What I’ve Learned My First Year Flying Solo

One year ago today, with great excitement and much trepidation, I launched Rachel Rodgers Law Office. There was no fanfare – no flashing lights, no balloons, no fancy office or website and not even fancy business cards. It was just me, my laptop, 3 precious clients who I still adore for believing in me and a whole lotta guts. As I sat at the same desk I had studied and worked at throughout law school, bar study and a judicial clerkship in my little, quiet apartment, my wildest dreams could not have imagined what would occur in the year to come.

So today, to celebrate with all of you, I want to do a couple of things. First, I want to tell you the things I wish I had known on that official launch day, so that hopefully it will help those of you who will be starting your own solo practices soon. Second, I want to tell you the things I’m glad I knew and did, also in the hopes that it will help soon-to-be-solos. Lastly, I want to encourage you to get past your fear and allow your own wildest dreams to come to fruition.

Things I Wish I Had Known & Things I’m Glad I Knew

1. Everything is a test. When I started, many of the decisions I had to make scared me. What niche do I want to focus on? Should I spend money on making my workflow more efficient? Should I charge for consultations or not? I was terrified of making the wrong choice. Over time I realized that there really is no wrong choice. Because in business, everything is an experiment. Try something new and see how it works for you. If it doesn’t work, you can scrap it and learn from it. If it does work, hurrah! Even then you may want to tweak it to make it work more efficiently. So remember that every hypothesis needs to be tested. And negative results of the test are not a failure on your part. Instead, the results are a win no matter what because now you know what works and what doesn’t.

2. Establish a good accounting system on day 1. This one is a hard lesson I had to learn. I used an excel spreadsheet to track my business expenses and income for most of the first year. I dabbled with one or two software systems, none of which seemed to really work for me. Eventually, I broke down and implemented QuickBooks in my practice and I have to agree with many who told me its the best accounting software there is for small businesses. This is something I definitely wish I had done from day 1. Of course, on day 1, I couldn’t imagine actually having real income and expenses that required such software but trust me, it will happen. And I want to spare you the hell I experienced when I had to enter every expense and every bit of income my business had in the past year into QuickBooks. Spend the $150 to get good accounting software now. Trust me, you’ll thank me later.

3. Don’t spend a dime on marketing advertising. This falls mostly into the things I’m glad I knew category. Through surveying other solos, relentless reading on the topic and diving into the social media scene before I launched my practice, I realized that much of the high quality marketing I needed to do did not involve spending money but did involve substantial amounts of time. Luckily, as a new solo I had more time than money anyway. The time I have invested to market myself and my practice has not only been enjoyable (I really enjoy writing and connecting with people through social media) but has yielded great results such as new clients, press, expansion of my network and speaking engagements. In the past year, I have spent no more than $500 on advertising and that money did not result in any new clients. So save your money on advertising and start writing and connecting with people.

4. Have CEO days. Being a lawyer and being a CEO is almost like being a ballerina and being a truck driver. They are completely different roles! And its hard to put your CEO cap on when you are knee deep in legal work. Therefore, I have learned to create time and space for CEO days. These are days where I do a business assessment. I consider where my practice is in terms of various measures for growth and then research and/or implement new infrastructure, technology, services, etc. Sometimes these days just involve brainstorming new ideas for my business based on where I want it to go. CEO days are hugely important so I highly recommend blocking off time for this in your calendar from day 1.

5. The less start up money you have, the better off you are. During my researching days, before I started my practice, I talked to solo and small firm lawyers who had spent large amounts of money on things like Westlaw accounts and radio ads. These lawyers shared with me that they regretted spending the money after realizing there were less expensive ways to do research and marketing (and probably everything else). When you have start up money, you spend start up money, usually on things you don’t need. So rejoice if you have little to invest in your practice, you are better off. There is very little needed by way of start up funds for a new law practice, anyway. You’ve already spent large sums of start up capital on law school tuition and taking the bar. Better to focus on getting those first few clients and bootstrapping.

