Viability of solo practice after a few years of experience.

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Tdawg7669
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Viability of solo practice after a few years of experience.

Postby Tdawg7669 » Sat Mar 26, 2011 11:36 pm

I was wondering about the chances of making a decent living as a sole practitioner or starting your own small firm with another lawyer. I am in my last year of college and will be applying to law schools next cycle. I know that going solo from the get go is a bad idea and most of the topics that came up via search were about that.

However if I go to law school and for whatever reason get shut out of big/mid law or I get in but hate it, what is the likelihood of being able to succeed as a solo after a few years of experience.

It seems harder to find info on this as it is less black and white than "go to t14 and finish above median or top 10-30% at lower ranked schools" and a lot of the people that try it and fail are those who attempt it right out of school.

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Nicholasnickynic
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Re: Viability of solo practice after a few years of experience.

Postby Nicholasnickynic » Sun Mar 27, 2011 12:06 am

Tdawg7669 wrote:I was wondering about the chances of making a decent living as a sole practitioner or starting your own small firm with another lawyer. I am in my last year of college and will be applying to law schools next cycle. I know that going solo from the get go is a bad idea and most of the topics that came up via search were about that.

However if I go to law school and for whatever reason get shut out of big/mid law or I get in but hate it, what is the likelihood of being able to succeed as a solo after a few years of experience.

It seems harder to find info on this as it is less black and white than "go to t14 and finish above median or top 10-30% at lower ranked schools" and a lot of the people that try it and fail are those who attempt it right out of school.


Depends. I'm a 1L, so this is wild speculation, but I would say you would need like 10 years to do real work. I mean, if you were facing criminal charges, or were being sued for 100k, woudl you want to hire a lawyer with 3 years of experience?

I feel like if you go solo 3 years out you'd be doing DUI ambalance chasing etc.

Also, you sound like an incredibly reasonable person. Thats refreshing on these boards. If you have questions about applying to schools on east coast, and/or east coast job prospects, you can shoot me a PM if you want.

Tdawg7669
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Re: Viability of solo practice after a few years of experience.

Postby Tdawg7669 » Sun Mar 27, 2011 12:14 am

Thank you and I will probably take you up on that offer once I have an lsat score to work it.

aquaokay
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Re: Viability of solo practice after a few years of experience.

Postby aquaokay » Sun Mar 27, 2011 12:48 am

Yeah, I'm really interested in this too and haven't seen too much information posted on here about it.

For what it's worth, I know one person who started his own firm and two that have their own solo practice and I don't think any of them were practicing more than 3 years. The first is an uncle who worked in biglaw for not very long before realizing he wasn't going to make partner and decided to start his own Personal Injury firm with a co-worker. They have about 10 people working for them now and are quite wealthy. From talking to him I don't think he practiced more than 2 years - I don't know about his partner though.

The other two are a husband and wife that let me follow them around for a few days. They each have a home office in their basement. He does criminal defense and real estate and started out in the DAs office. She does family law and real estate and I'm not sure where she started out. He said that he was practicing for only 3 years before going solo.

Again, these are just a few cases so I don't know if they're anomalies, but it definitely seems at least possible to practice for only a few years before going solo. As a 0L I can't say anything from personal experience, but every lawyer I've talked to has said that the learning curve for a practicing law is so steep that in a few years if you don't know what your doing then your behind. Basically my impression is that they just throw you out in the water and tell you to swim, so it doesn't seem unrealistic to me to be able to start a solo practice after only a few years of experience. If anyone has information to the contrary though I'd be happy to be corrected.

Hope this helps!

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Cupidity
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Re: Viability of solo practice after a few years of experience.

Postby Cupidity » Sun Mar 27, 2011 1:11 am

My friend is a solo, started after about 5 years working for the PD's office. She now does criminal defense work and has a lucrative practice.

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Re: Viability of solo practice after a few years of experience.

Postby Anonymous User » Sun Mar 27, 2011 2:38 am

I personally know 3 attorneys who have successful solo practices that they began only a few years out.

