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Is $160,000 For A Solo Out of Law School Realistic or Rare?

by Carolyn Elefant on June 24, 2011 · 26 comments

in New Marketing Ideas, Solo Out of Law School, What Solos Earn

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This past week, this refreshingly upbeat MSNBC piece, Law Grads Going Solo and Loving It (BTW, congrats to my fellow blogging colleagues, Susan Cartier-Liebel at Solo Practice University and Aaron Street at Lawyerist for the mainstream mention) has been receiving tons of buzz in the form of tweets and social media pass-arounds but very little substantive discussion by bloggers.

I’m on vacation, so I don’t have much time for extensive comment myself – but I wanted to focus on the aspect of the article that’s generated the most controversy in the comment section. Specifically, how realistic is the experience of Damon Chetson the North Carolina solo profiled in the article who says he earned more last year (essentially, his first year of practice right out of school) than the $150,000 to $160,000 that a big law associate makes? The question is important for new lawyers for several reasons. First, these numbers are necessary to enable new solos to evaluate their prospects of success. Second, understanding the basis for these numbers is important for solos who aren’t making nearly as much. Sure, a $150,000 salary out of law school is inspiring to new lawyers and gives them hope that there’s a chance for a great life in the law even if they can’t find a job working for others. On the other hand, for the new solos struggling to get by, seeing a lawyer making $150k out of the gate can be discouraging and demoralizing – you may wonder what you’re doing wrong. So it’s important to compare apples-to-apples to see if Chetson’s situation would really work for yours.

For starters, based on my own rough calculations, and Chetson’s own discussions here, I’m fairly sure that his numbers are indeed plausible (some commenters suspected puffery). According to Chetson’s website, he charges between $2000 and $3500 for most DUIs, $1000 to $3500 for misdemeanors and felonies start at $2000 – and he says here that his website grossed him $200,000 in clients. At $2500 per case, that’s around 80 cases per year – or about seven per month. Those are completely reasonable numbers if a solo is leveraging the web.

But the big question is….can Chetson’s success be replicated by other solos? That’s not entirely clear. Here are some of the contributing facts I’ve identified.

Low Number of Lawyers Per Capita

Chetson practices in North Carolina – which has 8.2 lawyers per 10,000 residents and ranks
32 out of 50 for lawyers per capita nationally. Fewer lawyers means less competition which doesn’t guarantee success, but can improve the odds. North Carolina markets aren’t as saturated online as many urban markets like New York so generating results from the Internet is easier.

Brick & Mortar Space

Second, despite an extensive online presence, Chetson has a brick-and-mortar office behind him, which may also contribute to his business by adding credibility and making it easier to take on support staff. Personally, I think a virtual or home office is a great solution starting out. I’ve worked from one myself and I think that they’re the best solution for the early years of a practice. But I’m not convinced that a virtual or home office alone will work for the long haul for all practice areas, particularly one like criminal law or other practice areas where you need support staff or have walk in clients on a regular basis. In North Carolina, rent is cheap — but it can be very pricy in other states – and could take a bite out of newbies’ early profits.

Working Spouse & Prior Work Experience

Chetson started a firm out of law school…but he’d been in the working world ten years prior. Granted, he apparently worked in an entirely different field, and he did take out $90k in loans. However, work experience in another field can help open doors and generate contacts. In addition, a working spouse or partner can make a difference since they can cover living essentials while leaving a new solo free to invest in their practice. I’m not saying that solos who aren’t married can’t succeed- absolutely not. But certain factors make starting a firm easier or harder. Certainly, not having any debt out of law school is one such factor, as is the ability to take clients from a former firm or not having to pay health insurance or living expenses because a spouse or parent can cover them.

Internet Marketing

I think we all know that to generate big client numbers, you’ve got to advertise heavily – and these days, that means using the Internet. Chetson markets relentlessly and ruthlessly, and he uses most of the typical expert tricks. As discussed here, here, he’s got presence all over Google. I’ve also found an Avvo Pro profile ($50/month – seems to be his most extravagant technique), a Better Business Bureau listing, a Lawyers.com listing (not clear if it’s free or fee) and a completely separate bankruptcy website (so much so that there’s no connection with the crime law site). The source code for Chetson’s web site is juiced up with SEO terms, and his blog is pimped out with keywords. His website is built for conversion, with a Google call me button and forms to fill out. I’m far from a marketing expert, but I know a market-centric web presence when I see one – and Chetson’s is a classic.

