Solo practitioners enjoy various benefits that larger firm practitioners may lack, such as complete freedom over the cases they choose and the nature of their practice. That being said, there are some downsides to becoming a solo practitioner, including reduced staffing and a lower average salary as compared to larger firm practitioners. All in all, you should weigh your options and consider becoming a solo practitioner if it is the right fit for you.
1. Why did you decide to become a solo practitioner?
After graduating from law school, I worked for a small, but high-profile firm for several years and gained a great deal of experience in a multitude of practice areas, including commercial litigation, real estate, business transactions, and hotel/hospitality law. However, I eventually decided to join a somewhat larger firm, with the expectation that I would be able to continue to practice across different legal disciplines and be given the opportunity to build a client base.
However, I quickly learned that my new firm wanted me to specialize in only one area of practice (commercial litigation), notwithstanding that I genuinely enjoyed and excelled in several practice areas, and that my clients had varied needs, which they wanted me to specifically handle. Additionally, while I was ostensibly encouraged to develop my own clients, in reality, I was given very little time to do so. Thus, I decided that the long-term value to be gained in developing my own clients outweighed the short-term financial benefits I would receive at the firm, and decided to start my own practice.
2. What is the best part of being a solo practitioner?
I love the fact that I have complete control and ownership of my matters, and can chart the course and strategy that is in the best interest of my clients.
I also enjoy the freedom that I have to take on a new client or matter, or conversely, to simply turn down a matter, for whatever reason. There are no "office politics" when you are a solo practitioner and no bureaucracy to which you are beholden. You only need to satisfy your client - and your conscience.
Additionally, and perhaps best of all, I need not feel guilty if I decide, on a rare occasion, to work from home, which is particularly helpful if you have young children, which I do.
3. What is the worst part of being a solo practitioner?
You are forced to wear many hats as a solo practitioner, and not all of which will be legal-related.
There is no help desk, word processing, imaging, or billing/accounting departments. Whatever is needed, you simply have to "role up your sleeves" and do it. For this reason, it is much more time-consuming than some may realize, and there is a great deal of non-billable time. Also, you have to be ever vigilant about generating new business, and must devote sufficient time and resources to do so effectively.
4. What is a typical day like for you as a solo practitioner?
I check my email as soon as I wake up, and regularly throughout the day. My goal is to be more responsive than other lawyers and law firms, so I make a point of responding to all my client messages as soon as possible, and always within the same day, even if just to acknowledge my receipt of the message, so the client never feels that I am neglectful or prioritizing something else. In fact, clients regularly tell me that they are amazed at my responsiveness, and I find this to be a big selling point, as it allays any concerns that they may have about hiring a smaller firm. I also give clients a reasonable expectation of when I may complete their work, so they are not overly anxious about their matters, and I regularly call my clients to update them, even when there is little to report.
I have both a litigation and transactional practice, so my days vary - I may go to court, conduct a deposition, or prepare litigation papers, or I may negotiate or prepare contracts, attend a closing, or do some or all of the above. In a typical day, I work on a number of matters, and I will, when appropriate, assign work to a paralegal, or even an "of counsel" attorney on occasion, always with the prior consent of my client and under my supervision. I almost always take some work home with me, and I tend to work quite late. I also typically go into my office for part of a day on the weekends to catch up on work or administrative tasks. For example, I recently updated portions of my website and switched business email providers, both with the assistance of third-party vendors over a weekend. Substantively, I find that I am particularly productive on weekends, as the phones are not ringing and I have a block of uninterrupted time in which to work. It doesn't make my wife happy, but she is in the industry and understands the lifestyle. I also make a point of reading the local legal newspaper every day - the New York Law Journal - to stay current on case law and newsworthy events.
5. What advice would you give to others looking to become a solo practitioner?
For most attorneys (including me), it takes several years to develop a practice, and even then, some years will be better than others. You need to be patient, persistent, and driven. If you are not a self-starter or self-motivated, then it may not be the best career move for you.
Additionally, your work flow and receivables will vary from month to month, and you have to stick to a budget and plan accordingly. If work is a little slow, use that as an opportunity to do some client development. In fact, whether or not you are busy, you should consistently set aside some time each week just for client development. Clients will come and go, even for the best lawyers. That is part of business, and you need to expect that, and plan for it. Thus, remaining social with clients and referral sources, and staying active with bar association groups and industry organizations, is critical in an effort to create and strengthen bonds that may lead to future work.
I also highly suggest sharing office space with other lawyers, as it allows you to lower your overhead while increasing referral opportunities and the exchange of ideas. Having a colleague (or colleagues) with whom you can discuss legal and non-legal issues - thereby preventing you from becoming too isolated and insular - is, in my opinion, a key to success and happiness as a solo or small firm practitioner. In my case, I share two-full floors in a midtown Manhattan office building with other lawyers, and that allows us to share resources - including multiple receptionists, staff, a law library and four (4) conference rooms - that would not otherwise be available to a small firm or solo practitioner.
And last, but not least, I suggest using technology to your advantage. It is so prevalent and available today, and is the best way to be efficient and to level the playing field against larger firms. It improves your work product and makes you more appealing to sophisticated or larger clients, who may question your capabilities. So, I wholeheartedly believe it is worth investing in technology - whether it be legal research, practice forms, or billing related.
6. Is there anything else that is important to know about you and your practice, or that you would like to add?
Currently, my clients run the gamut, from small, family-owned business, to luxury hotels and publicly traded companies. And I enjoy having a varied mix of clients, but getting to this point took a lot of hard work, dedication, and persistence.
I started my own practice just a few months before September 11th. It was the worst timing possible, as New York City literally and figuratively shut down for several months after that horrific event. Out of necessity, I did per diem work for other lawyers until some sense of normalcy resumed in New York and work began to flow again. I took whatever assignments I could just to stay afloat. And it took a while, but by the beginning of 2003, I had enough work to be completely self-sustaining and have remained so to this day (although I did form a partnership for a few years (2003-2005) with a former colleague, but went back to my own practice during2005).
Early on, a lot of my new clients were referred to me by other lawyers. And while I still receive a fair portion of referrals from other lawyers, an equal number of new clients find me from my website and online presence. So, I believe that investing in a high-quality website is a necessity and a sound business decision.
In short, I believe the sooner that young lawyers recognize the value and importance of client development, the better for their long-term prospects, whether as a solo practitioner or as an associate/partner at a firm.