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Solo Practice Post-Mortem Part III: Would He Have Made It and Was Soloing a Bad Idea?

by Carolyn Elefant on August 23, 2012 · 5 comments

in Planning a Practice, Questions & Advice

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Scott Greenfield responded to Part I and Part II on Post-Mortem of a solo practice. Scott criticizes everything from the author of the post (who left a successful practice to start a firm partly because he didn’t like the work he was doing and partly for a better work life balance) to the value of social media in marketing (asserting that it yields only desperate, destitute clients) to Solosez, for brainlessly cheering on those with solo aspirations without hitting them on the head with a good dose of reality. While I didn’t care for the tone of Scott’s post (felt it was way too harsh) that’s a purely subjective reaction. I’d rather focus on the ideas that I don’t agree with rather than the emotional reaction that the post invoked.

1. The decision to start a practice

With regard to the commenter’s decision to start a firm, Scott says:

Apparently, no one told [the author] times were tough out there. He had a good job, and chose to walk away for personal reasons.  I’m sure the many young unemployed lawyers suffering crushing debt can empathize with his reasons. Who doesn’t want work that fascinates you and plenty of free time?

and

First, in an economy where the business of law is in the toilet, the idea of giving up a stable, well-paid job is borderline idiotic.  Did he hate it that much that he was willing to trade poverty for the drudgery of doing work that didn’t interest him? Was more time with his family worth feeding his family?  It smacks of entitlement, a theme that carries over to his next poor choice.

This paragraph doesn’t accurately depict the author’s desire to start his own firm or his ethic. First, in addition to wishing to spend more time with family, the author didn’t like the work that he was doing — high stakes business litigation at a large firm. He spent six months handling a pro bono matter at his law firm, and transitioned into consumer practice. Seems to me that this lawyer viewed solo practice as a way to use his law degree in a meaningfully instead of simply punching a time clock and bringing home a large pay check.

Moreover, the author wasn’t blind to the realities of what he was getting into. There’s not indication that he believed that income would magically materialize as he worked on briefs from an ipad on the sidelines of a soccer field. Instead, anticipating that his income would drop substantially, he uprooted his family to move from a high cost to a more modestly-priced part of the state and saved up a nice nest-egg to see him through slow periods.

Nor does the author appear to have an entitlement mentality. As noted, he moved his family and cut back as best he could to prepare for a tough road while ensuring that he could take care of his family. But he took the risk when his kids were young and pulled out before the family suffered permanent financial damage.

2. The role of social media

As expected, Scott (and presumably others) view the author’s observation that his practice seemed to pick up as he increased online marketing is viewed as a “clarion call for social media marketing.” This, in spite of my caveats to the contrary, as well as the author’s ambivalence about whether his practice would have lasted despite an uptick in calls. Fair enough. But what isn’t discussed is the problem of the dud or irrelevant referral. Not every lawyer is as well-intentioned as Scott and will refer problem or loser clients to new solos to get both the client and the newbie off their back. Starting out, marketing is a numbers game. Unless you can expand your circle of contacts – which can be done through social media, giving business cards to everyone you meet or leaving matchbooks with your name on them in bars – you’re going to limit your options.

Moreover, increasingly many people turn to the Internet to find lawyers. I’m a lawyer myself but if I’m called upon to locate a lawyer in another state and I don’t know anyone, I’ll get online and look on Avvo and run a few searches to find someone who might seem worth calling. While some of these folks were looking for a cheap lawyer, others were credible people who simply didn’t know anyone else. The point is that not every client who comes from the Internet will be a dud, just as not every client who is referred will turn into a great case. Particularly in a competitive economy, where lawyers hoard work (I have seen this extensively in my own practice, where large firms now keep smaller cases that they once tossed my way), relying on referrals from other lawyers as a sole source of business is as a foolhardy as sitting around on Twitter all day to build a practice.

3. The Work Life Balance

Scott writes:

Of all the misunderstandings that are reflected in this solo’s post-mortem, the one that demands correction is his expectation that he would not only be able to create a viable practice out of nothing, but that it would allow him work/life balance.  The practice of law is hard. Its demand are unrelenting.

