I was in my seventh year of practice and suffering from a classic case of burnout when I convinced myself that I would be happier at a small firm. I daydreamed about setting the litigation strategy for all of my cases without worrying about my decisions being overruled by the BigLaw bureaucracy. So, I paid off my law school debt and left one of the largest law firms in the world to join a law firm that employed exactly two people. But I soon learned that the world of small firms and solo practitioners was not what I thought it would be.
I used my own hard-learned lessons from small firm life, as well as the advice I received from colleagues who started their own firms, to compile a list of do’s and don’ts for anyone who is thinking about going solo.
- Don’t underestimate the value of legal support personnel
Do you know how to file documents with the court? Or how to format your legal documents exactly according to your court’s local rules? Or how to bates-stamp documents or redact confidential material? If your answer is “no” or “I hate that stuff,” then you may want to think twice about starting your own firm.
After I left BigLaw (and an amazing team of legal support personnel), I quickly discovered that proof-reading, cite-checking, formatting, and filing legal briefs on PACER or with your local state court is a ton of work. It can take hours to finalize and file a simple motion. Don’t get me started on how long it takes to file a brief with copious exhibits or text that needs to be redacted or filed under seal. And going through discovery (collecting documents, bates-stamping, redacting, etc.) without a dedicated legal support team is, frankly, terrible.
So, if you want to go solo, be prepared to do all of those tasks entirely by yourself — or hire a fantastic administrative assistant or paralegal to help you.
2. Be prepared to work hard — very hard
Big law firms have armies of people that handle all aspects of a successful practice: people who promote the firm to bring in business, people in charge of billing and collections so that the firm actually gets paid, people in charge of office management and IT infrastructure so that the firm has working computers, Internet, and everything else needed to practice law in the 21st century, legal support personnel to handle time-consuming administrative tasks (see No. 1 above) and, of course, the attorneys doing the actual billable work. When you hang out a shingle, you have one person to do all of that.
That observation may sound obvious, but when I joined a small firm, I was floored by how much time we spent on tasks besides practicing law. And since practicing law is already time-consuming, adding business development and generating invoices creates a very long to-do list.
3. Don’t get burned out
While you will need to work hard to succeed as a solo practitioner or small firm attorney, you still need to eat, sleep, and stay sane. But when you work for yourself, work can easily take over your life. There is no one to cover for you when you are sick, no office policy on holidays or vacation days, and no clear separation between your work life and your home life. Also, when you work for yourself, there is a strong financial incentive to work all the time, as every dollar that the firm gets is money in your pocket. Under those circumstances, it can be easy to fall into a pattern where you are working all the time. However, over-extending and exhausting yourself is a recipe for burnout–and also increases the risk of mistakes and possible malpractice. Be sure to take care of yourself so that you stay sharp and motivated.
4. Get a mentor
One of the best aspects of working in a law firm is that you have colleagues that you can speak to about problems in your cases. You can grab lunch with a fellow associate and bounce ideas off of them. You can pick the brain of a partner at your firm and hear their thoughts on a particular judge or case strategy. Your firm also provides a built-in audience that you can use to moot an important hearing. All of that goes away when you start your own practice.
You need a replacement for that support structure, which is why you need a mentor. Find an attorney that you can talk to on a regular basis about any thorny issues in your practice. The best mentor has more experience than you, but just talking to another attorney can help provide the clarity and perspective you need to figure out a solution to a problem.
5. Don’t be an island
As a natural introvert, I hate to say this, but you cannot practice law completely by yourself. Even if you have a solo practice, you need to network with other attorneys. Networking leads to referrals, which leads to clients and income. Many attorneys find friendships (and referrals) by going to conferences or joining a local bar association. Or if you (like me) have trouble making small talk at a cocktail party full of attorneys, get involved in pro bono work. I made several friends and received a number of referrals by volunteering alongside other attorneys for a cause I cared about.
6. Your credibility is everything
For better or worse, having the power and prestige of a big firm behind you can help you look more credible in the courtroom. But when you hang out a shingle or work for a small firm, your credibility rests entirely on the quality of your legal representation. You may find (as I did) that your legal arguments are subject to greater scrutiny and skepticism by the courts and opposing counsel when you strike out on your own. Without a big law firm brand behind you, you need to take great care to build and maintain your credibility. A judge or opposing counsel might be willing to give an attorney from a top firm the benefit of the doubt, but a small firm attorney rarely gets that benefit. If you are thinking about rushing through your legal research or filing a less-than-stellar brief with the court, think again. Although you may find that you are pressed for time and resources (see above), you need to triple-check your briefs for miscited cases, flawed arguments, and other landmines. Once your credibility is lost with a judge, it is almost impossible to gain back.
7. Don’t buy things you don’t need
Watching what you spend is sound life advice, but you need to be especially careful about money when you are starting your own firm. If no new clients walk through the door, or if a case settles for far less than expected, or if a client simply refuses to pay you, you don’t want to be unable to pay your rent.
To protect yourself against the lean times, make sure that you are only buying what you actually need to practice law. For example, to save on rent, consider an inexpensive office-sharing arrangement, or work from home and meet clients at their offices. And instead of shelling out thousands of dollars a year for a Westlaw or Lexis subscription, take advantage of free and affordable legal resources. One great list of those resources can be found here: https://casetext.com/lexis-westlaw-guide/