It’s no secret that law firms are downsizing and many lawyers who once commanded top dollar are finding themselves out of work, disillusioned, and wondering what to do. By most accounts, the carnage has only just begun. Even those who have managed to hold onto their jobs in this economy are having their salaries cut and are foregoing bonuses. Would-be first year associates are being offered moderate sums to walk away from their job offers at BigLaw, or to start in 2011. Tight budges are making clients reevaluate their options when it comes to legal representation, and firms and clients alike are rethinking the wisdom of the “billable hour” structure.
What is a frightened lawyer to do? One might think that because the economy is in shambles, this would be a horrible time to start a new business. On the contrary! This is exactly the environment that breeds creativity and presents an opportunity for entrepreneurs to flourish. The time to re-write the rules of law practice and to take charge of your future in the legal field is now. If Sarah Palin hadn’t overused the word “maverick” last year, I would say this is an excellent time to get all mavericky on your legal career and discover your passion again.
If you have always dreamed of going solo but are afraid to leave the security of a steady paycheck, think again. As many attorneys have learned in the last year or two, such so-called security is (and always has been) a false security. Just like the Wizard had no power in Oz, and the Emperor had no clothes, BigLaw is revealing itself to be a BigLie. It’s time to see it for what it is and take control.
The Misperception of the Solo Practitioner as “Rumpled Hack”
From law school rankings to law firm rankings, many of us bought into the hype that you have to go to a top law school and get hired by a top law firm if you want to have any kind of future in the legal world and be taken seriously. In contrast, we are fed the perception that only the truly clueless would dare go solo. Those “rumpled hacks” who couldn’t make it at a “real” firm probably only make $20K a year if they’re lucky, are ambulance chasers (accidentes!), and are incompetent, unlike us, we reassure ourselves. If this is what you think, it’s time to open your mind and jettison these myths.
In reality, brand new solo attorneys find themselves chairing trials, negotiating settlements, and appearing in court on a regular basis, as opposed to their BigLaw counterparts who are more likely to be found making copies at 4:00 a.m. than preparing to examine a witness at trial. Considering the realities, it’s a mystery why the perception of solo attorneys is so backward. Solo salaries are also extremely diverse. Yes, some are barely eking by, but others are millionaires. How much you earn is largely determined by your work ethic and your marketing efforts, unlike at BigLaw where you can work yourself to the bone and still get axed for no good reason.
Benefits of Being a Solo Practitioner
Freedom. As a solo, you are free to take a case or not, provide flexible billing arrangements to your clients (such as flat fee or payment plans), take on pro bono cases that are close to your heart, and plan around your personal time with family and friends.
Real, hands-on experience. As a solo, you will get an enormous amount of substantive experience since you will be involved in every aspect of your cases, and you will get to enjoy the feeling that your work is meaningful.
No law firm politics. Law firms have a certain culture, often dictated by male values and cutthroat politics. “WYSIWYG” (what-you-see-is-what-you-get) personalities often find themselves on the chopping block at law firms because they can’t sit down, shut up, and be good girls. Ironically, it is just this quality that will make you a great solo because your clients will trust you. Firm lawyers have to balance being competent enough to keep their jobs without being so good that they are perceived as a threat by a narcissistic senior attorney who could ruin them. Sadly, clients as thenumber one priority often get lost in the intra-political warfare – not so in solo practice. It’s a lot easier to be client-focused and remember why you do what you do when you don’t have a corner-office psychopath standing over you.
Drawbacks of Being on Your Own
As a solo, you are completely responsible for everything, from IT problems to sending out bills. That can be daunting. What do you do if your one computer goes on the fritz? What happens if there is an emergency in your family – who will take over your cases? These issues are very real, but can be addressed in one word: backup. You need to back up all your data; you need a backup attorney who can assist you (and vice versa) when you really need someone to step in; you need some backup savings for any potential lean times. You have to start thinking in a new way, and try to prepare for every contingency. It can be done if you plan ahead and surround yourself with go-to supportive people.
[Note from HandelontheLaw.com: This article is to be used as an educational guide only and should not be interpreted as a legal consultation. Readers of this article are advised to seek an attorney if a legal consultation is needed. Laws may vary by state and are subject to change, thus the accuracy of this information can not be guaranteed. Readers act on this information solely at their own risk. Neither HandelontheLaw.com, or any of its affiliates, shall have any liability stemming from this article.]