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Why I Don’t Focus on the Hardships of Starting a Law Firm

by Carolyn Elefant on August 26, 2012 · 8 comments

in Encouragement

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Starting, or more accurately, sustaining a law firm is hard. Scott Greenfield hammers the point sharply but accurately; Sam Glover more mildly but equally accurately. So why don’t I?

As a longtime blogger focused on solo and small firm practice, and author of Solo by Choice, I’m the first to admit that I, like other bloggers of this genre,  have an obligation to cover the grim realities associated with starting a law firm.  From time to time I do. I’ve written about the loneliness of feeling that you’re the only solo in the world who’s floundering and shared my own experience of having to give up my office when my second daughter was born and start all over again.

And yet when I sit down to blog, it’s just too easy to forget the misery. I can’t help myself. Because when solo practice clicks, there’s nothing else like it in the world. To build something out of nothing, defend clients and do justice and yes, I’ll say it, still make time for family is nothing short of miraculous .  And even when solo practice doesn’t work out, having had the courage to make the leap makes you realize that you can always pick yourself up and start again. Which is far better than the alternative.

Tim Ferris’ popularity aside, I honestly don’t believe that the majority of lawyers who seek out solo practice are looking for a four-hour work week. Rather, we want work that makes us want to dance a jig. Work that’s so engaging, so rewarding and so energizing that those 18-hour days that spent pumping out an appellate brief goes by in 18 minutes, and showers and long commutes and those minutes before you fall asleep are consumed by pondering the precise clause or phrase for a contract or opening argument.  Most lawyers worth their salt don’t want a life without work but rather, one that’s rich with meaningful work that matters and makes a difference in our clients’ lives (that’s why it’s mostly consultants rather than lawyers who preach the 4-hour work week stuff).

Is solo practice hard?  You bet it is.  So is life, after all. But is solo practice worth the hell — the fear that never goes away even 20 years in, that another client may never come through the door, the constant  hustle and the snubs from colleagues who think that solos are losers who couldn’t find other jobs? Absolutely.

What do you think?

  • http://twitter.com/SFBayLaw Lisa Espada

    While I understand why some bloggers think its helpful to dissect failed solo practices,  I have not found those posts helpful.  The whole point of solo practice is to construct something completely unique, not to copy what someone else has done.  I think we understand that solo practice is nothing like a job, and that the risk of failure is much greater than if we work for someone else.  At some point it becomes counter-productive to make solo practice sound like an impossible dream or an unsustainable burden.  I’m avoiding those blogs for now…. thank you for your positive focus and encouragement to aspiring solos.

  • Rod

    Great blog post. Solo practice is what you make of it. I left a law firm 17 years ago to become a solo. The road has not always been easy. There have been highs that I never imagined and lows that I never want to repeat. Nevertheless, good lawyers who also understand this is a business can and will thrive. As a solo, I know I have to distinguish myself from competitors.  I do that by providing my clients with superior customer service, get to know how my clients conduct their business and a commitment to excellence in our work product. That has resulted in my being able to represent clients that one would typically think would go to mid size and large firms.  Practicing law, like any other business, has its risks. If you are with a firm, you could face a layoff or be forced to work on cases you you detest. Being a solo means facing different risks.  It’s like Erma Bombeck once said, “The grass is always greener over the septic tank.”

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/traciriccitello Traci Riccitello

    I completely agree with you!  Solo practice is like anything in life – it has its ups and downs; good days and bad days.  One can choose to look at the ‘solo glass’ as half full or half empty.  Perhaps it is easier to look at the glass as half full when you have been on the other side – and understand that the grass is not always greener.  Constant negativity doesn’t do anyone any good.  It is possible to be both positive and realistic.  It is all in the attitude.  
    Thanks for your blogs, Carolyn.
    Traci Riccitello 

  • Vivian Rodriguez

    Thank you for the post.

    I also don’t understand the negativity or other prophesies of doom and gloom about solo practice. I share the same feelings that Rod, Lisa Espada, and Traci Riccitello have posted about.

    But what struck me about your post was your almost apologetic sentence about
    making time for your family (“…and yes, I’ll say it, still make time for family ).  I don’t understand the thinking that we are only true and successful lawyers if we slave over a desk for long periods of time, to the exclusion of a family life.  The beauty of a solo practice is just what the others have observed, i.e. building it the way you want.  For me, that includes a practice that allows time for family (sans  apology, perhaps).  Yep, the Tim Ferris book may not be workable for us solo lawyers; but if we have family, a 30-40 hour workweek is, I think, a reasonable if we tend to it with passion but also with business sense.
     

  • http://cooklaw.co/ Steve Cook

    While I’m not a solo practitioner, there are actually two attorneys at my firm, I would guess that the sensation we experience of being on a tightrope is likely similar to, but less intense than, the sensation solos experience; although that sensation can be horrible at times, it’s great most of the time.

    I think both prospective solos and current solos can gain invaluable insights from other attorneys’ experiences, especially failed practices, and shouldn’t be too quick to write off such accounts as being discouraging and disheartening.

  • Jordan Rushie

    I prefer solo practice (err, I have a partner) over working for a law firm.

    That said, I work more hours and make less money. I was bad at developing a work life balance before, this is 24/7. 

    Sometimes I look at my colleagues at my former firm and miss it, though. I’ve done a lot more stuff than traditional associates, but on the other hand, a nice paycheck every Friday and seasoned partners making hard decisions isn’t a bad situation.

    My recommendation would be exactly what my boss told me: “Work for someone as long as you can. Then, once you think you’ve worked long enough, work a little longer.”

  • Das

    Is there a way to make the comments on this blog appear larger than 3pt font?

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