Saturday, January 16, 2010

Solo Practice - Even With SPU's Help, It's Still A Long Shot

We recently saw the founding of Solo Practice University (SPU) - their intent is to provide training for solo practitioners.  There have been a number of posts back and forth between SPU and a number of bloggers (first, second) that are recent grads with regard to whether SPU is providing a beneficial service or is creating a false impression of viability of the career of a solo practitioner.  Additionally, the blog of the founder of SPU has hosted a lively discussion.

Is solo practice a viable, realistic option for a new law grad?  We will examine this question below.

With regard to those in solo practice, I personally know more than 20 and occasionally refer work to or retain some of them.  Just because someone is a solo practitioner does not mean that they aren't an excellent lawyer.  That being said, in my experience the most successful solos are those who worked in a law firm for at least 8 years and learned the business and practice of law and established a client base before branching out on their own.  These lawyers have a pretty good chance of making a self-sustaining practice, especially if they take enough clients with them.

On the other hand, those who left firm practice after only around 3 years to start their only firm typically have a pretty low success rate.  They usually have some knowledge of the law and practice, but it is often not enough.  Also, the client base may be lacking and they may run into problems making themselves heard over other lawyer's marketing noise.

With regard to those who started a solo practice right out of law school, I don't know a single practice that survived for three years - except those where Dad or some other relative basically keeps them afloat (and there are a few).  I am sure that there are a few solos that made it on their own right out of law school without parental support, but they are pretty few.  Also, note that I am talking about the present day - not the 1950s where the cost structure of law practice was very different and possibly more generous to a newly minted lawyer.

So in terms of an intentional career path, going solo right out of law school today is a real long-shot. 

In part what I think irritates some people is that going solo right out of law school is being presented by law schools to prospective law students as if it were a very viable option - when it really is not.  Those commentators wanting to expose what they perceive as the law school "scam" really want to make sure that prospective law students understand this point.

Now, it would appear that no one could disagree in principle with the proposition that law schools typically don't provide much practical training, so any service that provides additional practical training to lawyers should be considered a plus.

However, here are a couple things to consider with regard to SPU:
1) First, I applaud SPU for attempting to help new lawyers work on their skills.  I have seen the listing of courses and there appear to be a number of courses that a new grad could get some benefit from taking.  That being said, taking SPU's courses is not going to be a substitute for 3 years of firm experience, networking, and clients, much less 8 years.  Consequently, although I applaud SPU's motivation and actions, realistically the increase on the success probability of a new solo is not going to be huge.  It seems like there will be some, but the odds are still very much stacked against the new solo - it would just be a little less of a long shot.  Of course, if you are a recent grad and are looking for any advantage, then take some courses at SPU - and thank them for the opportunity.  In terms of cost, SPU prefers to bill students yearly, quarterly, or monthly.  Their fees on a per class basis are pretty reasonable if you take a substantial number of the classes, but I would feel more comfortable with a pay-per-class business model.

2)  However, what if you are not a recent grad?  What if you are a prospective law student considering going to law school?  We mentioned that law schools often use the concept that graduates can go into solo practice to entice students - but that going into solo practice right after graduation typically does not work.  However, in this regard the existence of SPU may give a confusing message to prospective law students as it may appear to bolster the law school's argument that solo practice is a good option right after graduation.  For example, in their sales activity, law schools may use the existence of SPU to attempt to support a number of propositions that might not be in accord with reality, including A) that solo practice is viable right after grad - if you feel you are lacking any training, then you can just take a course at SPU and you will be all set, B) that the law school's lack of practical courses can be offset by classes at SPU if the prospective student feels a lack, C) the existence of SPU might be used to attempt to distract a prospective student from terrible employment statistics by telling them that "it is now easier than ever to be a solo!"

