Can you really go straight from law school into solo practice? Do you know enough? What are the surest ways to succeed - or stumble? ISBA-member solos and others offer advice.
I'm a recent law school graduate and I'm considering starting up my own firm," wrote Chicago lawyer Ben Hughes in a June 4 post on ISBA's general e-mail discussion group. "I wonder if anyone would be willing to give me some advice."
Hughes, who was admitted to practice in November of last year, had several specific questions for his listmates but also noted, "I'm interested in anything that you think might be helpful."
Two of Hughes's questions attracted an especially large number of responses. First, Hughes wondered, "How much will my lack of experience hurt me? I went to a good law school and did well academically, so I feel good about my ability to figure out what the law is - but I am worried that the gap between what law school teaches you and what you need to know to serve clients effectively will turn out to be large." Hughes also inquired, "For those who have gone solo, was there anything that was particularly important to your success or that you wish you had known prior to starting your practice?"
Hughes's plans and questions are particularly timely in this season of a difficult legal job market. Law firms have recently been making headlines with their decisions to postpone hiring first-year associates, and a column called "Notes From The Breadline," together with all the latest layoff news, has recently made an appearance on the legal Web site Above The Law.
But apart from the recent negative economic news, law school has always attracted a number of independent-minded men and women who either prefer or wouldn't even consider working for anyone but themselves. Some Illinois law schools are reporting an increase in the numbers of law students and recent graduates expressing interest in or deciding to open their own law practices, perhaps partly as a result of law firm and company cutbacks.
At the same time, lawyers, law professors, law students, and law schools across the country are reassessing whether legal education in this country should provide more instruction on the practical and business aspects of practicing law. At John Marshall Law School, for example, instructor Clifford Scott-Rudnick and ISBA Board of Governors member Russell Hartigan inaugurated a course for aspiring solos in the academic year just past.
A "tremendously generous profession"
Amid cautionary economic news and commentary, there are bright spots of optimism for Hughes and others in his position. As Scott-Rud-nick says of lawyers, "We're a tremendously generous profession in terms of sharing expertise and information with people who are just starting out." And ISBA has a myriad of resources, including not only the discussion group to which Hughes turned with his questions but also publications such as section newsletters and the IBJ and seminars providing CLE credit, all of which will help new or aspiring solo practitioners start and build their practices.
Other ISBA members were quick to post answers to Hughes's questions, both on the discussion group and to his personal e-mail. And those responses, Hughes said, helped confirm that opening his own practice shortly thereafter was the right thing for him to do.
"More than any particular piece of advice I received, I was struck by how many people took the time to respond and offer advice and by how generous many of those attorneys were in offering their help as I got my practice off the ground," Hughes said. "As a new attorney starting a law practice from scratch, you face a pretty steep learning curve. Knowing that I had a network of experienced lawyers to call on if I had questions played a big part in my decision to go ahead and start my own firm."
In both their responses to Hughes and in follow-up interviews, lawyers' advice to Hughes's queries ran the gamut. On the threshold concept of hanging out a shingle fresh from passing the bar exam, reactions from experienced solos ranged from "You're nuts - don't do it!" to "Go for it!"
But all agreed on some basic guidelines: Keep your expenses low, make sure you get paid - but recognize that you will have to work many hours for which you won't be able to charge. Those who posted as well as other lawyers who commented for the IBJ also emphasized that new practitioners shouldn't be shy about asking other lawyers for help.
Learning by doing
Hughes's primary concern was whether his lack of experience would hamper his ability to serve his clients effectively. Some who responded urged him to work with other, experienced lawyers before attempting to handle cases himself.
Wrote solo practitioner Harold Wallin, "When you go solo without any experience, you...may not even realize you have made an error until it is too late to correct it." In a similar vein, Mokena solo Judy A. Goldstein said "please develop a network of mentors because you, like the rest of us, start out essentially incompetent (or barely competent), or at the very least, too green to handle anything complicated without assistance."
Others took a more sanguine view. Wrote Ottawa lawyer Melissa Maye, "Don't worry - you'll make mistakes, but short of blowing a statute of limitations, you can fix almost anything by amendment."
While Huntley solo TJ Thurston believes "law school is essentially worthless to the practice of law," Thurston also drew a distinction between competence and efficiency. "I truly believe that you are competent now. Experience doesn't make you more competent, it makes you more efficient in that competency."