Chetson is also diligent about gathering testimonials – he’s got a bunch at his site, on Avvo and Google – and by all accounts, he’s doing a pretty good job for clients. Again, it’s not clear whether Chetson’s homegrown SEO would work in crowded markets, but for his location in his part of the country, he’s decimating the field. Finally, it bears noting that Chetson’s done his SEO on his own, without professional, for-fee marketing services (though not sure about whether he uses Google ads). Paying several thousand dollars a month for SEO just starting out can also take a bite out of revenues.

Still, for all his marketing efforts, Chetson is no Joseph Rakofsky, at least from what I can tell from his online musings. Chetson refers out those cases that he can’t handle. He doesn’t advertise outside of North Carolina, where he’s licensed. He seems genuinely committed to getting great results for clients, to learning from peers and to building referral relationships. Ironically, Chetson’s success online has helped to open doors with other lawyers – he can bring them cases, and in turn, they’ll return the favor or help him with his matters.

Even so, some lawyers simply do not want to market like Chetson. Those lawyers who criticize these tactics aren’t envious or fearful of falling behind, as some of the lawyer-consultants would claim (honestly, most of those lawyers who are critical of online marketing have no use for the penny-ante cases that the Internet churns up). Rather, many of them believe, quite genuinely, that Internet advertising is tacky, cheesy and ultimately results in the wrong kinds of clients or a volume practice which is a tough way to earn a living. Even Chetson himself seems to realize that having succeeded on the low rent side, he needs to continue to build relationships with other lawyers to obtain higher-quality cases and to diversify his marketing portfolio. Whether Chetson can actually make the shift remains to be seen.

Moreover, the Internet isn’t the solution for all lawyers. Though from time to time, I’ll generate leads from my website and online presence, most of my potential clients for energy regulatory matters aren’t Googling for lawyers. Certainly, consumer law practices can benefit from Internet presence but for other practices, the nexus between blogs or websites or social media and client generation isn’t as direct.

Is the World Different?

Lawyers have always advertised in phone books, on TV and radio. What’s changed is that the Internet has made big-media tools accessible to new lawyers for pennies. The Internet may prove too potent a tool for some new lawyers (particularly one who’s made the rounds in the news lately) who forget that competence and ethics matter. And lawyers also waste the awesome power of the Internet to really educate clients about issues or to swap ideas that can move the law forward when they focus on keywords to the exclusion of any thing else. Still, despite the potential for mis-use, the Internet, used responsibly, does offer a lifeline to new lawyers who want to build a practice and provide quality legal service to clients.

However, the Internet isn’t magic. There aren’t shortcuts. And it’s not a panacea either. For every new lawyer who pulls $150,000 earnings out of a hat after law school, there are dozens of others who barely earn $15,000. Moreover, the landscape does not remain static either. Today’s lawyers have a window of opportunity to leverage the Internet, but with SEO-pro services, that window may be limited – and DYI SEO efforts may be boxed out by pay-per-click and other big-money services. That’s why lawyers can’t afford to put their eggs in one basket – something that Chetson recognizes, but other newbies might not.

So what’s your view? Is Chetson an exception – or are there lots of other new solos finding this same level of success out of the gate? Can Chetson’s success be replicated in more crowded markets, or by new solos who have $200k in loans or a worse financial situation? Can new lawyers succeed if they’re not willing to play the keyword SEO game – and how can they do so? What are you doing to build your firm? Please post your comments below.

 

  • Aaron @ Lawyerist

    One of the things I like about you, Carolyn, is your idea that when you “don’t have time to write an exhaustive post” you instead ONLY write 1,600 words…

  • Sue

    As a soon to be law grad who has planned from day one to go solo right out of the gate, this is a nice break from the usual cut bait and run posts everyone else is touting right now. I have a background in opening and running businesses, I am an older graduate (33yrs) and have real life exp to draw from. Does I think this means I am going to be rolling it in my first year? No, but my background, coupled with the stories like this makes me think I got a pretty good chance of making it. Thanks for the upswing in my day. 

