Whether you are fresh out of law school, trying to find a place in the world, or have 15 years of experience and are ready for it, going solo allows you to take control of your career and craft a firm that is uniquely yours. Just as in any new business, however, the path may be treacherous. While the decision to start your firm may be your endgame, preparing to open your doors requires diligent work and preparation.
I decided to open my firm almost seven years after becoming an attorney. I began my career at a large law firm but discovered that Big Law was not for me. I could keep up with the legal work, but I was just too soft for all of it regarding office politics. I then tried my hand at a small firm as the lone associate. After working for three years with an ever-increasing workload, I had an epiphany that I was dying a death by a thousand cuts, not advancing in my career or bank account. That was the moment I knew it was time to go. After weighing my options and rejecting an offer from another big firm, I decided in August 2016 to run on my own. That decision was only the first of many before my getaway car. I had to envision the firm I wanted to operate before making it a reality.
Envisioning Your Firm
Just as any trial will run smoothly if you have a theme, understanding who you are and what you want your firm to be is the first step in opening your firm. Solo firms can take many shapes and forms, from firms with jingles on television to freelance attorneys working behind the scenes. This is your opportunity to make a firm to match your vision and style, making it easier to get out of the woods and develop your practice and business plan.
Planning out your firm and brand to match your strengths and style will put you in a better position to succeed. This is your chance to craft a work environment that will bring you happiness, and taking the time to figure out what you want is the first step in ensuring you’re not sorry about your decision. My decision to go solo was a chance to begin again, making my career one I would enjoy rather than merely tolerate. I also wanted a schedule to give me more daylight out of the office so I could umpire baseball to help me stay active. Just as a litigator can always return to the case’s theme if any issues arise during the trial, keeping your firm’s vision in mind will help you navigate the business and professional decisions you must make to succeed.
Turning a Vision into a Business
Once you figure out your firm’s vision, you must determine how to create a viable business. Though not typically taught in law school, knowing how to run a business is a vital step to ensure you do not take the jump and then fall into debt or run afoul of tax laws, corporation laws, or professional rules of conduct. Your vision of your firm, along with advice from a tax professional, will help you figure out the type of business entity for your firm, name your firm, find an office, set up the appropriate bank accounts, figure out how to pay your taxes, and if you have employees, comply with employment laws as well.
As much as everyone hopes that opening their firm will result in a gold rush, the law is a business like any other, and it is essential to go in with your eyes open. The firm you envision might start like mine, with a small book of business and no resources, while others may be prepared to take out debt to service eager clients in a bejeweled office. As my vision of my firm was to keep everything simple, I chose to diversify my income with a combination of contract work to pay my personal expenses, work for clients with whom I could make some extra money to reinvest into my business and take a vacation, and work with other firms on more significant cases where I could try to hit a home run. Even if I had a blank space where a nameplate could go, I crafted a firm to fit my vision and make it work as a business.
Even with the best planning and your firm operating at maximum efficiency, being adaptable is vital to a successful firm because things can change. A glitch will arise in your practice, and you must be adept enough to shake it off. My firm had to evolve multiple times due to changes in judges, local rules, state law, and a global pandemic. When faced with the changes, I modified the services I provided to my contract clients, keeping within my firm’s vision of staying small and flexible, enabling me to keep my business open. Returning to your firm’s vision will guide you in overcoming unexpected bumps in the road and inform you in making the tough choices you face to keep your business running.
Participating in Your Community
Even when you’re on your own, the legal community is vital to any solo’s success because no one is Superman. My firm may be mine, but the legal community is ours, and our firms are just one small part of the community. I would never have had the courage to open my law firm without the support of my colleagues and without utilizing the resources available through memberships in legal organizations because, after all, it’s nice to have a friend.
The legal community starts with the individuals you know, including law school classmates, colleagues, and clients. In an industry where your reputation is vital, your friends can offer you perspectives, proofread an important brief, or help step in for you if you need to miss a hearing or take an unexpected leave. Finding a mentor is also invaluable. While your firm’s vision may include novel ideas, the practice of law is nothing new, and other attorneys know the challenges you will face all too well because they have been in your shoes. A mentor will help guide you through those rough patches that may otherwise waste your time and energy.
Although forming such relationships with competitors and opposing counsel may be a delicate task, avoiding bad blood while maintaining civility is essential to continued success. Sacrificing your credibility to win one battle in the great war of your career can be disastrous—maintaining your bar license is often better than revenge, especially in a profession where karma thrives when just one court employee overhears one wayward comment.
Professional associations, such as the American Bar Association, state and local bar organizations, and other legal clubs, are also invaluable to solo firms. These groups offer networking opportunities, resources, discounts on products, and leadership opportunities to help build your firm. Some law schools even operate programs where new lawyers can all work together as they try to navigate the labyrinth of post–law school life, allowing new lawyers to collaborate.
Part of the fun of opening your own firm is shaping it in your vision. Sticking to that vision will help you get through tough times, but in the end, you must be flexible enough to change your firm to keep it a viable business and humble enough to recognize that you are part of a community. Knowing that you are not alone and sticking to your vision will allow you to be fearless in pursuing your wildest dreams.