In this regard, SPU itself is not a "scam" -  it can have some positive impact.  The impact is most likely limited, but they are doing what they can for law grads in a tough situation.  Conversly, the way in which the existence and training offered by SPU may be used by third party law schools in order to sell to prospective law students may be purposefully or negligently creating an inaccurate impression in the mind of a prospective law student to entice them to buy a $200K legal education. 

I thought that the quote below from Susan Liebel, the founder of SPU expressed this pretty cogently (you can see it in its original location here.)
I’m not a fan of the law school machine, the way they behave, the financial aid hucksters. If you’ve ever read anything I’ve written you would know this. I’m also not a solo cheerleader. I’m a realist who understands thousands of lawyers are being churned and burned. . . . Those are the ones we try to encourage and help because they seek out the information provided.
Prospective law students should be aware that the overwhelming majority of new graduates that start a solo practice are not successful.   Most of their experiences are very similar to that expressed here.  Don't be sold on solo practice as a career choice right out of law school - and if any law school attempts to sell it to you, be very, very wary.


  1. FWIW, I quit and started a solo practice after 4 1/2 years of BIGLAW. I didn't take any clients with me and didn't get any referrals from my old law firms. I was extremely unhappy at BIGLAW.

    I've been moderately succesful but not wildly succesful. In my worst year, I made about 70k after expenses. In my best year, I made a little over 200k after expenses. Perhaps my average income after expenses has been about 125k.

    I should note that my wife and I are both from wealthy families and we have received some financial help from my parents over the years. At the same time, I have probably made enough money to support a modest but not profligate lifestyle.

    Respectfully to L4L, I think he made a mistake by hanging his shingle his hometown in New Jersey. It may be a bit counterintuitive, but I think a lawyer is better off having his office in close proximity to lots of other lawyers.

    Also, I think that in the suburbs it's much more difficult to establish yourself. Most attorneys are doing the same kind of work: Real estate closings; wills and trusts; minor criminal defense; and personal injury. You can't expect decent referrals or overflow work from attorneys who are eating off the same plate as you.

    In the big city, getting appearances and referrals from other attorneys is a much more realistic proposition. Also, big cities are full of marginal people who think they have been wronged in some way and are looking for legal representation. For the most part these people are a waste of time, but some of them have legitimate claims.

    Anyway, I think the magic number is fifty thousand. I think a young attorney who goes into a big city and hustles as a solo can reasonably expect to make at least 50k a year after the first year.

    So if you can eke out a living on 50k, enjoy practicing law, and don't mind making a fool of yourself, I think you have a decent shot of success as a solo practitioner.

    Just my humble opinion

  2. manhattan sleigh rideJanuary 16, 2010 at 8:44 PM

    "Also, note that I am talking about the present day - not the 1950s where the cost structure of law practice was very different and possibly more generous to a newly minted lawyer."

    Is it really? It seems to me that back then you needed to have a secretary to answer your phone and prepare letters for you. Now with computers and voicemail, you arguably don't need that.

    I would guess the bigger problems are (1) people are graduating law school with a ton of debt; and (2) people are going to law school more with the idea of finding a stable white collar desk job than with the idea of actually being lawyers.

    Just speculating.

  3. I'm a T-14 with substantial experience in govt and big firm.

    After about 7 years I opened up shop, first as a solo and then soon after with some friends. My first year I made almost 20k scrounging around. I then made 80k because I got very lucky with one referral that hit big. Then, pretty much nothing. Years of negative income, destroying my savings.

    Eventually I got lucky with another referral and built a niche out of it, where I work insane hours and can pull down maybe 100k a year. My current partner (also T14 and ivy) invented networking and is tops in the field, does not do nearly as well.

    I remember life before I got "lucky." The CoC breakfasts where I got hustled for yellow page ads, the overflow PI files where all the clients went back to wherever and couldn't respond to discovery, the local counsel agreement where the other lawyer told the client my bill didn't really need to get paid. The clients who couldn't or wouldn't pay.

