An associate is thinking about leaving their firm and asks other members what it’s like to go solo relatively quickly after graduating from law school. Here is their conversation.
Sam [9:25 AM] How many of you went solo right out of law school?
youngcountrylawyer [9:26 AM] Me
Randy [10:04 AM] Sam I did
Charlie [10:12 AM] Y’all crazy.
Taylor [10:12 AM] Graduated in 2010. I applied to over 100 law firms, I literally went through every law firm for 15 miles on Martindale. I had an entire punch board of rejection letters, I even got a rejection letter from a firm I didn’t apply to.
Necessity is the mother of invention
Now I make more than half my colleagues and work about 30% less
Randy [10:14 AM] I didn’t have the grades for big law and despite having experience in municipal tickets and family law, no one was hiring associates just clerks or friends of friends
Charlie [10:15 AM] Grad in 2009. Walked out with a job. Worked some connections.
Ashley [10:16 AM] I did, but it was part of the plan.
Taylor [10:17 AM] I always wanted to start my own, so it was well-fleshed-out backup plan, and not the primary option
Ashley [10:22 AM] I didn’t have a specific plan until summer 1L. Once I realized oil & gas was boring as shit and the “best” plaintiffs firm was incompetent as hell, I was like, yep, solo..
youngcountrylawyer [10:24 AM] It was my plan from day 1.
Sam [10:46 AM] So how bad was the first year?
Taylor [10:48 AM] I was cash flow positive in month 2, but I didn’t make much more than minimum wage at the end of the day.
Find you a good BNI group. Don’t settle for one that is starting up or one that hasn’t closed more than $200k in the last 12 months.
Randy [10:50 AM] Omg BNI around here is a pain. Every Thursday, miss too many and you’re out
Charlie [10:50 AM] You do bni? BNI is of no value to me.
Randy [10:50 AM] Lunch once a week with someone or you’re fined. I went to a meeting. Someone in charge was also doing that stupid Herbalife. And was a life coach.
Charlie [10:51 AM] Hahahaha. Woooof. Yeah I do consumer focused law. I send my people to people I trust. Not BNI.
Ashley [10:53 AM] It’s as bad as you let your overhead make it, IMO.
Taylor [10:54 AM] It won’t make you rich, but a good group will keep your head above water for the first year. In my first 18 months, BNI accounted for more than $45k in closed business.
It’s strict, but if you get a good group and work the system, it works. However, about 70% of the groups suck and aren’t worth your time. My group had about 30 people in it, and we routinely closed over $1M in closed business every year.
I had a tight relationship with the accountant, business coach, and an AV company in there, and we worked the system.
Sam [11:04 AM] Did you rent an office or go virtual?
Ashley [11:06 AM] If you’re taking local clients you probably need an office to meet them in. Frequently you can share space with others or a small firm.
Randy [11:06 AM] @Sam first year we had cash flow, kept it simple, able to get a private loan with family to buy computers and pay rent. beyond that, it was all about figuring out the market area -which I’m still doing.
we also found a GREAT group of attorneys to office with. heck, some of them come to us for advice.
Sam [11:09 AM] How worried were you about not knowing what you were doing? I feel like law school and passing the bar doesn’t really mean that I know how to be a lawyer. Did you struggle with that at all?
Charlie [11:09 AM] I’m going to get edged out of domestic. Older lawyer moving in next door, also does divorce.
youngcountrylawyer [11:13 AM] I saved up $12,000 for startup costs and used like $6,000 of it. I have been in the black monthly since month 1, but this year is the first year I am really making money.
However, I had a wife to help float me.
Taylor [11:13 AM] Find a way to rent a conference room for a small law firm / solo shop, and keep your overhead low.
Do not rent space unless you can justify it from a cost/benefit perspective
Charlie [11:14 AM] @Taylor only works in some areas.
Taylor [11:15 AM] I started renting office space because I had enough initial consults every month where it was cheaper to rent than pay the conference room time
Charlie [11:15 AM] Wouldn’t work for me. I’ve considered it.
Taylor [11:15 AM] Correct, if you’re in an urban area, you need to specialize. A general practice is dead in urban areas
You can pull it in rural areas and even some suburbs, but you’re going to miss the best referral source: other attorneys that don’t do what you do. 80% of my referred clients come from other attorneys.
Charlie [11:17 AM] Yeah I’m pivoting. Neither of the two next to me do PI or BK. So if I play it right, could be good.
