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What I Wish I Knew before Going Solo

Teresa Gutierrez

What I Wish I Knew before Going Solo
kertu_ee via iStock

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Are you thinking about opening your own law firm? Or are you just getting your solo practice going? No matter where you are in the solo practitioner journey, you are not alone. You are in terrific company. A recent article by CLIO reported that 50 percent of lawyers in the United States are solo practitioners.

Reflecting on my nearly seven years of solo practice, I have come to learn several lessons through trial and error and by speaking with other similarly situated lawyers, and I have had several epiphanies along the way.

When it comes to solo practice, there is no magic formula for success. You can thrive as a solo practitioner with persistence and a mindset determined to succeed. What you should know if you’ve recently embarked on your solo attorney journey—or are about to—is that what worked for one attorney might not work for you. It is an individualized, personal journey and process.

Start Small

When you first set out to start your law firm, aim to minimize your expenses and keep your costs low. It is important to plant seeds for growth and to invest and re-invest in your business and yourself. But keep overhead and expenses as low as possible. Be smart about how you spend your money instead of getting in over your head with unnecessary needs, like fancy office space or equipment.

You can start and grow a law practice on a small budget. A wise place to start is the basics: business cards, a laptop, a business phone number, some professional clothing attire, a place to work, and malpractice insurance.

Your Laptop

It does not need to be anything fancy to start. What is important is that your laptop is fully functional and reliable (with storing files and with maintaining security). You can upgrade over time and even build a larger network system later.

Your Phone Number

I recommend having a separate phone number from your personal number. This will help organizationally and help maintain healthy boundaries between your firm life and personal life. When I started, I purchased a separate cell phone and used it for work calls only. I have the same phone number now as when I started, but I opted to port that same phone number into Google Voice (no longer necessitating the separate phone), and I have used various call services (virtual receptionists) to help me manage calls on my law firm line.

Professional Attire

Your attire is a personal choice and having the freedom to choose is a great part of starting a solo practice. As a solo practitioner, you do not necessarily need the daily suits, ties, and blazers that are commonplace for lawyers. This might depend on your practice area and your clientele. I wear what makes me feel confident and comfortable. Although when I go to court, I dress the part, including wearing a suit or a blazer. If you are on a tight budget and do not mind repurposing, a store such as Savers might offer you gently used professional clothing at a fraction of the normal cost.

Office Space

There are many choices regarding work and office space in this ever-changing business landscape. When I began in 2016, I had the fortune of working out an agreement with a friend who was already an established solo practitioner. I paid her a monthly fee to use some of her space for the occasional meeting and her office address as my business address. Once I outgrew that option, I rented virtual office space. Four years later, I got a slightly larger space with the same company from whom I rented my first commercial office.

Malpractice Insurance

You will want to research options in your specific state as well as your state bar rules. Some malpractice companies offer affordable options to new attorneys. Consider looking into multiple plans if you want to purchase a policy and find the best option for you.

Advertising Is Not the Only Way to Create a Business Presence

Once you set up the basic necessities of your firm, you need to consider advertising. It can be overwhelming to receive mixed messages on how to best get your name out there, especially when you are told to keep overhead low.

But the short answer is no, you do not need to invest your funds into online or in-print advertising—at least not when you start. If you have the funds and the phone support to handle the potential influx of leads from formal advertising, then do so. If not, and if you want to lay the foundation to build up a client and colleague base of support, then your focus should be different.

A more seasoned colleague advised me that my money would be better invested in committing to taking colleagues, friends, and others out to lunch monthly.

More than anything, this advice highlighted the importance of nurturing my network. This includes clients, potential clients, and other professionals in my field. Additionally, if someone helps me out—even with five or ten minutes of their time that they did not have to give me (we all know how busy lawyers are)—then I want to thank them and express my gratitude for their collegiality.

Some experienced attorneys I know say they do not need websites because they generate all their work from other attorneys or via word-of-mouth. That might be true, but for folks from my generation and those getting started in 2023, so much of our lives are online. Potential clients and colleagues appreciate getting to know you a bit before reaching out to you. Choosing how you wish to appear in online searches can facilitate the process of potential clients being led to you.

Where do you start with your online presence? I started with my Facebook business page. It was free. I was able to share it with my existing Facebook network. This was all thanks to the guidance of my solo attorney friend, who was helping me out with office space to start. Do not be shy! You are a law firm owner, and a law firm is a business. If no one knows you are in business, then no one knows they can hire you.

Connect with Your Community

Being a solo practitioner can be a lonely experience, but it does not need to be. According to the Washington Post, “Lawyers outranked other professionals on a ‘loneliness scale’ in a survey of more than 1,600 workers.” This sense of isolation increases when you go solo.

Combat these issues by reaching out for assistance. Resources like your law school, local bar associations, attorneys in your practice area, and other business organizations are all great places to start. When I first set up my firm, I joined a committee on one of the local bar associations. This helped me feel and stay connected to others. Later, I joined the board of another, and I became a member of a third. Attend a few events. Know that you have a lot to offer, no matter where you find yourself in your journey of solo practice.

Using Small Opportunities to Achieve Big Goals

Another tip, keep on the lookout for contract opportunities. Once I announced myself, I was afforded some contract attorney work. Contract attorney work can best be understood as hourly work to assist another attorney, firm, or agency. I learned as a solo practitioner that contract work can help you stay afloat as you start out. I found that many solo practitioners rely on contract attorney work when first beginning their practices. The delicate balance here is not getting too comfortable with the contract work if your end goal is to fully rely on your own.

Poet Rumi is quoted as saying, “[a]s you start to walk on the way, the way appears,” and I believe this is true for the solo practitioner’s journey. Once I committed to opening my firm and knew my why, I could focus on the how. You can too.