My Shingle

Solo Practice May Be “S**tlaw.” But It Happens.

by Carolyn Elefant on January 1, 2010 · 20 comments

in MyShingle Solo, Should I Solo?

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[Update - January 2, 2010 - I have edited the nasty language from my post in response to one of the commenters.  I've been responding to posts like the one at BigDebt for years now and nothing seems to make a dent, so I thought that by using offensive language, I might get the attention of those who read these sites to make them realize that we solos are neither idiots nor delusional.  We understand the realities of solo practice -- the hard work, the financial struggles and the disdain of other lawyers.   But we do it anyway because we choose to practice law.  (That's why I called my book Solo by Choice).  My use of foul language, even as a device to attract the basher crowd was a mistake, for I owe them no favors or loyalty.  Rather, my first obligation is to treat with respect my present readers and those who are committed to starting a practice or willing to consider it seriously.  Plus, I'm a serious blogger, not a hack like the bashers.  So I apologize for my mis-step and am correcting the post.  For those offended, I hope you'll feel comfortable coming back here again].

So, the guy who writes Big Debt, Small Law has yet another post bashing solo practice.  And not surprisingly, many commenters at Above the Law, which picked up the post, agree.

Guess what? I do too.  Solo practice can be pretty nasty [BigDebt refers to it repeatedly as "s**t law" and per my edits, I won't repeat that phrase here again] Solos and small firms routinely encounter clients who don’t pay their bills.  Who have phantom documents that will prove millions in damages that oh, shucks, are locked up in storage and the client lost the key.  Who promise to send you dozens of referrals if you’ll just do them the favor of cutting your rates to nothing for this particular matter.  Who ask for free advice on phone calls then use it to fill out pro se forms on their own.  Who gripe about paying a consultation fee that costs the equivalent of a nice manicure.  If you’re a solo, you know the drill.

If anything, the Big Debt, Small Law post doesn’t go far enough.  The post doesn’t talk about how very hard the practice of law can be.  No mention of big law firms who poach your clients by undercutting their rates or promising utterly unrealistic results.  Nasty, unreasonable opposing counsel who set motions hearings when they know you’ll be on vacation and refuse to cut you any slack in granting  extensions. Judges who show up late or lecture you in front of your clients.  Grievance committees that want you to file copies of every blog post because they don’t view blogging any differently from a Yellow Pages ad.  Ad infinitum, as we say in legal parlance.

I don’t post much about the pitfalls of solo practice, nor do many of my blogging solo colleagues because frankly, they’re nothing new.  Few lawyers march lockstep into solo practice without an extensive understanding of the obstacles they’ll face, courtesy of  law school and other lawyers who drum that message into their heads.  Indeed, that’s the very reason that I started MyShingle seven years ago:  to dispel the prevailing image of the solo as a hapless, bumbling loser.

Still, I’ll agree with Big Debt, Small Law, that for those who graduated from law school with big debt and big delusions of working at biglaw, solo practice is the worst possible option if only because it’s not even close to what they imagined.   So what?  Life comes with all kinds of unsavory tasks.   My beloved daughters came with two years worth of diaper duty a piece and I clean up after my puppy three times a day.  But I wouldn’t ever trade my dog or my girls to avoid the mess.

If you don’t want to put up with the hard and sometimes desperate work of getting a law firm off the ground, then do what Big Debt, Small Law advises: run as fast and as far as you can from the law.   But if you’re committed to practicing law — not because you want to be an entrepreneur or earn gobs of money or work a four hour work week — but because you still believe, as I still do, that you can make a difference, then roll up your sleeves and dive in.   And remember that if you’re willing to put up with all of the garbage that comes with solo practice, you just might find that something wonderful might eventually bloom in its place.

  • Kelly

    I read this post, because you told me not too. I’m sure that was the point. Here’s another point about sh+t: Farmers consider sh+t to be fertilizer. Fertilizer helps the seed grow into a plant. Fertilize the plant and it becomes stronger than without fertilizer. We live in a world where bad things happen to good people. Sh+t makes the good people stronger over time. It doesn’t smell good, and often sticks to my shoes following me around until I notice and do something about it. I wouldn’t give up the sh+t in my life because I wouldn’t grow to be strong. It also makes me appreciate the clear fresh air when I’ve learned my sh+tty lessons.

