100 Ways To Solo: The Big Debate Part 1 – The Affirmative

THE OVERVIEW

This is part #1 of a debate I will have with myself about whether a lawyer should work a standard job and practice solo at the same time…you probably want to know why this debate is happening…here is the story: I recently accepted a job with AT&T as a Senior Contract Manager responsible, in part, for negotiating contracts for mobile technology software. It is a remarkable opportunity and, though I did not aggressively seek out the job, one came right to me…one I could not refuse. As a result, on Monday June 27th 2011 – for the first time since January of 1990 (my first job out of undergrad) – I will go to work for a large corporation in a tall building. It is the exact opposite of the kind of work I have done for the last 20 plus years and a surprising change to the way I will practice law. Since my background is largely in debate – I debated as a high school student and university student, coached debate as a graduate student, and have published debate research of various types since 1993 – it makes sense to have a debate on the question of whether a lawyer can and should continue to practice law while working a standard job. Just like Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove, I will play both parts of this debate – this month I will debate the Affirmative (DO continue to practice while working the standard job…OR you do not have to choose between the two) and next month I will debate the Negative (DO NOT continue to practice while working the standard job…OR you have to choose between the two). There may not be a winner but I hope these ideas help you consider how you will practice law as a solo and what constraints you will impose on yourself and your practice.

THE AFFIRMATIVE

Resolved: a solo lawyer should continue to practice law while employed in a standard job.

Life has a way of taking hold of you and saying “I am in control…” – that is exactly what happened when in April of 2011 one of my former law classmates called and said his group at AT&T was looking to hire more than a half dozen new lawyers for contract negotiation teams – advanced negotiation of very complicated contracts for all variety of technological solutions from software to hardware and everything in between. Because he seemed very happy in his job, we had dinner one evening and talked about what the job entailed…the more he talked, the better it sounded. I met with his boss’s boss, had a phone interview, actually applied, got an offer (a GREAT offer), did the background check (passed!), and what I thought would be a life as a solo practice lawyer (excellent life) has taken a detour into corporate America. Life is in charge.

I have had a great experience as a solo practice lawyer so far – good clients, trial successes, a big case settled for a pittance, and the future looks good. So, what reason would I have to change courses now? That is a very good question – I am glad you asked.

I want to start with two observations that will help you see how I view situations like this – [1] I never shop hungry – the best time to look for anything is when you do not need it. My wife and I always eat before we go to Sam’s Club (discount club just like CostCo) so we do not come back with $200 worth of ice cream and jellybeans. If you are not hungry when you walk in, you make better buying decisions. This rule applies to finding a date for the prom (pretty girls never respond to desperation) and finding a job. The truth is that I was not looking for a job…and that is exactly how I found this one. Ironic, yes? [2] I have no fear of change and never question bold decisions. I have run my own business way too long to wonder whether I can trust my instincts. This does NOT mean I never make mistakes – this means I accept the fact that mistakes will happen and my judgment is good enough to make good decisions the majority of the time. Delay is death…so I make decisions quickly. If something is not working, I change. If you see a good opportunity, grab it. I saw this good opportunity and I grabbed it.

I will embrace this new job negotiating massive contracts and will continue to practice law on the side. Now, I present my warrants for continuing to practice as a solo while I work this standard job.