Attorney 1: graduated from a T4 and first got a couple years experience clerking with a sole practitioner then opened up his own shop. Early on took any case he could get, primarily DUI's, divorce, bankruptcies, etc. Eventually developed the practice into exclusively bankruptcy and makes about $400,000+ (been in practice about 30 years).

Attorney 2: got an MBA then graduated from a T2 law school and spent 2 years in biglaw. Got laid off when the tech bubble burst and opened up shop doing estate planning. Revenue doubled every year and brings in about $300,000 annually at this point (been in practice about 15 years).

Attorney 3: less familiar with how he started out but know he graduated from T4 and opened shop taking any case he could get. Eventually settled on doing exclusively family law. Not sure what he brings in but I know he is independently wealthy and has the luxury of practicing at his own pace.

It is definitely possible to do it if you are good at what you do and are willing to put in the time. What they all have in common is that they easily put in the same hours as you would in biglaw. All of them have told me that landing clients at the outset is especially important - if someone walks in the office, you dont let them leave without getting the retainer signed even if it means working for bargain prices. Next, you do a hell of a job with their case and build your rep from there. Only after you have built a client base and a good reputation can you drop the shitlaw, pick your cases, and boost your rates. It is possible, but like any legal career you are looking at years of really hard work to achieve any level of success. The difference is, unlike a firm job, if you fail, you fail alone.

Edit: another thing to add - I dont think it is possible to start a shop from day 1. Legal practice is completely different from legal study and you absolutely need time working somewhere before you are anywhere near qualified to take on your own case.

BeautifulSW
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Re: Viability of solo practice after a few years of experience.

Postby BeautifulSW » Sun Mar 27, 2011 11:50 am

I think it depends on several factors, some subjective and others objective.

-Where are you? With well over 50,000 active licensed attorneys, Massachusetts is probably not a good place to hang a shingle. N.Mex. or Arizona OTOH, might be very good places to do it. The solo/small firm lawyers here in Southern N.Mex. all seem to be doing pretty well and I can tell you that there's room for one or two GOOD solo lawyers in my own city.

-Are you the kind of person who dreams of running a small business? A solo firm is a business first and foremost and if making payroll and deciding on internet providers is not your thing, you will tend to neglect the business end.

-Are you self-motivated? A small practice will require a lot of 60 hour weeks with no boss to tell you when, or how, to get things done.

I don't like to see brand new lawyers start out on their own. One or two years of supervised practice experience will help you avoid getting into trouble. However, I have known a dozen or so brand-new grads succeed as solos if they have a mentor relationship with a more experienced attorney. It can be done.

dark
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Re: Viability of solo practice after a few years of experience.

Postby dark » Sun Mar 27, 2011 1:23 pm

It all comes down to marketable skills and how you choose to run your business.

10 years experience seems excessive, I'd suggest a 2 year minimum whether it be in big, med, or small law. This is so that you get marketable legal skills, and you can observe law practice management. As for why someone would go to you over someone with 10 years experience or more - I asked this question to a MA lawyer and he simply smiled, rubbed his thumb and forefinger together in front of me and said "Money! People will come to you because you will provide cheaper rates!"

Then we had a discussion about why he set his pricepoint the way he did ($250 / hr) so as to avoid deadbeat clients.

Experience is definitely a good thing to have, it makes you more marketable, it makes you more confident, you'll waste less time and appear smarter to clients, it helps justify higher hourly rates and more serious clientele, and maybe you can even carry over clients to your practice who you worked with before. BUT, there are so many members of the general public out there who assume that simply going to law school will teach you how to be a good lawyer, that they will take a chance on you (assuming you put a little effort into marketing), especially if you can entice them with a comparatively cheap rate.

If you are starting out right after law school, a mentor would be a very very good thing to have.

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Re: Viability of solo practice after a few years of experience.