    I'm very good in my niche and can live on the 100k. But I know the difference between 100k and 0 is pure dumb luck that I fell into it, and that economically I'd be better off as a bartender.

    Outwardly I appear successful because I get results (that pay very little) and my family helps a lot. I have good reason to suspect alot of apparently successful solo and small firm lawyers are in sad shape, too. Maintaining appearances is something many of us lawyers are good at doing.

    Anyone who suggests there is enough legal work out there to sustain additional solo or any other practices is reckless. Anyone who suggests a noob can do it is completely delusional. Maybe SPU is really a great resource for opening a solo practice, but isn't that a bit like "buggy whip factory university."

  4. I am a recent grad and whenever a colleague of mine suggests going solo, I do my best to convince them not to do so.

    I think a fresh graduate knows dangerously little about the practice and would likely do a disservice to their client.

    Even though many of my colleagues (attempt to) portray their decision as entrepreneurial, I get the sense that in reality, they are simply beaten down by the current employment climate, and just want to start working.

  5. Starting a solo practice is easily a 90 hour a week job.

  6. My family of blue collar immigrants is always pushing me to do solo work. I don't know how I can do that. Anyone that has seemed to want me to represent them knows me so well.. they want me to do it for free. There are already too many solos. I hope that it doesn't come to that for me. I'd rather do doc review.

  7. First, thanks to everyone who posted! It takes a lot of courage to stand up and tell your story to others. Especially when it is a story that might not have worked out as great as you hoped. I would like to see if we can get a few more posts in the next few days from lawyers who have tried the solo route and then write a follow-up post summarizing all of your wisdom. My best wishes for success to you all.

  8. manhattan sleigh rideJanuary 17, 2010 at 9:24 PM

    "Starting a solo practice is easily a 90 hour a week job."

    I wouldn't go that far, but it is a lot of work. I'm a solo and I left for work this morning (Sunday) at 7:30am. I got home around 9:00pm. That's a typical Sunday for me. I don't work Saturdays since I am Jewish. So I stop working early on Fridays too.

    It's not as bad as it sounds since it's a lot easier to work long hours at your own convenience than at someone else's convenience. If I feel like leaving work early, or going in late, or working from home, or surfing the internet for a few hours, it's usually not a problem.

    Also I enjoy practicing law.

  9. It is telling that Susan Carter Liebel decided to close off comments on $olo Practice Univer$ity's blog, after those critical of the law school industry started posting on their site. Opening a solo practice right after law school (or not already having a good reputation and a decent clientele) is foolish, in today's oversaturated market.

    Just open up a local phone book and count the number of attorneys advertising their services.

  10. I would not advise anyone to rely on being a solo as a way to make a living unless they have a significant nest-egg built up already, a solid knowledge of entrepreneurialism, particularly with marketing/advertising knowledge, access to someone with SCO experience/knowledge, and solid sales skills. You live and die by your advertising, google ranking, and ability to close the deal once you finally get a paying client in through your doors.

    Be prepared to deal with time-wasting distractions on a daily basis (if you're lucky, it will only be once daily) - people coming in for donations on the assumption that you're a "rich lawyer" - people who want you do to legal work for free - people who want to sell you advertising that won't get you a single new client - people who want to do your marketing for you - people who want to do your SCO for you (both of the above for a hefty fee AND incorrectly/illegally) - your phone/internet company coming in to try and regularly upsell you.

    Above all, avoid the company named "Yodle" - they attempt hard-sale SCO and marketing tactics, targeting solos.

    And all of this is leaving out the problem of a new lawyer having no idea how to actually practice.

    Also, it's a PITA to actually close an office - there's always SOMETHING still going on, and it takes forever to resolve or get let out of cases once they're initiated.

    For me, I put in my 18 months, working 360 days a year (Christmas off, and four days with food poisoning), averaging 11 hour days, and I'm in the hole 10k. Some of that 10k was on initial outlays - if I kept digging my hardest, I might scratch out maybe 1k positive a month... but I can make double that flipping burgers. It doesn't make economic sense unless you have a book of business already, or can fill a profitable niche - of which, I doubt there are any available to a new lawyer with no experience.

