Another Solo Practice Bites the Dust

This week, it’s Above the Law  columnist Shannon Achimalbe’s turn to Monday morning quarterback a solo practice that ran out of steam– a topic covered previously by Lawyerist , MyShingle and Simple Justice. In spite of this handful of posts, failed law firms or failed start-ups don’t get much coverage (and when they do, it’s all smoke or spin). So even though failure isn’t a topic we like to hear about, analysis is necessary for a balanced view.

In a nutshell, here’s the skinny on the Achimalbe’s hapless solo. He went to law school to escape a minimum wage job but couldn’t find employment after graduation. After a year out of school, he ran into a couple of classmates who’d started practices – and while it wasn’t his first shot, he decided to give it a try.  The first year was rough, with just four clients, and monthly expenses of around $2000 – including rent, bar and networking events, advertising and suppliers – so solo worked odd jobs part time to supplement income. Year two, solo committed to more networking and pro bono that finally bore fruit. So not surprisingly, Year 3 (always the charm) brought a lucrative client which necessitated expansion.  Solo grew – but too quickly — hiring an assistant and adding the cost of additional office space and updated phone system – a jump of $2000/month to $5k. Of course, you know what happens next: two months later, business takes a dive, solo can’t cover his costs and sheds the assistant and fancy digs. But this time around, his heart isn’t in pounding the pavements to get the business back on track and so he shuts down, taking a somewhat more stable but low paying non-legal position.

So what went wrong? Certainly, the $3000/month overhead bump was largely to blame – but why did this solo feel that it made sense to ramp up so quickly? With so many outsourcing options – independent contractors and virtual assistants or even part time work force – readily available and well-documented at websites galore, it is difficult to understand why this solo chose to lock himself when the cash had barely started to flow. Perhaps he was tempting fate – figuring that if solo practice was meant to be, he’d cover that new overhead and then some. Or maybe, because his heart wasn’t fully committed to solo practice even after three years in, he acted impulsively because he felt he had nothing to lose. 

Attitude matters – because much of what you have to do in those first few years of practice ain’t pretty. You spend lots of time doing grunt work on committees, sucking up to bar honchos so they’ll throw business your way and establishing relationships with mentors which can be a great help but also a waste of time (the unsuccessful solo mentioned that one mentor provided useless advice about a case though another was very helpful). Unless you really want to do what you’re doing, this kind of stuff can be torture.

Still, even if you’re one of those lawyers who’s on the fence about starting a practice, the cautionary tale at ATL doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. Because you just might find that after enough time, solo practice just might capture your heart .

And now readers, let me capture your advice in the comment section. What do you think went wrong with this unsuccessful solo and what would you have advised as a fix?