6. Ask an absurd amount of questions. You may notice a theme on this list is that I learned some things by experience over the past year but I learned even more by asking questions. Maybe its the fact that I have a big sister whose mistakes I had the benefit of learning from that makes me insistent on learning from others. In any event, its really worked for me. So I encourage you to ask an absurd amount of people an absurd amount of questions! Ask questions of every solo and small firm lawyer as well as every potential client. It’s true that there are some things you can only learn by experience but there is a whole lot more you can learn from others who have done it. And you’ll be happy to know that solo lawyers are among the most generous people in the world when it comes to sharing their knowledge (yes, that is a fact). See for yourself!

What Are You Afraid Of?

One of the reasons I love writing this column is that I get to be a guinea pig for all the soon-to-be-solos out there. I hope that by sharing my experiences and showing you that I am still standing, that my life hasn’t imploded and that I haven’t been kicked out of the universe, you will be able to get past your own fears about taking the solo leap.

I know what its like to deal with paralyzing fear of taking a chance to make your dreams come true. I was terrified to go solo. I wondered what people would say. I wondered what I might lose.  I wondered if I would fail. I still deal with fear all the time. Sometimes I am fearful that I’m taking my business in the wrong direction, that the phone will stop ringing, that (fill in the blank).

And then I think about not doing the things I really want to do. And that always looks way worse. I can’t imagine my life without being an entrepreneur. I can’t imagine my life without being a lawyer. I can’t imagine my life without writing about it. These things are so core to who I am, they’re my gifts/talents/superpowers, whatever you want to call them. I wouldn’t be living if I didn’t live the life I want to live.

So if you are a young lawyer considering starting a solo practice or anyone else considering going after your very own precious dream so you can share your very own precious gifts/talents/superpowers, don’t ask yourself only, “what if I fail?” Also ask yourself, “what will my life be like if I succeed?”

Here’s to many more years of living the dream for you and I, both!

Do you have any more tips you want to share after YOUR first year flying solo?

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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24 comments on “What I’ve Learned My First Year Flying Solo

  • Rachel,

    Thanks for the article. I always enjoy the retrospective posts. I tend to look at things 1 year at a time to see how I am doing. As an associate at my prior firm, everything was based on a calendar year. I took it month-by-month in terms of income, revenue, costs, etc. – but the calendar year told me how I did.

    So, what I’m wondering is: I know you learned a lot and you have some great tips that I completely agree with; however, did you actually make any money? I hate to be a naysayer, but I’m interested in the financial aspects more than the lessons.

    Thanks again for posting!

    • Hi Joseph,

      I don’t think there is anything naysaying about your question. :) I had planned to go into the money issue but found I didn’t have the time because if I was going to do it, I would want to actually provide hard data and discuss additional sources of income. Maybe for a later post.

      Yes, I definitely made money, much more than I expected. I talked to many attorneys and other type of small business owners prior to starting my practice. All agreed that it takes about 2-3 years before your income is truly reliable and you start to be where you want to be financially. Therefore, on Day 1 my expectation was that I would bring in revenue that would cover monthly overhead and that I would have a little bit of money to reinvest in the business to create a website, invest in tech tools, etc. by the end of year 1. If I had more than that, I’d be thrilled.

      What actually happened was that at about the 6 month mark, there was a jump in steady flow of clients and therefore, a higher and steadier flow of income, which has continually grown since. Also, I am working with more and more sophisticated clients. I have had no problems covering my overhead from about the 2 month mark (I keep it lean), have had money to reinvest in the business at opportune moments (for example, attending a high quality business retreat, hiring a VA, taking classes) and have been able to draw a modest income from the business as well. I have also been able to set up additional sources of income, some passive and some not (that will be an interesting topic for a later blog post). To me, its a big win.

      I can tell you that I am not making 6 figures yet. I think you could in year 1 if you have a litigation practice because litigation is more time and labor intensive and, therefore, tends to draw higher fees than a lot of transactional work.

