A Solo (A)Broad – Annie Tunheim

Right around the time my third son was born, I started my own law practice.  You see, I had long known I didn’t want to go the traditional attorney route; the one year I spent at a small downtown firm was miserable enough to instill a lifelong aversion to law firm employment.  It may be my undergraduate degree in Psychology that rooted itself firmly in my being, but I just craved connections with others, and the ability to practice law the way I wanted to—without being ‘spoken to’ for being too friendly with the support staff (if God forbid I didn’t maintain an appearance of being above them!—yes, it was that type of firm).

While contemplating career options, I felt the ever-present work-life balance conflict; I tend to err heavily on wanting to be available for my family.  You know the old saying about how on your deathbed you’ll never wish that you had spent more time at the office…I didn’t want to miss out on simple things like reading with my son during the first 15 minutes of each kindergarten school day, and I really do enjoy making homemade muffins for the class on my kids’ assigned snack days.

That being said, I am absolutely not cut out to be a fully stay-at-home mom, and we couldn’t afford it on my husband’s teacher salary, regardless.  Surely there would be a way that I could have the best of both worlds and not completely waste this piece of paper I studied three long years to earn, allowing me to rightfully practice law?

After I narrowly escaped the grasp of the torturous law firm, I began working part-time handling legal matters for a brewery, managing their compliance with federal and state regulations, drafting and amending contracts with distributors, and getting them up to speed on intellectual property issues, among other things.  Long gone were my days of business suits and pantyhose; I gleefully wore jeans and flip-flops to work, and just as you’d guess, the kind of people that work at a brewery are vibrant and engaging.  At this company, there no issues with hierarchy; the guys that work on the bottling line are just as important as the head of marketing.

It has been five years since I left the law firm, and I’m still employed by the brewery.  I don’t bring in a 6-figure salary like my friend at the big-name law firm downtown does, but in terms of quality of life, I have it made.

You may be wondering where my law practice comes in.  I started Tunheim Law LLC three and a half years ago, as a side dish to my part-time job at the brewery.  I enjoyed the intellectual property work I had done, and I wanted to work with other small business owners who may be daunted by the thought (or price) of hiring a big name firm to handle their intellectual property needs.

I began making a presence on some small business forums and slowly built a client base, conducting the vast majority of my business after my children were tucked into bed each night.  My office is my laptop on our living room couch; while I do keep client files, my firm is almost entirely paperless.  No need for a conference room–my clients are spread out all over the country; in fact, to date I have only met one in person!  Having only email contact with clients forces you to create a trusting relationship with words that may be much easier to achieve in person; not everyone is suited to relating to others in this way.  It’s funny; despite the distance between myself and my clients, I feel close to them–I have seen pictures of their children and am truly excited to help bolster the brands they are working to create.

Especially in the beginning, there were periods where I wasn’t doing much business, but it was okay because this was my side dish; any money I brought in was a bonus to our family, and it felt safe to have this on the side while I had my regular paycheck coming in.

There are certainly moments—on days where I have brought in freshly baked goods for one son’s class, led a reading group for another son’s class, put in 5 hours of work at the brewery, picked up the three boys from school and played until my husband came home, helped with homework, made dinner, and then kissed my boys goodnight only to have another whole job looming over me—where I feel like a crazy person.  Like any mother, I’m busy and balancing twelve plates in the air can be exhausting.

I am now teetering on the edge of a new journey; two, in fact.  As of Christmas Day, 2011, my solo practice law firm as aside dish became a main course.  You may be wondering why I would ever give up my terrific position at the brewery; what, am I moving across the world or something?  Why, yes, as a matter of fact—my husband, three sons, and I are spending a year in Australia while my art teacher husband participates in a teacher exchange program.

The opportunity to move to an entirely different part of our planet would be nearly impossible if I worked at a traditional firm; instead, I will practice law as I have been doing for the past three and a half years, but instead of sitting on my living room couch I will be on my balcony a block and a half from the beach in Wollongong, New South Wales.  Despite the time difference, I should actually be more available to my clients because I will finally be able to focus solely on my practice.

I’m nervous about giving up my steady income, but of course the potential to earn a better living through my practice is there and I feel more confident knowing that I have already built a solid client base than if I was just now launching a solo practice.  My clients are used to me advocating for them from afar; I’ll now be just a bit farther.  On the rare occasion where a phone call is necessary, Skype is a great option.

I highly doubt I’ll ever bring in a six-figure salary, but there’s more to life than making six figures.  My days spent with my children during these years where they actually express excitement that I can chaperone on a school field trip are invaluable and undoubtedly short-lived, and I know that this upcoming year in Australia will be a fabulous family adventure, the struggles along with the highlights.

Follow me on our family blog at The Adventures of Annie & Her Boys as we make this leap, and I’ll update again on this blog as I adjust to my main course solo practice.

