Here are the factors that were repeatedly raised by the solos that were viewed as critical to success - with the more important factors first:
1) Clients are absolutely critical
Virtually universally, the number one issues identified by the solo practitioners and commenters revolved around getting and keeping clients. It was viewed as much less risky to start a solo practice when you already have established a client base at your firm that is portable to your new practice. Further, even if you do not directly take clients with you, having several years of experience at a well-known firm was viewed as helpful on a networking basis and to establish credibility and to get some name recognition in the field
With regard to client marketing, it seems to be a very widely-held view that most traditional advertising is not worth it, especially if you are not in a niche practice. The larger firms have the ability to pool their money and dominate most advertising mediums - including the newspaper, radio, TV and increasingly the internet. The exception to this appeared to be when someone has a niche practice - like equine law, for example. This is understandable if you think about the Yellow Pages, for example. There might be adds for 100 personal injury firms, but maybe only one or two firms practicing equine law. In the former example, there are too many other competing ads for you to really stand out and for your add to be effective.
Networking seemed to be extremely important as a source of new business referrals. Some of the more effective networking strategies included: approaching pastors or other religious officials and getting them to direct work to you, especially trust and estate (TE) work, but also personal injury (PI) and social security (SS) benefit work.
Some solos also experienced success approaching employers and offering lunch programs for the employees. The lunch programs were pitched as educational/know your rights with regard to real estate, PI, TE, SS. The employees often did not know their legal opportunities and often passed the attorney's materials out to their friends. This also helped at least one solo build a primarily immigration law practice - which then branched into other work as the clients became nationalized. They also got a lot of referrals due to the trust that recent immigrants placed on word of mouth.
Additionally, some solos choose to co-market with other solos or small offices in related fields. For example, co-marketing with several independent accountants/tax preparers.
With regard to getting referrals, several solos emphasized that the new solo would need to go where there is less competition. For example, a corporate/securities attorney went out to the suburbs and was able to get referrals from several attorneys in his area that practiced in different fields. Conversely, a new real estate attorney that is fighting already established real estate practices is going to have a tough time.
Additionally, several solos found themselves in a part-time in-house-counsel arrangement where the solo would work as a small or mid-sized company's HR head (for example) for a few days of the week - or even as the general counsel of a small company. These arrangements were often pretty highly regarded because most of the time the company provided the solo with space and resources that could be used for other clients as well.
Also, an ability to be flexible and quickly learn new areas of the law was important. What a solo starts out doing may not be what they make their money at - they have to adapt, to change, and to sell their clients the services that they want to buy. For an example, look to the firm that I mentioned above that started out as primarily immigration law, but evolved to primarily personal injury.
2) Legal Practice Systems Experience
By this I mean an understanding of the potential solo's bottom line - not just the top line - and how it can be improved by business knowledge and decisions. These would include, but not be limited to the following:
- What billing system, word processing system, IT system, etc. is most cost effective? - Both installation AND maintenance.
- Getting the bills out on time.
- Managing client, firm, and retainer accounts.
- Offering client incentives to get them to pay on time.
- Accepting credit cards.
- Managing the law firm's cash flow
- Steering clients toward an earned-on-receipt retainer
- How to get maximum value out of part-time hires like a secretary or paralegal
- Having intake and other notification/agreement letters to minimize liability and maximize client understanding
- Shifting the grunt work onto the client where possible to save time/money
3) Personal cash-flow management
The ability to survive on a varying income and/or with very little revenue in any one month was also seen as an important skill. In general, the successful solos wanted to have the lowest monthly personal costs so that their personal cash needs did not overpower what the practice would deliver during a cash-drought. Also, the solos were pretty universal in suggesting that a cash-drought was likely to appear during the first few years of practice - or even later as client demands, demographics, or referrals fluctuated.
The solos compensated for the variable cash flow in a variety of ways. For example, the lower the house payment and the greater the nest-egg that might throw off some interest for living expenses, the better. Additionally, some solos were able to rely on a spouse with a reliable job, or a first pension, such as a military pension to provide a monthly cash-flow floor. (You can apparently get a military pension plus health benefits after 20 years of service. If you went in at 22, you would only be 42 at that time.) There were also solos that relied on cash infusions from relatives. One nomadic solo also does house sitting on the side in order to minimize her living expenses.
4) Success probabilities
The odds of success were suggested to be less a pure measurement of time in a firm, and more a question of whether or not the attorney had learned the business skills and was able to attract clients. In a firm with great training, it was suggested that it could happen in as little as four years. Conversely, in the typical BIGLAW firm that churns and burns its associates without providing much training and does not expose them much to the business side of the law, the associate may not be prepared to start their own practice even after eight years.
The solos that I spoke to were pretty universal that starting a solo practice right out of law school was not going to work. They suggested that a smart person could eventually learn the right business systems for their practice through trial and error and learn how to attract clients, but that the effort would take money and time - neither of which a new law school grad has. Several of the solos suggested working for free or at a reduced cost on a part-time basis for a solo or small firm with a similar practice (while having another non-legal job to pay the bills). This was viewed as part of the necessary learning experience - one solo described it as "At least you aren't burning your own capital on a law firm without knowing what you are doing and you aren't paying tuition anymore." Once the prospective solo had learned the ropes, then they might be prepared to go out on their own. Specifically recommended as mentors were older members of the bar who might be interested in leaving the practice in a few years - and may want to direct their clients to you at that time.
Well, that about sums it up. I would be interested in any comments that solos might have in addition to those above.
Also, here are some links that might be helpful to those considering solo practice - good luck!