      My goals for the first year were really to learn, develop a clientele and develop my brand. Its been an amazing year in terms of those measures. One of my goals for year 2 are to, at the very least, double the revenue I am currently bringing in. Which is not such a leap given the strong foundation that has been laid. This time next year, look for a post here to see if I have accomplished my goal. :)

      Hope that answers your question.

  • Congratulations on your first year as a solo Rachel! I appreciate your addressing the “fear factor”, as I’ve been struggling with it myself as of late. It can absolutely be paralyzing and keep one from progressing and moving forward. I appreciate your insight and will take your words to heart as I continue on my journey.

    • Marjorie,

      Thank you so much! Fear is definitely a big issue. Hit the link on the last line of the blog post and watch the awesome TEDx talk by Jonathan Fields, a former lawyer. Its an absolutely must watch and really puts the fear factor in perspective. I think you have to tame the fear monster early on because it shows up every time you want to do something new, scary, innovative, risky, etc. But you can’t let that stop you from living the life you want, right? Besides we only get one life and its short.

  • Congratulations on making it through your first year! Sounds like you learned some amazing lessons that it takes some people much longer to figure out. I think its awesome that you were willing to open up and share so much, it sounds like you have a bright future ahead.

    • Thank you so much, Adrian! I appreciate the kind words and encouragement!

      I have been surrounded by some really smart people and have made learning, whether from books, other lawyers and biz owners, through classes, etc., a big priority this past year. Hopefully, its paying off. :)

      Thank you, again!!

  • As a solo Las Vegas divorce lawyer, I concur with your blog about going solo. Time is more important for marketing (depending on your line of law) than is money.

    • Anthony,

      Absolutely! When you devote time to marketing, you meet people, you display your expertise, you have opportunities for growth and learning and you help people. That says a lot more about a lawyer than a few bucks on an advertisement ever could. I live by this method!

  • Kudos on a job well done in your first year! As a Gen Y lawyer locked in a baby boomer body, it’s a joy to follow you as you tenaciously pursue your dreams and inspire so many along the way. Here’s to an even more successful year 2!

  • Rachel, congratulations on your first year. Much of your post is quite valuable, but I think you are confusing “marketing” with advertising. If your advice was “don’t spend a dime on advertising the first year” I might agree with you. Did you pay any money for business cards? A brochure? A new suit? Your website? Taking a potential referral source to lunch? I’d say those were important first-year investments and they’re all “marketing.”

    • Mark,

      You are absolutely right! Thank you for correcting me. Its true that I use marketing and advertising interchangeably sometimes. Oops!

      What I meant was don’t spend money placing ads, because I have found that to be ineffective, in general, among the solos I know.

      Thank you, again! :)

  • Thanks for this article, Rachel. I launched my practice a mere 4 months ago and I can attest that the hardest hurdle has been overcoming my fear. This is my second entrepreneurial venture and the fear is just as strong the 2nd time around. I just ignore it and trudge forward knowing that every mistake is a learning experience.

    After 4 months I have a handful of clients and I can feel that I am on the right track. Although the road to financial success is long and steep but it is such a rewarding road to travel.

    Congratulations on your 1-year anniversary and thank you for paving the way and leaving bread crumbs for those of us in your wake.

    • Anthony,

      Congrats on taking the leap (again) and for securing your handful of clients! That’s all it takes, isn’t it? I appreciate your kind words and will continue to share everything I know as long as its helping others.