Yes, solo practice is demanding and unrelenting. Probably more so with practices like criminal law or family law where your clients keep you on call 24/7. But in all solo practices, most lawyers, particularly those starting out easily spend at least 50 hours a week handling cases, marketing and networking. But….

The solo life is a far cry from the time that lawyers put in at big law for several reasons. Most of the large firm lawyers I know put in 60 hour weeks for the first 10-15 years of their practice, well after becoming partner. My friends at big law, particularly those with spouses who had less demanding schedules or were stay-home parents, routinely went for days without seeing their children. I can’t think of any solo or small firm lawyers for whom that is true.

What’s the difference? First, as a solo, you have more control over your schedule. You can leave the office at 4 if you need to, though you may make it up later at night. You can ask the judge not to schedule a trial for a particular date without having to explain that it’s because it’s your kid’s birthday (assuming of course, that there’s no prejudice to your client when you’ve chosen that date). In big law, you’re accountable to so many other people, that you don’t have that same control.

Second, as a solo, you can jigger the types of cases that you take. In my practice area (energy regulatory), there are lots of lawyers who travel to client sites and spend time sitting around administrative hearings. I didn’t do that work when my daughters were younger; I focused on appeals, whitepapers and administrative comment proceedings which were more manageable. Now that they’re older, I’m able to spend more time at hearings, traveling and in court.

I would hope that people starting a practice realize what they’re getting into. Maybe they don’t. But the author came from a large firm in a big city and in his case, I think that is expectation of a better (not perfect, just better) work life balance was reasonable.

4. Solosez as the mother lode of ignorance

Of the post, Scott surmised (correctly) that it was from Solosez and comments:

The first clue that failure was inevitable was that he was engaged with the Solosez listserv, the mother lode of self-perpetuated ignorance about how to achieve success in the law.

I’m the first to admit that there’s lots of advice on solosez and other listserves, much on substantive topics of law (lesson to the uninitiated: independently confirm any advice you get from another lawyer. It’s your obligation) But when it comes to practical advice, solosez lawyers are pretty old-fashioned and traditional as it goes. Lots of practices built on referrals and traditional marketing. Lots of lawyers on the list with 30+ years of business who don’t have a web presence. And an enormous amount of talent and wisdom and generosity that has benefited me both personally and professionally. Solosez isn’t for anyone, and in this day and age, listserves for better or worse are becoming obsolete, replaced by LinkedIn Groups and other social media. But my colleagues on the list aren’t ignorant.

5. Did the author fail?
I’ve already made clear that I think the author was a success. He took a chance that didn’t work out as he expected but lead to opportunities he’d not have otherwise had. Along the way, he learned a lot and presumably did spend more time with his family which can’t be replaced.

But what about business-wise?  There’s lots of discussion in the comments on the post about whether the author would have turned things around for real. I think yes. As a general rule of thumb, it takes three years for anyone in any field to really hit their stride. The rule applies to new agents doing business in Hollywood and to new solos starting a practice. The three-year rule was true in my case, and it reflects what I’ve observed across the board with many other solos. Some solos are fortunate enough to have a working spouse , partner or parents who can support them during the first three years. Solos who are single can also get by on less. I am guessing that this particular solo wasn’t able to stick it out beyond the second year because he was sole/primary supporter of his family and because he didn’t want to impose on his family any longer.  My guess is that what this solo earned during his first two years, while low compared to a big law salary, might have sufficed  for a young single with few expenses or married solo contributing to a household.

In addition, the author was presented with a stable job that will provide satisfaction – but which made the choice to stay solo even more difficult. Moreover, had this author not given solo practice a go, he might not have found a position that gives time for balance and offers satisfying work. Overall, taking the risk was a far better decision than staying put.

  • shg

    These are real people, with real lives and real families, who get really hungry and have real feelings.  What does cheerleading have to offer someone like the commenter CM at my post, who played the rules and did what all the solo cheerleaders and marketing gurus told him to do, and spends his days staring at a silent phone while his marriage collapses, his kids go hungry and his spirit is crushed?

    You bet my tone is harsh. That your solo got a job (which both you and he anticipate will work out fine, though that has yet to be seen) doesn’t mean that every solo who makes the same choices will end up landing on his feet, or even surviving. 