  • Kelly

    I read this post, because you told me not too. I’m sure that was the point. Here’s another point about sh+t: Farmers consider sh+t to be fertilizer. Fertilizer helps the seed grow into a plant. Fertilize the plant and it becomes stronger than without fertilizer. We live in a world where bad things happen to good people. Sh+t makes the good people stronger over time. It doesn’t smell good, and often sticks to my shoes following me around until I notice and do something about it. I wouldn’t give up the sh+t in my life because I wouldn’t grow to be strong. It also makes me appreciate the clear fresh air when I’ve learned my sh+tty lessons.

  • http://www.lloydcohen.com Lloyd Cohen

    Carolyn,
    Thou I agree with your comment, I need to say that “Solo practice is shitlaw” must be uttered by those who think that getting the highest SAT score, class rank or bar admittance result is all there is to practice. Big Law denigrates the entrepreneurial aspects of the practice and the street-smarts needed to survive until they find themselves needing to make a living by actually proving a service to real people.
    Lloyd D. Cohen, Attorney at Law, Columbus, Ohio, http://www.lloydcohen.com

  • http://www.lloydcohen.com Lloyd Cohen

    Carolyn,
    Thou I agree with your comment, I need to say that “Solo practice is shitlaw” must be uttered by those who think that getting the highest SAT score, class rank or bar admittance result is all there is to practice. Big Law denigrates the entrepreneurial aspects of the practice and the street-smarts needed to survive until they find themselves needing to make a living by actually proving a service to real people.
    Lloyd D. Cohen, Attorney at Law, Columbus, Ohio, http://www.lloydcohen.com

  • http://www.ramcharanlaw.com RE Ramcharan

    Let me ask a serious question. I understand the point you’re making here, but is it really, really necessary to use unredacted profanity in a blog nominally devoted to improving (as opposed to coarsening) the practice of law?
    Not that it makes any difference, but I’m disappointed.

  • http://www.ramcharanlaw.com RE Ramcharan

    Let me ask a serious question. I understand the point you’re making here, but is it really, really necessary to use unredacted profanity in a blog nominally devoted to improving (as opposed to coarsening) the practice of law?
    Not that it makes any difference, but I’m disappointed.

  • http://www/gaiben.com Norman Solberg

    Carolyn, you should also note that you, I and many other solos have worked in large law firms and we have personal knowledge of their strengths and weaknesses. It’s not all about the quality of solos, which is often very high. There are many ways in which solos can provide better service to clients than big firms can. I have numerous examples, as I am sure you do.

  • http://www.richerlaw.com Stephanie A. Richer

    Carolyn,
    First of all, I am a native Noo Yawker who would never overlook the efficiency of a well-timed profanity. Sometimes, ya gotta get their attention.
    I am newly starting out in a solo practice and I think it is great. I have been in family law here in California for the past 7 years and most family law attorneys are in solo practice. I am not going to worry about ever making it to the American Academy of Matrimonial Laywers because I want to ENJOY my practice of law and I do not want it to come at the expense of my family (yeah, even the dogs). Oh yeah, and I want to help people. I know. Perish the thought . . .

  • http://www.richerlaw.com Stephanie A. Richer

    Carolyn,
    First of all, I am a native Noo Yawker who would never overlook the efficiency of a well-timed profanity. Sometimes, ya gotta get their attention.
    I am newly starting out in a solo practice and I think it is great. I have been in family law here in California for the past 7 years and most family law attorneys are in solo practice. I am not going to worry about ever making it to the American Academy of Matrimonial Laywers because I want to ENJOY my practice of law and I do not want it to come at the expense of my family (yeah, even the dogs). Oh yeah, and I want to help people. I know. Perish the thought . . .

  • http://www.brucegodfrey.com Bruce Godfrey

    Well the folks over at Tom the Temp and his pals haven’t changed since I was doing DC German document review a while ago….
    I suspect that the problems that the severest cynics describe may be specific to New York City. The market for solos in Maryland is, I suspect, a lot more forgiving. Then again, Maryland’s legal culture generally is a lot less “big-law”-ish. In Baltimore, a firm with 30 lawyers is large, etc.
    I feel fortunate that in the 20 years since I started investigating law school, the desire to be a big-firm lawyer never possessed me, not once. Even when I was doing it, I never “went native” in terms of what I wanted to do.

