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GPSolo eReport

GPSolo eReport May 2024

Coach’s Counsel: Are You Aware of the Three Most Critical Challenges Facing the Solo Practitioner?

Eleanor Kay Southers


  • The most prevalent challenge facing the solo practitioner is loneliness. Solo practice is inherently lonely.
  • The lack of systems is one of the biggest challenges for solos.
  • Poor time management is the foundation of many terrible situations for the solo, yet too many attorneys don’t see the value of time management.
Coach’s Counsel: Are You Aware of the Three Most Critical Challenges Facing the Solo Practitioner?
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I have been coaching attorneys for the past 14 years and prior to that had a successful, 22-year solo practice. Looking at the problems that we solos must deal with, I have recognized a pattern that I would like to share with you. Some of these you will recognize in your own history, and some will not apply to your practice. Some may surprise you. The number of years you have been in business will also influence your view. If your awareness is raised, you can be better prepared to understand how to deal with the future or understand the past.


Let’s start off with the most prevalent challenge facing the solo practitioner: loneliness. Solo practice is inherently lonely.

Frequently the solo will consider taking on a partner, which can help not only with loneliness but also can complement the solo’s own strengths and weaknesses. Some attorneys are strong on the law and weak on how to run a business. Others have no marketing experience and are unsure how to obtain valid marketing advice. But having a partner has its own challenges. It’s much like being married, with all the same problems to confront. How to handle money is the biggest one, followed by allocation of work and a million other details.

Solo practice, especially for a new solo, can also lead to loneliness because it puts such a strain on the solo’s personal relationships. New solos are normally consumed with setting up their firms; they can become anxious and only want to converse about their struggles. This can alienate anyone close to the solo. Often, the solo’s family gets frustrated when the conversation focuses exclusively on the solo’s concerns. There are also pragmatic reasons for the solo not to monopolize the conversation—friends and family with the best of intentions will frequently offer inappropriate or poorly thought out advice. I have seen this repeatedly, especially about money matters.

The obvious solution is for the new solo to pick one or two mentors who are willing to help when needed—especially early in the solo’s career. At least one of the mentors should be in the same field as the solo. Knowing there is a valued person to ask a quick question shaves off a bit of worry. It is important, however, not to wear the mentors out by demanding too much of their time. Having a patient, available CPA who is tax wise is also a plus for a solo.

The Need for Systems

The lack of systems is one of the biggest challenges for solos. A system is simply a guide for how to do something repeatedly. For example, any businessperson needs a way to bill or collect payments over and over again. Other obvious systems relate to closing out and storing files, signing up a new client, and dealing with the court bureaucracy. Some systems are best kept on a management app or a specific law area app. One of the most important systems is the accounting system. An accounting app can keep all the data regarding income and expenses, and it can show how the business is succeeding or declining. Several of these apps are designed specifically for lawyers and have a way to keep the trust account data.

One of the best things about systems is that they can be used by more than one person. If a firm is beginning to hire staff, systems are invaluable. Solos who come from a large firm may have not been exposed to the simple systems that a solo practice needs. It is vital that these systems be in place before the doors are open.

There comes a time when the solo begins to recognize that they have to be a jack-of-all-trades. Solo duties involve being a janitor, marketer, IT person, accountant, and more. The earlier this is understood, the more prepared the solo will be to welcome business. Well-thought-out systems will make solo attorneys more secure because they know they can the handle fundamental aspects of their business.

Time Management

Solos must have an understanding of good time management. This is never more needed than when the firm starts to take off and grow. The pattern of growth goes something like this: The first year in solo practice includes setting up and funding all the systems, including marketing. The attorney reaches out with sincere networking, advertising, public relations, branding, etc.

If all of this is done carefully and energetically, solos will have created a request of the universe to send them clients (or, more simply put, they will have made enough people aware of their existence and of what they want). At this point, the universe isn’t interested in sending business in sensible bundles. It seems to come in a great “bunch,” which can scare some solos if they have not prepared for it. I have seen this time after time in my coaching practice as well as my own firm.

I have a sad story that I would like to tell you about this phenomenon. I was helping a young attorney transition out of a big firm into a solo practice. She had two babies and was close to burnout when I first met her. She was highly competent and relieved to be able to manage her time more appropriately. As she was very interested in having a lot of free time, I tried to make her think of what she might do if she started to see an increase in clients. Then, the inevitable happened. In her second year, she started to receive a rush of business. She became very scared that she was not prepared to handle it, and no matter how much I begged and offered alternatives, she returned to the crazy big firm where she felt more secure. She simply wasn’t prepared to believe me.

I always point out to my clients that they must have used some kind of time management when preparing for the bar. Unfortunately, they usually reply that they simply studied, slept, and fended off anyone who tried to interrupt them. That is not time management. Rather, the management is the important part—identifying what needs to be accomplished on each day. Prioritizing and entering the time allotted on the calendar is the first step. Taking the time to do this each day or week might not be fun, but it’s crucial. If made into a habit, time management will decrease stress and become a life-long asset to the attorney.

Let me give you a simple, three-step plan for time management. First, be sure to calendar—and prioritize—every new task. A response to a summary judgment brief is more important than attending a network function. Second, determine how much time each task will take (bear in mind that, more often than not, we underestimate the time required). If travel is involved, that needs to be included. Third, you must follow up. Review the tasks that didn’t get completed and re-calendar them. Poor time management is the foundation of many terrible situations for the solo, yet too many attorneys don’t see time management’s value.

Don’t Forget the Advantages

Now that we have explored three of the major challenges facing solos, let’s take a look at some of the advantages of solo practice. The best one I see is autonomy. Solos get to decide exactly what they want their business to look like. If careful planning is in place before the “open for business” sign is hung out, the firm has a much better chance of succeeding. The solo is forced to learn a lot of new skills. If this is seen as an advantage, the attorney can grow in many ways. Learning how to run a business is a rewarding benefit. Marketing and networking can open the door to a whole new community.

Ending on this positive note, I wish good luck to all the brave and courageous solos who populate our world.