      Wishing you much success throughout the rest of your first year! :)

  • Congratulations Rachel. Your post made me think back to my first year solo, which was 2007. I agree that at the beginning, you have more time to market oneself and that’s what I did, but as you grow, you have less time to do that. However, I have to take your comment about advertising with a grain of salt– like with other things, it is unwise to generalize on this point. I think the reason many solos have little success with “advertising” is that they don’t know how to do it right. Almost right out of the gate, I made an investment in online marketing through lawyers.com and the results were exceptional. I had also designed my own website and made sure to tweak it to make sure it showed up in google results. At the beginning of 2009, I then began a campaign of placing a 1/4 page ad in a free local magazine in my city and the results were again exceptional– (at least a 300-400% return on investment). So, “ads” can work if you know how to do it and do the proper market analysis– e.g.: a small black and white ad probably won’t work. Year one: $67,000 income. Year two: $84,000. Year three: $116,000 (year I began the “ads” in the magazine); Year four: $166,000 (second year of “ads”); Current year projection based on monthly average revenue: $200,448. I attribute the yearly increase in revenue to my continued “advertising” — I don’t “market” myself as much anymore like I did in year one– I don’t have the time to do that. Instead, I focus my marketing on tweaking my advertising to make sure it is effective. Of course, more and more, when I ask a consult how they heard about me, more and more you hear: “so and so referred me to you…”; however, it is funny that sometimes I’ll ask that and they’ll pull out that magazine where my ad is…

    • Hi Gabe,

      Thanks for sharing your successes with advertising! Unlike you, I and other lawyers I know, did not have much luck with advertising. The money spent was not recouped.

      Do you think it depends on the practice area? Is there a trial and error period involved? How can young lawyers differentiate between the good advertising opportunities from the bad ones? That would be very useful to know. For a new solo with a limited budget, its risky to spend money on ads that don’t provide a return. Although, there are a myriad of risks inherent in entrepreneurship and starting a law practice so its just one of many.

      I personally preferred to use my own time and labor to market myself as opposed to ads because I wanted to keep my costs as low as possible. But of course, the amount of time and money you have available does shift over time.

      I’d love to learn more about how you made ads work for you.

      • I certainly think practice area is something that should be considered. For example, there are huge differences in thinking about advertising if you practice family-based immigration law vs. personal injury litigation. What I mean is this: imm law is normally a flat-fee practice. Once you have determined what your flat fee is for a certain case (e.g. a wife petitions for a husband for legal residency) and you have determined that you charge $X.XX for that case. You then calculate the cost of adversing in a certain venue for a year. It comes out to $X.XX for the year. What you should now do is not focus on the expenditure but on the potential return. That is, how many of the “example” cases do you need to recoup the investment? If my advertising is $10,000 a year, I might only need to sign up 4 clients over the year to recoup that expense. If it’s a more complicated case, I might recoup that expense with 2 clients or 3 clients (each with one case each). So, I have already made a determination whether such a client base exists in my area. If so, I proceed with the investment. PI law is more difficult because it takes longer to recoup the investment (if a case doesn’t settle for a year or longer, etc.).

        It’s difficult to know what advertising is bad vs. good. You need to use some instincts. black and white with no picture seems like a bad bet. People want to see who they’re calling. Color makes your ad stand out. Finally, take a chance– the right call can expand your business almost immediately.

  • Echoing your comments re: accounting software. For those just starting out solo, I recommend that you spend the additional bucks for the Professional Premier edition of Quickbooks. Includes a very capable timekeeping/billing system that is fine for a solo/small office arrangement. If time is current – always a challenge, but less so once you realize that it’s your “inventory,” and keeping track is not going to advance you within the firm, but rather feed and house you and your family – the billing process itself takes @ 45 minutes a month.

    • If you seek more of a “case management software” that includes accounting that is law-specific, I would look into PcLaw by Lexis Nexis. I purchased that software before the LexisNexis buy out and it was same price as getting Quickbooks. Plus you get actual case management capabilities built in. I still use this program even though I’m a mac user– it’s that useful.

  • Thank you so much for this. Though I’m not an attorney, last month I decided to start my own one man consulting company. Pretty much everything you wrote about seems just as applicable to my situation and you have filled my with a more hopeful and confident outlook.

  • Congrats on an excellent start to your practice! I am a solo here in Utah doing bankruptcy and family law. Any tips on finding a good legal VA?

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