My Shingle

5 Tips From a Young, Solo Attorney:

by Carolyn Elefant on June 27, 2014 · 19 comments

in Advice, Guest Post, Solo Out of Law School

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This post is part of the MyShingle Solos summer series which will run between June 17 and July 3, 2014. 

c-barnes This post is written by MyShingle Guest Blogger Caroline Barnes

I know first hand that starting your own practice right out of law school can seem daunting. You will face many people telling you that you cannot do it and you will face others who think you can eventually do it, just not right out of law school.

Over the past year, I have learned that starting your own practice right out of law school is possible. You just need the drive to do it. If you have the drive, and have made the decision to start your own practice, here are five tips I have learned over the past year that may be beneficial to you:

1)      Don’t be afraid to learn as you go: As a young attorney, you will have to learn as you go in many situations. This can be stressful, but if you are worried about something, don’t be afraid to pick up the phone and call someone who has more experience.

2)      Don’t underestimate the power of networking: The majority of my clients have come from referrals. Reach out to other attorneys in your city or to other attorneys across your state in your practice area. If you have a federal practice, don’t restrict your networking to local are state-wide sources. You should network nationwide.

3)      Sign up for listservs in your practice area: Once you join the association for your practice area, join the listservs your association offers. When you are part of the listserv, you will receive questions and answers relating to your practice area via email and you can ask more experienced attorneys questions you may have.

4)      Embrace new technology:

-Go Paperless: Do this from the very beginning. I run my paperless office by scanning every document that lands on my desk through my Fujitsu Scan Snap. The Fujitsu Scan Snap really is the best scanner out there right now for scanning legal documents (I promise this is not a paid advertisement). The only issue with my Fujitsu is that if you need to scan certain documents, like passports, you will need another scanner for that. I use the scanner on top of my Brother printer for scanning thicker documents. Once everything is on my computer, I save the scanned documents to Drop Box.

-Use cloud-based practice management software: This allows you to stay even more organized and to access information from anywhere. I use Clio and I highly recommend it. It has helped me keep all my clients organized, keep track of my trust account, and to do billing with ease.

-Try Google Voice for your office phone: Google Voice is a free service and gives you a free phone number in whatever area code you choose. Once you download the Google Voice app to your cell phone, you can have your Google Voice office number ring to your cell phone. You can also have it ring to your computer when you are in your office. Google Voice will transcribe voicemails for you so you can read your voice mail from anywhere.

5)      Pay it forward: Every attorney needs help at some point in their career. Do not be afraid or embarrassed to ask for help; and when another attorneys asks you for help or advice, pay it forward.

If you are new attorney with tips of your own or a more experienced attorney with some advice for those beginning a solo practice, please share your tips in the comments section below.

Caroline J. Barnes is an immigration attorney and owner of Caroline J. Barnes, Attorney at Law LLC located in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Ms. Barnes handles many types of immigration cases  including family based immigration petitions, affirmative asylum, and deportation defense. In her free time, she enjoys being outdoors, playing golf, hiking, and running.

 

  • Paul Freeman

    Great post, Caroline. Starting a practice is a daunting prospect for new graduates. I imagine its not the easiest thing even for more experienced attorneys. It’s much easier to find employment with a firm that’s already established.
    I think a huge part of it is the dialogue that surrounds the prospect of a new grad launching a solo practice. As you say, most people think it can’t, or even shouldn’t be done. My hope is if that dialogue changes, there will be fewer new grads out of work.

  • Paul Spitz

    When someone says “you can’t do that,” I just put the chip on my shoulder (with all the other chips) and prove them wrong. I think attorneys like Caroline will learn more and develop their skills more quickly by going solo right away, than by spending months or years trying to find a job with an established firm.

  • Sandra Stanfield

    Congratulations Caroline! It souds like you are off to a great start. Thanks for the tips. As an aspiring future solo it is nice to hear about those who are proving that it can be done. Of course there will be challenges along the way, but if you have the commitment, grit, and determination required it is possible. Kudos to you!

