My Shingle

Yes, You Can Be A Part Time Shingler

by Carolyn Elefant on December 11, 2005 · 14 comments

in Business Models, Questions & Advice, Work Life Balance

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Solo Wannabee wonders whether you can start a law practice part time.  Surprisingly, the conventional wisdom on this question is no, that solo practice demands full time commitment to make it and that client demands are full time.  But that’s not my view.  As I’ve said before, there are as many right ways to hang a shingle as there are shinglers – and a part time practice can work just fine provided you manage expectations properly.

One of the misconceptions of part time practice, and one that I made myself when I was working part time, is that part time means a twenty  or twenty five hour billable work week.  But that’s not the case.  I mean, you could just work 20 billable hours a week – but what happens when that work dries up and you’ve not been diligently marketing?

In reality, a twenty or twenty five hour work week means that you’ll be
spending at least five hours a week on networking events or other
client development (including blogging), and a few hours on
administrative tasks.  So when all is said and done, you might just be
billing 15 hours a week.  You may also have to exceed your hours some weeks or work odd hours to meet client demands.

And that’s another misconception of part time practice:  it doesn’t always seem part time.  Before my girls were in school full time and I worked a reduced schedule, I often spent several
hours putting in time on weekends or evenings to make a deadline
because I was watching my daughters during the day.  My husband and
parents wondered why I was always working, but in reality, I was merely
just making up time that I’d lost during the week.

Many times, I was also frustrated by the limitations of part time
practice.  Sometimes, I’d have to miss an interesting networking event
because I didn’t have childcare at a particular time to watch my
daughters or turn down work because it was too erratic.

But to my mind, while succeeding at a part time practice may be a bit more of challenge, the benefits are well worth the extra effort.  For example, even if you can only put in ten or fifteen billable hours a week, if you’re averaging even $100 an hour for
that time, that’s not a bad annual take for a part timer.  More importantly, in
contrast to a part time job at a law firm that reduces your schedule but has you working 35 hours a week and throws you off partnership track, when
you work part time for yourself, you build up equity in your practice
and reputation little by little.  So when and if you decide to go full
time, you’ve already laid the ground work.

  • http://objectivejustice.blogspot.com/2005/12/1-5-part-time-lawyers-politics-in.html Objective Justice

    1-5) Part-Time Lawyers, Politics In Courts, Six-Pack=10 Years, Does County=State?, and Useless Parties

    1) My Shingle informs us that it is possible to have a part-time practice. The longer I read Carolyn Elefant’s stuff the better I like her. I’d definitely take a look at it, it might give some of you with kids some ideas. I’m thinking that it might be …

  • http://objectivejustice.blogspot.com/2005/12/1-5-part-time-lawyers-politics-in.html Objective Justice

    1-5) Part-Time Lawyers, Politics In Courts, Six-Pack=10 Years, Does County=State?, and Useless Parties

    1) My Shingle informs us that it is possible to have a part-time practice. The longer I read Carolyn Elefant’s stuff the better I like her. I’d definitely take a look at it, it might give some of you with kids some ideas. I’m thinking that it might be …

  • http://www.nylawblog.typepad.com Nicole Black

    But what of other alternatives to having your own practice, such as performing contract work for others on a part-time basis? I’m in the process of trying to get that type of law “practice” off the ground right now while balancing family demands. Is it feasible in a mid-sized metroplitan area? Any advice/suggestions from others who are successful in this arena or have any sort of input would be greatly appreciated.

  • http://www.nylawblog.typepad.com Nicole Black

    But what of other alternatives to having your own practice, such as performing contract work for others on a part-time basis? I’m in the process of trying to get that type of law “practice” off the ground right now while balancing family demands. Is it feasible in a mid-sized metroplitan area? Any advice/suggestions from others who are successful in this arena or have any sort of input would be greatly appreciated.

  • http://67.225.230.212/~sh1ngl3 Carolyn Elefant

    I certainly did not mean to imply that contract work is the only option. I handled a good number of appellate matters when I was part time because they also lend themselves to a part time practice: the court establishes a fixed schedule and there are few surprises. Likewise, I continued my FERC regulatory practice because with the exception of occasional hearings, most work could be filed electronically. I even handled one or two litigation matters which was manageable.
    I think that many practice areas will work for a part time practice. For instance, you could probably manage one or two longer litigation matters, so long as there aren’t any emergency hearings or unexpected surprises. Practice areas like criminal law and family law, I think, require you to be “on call” more so unless you have back up, I would steer away from those. Wills, estate planning and ordinary corporate matters will work as well.
    In addition, if you’re part time, consider that you can make yourself available when other lawyers aren’t. For instance, if you can clear some time on weekends, why not hold office hours and attract the folks who can’t get in to see a lawyer during the week? You could do the same with a night shift.
    No doubt, a part timer will have some limitations, which as I noted, is also part of the frustration. You simply can’t expect to work 25 hours a week (with as many as 10 devoted to marketing and admin) and get the same experience or handle the same workload as an associate who’s in the office 50 hours if not more. But if the choice is cutting back to accomodate your family or other dreams in the short run, you may decide it’s worth it.

