Sunday, March 22, 2009

Going Solo - Laid Off Lawyers Making the Switch

Laid Off Lawyers Making the Switch to Solo Practice Entering law school, my intent was always to become a big shot Wall Street lawyer complete with the requisite red suspenders, a summer place in the Hamptons and one of those metal ball things on my desk. You know the things with the suspended balls that hit back and forth......but I digress. After interning for a solo practitioner, I decided that a small practice was ultimately a better fit for me. While my friends were doing first year associate busy work. I found myself thrown into the trenches. For better or worse, while they were billing hundreds of hours for senior associates, I was cutting my teeth in court defending scoflaws My experience is probably not that unique. At most small firms, you usually have to hit the ground running. A small staff plus large caseload equal more responsibility. Although working at a smaller firm initally had its drawbacks (i.e. less pay), I was happy that I was able to make my own hours. More importantly, I was not married to a particular practice group. If I wanted to try family law, criminal defense or contract work, nothing prevented me from doing so.

Now the state of the economy is forcing many to jump into the solo practice pool. Mammoth firms like DLA Piper, Goodwin Procter, Holland & Knight, Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, and Latham & Watkins have been forced to lay off hundreds of their attorneys. The one hundred sixty year old year old Thacher Proffitt & Wood, a dream job for many star eyed law students, closed its doors in December. Word around the water cooler is that 2 Skadden Arps partners in the Washington D.C. Office are jumping ship to form a new law firm. Firms have begun withdrawing job offers while dejected lawyers deal with law school debts, mortgage payments and dashed lofty career expectations. No longer able to afford Manhattan's high rents, some have moved back home with mom and dad. Others have gone into teaching and other careers. Recently, I had the unique experience of showing a middle aged corporate lawyer how to fill out an appearance form for his DUI matter. With his 401K gone along with his corporate job, he decided to hang a shingle and try solo practice. If you have chosen a similar path, I humbly offer some advice.

  1. Make sure you know what your getting into. If you are coming from a big firm environment, you may have gotten used to some things being done for you. Senior associates assign clients to you depending on your practice group. Paralegals help research cases. At the end of the week, you get your paycheck. You don't worry about who pays for the lights, the rent or your post it notes. As a solo starting out, you will do much of this on your own. Before you pay yourself, you have to pay for everything else around you. You might have hearings scheduled at the same time in several different courts. You will juggle your own schedule and get your own clients. At a small firm, you must be the rainmaker.
  2. How are your marketing skills? It is now up to you to get your name out there. Start with friends and family. You will be surprised at the connections some people have. Think of it as the 6 degrees to Kevin Bacon effect. Give seminars to local groups. Another good resource is small newspapers. An article about you is more effective than an ad. Many of the writers are looking for ideas for their daily quota. Let them know about you and what you are doing. Networking will make or break your practice in the first few years. If you want to advertise, do it in targeted publications for maximum effect. Make sure to do so within ethics rules.
  3. Associate with established attorneys. At a larger firm, senior associates often impart wisdom on whether you should pursue a case, when to settle, or when to go to trial. Are you confident in your abilities enough to go at it alone? Don't get too cocky. I know you went to Harvard Law and you were dealing with multimillion dollar clients setting up shipping contracts to Luxembourg. But what about practical experience. Do you know where the courthouse is? Do you know which prosecutor has an ax to grind? Do you know how to effectively sneak out of your office when some nut comes in wanting to sue the President because there are too many squirrels in his yard. (the trick is to make sure your suit jacket doesn't get caught when crawling out your office window). Associating with an established attorney will help you tremendously and will give you a great resource. He will already have an establish client base that you can improve on. A good support staff is also key. You can easily take on a larger caseload if you have a competent staff helping you. Short on funds to pay staffers? Look into outsourcing to save money the first few years.