  1. WHAT BETTER TRAINING IS THERE? If there is a company that does bigger, more complicated, and more industry-defining contracts in communications IT than AT&T, I have never heard of them. This is a great opportunity to learn the technical side of contract negotiation from a group of experts and refine my contract negotiating skills in the process. Assuming I do not spend the rest of my professional life in this position (yet to be determined), this might be the best paid training program ever.
  2. WHAT BETTER RISK REDUCTION IS THERE? The only down side to solo practice to me is the risk implicit in every day and every bit of work. This new position –bringing home the bacon – allows me to dissipate the risk of being only solo. As a result, I can practice with less pressure and do better work in the process. I can handle the stress – I have always handled stress well – but I always do better work when I can take a patient approach. Reducing risk allows patience instead of panic.
  3. WHAT BETTER WAY TO FOCUS ON THE PRACTICE AREAS THAT MOST INTEREST ME? Whenever anybody asks me what type of law I practice, I am quick to say “…whatever law pays the bills…” As a result, I take almost any case and any task that brings in money (as long as it is not malpractice). The advantage is that I am bringing in money and doing pretty well early on. The down side is that I am spending a lot of time on law that is revenue generating but not in my interest areas (business law & copyrights/trademarks). This new position allows me to be more discerning in what work I accept, spend more time learning the practice areas I truly enjoy, and focus my efforts for the long-term. This does not mean I am not able to execute the occasional will or send the odd demand letter – it does mean I am not forced to take whatever comes in the door. With more income comes the ability to make careful selections.
  4. DO NOT UNDERSELL COMFORT! I will admit to you that getting through law school while having other responsibilities was a long haul with a lot of sacrifice. I went part-time so it was four years of struggle (much imposed on my wife who was unconditionally supportive of my ambition even when it came to the insanity of law study). It is going to be nice to be able to deliver some of the comfort to her that she gave to me all through law school – it is the very least I can do. Besides, happy lawyers are better lawyers.
  5. FREE TO LEAVE ANYTIME I LIKE! This new position is not prison…Texas is an at-will employment state so they can fire me or I can leave at any time. This creates an environment where I have an incentive to do good work (not too difficult for me…) and the company has an incentive to treat me well (which I hear from contacts they do well…). Still, if it turns out to be a bad fit OR a better opportunity comes along OR full-time law practice just screams my name, I can go – anytime I like. I do not suspect that will happen soon but this is far from a prison sentence.
  6. I HAVE FAITH! I am not a super religious person – raised Roman Catholic – but I have a great deal of faith that all things (good and bad) happen for a reason. This job has not given rise to any concern or suspicion that something bad is about to happen. Seriously, if there is one thing I have developed running my own business for nearly 20 years, it is a pretty refined bullshit-o-meter. Nothing about this seems to be a problem to me. Even if it is a problem, I can escape (see #5) and enjoy whatever benefit I gained to that point. That sounds like a no-loser to me. I have faith and regard the experience with AT&T (mostly romance but still…) as a great privilege.
  7. I AM STILL A LAWYER! My former law classmate who was the connection that made this job happen for me lamented when he started this job that he was not really a lawyer and that other real lawyers would look down on him. I could not disagree more. Only your imagination limits the ways in which you may practice law. My wife, a licensed architect of more than 20 years, does not draw buildings but, instead, works as a consultant for building product manufacturers (currently the world’s largest hardware holding company). She is STILL an architect and uses the skills of an architect to do her job. In a similar fashion, not all lawyers go to court or argue cases in front of the Supreme Court. What could be more lawyer-type work than negotiating massive contracts? Disregarding limits and predefinitions is one of the strengths of solo practice lawyers – I intend to make this skill work for me in this new position as well.
  8. BENEFITS OUTWEIGH THE COSTS AND SACRIFICES! This is “…one of those offers…” I cannot refuse (see great lines from the Godfather). Further, the costs in term of what I have to give up (full time litigation for example – which I love but it will always be there…) are dwarfed by the benefits in terms of security, skill training, and flexibility to practice to type of law I want to practice. I learned so much about litigation while clerking and handling my own cases this year that I can safely detour for this opportunity. A return to practice sooner or later (this may be the last job I ever have OR it may be a few years sort of thing) does not cost me much more than waiting until the age of 46 to become licensed in the first place. I am lucky to have the advantage of a long and successful professional life that allows me to view decisions like this less in terms of apocalyptic reality and more in terms of all benefit and very little cost.
  9. ONE DOOR LEADS TO OTHER DOORS! This new position is inevitably going to lead to other opportunities – either as an end in itself (which remains to be seen) or to opportunities either inside AT&T or outside AT&T as the skills I develop broaden my professional horizons. The former option would be fine as the group of people I am going to work with are exceptionally skilled and are doing great work. The latter option is a way for me to bring my skills to AT&T and, in turn, develop skills that are marketable as I suggest above. Unless this life is something different than I imagine, this door will – eventually – lead to other doors. That may be a return to solo practice exclusively or a segue to another cool situation. In any case, I win. How great is that?
  10. THE PRACTICE AND THE JOB DO NOT COMPETE! Most people view a choice between two alternatives as a binary – that need not be the case if you think creatively. I choose to see this situation as an add-on – another advantage to doing what I want to do. You may choose either a standard job OR a solo practice OR you may choose to do both. Since enough has never been enough for me, I chose to get a law degree even though I could have well succeeded in any number of fields without a law license. The same rule applies here. In fact, when interviewing with AT&T, one gentleman asked me “…won’t you miss practicing law…?” and I said “…No, because this is practicing law…” That is the overwhelming net benefit – by doing both well (doing the great work that both deserve), I get the benefits of both.