  • shg

    Not to be a wet blanket, but whenever I read a post like this, I say to myself, check back in five years. Yes, not a warm and fuzzy supportive comment, but advice from first year solos only matters if it works, and you won’t know what works until you’ve proven the ability to survive and thrive. That takes time.

  • Paul Spitz

    You can say the same thing to anyone. Say it to Dewey LaBeouf. Or Circuit City. Or Lehman Brothers. Nobody is guaranteed success.

  • http://www.cjbarneslaw.com Caroline Barnes

    SHG, thanks for the comment. This is general advice that has worked well for me in my first year practicing and what I have found works in the initial stages of building a solo practice. In 5 years, I will write another article about tips for maintaining a solo practice over time. I’m sure most of my tips will change as technology changes and as I gain more experience.

  • http://www.cjbarneslaw.com Caroline Barnes

    Paul(s), thank you for the support. I agree that the dialogue should change. I think that law schools need to encourage solo practice more and that those who have not tried to go solo need to stop discouraging those who aspire to go solo. I also agree that aspiring solos should take the negative comments and use them to fuel their determination to create a successful solo practice.

  • http://www.cjbarneslaw.com Caroline Barnes

    Thanks for the support Sandra! Best of luck starting your solo practice. You can do it!

  • tetonattorney

    Nice work! Don’t listen to the naysayers. One under looked advantage of starting your own firm is that you can set things up in a way that makes sense to you. The fact that you have google voice, Clio, and the best scanner in history, already puts you ahead of many of the firms that Paul suggests you look at. I think its risky over a 1 year timeframe, but over a 3-5 year timeframe it makes a lot more sense to invest in yourself now and build a practice that works for you.

  • Tim

    I graduated in 2011 and opened a physical law office in January 2012. I turned down a couple of job offers because I thought I could do better on my own (they were pretty crappy offers, both in job description and pay). The first couple of years were tough. Steep learning curve and not much money. But it got better.

    Two things:

    1. Get a mentor. Preferably an attorney who has the same practice areas. Your bar may be able to help you here.

    2. Advertise. A lot. If you know people who can give you referrals, great. I didn’t have the connections to get referrals, and even at this point the vast majority of referrals I get are from former clients. But I experimented with advertising, tracked the results, and advertised in the most effective way I could. Meanwhile, I put together a website that after a couple of years attracts customers for basically free, and the paid advertising gave me clients who still send referrals my way, and who return for additional legal assistance. Yes, advertising is expensive, but it’s what got me off the ground.

  • Tim

    And yes, a Brother scanner/printer, Clio, listserves, and a cell phone are all very useful. I also recommend immediately getting a landline phone so you can get listed in the phone books–many of those companies will refuse to even list you unless you have a landline or pay for advertising.

  • Erik

    Wow.

    You’ve been out of law school since 2013, and presumably passed the Louisiana bar some time between May and December. Frankly put you don’t know enough to be writing posts telling other people what to do. I’m sort of shocked that you are.

    Especially this:

    1) Don’t be afraid to learn as you go: As a young attorney, you will have to learn as you go in many situations. This can be stressful, but if you are worried about something, don’t be afraid to pick up the phone and call someone who has more experience

    Which should be:

    1) In most cases you should be VERY afraid to learn as you go. It is often an exceedingly dangerous thing to do. All lawyers do it sometimes. But it is always something which should be avoided when possible.

    In most cases you won’t be as good a lawyer as someone who isn’t a newbie, and unless you know enough to warn your clients then in many cases you’ll be doing them a disservice. The problem with “learning as you go” is that you often don’t know what your weaknesses are until it’s too late for your client.

    Assuming you want to practice ethically, you should be careful not to put your desire for “learning as you go” ahead of your clients’ desire to win. And you should make sure that your clients are INFORMED about your knowledge–or lack thereof.