  4. Play up your skills. The wonderful thing about solo practice is that you are not married to one practice area. This is your chance to do something you enjoy. It is also an opportunity for you to showcase your skills. Speak another language? Use it to your advantage. Growing up, I learned Polish from my grandmother. Honestly, I never thought it was a skill that would ever come in handy. I never considered that over 300,000 Polish people lived in Connecticut with 30,000 Polish people living in my area alone. Despite this fact, I was surprised to learn that only 3 or 4 area attorneys spoke Polish and served this under represented market. I now had something to offer that the majority of my competition could not provide to prospective clients. Our first step was to open a ramshackle 2 room satellite office in a Polish neighborhood to test the waters. I joined a local Polish business association and started making the rounds among local businesses. Within 4 months, we had outgrown the office. Within 8 months, we moved to a larger location in the neighborhood and our new office was outproducing our stately downtown office over 75%.
  5. Consider the location of your office Obviously, a part of this depends on what type of law you want to practice. Want to do entertainment law? Consider somewhere like California or New York. You want to do admiralty law? An office in the Iowa cornfields may not be a good fit. Location is very important. Renting an expensive suite downtown may cost you more and lead to less clients than a well placed smaller office in a high traffic area. In my situation, our law practice was located downtown Hartford in an old stately mansion. My office had a beautiful view of the city. Our New Britain branch office was located in a former cell phone store and only had two rooms. We were down the street from a strip club. But the office was a great location. It was close to the courthouse and near major highways and bus lines. It was great for the criminal defense, immigration and real estate portions of our practice. Wealthier towns were a few minutes away. Our street had a NYC feel with daily foot traffic. Luckily we opened just in time for a renaissance in the area. Within a year of our opening, local businesses began to spruce up their own storefronts. The strip club was replaced with a jazz club. An abandoned bank was replaced with a day spa and grocery store. A European Cafe opened next to a new post office. We decided to buy a building from the city on the same street and haven't looked back since.
  6. Furnishing your office. You don't need to break the bank to furnish your office. But a nice appearance will bode well for your practice. First impressions can be crucial. I've walked into some offices with outdated worn furniture, messy desks, and my first thought is that maybe this guy isn't doing to well. It's human nature. More and more clients are being influenced by what they see in movies and on tv. Many equate the "old leather couch, wood paneled, cigar look" with experience and success. Choosing a timeless look will save you money in the long run. A trendy office will have to be updated every few years. Look for office warehouse stores that offer used discounted furniture. (for example Transfer Furniture in East Hartford) You would be amazed at some of the finds. Joining clubs like Direct Buy will allow you to buy high end stuff at cheap prices. You can get an imposing $5000 desk for about $1000. In New Haven, there is a warehouse that sells hotel furniture. You will save lots of money and be able to present your office in a positive light. Check out stores like Marshals and Homegoods for accent pieces (yes, I said accent pieces, I've been watching alot of Frasier reruns lately). Take care in things like designing your letterhead and your business cards. Cost cutting tip: check out vistaprint or iprint for business cards.
  7. Using the internet as a tool. The internet is a great tool for solos. From legal research to court directions, you will find it to be an integeral part of your practice. There are a ton of lawyer listing sites that offer free listings. If you want to do real estate law, check out the activerain.com. Claim your profile on avvo.com Add to your listing on merchantcircle.com Starting a website can also be done at minimal cost. Google and Yahoo both offer website services. We have been pleased with our own experience with Yahoo. They offer a site building program with premade templates. You don't need to be a wiz at code. I still can't set my VCR clock, but I set up my own blog and website. The Yahoo starter plan gives you a registered web domain address, emails and support. Its a work in progress but our ptblegal.com website was done using the service. A little more tech savvy? Check out sites like monstertemplates.com. You can customize professional looking premade templates specifically designed for attorneys.
  8. Bucking the trend It might be a good idea to not put all your eggs in one basket. Practicing in multiple areas can be helpful when the market changes. Your real estate practice can be booming one minute and can be dried up in the next. But if you also practice a little criminal defense, contract work, divorces, etc. you will gain a little security. Of course, don't try to do too much at once. If you try to take on every case that comes through the door, you will come to regret it. It is better to focus on a few key areas. It will allow you to develop your skills in those areas. Don't be afraid to try new things. Start a blog. Give a seminar. Try a new practice area.
  9. Budget. Make sure you budge accordingly. Solo practice has its ups and downs. Make sure you have savings for that unexpected emergency.
  10. Take time for yourself. Solo practice can be very stressful. Take a moment to relax. Don't take things personally. Enjoy it.

4 comments:

Jim said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
James said...

Thanks for the advice. We wanted a simple website for our office. A designer quoted us five grand to develop it.

Susan Cartier Liebel said...

Having done it myself and taught law students as an adjunct how to hang a shingle out of law school or after defecting from Big Law, there is a lot to going solo.

Mentorship is a major component to helping one feel competent, networking with other solos is critical to not feeling alone and LOW overhead, high tech critical.

@Jim - the quote you received is absurd! The platform you need for your web presence is a blogging platform (which can mimic a static website with an unlimited number of pages) and these are low to no cost to get started.

I hope this helps with the conversation.

Kevin said...

Excellent last point. Too many attorneys in small firms and solo practice end up letting work spill over further and further into their personal lives as they try to juggle the practice of law with the business of running a law practice. Few people work optimally at that pace and under that kind of pressure. There's a time to delegate, a time to turn to technology, a time to weed through processes and throw out the ones that aren't paying for themselves in terms of time and money.