(Updated) – Solo As A Side Dish

(Update: 12/15/11) As indicated in the text of this post, this attorney chose solo as a side dish but it also served as a plan B should her full-time position change.  Well, thanks to the economy and a change in the dynamics of her employment, she is now practicing full-time as a solo.  Developing a plan B  while working full time really helped with the transition because she had already worked out many of the kinks of solo practice on her own schedule and without financial pressure.  This enabled her to flow relatively smoothly into full time practice.)

I have had an ongoing correspondence with a ‘friend’ whom I’ve never met but feel I can call her ‘friend’ because we have been exchanging intimate, thoughtful, and fun conversations on the phone and through e-mail for a few years, and she continues to have an interesting professional trajectory.  At one point, while doing document review, she was planning to go solo. During the planning and networking phase a truly fabulous legal job landed in her lap. (Yes, when you start acting like a peer instead of a subordinate, job opportunities surface!)

She took the job which offered opportunity, security, benefits and tremendous flexibility during her work week which dove-tailed very nicely with her life goals.  Even with this economic turmoil she was also just promoted.

When we corresponded last week she said she was really itching to practice the kind of law she wanted to practice in addition to her full time job.  She saw starting her solo practice as a ‘side dish’, not the main course.  This really got me to thinking about how often we tell people to hold onto their jobs until they can go solo as the ‘main dish’ never contemplating people may very well be happy with their current jobs but want to also have a ‘side dish’ practice 

There are some who would say you can’t have a solo practice as a side dish and do it effectively.  They could be right if they saw the  ‘side dish’ solo practice as just a stepping stone to becoming the ‘main course’ solo practice.  However, this isn’t her goal. She just wants to take a few select cases when she chooses while maintaining her current job. I say, ‘why not?’

In her particular situation, she is constantly approached about a very niched area of practice having to do with family formation catering to a particular ethnic group and sexual orientation.  Couldn’t get nich-ier than that! It is also purely transactional and doesn’t require normal working hours or a court schedule.  I personally believe this type of transactional work is best if you’re doing solo as a side dish.

The nice thing about this approach is she will have a built in Plan B should her job somehow evaporate.  But her goal isn’t to build her practice into a full time operation.  Her goal is simply to have a solo practice in addition to her current full time job and on her terms representing just the people she wants to represent.  There are no external pressures other than her desire to have a client base of her choosing in an area of law she is drawn to and will enjoy.

What is Success?

This also begs the question ‘what is success?’  I am often asked what success is when it comes to practicing law as a solo.  So many equate it with something measurable and inevitably this is money.  Fair enough.  If the goal is to build a sustainable business which pays the bills and allows for comforts in you life, you’re in the majority of those who go solo. Others say satisfaction in servicing clients.  Yet others say it is a combination of the two.  No one is wrong or right.  It’s how they define success.

This example of solo as a side dish is interesting in terms of measuring success because in this particular instance, she is practicing law -  just not the type of law that gives her the greatest satisfaction.  It pays the bills well and gives her flexibility to try out doing the law she really wants to do.  Will her solo practice net her $100,000 a year in legal fees?  Not the way she wants to do it.  At least I don’t think so.  But that’s also not her goal.  Her goal is to provide legal services to a defined audience on her terms while keeping her full time job.  So, will she be a ‘successful’ solo practitioner?

What do you think?  Do you have a full time job but would like to have a solo practice as a ‘side dish’.  Do you already practice ‘solo as a side dish?’

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19 comments on “(Updated) – Solo As A Side Dish

  • I know a few solos who practice with a “side dish” career, but few Big Law attorneys who do. Most Big Law firms want exclusivity and loyalty from associates (e.g. they want you there billing hours for the firm on nights and weekends, not out somewhere having a life).

    I have a friend who is a part-time magistrate in her district while running a successful solo practice in entertainment law. I have another friend who is an associate with an adoption law firm but has a “side dish” mediation practice. I personally would love a “side dish” job working in e-discovery, an interest of mine that I do not get to delve into nearly enough (it doesn’t exactly dovetail with my transactional, small business practice).