    At a certain point, all you have left is your pride. And to quote Pulp Fiction, "That's pride fucking with you. Fuck Pride. Pride only hurts, it never helps." Anyone opening a solo firm just so they can "be a real lawyer" is just throwing good money after bad. My advice to young lawyers is this - if you can't get hired on anywhere, then cut your losses, admit law school was a mistake, and try to find employment in another sector.

  11. I wanted to add my two cents to this very topical post and these helpful comments.

    I am a solo in a Midwest city and I am making it, I enjoy my practice, and I am even starting to get ahead three years in. But I did have seven years' experience in a law firm that made a huge investment in developing my skills (which is increasingly rare as the biglaw model has spread throughout the profession.) And I also am risk-tolerant, which is something the very large majority of my peers are not.

    Solo practice can pay your bills and, for at least some of us, is incredibly rewarding and engaging. But it is full of traps for the unwary and requires an enormous investment to do right. There is simply no way - none - that I could have done any substantive legal work right out of law school. And that probably was true about many aspects of running a practice even five years out.

    Unless you are hustling for very low level work, there simply is not anything you can do for clients right out of law school that they would pay for. And if you do get them to pay you for work you really shouldn't be doing, you put your future at risk by getting a bad reputation. A bad reputation will follow you forever and will poison your career before it really begns.

    For what it's worth.

  12. There is always the chance of "getting lucky" with a high-value personal injury case, but the chances are pretty slim. As I stated on SCL's blog before she shut off comments, I had a PI case that would've netted me about 60 K fee the first year, but sadly he switched lawyers at the urging of a corrupt physical therapist who was getting a "kickback" from a firm he referred cases to (this illegal/unethical conduct is rampant in personal injury and the bar pretty much ignores it).

    As far as starting in the suburbs, I agree 100%. First off, a wealthy/edcuated demographic likely know a lawyer from their peer group/friends or family, and if they don't they'll likely ask around via word of mouth.

    and as mentioned above, most suburban solos are all doing the same things: real estate closings, DWI, personal injuy, small-time commerical cases, wills, and other consumer-type laws. They aren't going to refer stuff to you off their own plate.

    There are niche areas like Special Edcuation Law and other things that can be lucrative, but getting these cases is not easy. Someone looking for this speciality is likely to Google it and go with the big shops that come up first on Google.

    As I said on SCL's blog, there just isn't enough cash flow coming in to most solos for it to be a viable option. If you have $600 or more of student loans a month, your chance of failure is probably close to 100%.

    I agree that some of Solo U's courses may be helpful, but they're still no substitute for actual experience at a small firm. I had 2 years experience at a small injury/general practice firm before going solo and I still failed miserably. The only people I know who are getting by as solos have 0 debt and get major financial help from their families.

  13. manhattan sleigh rideJanuary 19, 2010 at 7:36 AM

    "There is always the chance of "getting lucky" with a high-value personal injury case, but the chances are pretty slim."

    I agree, but if you can stay is business long enough, the odds of getting a good case rise quite a lot. I guess it comes back to your point about financial resources.

    "I had a PI case that would've netted me about 60 K fee the first year, but sadly he switched lawyers at the urging of a corrupt physical therapist who was getting a "kickback" from a firm he referred cases to (this illegal/unethical conduct is rampant in personal injury and the bar pretty much ignores it)."

    Maybe at Solo Practice University they should have a class in how to keep other attorneys from stealing your clients. Is there anything you could have done differently? For example, referring your client to a competent and ethical therapist?

  14. manhattan sleigh rideJanuary 19, 2010 at 10:02 AM

    By the way L4L, since you say that your office was in your hometown, can I take it that you were staying rent-free with your family? If so, what was stopping you from taking a part-time job on weekends to keep your doors open for another year or two?