    And in light of that last sentence, I think you forgot

    2) Don’t engage in embarrassing puffery. Which is to say that if it is July of 2014 and you have been a lawyer since 2013, you probably don’t have (and I quote from your personal web page) “significant experience in the practice of immigration law.” You may be smart, you may be competent, you may even be outstanding, but one thing you certainly are not is “significantly experienced.” (Not to mention the obvious conflict between “significant experience” and “learn as you go,” but I think I’ve beaten that horse enough for one comment.)

  • Brave Sir “Erik”

    Hey Erik, it’s easy to throw stones anonymously isn’t it? If you are going to criticize her and take statements from her website out of context, maybe you should post your information too? If you read the article, it is about a new solo attorney and what worked for her thus far in her career. There is no “embarassing puffery” involved in saying that she has significant experience with immigration law — most law students have no experience when they get out of school with any case, especially a specialized area of law. Even more, you don’t have a clue of what her caseload is or how many cases she has worked on since passing the bar. Maybe you should post some useful constructive commentary instead of picking on someone who you think is weaker than you. It is not an easy endeavor hang a shingle no matter how long you have been practicing law. Obviously our author is a very brave and determined attorney. I would be glad to have someone with her passion and determination on my case. If you are even a practicing attorney, you should know that every attorney, regardless of experience, has to learn as they go.

  • Erik

    There is no “embarassing puffery” involved in saying that she has significant experience with immigration law

    And apparently your support for that is…

    …most law students have no experience when they get out of school with any case, especially a specialized area of law.

    Well, let’s agree: If she had appended “compared to people who have absolutely no experience at all” then her statement would be accurate albeit pointless.

    Otherwise this looks like the Dunning-Kruger effect writ large.

    If you don’t see the ethical problem with “significant experience” being used to describe someone who is new at the game; and if you believe that the fact that “other people are even less experienced” justifies it, then I’m not sure I can help you much on the ethical front.

    Maybe you should post some useful constructive commentary

    Again: if you don’t comprehend “stop misleading potential clients” or “you’re embarrassing yourself here and should reconsider the approach” as either useful or constructive, then I’m not sure how I can help you. Not all constructive compliments are positive.

    Obviously our author is a very brave and determined attorney.

    Maybe, maybe not. I don’t know her. How is she “obviously” brave (more so than others) or determined (more so than others, which is presumably required?)

    I would be glad to have someone with her passion and determination on my case.

    Then she is doing a good job making that claim. Unlike experience, those things are relatively innate and are not learned.

    If you are even a practicing attorney, you should know that every attorney, regardless of experience, has to learn as they go.

    Sometimes more and sometimes less. It’s always better to learn in a situation where there is no risk to the client. The other time it’s OK to learn as you go is when the risk if disclosed (“I have never done this before and I may not do a good job, but I’ll try to do it for cheap.”)

  • “erik”

    Erik,

    Let’s play your quoting game! Her website says (within context): “During her law school career, Ms. Barnes gained significant experience in the practice of immigration law . . . as a student attorney with the LSU Law Immigration Clinic and interned with Catholic Charities Diocese of Baton Rouge Immigration Legal Services”

    In no way is she misleading anyone. She lists the exact experience that is notable, and that it was gained during law school and her internships/clinic work. If you don’t know already, clinic work allows students to work with clients as they do in practice. She does not hide that she is a recent graduate and has only a year or less in real world practice. For a new licensed attorney, any work dealing with real cases and clients in a specific area (e.g. immigration) is significant. “Significant” is a relative word.

    If you are a lawyer, maybe you should brush up on the ethics of misleading people to try to bolster your own argument. You still have not (a) provided any information on yourself to show your own experience and ability to tell her she’s “embarassing herself” and (b) provide any criticism that is helpful or furthers the discussion.

    She is obviously brave and determined — this is displayed by her willingness to hang a shingle out of law school and even more by her drive to encourage others to do the same. The legal market needs more attorneys who are not scared to open their own practice and post about their experience. According to this Harvard study (http://www.law.harvard.edu/programs/plp/pages/statistics.php) only 35% of practicing lawyers are solo practitioners. Not all of those lawyers became solo practitioners out of law school (the scope of this article). Opening any business is a difficult and intimidating process for every person, even those who have been in the game for a long while, and it takes courage to do so. If opening a practice was the path of least resistance, gradates would not flock to firm and government jobs as they do.

