It seems like only yesterday that I walked across the stage, received my law degree and shook hands with my law school dean. Fast forward 10 years. I learned a lot along the way. There were stressful cases and sleepless nights. There were mean judges and even meaner court staff. There were unreasonable opposing counsel and insurance adjusters who manufactured nonexistent law. But there were also many joyful nights, wonderful judges and mediators, and pleasant opposing counsel.
Ten years of practicing law is an appropriate time to contemplate the past and reflect on what worked and what didn’t. If you’re a young lawyer or law student reading this, I hope my experiences as a solo practitioner and the following lessons can help you as you begin to make your way in the legal world.
1. Start your practice sooner rather than later
Immediately out of law school, I interned at a government law office. I obtained the job without the assistance of any law school counselors. I tried several criminal cases and made countless court appearances. The trial experience was beneficial, but the position wasn’t paid. I went along with it for almost a full year because I believed my lack of legal experience meant I needed this opportunity. Looking back on that experience now, the job might have violated my state’s labor laws, though I did learn my way around a courtroom.
Next, I worked for two small firms. The pay was abysmal, and the treatment was even worse. About two years into my career, my wife asked me a pointed question: Why don’t you start your own firm? I thought about it for weeks. But I kept putting it off because I was convinced clients wouldn’t hire me.
Then a family member suffered a serious injury. I saw how hurt he was and how the accident impacted his life. My firm wouldn’t take his case, and that was the turning point for me. I left the firm, and with that one case started my own practice. Was I scared? Yes! Did I have pits in my stomach? I sure did. But I took a leap of faith and believed in myself.
Hundreds of cases later, I can tell you I made the right choice. Not one client who hired me ever questioned my experience or my law school grades. All they wanted to know was whether I was a lawyer who could do the job competently and compassionately.
If you’re in law school now or just entering the legal market, consider starting your own firm. I wish I had done this earlier because I would have avoided years of needless stress. Work in an area you are passionate about. If you did particularly well in one of your law school classes—as I did in torts—that might be an indication of an area in which you might enjoy practicing. You don’t need to put up with abuse just because you are a baby lawyer. Local bar associations, Listservs and other resources are available to guide you. A few more experienced attorneys in my field have generously mentored me and helped me succeed. Their support was invaluable.
My advice to those thinking about starting their own practice is to start right away. I do not for one minute regret my choice.
2. You won't get every case
When I started my practice, I was brimming with excitement. I told everyone I knew about my decision, with the hopes that they would send me cases when the need arose. Many did; some didn’t. I still remember the case of a close family friend. He was an accomplished professional, and he’d asked me to send him business cards right when I started my practice. I was excited about the future possibilities.
A few years later, he was hit by a car. I reached out, offered my sympathies and waited for the call. It never came. I found out later that he hired a competitor’s firm. Years later, this is one that still hurts.
This experience taught me an important lesson: I wasn’t going to get every case. Neither will you. You will get referrals from surprising sources. And you will not get cases that should have been a slam dunk. At some point, you will be faced with a scenario where it feels like people who should be helping you aren’t.. Nobody owes you anything, and you’ll have to work hard to make your way in a crowded field. But keep moving forward. There will always be another case, so keep your head up.
3. You don't need every case
Each of us has a unique network of friends and family. We all have our referral sources. Be thankful for those who think of you. If there is a particular person who refers cases to you, show your appreciation. But if you miss out on a case, don’t beat yourself up about it.
One small note: Don’t take bad cases just because you are hungry for clients. From time to time, especially in your early years of practicing, you may be tempted to take questionable cases. Don’t. If your gut tells you that the client is problematic, take a pass. These types of cases almost always end up being more trouble than they are worth. Your time will be better spent on other, more productive pursuits. Just remember, there is enough business out there for everyone.
4. Your fee is your fee
Clients don’t like paying lawyers. Nevertheless, your fee is your fee, and you should not be in the habit of reducing your fees to accommodate an unreasonable client.
This is not to say that you should never reduce your fee. When the circumstances call for a reduction, it is fine to make one. Just keep it slight. It is unreasonable for a client to expect an attorney to work on a case for months or even years and then be the only one to take a haircut at the successful completion of a case. It is a disservice and conveys the message, “Your work is not worth what you are being paid.” You have bills to pay and mouths to feed just like everyone else. Your fee is your fee, and absent an extenuating or unusual circumstance, it should stay that way.
5. Keep investing in yourself
Practicing as a solo lawyer is a unique experience. We wear many hats. Practicing as a solo has also enabled me to invest in myself.
Research an area of the law that interests you. Write an article for a bar journal. Discuss an important case on your website. Attend MCLE classes and become an expert in your field. Market yourself, and don’t be bashful! Others are not thinking about you as much as you are thinking about you.
Opening my own practice has enabled me to do things I never could have done working for someone else. It has also given me pride in ownership. I can decide which cases to take and which ones I don’t want. I am always learning and trying to improve my skills because my clients are relying on me. Your clients deserve the best version of you. So never stop learning and investing in yourself. We can always be better.