This new position is, in so many ways, the ideal way to freedom – exceptional skill development with a fine group of skilled professionals, dissipating the risk of solo practice while bringing in excellent reliable money (which helps fund the practice!), the freedom to practice law the way I want, and the no-risk route to other opportunities. Besides, you do not have to choose – it is totally possible – indeed beneficial from a practice focus standpoint – to work both a job and solo practice. I call that the ideal recipe for solo practice. If it gets better, someone is going to have to tell me how. If you allow yourself to do it all, you can really have it all; you are the only person holding you back. For me, I give myself permission.

NEXT MONTH: See the Negative arguments – then you get to vote for the winner…me, I still believe it is a personal decision.

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®.

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10 comments on “100 Ways To Solo: The Big Debate Part 1 – The Affirmative

  • This is a good topic. I’m also faced with an opportunity to work in a full-time contract litigation position that will last at least 6 months. But, practically speaking, is it feasible to take on clients while also working a standard, dress-up and go to an office 40-hour week job? How would someone make court appearances or take solo practice-related phone calls during business hours, etc? I suppose if your practice is transactional, then you can just research and draft documents on the weekends.

    • Hi Mary – Thanks for the comment. It’s true – there are some “practice” choices one must make in this situation. For example, communication must be choreographed and litigation in the normal sense is not practical. I will admit the loss of litigation was a careful consideration. I enjoy the court action very much and, if I may say, am pretty good. I enjoy even simple hearings – the thrill is very much like a good debate. My main interest areas – IP and business formation – are transactional in nature. Some lawyers view transactional as “boring” and that’s a fair objection. For me, the choice is one that is not permanent; it’s a phase. The phase may evolve into permanence but the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. This is the reason I chose to approach this discussion not as a prescription but as a debate – a situation where each lawyer (especially new solos and non-trad solos who come into practice with a professional history) gets to create their own practice. Some practice 8-5 and get to spend time with their family. Some work every minute of the day. Some need the court time and some fear it like the plague. There are – really – an unlimited ways to be a solo. That’s the affirmative part of the debate you see in this post. Next month you’ll see that your observation is not only smart (you MUST consider the sacrifices) but is an integral part of the decision process. Thanks for commenting and please stay tuned!

    • Hi Paul – It’s a great point – they may have two concerns really, [1] that I am wasting time and energy on a side gig they are paying good money to have me waste on them, and [2] that there may be conflicts (i.e. negotiating against folks whom I may serve or represent in some form as a solo).

      I’ll answer these questions in order. as to [1] I have been in business on my own since 1993. In some ways, this means I haven’t had a day off in that time (even when on vacation). This means you are “on” 24-7 until you quit. That is a bit tedious in the beginning but soon becomes a lifestyle. Farmers and ranchers here in Texas work extremely long hours and somehow thrive. Given I have no offspring to absorb the fringe time and have done a lot of other things in addition to work my entire professional life, my objective is to pay good attention to the position so they will never wonder what is going on outside. Managing client expectations is the other side of the coin. Making sure clients know I am not available on a moment’s notice during the work day is important. It is more common today than 50 years ago that professionals have a lot going on – I am going to take advantage of that. If I can successfully juggle the demands of the new position with a redefined (focused) practice, it is all good.

