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Solo & Small Law Firms

After the Love is Gone: Quitting Solo

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

ngoudreau This post is written by MyShingle Guest Blogger Nichole Goudreau

I recently had a conversation with a friend of mine who practices in a large city on the east coast.  We talked about his solo practice and whether it was time for him to quit solo and perhaps quit law altogether.  Keep in mind, this guy is not a newbie or an incompetent lawyer but rather he is a seasoned attorney with talent, experience and some professional success. None of this, however, seems to be bringing him much personal satisfaction. And for him, the demands of solo practice are, quite frankly, getting old.  In 2013 there were more than 1.2 million attorneys in the United States and about half of them were solo practitioners. What all of these solos know is that while the independence of being self-employed is liberating, at times it feels like a grind. The responsibilities of customer service, client retention, marketing, promotion, IT, human resources, financial planning, and office management can make running a solo practice overwhelming and even frustrating. Especially when you had no plans to earn an accelerated on-the-job MBA.

 So why bother going solo in the first place?

Many solo practices start out of necessity, especially with the lack of employment opportunities for attorneys in today’s job market. However, a solo practice will not survive without two key components: a passion for the practice and the obvious, a passion for the law.  Still, the most passionate solos amongst us can lose that zest after so much hard work. Even when it’s clear that the passion has faded, it feels so wrong to have spent so much time earning the degrees and credentials needed to hang that shingle, to just walk away. But if the practice has truly become a burden, walking away might be the only reasonable thing to do.

Many lawyers chose this career based on a desire to help others.  Perhaps it was to ‘fight for the little guy’ or maybe it was just because poor grades in chemistry meant that medical school wasn’t an option. Regardless of the motivation, most of us probably did not go to law school because we wanted to be entrepreneurs. In fact, some of the qualities that make great entrepreneurs – resistance to authority, aggressive risk-taking, and failure to follow the status quo – might be considered contrary to the characteristics of a good lawyer. Still, many of us stick it out, with a sincere attempt to reconcile our lawyer persona with the reluctant entrepreneur inside us. And then we plug away at it for years.  For many of us, it becomes a thrilling and satisfying career.  Then there are those of us who discover after a while that we would rather be doing something else day in and day out.   Of course, after working for years to build a strong network of referrals, a marketing plan that works and some recognition from your peers for the good work you’ve done, choosing to do something else seems absurd.  The mere thought of it might even make you feel a little guilty.

 Still, asks my friend, at what point does one decide to give it up?

Is it when fantasies of chucking it all and opening a cozy little bistro in a seaside hamlet start to creep in during meetings? Or when you realize that negotiating a deal for yet another reckless driver is not nearly as fulfilling as it used to be?  My friend and I came to the conclusion that when you have fallen out of love with the law, it’s time to take down your shingle.  When some genuine soul searching has revealed that what you are experiencing is not just a bad work week, but a true feeling of dissatisfaction with what you are doing every day, it’s time to re-evaluate.

I know of several former lawyers who have left the law to explore passions for yoga, teaching, and even photography. Some of them were five years into practice, and some of them were well into their second decade.  Being a solo can be quite fulfilling – but only when you are still passionate enough about the practice of law to make it so.  After the love is gone, it may be time to think about moving on.

So what do you think? Is it possible that even after a successful solo practice, the passion for the profession can disappear? Is there another passion you’ve thought about pursuing after leaving the law?

Nichole Goudreau is a former prosecutor and award-winning criminal justice instructor admitted to practice in Pennsylvania.  Nichole has conducted academic research on comparative criminal justice, juror behavior, attorney performance and trial practices in the U.S. and abroad.  She currently maintains a freelance legal and consulting practice Freelance JD and is working with a team to launch The 6th Promise Foundation, a nonprofit that serves low-income criminal defendants.

  • Paul Spitz

    The problem is that after being a lawyer, and in particular a solo, nobody is going to hire you for anything else. HR people won’t be able to wrap their tiny little brains around someone being a lawyer, and now wanting to be [fill in the blanks]. So you will likely end up being an entrepreneur all over again, just in a different field. I have 20 years of experience of this, of banging my head against the brick wall.

  • Jim

    I am a not so reluctant entrepreneur-lawyer. While the daily effort can be discouraging some of the time, having a good client base with clients who appreciate what I do for them and trusting me to do their important work helps get me over the rough spots. It is not always fun but I long ago concluded that I don’t play well with other kids so the big firm life has never been for me. Best advice, it takes a long time and hard work but cultivate the good clients who are there for the long term and try to stay away from “business” that causes distress and that won’t repeat. I admit, it helps that i do estate planning, real estate transactions and corporate law for small businesses to keep on that path. If a lawyer is not happy working for individuals or on short term projects and can’t see a way to get out of that, then perhaps it is time to do something else.l

  • nahoskins

    Paul –
    You are so right! It baffles me that HR people cant see how the skills developed as a lawyer (especially as a solo) are transferable to so many other fields.

  • P

    I have worked for a few solo practitioners as a former paralegal and office manager. I must say it was very difficult to work for attorneys that were miserable or passionless. I can’t care more about your case, client, firm than you do! If you want out, just put us all out of out misery and close! It’s much easier to deal with a boss that wants to be there!

  • EarlyMedievalSerf

    I worked for a mid-sized firm out of law school for 10 years until I was let go for downsizing reasons. Then I went solo. I’ve found my happiness in this profession correlates to how well I am doing financially. When I first graduated and took a relatively low paying job, along with the big student loan payment, I hate hate hated this profession. it got a lot better as I figured out what I was doing and made some $. Now I’m a solo out on my own and I did well for a while but now it’s getting bad, and I literally have a negative income for the last 4 months. That’s like going 4 months without any personal income and then having to put your own money into the business. Right now, I hate hate hate this profession again and I find myself disliking it just as much when I first started practicing. I feel that at the end of the year I’m just going to shut it all down and in the interim figure out something else to do.

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