  • shg

    Your analysis is deeply flawed in significant respects.  It’s not difficult to scrounge up clients by charging below market rates and taking every case that walks in the door, but there’s a reason why the rest of the market charges more.  The problem occurs when one has to actually fulfill the representation part of the deal.  This is the part they, and their social media consultants know and care nothing about.  Who cares about clients when there are profits to be made!

    Doing low fee, high volume work, a lawyer has two choices: Either sell out your client when you run out of time, or neglect those clients whose fees you’ve already taken when an earlier case demands attention.  Even assuming your guesstimates to be accurate, no one can try 80 cases a year. Or 40. Or 20. Or 10. At least not if one has done the necessary work to properly prepare.

    Of course, the new lawyers (think Rakofsky) is unlikely to be capable of trying any cases until he’s got some experience under his belt. making it all the more likely that the business model is take in low fees and then find a way to plead out the case as quickly as possible. This is, sadly, commonplace in North Carolina (see Amy Bach’s book, Ordinary Injustice).

    So can a new solo make that kind of money? Sure. He just can’t do som as an attorney, but rather only by being a self-promoting hack who cares nothing for the lives ruined in the process of being a Solo Practice University hero.  It’s far easier to market as a lawyer than to be a lawyer.  If you don’t mind destroying the lives of the people you’re pretending to helping, then it can work.

    The worst part of it is that the young lawyers who engage in this sort of marketing haven’t got a clue that they are hurting people in the process, as they don’t know what good lawyering is. They are enthralled with their worthiness and success, and believe that they have found the magic bullet of lawyering.  Some are so blind that they are proud of themselves for being a blight on the legal system and a disgrace to the profession.  But with the love and support of social media marketing consultants, they can pretend that they’re wonderful lawyers and brilliant entrepreneurs.

    So what if innocent people are sacrified on the alter of their solo marketing success.

  • http://www.constitutionaldaily.com bl1y

    Are you suggesting that 4 days is not enough time to get a client, do a thorough investigation of the facts and law (including depositions), argue all relevant motions, and ultimately dispose of a case?

  • shg

    Yeah, I’m crazy that way.

  • Marc

    Now, I will say that personally, I have done many things wrong and that I was hobbled by the fact I was still working – an necessary evil for long term financial reasons.  However, I would answer your question “yes”. 

    That is, I would say it is both realistic . . . and rare.  Like you have noted in your post, Mr. Chetson is quite consistent with his marketing and focus . . . something that I was not in my first year.  Since I have become focused on my two areas of interest, the calls have increased, as has my revenue.  I have increased my client base by 200% in one of my practice areas in the last three months alone and I am slowly making inroads in the other practice area.  And I earned more in the first six months of this year than all of last year – and I am on track to almost equal that in my third quarter (I am in my third quarter already)..

    But I agree that Mr. Chetson is a rare bird.  As evidenced by my experience, even if you have a plan and expertise that translates well, you are not guaranteed success.

    Marc

  • http://www.constitutionaldaily.com bl1y

     At least you didn’t abuse the term “leverage.”

  • Carolyn ELEFANT

    I posted more on economic viability — like you I don’t think it’s a good way to do business. Also I was thinking that this guy was referring some of the work or had an associate to help as the website indicates. Also this could work for trusts and estates or uncontested divorce but not CDL. Because 8 cases a month is way too much to investigate and resolve without help

    At the same time, there seems to be a need for low cost service. This guy is filling a void and because his marketing is cheap the volume is a bit more viable. What is the solution to clients who don’t have cash? More PD funding I imagine or taking out loans. But what if people can’t pay? Is this model lesser of 2 evils or inherently bad? I am not CDL so I can’t say. We’ve seen what happens when puffery goes too far in murder case but is example of the worst but is there middle ground?

    I will update post later

  • http://www.scarolinabankruptcylaw.com TLO

    Your post is about as judgmental as anything I’ve ever seen one lawyer write about another without really knowing the first thing about the guy.

