The following is a guest post by Carl, a New Jersey Divorce Attorney who six months ago hung a shingle.
Perhaps some of you remember my guest post on “the first week of going solo.” It’s hard to believe I wrote that only six months ago. At the time, Carolyn suggested that perhaps I could check back every six months or so with a new guest post to discuss the different stages of going solo. I thought that was an excellent idea, so here I am to write about the second phase of starting a law firm: the first six months. I’ve decided to list a few of the things I’ve learned in the first six months of my solo practice. I hope this helps anyone else who has recently gone solo or who is considering going solo.
Mindset: Remember Business Is Cyclical
Anyone who has ever worked in retail knows that every customer in the store will come to the line at the same time. The same thing seems to be true with running a small business. There might be two weeks where you don’t attract one single new client. Then on Monday of the third week you might get five different calls for initial consultations. I’ve learned to relax when things are slow. I’ve also learned not to panic when things get busy.
The most important thing is to focus on what you can control: for me that includes my expenses, the cases I choose to take, and the systems and processes I’ve implemented to help me run my firm. Any cliched professional athlete will tell you not to get “too high during the good times or too low during the bad times”. Maintaining an even keel is important.
Networking: The Importance of Mentors and Friends
When you’re a solo attorney–and particularly if you’re a young solo attorney like I am—the importance of mentors cannot be underestimated. A solo practice can sometimes be isolating, so it’s invaluable to have other attorneys you can call on to ask for guidance. I spend a lot of my free time reading about law and my practice areas, but nothing can replace the advice of a trusted friend and mentor. Being active in the local bar is a great way to make connections with top local attorneys. I try not to call on anyone too often as I don’t want to be a nuisance, but knowing that I have the ability to bounce an idea off someone who has been through it makes solo practice a lot less intimidating.
Be Selective of the Cases You Take and Your Practice Areas
I believe that limiting your practice areas and the cases you take is important for a new firm. It’s hard to turn down a case when you’re just starting out, but sometimes your gut will tell you to pass. I try to listen to my gut. Limiting your practice areas is in the best interests of yourself and your clients. Even simple matters outside your practice area can take up dozens of hours trying to get up to speed.
The Importance of Systems
I recently read a great book called the E-Myth Attorney. Books like The E-Myth Attorney, Solo By Choice, and How to Start and Build a Law Practice do a great job of explaining the importance of efficient systems in a law firm. Filing, billing, calendaring, creating forms, client intake—these are the types of firm activities that work best with a systematic plan in place. The basic principle is that efficiency can help save you and your clients money and can also lead to greater client satisfaction. I really believe in that principle, and sometimes a strong system can be a life raft when you’re starting a new business.
Expect to Work Harder Than Ever Before
I work seven days a week. During the last six months, I haven’t had off one full day during the work week. I barely take days off on the weekend. I haven’t even taken off for holidays that fall during the work week. I only mention this because some people may think that starting your own law firm will be less intense than working at a big firm with a large yearly billable requirement.
If my experience is normal, then I wouldn’t bet on it. There are administrative tasks, marketing tasks, and sometimes even janitorial tasks that go along with running a small business. You have to be the lawyer and the CEO and everything else in between. At a firm, a lot of things are taken care of for you. When you start a small law firm, most or all of it’s on you. Although you may have more flexibility with your schedule on an hour to hour basis, in order for your firm to grow, you’ve got to be working on building your firm almost every waking hour you have in a week. Particularly if, like me, you are relying mostly on “sweat equity.”
Would I Recommend Going Solo?
I always think of one of my mentor’s answer to this question. He always responds: “Knowing all that I had to go through, I could never recommend it to anybody. But I do know it was the right thing for me.” So far, six months in, I must say I concur with that sentiment completely.
Carl is a New Jersey attorney who recently started his own solo law practice in Somerville, New Jersey, focusing on family law, collection law, and municipal/traffic court matters. Carl and his wife live in Central New Jersey with their Shetland Sheepdog.