I have practiced in firms of all sizes, from 700-plus attorneys to four attorneys to one. The solo practice can be particularly exciting and rewarding, albeit downright terrifying at times. It is not a practice for those with a low tolerance for stress or a weak constitution. And, in my view, it is not the optimal form of practice for a recent law school graduate.
A solo practice is difficult even for a seasoned legal veteran. No one else is responsible for bringing in business. There is no safety net. There is also no one down the hall to ask questions of or to provide ideas. Although I know lawyers do it all the time, I personally cannot imagine starting my career in that type of environment.
So, my first suggestion for recent law school graduates considering going solo is: don't. A recent graduate should find a job somewhere where he can gain experience and receive on-the-job training. By doing so, he will learn how to practice law -- something law school does not teach. Experience matters. Recent graduates should try to get some before going solo.
But in today's legal marketplace, many graduates must start out as a solo because jobs are scarce. If this is the case, do not panic. A new law graduate can make it as a solo. Many have, and many more will. With that in mind, a recent grad should keep the following tips in mind if considering going solo.
1. Keep overhead low.
Many law school graduates have in mind a picture of the ideal law firm: a receptionist to greet potential clients, hardwood floors, the latest and greatest technology available, law books on the shelves (if for nothing more than decoration), and furniture that demonstrates to clients that the lawyer has arrived. Wrong.
The ultimate priority of a new graduate opening a solo firm is survival, especially through the first six months to a year of work. The best way for a new solo to ensure failure is to spend money on unneeded overhead. For example, the solo must decide whether he needs dedicated office space or whether he can work from home. With available technology, there is not necessarily a need for a traditional office. A virtual office can provide staff to answer phones, an address for mail delivery and use of a conference room. A new solo who must have a traditional office should find an existing firm that offers a short sublease. Dealing with most office buildings directly will only lead to a long lease and unnecessary fees.
Likewise, a new solo does not necessarily need staff. Staff members cost money. Wait until a revenue stream is established or the workload is enough to justify staff. And, when a solo does get to that point, he should examine options such as part-time or contract help.
When adding to overhead, the new solo should ask one question: Do I really need this for my practice? Unless the answer is an unequivocal "yes," then don't do it.
2. Pound the pavement.
Most solos coming right out of law school are not going to have a built-in client base, but will depend almost exclusively on referrals from other lawyers. Constructing a referral network is vital.
For this reason, the new solo attorney should attend bar events, join networking groups and generally find any way to increase visibility. She should also work hard to maintain all existing contacts in the legal community and to make new ones. She should take other lawyers to lunch, get to know people and tell them about her practice. This practice has the added benefit of helping avoid the isolation that often comes with being solo.
3. Find a mentor.
Every new lawyer should have a mentor. Find someone with experience who is willing to answer questions and give advice. Good lawyers are happy to serve in this role for new attorneys. Seek someone out and ask up front if he is willing to help the practice get started.
4. Don't be afraid to be generalist.
A solo should decide what she wants to do but should not be afraid of trying something different for the experience. By learning more than one area of the law, the solo will build an experience base that is attractive to clients who want to establish a long-term relationship. Remember, repeat business keeps the lights on.
5. Maintain a balance.
One of the main problems for solos is getting away from the practice. At the beginning, a solo often feels like he is working all the time; often, he is.
Do not work all the time. Work as regular a schedule as possible. If there is no emergency to handle, stop at a set time and get away from the law. Spend time with family or friends. Read a book. Find a hobby. Exercise.
Do not spend every waking hour working on building the practice. Long hours intended to boost a solo's practice will often actually hurt it in the long run as the attorney becomes burned out. A solo must take care of himself. He is the only lawyer in the firm, and the firm needs him.
Solo practice is truly rewarding. The sense of accomplishment can be extremely high and the partner meetings extremely short. There is a benefit to both. A new law graduate can succeed as a solo; it will just take hard work, careful planning and an iron stomach.
Scott K. Field is an Austin, Texas, solo who represents individuals and entities in a wide variety of trial and appellate matters. He earned a B.A. in political science from Texas A&M University, where he graduated summa cum laude. He received his law degree from the University of Texas School of Law, where he graduated with honors and was named to the Order of the Coif.