    All lawyers understand that new lawyers have to work hard to provide adequate representations. But to act as if this man is a predator simply for marketing online successfully is downright reckless because your premise, that new lawyers skin clients by taking money in exchange for substandard representations, is completely misguided.

    Don’t misunderstand me. I’m in no way suggesting this man is equal to a criminal lawyer with ten years under his belt. Of course he isn’t. The question is, does he offer a valuable service relative to competing services on the market. A guy with ten years behind him isn’t interested in taking an at-bat for 1300 bucks to defend a guy busted driving with a suspended license. A guy with ten years won’t lick a stamp for that amount. The ten year guy is going to be taking on clients able to pay more because they need him more.

    Do traffic stop defendants really need the services of a criminal lawyer with 10-20 years of experience? NO. Even if they did, are they in a position to pay for that lawyer’s time? Nope. And you know it.

    So what are these small market consumers to do? Go without counsel altogether? Rely on a public defender? If the criticism is that this guy is taking more cases than he could possibly try, nobody disagrees. But what about the public defender? At any moment a public defender is likely to have thirty to forty times the number of cases he could try in a year, and probalby five to ten times the number of files on his desk that any solo or small firm criminal lawyer is going to have.

    Seriously, are you this certain that you are god’s gift to ethics? Would you turn down a 30,000 dollar retainer because you had ‘too many files’ already? No you wouldn’t, even if that meant having too many cases you could try at one time.

    The old networks are withering fast. There are new players streamlining the practice of law, especially for mass consumer oriented  practices: like criminal law. Get with it or fade away. But don’t come in here bashing a man who shows all the benchmarks of organization, resourcefulness,  efficiency and dedication that typify a good lawyer and a good practice.

    Give the new kids on the block a chance before you bash those of us who prefer earning a living with the degrees that we’ve earned to selling cars, serving drinks, or working for another megalomaniac practicing dinosaur law.

  • http://www.scarolinabankruptcylaw.com TLO

    Your post is about as judgmental as anything I’ve ever seen one lawyer write about another without really knowing the first thing about the guy.

    All lawyers understand that new lawyers have to work hard to provide adequate representations. But to act as if this man is a predator simply for marketing online successfully is downright reckless because your premise, that new lawyers skin clients by taking money in exchange for substandard representations, is completely misguided.

    Don’t misunderstand me. I’m in no way suggesting this man is equal to a criminal lawyer with ten years under his belt. Of course he isn’t. The question is, does he offer a valuable service relative to competing services on the market. A guy with ten years behind him isn’t interested in taking an at-bat for 1300 bucks to defend a guy busted driving with a suspended license. A guy with ten years won’t lick a stamp for that amount. The ten year guy is going to be taking on clients able to pay more because they need him more.

    Do traffic stop defendants really need the services of a criminal lawyer with 10-20 years of experience? NO. Even if they did, are they in a position to pay for that lawyer’s time? Nope. And you know it.

    So what are these small market consumers to do? Go without counsel altogether? Rely on a public defender? If the criticism is that this guy is taking more cases than he could possibly try, nobody disagrees. But what about the public defender? At any moment a public defender is likely to have thirty to forty times the number of cases he could try in a year, and probalby five to ten times the number of files on his desk that any solo or small firm criminal lawyer is going to have.

    Seriously, are you this certain that you are god’s gift to ethics? Would you turn down a 30,000 dollar retainer because you had ‘too many files’ already? No you wouldn’t, even if that meant having too many cases you could try at one time.

    The old networks are withering fast. There are new players streamlining the practice of law, especially for mass consumer oriented  practices: like criminal law. Get with it or fade away. But don’t come in here bashing a man who shows all the benchmarks of organization, resourcefulness,  efficiency and dedication that typify a good lawyer and a good practice.

    Give the new kids on the block a chance before you bash those of us who prefer earning a living with the degrees that we’ve earned to selling cars, serving drinks, or working for another megalomaniac practicing dinosaur law.

  • Susan Gainen

    Having counseled or observed almost 4000 students and graduates during 17 years in career services, I suspect that Chetson’s success would have been rare in the past, but will become slightly more common in the future because the road to solo practice is beginning to have a public map and because entrepreneurship is part of the landscape today. 

