Mar 25, 2011
Non-Profit to Solo: A Companion Piece To Big Law To Solo
Guest Post: Danielle G. Van Ess
1. I HATE the look I used to get that said, “We’ll see if you’re still around in another year or two.” It took awhile but I built my practice up from absolutely nothing in really tough economic times and under challenging personal circumstances. For examples, I started my firm with a $500 loan to myself from myself (I do not recommend that and could not have done it without my husband’s salary and benefits), was pregnant with my third child most of my first year in practice as a “true solo” (read: no help yet), then had a newborn, 3 year old, and 5 year old in my second year of practice. After seeing me in action through all that, I don’t think people really wondered anymore.
2. I HATE HOW as a result of having had to say “no” to a lot of social gatherings for the past couple years while I was busy building my firm from scratch and cutting back on every expense possible, we no longer get invited to participate in as many such social gatherings. Or maybe it’s just because, amongst our friends close by, we all have more kids, less energy, less time, and are just going out less overall.
3. I HATE NOT HAVING a regular salary. It would be nice to know exactly what my salary will be monthly so I could budget accordingly. But I wouldn’t trade a regular salary for the flexibility I’ve created to be able to be there for my children while they’re so young and growing and changing so fast. And now that I know what it’s really like to be my own boss, make my own rules, chart my own courses, and change midstream when things aren’t working as well as they could be. I don’t ever want to go back! I do know what I want my salary to be and I try to get there, but when clients postpone appointments at which I’m to be paid or prospective clients cancel appointments we held for them, or the very occasional prospective client I expect to engage me walks out without engaging, I still get a knot in the pit of my stomach wondering what I’ll have to be adjusting to make up that difference. I’d love to get off this ride, which leads straight into the next point…
4. I HATE HAVING TO market. Hate may not be strong enough; I detest it. That’s why I made that rookie mistake of thinking “if I build it, they will come.” Well, six months into my practice I realized how naïve I’d been. I’ve tried different things in the two years since then and pushed out of my comfort zone more than a few times. I don’t always like it, but I do always learn. I also hate insincere elevator speeches and networking groups and events that are so forced where everyone says they’re in it to help one another but it’s so obvious all they care about is themselves. I also hate the way the bigger small and mid-sized firms can afford to market so much more. I’d love to toss a few cool thousand at someone to do it for me and increase my SEO and all that, but in the meantime, I spend what I have to do it all myself (precious sleep capital usually, as now). It is a necessary evil though and even though I’m still totally uncomfortable with the label “rainmaker” I’m also kind of glad that what I’ve become (albeit on my own small scale)! Which leads me to the next point…
5. I HATE HAVING TO charge people money. I know this may sound crazy and implausible but please recall that I came from the nonprofit world. I set off for law school over a decade ago with stars in my eyes about helping people and few people I’ve encountered in my solo practice have felt that I was doing them a service by collecting their fees! It’s always awkward and uncomfortable for me, even though I’ve come to appreciate my own value and the value I am providing to my clients by helping them. I’ve made the mistake of being talked down on my fees twice and both times I lived to totally regret it. When I was first starting out someone posted a great list of “Rules For Solos To Live By” on Solosez. I copied and pasted it into a “Stickie” note on my Mac desktop then edited it a bit to suit me and my situation a bit better. I refer back to it frequently. Rule #4 = Nice don’t pay the mortgage. And that’s it, the bottom line is that while I’m meeting with clients and providing them valuable legal counseling and advice on really important personal and financial matters that will undoubtedly affect them and their families deeply for years to come, I’m paying for child care or missing time with my family, friends, or for myself to do so.
6. I HATE NOT HAVING a separate entrance for my office. My office is located in our family home. It’s a good-sized, dedicated office, but the only way to get to it is through the living room and dining room or through the kitchen. It is beyond ridiculous at this point trying to keep pretty much the entire first floor of my home “realtor ready” at all times. It wasn’t such a big deal at first when I maybe had one meeting a week if I was lucky. These days I have meetings most days and nights and as anyone with very young children knows, keeping things clean and tidy with three of them around is like herding cats in the middle of a paintball game. But that’s about to change! I’m in the process of getting estimates on converting a huge existing window to a door in the room adjacent to my office, which leads me to the next point…
7. I HATE NOT HAVING an on-site assistant. I’ve had virtual team members (a former litigator and a legal secretary / paralegal since my second year in solo practice but now I’m experiencing serious growing pains again and am ready to have someone on site with me too to do all those things that are so important and need to get done but just don’t need to be done by me (at the expense of sleeping or spending more quality time with my family and friends). That room adjacent to my office is turning into additional office space to accommodate having someone else work here. I already moved the furniture all around and bought a desk for the assistant I don’t yet have here with me!
8. I HATE when other lawyers assume that because I’m relatively newly solo, because I always start out treating everyone with the same courtesy and respect, and because I’m relatively young and a self-described attorney-mama with a home-based law firm, therefore I must be a dim-witted pushover. (Bring some!) I also hate it when prospective clients assume that because of all that, I must be cheap).
9. I HATE HAVING TO say no to referrals from other attorneys and professionals when those prospective clients are just not at all the right fit for me or my practice. I don’t want to appear ungrateful for the referral and I’d love to help the prospective clients out, but I have a pretty tried and true system for client intake (i.e. I don’t do it because I too hate having to do the initial screening!) and it has to happen that way from the outset for the relationship to work. I’ve learned that lesson, about setting expectations from from the beginning, the hard way. The names of the difficult clients that manage to sneak through undetected become doctrines for us going forward, as in “oh no, we don’t want to let this become another ____.” I’ve also learned that saying yes to matters that I don’t really want to handle is a recipe for less than enthusiastic client service and I’d much prefer to really enjoy working with my clients on their particular matters and do a fantastic job for them. You can’t do a fantastic job at everything.
10. I HATE the attitude that things have to be done a certain way when the person saying so can’t utter a single justification for maintaining that particular practice except, “that’s just the way things are” or “clients/realtors/banks won’t go for it.” Recall my roots here: it’s better to light one candle than to curse the dark! I’ve literally had a more seasoned attorney laugh in my face when I explained one of my more inspired ideas for improving a commonly frustrating part of our practices. Another looked at me with a mixture of curiosity and resignation. Yet another agrees but wondered aloud how one lone attorney could possibly buck the trend and manage to survive the ride. I’m usually pretty risk averse, but for some reason with my practice I allow myself to dream big, take risks, and dare things not to work. Guess what: that idea I had, my clients love it, it’s working, and I just figured out how to improve it even more!
It’s true, being solo is not for the faint of heart and it’s not something you just do between jobs or as a side hobby. But if you are passionate about your work, love your clients, earn enough to make it worth everything you’re spending to do it (not just money) then there’s no better way.
Danielle G. Van Ess is the Owner and Attorney at DGVE law, LLC on Boston’s South Shore. She is an insanely busy mother of “three under five” dedicated to helping people add to, protect, and move their families®. From the comfort of her dedicated home-based office and with the help of her virtual team members, Danielle’s firm, DGVE law ® provides maximum legal quality and client service with the minimum amount of stress (for her clients anyway) to clients in the process of adoption, creating estate plans, and buying or selling real estate. Connect with her on Twitter @dgvelaw and on Facebook.com/DGVElawLLC .
If you have a love/hate relationship with your solo practice…please share!
All opinions, advice, and experiences of guest bloggers/columnists are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, practices or experiences of Solo Practice University®.