    Again, you don’t have enough facts for your argument. You have no idea if she is partnering or mentored with other attorneys who have been practicing for more significant amounts of time. In fact, she makes sure to note that she picks up the phone and calls more experienced attorneys for help. She is not embarassing herself by writing this article and sharing advice on what she has experienced in her first year of solo practice. Her advice given is practical — network, use technology, and don’t be afraid to ask for help.

    I invite you to write your own article on your great and successful practice! I will be sure to read it.

  • Dustin Faeder

    I have recently received my license and gone solo. I began taking cases in February and my practice consists entirely of court appointments (i.e. indigent defense). Mostly, I do juvenile law (a lot of dependent-neglect cases), but I also do a little criminal defense. A lot of the more experienced attorneys disparage this kind of practice as unsustainable, but it works for my situation. Now that I have enough data, I’ve been crunching a lot of numbers to figure out how profitable this business model really is, and here is what I’ve come up with:

    Working from home and using my personal cell phone and internet for business purposes, my monthly costs end up being somewhere between $300 and $500. The pay rate for indigent defense in TN is $40/hr off the record and $50/hr on the record (limited by caps). Also, due to the mileage reimbursement, I end up making around $45/hr when driving on cases (after costs; my car gets 26 mpg average). So, if I bill 25 hours a week, 50 weeks a year, including drive time (which is significant because I work a 4 county area–sometimes as much as 8 hours a week), I end up netting somewhere around 45K. Running my own shop takes maybe an additional 5 hours of unpaid work a week, so it’s really working about 30 hours a week for this amount.

    It might not sound like a lot, but it fits my lifestyle because my wife’s job provides health insurance, TN doesn’t have an income tax and has a lower than average cost of living, and I’m lucky to have very little debt due to scholarships, grants, and working through school. So basically I get to work part time, on my own terms, helping kids and the poor, with very little stress and a lot of time in the car to enjoy my extensive music collection. People talk about winning the lottery with 160K NY firm jobs, but I would absolutely hate that, and after city, state, and federal taxes those people only take home about 100K anyway, which isn’t that much with large loans and NY’s cost of living.

    Basically, I am super happy with the decision to hang a shingle! The money is sufficient while keeping us in a low tax bracket, providing a great work-life balance and letting me practice law on my own terms.

  • http://www.cjbarneslaw.com Caroline Barnes

    Hi Dustin,

    Thanks for commenting on the post. It is always nice to hear from another recent graduate who started a solo practice. It was interesting to read your breakdown of your income. That is something that most people would be hesitant to post but I’m glad you shared the info. It sounds like you are doing very well for your first year out! Congrats. Keep it up.

    -Caroline

  • Dustin Faeder

    No problem! I haven’t made that much yet, for a couple reasons: (1) I just overcame all the deductions from starting a practice, including carryover deductions from the whole licensure process, professional association dues, a tablet, a website, etc., and (2) TN’s indigent defense system has a long delay in pay. First you have to figure out how to get cases, then you have to finish the cases, then you have to bill the cases, and then it takes the state 3-6 weeks to audit the bill and pay you. It also takes awhile to get registered in their system. It took about 4.5 months after I began taking cases before any significant income trickled in, and I wouldn’t have been able to get started without my wife’s financial support. After all those deductions, I’ve only actually averaged about 1K/mo profit, but that should rise significantly now that things are rolling and all those startup expenses are in the tax books. I’m currently waiting on about 4K from the state that has already been approved by judges and am carrying 30 cases (15 dependent-neglect, 7 child support, 5 adult felony, and 3 juvenile delinquency). I estimate that net law income from this year will be around 23K, including about 6K from a doc review in January and February, which I did for some quick cash/seed money. Next year should be a full year of casework, so we’ll see if my projection turns out to be correct!

  • Woody Scott

    Caroline, great post. Thanks for taking the time to write this. It’s important to hear the perspective of people in all stages of starting a solo practice!

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