Denise [11:19 AM] even in a rural area, a huge percent of our cases are referred by other attorneys.
Randy [11:20 AM] Sam imposter syndrome is real, you gotta fake it til you make it. And having other attorneys to bounce ideas off of is immensely helpful
Ashley [11:20 AM] The most important thing is a strong mentor network.
Randy [11:20 AM] Exactly. Is @Mike here?
Taylor [11:21 AM] Do not hesitate to ask stupid questions.
Ashley [11:21 AM] Research your stupid questions first. Or admit you’re being lazy, I’ve done that.
Charlie [11:22 AM] I always do that. I have a stupid question and it’s faster to ask.
Taylor [11:22 AM] I can weave all the requirements necessary to get a company out of having to file SEC disclosures on their Series B, but I wouldn’t know what to include in an uncontested divorce. It’s ok to be ignorant about something and ask for help.
Ashley [11:23 AM] I would suggest seeking a few people out who graduated a few years in front of you to ask the really stupid questions to as well.
Mentors don’t have to be all-knowing. In fact, while you want those, they are the ones you want to bother less. Every “quick question” they answer for you costs them a tenth.
And god forbid if it isn’t a quick question and you don’t have the background. They won’t be mentors long.
Taylor [11:25 AM] I had a dedicated business mentor and a dedicated law mentor. The law mentor told me how to practice law, and the business mentor told me how to read a P/L.
Denise [11:25 AM] It’s amazing how little law school prepares you.
Taylor [11:25 AM] Because it’s a bunch of people that never actually practiced law.
Denise [11:25 AM] you get out of law school and you may (theoretically) know how to write a brief, but they don’t teach you what summary judgment is or how it really works
Ashley [11:26 AM] Or how to format a complaint properly for a local court.
Taylor [11:26 AM] Or that your judge has 18 cases that day and doesn’t have time for your discovery dispute bullshit.
Ashley [11:26 AM] Though you can learn that shit on your own, just need to know that the court doesn’t follow it’s own stupid local rules sometimes.
Taylor [11:27 AM] In law school, they actually had us write a discovery memo to a partner about whether something was discoverable. I can’t imagine anything more worthless.
Ashley [11:28 AM] Honestly though, I think @Randy is the most right out of all the advice here, just fake it.
Taylor [11:28 AM] Agreed.
Ashley [11:28 AM] And buy malpractice insurance.
Taylor [11:28 AM] Don’t be afraid to send your accomplishments to the local paper, they love running features on “local boy/gal does good.”
Denise [11:29 AM] Every time I do a new type of hearing for the first time it’s serious impostor syndrome. But the judges will normally walk you through it.
Charlie [11:30 AM] This
Ashley [11:30 AM] Clerks too.
Randy [11:30 AM] oh I ask judges things all the time
Denise [11:30 AM] They don’t mind at all when a newbie attorney says “Hey clerk, I’m new and know nothing, how do you guys prefer I file this type of paperwork so we can make everyone’s life easier.”
Randy [11:30 AM] Simple shit like “do my clients need to come to this hearing?” Because half of the judges don’t want them at some hearings and half do.
Taylor [11:31 AM] Cannot agree with @Denise more. A little humility goes a HUGE way.
Mike [11:31 AM] I’m here
Charlie [11:32 AM] Go away. ; )
youngcountrylawyer [11:32 AM] Get to know the judge’s assistants and be nice to them
Denise [11:33 AM] Given the pretentious asshats that most attorneys are being nice to the staff and humble gets you so far.
Charlie [11:33 AM] Clerks love me. I’m nice.
Ashley [11:35 AM] The most important life lesson anyone in any job can learn is that staff make the world go around.
Randy [11:36 AM] @Mike you and @Sam are asking all the same questions, but you’re bit ahead of him so thought you’d share anything you’d heard recently that struck a chord with you
Mike [11:37 AM] Blind leading the blind.
Randy [11:38 AM] I also got some BS advice when I was starting
Mike [11:38 AM] Probably better to get the advice first hand from people already doing it, is what I’m saying
youngcountrylawyer [11:38 AM] @Sam @Mike Also get a copy of Solo By Choice and read it. It’s SUPER GOOD.
Ashley [11:38 AM] Elefant’s book?