  • Suzanne, I see this happening more with people who are counsel in corporations, government. These are lawyers who are somewhat secure, have a very defined role within the structure and want to practice some law they ultimately envisioned without giving up their 9 – 5 job with all the perks. Interesting you brought up solos who have a ‘side dish’ career within the actual practice of law versus being a novelist or stand-up comedian.

  • I have had my solo practice as a side dish for the past three years. Although life is certainly more hectic balancing the needs of two jobs, for me It has been a comfortable way to learn the ins and outs of having my own practice while still having the safety net of a regular income.
    This December, we will be packing up to head to Australia for a year while my husband participates in a teacher exchange program. At that time, my side dish will become my main course, and as all of my clients are from different areas of the US and my practice is 99% online, I can work from anywhere in the world!

  • This is how my husband probably envisioned my practice starting when I graduated from school. Honestly, it would have been good to start the practice on a part time basis, but it would not be feasible unless you had a very flexible clientele.

  • It occurs to me that we are talking about attorneys working the same way the rest of the world has worked for some time. No one bats an eye at my programmer husband’s “side dish” software development company. Over decade ago, I ran a consulting business in parallel with my day job as a systems engineer.

    Thinking out loud some more: Why should it be any different for lawyers? Are there PLI or ethics issues?

    • There are no ethical issues providing you comply with your jurisdiction’s rules. Whether you handle one client or one thousand clients, practice in the evening or during the day, this is a non-starter. And by PLI you mean Professional Liability Insurance issues, other than a reduced rate for working part-time based upon number of hours billed (which is a bonus if you can get it) I can’t conceive of any issue.

  • Susan,

    And I know we have talked about my situation, where my solo practice was part of a three-legged stool (it still is three-legged, but one of the legs takes up almost zero time since I retired from the Fire Department). I wasn’t as successful as I think I should have been, but there is no one to blame but myself for that. Still, it sustained itself and didn’t drain the personal bank account. But the other two legs were definitely more important during the last year.

    Now the situation is reversing itself. I’m working the solo practice actively now and I only have one other leg of the stool that makes demands on my time. And I limit that to certain days/times to make minimal impact on my availability (I work two night shifts a week as a nurse). I think that the income backstop, while good during the transition period, inhibited my development as an attorney and business owner. I recognize that now, and I strive to use that knowledge to get beyond my “safe” zone to truly reach my potential.

    The key for me was to stop viewing myself as something other than an attorney. For the longest time, I was a paramedic and RN that happened to also be an attorney But now I view myself now, an attorney who also happens to be a nurse and a paramedic and who wants to serve those demographics. The not-so-subtle change in attitude seems to be making a difference, even though it has been accompanied by some changes in my business operations. With apologies to Chuck, I really needed an physical office to make myself really believe. That may change in the next three years and I know it is all in my head, but done frugally and the right way, it is making a difference for me.


    • As in anything, perspective is everything! And Marc, a home office isn’t for everyone. Those who know they need a separate space outside to work simply have to budget for it accordingly. There are many where a home office is a goal (myself) and others who use a home office to start off and evolve into an actual space and plan for it. There is no one-size-fits-all answer. What’s plentiful are options and that’s the beauty of creating your own practice. You get to decide what is right for you.

  • I’d say it’s a question of definition more than anything else. She has a full time job … her client that probably represents 90% of her clientele and her revenue stream. Then, she has a number of other clients, smaller both in volume of number of clients and dollars earned.

    I think the same principles apply. For example, my advice is not to have a client that represents more than 10% of your gross revenue … Too much of your future is in the hands of this client. That is the problem with a full time job … you have one client … and when that client has a hiccup or the power structure changes, you are dramatically impacted. In your friend’s case, she’ll (she?) will have to make sure not to anger that client (her company client) while serving others. If her ultimate goal is to build up her other clients so she has more freedom of choice, that’s a different goal … and fine.

    From personal experience, I can share a time of my life. I was corporate general counsel, running a manufacturing business on the side as Chairman of the Board (with a full time manager in place) and running my own practice in the evening (sometimes spilled over into the day) … This went for quite a while … until hiccup. The corporate world changed and I no longer was corporate general counsel. So I went back to my “solo practice” (the evening practice) and put more energy there. Another time, I was solo but one of my clients was about 60% of my business .. I knew that was not the best situation, but used it to grow the balance of my practice, hoping to increase my revenue, keeping the big client, but reducing the percentage of their importance.