Postby Anonymous User » Sun Mar 27, 2011 5:38 pm

I think the answer depends also depends largely on what practice area and client base one is looking at. If you want to do big money commercial litigation, the answer would probably be several years of experience. Your clients won't want to hire the cheapest lawyer, they will want someone with a good amount of experience. On the other hand, if you're going for immigration or personal injury, you will probably just need enough time to learn the basics. I know plenty of lawyers who have gone off on their own after 2-3 years with a firm. Some even less.

For instance, I know one personal injury attorney who went solo right after graduation. He interned at a personal injury firm while in law school. He is black and his client base is mostly black. He is really successful, already has tons of ads all over the place, etc, and he is still in his 20's. He did have one advantage: His family owns(or owned) a funeral parlor and was well known in his town, so I bet he got a ton of referrals there. Obviously, his success going solo right out of law school is the exception not the rule.

I know another attorney who went solo after spending a couple years at a mid-sized NYC firm doing bankruptcy. He returned to his small market and was the go to creditor attorney for all the local banks. He definitely made a ton of money. If you find the right niche, you may not need that much experience, especially if you go into a less complex practice area(like immigration or PI- bankruptcy obviously is complex)

I am considering eventually going solo, so I've done a fair amount of research on this. I want to return to my home town and do personal injury work. While there are a fair amount of personal injury firms in the area, nearly all the attorneys are white or black- there are hardly any Hispanic attorneys in the area, and 0 Mexican-American attorneys, as far as I can tell. I'm Mexican-American, and the Mexican-American population in the area is booming big time, so I'm hoping I can take advantage. Ideally, I want to work at a personal injury firm for a couple years, then go out on my own.

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zreinhar
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Re: Viability of solo practice after a few years of experience.

Postby zreinhar » Sun Mar 27, 2011 5:56 pm

FWIW I am planning on going solo writing patents and maybe start up a firm. It's a very specific niche, but once you know how to write patents, you're good to go. I have good contacts and will hopefully get more as I work while going to LS PT. So to answer your original question, it can be done but is entirely situation specific (as most things are)

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ArthurDigbySellers
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Re: Viability of solo practice after a few years of experience.

Postby ArthurDigbySellers » Sun Mar 27, 2011 7:11 pm

Anonymous User wrote:I personally know 3 attorneys who have successful solo practices that they began only a few years out.

Attorney 1: graduated from a T4 and first got a couple years experience clerking with a sole practitioner then opened up his own shop. Early on took any case he could get, primarily DUI's, divorce, bankruptcies, etc. Eventually developed the practice into exclusively bankruptcy and makes about $400,000+ (been in practice about 30 years).

Attorney 2: got an MBA then graduated from a T2 law school and spent 2 years in biglaw. Got laid off when the tech bubble burst and opened up shop doing estate planning. Revenue doubled every year and brings in about $300,000 annually at this point (been in practice about 15 years).

Attorney 3: less familiar with how he started out but know he graduated from T4 and opened shop taking any case he could get. Eventually settled on doing exclusively family law. Not sure what he brings in but I know he is independently wealthy and has the luxury of practicing at his own pace.

It is definitely possible to do it if you are good at what you do and are willing to put in the time. What they all have in common is that they easily put in the same hours as you would in biglaw. All of them have told me that landing clients at the outset is especially important - if someone walks in the office, you dont let them leave without getting the retainer signed even if it means working for bargain prices. Next, you do a hell of a job with their case and build your rep from there. Only after you have built a client base and a good reputation can you drop the shitlaw, pick your cases, and boost your rates. It is possible, but like any legal career you are looking at years of really hard work to achieve any level of success. The difference is, unlike a firm job, if you fail, you fail alone.

Edit: another thing to add - I dont think it is possible to start a shop from day 1. Legal practice is completely different from legal study and you absolutely need time working somewhere before you are anywhere near qualified to take on your own case.


I just saw the Lincoln Lawyer, and while I understand it's a movie, that mofo works hard. And good idea on working out of a car if he's in court all the time. Man, if all else fails I'll hire a driver and take whatever scraps I get. Working for cash isn't such a bad deal either, then one day you land a franchise case and boom...

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Grizz
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Re: Viability of solo practice after a few years of experience.

