From Big Law To Solo
FGEs And Why I Love Them
Suzanne Meehle, Esq.
I am a big fan of learning from the mistakes of others. There is something to be said for
watching someone else screw up and learning what not to do without the pain of having
to fall on our own faces.
That is why I’m writing this column, in fact. I think I have something to teach others. If I
only serve as a cautionary example, my work here will be done.
But sometimes you have to live through something to learn not to do that something
ever again. I call them “FGEs” which stands for (and please forgive my being crude
here) “F***ing Growth Experiences.” A really good FGE can teach us a lesson we
otherwise would not have learned.
It’s like when you buy your first house. You need to paint the walls hideous colors and
try installing laminate flooring with one arm in a cast just once before you truly appreciate the wisdom of hiring
When I first contemplated going on my own, I was warned against going solo because
of my “limited” practice areas of business and intellectual property law. I was told
I would never survive unless I paired up with a litigator. I was also warned that I
needed to rent office space or clients wouldn’t take me seriously; that I needed tens of
thousands of dollars in the bank just to get started; and that I would need to hire clerical
help right away.
This was standard advice from experienced lawyers who knew a thing or two about
making a law firm succeed. I heeded almost all of their advice and sought a partner to
go into practice with me. Eventually, my former partner and I had to make the painful
decision to close our firm and go our separate ways professionally. On the list of things I
learned from my first short-lived foray into owning a law firm:
- We never should have leased office space straight out of the gate.
- Bookkeepers may only think they understand law firm trust accounting.
- You can hire unpaid labor in the form of law students and paralegal studies interns, and you will get what you pay for most of the time.
- A pretty website that no one ever sees is worthless.
- You really DO need practice management software, not just QuickBooks.
- Pay yourself something, however small, from the get-go.
- I’m a pretty darned good rainmaker.
- I never needed a partner.
But here’s the kicker: If I had to do it over I wouldn’t change a thing. I needed the FGEs I got from my year and a half law firm partnership. I learned to be a better lawyer and a better manager. I learned to stand on my own two feet and to make a firm work with very little overhead. I even learned how to be my own paralegal.
I may be a little battered and bruised, but I also discovered that I’m stronger than I thought.
How exactly do we learn from an FGE, though? It’s not enough to have one happen.
We have to use the experience, however ugly. You have to work on the “G” part and
actually grow through it.
First, you have to own it. By that I mean that you have to accept that you screwed up.
You can’t learn from a bad experience that you blame on someone else.
Next, you have to know what went wrong and what went right. What was your goal?
How did you miss the target? Did you have the target in the right place? Knowing where
you made a misstep helps you map your territory.
Then you need to understand how not to do it again. Yes, that is distinct from knowing
what went wrong. This part is crucial: examine what went wrong and determine what
could have been done to avoid the problem. If you do not do this, you will make the
same mistake again because you won’t be able to avoid the problem when you see it
coming. You can’t afford to keep making the same mistakes over and over again until
the mistakes become habits.
Finally, you have to assimilate the lesson and put it into practice. You have to practice
doing better than you did before, avoiding your mistakes and improving a little every
I recently heard an interview with Amy Chua, author of Battle Hymn of the Dragon
Mother, a memoir about the Chinese way of parenting. Ms. Chua made the point that
no one likes what they are doing while they are learning to do it. It is only through lots of
practice, she emphasized, that we become good enough at a pursuit to enjoy it.
Running a law firm is like any other pursuit in that regard. We have to learn how to do
each part of the job of running a firm with finesse. Sometimes it takes an FGE to teach
us, but we have to practice what we learn.
Do you have an FGE you want to 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®.