The Unexpected Surprise of Starting A Law Firm

Starting a law firm is nothing if not an adventure always full of surprises. Here are some of the things that surprised me about starting a firm.

You will always be terrified. For as long as you are in practice, you’ll always fret that one day the phone will stop ringing, that business will dry up – or that you’ll lose your law license or irreparably harm your reputation by taking on a client with an unpopular cause. But even with that fear lurking, you’ll also come to love life on the wire – because as Karl Wallenda says, “everything else is waiting.

Clients will actually pay you for what you do.  When I started out, so many well-intended old colleagues patted me on the head and asked if I thought I could make any money representing small, alternative energy companies. So when my first client – a former executive devoted to promoting ocean energy education – hired me to form a non-profit and paid me a few thousand to do it (and fed me a fancy expense account lunch besides), I was a little stunned.  Sure, there are days when everything seems a struggle but when you look back at the revenue that flowed through your firm, you’ll be surprised that it’s more than you thought.

You will frequently be the most interesting person in a room full of lawyers. Okay, maybe that isn’t saying much. But while other lawyers are churning through documents or working on bar committees or filing a brief that’s gone through eight levels of review, you can talk about the crazy clients who call, the judge you persuaded, the family that you helped through a tough time, the colleagues and friends you met, serendipitously, on social media. Your experience and enthusiasm will captivate your colleagues.

You will find kinship with other solos and smalls. No matter the age or gender or practice area of your solo/small colleagues, you share a common experience. If you worked at a big firm before starting a practice, you probably looked down at the solo civil litigator who you now turn to for mentorship and advice. As a young lawyer at the bottom of the totem pole at your last job, you’ll break bread with practitioners three times your age and converse not as senior to slave, but as colleagues. And regardless of age or gender or race, you’ll grow to call some of these people friends.

You will surprise yourself. You will be amazed at how you’ll find it in you to rise to the occasion. For example, if you flunked corporations in law school, you’ll be surprised at how much more understandable it is when you have a real client and a real problem in front of you. If you never cared about appearances – either the look of your documents or your attire — you’ll be surprised at how much it matters to you when it makes a difference for clients. And if you never thought that you could run a business or ask a client to pay up or that you were too meek to yell at an overbearing counsel or too shy to strike up a conversation with strangers at a networking event, trust me, you will surprise yourself at how well you will come to master these tasks.

No matter how long you’re in it, you will still feel awed by what you do as a lawyer.  Though it seems as if it will never happen, over time, your practice will hit its stride. Documents that once took three hours to prepare now take thirty minutes, questions that you forgot to ask at client interviews or a deposition are now the first thing out of your mouth, you’ll be able to do much of your work with your eyes closed. Increasingly, the bulk of your clients will come from referrals and contacts rather than search engine optimization and a hope and a prayer, and serving them may become routine and feel like a job rather than a privilege as it did  when you started out. But every so often, you’ll take a breath and reflect on what you did in a day’s work.  Gave a client peace of mind. Solved a problem or devised a win-win resolution. Stood up for someone who’s never had anyone in their corner. Pulled out a David over a well-heeled, deep-pocketed Goliath. And you’ll remember that what you do actually matters and that on your best days, wherever they may be, that the law still gives you the power to change lives, minds and even the world.


  1. AmazeLaw on March 4, 2014 at 11:59 am

    Starting out on your own is a gutsy move that isn’t for everyone. And like starting any business it’s always harder and takes longer than you expect. But when you look back when you’re 1, 2, 5, 10 years in and you look at all you’ve accomplished, and the experiences you’ve had compared to folks that stuck to less risky paths, you’ll look at those early days and realize you wouldn’t have had it any other way… Knowing from experience the time and effort it takes to get the flywheel spinning, all I can say, is KEEP GOING. It’s worth it.

  2. The Primacy Firm on March 4, 2014 at 12:18 pm

    I’m a solo / new(er) attorney … this is my second career. While I’ve remained in the entertainment industry, I’m now on the other side of the table. In my first couple of years of practice, I leaned (heavily) on friends who had struck out on their own – regardless of their business endeavor – for advice and consolation. After an especially trying time, one friend in particular sat me down and shared the following: “During year 1, your most common phrase will be ‘what the ____ was I thinking’ …During year 2, you will most likely find yourself thinking ‘this will never work’ … By year 3, you will begin to think ‘this might work’ … By year 4 you will find your shoulders starting to drop and find yourself thinking ‘this may work after all’ … and in year 5, you’ll be shouting ‘hey, this worked!’.” At 3-1/2 years in, I find I’m right on target, and I look forward to the day when I can step back and shout to the heavens, “hey, this worked!”

  3. Theresa Rose DeGray on March 4, 2014 at 11:11 pm

    So true!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  4. Chris Hill on March 5, 2014 at 9:37 am

    Thanks for the post Carolyn. I run through each of these on a day to day basis. Going solo was the best decision I could have made. Working without a net, playing a bit on the seeming instinct that small=less talented, and understanding the small business mentality a lot better have made my move almost 4 years ago a great thing.

  5. Leftist_Conservative on March 6, 2014 at 10:25 am

    the surprise of bankruptcy awaits you when you start your own law firm!

  6. Bryan S. on April 7, 2014 at 9:06 am

    Well said. I’m 2+ years in. I’ve exceeded my expectations by a wide margin.

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