    In my admittedly limited (1 law school) experience, few students come to law school expecting and planning to be solos. Without the excellent clinic programs and opportunities to do pro bono work , there would have been no prep or support for solo practice whatsoever. Even the notion of law as a business has only been part of public discourse since 1979, with the first publication of The American Lawyer magazine, which only addresses BigLaw. Thankfully, Sam Glover and Aaron Street at lawyerist.com have filled the small-and-solo gap for students who are aware of and interested in that option today.

  • http://twitter.com/BruceGodfrey Bruce Godfrey

    I am respectfully skeptical of the fees quoted for DUI work, though I am not licensed in NC.  In Maryland, an admittedly lawyer-rich state, most experienced practitioners charge roughly $1500-2500 for a first-time DWI; by experienced I mean well over ten years’ specifically criminal experience.  NC is a tough place on motorists, I hear, but averaging $2,800.00 per DWI as a rookie is sort of like hearing that a Big Mac cost $13.50: it’s conceivable but you’d want to see the receipt.

  • http://twitter.com/mikewhelanjr Mike Whelan

    I’ll be opening a divorce law firm in an Austin suburb in November and need help with setting some financial benchmarks. I have worked for the last two years at a firm that does mostly divorces so I have some substantive experience, but that firm is run very differently than I will run mine. So, with tiered flat fees and relatively small divorces (though not only uncontested), can I reach my 2012 goal of $100k gross? If so, I can net more than my current job offer and keep my wife on board with this whole solo plan. I believe I can do it, but finding numbers to define my market and goals is impossible.

  • Attorneydavid

    He’s getting decent fees. 95% of criminal law is pleas anyway. It’s not like he’s doing 80 trials a year. With a secretary and if he doens’t call on a large number of courthouses it shouldn’t be a stretch.

    I really suspect this guy is running the docket. I don’t think there’s nearly as much business online as online marketers say.

  • MattDev

    Question for the group – I’ve read in several blogs / articles that the profit margin in “most” law firms is between 30% – 40% of gross billables.

    Do y’all find that to be the case as well? Having never run a law office, I’m only speculating here but I suppose that leveraging technology can help to increase that margin.

  • Solo22

    Thank you for your fantastic blog and this excellent article.  In my view, the bottom line is this:  its all individual.  Being a solo comes down to YOU.  It doesn’t matter what other solos say, do, think, feel.  It doesn’t matter if thousands of people try this every year and fail miserably.  If you’ve got it, you’ve got it.  And some people – like Mr. Chetson – apparently have it. 

  • http://coloradobankruptcyguide.com/ mullison

    I’m one year in to my practice.  Things are going fine and moving on an upward trajectory.  Fortunately, I have a supportive wife.  I’m discovering my biggest weakness is networking.  Blogging?  I could do that all day.

  • Troy Pickard

    It’s completely absurd for you to say that “no one can try” 40, 20, or even 10 cases a year. What planet are you on?

    First of all, the vast majority of case, criminal or otherwise, should and will settle. Second, even if you’re talking about cases that actually go to trial, why couldn’t you represent clients in 20 trials a year? That’s less than two a month. Sure, you can’t do 20 murder trials a year, but you can do 20 DUI/assault/resisting arrest/theft trials a year.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/TTYLMXEJDKWWIHWQ6DVWO4HHL4 Jones

    I think that 8 lawyers per 10,000 residents is not enough for all the incidents that happens in NC

  • Clelia Fry

    If your legal work is as sloppy as this post, I’d hire Chetson over you any day of the week. It is important for your on-screen presence to use all the tools available to you, including spell-check, and to carefully re-read and edit your posts and replies before posting them. A reply such as this one is as notable for its complete lack of care as it is for its vitriol, and neither carelessness nor vitriol is likely to attract new clients or peer referrals. Be careful what you post online – it might come back to bite you in the, er, tail.

  • LegalEagle

    To borrow a favorite answer in our line of work “it all depends.”     In my own experience, I did not make 6 figures in any one of the first 5 years of my solo practice, despite the legal know-how (legal work experience plus top grades from a top tier law school), an internet presence and a steady trickle of clients.    However, I forged strong client relationships, ate dinner with my family most nights and very slowly and steadily built a practice with a larger client base and revenue each successive year.   