Agreeing, LaGrange solo Majdel Musa said in an interview, "I think people learn more by doing things themselves than by shadowing someone for a few years. With all the resources available on the 'net, attorneys can [usually] find the answers on their own these days." Added Thurston, "Your lack of experience will only hurt you if you rest on the laurels of your law school education."
But Thurston and Musa also recognized the need for continuing education as well as setting limits. "Know where to get the resources to learn" how to handle matters, Thurston counseled, recommending CLE seminars from ISBA and other providers as well as ISBA's discussion groups for asking questions of attorneys around the state. "You do have to recognize your limitations," said Musa, "and know when to pass something on to someone with more experience or expertise."
Learning by observing, making the right friends
A prime way of learning how to handle cases, Thurston pointed out, is taking on pro bono cases under the auspices of qualified legal service providers. Still another means of learning, he continued, is to observe how judges and opposing counsel handle themselves.
In accord with Thurston, Ogle County solo Maria Berger counseled Hughes to go to court to watch proceedings to learn proper court etiquette and procedures. "Know this: Each courtroom has its own procedures, and each judge does things differently. Some judges want you to check in before calling your case. Some just go through the call top to bottom, and some just let whoever is ready come up."
Making friends with the support staff at the courthouse will serve the new attorney well, Berger added. "Your first time in a judge's courtroom," she advised, "ask the bailiff or the court reporter, or anyone who looks official," about the judge's preferred procedures.
"Make the circuit clerks your friends, too," Berger urged. "You will need them a lot." When you accept a case in a new area, for example, "Go to the circuit clerk's office at the courthouse and look through a case like one that you are taking" in addition to consulting practice handbooks, she said.
Judges' secretaries and clerks, too, can be very helpful in finding some time in a judge's schedule for a hearing or advising the novice attorney on how best to present a motion. As Grayslake solo Ronald Runkle urged, "Be courteous and friendly to the court clerks. They are usually nice people, and they can help you."
Should you take every case?
Lawyers expressed different views on the extent to which a new solo should focus or diversify a practice. Urbana solo Thomas Bruno, who opened his office fresh out of law school almost 30 years ago, advised Hughes to "[t]ake anything that walks in the door. You'll figure it out."
Bruno was reassuring about Hughes's concern about providing effective representation to his clients while yet inexperienced. "You won't get hired on anything overly important, and the kinds of folks who hire someone like you have usually got problems that you can handle." He continued, "I don't think you'll have to worry too much about categories of cases you won't take. They won't find you."
But Runkle took a diametrically opposite view. "Don't take all matters," Runkle wrote. Though accepting more types of cases may allow newly admitted lawyers faced with paying off student loans as well as all of their other expenses to make more money, Runkle said, it also "expand[s] the possibility of screwing up and getting sued for malpractice."
Thurston agreed with Runkle that solos should resist the temptation to say "yes" to everyone. "Don't just take everything that comes in the door," he said. "Lawyers are procrastinators by nature. If you don't like it and don't want to do it, it's taking away time that you could be spending developing expertise in something you like. And it could lead to ethical problems."
And, though Thurston has had some very positive experiences in representing friends and relatives, he generally warned against accepting their cases: "If they perceive that they'll get free or less expensive services from you, not only will you get paid less, but also they will eternally gripe about your services."
Bloomington solo Richard M. Manzella also advocated for focusing a new practice. Whether in a transactional setting or a litigation practice, Manzella wrote, a solo's best bet for building a practice is "to master a specific area of the law and become someone who is recognized by clients, counsel and the com munity for your particular subject matter expertise."
And that area, he said, should be work that you enjoy. "Finding something that you're passionate about now and tomorrow will sustain you through good and bad years.
"The attorney who simply chases a particular practice area in the hopes of 'making it big' at the expense of fully investing in a career of constant learning can easily become disenchanted and miss developments in the law or opportunities for new business growth," he said. New attorneys who aren't sure in what areas of law they'd like to concentrate can get a better idea by serving as second chairs to experienced practitioners or by chatting with them to find out "the good, the bad, and the ugly" about the various fields, he suggested.