    Again, I think it’s merely a question of definition.

    Ed Poll, J.D., M.B.A., CMC
    Principal , LawBiz Management
    421Howland Canal
    Venice, CA 90291
    edpoll@lawbiz.com; (800) 837-5880
    http://www.lawbiz.com and http://www.lawbizblog.com
    Fellow, College of Law Practice Management
    Board Certified Coach to the Legal Profession, SAC
    Member of the Million Dollar Consulting® Hall of Fame

    Author of recently released book, Growing Your Law Practice in Tough Times (West Pub. 2010)

  • Hi Susan.

    Great post! I have had a ‘solo as a side dish’ practice for almost 2 years now. It’s probably not exactly like you envision as my full-time job title is ‘mom’. After practicing corporate law for over 8 years, I decided to take a break and start a family, but I found that I missed practicing, so I started a solo practice that has allowed me to work when and how I want (most of the time) and still be home with my little girl. My goal with my practice has been to grow the practice as my daughter grows up and requires less of my time.

    It’s funny that you mentioned ‘definition of success’ because I just went through an exercise with my business coach where I had to put into words what my definition of success for my business is. It’s a very insightful exercise and one that I would recommend every solo do. Here’s mine. ‘Growing a reputable and profitable law practice that is intellectually stimulating and challenging in conjunction with meeting the needs of my family.’

    • Kelli,

      Congratulations! You have more company than you realize. Many consider ‘Mom’ a fulltime job and solo as a side dish, just made to feel guilty for doing so. This should never be the case and there is no ‘one way’ to practice law. And I think this is what my over all mission has been – to get this message across. And there is no one definition of success. It is so personal. Thank you for reminding me of this with your fantastic personal definition of success!

  • I know this is a few months behind, but I felt the need to comment. I have started a part-time practice – a side dish – as I work in a non-legal capacity full time for the local government. My full-time pay is great, the side dish is not. With that being said I could not envision doing it any other way. Yes, it is financially draining and the clients are nill, but it has been only a few months and I constantly have to remind myself of that. There are times I want to close shop, but then why did I got to law school? Seeing the success of others is inspiring – perhaps a few more articles on the subject would be helpful to other like myself. Thank you.

  • I know this article is older, but it keeps appearing at the top of my various searches. I am a 3L. When I graduate, I will return to my job as an airline pilot and hopefully, have a side dish. What form that will take, I’m not sure, but I am doing all I can now to figure that out.

    This gives me the benefit of A) having a paying job after the bar in a really really bad economy B) doing what I love and C) building a business should my airline ever fail. See, for example, comair. If you are familiar with the airlines, you’ll know that when one goes under as they just did, even the most senior 30+ year pilots start back at the bottom. In this business, that means welfare level wages.

    Clearly, my work will have to be transactional. Beyond that, I don’t know. I worked in tech for ages and will have the IP certificate upon graduation. Obviously, I have an aviation background, as well. I’ve meet probably 20 or so airline pilots who have a legal side dish. (Most pilots have SOME side dish, as pilot wages are so unbelievable low).

    Time will tell how it will turn out. I appreciated this article, though. Sparked a few ideas.

    • Mary,

      Please keep us posted on how you do. Would love to know, with your non-traditional schedule, what practice area you do and how it works out for you. Of course, at SPU, we’re here to guide you all the way.

  • Sorry for coming late to the conversation. I am graduating this May and my goal was to go solo from the start, but it’s just not economically possible (yet). I have flexibility in my full-time gig, and I need build the side dish before jumping full-on. What types of practice lend themselves best to side-dish status?

    • Nick, depending upon what your full-time gig is, generally transactional work such as trusts & estates, helping startups with their businesses, brief-writing for other attorneys. If it involves court time it’s best that your full-time gig be bartender at night! Point is, you can select the type of work that best fits your full-time job. Usually, having to maintain a court schedule is precluded unless you can use vacation days or personal days or you already have a full-time job where you are in control of your time.

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