Randy [11:38 AM] We got “How to Start a Law Firm”
youngcountrylawyer [11:38 AM] Yah
Randy [11:38 AM] Foonberg or whatever his name is?
Ashley [11:38 AM] Foonberg’s two books I highly recommend.
youngcountrylawyer [11:38 AM] That one is considered kind of out of date now, thought, right?
Taylor [11:38 AM] Big fan of fooners
Randy [11:39 AM] Foonberg! that’s his name.
Ashley [11:39 AM] “Out of date” in that he doesn’t really understand the internet, but the principles are all still mostly correct.
Taylor [11:39 AM] He has some dated stuff in there, but the fundamentals are sound
Randy [11:39 AM] @youngcountrylawyer some of it is, but he updates it frequently
Taylor [11:39 AM] @Randy what was your bad advice?
youngcountrylawyer [11:40 AM] Elefant’s stuff is good imo too. And she blogs routinely still.
Randy [11:40 AM] it mostly had to do with how to pick clients and being really picky from the start.
Ashley [11:40 AM] I think first-hand advice is suspect. Like a lot of @youngcountrylawyer ‘s stuff wouldn’t work where I am (though he says as much). It really depends on where you are, what you’re doing specifically, etc.
A lot of it is generally applicable, but the less general it gets the more you have to consider if it would apply to you. Like all advice, of course.
youngcountrylawyer [11:41 AM] hah, like BNI. I have never seen a BNI group in my life
Taylor [11:42 AM] Yeah, you gotta play to your market
Ashley [11:42 AM] Yeah. I know they exist here, but I know they wouldn’t work for me specifically (and heard they don’t work so good here anyway unless you’re in the clique)
Randy [11:42 AM] That’s the hardest thing to figure out and it’s always changing. It goes back and forth between “I found you on the internet” to “so and so told me about you guys.”
youngcountrylawyer [11:43 AM] It seems to get easier over time, for me at least.
Taylor [11:44 AM] Here’s the single best piece of advice that I can give you: You’re going to break shit.
You can’t start a practice and know what you’re supposed to do. You’d going to screw it up. You’re going to pick bad clients, lose money on some cases, blow money on bad advertising gimmicks, and hire terrible staff. It’s going to happen.
However, don’t let that be the end of it. Do you a quick debrief: I will never make that mistake again, because I should have seen X coming. I won’t do that again.”
Being successful is more about cutting out the shit that doesn’t work than it is about finding what does.
youngcountrylawyer [11:45 AM] b/c you’ll eventually find stuff that does…
Sam [11:50 AM] Thanks everyone for your input. I appreciate it. It is a lot to think about. Law school certainly didn’t prepare me for not being able to find a job after passing the bar.
Randy [11:52 AM] preach it.
Ashley [11:57 AM] I think this opinion might be in the minority, but I’d say only go solo if it’s an active choice, rather than a lack of one. If your heart isn’t in it (and you can’t change your mind) you won’t be successful.
Randy [11:58 AM] that’s true
Taylor [11:58 AM] Could not agree more
Randy [11:58 AM] I’ve had friends try to go solo, heck even my partner would suck at it if it wasn’t for me (which sounds like I’m being full of myself).
Taylor [11:58 AM] You’re taking on two full-time jobs because you can’t find one full-time job
Ashley [11:59 AM] And neither pay shit. : )
Randy [11:59 AM] I did start out solo due to lack of options, but I really liked the idea of doing it. And did my research. And worked any odd job to keep a float.
Sam [12:01 PM] I’ve got too much invested in my multiple law degrees to continue not to practice law.
Charlie [12:02 PM] Something something sunk cost.
Denise [12:02 PM] I’m not solo (I hang out in here, I guess, by virtue of being in two very small firms) but actually practicing law is pretty fun. And when you take home 100% of the fees, it should pay pretty well.
Ashley [12:03 PM] You can work as a contract lawyer or something instead. I think it’s a fate worse than death, but I know others have successfully transitioned to employment that way.
Taylor [12:04 PM] @Denise I only take home 100% of the fees after I pay everyone else, which means I get between 75% and 8% of the fee, depending.
@Ashley I had a friend that started contract, upgraded to associate, and had his contract time counted torwards partner track. He’s now full-fledged partner.
Jon [12:08 PM] OTOH, every older lawyer I have ever worked for advised me not to get malpractice insurance. Because if I don’t have it, no malpractice plaintiff’s lawyer will want to touch me.
