Making the Leap From BigLaw to Solo Practice

I’ve talked a lot on this blog about the differences between BigLaw and Solo. What I haven’t spent enough time on is what it took to make the transition from BigLaw to Solo.

How exactly did I make the leap?

First and foremost, I got fed up. Yes indeed. I had to hate being a cog in the BigLaw machine badly enough to give up what there is to love about BigLaw. Because, really, there IS a lot to love. I loved my co-workers, who were among the best and most talented attorneys I’ve ever known. I loved having a huge support staff. I loved having people nod in satisfaction when I told them what firm I worked for. I loved getting a regular, fat paycheck. And I seriously loved breaking down a few barriers: I was the first person from my law school that was hired into my old firm; and while I worked there we had more women associates and partners than at any other BigLaw firm in town I can think of. Not too shabby.

I really loathed what I didn’t like about BigLaw.  I hated being measured by the number of hours I billed over the quality of my work. I dreaded having to collect on some pretty outrageous bills racked up by some of my clients who needed a little hand-holding. I despised feeling that what I contributed to the firm made little difference. And I hated being metaphorically thrown in the deep end of the pool without swim lessons – practicing a new areas of law by the seat of my pants and hoping I didn’t screw up so badly that a client or a partner would notice.

That last one – that doesn’t go away when you go solo. You are still flying by the seat of your pants, but at least you have control over the direction. You can control what clients you hire, what work you take on, what CLE you take, what treatises you buy and read, and what forms you use as a jumping-off point.

But I grew to hate my job at BigLaw more than I feared hanging a shingle. And boy howdy, was I ever afraid! It took me more than a year after I knew I didn’t belong at BigLaw to screw up the courage to leave.

Hanging a shingle meant, as a good friend put it, “saying ‘F*** you!’ to the cliff and jumping into an abyss.”

I talked to everyone who would listen about my growing dissatisfaction with BigLaw. I started reading about so-called “alternative” ways of practicing law, and eventually started taking classes at SPU. I saved my pennies and wished for the day that I could finally walk away from my job at BigLaw. I commiserated over lunch, on the phone and via email with a good friend about how much we wanted out of BigLaw.

And then it happened: the director of Human Resources walked into my office and handed me a self-assessment form in preparation for my annual review. In filling it out, I realized that my honest answer to most of the questions would get me fired from BigLaw:

  1. How would you rate your performance? Pretty lackluster of late, because I hate coming to work in the morning.
  2. How would you rate your legal abilities? Better than average, but I really don’t know since I’m the only lawyer in the firm who does what I do, even though I’ve only been here for three years.
  3. What are your goals for next year? To not be here by the end of the year.
  4. How would you rate your loyalty to the firm? See #3, above.

I absolutely could not be honest in my self-assessment and keep my job. I knew right then that I had to leave. Now. Right now!

On the drive home that night, I called my friend and soon-to-be business partner to schedule a lunch where we hatched our escape plans. We were giving notice the following week, and we would open our firm on the first day of the following month. We each thought we could attract a few of our existing clients to come with us, which would give us a much-needed push-off. We could operate on a shoestring budget. I threw together a rough sketch of a business plan and we hired a marketing firm to help us figure out that piece of the puzzle. We set up a professional limited liability company.  We each borrowed start-up money from our respective families. We found a small office to rent. In short, we did a few things right and made a few mistakes.

We did OK borrowing the money, but we should not have spent it on a marketing firm. We did well starting with a business plan and a shoestring budget, but we should never have leased space right out of the gate. We attracted clients right away, and we were right that we could survive without BigLaw salaries and perks. We eschewed practice management software at our peril. We underestimated the need for a clear operating agreement. We overestimated the power of a good friendship to translate into a good business partnership. We learned. Eventually we broke up the firm and went our separate ways.

This time I did a few things differently. I started out in a home office for six months, and did not lease space until I had outgrown my existing space. I did my own marketing: I set up a website using WordPress so that I had control over the content and search engine optimization (“SEO”) that drives traffic to the site; I ordered business cards and letterhead on the cheap; and I networked my butt off. I immediately signed up to use Clio’s practice management system. I took every SPU class that seemed vaguely relevant to my practice. I paid off what I owed to my family for the loan to set up my first firm, and I now operate in the black. My business plan is a constantly-evolving, but I’m still on a shoestring budget.

Now, having transitioned from BigLaw dropout to successful solo, I am happy.

There is nothing wrong with working for a BigLaw firm. But if you are dissatisfied with your job at BigLaw, I have some advice: say “F*** you!” to that cliff and jump!

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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8 comments on “Making the Leap From BigLaw to Solo Practice

  • Suzanne: It takes great courage to admit to the world one’s feelings and screw ups and I admire you for it. Listening to your heart and learning from your mistakes makes it an even more compelling story. Congrats to you in finding a way to make a living from what you love and for sharing your insight and experience with the rest of us. I’m not a lawyer type but the sentiments expressed here apply to many careers, not just law. I hope I can get the courage to do the same when the time comes. Love you!

  • You are very courageous for being so candid about your experiences. I know that a lot of people will benefit from the honesty of your article. Very well done!

  • “We overestimated the power of a good friendship to translate into a good business partnership.”

    Could you comment more on this? I’ve heard it before, but I can’t figure out what it means. I’m curious because a law school friend and I are considering going into business together after school.

    • Sure! My business partner and I got along famously, and we saw eye-to-eye on the big picture. We both wanted to work for ourselves, we both wanted to serve small business clients, we agreed on marketing strategies, etc., etc.

      What we did not see eye to eye on was running a business: how to handle billing and collections, which clients we wanted to take on, hiring and firing employees, bringing on other attorneys, time management, staff management, book keeping, software, which phone system to use, office space, what Internet provider we wanted and other management decisions. Everything like that caused little, day-to-day crises and took up way too much of our time.

      If you go into business with someone, talk about how those decisions will be made, and who ultimately will have the final say, before you hang that shingle.

    • One more comment: As my scuba diving instructor liked to say, “The dive never gets better.” In other words, if there are problems right away, don’t expect that they will get better over time. If you and your would-be business partner do not agree on the terms for your partnership agreement, don’t think you will agree on stationery or what colors to use on the firm website. And if you can’t come to a decision on the little things, don’t expect that the big things will be easier. Listen to your gut, and if you have even an inkling that the business partnership might be a bad idea, don’t do it.

      On the other hand, if you are able to come to a business agreement quickly (and without one of you railroading the other), and you have common business goals and values, and you can agree on everything from office space to what software to use, by all means, go for it.

  • I really like this. Thanks for sharing. I particularly liked the self assessment. I made the mistake of closing my solo practice after ten years and joining a mid-size firm. After two months I gave my two week notice and returned to solo practice.

  • What a great story! So inspirational plus good common sense advice.

    Dennis C–you should write a post about your experience-I’m sure many would like to hear it. I can say for myself that I’ve thought of going back to being under someone else’s thumb, but managed to talk myself down. Congrats on returning to solo world!

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