    Was it just that you didn't see any viable prospect of business?

  15. I have read many comments in threads about Solo Practice University pointing out that it's almost impossible for new graduates to start solo practices. However, I have read few actual comments about the merits of SPU.

    If someone wanted to start a solo practice would SPU actually be helpful? Would it teach someone practical aspects of certain practice areas so that they could competently offer legal services?

  16. I started my practice right out of law school, and I have a successful practice that has 2 attorneys and 3 staff. I did it all without the help of mommie and daddie and have made it for 10 years. Being in a big law firm teaches you nothing about running a practice or, for that matter, how to practice at all. SPU provides an excellent bridge for new attorneys or attorneys new to practicing law. I understand this blog is 100% your opinion, but a quick an easy search of the web would have given you valuable insight.

  17. 6:34 - First of all, congratulations on starting and sustaining your law practice right out of law school - and for making it work for 10 years! That is a testament to your drive, fortitude, and character.

    When I wrote this post back in January, I was familiar with 20-30 lawyers that had started a law firm right out of law school - and none of them had survived - at least none without family assistance. After writing the post, I have had additional attorneys tell me about their heroic efforts in starting a law firm out of law school - most of those had also not succeeded, although a few were still continuing the struggle.

    In fact, you - 6:34 - are the very first attorney that I am aware of who has started a law practice right out of law school, kept it up for 10 years, and grown it into a firm of 2 attorneys and 3 staff - all without any financial help from relatives and/or spouse. Consequently, based on my (admittedly subjective) personal observations, the success rate that I have personally seen for those starting their own law firm right after graduation is about 1 in 40.

    More generally, I agree with you that working in a large law firm does not teach you everything with regard to how to run a practice or how to pratice - but I would submit that it teaches you more than law school does.

    Also, I agree with you that some SPU classes may be helpful - I'll quote my post above - "First, I applaud SPU for attempting to help new lawyers work on their skills. I have seen the listing of courses and there appear to be a number of courses that a new grad could get some benefit from taking. That being said, taking SPU's courses is not going to be a substitute for 3 years of firm experience, networking, and clients, much less 8 years."

    My main concern is that law schools will be misrepresenting the viability of solo law practice at graduation to their students in an attempt to persuade students to go to law school. I admit that it is possible to start a practice right after law school - you are living proof! However, based on my experiences, starting a practice right after law school has a very, very low probability of success.

    That being said - I would be very interested as to how you did it! What are the specific aspects that enabled you to succeed when so many others failed? Character traits? Identifying niche practice? Also, do you know any other (recent) law grads that were able to start and maintain a law practice without assistance? What are your personal views on the likelihood of success?

  18. 6:34 - Wow! You are the exception to the approximately 40 attorneys that I know of who started their firms after graduation and did not make it.

    With regard to SPU - as I mention in the post, some of their classes may be useful. Also, while I agree that big law firms are not the best for teaching people how to run a practice, having experience in a law firm still teaches an attorney a heck of a lot more than law school teaches them.

    But I am more interested in you - 6:34! What is your secret? How did you succeed where so many others failed? Character trait? Niche practice? What can you offer to help attorneys graduating today. Also, do you know others who (recently - say since 2000) established successful practices right out fo law school? What is your experience with regard to likelihood of success?

  19. huh. That's odd. It gave me a failure message when I tried to make the first post, so I thought it was lost and typed the second one. Feel free to respond to either, 6:34!

    1. The success rate for going solo in any business is 20 percent. 2 out of 10 people make it in there own business in the U.S. Law, insurance, automotive whatever. Napoleon Hill wrote the people who make it any field. Have a positive mental attitude 24/7/365 days a year. They just never give up till they win. These comments are for losers. Not winners. Just ask Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Abraham Lincoln, Ray Charles and many others who never quit. Quitters never win. Winners never quit. Misery loves company.

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