Everything That You Need To Know About Succeeding As An Associate, You Can Learn From Solo Practice

If you’ve just read this article’s title, you’re probably racking your brain trying to figure out what the heck a lowly solo practitioner like me can teach you about succeeding as a law firm associate.

After all, you probably think that most solos simply churn out form documents for simpleton clients who need help with run of the mill problems like estate planning or divorce or landlord tenant matters.  Whereas you, a law firm associate grapple with earth shattering matters of first impression and must satisfy not only with sophisticated business clients but also demanding law firm partners. And for goodness sakes, you’re billed out at an hourly rate that matches or exceeds what most solos charge. So what secrets of success can you possibly learn from us?

Plenty. But before we get started, you’ll have to dispel your negative impression of solo practitioners. First of all, you may not realize that many solos handle complicated, traditionally “biglaw matters,” such as tax, corporate transactional work, regulatory and complex litigation. Even solos with consumer oriented specialties like criminal law, consumer credit, bankruptcy or family law regularly encounter constitutional issues or dissect tricky federal and state statutes. And while solos may charge less than a biglaw associate, because of lean staffing and low overhead, they also pocket a larger percentage of that $300/hr billable (as much as 80 percent of it) than you do.

But most importantly, not only do solos deal with substantive issues, they do so while overseeing office administration, managing employees or virtual staff and constantly marketing their practice. Once you begin to view solos not as loser-lawyers who couldn’t cut it in biglaw practice but as a blend of independent lawyer, team manager and entrepreneur, you’ll appreciate how solos’ secrets of success can help you too.

1. Own It!

The first secret of solos’ success is that we recognize that we don’t merely work at our firm; we own it.  Every action that we take – or don’t take – directly impacts our own bottom line.  So early on, we learn to assume full responsibility for our caseload, our clients and our destiny.  Most likely, you’re well acquainted with the mindshift that ownership brings.  For example, you’re more likely to fill the car that you own with premium gas than the rental that you drove on  vacation.  And if you own a home, you probably invest more resources in its upkeep than you did in the apartment that you rented in law school.  

Granted, as an associate, you don’t own your law firm and you probably don’t even own the clients whose matters you handle.  Nevertheless, you need to act as if you do to succeed.  Ask yourself — if this were you law firm, would you send out a poorly proofed or ill-formatted document to a client because it was only a draft? Of course not – because you’d realize that it would reflect badly on your firm.  So do you balk about cleaning up a draft as an associate?   Likewise, if you assigned your law clerk to research a memo and he returned with a skeletal list of citations, would you be satisfied?  Probably not – so don’t expect this same substandard work product to satisfy your current superiors.  If you act as if you own the place, perhaps some day, you will. 

2.  Get What You Need No Matter What

We solos have no one to rely on but ourselves.   We must exercise our professional, independent judgment to determine what we need to effectively and zealously represent our clients – and then stop at nothing to get it.   That may mean asking a series of stupid questions to a colleague or perhaps even hiring a more experienced lawyer to help out on a case.  It may mean demanding, repeatedly, that a balky client tell the truth about an incident so that we can evaluate her case and establish a suitable strategy.   It may mean standing firm before an insulting, nasty judge to make sure that we properly preserve an objection for appeal. 

Just like us solos, as an associate, you must figure out what you need for a case and get it at any cost. If you believe that you can’t meaningfully research whether your client’s contract was supported by legally sufficient consideration without reviewing the contract itself, then you must insist on getting a copy.  If you know that it will take you at least five full days to summarize the past five years worth of employment discrimination decisions issued by the Second Circuit and the partner says he wants it in three, then demand more time and back up your request with a persuasive argument.  There’s no sense in sabotaging yourself and producing less than your best work because you didn’t seek out the resources that you determined were necessary to succeed. 

