Editor’s Note: Sometimes solo practice doesn’t work out. Recently, a member of one of my listserves shared one of the best and most objective post-mortem analyses of a solo practice that didn’t quite make it to the finish line. Despite increasing momentum towards the end of the second year, the author (who has a family and young children) opted to accept a job opportunity in a practice area that he enjoyed which would offer more financial security. The post is long and the author shares many valuable lessons about what he might have done differently. What’s particular notable about his experience is that while referrals and personal contacts were useful (indeed, that is how the author ultimately found contract work and his current position), the bulk of referrals were for matters that he could not, or did not want to handle. On the other hand, the author’s online marketing plan (which is included in a companion post did begin to bear fruit, albeit too late in this case.
For what it’s worth, though this author’s firm didn’t make it, the author is a success. He left a high-paying job that he didn’t enjoy and took huge risks to find meaningful work and a lifestyle that served his family. Ultimately, his solo practice helped him develop the skills that made him attractive to his current position and may open other doors down the line. And with this post-mortem, this lawyer will help other solos more than he’ll ever imagine.
Regretfully, I will be leaving solo practice at the beginning of next month. I will be starting a full-time job at a non-profit, practicing consumer law, which has been half my solo practice. I expect to be taking many of my consumer cases with me to the new organization, and am looking to farm out my contingency civil rights and hourly commercial litigation matters…. Below follows a summary of my almost two years in solo practice.
I came to solo practice through a wholly voluntary decision to leave a partnership-track position at one of the most prestigious and high-paying “white-shoe” firms. I had a significant pool of savings to draw on as start-up capital and to cover living expenses during the early going.
The reasons for leaving my position were two-fold: no interest in practicing high-stakes business litigation, and a desire to have more time to spend on family and personal interests. My last six months at the firm I spent largely working on a pro-bono immigration matter which eventuated in a trial and a significant published decision…During the same time period I attempted to conduct market research, select a location in [the state] to build a solo practice, and write a business plan.
My family was resolved to leave [the City] due mostly to the expense of residing there; our savings would go a lot farther elsewhere in the state. I had no particular connections there that would have helped me get the kind of business I wanted with any more ease than elsewhere, and the practice areas I was interested in appeared very competitive there compared to other places. We ultimately settled on moving to [smaller city] because (a) [most urban of the options], (b) cheap, and (c) seemingly better suited to the kind of practice I wanted. I planned to practice criminal defense, immigration, civil rights (police and corrections misconduct), and consumer law (debt defense and FDCPA). My essential plan was to finance contingency civil rights work with revenue from flat-fee criminal, immigration, and consumer work and contingency FDCPA work. My market research told me that criminal defense would be very competitive and hard to generate business in; however, I had always wanted to do it. Immigration also appeared competitive based solely on the number of lawyers practicing it; however, because one of [state immigration courts is in smaller city], I anticipated generating business representing individuals from a broader area and so felt the demographics overstated the competitiveness. My research showed very little competition and a lot of need for civil rights representation and for certain aspects of consumer law (debt defense) but other areas very competitive (FDCPA).
After moving here, I put up an active website, rented office space downtown near the courts, and sought to generate business by networking through the [bar groups] and by contacting other solos and other consumer lawyers and having lunch or drinks with them. I also got on the local bar referral list. These actions generated some early leads, and the referral list in particular generated a steady stream month after month. The bulk of the referrals were for things I simply did not do or could not help people with, but I did generate a steady stream of matters through these referrals. On the other hand, I had very little success with online marketing until just a few months ago, when I significantly updated my web presence.
As expected, criminal defense was very competitive and I obtained very little business in it. I initially intended to work towards getting on the appointed counsel list; however, other young attorneys on the list indicated there was a significant unremunerated time commitment to go through a mentoring program and get qualified to get on the list, after which time very few appointments were made anyway for the first several years. As also expected, immigration was competitive but I got a steady stream of business, mostly distant clients with hearings in [my new location]. I found as I began to practice a mix of these and the other practice areas that I simply did not like these practice areas. I found immigration court painful to appear in, and found that even with some prior experience at my old firm, the amount of time I was taking to get up to speed to do what I was being hired to do in criminal and immigration cases was enormous. After about a year I was phasing these practice areas out and focusing on just civil rights and consumer areas. Consumer matters I particularly enjoyed, the only downside being the occasional very difficult client and my inability to generate enough matters.
I did not obtain the volume of consumer matters that I wanted and that my financial plan somewhat required. My savings provided a buffer to enable me to absorb this shortfall for a while as I continued to jigger my marketing to try and generate more cases. I attempted things such as direct mail that had worked for people in other places; they did not work for me here. No matter what I did the volume remained roughly steady, with a very small number of debt defense matters and only occasional FDCPA work.
I have averaged perhaps two debt matters a month and one FDCPA every two months, a volume that generates enough income to perhaps cover overhead but not to cover any living expenses. I got a steady stream of other kinds of consumer matter, which I could not handle as efficiently, such as warranty or wrongful repo cases, on which I also made money but not enough to remedy the shortfall and allow me to survive without continuing to spend my savings. My civil rights cases crept along slowly and with significant expenses further depleting my savings. One large-ish settlement helped to put me at a slight profit for my first full year as a solo, but there is no prospect of same for the second year.
At the beginning of this year I was put in touch with a professor, who got me hired as an adjunct to co-teach a course with her. She has been somewhat of a mentor and has discussed helping me get an academic career started. As supervising attorney at my new employer, she also hired me to a part-time contract position that I’ve had for the past year, with very few hours; then recently she offered me a full-time job there, out of the blue. The timing was right as the offer was made at just the moment that I was starting to wonder how I was going to pay my bills in the coming months. I took the offer and now have the gigantic headache of figuring out what to do with my various unresolved cases (I’m allowed to keep working on them till they’re resolved, but to the extent I do so during working hours I’m taking unpaid leave and so won’t get my salary).
In retrospect what I would have done differently: not rented my office ($18,000 in unnecessary rental expenses over 2 years, plus probably $4,000 in gas); turned down a couple clients and required a couple others to pay expenses; done more revision of my web marketing earlier (started to generate lots of leads when it was basically too late to do anything with them as I was already in discussions over this new job).
I have somewhat mixed feelings about leaving the solo life. It may be that had I stuck it out, somehow, for six months or so, I would have gotten over this hump and begun making ends meet. It’s also possible I would have been totally insolvent within that same time frame. My marketing was just starting to work a lot better and I was starting to be appropriately discriminating in what civil rights cases I would consider accepting. I will not miss having to do my own marketing or having to live with the financial ups and downs of not having a salary.