The decision to go out on your own is a personal and important one. Too often, lawyers and recent law grads forget that it should be a strategic one, for the decision to practice for oneself will help define your legal career.
People choose the law as a career for many reasons, many of them the wrong ones. Parents want you to go; you’re good at arguing; you want to make a lot of money; dreams of political ambitions. Unfortunately, I have found that none of these reasons make a good lawyer. You really need to love the law. Law schools’ first year weeding out process takes care of many students who quickly learn of their mistake, but others slip through the cracks and make it through the bar exam. Regardless of where they end up, its takes but a few years to figure out they are not where they are supposed to be. They are unhappy in the law, but sadly, deep in debt. Soon, this discontent shows in their practice.
During my first week of law school, the school provided all first years the opportunity to take the Myers Briggs Personality test. As part of this orientation, several mini segments were held to help acclimate students to the law school environment. All designed to prepare us for what was to come. In addition to learning the Socratic method, speakers came in to talk about classes and practice area selection, handling the stress of law school, ethics of being a lawyer, and my favorite- look to your left, look to your right, one of these people will not be here on graduation day. Sadly, the persons on my left and right left school before graduation.
But, I knew I was where I was supposed to be. I had already taken the Myers Briggs test, administered by my mother, when I was ten years old. I knew I was going to be a lawyer. (Or a judge, teacher, politician, or military personnel- or all of the above). See, my mother was a stern believer that the key to success in life was to ‘know thyself.’ She instilled in my sister and I the importance of having a clear understanding of who you are, and the relevance of that to every endeavor you pursue.
Finding out who you are is no small feat. It takes time, and a sincere commitment to accepting your own realities. From an early age we are told who we are by everyone around us and this can lead to unrealistic perceptions about oneself. How often do you hear, ‘Sally’s going to be a model, ‘John’s going to play professional football,’ or ‘Sarah’s going to be a doctor?’ Unfortunately, Sally is knock-kneed and 4’9; John can’t catch or throw; and Sarah is a D student! It is easy to let others define who we are because they always have such high hopes for us. Figuring out who you are and who you want to be requires a level of honesty most don’t possess. It is hard to accept the realities of one’s flaws and shortcomings, and as result, we hang on to that view of ourselves imposed on us by those who see us in the fondest light.
The process starts with the hard questions: What am I actually good at and what do I really want to do? Followed by, how do I want to spend my working life? These questions will lead you to ask more questions and the answers- if given honestly – will lead you to who you truly are and what you want.
Without knowing who you are and what you want you cannot determine if you will be a good lawyer, or if you should be a lawyer at all. Being a successful solo requires that you have a clear understanding of your strengths and weaknesses, because it is not just about practicing the law. Big firms have someone that handles marketing and publicity; billing and payroll; secretarial and paralegal services; expensive research systems and investigators, etc. In solo practice, you must be all those things. For most of us, wearing all of these hats means long hours, every day of the week for several years. I remind myself that for firm lawyers, it means this for most of their legal career, and am comforted about my choice to be a solo. I knew as a child I would have to work for myself. As I got older, this was emphasized by my life choices and my developing personality.
I could not justify spending all my time working to make someone else profitable doing the same things I could do to further my own goals. I knew I did not want to work 60 hours per week forever, and was willing to do so in the short run in order to live and work on my own schedule in the long run.
Because I knew myself, I was able to go into solo practice with eyes wide open. I knew what my strengths and weaknesses were and planned before-hand how to overcome or exploit them. Because I understood, early in life, what I wanted for myself and my career, I was only briefly detoured by my law school counselor’s attempts to steer me toward big law. I was able to chart my own course, and find those people and resources that were best suited to me and most useful in building my practice.
The ‘know thyself’ principle applies to every aspect of your career as a solo because your success lies in being able to realistically look at the things that are hurting or helping your business. Do you do great work but are unable to retain clients past the first assignment because of your off-putting personality? Are you relatively unknown in your legal community because of your reluctance to network or attend legal functions, thus cutting into your referrals? Are you the problem in your firm?
If you are not good at the business of law, you must get good at it. In the alternative, you need someone who is, that you can afford for the long haul. If you are not good at networking, get good at it-this is a necessity for a solo. People do business with those they like and trust. There are but a few practice areas where business will simply come to you without this skill. Just as you took classes to learn contract law and participate in continuing education to hone that skill, the same must be done for every area your practice requires.
There is no right time to get to know yourself, but the assessment should be made. If not for the success of your business, but for your own self growth. Make an effort to be honest with yourself about the answers to the critical questions that lead to self discovery and if necessary, ask those closest to you what they think the answers to those questions are. You’ll be the better for it!
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®.