Criminal Justice Section
Criminal Justice Magazine
Volume 17 Issue 4
One Year and Counting: Advice from a New Solo
By Mark E. Biernath
I am coming up on the one-year anniversary of going solo right out of law school. Here are a few practical lessons learned (some the hard way):
- Get professional liability insurance now; it is the cheapest it will ever be for you.
- Read How to Start and Build a Law Practice by Jay Foonberg, which I found invaluable in setting up my practice.
- Get high-speed Internet service and a good, reliable computer, printer, and copier.
- See if you can find a deal for an online service such as Westlaw or Nexis (which offered me an inexpensive plan for the first year in practice.)
- Get a phone number that is just for the law practice. Don’t be tempted to save money by using your home phone line or personal cell phone number.
- Set up your bank accounts, including IOLTA (trust) accounts.
- Don’t take every case/client that comes to you. Be very cautious if the client has been to see other attorneys in your area and they did not take the case. There’s usually a reason; you just might not be able to see it yet. I read somewhere that you will be known as much by the cases you don’t take as those you do.
- Ask for and collect a significant retainer before you agree to represent the client. This will demonstrate how serious clients are about their cases and gives you some assurance that you will be paid for your efforts. I would steer clear of contingency fee cases early on because a new solo practitioner has no way of judging the value of a case or how much time, effort, or expense the case will take.
- In the same vein, do not work for free. What you do has value. If you’re not getting something of value in return, do not do it. On the other hand, if you’re being mentored through a case, you are receiving something of value. If you are receiving CLE opportunities, you’ve got something of value. But some people will present their facts in such a positive way that you’ll be tempted to think it will take little effort to complete the case. It doesn’t happen that way. Every case involves work. If your clients agree to pay you and do not, withdraw from representation if at all possible.
- Make friends with other solo or small firm practitioners. Friends who work in the "ant hill" law factories understand neither the joys nor the struggles of going it alone. At big firms, "someone" fixes their computers, makes the coffee in the morning, and sees to it that the mail miraculously is sent with the proper postage for certified/return receipt. Someone counsels them on the proper forms to use. You don’t have that luxury. But you also don’t have the drudgery.
- Go to the courthouse and get to know where offices are, how to talk with judge’s clerks, etc. In Georgia we have to participate in or observe a number of court proceedings, including trials from beginning of voir dire to verdict, before we can appear in a contested matter. Many new lawyers check out the videos from the bar to earn the credit, but I went to the courthouse and watched and talked with the attorneys, and it was fun. One of the judges actually invited me to sit in the clerk’s seat so I could hear all the sidebar activity during a felony shoplifting trial. The judge explained all kinds of things when the jury was not present.
One year after passing the bar, I’m flying by the seat of my pants and enjoying most of it. I’ve been able to pay my bills and even pay myself some—not a lot, but some.
Mark E. Biernath is a solo practitioner focusing on disability, education, and small business law in Atlanta, Georgia. He is a member of the ABA’s SOLOSEZ listserv for solo and small firm practitioners. For a complete list of ABA listservs go to http://mail.abanet.org/archives .