Postby Grizz » Sun Mar 27, 2011 7:25 pm

All this stuff about "I recommend at least X years of experience" is mainly bullshit. I've worked for solos and small practices, and while it's not a great idea to go solo right out (because you need to learn from someone else how to practice law), there's isn't a set number of years you need to be able to pull it off. The #1 thing you need, that people have alluded to but not really mentioned straight out, is a NETWORK.

You need a network of lawyers who will funnel you cases they don't want and help you if there's a motion, procedural bs, etc. that you don't know how to do. You need to have a network around town. Local communities, churches, etc. These people will funnel you business as well. When you get business, if you do a good job, it brings in more business.

Nicholasnickynic wrote:Depends. I'm a 1L, so this is wild speculation, but I would say you would need like 10 years to do real work. I mean, if you were facing criminal charges, or were being sued for 100k, woudl you want to hire a lawyer with 3 years of experience?


This isn't really how people go about hiring solos. They get lawyers of recommendations and people they know. In addition, they don't give a shit about where you went to school or what your grades were.

Also, someone wrote that working as a solo is mainly a business. This is 100% true. You run a business and happen to do law, not the other way around. Depending on who your clients are, you may spend a lot of time not actually practicing law, but attempting to collect. If you don't want to run a business or if you don't have business acumen, don't go solo.

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ArthurDigbySellers
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Re: Viability of solo practice after a few years of experience.

Postby ArthurDigbySellers » Sun Mar 27, 2011 7:49 pm

BeautifulSW wrote:I think it depends on several factors, some subjective and others objective.

-Where are you? With well over 50,000 active licensed attorneys, Massachusetts is probably not a good place to hang a shingle. N.Mex. or Arizona OTOH, might be very good places to do it. The solo/small firm lawyers here in Southern N.Mex. all seem to be doing pretty well and I can tell you that there's room for one or two GOOD solo lawyers in my own city.


I mean, there are DUIs and divorces and murder cases everywhere, but I don't know how accurate that is. There's something to be said about saturated markets of course. There are nearly 150,000 lawyers in New York State (probably a good chunk of that in the city), but NYC is like the law capital of the country, in a city of what, 8 million people? My hometown is a medium sized secondary market and it was saturated with solos. No reason to up and move to the Southwest (also NM is BEAUTIFUL and I would love a ranch style house). I'd rather try to build my practice where I already have a network than try to strike out on my 1000 miles from where I'm from in a more rural area. In terms of absolute employment prospects this might be good advice though.

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ArthurDigbySellers
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Re: Viability of solo practice after a few years of experience.

Postby ArthurDigbySellers » Sun Mar 27, 2011 7:54 pm

dark wrote:It all comes down to marketable skills and how you choose to run your business.

10 years experience seems excessive, I'd suggest a 2 year minimum whether it be in big, med, or small law. This is so that you get marketable legal skills, and you can observe law practice management. As for why someone would go to you over someone with 10 years experience or more - I asked this question to a MA lawyer and he simply smiled, rubbed his thumb and forefinger together in front of me and said "Money! People will come to you because you will provide cheaper rates!"

Then we had a discussion about why he set his pricepoint the way he did ($250 / hr) so as to avoid deadbeat clients.

Experience is definitely a good thing to have, it makes you more marketable, it makes you more confident, you'll waste less time and appear smarter to clients, it helps justify higher hourly rates and more serious clientele, and maybe you can even carry over clients to your practice who you worked with before. BUT, there are so many members of the general public out there who assume that simply going to law school will teach you how to be a good lawyer, that they will take a chance on you (assuming you put a little effort into marketing), especially if you can entice them with a comparatively cheap rate.

If you are starting out right after law school, a mentor would be a very very good thing to have.


I can see how would be lawyers underestimate this. Legal fees are expensive across the board, but especially so for the non-wealthy.

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ArthurDigbySellers
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Re: Viability of solo practice after a few years of experience.

Postby ArthurDigbySellers » Sun Mar 27, 2011 7:55 pm

BeautifulSW wrote:I think it depends on several factors, some subjective and others objective.