Cautioning that lack of experience will result in having to spend significantly more time to handle a matter properly, Manzella said, "It will take some time to charge market rates reflective of the actual time you spend on the work." An inexperienced lawyer's fees, he said "should not reflect the actual time spent on a matter if you are doing something for the first time."
Manzella, who focuses on employment law, also warned of other time-consuming but essential tasks in the course of solo practice. "Screening new clients for new consultations is the most obvious non-billable work in my area of practice," Manzella said. "Marketing, administrative, and even basic clerical tasks can consume tremendous time," he wrote.
"Even if you can afford help," he continued, "selection, training, mentoring and the related work employing such individuals," including tracking their time, cutting their paychecks, and filing the proper reports to state and federal authorities, requires substantial time - all of which is nonbillable. And don't forget, he added, that you'll have to figure out what to do when your computer goes down or the fax machine jams. "It helps to have some basic software and hardware knowledge and skills," Manzella wrote.
Build a network
A common thread running through the responses to Hughes's query as well as in the comments of others interviewed was the value of building a network of friends and mentors, for camaraderie and support as well as for education. Admonished Oak Park attorney Paul Prybylo, "The most stupid thing to do is not to ask questions because you're afraid of appearing stupid." Wrote Berger, "Feel free to bother me with questions constantly - I did it to others, and I couldn't have gotten by without it!"
She added, "Ignore the few people on the list who will tell you that you are asking basic questions. Ninety-nine percent of the listserv will be supportive and not think you are dumb just because you don't know something they know." Added Prybylo, "Most older attorneys are happy to answer questions. This is a very serious profession. You can't know everything. You need support and mentors - people to bounce things off."
Like the other lawyers interviewed, Musa is a fan of ISBA's discussion groups for asking questions. But, she and others emphasize, Internet contact is a supplement to, not a substitute for, in-person interactions.
In fact, she and Thurston have both organized in-person meetings for the members of various electronic discussion groups - Thurston for ISBA groups, and Musa for the ABA Solosez group - and have forged lasting professional friendships with lawyers in other areas of the state and country that have led to substantial business referrals.
Scott-Rudnick, who teaches professional responsibility as well as the class for aspiring solo practitioners at John Marshall, fears that some solo practitioners may make practice or ethical blunders as a result of isolation from peers.
"People can get into trouble when they don't have any kind of a safety net or network of colleagues to run problems by."
He says all students who take the class he and Hartigan teach at John Marshall agree to stay in touch with the school and to help solos emerging from subsequent classes. The school also hopes its new Solo Practitioner Portal, which includes a blog and other resources for solo attorneys, will better enable solos to find the help and encouragement they need to build thriving practices without serious blunders.
Write a business plan
Part of the curriculum for Scott-Rud-nick's and Hartigan's class at John Marshall includes writing a business plan for a solo practice. Writing a business plan, Scott-Rudnick explains, benefits the aspiring solo because it requires the lawyer to think through, in writing, what he or she wants to do.
"It starts with the objectives of the business. What kind of law are you going to practice? What will be your expenses and anticipated revenues? What will be the sources of those expenses and revenues? The business plan is an outline of what you expect and want to happen."
Scott-Rudnick says a business plan is important even if a lawyer ends up not following it. "It helps you contemplate what you can and cannot control. Thinking about those issues goes a long way." Having a business plan is also essential for solos who wish to obtain financing for their new practices from lenders, he says.
Scott-Rudnick and several solos cautioned that it's essential for the new solo to keep expenses low. "Startup attorneys are marks for vendors. If you're not prepared for that, you'll get blown away," says Scott-Rudnick, commenting that writing a business plan will help the new solo think through what expenses are really necessary and which are not.
"Let your revenue drive your overhead," advised Carroll County solo Kipp Meyers in a post to the discussion group. "Never incur an expense to create revenue. Let the revenue create the need for the expense."
Agreeing, Bloomingdale lawyer Michael Hovde counseled avoiding services leading to recurring monthly charges, such as yellow pages advertising or 800 number client lead programs. Chicago solo Peter Olson, who writes the popular Solo In Chicago blog, said in a post "I still kick myself" about overspending in his early years, particularly on commercial lawyer referral programs and office space.
Indeed, some solos, such as Chicago lawyer Charles Drennen, even maintain and grow their practices without renting office space, meeting their clients in coffee shops, public libraries, courthouses, conference rooms in friends' or former firms' offices, or the clients' own homes. (See LawPulse at page 440 for essential tech tools for solos.)