    The blog touches on a few significant factors for a new solo, as do other posters.  The regional variables (competition, cost of commercial space) are huge but let me throw a few other significant factors out there:   1) Amount of debt one wants to incur (the difference between growing slowly in a tight budget or building a practice quickly with borrowed funds for staff, advertising, rent, etc.)  &  2) Collection approach (the difference between dropping /declining cases because a client lacks money or willingly representing clients who need more services than they can realistically buy). 

    I appreciate the line “For every new lawyer who pulls $150,000 earnings out of a hat after law
    school, there are dozens of others who barely earn $15,000.”  though I have never polled new attorneys on salary I suspect the real figures would lend credence to the sentence.     In many ways, our profession mirrors other industries — a lot of new businesses struggle in the formative years, despite a great product/service and hard work.  Some have incredible out-of-the-gate success but more often than not the turtle wins the race. 

  • LegalEagle

     All depends on what KIND of cases.   Though most cases settle adequately prepping & litigating 40 “average” cases  per year would require an incredible efficiency and support staff or else a terrifyingly poor work product.   Sure, 90% of civil cases settle, but most require discovery, motions, hearings, etc. before reaching that point.  I don’t handle criminal pleas but LITIGATING 40 active cases per year?  In my jurisdiction and area of practice?   No way. 

  • http://www.rainmakervt.com Mike O’Horo

    Here’s a link to free networking training: http://www.rainmakervtsales.com/rainmakervt.php
    Good luck.

  • http://www.rainmakervt.com Mike O’Horo

    It’s hard to find reliable info re: solos’ earning power. Here’s 2010 data from the CO Bar Assn:
    25th %ile: $50,000
    Median:      $85,000
    75th %ile:   $143,500
    95th %ile:   $250,400

    For OH (2009):
    25th %ile:   $39,000Median:      $70,00075th %ile:   $100,00095th %ile:   $200,000

  • legaleagle

    Yes “it all depends.” I am a solo in a mid-atlantic state who after several years started mentoring other (newer) solos. What I’ve found: many bright, diligent and dedicated attorneys do not make anything approaching a 6 figure income in the first 3-5 years of practice, much less in their first year. In many respects it is not different than other industries – there are a few shooting stars, the first years can be the toughest and generally either the business takes off or it tanks after 3-5 years.

    A few do financially well before the 3 year mark (often in specialized fields where the attorney has strong industry knowledge before law school) but most I’ve seen do not. That is not statistically significant but you’ll be hard pressed to find solid figures from a reputable source. My law school for years reported incomes that didn’t match what I saw in practice. I think one reason for this is that the stats largely rely on voluntary reporting. The folks netting $15,000 their first year or two out might be too ashamed to report it if they feel (wrongly) that “everyone else” is pulling in 6 figures.

    It often takes a lot of time, persistence and slow plodding to generate the client base sufficient to cover overhead not to mention the probono / lowbono / non-paying or slow paying clients (including the cousin who just needs a “little help,” the existing client who one strategically might want to keep, the case in a new area one needs to largely work off the books to learn a bit more, etc., etc.) As far as questions of overhead, that depends: if you’re creative, bypass a high rent district, don’t always need the latest & greatest gadget, software, etc. 30% overhead is realistic. Otherwise, overhead will probably creep up to 40-50% for a solo. It does drop dramatically if you can team up. For instance a two attorney practice doesn’t need two copiers, two full-priced accounting packages, two sets of form books/CDs, two websites, two premise liability policies, etc., etc.

    One’s aggressiveness, reasons for practice (is the attorney more motivated by a desire to “help” or a desire to earn money?), capital to invest and areas of interest all play into the mix. In many ways, it all goes back to some very wise and ancient counsel: “cast but a glance at riches for they fly away…” In other words, don’t chase the money. Do what you are suited to do to the best of your ability and most of the time you’ll eventually earn enough to pay your bills.

  • http://www.rainmakervt.com Mike O’Horo

    Great observations, “eagle.” One way to reduce overhead is via one of the SaaS-based virtual law office services that are beginning to proliferate. For a single monthly fee, they provide all the back-office infrastructure, so you can invest in business development instead of depreciating equipment, etc.

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