My Shingle

Is It Ever Too Soon to Go Solo?

by Carolyn Elefant on July 26, 2005 · 10 comments

in Questions & Advice, Should I Solo?, Solo Out of Law School

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Ann Israel, a biglaw recruitment attorney who writes a column for New York Lawyer typically responds to questions about how to make partner or what’s the best law school to choose.  It’s rare that she gets a question like  this one from an attorney wondering whether he should go solo after his first year out of school.   Ms. Israel is biased against solo practice, so predictably, she advised against the move – but I was surprised to find that I don’t disagree with all of her advice.

Israel first asked the writer if he’d thought about the costs of
malpractice insurance, computer equipment and office space, which she
regards as prohibitive.  Maybe so, if you’re replicating biglaw on a
small scale, but these days, it’s not that expensive to set up the
basics of a practice and with technology, new solos can work from home
until they get their practice off the ground.

Where I do agree is Israel’s point about taking a salary for a year or
two and getting training while you’re being paid.  Though many people
do start firms right after law school and succeed, to me, the optimal
time to start is after a couple of years of work. By then, you’ve not
just had training but a chance to make contacts and acquire a
reputation in your field, both of which can help generate clients.

Israel suggests erring on the side of a steady law firm job rather than
leaping to solo practice – and that’s where I depart from her way of
thinking.  Israel makes mention of many attorneys who she knows who
went solo too early, never got their practice off the ground and could
not return to a law firm after being on their own.  Frankly, I don’t
believe that – I have always been convinced that when you go solo,
there’s always a way back to a law firm job or other permanent job
should you choose that route.  And  what Israel doesn’t mention
are all the attorneys who dreamed of going solo while they were young
but hedged, then found themselves married, supporting a family, saving
for college – in short, in a situation where it was no longer feasible
to go solo.  The regrets they have about not doing something are often
the strongest.

  • http://www.bluecollarlawyer.com David Galalis

    Carolyn,
    While it is true that working in a firm will give a new lawyer “a chance to make contacts and acquire a reputation in [their] field, both of which can help generate clients,” that is not the only way. Imagine, alternatively, the new lawyer spending his first year of solo practice aggressively soliciting contract work from dozens of different solos and small firms, on hundreds of different matters. Next, consider that in reality, the first-year associate only has face-time with his two or so immediate superiors (esp. at BigLaw), and not much time out of the office to network. Who’s universe is bigger? Who’s making more contacts, and building a bigger reputation across a broader cross-section, during that first year of private practice?

  • http://www.bluecollarlawyer.com David Galalis

    Carolyn,
    While it is true that working in a firm will give a new lawyer “a chance to make contacts and acquire a reputation in [their] field, both of which can help generate clients,” that is not the only way. Imagine, alternatively, the new lawyer spending his first year of solo practice aggressively soliciting contract work from dozens of different solos and small firms, on hundreds of different matters. Next, consider that in reality, the first-year associate only has face-time with his two or so immediate superiors (esp. at BigLaw), and not much time out of the office to network. Who’s universe is bigger? Who’s making more contacts, and building a bigger reputation across a broader cross-section, during that first year of private practice?

  • elguapo

    I agree with you. The fact of the matter is that rent, malpractice insurance, etc. are not prohibitively expensive if you shop around carefully.
    With modern technology (word-processing, voice-mail, cell phones etc.) it’s easier than ever to start a solo practice.
    And as you say, if you work for a law firm, there is a terrible danger of falling into a miserable rut. Sometimes the greatest risk in life lies in avoiding risks.

  • elguapo

    I agree with you. The fact of the matter is that rent, malpractice insurance, etc. are not prohibitively expensive if you shop around carefully.
    With modern technology (word-processing, voice-mail, cell phones etc.) it’s easier than ever to start a solo practice.
    And as you say, if you work for a law firm, there is a terrible danger of falling into a miserable rut. Sometimes the greatest risk in life lies in avoiding risks.