  • http://67.225.230.212/~sh1ngl3 Carolyn Elefant

    I certainly did not mean to imply that contract work is the only option. I handled a good number of appellate matters when I was part time because they also lend themselves to a part time practice: the court establishes a fixed schedule and there are few surprises. Likewise, I continued my FERC regulatory practice because with the exception of occasional hearings, most work could be filed electronically. I even handled one or two litigation matters which was manageable.
    I think that many practice areas will work for a part time practice. For instance, you could probably manage one or two longer litigation matters, so long as there aren’t any emergency hearings or unexpected surprises. Practice areas like criminal law and family law, I think, require you to be “on call” more so unless you have back up, I would steer away from those. Wills, estate planning and ordinary corporate matters will work as well.
    In addition, if you’re part time, consider that you can make yourself available when other lawyers aren’t. For instance, if you can clear some time on weekends, why not hold office hours and attract the folks who can’t get in to see a lawyer during the week? You could do the same with a night shift.
    No doubt, a part timer will have some limitations, which as I noted, is also part of the frustration. You simply can’t expect to work 25 hours a week (with as many as 10 devoted to marketing and admin) and get the same experience or handle the same workload as an associate who’s in the office 50 hours if not more. But if the choice is cutting back to accomodate your family or other dreams in the short run, you may decide it’s worth it.

  • laura slenzak

    I have been oftened quoted as saying these past nearly twenty years (yikes!) that patent work lends itself well to flexibility. “I could write a patent application sitting on a flag pole” is the exact quote. Meaning, as long as you have a place to concentrate on what you are doing, there is really no need for the traditional trappings of “an office” for performing patent “prep and pross” as it is often called.

  • laura slenzak

    I have been oftened quoted as saying these past nearly twenty years (yikes!) that patent work lends itself well to flexibility. “I could write a patent application sitting on a flag pole” is the exact quote. Meaning, as long as you have a place to concentrate on what you are doing, there is really no need for the traditional trappings of “an office” for performing patent “prep and pross” as it is often called.

  • lawmom

    I am a part-time solo practicioner in a mid-size metropolitan market. I practice from home.
    After 8 years of practice, I left my mid-size firm and stopped practicing for a year after my first child was born. That was partly because I wanted to be a stay-at-home mom, and partly because of burn-out and disillusionment with the profession.
    Then a friend who had taken an in-house position needed some assistance in my area of expertise. I was able to control my schedule so that I worked at the client’s offices while my son was at “mother’s day out”,in which he was already enrolled. I started out working just 6 hours per week. My friend left the in-house position, but I am still working for this client between 4-6 hours per week. It has been about 3 years. I also began consulting for another former client who found out I was practicing again, and I have handled a couple of litigation matters. I only do one litigation case at a time. I work less than 20 hours per week, and I have the luxury to do that thanks to my husband’s steady income. When I had my second child, I took 6 weeks off, and then hired a sitter once per week. I have a relationship with a nanny service that provides last minute care when I need it, but otherwise, my kids attend a pre-school program a couple of days per week and are with me the rest of the time. I am available for phone consultation any time, and I work during nap time, in the evenings, while the kids are at school, or other random times as needed.
    I do not market other than by keeping in touch with former collegues and letting them know I am available for some work. I set my own limits now, and again, I have the luxury to work as little or as much as I want thanks to my husband. I plan to begin marketing and taking on more work as my children get older. But I will work part time until they are grown.

  • lawmom

    I am a part-time solo practicioner in a mid-size metropolitan market. I practice from home.
    After 8 years of practice, I left my mid-size firm and stopped practicing for a year after my first child was born. That was partly because I wanted to be a stay-at-home mom, and partly because of burn-out and disillusionment with the profession.
    Then a friend who had taken an in-house position needed some assistance in my area of expertise. I was able to control my schedule so that I worked at the client’s offices while my son was at “mother’s day out”,in which he was already enrolled. I started out working just 6 hours per week. My friend left the in-house position, but I am still working for this client between 4-6 hours per week. It has been about 3 years. I also began consulting for another former client who found out I was practicing again, and I have handled a couple of litigation matters. I only do one litigation case at a time. I work less than 20 hours per week, and I have the luxury to do that thanks to my husband’s steady income. When I had my second child, I took 6 weeks off, and then hired a sitter once per week. I have a relationship with a nanny service that provides last minute care when I need it, but otherwise, my kids attend a pre-school program a couple of days per week and are with me the rest of the time. I am available for phone consultation any time, and I work during nap time, in the evenings, while the kids are at school, or other random times as needed.
    I do not market other than by keeping in touch with former collegues and letting them know I am available for some work. I set my own limits now, and again, I have the luxury to work as little or as much as I want thanks to my husband. I plan to begin marketing and taking on more work as my children get older. But I will work part time until they are grown.

  • http://www.nylawblog.typepad.com Nicole Black

    Thanks for all of the replies, (and your e-mail Ms. Elefant). It’s good to know that p/t practice can be managed.

  • http://www.nylawblog.typepad.com Nicole Black

    Thanks for all of the replies, (and your e-mail Ms. Elefant). It’s good to know that p/t practice can be managed.

  • Dave Rakowski

    Hi Carolyn:
    Don’t know if you saw this article from the NY Times on Friday, but to me its further proof (as if we needed any!) of the power of solos.
    http://www.nytimes.com/2005/12/16/business/16legal.html
    Hope all is well.
    Dave Rakowski
    Allentown, PA

  • Dave Rakowski

    Hi Carolyn:
    Don’t know if you saw this article from the NY Times on Friday, but to me its further proof (as if we needed any!) of the power of solos.
    http://www.nytimes.com/2005/12/16/business/16legal.html
    Hope all is well.
    Dave Rakowski
    Allentown, PA

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