I ended up getting it because certain clients (my current big money client, actually), required it.
Ashley [12:10 PM] It’s an argument.
Jon [12:10 PM] I’m not saying that’s smart advice, but it’s what I was told, repeatedly.
Ashley [12:11 PM] Honestly, if you’re not ever planning on amounting to much, it’s an option. Can’t get blood from a stone.
Jon [12:11 PM] My advice: if you can afford malpractice insurance, get it. You need it to get listed by your local referral service, at minimum.
I’m pretty sure no one here is “not planning on amounting to much.” I’m not doing this for giggles.
Ashley [12:11 PM] Yeah.
Though I’ll say, I’m not carrying malpractice right now, because the policy they want to get me is claims-made and my risk profile isn’t too bad right now.
Taylor [12:12 PM] $1,000 a year is cheap to ensure that you still have a nice place to sleep if you ever get sued by a client.
Sam [12:12 PM] Yeah, I’m not interested in not amounting to much. ; )
Jon [12:13 PM] Well, mine is ~$2400, but yes.
Ashley [12:13 PM] I need to get it probably this quarter, but I’m all about low-overhead.
Taylor [12:13 PM] There’s legit cost-cutting, then craziness
Jon [12:14 PM] I’d strongly advise looking for other attorneys who need independent contractors. You won’t make as much per case, but case-flow will be solid and predictable, which lets you budget.
You won’t starve to death while you’re building your ad machine. Also, network with attorneys who do things you don’t (and who don’t do what you do).
Ashley [12:15 PM] I think I’m currently on the cusp. I’m not actually worried about liability at all (I really have almost none), but costs of defense have kept me up a night or three.
Taylor [12:15 PM] Play to your strength. If you’re a good writer, work for criminal attorneys that are in court all day and hate drafting pleadings.
Sam [12:15 PM] I know I can get work like that. I’ve been approached by attorneys who need a fluent Spanish speaking attorney for a case.
Jon [12:15 PM] I worked in litigation for years without ever stepping into a court room. I was the document drafting/research guy behind the scenes for a couple Big Name Lawyers.
Taylor [12:16 PM] @Ashley I’ve only had one case that could have seriously come back on me, but that was enough for me
Rule for the wise: Don’t ever be the second attorney on a case. Ever.
Jon [12:16 PM] And don’t be afraid to walk away from a client/work partner. If someone is abusing your time/effort/trust, *get out.*
It won’t get better.
And then one day you look up and you’ve done thousands of dollars worth of work you’re never gonna get paid for. Protect yourself. Demand flat fees/retainers up front.
If someone won’t/can’t pay you, they don’t need to be your client.
Ashley [12:18 PM] Yeah. “Fuck you, pay me” should be an unofficial motto.
Denise [12:19 PM] @Taylor the rule is never be the third attorney. Sometimes it is okay to be the second.
Jon [12:20 PM] Yes. Understand you are in the Twilight Zone. For some reason people tend not to think attorneys should be paid. Do document how your fees are computed in the engagement letter. Clients understanding what their bill will look like up front keeps them happy and filters out the ones that have no intent of paying you ever.
Taylor [12:21 PM] @Denise My nightmare case I was the 2nd attorney on. The judge couldn’t get over the fact that I was a completely other person from the prior attorney. I got personally sanctioned within 30 days of taking the case. (It didn’t survive appeal).
So that’s my rule now: If a case is already started, I’m not ever going to clean up someone else’s mess.
Ashley [12:23 PM] I think for a true solo it’s a good policy if you can afford it.
Taylor [12:23 PM] What I got paid on that case wasn’t worth the 9 months I lost sleep over a single case.
Ashley [12:23 PM] Picking up a file from someone else is seldom a good experience. Plus you really have to wonder why the client switched horses. If it was a referral for conflict or something, sure…
Charlie [12:24 PM] Par for the course in family.
Ashley [12:24 PM] Good point. Don’t do family law. : P
Taylor [12:25 PM] Or, if you do family law, know what you’re getting into.
My office mate does 100% family law, and he’s really good at it. But his default speed is to hate each and every one of his clients on a deeply personal level and to treat them all like mentally handicapped 4 year olds.
It makes him insanely effective.
Sam [12:40 PM] Alright y’all, thanks again for the advice. I’m going to go brave the storm and try to get home.
Ashley [12:40 PM] Good luck and stay safe.