March 2008 • Volume 96 • Number 3 • Page 118
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A solo’s advice on going solo
A young sole practitioner's take on the perils and pleasures of hanging out your shingle.
What lawyer hasn't thought at some point about going solo? Chicago lawyer and blogger Peter R. Olson provides some sound advice and recounts what's worked for him and what hasn't in his article, I hung my shingle: What I've learned in two years of solo practice in the January 2008 issue of ISBA's General Practice, Solo and Small Firm Section newsletter.
Virtual office, virtual staff
Olson, whose practice includes elder law, domestic relations, and real estate law, spread his solo wings about twoand-a-half years after receiving his law license, having obtained valuable experience practicing law in a small suburban firm, he writes. Though newly minted lawyers can find the job market tough going these days, he recommends against going solo just out of law school, noting that in most cases law school provides only a theoretical, not a practical, education.
Most lawyers, he observes, must learn how to practice law after graduating and passing the bar. "This," he says, "is best done on an employer's dime and under the supervision of an experienced practitioner."
So how do you know when you're ready to open your own office? Before making the decision, Olson suggests assessing the prospects for clients. Five of around 20 clients chose to follow him to his new office, he says, providing some needed income at the outset. Client prospects might also include referrals from other professionals, including fellow lawyers in different legal fields and geographic areas, prepaid legal services, or bar associations such as ISBA, the latter of which, he says, "give you great bang for your buck."
Olson also recommends asking yourself whether you have a degree of expertise in two or three areas sufficient for you to feel confident advising clients on your own. Clients will be unlikely to feel confident enough to hand over a retainer fee, after all, if your answers to their questions range from "I don't know" to "Uh - let me get back to you on that."
That said, it's difficult for any lawyer to get out of providing those answers from time to time. Olson urges, therefore, that the lawyer considering solo practice make a special effort to reach out to other lawyers who can serve as mentors, both for business and substantive legal questions. Both ISBA and the Chicago Bar Association, he notes, have created mentor programs in recent years, and more experienced lawyers are generally happy to help less experienced lawyers who ask for assistance.
Olson recounts his own experience in selecting an office, recommending a "space for services" arrangement with another law firm if possible. After trying out several different arrangements, however, he's concluded "there's very little need for a physical office and it wastes critical dollars. In my practice, with regular court appearances and real estate closings and 21st century technology, I've found that in-person meetings with clients are virtually non-existent."
To avoid holding necessary client meetings at his home, Olson expects to take advantage of the growing number of services that provide professionals with temporary office space and conference rooms.
Olson says the prospect of outsourcing his billing also intrigues him. While emphasizing the need for regular billing and follow-up to collect, he also comments on the discomfort of "dealing with traumatic and personal legal issues with a person and then simultaneously calling them about the $500 they didn't pay last month."
For this reason, as well as for the sake of making that time available for practicing more law, "wall yourself off from collections" if at all possible, he urges, and delegate the business of collecting to nonlawyer staff, as do other professionals. "As a business matter, without any support staff I'd guess a lawyer can spend only 20-25 percent of his time on billable legal work. The more non-billable work you can delegate to non-lawyer employees the more profitable you will become."
And having a staff doesn't mean the new and often penurious solo needs to hire employees complete with salaries, W-2 forms, and health insurance, he notes. "Consider the use of virtual workers," he suggests. "With 21st century technology it's simple to forward phone calls to an off-site employee and to share computer network resources over the Internet."
Olson also provides valuable practical suggestions for naming your new firm, choosing a business entity such as an LLC or PC, and registering an Internet domain. Perhaps most important, he says, is taking out a malpractice insurance policy that's effective on the first day the new solo opens the firm doors. Doing so is critical not only for the lawyer's own protection, he points out, but also for signing up for bar association referrals.
To raise his own profile, Olson has started three Weblogs: Solo In Chicago (soloinchicago.blogspot.com), Closing Real Estate In Chicago (closingonreal estate.blogspot.com), and The Illinois Family Lawyer(familylawyerillinois.blog spot.com).
Their benefits? "I am regularly interviewed in the legal press and have been profiled in multiple publications; none of this would have happened but for my presence in the blog[o]sphere. Second, there is a wide-ranging and extremely active group of solo and small firm bloggers across the country. Without listing them all, let me say that nothing inspired me to hang my shingle more than these lawyer bloggers."
Olson warns that solo practice isn't for everyone. "It's not something to do on a whim for six months to a year. I think you have to be committed to sticking it out for three to five years to really give it a fair shot." You'd better enjoy marketing and business development, because, like any entrepreneur, you'll have to make those, and not the actual practice of law, your primary focus for a while, since you can't practice law unless you've gone out and gotten clients.
But, he continues, "You'll build something that's yours. And there's no failure. Several years in solo practice provides a breadth of experience not found in the typical associate attorney role."