-Where are you? With well over 50,000 active licensed attorneys, Massachusetts is probably not a good place to hang a shingle. N.Mex. or Arizona OTOH, might be very good places to do it. The solo/small firm lawyers here in Southern N.Mex. all seem to be doing pretty well and I can tell you that there's room for one or two GOOD solo lawyers in my own city.

-Are you the kind of person who dreams of running a small business? A solo firm is a business first and foremost and if making payroll and deciding on internet providers is not your thing, you will tend to neglect the business end.

-Are you self-motivated? A small practice will require a lot of 60 hour weeks with no boss to tell you when, or how, to get things done.

I don't like to see brand new lawyers start out on their own. One or two years of supervised practice experience will help you avoid getting into trouble. However, I have known a dozen or so brand-new grads succeed as solos if they have a mentor relationship with a more experienced attorney. It can be done.


By the way, I didn't mean to question your knowledge or experience, just adding my two cents.

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ArthurDigbySellers
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Re: Viability of solo practice after a few years of experience.

Postby ArthurDigbySellers » Sun Mar 27, 2011 7:58 pm

I guess logistically speaking, it seems like a pain in the ass to set up your own file management system/database, invoices, hiring personal assistants once you can afford them. I've worked for very, very small practices (1-4 lawyers) and it seems like there are a lot of business management skills that you need to absorb before you can go it alone.

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Grizz
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Re: Viability of solo practice after a few years of experience.

Postby Grizz » Sun Mar 27, 2011 8:51 pm

ArthurDigbySellers wrote:I guess logistically speaking, it seems like a pain in the ass to set up your own file management system/database, invoices, hiring personal assistants once you can afford them. I've worked for very, very small practices (1-4 lawyers) and it seems like there are a lot of business management skills that you need to absorb before you can go it alone.


Exactly. This is some of what I mean when I say that when you go solo, you run a business and happen to practice law, not the other way around.

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ArthurDigbySellers
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Re: Viability of solo practice after a few years of experience.

Postby ArthurDigbySellers » Sun Mar 27, 2011 9:58 pm

rad law wrote:
ArthurDigbySellers wrote:I guess logistically speaking, it seems like a pain in the ass to set up your own file management system/database, invoices, hiring personal assistants once you can afford them. I've worked for very, very small practices (1-4 lawyers) and it seems like there are a lot of business management skills that you need to absorb before you can go it alone.


Exactly. This is some of what I mean when I say that when you go solo, you run a business and happen to practice law, not the other way around.


Rad. I remember shadowing a solo family law/bankruptcy guy in high school. What struck me was not the actual practice of law (I didn't know a lot of the jargon, but a lot of the legal work seemed like rote, non-rocket science type stuff), but the management aspect.

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Grizz
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Re: Viability of solo practice after a few years of experience.

Postby Grizz » Sun Mar 27, 2011 10:01 pm

ArthurDigbySellers wrote:
rad law wrote:
ArthurDigbySellers wrote:I guess logistically speaking, it seems like a pain in the ass to set up your own file management system/database, invoices, hiring personal assistants once you can afford them. I've worked for very, very small practices (1-4 lawyers) and it seems like there are a lot of business management skills that you need to absorb before you can go it alone.


Exactly. This is some of what I mean when I say that when you go solo, you run a business and happen to practice law, not the other way around.


Rad. I remember shadowing a solo family law/bankruptcy guy in high school. What struck me was not the actual practice of law (I didn't know a lot of the jargon, but a lot of the legal work seemed like rote, non-rocket science type stuff), but the management aspect.


Again, true. I worked for a solo crim atty. He did a lot of trials, which were interesting, but most of the other stuff was cut and paste drivel. A lot of law is cut and paste drivel.

It broke down like

20% ish trials
30% cut and paste shit
50% drumming up business, getting people to pay, other business stuff

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crazycanuck
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Re: Viability of solo practice after a few years of experience.

