Preparing To Go Solo Mid-Career

Last time, I discussed ways of gaining experience if you are an entry level job seeker.  But what about those who already have experience?  If you work at a medium or large law firm and are thinking of becoming a solo mid-career, you probably need to prepare for a significant shift in your work.

For instance, I recently spoke with a bankruptcy solo.  In her previous life as an associate at a white shoe law firm, she handled complex Chapter 11 cases for large companies.  The job was great and intellectually demanding, and she was very experienced in these types of bankruptcies, but she had never had control over any major aspects of those cases.  Now, as a solo, she handles Chapter 7 and 13 cases for middle-class and even low-income families.  She has the pleasure of having total control over her cases, but she also has the associated responsibility to bring expertise to bear on those cases. Sure, it’s the same field.  But really, she’s in an entirely different ballgame.

In becoming a solo, it is easy for former large-firm attorneys to scoff at this transition downwards in scale.  After all, if you can handle work for large clients, why should you have any problem with work for small clients?  Well, you may be surprised. Shifting to smaller cases can be like entering a completely new practice.  The central issues, the governing law and the salient facts can all be entirely different.  And so can the clients.  Nothing about my work in law firms or government ever prepared me for the types of cases I began handling as a solo.  In my case, as a tax attorney I ended up handling small tax collection matters and other typical mom-and-pop issues, which were completely new to me.

To prepare for this shift, I relied on four things:

—Non-profits (volunteering).

—Internet message boards.

—Local attorney radio shows.

—And, not least importantly, Nolo Press.

Non-Profits – I touched on these in my last post. As I said before, non-profits provide an excellent training ground for those who wish to become a solo.  Non-profits generally need volunteer attorneys to work on cases that are small (but crucially important to clients), the kind you will likely be dealing with in your solo practice.  You will gain a better understanding of the issues surrounding these types of cases.  And you will learn how to deal with the types of clients you are likely to have as a solo.

For instance, when I worked for law firms all of the clients were wealthy families and/or successful businesspersons.  Obviously, their matters were fairly large in scale (requiring them to go to an expensive law firm in the first place).  In contrast, my clients from the tax clinic sat at the other end of the income spectrum.  Most were low income persons with run-of-the-mill IRS problems.  Through my volunteer work, I became much more effective at solving their problems and I really learned how to communicate with ordinary people who were not of the country club set.

Internet Message Boards – Although potentially overlooked, Internet message boards are highly useful if you wish to become familiar with more everyday type legal matters.  For instance, before I became a solo I often combed the postings on TaxAlmanac, a message board for tax professionals.  The site is mostly frequented by accountants and tax preparers, most of whom are posting questions on issues that have stumped them.  This was an excellent way to become familiar with the types of tax issues one might confront as a solo.  Since message boards exist for every conceivable topic (and some that aren’t conceivable), one probably exists for your field of practice.  Try some Google message board searches to see if you can locate one.

Local Attorney Radio Shows – In the San Francisco area, there is a great radio show on KGO hosted by local attorney Len Tillem, the Radio Lawyer (or in his Brooklyn accent, the Radio ‘Loyya’).  The show features neighbor-broke-my-fence type callers whose legal problems are handled on the fly.  Virtually all types of questions are answered; criminal issues, family law, personal injury, etc.  The show is posted on iTunes and I frequently fill up my iPod with them and listen while taking the dog out for walks. 

As a solo (even one with a designated concentration), people will come to you all day long with offbeat legal matters.  Even if these matters are entirely outside your field of practice, clients will expect you to understand them anyway.  After all, you are a lawyer.  You should know everything. Of course, you do not know everything.  But by listening to call in radio shows, you can become familiar with a surprisingly wide variety of legal issues.  And they are the types of issues that are most likely to affect ordinary people.  Truth be told, I have cited knowledge gained from Len Tillem a number of times (sometimes without even realizing it).

Nolo – Perhaps I saved the best for last.  I have long suspected that Nolo is the dirty little secret hiding inside every small firm attorney’s desk drawer.  I may be the first one to admit it, but I read (and love) Nolo.  Sure, the books will never be prominently displayed on my office bookshelf.  But of all of the legal texts I have ever read, none have been more useful (or enjoyable) than Frederick Daily’s “Stand Up to the IRS.” For this young tax attorney, Fred Daily’s book was a seminal treatise on everyday tax controversy practice.  I must have read his book four times over.  I even contacted his office here in San Francisco to say thank you (I learned that he had since moved on, sadly).

Nolo’s other books are great as well.  They are generally packed full of practice tips and the kind of useful information that only a time-tested professional would know.  Had it not been for Fred Daily’s book, I would have spent years accumulating the same knowledge that he packed into 400 pages.  The books are supremely well edited and easy to read.  I cannot recommend them enough (and I do so for the pleasure of it. No referral fees come my way!)

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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3 comments on “Preparing To Go Solo Mid-Career

  • Nice post, Douglas. You offered some ideas beyond the usual run-of-the-mill, Your candor about your own adjustments will also be valuable to readers. Lawyers moving from a big firm to a solo practice sometimes get quite a surprise. Some of them trip over their own arrogance. Others just don’t do enough research to understand what all is involved before making the leap. Your tips will benefit the latter group.

    • I’d like to add these message boards where everyday potential clients are asking help on legal matters to non-lawyers provides a great base for FAQ-style blog posts on your own blog. It also helps to fashion a marketing message which will resonate with potential clients if this is your target audience. Given you were on a practice-specific message board it is fair to say FAQ’s riffed off of this list would certainly act like a magnet.

  • I second the recommendation of NOLO press. (And I do have one on my bookshelf.) In law school you learn the theory and scope of law. In a big practice you learn in depth about one slice of practice. But as a solo you have to be very practical. NOLO books help you see the practical aspects of many situations and how to fill out forms to get things done. As a solo, that is success and what pays the bills.

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