Lessons Learned From a Hard First Year of Solo Practice

One year ago, in December 2010, I hung out my shingle as a solo. I thought I would look back on that year and the lessons that I learned.

First and foremost, I learned that I can do this! When I initially left Big Law, I was convinced that I needed a partner, that I wasn’t “enough” on my own. I doubted that I could be the rainmaker, the bookkeeper, the janitor AND the lawyer. In fact, I have had a much easier time of it as a solo than I had with a business partner. Nothing against my former partner, mind you, as our break-up was very mutual. But I as I left that practice behind to start this one from its ashes, I realized that I was much stronger than I had given myself credit for. If I ever take on a partner again, it will be because it makes business sense, not because I think I need someone else to prop me up.

I learned that I like having a brick & mortar office. This one really surprised me. I have a virtual office that lets me work anywhere, but I choose to do most of my work in my office. I started out with a home office and I was very proud not to need a separate office. I was high-tech, location independent (nomadic, even) and I was doing fine. In fact, my clients often chose me because I was a virtual lawyer. But there was also a LOT of people who wanted to meet me, face-to-face, in my office. I learned very quickly that I was not entirely comfortable inviting strangers into my home on a daily basis. For one thing, the house had to stay spotless, and with two animals (a dog and a geriatric cat) I suspected that there were smells to which I had long since grown accustomed. For another, well, you just never really know who the client is till they show up. Plus, I had hired part-time help, and my tiny office was getting crowded. The final determinant, however, was that my “dream” location became available: an office in a converted historic Victorian home within walking distance of my house. I come to work every day looking forward to climbing the steep stairs to my office on the third floor. My space has a homey, comfortable and professional feel, and I have more privacy.

I learned that having a brick & mortar presence does not mean you give up on a virtual practice. I still have many clients whom I have never met face-to-face. I have many others that I meet face-to-face only occasionally and do all of their work in a virtual space regardless. And I love the luxury of taking my work with me when I travel. Having a virtual practice made it possible to work from my mom’s house when she was ill, to stay with my sister when she got out of the hospital and still get the work done, and to keep my business alive while tying up loose ends after my mom passed away. I even got some work done in November when I was in the hospital for three days following surgery! In short, having a virtual practice was the main reason I still have a practice with everything I’ve gone through this year.

I learned not to waste money on marketing. I got suckered into signing up for law firm marketing contracts. You know the ones: big research companies also offer marketing packages to improve your search engine optimization (“SEO”) and promise you’ll get more leads through their online directory than any other way. It’s total bulls$&t, pardon my French.  I have not seen one dime of return on that investment in a year – not even a single lead. Don’t fall for it.

I learned not to waste money on other things, too. Like memberships to networking groups, ads in local home & leisure publications, and fancy extras like all the add-ons my phone company offered me or hiring a decorator to fix up my office. Instead, I got involved in the bar associations I’m already a member of, switched my phones to a bare-bones system, fired my answering service and decorated my office with used furniture off of Craig’s List. The leaner you run your firm, the easier it is to pay the bills each month and still take home a paycheck.

I learned where my leads actually come from. I get at least half of my clients from referral sources like other attorneys and existing clients. So guess where I put my marketing time and money? Into taking those referral sources to lunch. I am also starting a seminar series for my existing clients to build on their referrals.I also get a lot of referrals from a local business mentoring organization, so I volunteer with them as a speaker. The rest of my clients find me online through my own website. More on that below.

I learned how to get clients through my website. You want better SEO? Translation: do you want your website to stand out on Google? Learn some basic ins and outs of how the Internet works. Use a back-end to your website like Joomla or WordPress that automatically handles it for you. Figure out the keywords that people will actually put into search engines to find a lawyer like you, then stick them into the “keywords” box in your web site back-end. Use multiple pages – one for every practice area. Update your site regularly with fresh, relevant content. Lather, rinse, repeat. Because what works to drive traffic to your site is going to change day to day.

I learned how much money I need to stay afloat. I wrapped my head around my own cash flow, and figured out how to bootstrap my law firm the same way many of my clients bootstrapped their businesses. It’s not easy, and some days I wonder if I can survive the latest cash flow crunch. But my bottom line is healthy, my bills get paid, and I am taking home a paycheck each month. Not too shabby for my first year!

I learned that I can do it all myself, but that I don’t have to. I’m no longer a one-man band. I have hired and fired a few people this year, including a couple of file clerks, a law clerk, a paralegal and, well, a widget. Yes, a widget. That is the job title I gave to my part-time assistant/file clerk/paralegal/receptionist/IT staff/janitor/Girl Friday. Her name is Wendy, and I worked with her at Big Law. I share her with another local attorney – I have her mornings on Tuesday through Friday, and he gets her Mondays and Tuesday through Friday afternoons. Having a widget means that I can spend more time on marketing and lawyering, and less time on administrative stuff. And I love it!

Finally, I learned to love my life, right now, just as it is. My life is not perfect, don’t get me wrong. It would be nice to be a little more profitable, but the firm is beginning to thrive. I love coming to work here every day. I love my office, my building and the other tenants here so much that I helped host a Holiday Open House here last week. I have a fantastic marriage to the most wonderful and supportive man I have ever known. I have a great house, right down to the shedding dog and the smelly cat. I have the love and support of my siblings and a strong network of friends. In short, I have no reason not to succeed and no reason not to be happy. Life is good.

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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4 comments on “Lessons Learned From a Hard First Year of Solo Practice

  • Suzanne,

    Excellent post! I am celebrating my second year as a solo, but my first year full time AND my first month without a net (that second job I kept as a nurse until mid-November), because I too learned that I can do this! You post hit on many things I have found, too. Especially the part about the Brick & Mortar (Stone & Siding?) office – I am much more productive and tend to have more focus when I am in the office.

    Congratulations on a year well done!

    Marc Meyer

  • Congratulations, and thanks so much for sharing your perspective! It’s great to hear some good news, when there’s so much gloom-and-doom out there these days.

    I’m sending the link out in my Girl’s Guide to Law School newsletter right now, in fact!

    Best of luck for a successful year two.

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