Solo Practice — What will it Cost?
There is a rule in our house: You don’t go to Texas between the months of April and October. But I’d broken it and agreed to speak at the annual meeting of the State Bar of Texas … in June… in Houston. But other than the fact that even Texas-sized air conditioning couldn’t handle the heat and humidity in the convention center, it turned out to be a great idea. We had a grand old time discussing the future of the business of practicing law.
But as the session drew to a close, an elderly gentleman in the second row brought the whole room back to the reality of now, “My young nephew just passed the bar and can’t find a job. How much will it cost him to set up his own practice?” Excellent question! After a sassy answer from me (“Ten cents or maybe a quarter, assuming he already has his own computer and phone!”) I threw the question out to the roomful of experienced lawyers. Their answers ranged from agreement with me (really?) to thousands and thousands of dollars.
Hmmmm. The question seemed timely and worthy of a good answer in this market awash in brand-spanking-new unemployed lawyers. When I got back to the office (and cooler, drier weather!) I asked some people familiar with the territory for their answers and got some good ones. Almost all of them were better than my light-hearted response. The best, perhaps, came from someone whose recent experience—abandoning a big Manhattan firm to launch his own (highly successful!) solo practice in Times Square—gave him instant credibility when it comes to the dollars and cents.
But what about the other costs? If you choose to go it alone, it’s going to cost you more than money. What else do you need in your pocket to set up a successful law practice on your own? Now that’s an area I know. Assuming your professional competence, here’s what you’re going to need:
- Cheek. Check any self-doubts at the door because no one is going to know how very good you are unless you tell them. You’ll have to step right up and ask for what you want in a world where there will be no senior partner to take you under his wing.
- Enthusiasm. No one wants to hire a morose lawyer. Your clients will look to you for assurance that everything is going to be just fine. And, alone in your office, if you’re not a self-starter you can go all day and never get started at all.
- Persistence. In the beginning there will be months on end when you fear no one will hire you. Having called three separate times and sent an email, you’ll be tempted to give up and assume that guy is avoiding you. Persist. He isn’t. It’s just that his plate is much fuller than yours. That’s why he needs your help.
- Faith. In yourself. In your contacts. In karma and its ability to ultimately deliver.
- Perspective. One of the most important things you can offer a client is the ability to put their problem into the bigger picture, to see it in light of reality. You’re going to need to do that for yourself as well lest minor business challenges consume you.
- Contacts. You’ve heard the term “book of business.” Well, if you’re a brand new lawyer, you don’t have one. But what you do have is an iPad full of promising contacts: Your doctor, neighbor, teacher, sister, fraternity brother, classmates, god father, etc. and the people they know. Get in touch and stay in touch. Make sure they know what you’re looking for and how you can help.
- Support. You’re going to need someone to talk to. To hold your hand. Give you ideas.
- Commiserate. Maybe it’s your boyfriend. Or uncle. Or the solo lawyer in the office next door. If there are no obvious candidates, recruit some and create your own advisory board. They’ll keep you focused and probably bring you work.
- Organization. Filing systems. Calendars. Timekeeping. Billing and banking. There’s a lot to keep organized and unless you’ll have staff right out of the box (probably not a good idea) it all falls into your lap. There’s no surer way to lose someone’s confidence than to appear befuddled and confused about where and when things are.
- Resourcefulness. It doesn’t matter how much you want to look and act like the “big guys,” unless you are comfortable (maybe even proud) McGyver-ing a solution to the occasional problem instead of throwing money at it, you’ll always be a “small fry.”
- Originality. One of the three or four really valuable things marketing people teach is that you need to differentiate yourself from the competition. There are tens of thousands of ways to do that while remaining professional. If you’re an original thinker you won’t need help figuring them out. It’s what will keep you on the tip of your clients’ minds.
- A sense of humor. You’ll need to learn to laugh at yourself because if you don’t, there are times when you’ll cry. And, really, if you’re going to work this hard you might as well have fun doing it.
- Willingness to take a risk. Because that’s what it’s all going to come down to: your ability to take a flying leap off the 31st floor and hope like heck you grow wings before you hit bottom. Don’t let fear hold you back. Use it to your advantage. All the really good ones do.