The “but it worked for me’s.” This group included small firm attorneys who started their practice decades ago, before the cloud was a thing, before flat-fee was acceptable in legal services delivery, and before virtual/remote work was popularized. The number of years since they first hung their shingle was not as important as the fact that most “established” solo or small firm attorneys had not adapted to and refused to adapt to the technologies and resources that have developed since then. I offer this with the caveat that there are plenty of attorneys who are enthusiastic about the dynamic field of legal tech and are at the forefront of adopting and inventing resources that make us better lawyers. My advice here would be to find those people who fit with your vision for growth and stay in touch with them.
The unsolicited advisors. Aunts, uncles, cousins, neighbors, people I met at parties, at networking events, at the temple—all had a piece of advice when they realized I had started a law firm. When you encounter unsolicited advisors, recognize that some of them will have legitimately good advice because, ultimately, a law firm is a business, and some businesses will have similar models or ideas that you can adopt to your own model. Others will not have good advice, but they now will know that you are a business owner and will remember that you were receptive and positive when you informed them of this fact.
Experiences will vary with people, regions, industries, and other factors, but the surprising part of my experience was that a lot of confidence and willpower were required on my part when interacting with other attorneys, something I has not considered beforehand.
All this is not to say that I didn’t learn from other solos or their mistakes. It’s just to say that I wish I had found the balance of a supportive and knowledgeable tribe from the very beginning.
The other surprising part of my experience were the finances of running a law firm in my 20s. I didn’t have a retirement account, and I didn’t have much experience budgeting, either for a family or for a business. Recognizing the lack of financing experience and life experience in managing finances, I was careful and diligent in forming a budget, planning, and researching. I wrote out a business plan but quickly realized that there can be no accounting for unexpected expenses in any specific way. I needed a larger cushion than I had previously imagined. For example, I hired an assistant whom I previously had worked with, and I paid for her to attend notary class and become a notary public. I budgeted for all of this. She ended up not attending the class and not becoming a notary public, with several excuses lined up. I had to let her go within months of starting my firm. It was a wasted investment of both time and money on someone I had previously worked with.
After this experience, I reached out to some attorneys I had developed professional relationships with to ask what they did in similar situations, and if they would mind looking at my budget to see what I could improve. To my surprise, a lot of successful solos had not even created a business plan or a budget when they started. Some of these attorneys had been practicing for decades and had families, retirement accounts, etc., and I felt better knowing that I was not disadvantaged because I had had different and maybe less life experience than other solo attorneys. I also felt better knowing that I had done everything I could and that some situations are unavoidable, no matter how hard we try.
The other thing I quickly became concerned about was the lack of a financial plan for my own life, whether for investments, retirements, or passive income. Both my parents are in the finance/real estate industries, and they first expressed this concern to me. I brushed it aside at first, as we often do with parental advice. Quickly perusing retirement planning on Google made it clear that I needed to think about putting money away seriously and with as much planning as I had put into starting my business. Luckily, as an estate planning attorney, I had the ear of a lot of financial advisors, but now I needed them for advice. I connected with a few advisors and asked what they do, how they do it, and how they can help young professionals. I also went to my go-to source for information: the American Bar Association. I saw that the ABA offered retirement planning, and I made an appointment to obtain more information. My advice for young solo attorneys would be to do your research because not every company has caught up with technology, and it’s actually difficult to contribute to your plan with certain accounts. The other thing I concluded after various appointments was that I was not financially ready to start investing but needed a mental deadline to start thinking and planning for investment and retirement. I scheduled a reminder for myself every six months from that point to reassess my financial situation to see when I could begin retirement planning, with a self-imposed hard deadline of two years after starting my practice.
A word of caution here is that once you start looking, you will see retirement plans being offered by companies that have no business offering them because they simply do not have the resources to educate the people on their plans. I learned this lesson the hard way after I had already signed up for a retirement account.
Regardless, retirement planning and investments are not always a solo attorney’s first priority because we are often trying to get through the day accomplishing everything we need to accomplish for clients, state bar compliances, taxes, employees, marketing, networking, community work, and family. Nobody except my parents mentioned retirement planning to me, and not being a part of a corporate framework that offered these benefits made me feel as if I was at a disadvantage. However, the disadvantage is only as critical as we make it because there are plenty of people and resources to help young solo attorneys and build long-term relationships.
My experience is typical of many young solos, but we are here to stay and to succeed! I am so fortunate that I have the opportunity to continue figuring out life as a solo, and I hope that this article will give some insight to other solos out there. My most important lessons learned were: expect the unexpected but be kind to yourself when the unexpected happens; be open to receiving mentorship from beyond your original scope or idea for a mentor; and enjoy the journey for all the stories, memories, and sense of pride it will provide you.