Have tips on practicing from afar, or want to wish me good luck?  Have you traveled to Australia and know of a must-see/do location?  I’m all ears. Please talk with me in the comments below!

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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9 comments on “A Solo (A)Broad – Annie Tunheim

  • Hi Annie!

    I absolutely loved reading your story. Thanks so much for sharing!

    The six-figure salary has long been considered the holy grail, why I don’t know. Its as if one cannot be happy without six figures in their life. I totally disagree.

    I don’t work from a foreign country but I do represent New Yorkers from Phoenix and I agree that you do bond with your clients even though you haven’t met.

    I have just started making plans to spend a month in the South of France with my family. I love that I could continue to run my practice seamlessly while enjoying some time abroad.

    Can’t wait to hear more about your journey. Will definitely be following along on your blog. :)

    • Love it! I as well quit the firm life and took the leap to solo over 6 months ago and not only that, I moved abroad to the south of France! I’m not making this up. Before leaving my firm my “partner in law” I will call him, repeatedly told me, I would only enjoy practicing law once I was doing if for myself. I knew this was true and so wanted to make the leap, but I was scared. However, in nothing other than cosmic timing, my husband was offered a job here in France. And so, all at once, I quit my firm, formed my own practice and my husband and I and our 3 year old son moved to France! Luckily for me, I had begun to create a little niche for myself in a specific area of the law and with my partner in law, we currently have 4 class action/multiple plaintiffs lawsuits pending. It has been an exciting time, scary, and unknown, but I have never been happier and surely have never enjoyed practicing law so much. I enjoy my days in my “office” which consists of a computer on my dining room table that looks out my french doors to rolling hills with the mediterranean in the distance. Who wouldn’t!? I finally purchased a new scanner recently which has made life easier. I also recommend Vonage – how can I say it strongly enough – Vonage is the bomb!! It’s a US number for $35/per month – I have talked to judges on numerous occasions and they were never the wiser. Of course last week, I had a conference call at midnight and 11 pm the next night, but that’s not the norm.
      As far as advice, I would say make sure you get all of your adapters for your computer equipment. If you need to buy computers, scanner, etc. – wait and buy once you are there. But most of all, enjoy AND believe in yourself! You can make it whatever you want it to be! Have a great time!

      • Hi Wendy,
        Thanks for your kind words of encouragement; I am encouraged by your story as well! It seems much more daunting to be engaged in litigation, but with online filing (and clearly, Vonage as the secret weapon!) it looks like a legal practice can be in most any area. A scanner would make my life easier as well; thanks so much for the tips.

    • Hi Rachel,
      A month in France sounds wonderful, and you could definitely manage it as long as you don’t mind working while being on vacation. I’m noticing that I’m a person who doesn’t mind being on call, but I can see how another might want to completely shut off and fully enjoy a vacation without work getting in the way.
      I’m glad you will keep reading, and keep me posted if your travel plans continue!

  • Hi Annie, Congratulations on practicing law your way. It sounds wonderful to have such a flexible schedule and have much needed family time. I greatly enjoyed your story. I am very interested in learning more about the online practice. One issue I thought would be an obstacle is having clients from many jurisdictions. How does it work with licensing, in that your clients are spread out all over the country? Any info greatly appreciated. Thanks and good luck in Australia.

    • Hi Barbara,
      My particular area of law, intellectual property, and the issues that I deal with are conducive to this sort of practice. I’d imagine that some areas of law would be much more cumbersome to practice in such a widespread manner, and time will tell if I will be able to sustain a healthy career practicing this way!

  • Annie, It sounds like a great adventure and I wish you the best of luck. I personally love the freedom of being a part-time solo/part-time dad and getting to spend so much time with my kids (versus the hour in the morning and sometimes on weekends when I was at biglaw). I would love to be able to spend time traveling around the world with my family and living in new places and introducing the world to my kids. Hopefully one day I can find a good niche that fits that dream like you have done.

    • Ryan, the part-time solo life you have going sounds great, and your kids will thank you for it. I recently read an article about a study (it may have been Australian) that surveyed teenagers and asked them what they’d rather have happen, with a number of options that included their a) parents making more money and b) spending more time with their parents. The overwhelming majority (of surly teens, no less!) chose more time with their parents.

  • Hello Annie,

    I am extremely happy that I came across your page because you are doing exactly what I have been searching for.

    I am in the process of launching my own VLO and will be moving to Ghana for a year where I will operate my practice from. Traveling and working Africa compliments the service that I provide for my clients. I would love any leads on practicing from abroad as a US (solo) attorney. Did you face any jurisdictional restrictions by your State Bar and the Australian Bar? Are you licenced in Australia? It is very encouraging to see you doing what I will be doing in a couple of months so any feedback would be appreciated. If you can send me your email I would love to discuss further.

    Warm regards,

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