Why I Believe Going Solo Is A Good Option For New Attorneys

Gen Why Lawyer


I’ve been fielding a lot of questions lately on why I believe new lawyers should be hanging a shingle.  So, it was serendipitous that I be asked to do a guest podcast over at Gen Why Lawyer with Nicole Abboud, a solo herself.  If you’re interested in my thoughts, want to start a discussion in the comments, give a listen and let’s chat!

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6 comments on “Why I Believe Going Solo Is A Good Option For New Attorneys

  • Without listening to the podcast, I will just say this: Much of my clients’ billing-time and my time that I consider “wasted energies” in my practice are directly attributable to newer attorneys who do not know what they are doing. Pointless Ex Parte motions; stupid arguments over who pays for “copies” of documents in discovery (I have had to explain there is no right to copies in CA — just the right to inspect. You want copies, you pay for them.) All sorts of procedural gaffes by new solos that cost my clients money to resolve — for no reason but the opposition’s inexperience. Often they have no realistic idea of what a case is worth, or even what their case is. It’s insanely frustrating.

    In my opinion and experience, new attorneys should do some time in the real world, with a mentor at the very least before going solo.

    • T.C., thanks for your comment. It’s well received and I totally appreciate your sentiments. I would love if you would take the time to listen to the podcast, too. Being new doesn’t always mean they don’t know what they are doing just as someone who has been out a while doesn’t necessarily know what they are doing, either. You can be a lawyer for 30 years and just repeat one year of (in)experience 30 times! Success turns on commitment, concern for doing it right, recognizing the need to get mentors, bringing on of counsel and more, and this will help reduce mistakes, allow for proper valuation of cases, and more. Without legal jobs, this is how it has to be done, create their own working environment, their own tribe to teach them what they need to know rather than hope to walk into a ‘tribe’ that will pay them while they learn. The economy has forced everyone’s hand and so this approach is one option for the new solo. Thoughts?

      • I did listen to a portion of it during lunch, after posting, and do think the advice in there was good. If the right steps are taken, a new attorney can avoid the pitfalls and mistakes that frustrate me so. I have been solo 10 years now, and I would frankly like to see BigLaw fall to its knees and the smaller players run the show — regardless of the economics of it. I had to post, however, to share my experience beginning around 2008 (the crash, and all), and all the weird and stupid stuff I have had to contend with because of attorneys hanging a shingle without an inkling. If one goes at it right, that proverbial recipe for malpractice can be minimized substantially. (And, it is better to litigate against competent attorneys, despite the gifts incompetent ones may had you.)