All lawyers agreed that solos should take every opportunity to market themselves. Marketing, however, need not be a significant component of a solo's costs. Advises Musa, "Get on every free attorney listing on the Internet. Get a website and/or blog. Get on Facebook and Twitter and have both linked to your blog."
As part of both good business practice and marketing, Meyers recommends the careful selection of an accountant and banker. "They will help you learn how to run and finance a business." Meyers says those professionals have also been a better source of referrals for him than other lawyers. "The best way to develop business is to get to know realtors, bankers, accountants and insurance people - not other lawyers. A colleague and I always joke that any case we refer to each other is bound to be a piece of s---."
Behaving and looking like a professional at all times - which need not require an expensive wardrobe - is also an important part of marketing, says Prybylo. "Dress and comport yourself like a professional, because it reflects on you and the profession. This is especially important for solos because you and no one else are representing your firm. When you are out in public, people are going to talk to you. You're marketing yourself 24/7. When you dress profes sionally, you feel and act differently."
Surprises unpleasant and pleasant
Some of the solos interviewed said they've had some unpleasant surprises in the course of cultivating their practices. Chicago solo Tatiana Czaplicki said the time she's had to spend collecting her fees has been the least pleasant surprise for her. "I feel empathy for my clients who are having a hard time, but I don't get paid every two weeks. I need to eat, too."
Several other lawyers, including Musa, say they wish they'd known how important it was to collect retainer fees at the outset of representation. Says Musa, "I finally figured it out after a few years of having to chase clients down for payment."
Musa notes another difficult lesson she had to learn as a new solo: managing clients' expectations. "I learned that you have to set out what you can and can't do for the client right away," including providing a timeline for the case or transaction, advising of the cost, and making sure they understand that some matters will entail extra costs. "You also have to let them know that you cannot always be in the office and available to respond to them right away."
But pleasant surprises also happen to new solos, these lawyers said. Number one on Thurston's list of agreeable happenings was "you find you're able to bring in clients."
Explaining, he said he worked so much on the cases of existing clients at the law firm where he had worked that he didn't have the time to market himself and wasn't encouraged to do so. "When you're on your own, people call because they see you."
For Drennen, the most gratifying surprise was that "because so many people have unhappy experiences with lawyers not returning their phone calls, you can compensate for some lack of experience by being the most responsive attorney you can be." He recounts having a series of long conversations with a client who came to him for a criminal record expungement, which Drennen ultimately determined was not going to be possible.
Despite Drennen's delivering him that unwelcome news, the client was so pleased with Drennen's attention and respectful attitude that he's sent him many better-paying referrals. "Every time I see him, he asks for another stack of my cards to pass out."
Though they work hard, solos also admit to enjoying reclaiming their schedules and their lives. Meyers, for example, wrote, "I have a great boss who is letting me leave early to go trap shooting!" And Bruno remarked, "When you drive home with a pocket full of cash, tell yourself, 'I don't have to share this with anyone.'"
While no career path is without difficulties and unpleasant surprises, those interviewed believe, on balance, that flying solo - even fresh out of law school - is feasible and worthwhile. Though Assistant Dean for Career Planning and Professional Development Tony Waller of the University of Illinois College of Law thinks it's important for anyone considering opening a solo law practice to make a measured decision, Waller has also noted what he terms a "confidence gap" among law students using his office's services, meaning "some people may have more stomach for running their own business than they think. A lot of people who don't open their own practices would be successful if they decided to do so."
Said Musa, "I will always be an advocate of going solo straight out of school" for those who feel it's the right path for them. Indeed, Musa admits to puzzlement when she hears other solo attorneys insisting that a lawyer must not go solo before working for someone else's law firm - especially in the current economy.
Tom Bruno is not among that company, advising Hughes that "the folks who will rattle off all kinds of things to worry about probably didn't do what you are about to do, so say 'thank you' and take their list of cautions with a grain of salt."
Runkle provided an additional heartening observation for Hughes's and any other aspiring solo's concern about a lack of experience: "Understand that even experienced lawyers don't have all the answers." Nor, he added, do the judges. "You will never know enough. Learning the law is a continual process."