How Starting A Solo Practice Has Changed

Then_NowLogo(0)A few months ago I posted something on Reddit, referring to how I had opened my own practice right out of school, 31 years ago.   One guy went off on me, essentially saying I was a clueless old fool who had no idea what things are like today.   We then had a brief and disturbing online argument about it, but he became abusive (Reddit is like that sometimes), so I stopped the discussion.

But it did get me thinking.  Since I’m still in practice, and still actively think about practice development, I have some basis to talk about “how things are today”.   And, I still remember how things were and how they have evolved.

So, for the benefit of those who are opening a practice (or considering it), here are some comparisons and observations:

Then: It was kind of feasible to be in general practice.  A lot of lawyers were generalists.  Clients expected and accepted it, and when you needed help, you made some calls in your network of lawyers/mentors for advice.  In hindsight, general practice was probably a flawed model even then, but it was possible.

Now: Almost nobody would recommend setting out to be a general practitioner.  These days, clients expect and demand a certain level of expertise for their particular type of case.  Clients often do their own internet research about every aspect of the case (and the courts, and the lawyers involved).  They’ll know if you don’t really know, or they’ll soon figure it out, which is worse.  Having mentors and a network of attorney contacts is still valuable, and an asset still worth cultivating.

Observations: Successful lawyers develop expertise in particular areas.  Not only does this lead to confident practice and better compensation, it is more satisfying.  It is nice to be recognized and praised/thanked by clients, Judges and sometimes even adversaries.  From first hand experience – these things happen when you focus, and lose the GP demeanor.  There are many more resources today to help a lawyer focus on a practice area.  This includes widespread CLE in every area of law, and internet resources that never existed in the past.

Then: You built your practice by “word of mouth” and networking, and maybe some small level of advertising.  I sent announcements to 500 friends, relatives and acquaintances, and this did generate some business.  On some level, this would still work.  I also did some traditional networking, like going to Bar Association meetings, which were essentially a waste of time.  I listed myself on Bar Association referral panels, another waste of time, as the good cases went to people who were “in”, while the Bar Association sent me the nuts.  I did get on the Guardian ad Litem panel for Guardianship cases, but the truth is the Judges mostly appointed me on crappy no-fee cases, saving the good ones for their friends.  With all that, I got creative (as should you), and scored with some well placed yellow pages ads, some out of State Bar Journal ads, some speaking engagements, and by playing softball on a team where nobody was a lawyer.

Now: Any lawyer can have a “presence” and be found by new clients, just by having a decent website, moderately participating in social media, and by blogging.  Today a person can define themselves (I don’t like to say “brand” but I guess it’s the same thing), and just keep enhancing it.  One can build a contact list, grow it, and market to it.

Observations: The old school stuff still applies, but with modern tools it’s much easier to make solid contact with prospective clients who are looking for you.   Any lawyer starting a practice should ask these questions:  Who are my ideal clients?  What kind of google search would they do if they were looking for a lawyer?  What can I do to make sure they find me?  These questions are very answerable.  Your challenge is to answer them and then execute a plan based on the answers.

Then: The level of technology was what it was.  Not to sound like a crusty old coot, but when I started in 1982, not only were there no cell phones (we carried change to call from Court), no emails, and no faxes, very few lawyers even had word processing.  Here’s one more, in 1982 there was no FEDEX or anything like it.  I once had an insurance company send me a telegram disclaiming coverage.

Now:  Lawyers, especially the older more “established” ones, are often behind the times on technology, and marketing, and use of the internet and social media.  Being ahead of them is a huge advantage, if you choose to apply yourself here.  If you are not so astute about this, learn it….you will be ahead of all the lawyers who choose not to.

Observation: The world of clients and their dealings with lawyers is evolving.  In my view the main reason there is so much unemployment and trouble in the legal field is that lawyers and firms have not adjusted to what todays clients want.  Legal business has not vanished, it has just left the dinosaurs.  Don’t be a dinosaur.  Be responsive, and passionate, and good at something.  Your practice will thrive.