  • I was a solo for couple of years as I transitioned from being a 7 year associate in an 10 attorney firm to being a legal technology consultant, which I have done for the past 22 years. I am also an entrepreneur. So, I love the idea of the solo. But, I think that for most attorneys, it should only be done after they have obtained enough knowledge and experience to do the job competently. While there are some exceptions to the rule, very few attorneys just out of law school have anywhere enough experience or smarts to be able to do that. Your podcast cut off for me, so I wasn’t able to finish it, but here are a couple of my thoughts:
    - Just because there are those of us that think a critical component of being a good lawyer is time and experience doesn’t make us anti-millennial, curmudgeons, not up with the times, or some of the other less than flattering ways we were described in the podcast. Just because I have some grey on my temples doesn’t mean I can’t evaluate what a lawyer right out of law school is qualified to do.
    - Most attorneys graduate law school at about age 25 having spent at most a couple years in the real world. Even those that did work, worked entry level jobs. Their world view at that age isn’t based enough on real world experience to understand the complexities of many of the situations they will be required to analyze and counsel on (I’m generalizing, of course … there will always be the exceptions). Most new attorneys have come straight through 7 years of college and law school, with degrees in political science, English, history, and other degrees that in no way prepare then to run a business.
    - I believe that you stated you were a Boomer. This means that you probably went back to law school as a more mature, experienced student with life lessons learned. An immediate solo career might make sense in that case, but I don’t think that is the majority of graduating law students.
    - 3 years is hardly enough time to learn substantive legal concepts, let along try to learn business, marketing, and the other things you need to know to run a business – if the law schools taught that. To me that would be more in the province of programs like your company once a lawyer has begun to practice under supervision.
    - I worked for a smaller firm, so I got into court first as second chair and then as first chair far faster than my big law colleagues. But, I always had partners with decades of experience supervising my work, or at least being available whenever I needed them. No amount of volunteer mentoring can replace that. And, there is no way someone right out of law school has the experience that even a third or fourth year associate has. An attorney is an adviser or counselor … one has to have done it before in order to advise or counsel, and no amount of book learning, mock trials, or clinical programs can replace that.
    - It’s hard enough learning the substantive law and procedure. To also run a business, market, etc., is too much to expect of most new attorneys. In my experience there are far too many attorneys who have a lot of experience as attorneys who are terrible at marketing and at running a business. To expect a 24 year old to learn it all and apply it right out of law school just seems like a disaster waiting to happen to me.
    - In my experience, business comes from people you have met and worked with who trust you. This has to be based on experience. Few new attorneys are friends or colleagues with the people in companies who are responsible for hiring lawyers. This means that it is highly unlikely they can land any meaningful corporate or business work. Locating and finding individuals with legal needs in a sufficient amount to sustain a profitable practice is a tough thing to do. So, even if a lawyer was smart enough to do the work, I question how many would know how to find a sufficient amount of business to avoid my final point …
    - There is one major issue to end on … it is highly unlikely that a solo coming right out of law school is going to be properly capitalized to run a business. In fact, with school loans as they are today, today’s law school graduate is far more likely to be so in debt that starting their own business would make no sense whatsoever. In law this is of particular concern as a lawyer’s ethical obligation is always to his or her client. I can easily imagine how a veteran defense lawyer could take advantage of a new lawyer in litigation to force a settlement that would be advantageous for the lawyer who needs some money to pay her monthly nut (including her law school loans), but not desirable for the client who would be better off going to trial, or at least developing the case to a greater degree to get a better settlement. How does a new lawyer advance fees to pay or court reporters or deposition transcripts? Might they cut corners if they can’t afford to properly litigate an action? If they can’t afford to advance reasonable litigation fees, should the client be told that other more experienced attorneys can do so? We could go on forever with examples of how an inadequately capitalized solo might not be able to live up their ethical expectations not because they don’t want to, or because they may adequately know the law, but because they just can’t afford it. This is far more likely to happen to a solo right out of law school, instead of one who has had time to accumulate the capital needed to run law practice.
    To be clear, I am not anti-solo. To the contrary, helping solos split off of larger firms is one of the most enjoyable and rewarding things I’ve done as a legal technologist. I just think that being a good attorney requires more than 3 years of law school, a LinkedIn account, some social media savvy, and even a volunteer mentor. Even all the new technology that helps solos and virtual law offices can’t overcome the need to gain experience and knowledge, something that takes time. Being a competent lawyer requires time to gain experience and knowledge that is best done working with experienced attorneys.
    From a technical perspective:
    - In my opinion, a 42 minute podcast is way too long. I would like to have listened to it all but don’t have that much time. I am pretty sure your millennials don’t have attention spans for a 42 minute podcast what with their need to get on Twitter, Snapchat, Tinder, Instagram … I kid, I kid.
    - At least on my phone, there is no way to restart the podcast and go back to where you left off. After listening to the first 5 minutes, my phone slid off to my side and stopped. I had to restart and couldn’t jump ahead. Once it stopped after 20 minutes for some unknown reason, there was no way I was going to re-listen to the first 20 minutes to get to the last 20 minutes. Hopefully you don’t mind that kind of feedback … I know I wouldn’t.