    Rose-colored glasses don’t feed children. With all the positivity on the internet, who says that sometimes you crash and burn, and end up in a life of misery.  Someone has to care more about the people behind these stories than the solo or social media marketing agenda. If I have to be the bad guy, so be it.

  • http://www.smerudlaw.com/ Scott Smerud

    It seems someone did “care more about the people behind [this story]“–the person who carefully planned to go solo for the benefit of his family.  It doesn’t sound like he’s homeless–he just didn’t have the level of success he hoped for.  A decision should not be judged idiotic or brave (to the extent it should be judged at all) based on the level of security/insecurity of reader.

  • shg

    To the extent I understand your comment, you seem to assume that my calling the decision to walk away from a well-paying job at a time of enormous turmoil in the fortunes of the legal profession is a reflection of my insecurity.  Not quite.

    I’ve been a solo/small firm lawyer for almost 30 years. I have no personal horse in this race, and certainly nothing against solos. However, because of my position in the blawgosphere, not a day goes by that I don’t get a phone call or email from some law student, recent grad, young lawyer, and even experience lawyer, in trouble.

    Promoting the wonders and glory of solo practice (and being a lawyer, for that matter) without making painfully clear the pitfalls, the problems, the potential misery, is irresponsible.  I’m up to my eyeballs in good people suffering terrible problems. I spent over an hour yesterday with a lawyer with more than 10 years experience who was mere steps from suicide, feeling that he had failed his wife and children, his father who cleaned toilets to pay for his legal education, having had the hubris (like our intrepid post-mortem solo) to walk away from a well-paying job to indulge his interests.  It was great, until the bills came and kids cried and the proud father realized that his life spent cleaning toilet was for nothing.

    Carolyn’s post wasn’t for the sake of the writer. He had already made his choices. It was for others who would “learn” from the writer, who didn’t achieve the level of success he sought (as in, enough to sustain his family), but was fortunate enough to bootstrap his less than successful foray into solo practice into a job that he may or may not have a year from now, and may or may not like, or may be enough to feed his family but not much more.

    I hope this makes it all more comprehensible to you.  And I have a question for you as well: As your website says you are the managing partner of Smerud Law Group, how many partners do you have? How many associates?  I certainly hope it’s not a one man shop pretending to have a “law group” of partners and associates behind him in order to decieve potential clients because giving the appearance of being more than you are is good marketing strategy.  I know, I’m being judgmental again.
     
     

  • Kelly

    I enjoyed this post-mortem series.  It is good to read about the transitions both to solo practice and back to being an employee, when a change of course is needed.  

    Our profession has gone through some major changes over the last 5 years and they are not slowing down either.  Many of us need to seek less traditional avenues than we may have considered while in law school.  Sometimes we have the choice to make the change, other times we may be on the pink slip list without much of a warning.  I have found the articles at MyShingle very helpful in exploring the world of the solo practice.  

    Best of luck to the author in his new position, and no doubt having learned much from his solo time which will benefit him going forward.

  • Sean1everitt

    Can I ask a question (and I’m sorry I’m posting so late to this discussion; I hope there’s still interest in this topic) that no one seems to be addressing?  What happens to all of these lawyers that don’t make it?  I am sincerely grateful for shg’s comments — they are a breath of fresh air in an environment that too often seems full of phoniness.  But perhaps we should focus on where all of these solos go if they can’t get enough work.  Do they end up working at Starbucks?  Do they go back to school to learn meaningful skills?  Do they buy an Exxon franchise?  What?  One of the most annoying things I hear about “failing” as a solo is the assumption that you can just go back to your job in “big law” (I seem to be the only lawyer in the universe that did not start life as a lawyer in a huge firm) or do something else that is lucrative, and no harm done.  So where does everyone go?  I myself have 20 years of experience and the last 6 as a solo, but it has never been successful financially, though I have been able to feed my family.  I naively did not understand that, if you don’t make it as a solo, you are not employable as an attorney (without bringing in your own work).  So what do people do?  I think that would be a great discussion that everyone would read, since, as shg suggests, I am not alone.  

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