3.  Build Relationships, Not Contact Lists

No doubt, as a solo, my mailing list of contacts comprises an important part of my marketing efforts.  With a mailing list, I can blast contacts with a press release about an recent victory or forward a link to a recent blog post.   But while contact lists keep me loosely connected with a large group of existing clients and remote prospects, the bulk of my business comes through referrals from close working relationships that I’ve cultivated over time.  For example, since I’ve been blogging since 2002, I’ve built relationships with the early pioneer community of bloggers who in turn have put me in touch with sources of business.  I’ve formed alignments with other solo energy lawyers here in the D.C. area – and we’ll often refer cases back and forth and team up on matters.  And though up until recently, I’ve only had two close female friends, not including my three sisters, I’ve developed lasting friendships through blogs and listserves with several accomplished female solo lawyers who inspire me with the ways that they balance family, law practice and thriving entrepreneurial careers.

Conventional wisdom suggests that you work with many different lawyers at your firm – and indeed, you may feel that simply knowing more people will enhance your job security.   And while there’s nothing wrong with reaching out to many, eventually, you should focus on building trusted relationships with a select few  partners and associates with whom you share common goals and values.  They’re the people who will go to bat for you – and will continue to root for you even if you eventually leave the firm.

4. Different Ways to Skin A Cat

Like Jack who jumped over the candlestick, we solos are nimble and quick.  The legal and economic landscape changes constantly, sometimes diminishing our fortunes (as is the case for real estate lawyers in recession), but always presenting new opportunities (as is the case for bankruptcy lawyers in recessionary times).  The most successful solos monitor these trends, ever poised to find ways to capitalize on potentially lucrative areas. 

Likewise, when we realize that one business model is broken, we don’t just throw more resources down the drain, but instead, figure out a way to tweak it to find success.  In my own case, I realized that many of the nascent marine renewable energy companies that I represented for bargain rates in their early stages would ultimately trade me in for a biglaw model once the first round of venture capital came through the door.  Rather than try to cut my rates further, I founded a trade association with a colleague to represent the interests of the industry in lobbying and policy matters rather than helping an individual company.

As an associate, particularly a young associate, you may find yourself squeezed out of sexy practice niches or interesting opportunities.  However, the possibilities remain endless.  Instead of fighting with others for a middling position on a project, why not scope out your own business opportunity and start blogging about it?  Or better yet, why not ask to interview firm clients for your blogs – which will give you first hand access?  Or you might organize a monthly networking event for young lawyers or women or lawyers of color who are interested in a particular practice area.  By taking the lead, you become the go to person instead of remaining the low man on the totem pole. 

In short, don’t assume that you need to wait quietly in line for your chance to get the contact or experience that you crave.  Instead, like us solos, search for opportunities and figure out shortcuts or alternative approaches to capture them.

5.  Learn In the Most Unusual Places

Most solos are sponges, soaking up lessons on client service and marketing from every day circumstances.  Every time I thumb through the ads in a magazine or observe how a restaurant waiter deals with an obnoxious patron, I ask myself whether I can apply any of those lessons to my own practice.  In fact, some of the most outrageously successful solos borrow their marketing and business ideas not from conventional lawyer-marketing gurus, but from copyrighters, advertisers and entrepreneurs who’ve found success in other venues.

As an associate, you should do the same.  If you represent a successful businessman, pump him for information about his business, his goals and what keeps him up at night.  The information will help you better serve him but will also give you insight into how you might advance your own career.   Likewise, if there are a few charismatic partners at your firm whom you admire, observe them closely and see if you can emulate their mannerisms, their dress and work habits.

Most of all, don’t reject advice out of hand.  In most cases, even the worst suggestions generally obscure a worthwhile nugget if you’re willing to dig deep enough.   That includes advice from well meaning friends, from a spouse or that old seemingly senile law partner emeritus who constantly reminisces about the good old days when law was a noble profession.  And believe it or not, even advice from a lowly solo like me.

Carolyn Elefant is the author of Solo by Choice: How to Be the Lawyer You Always Wanted to Be, a why-to book that makes the case for why you should consider solo practice at any stage of your career and offers 300 pages of solid advice on how to leverage 21st century trends like outsourcing, alternative billing, social networking and technology to successfully build a cutting edge practice.  Carolyn lives the advice she gives; for 14 years, she has operated the Law Office of Carolyn Elefant in Washington D.C. specializing in energy regulatory matters, ocean renewables and civil and appellate litigation.