  • MH

    I had to start my own practice in 1995 because in my small New England city back then, we were mired in a near-depression. I have absolutely no regrets because I had no family then and I could take my time and choose clients carefully. I have a good practice now, and a small family to support, so I still have to hustle a little, but most of my work comes by referral. Two bits of advice: if you go solo, defer as much cash as you can into ROTH IRA, SEP IRA, and an annuity…these are critical to your financial future. Always fund these accounts so someday you can relax a bit. Also, if you have the stomach for it, invest in rental property. I started buying on the cheap in 1997 or so; this income subsidizes the slow times in my pratice. Being a solo is hard ass work and not for the meek, but opposing counsel in the big firms are generally miserable, as far as I can see. In my opinion, being self-employed is far less risky than being employed by someone else. I have perhaps 75 sources of income while an employee has just one. Slaves had good job security, folks.

  • MH

    I had to start my own practice in 1995 because in my small New England city back then, we were mired in a near-depression. I have absolutely no regrets because I had no family then and I could take my time and choose clients carefully. I have a good practice now, and a small family to support, so I still have to hustle a little, but most of my work comes by referral. Two bits of advice: if you go solo, defer as much cash as you can into ROTH IRA, SEP IRA, and an annuity…these are critical to your financial future. Always fund these accounts so someday you can relax a bit. Also, if you have the stomach for it, invest in rental property. I started buying on the cheap in 1997 or so; this income subsidizes the slow times in my pratice. Being a solo is hard ass work and not for the meek, but opposing counsel in the big firms are generally miserable, as far as I can see. In my opinion, being self-employed is far less risky than being employed by someone else. I have perhaps 75 sources of income while an employee has just one. Slaves had good job security, folks.

  • Ed Harper

    I am just in the process of venturing out on my own and would appreciate further suggestions that other more experienced “soloists” have. My past employment history has been with one immediate supervisor, before going in a three way partnership that is now winding down.
    Keeping overhead low is an issue but in a personal injury practice which can be quite labor intensive and the cash flow is cyclical, I have thought it would be good time to branch off into another area of law that could bring in hourly/billable income? Anyone have any thoughts on this.

  • Ed Harper

    I am just in the process of venturing out on my own and would appreciate further suggestions that other more experienced “soloists” have. My past employment history has been with one immediate supervisor, before going in a three way partnership that is now winding down.
    Keeping overhead low is an issue but in a personal injury practice which can be quite labor intensive and the cash flow is cyclical, I have thought it would be good time to branch off into another area of law that could bring in hourly/billable income? Anyone have any thoughts on this.

  • LDH

    I have been working in a small planning probate practice for about 4 months. I am confident that I’ve got enough under my belt in the way of valuable experience, however, I’m not so naive that I think I know it all. I’ve decided to go solo or in with a partner who is also lacking much experience.
    My “boss”, the 100% shareholder, is generally quite friendly to me, but is probably under the impression that I’m going to stay and ultimately take over so he can retire young and “manage” things. He also recently bought a new office space to expand both for me and another associate who intends to leave soon. We haven’t yet moved in, but he’s paying a pretty penny to put us up in better digs.
    I know business is business, but I feel as though I’m dropping a bomb on him by not giving him much time to prepare for my absence, which is worth about 20% of his practice’s income.
    Where do I draw the line between the business and moral sides of leaving a firm?
    What do I owe him (considering he gave me my first job out of school)?
    Is there an “appropriate” response I should anticipate from him?
    I’m not timid, but I’m also aware that burning bridges is a bad way to start a young career.
    Thanks.
    (name withheld just in case he’s reading)

  • LDH

    I have been working in a small planning probate practice for about 4 months. I am confident that I’ve got enough under my belt in the way of valuable experience, however, I’m not so naive that I think I know it all. I’ve decided to go solo or in with a partner who is also lacking much experience.
    My “boss”, the 100% shareholder, is generally quite friendly to me, but is probably under the impression that I’m going to stay and ultimately take over so he can retire young and “manage” things. He also recently bought a new office space to expand both for me and another associate who intends to leave soon. We haven’t yet moved in, but he’s paying a pretty penny to put us up in better digs.
    I know business is business, but I feel as though I’m dropping a bomb on him by not giving him much time to prepare for my absence, which is worth about 20% of his practice’s income.
    Where do I draw the line between the business and moral sides of leaving a firm?
    What do I owe him (considering he gave me my first job out of school)?
    Is there an “appropriate” response I should anticipate from him?
    I’m not timid, but I’m also aware that burning bridges is a bad way to start a young career.
    Thanks.
    (name withheld just in case he’s reading)

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