    • Tom, thanks for your input and taking the time to write a lengthy and well-informed response. Sorry you didn’t get to hear the full podcast, too, because as you know if you walked out of the movie E.T. while he was dying you’d never have known he lived! (That’s just an inside joke from the days I was a ‘candy girl’ at our local theater and a little girl ran out inconsolable during this scene and no amount of coaxing I provided to her would get her back into the theater to see the happy ending!) The only issue I take with your comments is this idea that if it can’t be done the way it has traditionally been done, then there is no hope for today’s law grads. There are no jobs, they can’t go solo/small firm in your opinion, so what is to be done? Yes, going solo after law school is hard work, grueling work, probably more work than anyone really anticipates. No one has suggested otherwise. But to say that only those rare exceptions actually make it isn’t true, either. It requires continued education, strong and competent mentors, knowing when to NOT take on a case beyond one’s capacity..and it is incumbent upon the law schools to educate to the reality of how the majority of their students will end up practicing and in which practice areas. It IS incumbent upon them to do so as well as the local and state bars. Practicing law is not done in a vacuum. To imply that one can only get the resources and support they need in a pre-constructed group of people (law firm) is inaccurate. New lawyers have the capacity (and seasoned lawyers have the capacity) to create environments helping all lawyers do their jobs, especially new ones. I would even argue they have an obligation to do so. It’s critical to think outside the box otherwise we are going to have lost generations of law graduates, failing law schools because they don’t understand what their job actually is, and countless consumers of legal services going unserved because of this disconnect. Law Schools In Death Spiral

  • The problem with a newly minted attorney trying to go solo isn’t one of tradition. Nothing has changed from the “good old days” that would suddenly enable a young attorney to overcome:
    - a small sphere of influence among those willing and capable of paying for legal services
    - very little life experience
    - very little to no practical legal experience and knowledge
    - and most importantly, inadequate capitalization to open a business
    New technology and social media isn’t going to change any of that.

    One of the problems as I see it is that the law schools are not carrying out their mission. The literature on this discusses the problems with the cost of professors, the focus on research not teaching, and most importantly the law schools’ obsession with bigger and more buildings and facilities, all of which results in the goal of obtaining more students even if there aren’t going to be jobs available to them.

    Today’s law students don’t get a pass from me, either. It’s not like they don’t know this going in. Who would go to law school knowing that 50% of their graduating class won’t have a job when they come out? Who would go into tens of thousands of dollars in debt knowing that they probably won’t be able to pay it back? And, if they can’t figure those two questions out before they get to law school, they aren’t the ones we want opening inadequately capitalized solo law firms, are they?

    A couple other points (this is a very interesting area of discussion to me even though it doesn’t really relate to my business):
    - You say that it is hard work, and that it is not a rare exception. Can you give me facts to back that up? My guess is that the number of new attorneys that go straight solo and succeed is incredibly small … the exception. I don’t have the facts to back it up, but I’d like to see the facts that show they do succeed in non-exceptional numbers. I have no problem if I am wrong.

    - I agree that takes “knowing when to NOT take on a case beyond one’s capacity.” That’s the exact problem that a lawyer with a monthly nut, including student loans, has a problem with. At some point, any paying client looks good if you have to pay your bills. Enough experienced attorneys stink at that evaluation process to think a new solo would excel at it.

    - The law schools will never be able to teach law students everything they need to be a solo. They aren’t business schools. Heck, most young MBAs coming out of business school would struggle to open their own business and they purportedly got business training (my wife is an MBA so I know a little about that). Even if they did, it would have to more along the lines of medical school, where you require a strong undergrad concentration, followed by formal medical education, followed by residencies where the practical experience is learned. So let’s apply that to law school … you need to major in some type of pre-law course work, then 2 or 3 years of law school as we know it, followed my a year or two of clinical work, followed by residencies of some type. Just shooting off the hip, but something like that would at least make it so the new solo now has a fair amount of life and legal experience.

    - I hate to be cruel, but I think we need to have some failed law schools (it happened to dental schools in the late 70s), and we may well need a failed generation of new lawyers who move onto other vocations where there is work. It may hurt a little now, but in the long run it could be very healthy for legal profession.

    - I think that State Bar Associations will have to step in at some point to protect their membership and tell the law schools to quit putting out lawyers for whom there is no work. It isn’t good for the new lawyer, and eventually it isn’t good for the older lawyers.

    - I am not saying it can’t be done in the future. But we aren’t anywhere near doing that now. So advising today that going solo is a viable path for a newly minted attorney seems like bad advice to me, excepting the rare exceptions.

    Thanks, and best of luck.

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