Then: There were certain things you had to have.  A nice office, furniture, phones, faxes, books, nice stationery, file cabinets, phone answering, and a host of other things that no longer exist.  Oh, and if you worked for a firm, the firm needed to bill enough to pay for all of those things for their associates and employees, plus their salaries.  No wonder they had to keep billing more and more and more.

Now: I’m not saying you shouldn’t have a nice office, or that appearances don’t count.  I’m just saying it is possible, and sometimes better, to start a practice without all these things.  Some areas of practice lend themselves to this more than others.  It is worth looking at these issues and expenses carefully, to see what you really need.  These savings show up on the bottom line (a place where you really should be looking).

Observation: As an example of the above, I’ve been thinking lately that when I do an Ancillary Estate proceeding (get someone appointed in New York who is already appointed in another State or Country), I almost never meet the client in person, and they never come to my office.   This type of case is a relatively small percentage of the Estate work I do, but it occurs to me that if I did more of this, I would not need an office or most of the expenses that go with it.  And you know what, that idea is appealing to me!  I list ancillary proceedings as one of the services on my website, but I could feature it more, and maybe I will.  My point in telling you this is you can always be thinking about things like this, and you should.

Then: Contrary to what people think, back in the day we did have student loans and debts and financial commitments.  The job market was not always great, especially for people who were not from elite law schools or who were on law review.

Now: People have higher student loan debt than we did in the past.  It’s undeniable.  The job market for traditional law jobs is shockingly bad, though it is not the only time in history this has happened.  Some law students conclude they have been sold a “bill of goods” by the law schools and indirectly by the profession.

Observation: Anyone who went to law school, and incurred huge debt in reliance on being able to “get a job”, may have been sold a bill of goods, but I’d also say that if you still analyze the situation through that lens, you are doing yourself a dis-service.  Did you really become a lawyer so you could “have a job”?  If so, I’d strongly suggest you observe the reality of what it means to be a lawyer.  It is a field where entrepreneurial opportunities abound, and has never been a profession where lawyers as employees did particularly well.  Many lawyers who started as employees ultimately sought partnership or being on their own.  Things are not so different now, it’s just that applying entrepreneurship to the mix should, by necessity and reality, be in one’s approach from the outset.

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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6 comments on “How Starting A Solo Practice Has Changed

  • I agree. These are very accurate insights. Some things have changed dramatically, especially in the areas of tech and communication, sophistication of potential clients, etc. Others have become even more important: building a stronger network of lawyers; focusing on the specific skill sets you have and targeting the clients that want / need those skills. Barriers to entry are actually far lower now than 25 years ago. But, there is one constant that will not and should not ever go away: all lawyers still must be willing to dedicate their energies to providing value to clients, from the first minute through the last minute of every engagement.

  • Thank you for a great post! Having spent years working for large firms before I finally dared to venture out on my own 18 months ago without the possibility of bringing clients with me, I read and applied what I could about how to attract clients in todays market and my experience starting from scratch has been as described in your “now” and “observations”.
    And why I thought it worth mentioning? The relevance your observations has not only in the US; my law firm is located in Norway!

  • Very accurate observations Barry. As one of those colleagues with whom I’ve relied on for advice when I stepped out of my comfort zone, I agree that it has become difficult if not impossible for an attorney to be a generalist. Given the amount of information available to clients, it’s difficult enough to maintain one’s expertise in a particular area of law. Great post. Brings back the days when I first started my practice and relied on your counsel. Still do.

  • I appreciate the part about the need to specialize in today’s market. I’ve focused on a specific area from the start despite a number of people out there who seemed to be getting plenty of cases by exploring different areas of practice. I know if I have done my networking right then those people who are barely dabbling in one area of the law will sometimes get into a case over their head and then call me for help or sometimes to refer it to me.

    I also agree completely about full time office not being necessary anymore. The San Diego County Bar Association recently opened up their new location for members to use for meetings and work space. This immediately gave me access to a second office closer to court away from my office space I use primarily to meet with clients. If I was closer to downtown I could pretty much replace my current setup with the bar center. I probably won’t though, just because I like having a location away from downtown and I think the clients appreciate it as well. I don’t see myself paying for a full time office anytime soon though.

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