  • http://www.brucegodfrey.com Bruce Godfrey

    Well the folks over at Tom the Temp and his pals haven’t changed since I was doing DC German document review a while ago….
    I suspect that the problems that the severest cynics describe may be specific to New York City. The market for solos in Maryland is, I suspect, a lot more forgiving. Then again, Maryland’s legal culture generally is a lot less “big-law”-ish. In Baltimore, a firm with 30 lawyers is large, etc.
    I feel fortunate that in the 20 years since I started investigating law school, the desire to be a big-firm lawyer never possessed me, not once. Even when I was doing it, I never “went native” in terms of what I wanted to do.

  • Anonymous Frustrated Lawyer

    “I don’t post much about the pitfalls of solo practice”
    This takes away from your credibility.

  • Anonymous Frustrated Lawyer

    “I don’t post much about the pitfalls of solo practice”
    This takes away from your credibility.

  • http://67.225.230.212/~sh1ngl3 Carolyn Elefant

    For the record, I do post occasionally on the down sides of solo practice or solos who have failed, most recently here:
    http://67.225.230.212/~sh1ngl3/2009/08/articles/biglaw-practice-and-issues/why-does-the-trade-press-focus-on-biglaw-attorneys-turned-solo-who-dont-succeed/
    And if you check myarchives, you’ll see all kinds of stories of solos gone bad in the ethics section.
    But honestly, I think that most solos hear the negatives from other lawyers already. I consider my blog an antidote to all of the naysayers.

  • http://67.225.230.212/~sh1ngl3 Carolyn Elefant

    For the record, I do post occasionally on the down sides of solo practice or solos who have failed, most recently here:
    http://67.225.230.212/~sh1ngl3/2009/08/articles/biglaw-practice-and-issues/why-does-the-trade-press-focus-on-biglaw-attorneys-turned-solo-who-dont-succeed/
    And if you check myarchives, you’ll see all kinds of stories of solos gone bad in the ethics section.
    But honestly, I think that most solos hear the negatives from other lawyers already. I consider my blog an antidote to all of the naysayers.

  • http://www.taxgirl.com Kelly Phillips Erb

    Carolyn,
    Great response to the initial piece. And as the sister of two Navy boys, your swearing doesn’t bother me in the least.
    I’ve been solo/small firm for 10 years now. I wouldn’t change it for the world.
    As for all of those folks who like to disparage the notion of small firms as leading to nothing, I suspect Misters Akin, Dechert, Skadden, etc. all started somewhere.

  • http://www.taxgirl.com Kelly Phillips Erb

    Carolyn,
    Great response to the initial piece. And as the sister of two Navy boys, your swearing doesn’t bother me in the least.
    I’ve been solo/small firm for 10 years now. I wouldn’t change it for the world.
    As for all of those folks who like to disparage the notion of small firms as leading to nothing, I suspect Misters Akin, Dechert, Skadden, etc. all started somewhere.

  • http://www.aalawfirm.com/ Andy Arnold

    I started out with a large labor firm and quickly grew tired of the bureaucratic systems of management and litigation. So, after two years, I went solo. And although I have had a couple of partners at various times, I have been mostly solo for the last 15 years. I make plenty of money, have lots of freedom, am completely independent and enjoy the practice of law most of the time. Honestly, I would not get into a pissing contest with a malcontent, who is obviously has failed at law and life. Love the blog, profanity and all. Keep up the good work.

  • http://www.aalawfirm.com/ Andy Arnold

    I started out with a large labor firm and quickly grew tired of the bureaucratic systems of management and litigation. So, after two years, I went solo. And although I have had a couple of partners at various times, I have been mostly solo for the last 15 years. I make plenty of money, have lots of freedom, am completely independent and enjoy the practice of law most of the time. Honestly, I would not get into a pissing contest with a malcontent, who is obviously has failed at law and life. Love the blog, profanity and all. Keep up the good work.

  • Guest1

    I agree except for one point. You can make lots of money in solo and small firm practice. The richest lawyers are top contingency plaintiff’s lawyers who can make much more than biglaw partners. Other boutique small practices can also make a lot. It comes down to how good a businessperson and how good a lawyer you are.

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