      As to [2] I will repeat here part of my response to a PM on this question. Normally, my approach would be to limit my practice area to those outside the scope of work for the employer and then do conflict checks as usual (i.e. don’t represent anyone I may negotiate against for AT&T). However, the nature of this position is not as a staff attorney for AT&T – they have a separate legal department for drafting and litigating. This position calls for legal skills (in fact they used to hire IT folks for these jobs but found that lawyers are a better fit) but doesn’t actually require practice in the ”I represent AT&T…” context. Hence, the conflict risk is almost nil. For me, focusing on IP (Copyrights/Trademarks) and business formation will almost eliminate the risk of conflict. Of course, to be prudent, I will check and be sure I don’t take a client that has anything to do with AT&T as vendor, supplier, etc. As far as the Texas rules are concerned, I am good. It is true, luckily, this is a position that frees up much of the risk that a position like this might involve if it was practicing the way we think of it normally. In fact, I’ve heard that part-time contract work is a problem for exactly this reason – conflict checking outside the firm that hires you for limited work is a problem. Some firms say don’t practice outside or you cannot part-time contract for us. It’s a problem and certainly one worth arguing next month.

      Stay tuned – the negative arguments I present next month are compelling too. Rest assured I won’t take it easy on myself… :)

    • There must always be a separation between both jobs, but if your full time job has some flexibility then you can easily do both. In this market, you should have some steady income if you are starting out solo. Best of luck at AT& T.

  • I think a key consideration missing here is time. Is this job a 9 to 5 or are you expected to work late? I think that is a very important thing to consider. We only have so much time in a day to work, spend time with family & friends and pursue hobbies & interests.

    When I started my practice I was working 3 full days/week for a small firm. I worked 8 to 5 most days, but some days I would stay late. The other 4 days of the week (including the weekends) were spent on my solo practice handling client work, marketing and setting up infrastructure. It was grueling to say the least. I worked on my practice from 5am-7am every morning, returned calls during lunchtime and continued to work on the practice after work. On my days off, I spent 18 hours doing client work, writing blog articles, making connections, etc.

    When the work at the firm dried up and I got laid off, I was incredibly relieved. I didn’t really like the area of law I was practicing but more importantly, I could totally commit myself to my solo practice. Once I did that, opportunities started to flood in and shortly after clients start to flow in more steadily. There a lot of benefits to committing oneself to a main task. By focusing on your new position, you may be able to enjoy more of the benefits of that position.

    I think there are several benefits to having a side hustle but contract negotiating by day and litigation by night sounds really intense. Kudos to you if you can pull it off!

    • Howdy Rachel – This is correct, of course, that there are tradeoffs and the work is demanding. I suppose, for me anyway, much of the hard work I have already completed setting up the structure of the practice – including, for example, learning how to use Quickbooks – makes this decision easy. The physical setup work (digging trenches) is largely done for me – I spent two hours with my accountant today and it turns out (shock) I did it right. I do like to play golf but find my work as much my hobby as anything else. I have said before that I don’t have offspring taking my time but, of course, these competing choices are part of the personal decision involved here. Some may need to spend time with their children, with church groups, or socializing. Others may simply find laying around time too valuable to sacrifice. I concede these are important considerations. For me, work is less a demand and more a choice. In some form or another, I have always worked from sunrise to sunset – that may make me sound boring but I do other things too…I promise.

      It sounds like you are working hard too – that’s great. But, you may find over time that your ability to juggle without looking at the balls improves. You may be able to dispense with marketing tasks that aren’t paying off or that you can do something that once took hours in a matter of minutes. What you gain in efficiency, you gain in real time. I didn’t have to create many of the structures for my practice from scratch because I have spent 20 years doing that for my publishing business. I just had to make choices – that is pretty easy. However, I have great respect for those that that inventing their own wheel. It’s a struggle and it is time intensive – no doubt about that. But, it does get easier over time. You will find that you will be able to do more, faster, easier (ask any lawyer who uses a pleading from a prior case for the new case)….OR you will be able to spend that extra time with loved ones…OR whatever. This is just like law school where you spent a long time reading a case as a 1L but not so much when you were a 3L.