Postby crazycanuck » Mon Mar 28, 2011 10:36 pm

rad law wrote:
ArthurDigbySellers wrote:
rad law wrote:
ArthurDigbySellers wrote:I guess logistically speaking, it seems like a pain in the ass to set up your own file management system/database, invoices, hiring personal assistants once you can afford them. I've worked for very, very small practices (1-4 lawyers) and it seems like there are a lot of business management skills that you need to absorb before you can go it alone.


Exactly. This is some of what I mean when I say that when you go solo, you run a business and happen to practice law, not the other way around.


Rad. I remember shadowing a solo family law/bankruptcy guy in high school. What struck me was not the actual practice of law (I didn't know a lot of the jargon, but a lot of the legal work seemed like rote, non-rocket science type stuff), but the management aspect.


Again, true. I worked for a solo crim atty. He did a lot of trials, which were interesting, but most of the other stuff was cut and paste drivel. A lot of law is cut and paste drivel.

It broke down like

20% ish trials
30% cut and paste shit
50% drumming up business, getting people to pay, other business stuff


Highlighted for effect. I know a guy who is solo and this most of his job. Worst part of the job too. No one wants to pay the lawyer fees and they will do everything they can to avoid it.

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ArthurDigbySellers
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Re: Viability of solo practice after a few years of experience.

Postby ArthurDigbySellers » Mon Mar 28, 2011 10:56 pm

That's why you hire a guy to go break thumbs.

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Grizz
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Re: Viability of solo practice after a few years of experience.

Postby Grizz » Tue Mar 29, 2011 12:35 am

ArthurDigbySellers wrote:That's why you hire a guy to go break thumbs.


We used to use mortgages as collateral, but people still didn't pay up. So now we own mortgages on a bunch of shitty houses.

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Re: Viability of solo practice after a few years of experience.

Postby BeautifulSW » Tue Mar 29, 2011 9:44 am

A few "dichos" from just North of the border:

-get the money up front.

-never stiff the IRS.

-getting the business isn't the main thing; getting the business is the ONLY thing. You can hire an associate to do the actual legal work.

-New lawyers are cheaper than a decent paralegal but the paralegal is worth the extra expense.

-never be your own client. Carry malpractice insurance.

-GET THE MONEY UP FRONT!

BeautifulSW
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Re: Viability of solo practice after a few years of experience.

Postby BeautifulSW » Tue Mar 29, 2011 10:09 am

I feel compelled to add:

-Never, EVER play games with your trust account.

I left it off my list because messing around with the trust account is actually a serious ethical violation and possibly criminal so the "dicho" should go without saying, so to speak. But in my long, dolorous experience, trust accounts DO get messed with. So there you are.

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Rooney
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Re: Viability of solo practice after a few years of experience.

Postby Rooney » Tue Mar 29, 2011 10:41 am

rad law wrote:All this stuff about "I recommend at least X years of experience" is mainly bullshit. I've worked for solos and small practices, and while it's not a great idea to go solo right out (because you need to learn from someone else how to practice law), there's isn't a set number of years you need to be able to pull it off. The #1 thing you need, that people have alluded to but not really mentioned straight out, is a NETWORK.

You need a network of lawyers who will funnel you cases they don't want and help you if there's a motion, procedural bs, etc. that you don't know how to do. You need to have a network around town. Local communities, churches, etc. These people will funnel you business as well. When you get business, if you do a good job, it brings in more business.

Nicholasnickynic wrote:Depends. I'm a 1L, so this is wild speculation, but I would say you would need like 10 years to do real work. I mean, if you were facing criminal charges, or were being sued for 100k, woudl you want to hire a lawyer with 3 years of experience?


This isn't really how people go about hiring solos. They get lawyers of recommendations and people they know. In addition, they don't give a shit about where you went to school or what your grades were.

Also, someone wrote that working as a solo is mainly a business. This is 100% true. You run a business and happen to do law, not the other way around.
Depending on who your clients are, you may spend a lot of time not actually practicing law, but attempting to collect. If you don't want to run a business or if you don't have business acumen, don't go solo.


Couldn't agree more. That's why my boss has an office manager with no law experience at all.




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