      Different people are, well, different. Some find satisfaction in focusing on a single task to the exclusion of other tasks. Some find satisfaction in doing many things. I am the latter. I want to warn you if you are the former that you may find solo practice an overwhelming process – you simply must look beyond one main task and realize there are already many things you have to do to keep the practice alive. It sounds like you are doing that now; you know the choices you have to make. I know from your writing that you are making excellent choices and are working hard – that’s good and I promise the process will get easier. The personal decision calculation that we solos have already performed is whether the whole thing is worth it. I think it is…I suspect you will too. Your successes are pretty good evidence of that.

      Stay tuned – next month come the negative arguments. Yours is a good one and you will see it there!

  • Mr. Rutledge I have been a solo for 4 years (practicing for 10 years) thank goodness, I have been able to keep my doors open. While I have had some good months, I have had bad months as well. I recently had a compromise order where I stood to receive a substantial sum of money, if my client agreed to the settlement in open court. The case was scheduled for 9:30 AM and my client arrived at 9:55 AM. She said that she had an “emergency” but the Judge was not convinced and told me to resubmit the papers and wait two months for a hearing. Well, that money would have paid for three months of rent and part of the nursery school tuition. Because of my irresponsible client, I am cancelling my labor day vacation. On the other hand, I last year I settled a case where I made two phone calls, wrote one letter and received a substantial amount of money.

    Those are just two examples (pluses and minuses) of being a solo practitioner. On days such as the other day with the compromise order, I would have loved to have a 9-5 job at AT & T and not have to have my life depend on irresponsible clients. But last year, when i made a lot of money with two phone calls and a letter, I would not have traded it for the world.

    Lastly (since the last two paragraphs have nothing to do with the topic at hand), I could not imagine being a solo and working for someone else at the same time (except time to time per diem work or as trial counsel, or Of Counsel). It would be too demanding. Solo work is time consuming. Frequently I work incredibly demanding hours and could not imagine finding the time for another job. Besides, my heart would not be in it working for a corporation. Being a solo (and a personal injury plaintiff’s lawyer) has given me an aversion to large corporations or governmental bodies. I just do not think that working for them would be in my make up.

    • Hi Jason – Fair enough…I guess my aversion would be to practicing PI as a plaintiff’s attorney. :) That’s one thing I enjoy most about being an attorney – we all get to choose the place that is the best fit. It is true the hours are demanding. In my professional life, the hours have always been demanding. I own a publishing company as well and spent the entire July 4th weekend deploying publications. I spent a good bit of last evening dealing with a, ummmm, “difficult” (non-attorney) trust officer who demanded specific language in my client’s will. I will spend this coming weekend working on a real estate lease for a client that is leaving the country for two years. I have a lot of balls in the air…but that is the way I like it. In fact, it wouldn’t feel right if things weren’t that way for me.

      At this point, very early on, the experience with this new job has been great – there it lots to learn and the high level negotiation is interesting stuff. That may last forever or it may end next month. Then, I shall do what I always do – make the best decision for my career and my professional life. We are lucky to have that kind of control. I suspect there is little difference between that state of affairs and working as trial counsel – where you are indeed beholden to the demands of another. But, eventually the trial will end and you can go on your way. I guess my point is that you can call yourself independent and solo even if – in reality – at some point in time you may not be completely solo. That is the peril of words with strict meaning. (FYI – in a future column I will deal with what is “virtual” law practice and you will see that I disagree with nearly all of the conventional ideas about virtual law practice…including those of my friend Susan Cartier Liebel). This is the luxury of being a thinking person. I am not constrained by any strict model and it doesn’t sound like you are either. That is a win for both of us.

      I appreciate your view – you’ll see that I anticipate your arguments in the next column where I deal with the negative arguments. But, I suspect that many of us will decide the answer is not a simple Yes or No…but a definite Maybe. I am practicing law just like you are practicing law – I am working for another just like you (on occasion) work for another – we are both solos…we just fly different schedules. How good is that?

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