From Law Student to Solo Practitioner: Tales from the Trenches

by / ⠀Personal Branding Startup Advice / September 1, 2011

Rip-Off-BandaidLet first start by saying, I am not a romantic.  I do not get warm and fuzzy at love scenes in movies, so I am not here to play into the fantasy that being an entrepreneur is a walk through Central Park.  It’s the equivalent of the moment when you were a kid ripping an old band-aid off your arm: the anticipation was scary, you knew it needed to happen, it hurt while you were in the process, and once it was over, you felt relief (and eventually your skin went back to its normal color).

Being an entrepreneur is filled with long hours during the week, working on weekends, and hours of sitting in front of computers, papers, research, and/or other colleagues grappling with your next steps. Often you are the President, the receptionist, the billing clerk, the paralegal, the IT person, and even the janitor. At times, you wake up in cold sweats wondering why not just get a job at a firm with a health plan, 401(k) and a partnership track? Well, the reason is, there aren’t any jobs.

Yes, ladies and gentleman, in case you have not received the legal memo, jobs are sparse and even with the recent decline in lay-offs, 10% of Americans are still unemployed, and that population includes recent law graduates. Most graduates between 2009 are now were faced with the harsh reality that the BIG LAW job was only a myth. The worst economic climate since the great depression has left many graduates with student loan debts in excesses of $100,000 and the doomsday reality that their next paycheck might come from Starbuck’s (if they are so lucky).

As a result, some law students have decided to abandon their legal dreams and pursue other career paths. Some are still stalking Craigslist and Careerbuilder daily to find a firm they can send their resume to, while even fewer have decided to traverse the uncertain waters of opening their own legal practice. I happen to be in the latter group. Many recent graduates have not come to the realization you can be the captain and crew of your own ship and love it!

I am in the process now and it is the hardest and most rewarding thing I have done professionally. Knowing that ultimately I am responsible for my own success or failure and the satisfaction of having the freedom to choose the course of my life is worth every minute I spend getting this practice up and running.

As I researched, I noticed few articles, if any, written by people in the trenches. Most were written by solos with successful careers rendering advice based on their past experience. Since I am in it with you, I realized 5 basic keys to becoming a successful solo that I would like to share with you:

Mentors: Get ‘em and use ‘em

You just got out of law school. Sorry to tell you this, but YOU DON’T KNOW IT ALL. Law school shows you little to nothing about running a business, so it’s safe to say, unless you are already a business owner, this will be a new world for you. Learn from other solos. Join the solo practice chapters of bar associations, ask the alumni office, and speak to other lawyers as candidly as possible about your pursuits. It’s been my experience that most solos were willing to answer my questions and encourage my path. They are gracious, they have been there, and they are a great untapped resource for everything from recommendations on good practice management software to marketing ideas. Developing mentors is key to creating a solid network you can count on.

Create a plan

Marketing plan, business plan, vision board, list of goals, etc. Whatever your method, have a plan in place and take the necessary steps to execute it. It is good to have something on paper, but do not become rigid and married to the plan. Remember, it is just a blueprint, and it will change the more you learn and grow. The Small Business Association is a good resource and Lexis/Nexis has good marketing plan samples.

Social Media. Need I say more?

Get affiliated with social media. Period. When I say affiliated, I mean jump in it if you’ve been buried under BARBRI books half the year. Clean up your student act and start connecting with people online. Most people will do two things when you network: (1) take your business card and (2) find you via the Internet and throw away the card. Do you really want them seeing pictures of the time when you and your friends got wasted and started doing a pole dance on the bar after your first exam as a 1L? Create a professional page with a good headshot and do some serious damage control with your Facebook page and Twitter account. LinkedIN is also a great site for meeting other professionals that can help you launch your budding solo career.

Read your state bar’s ethics rules

I know, I know. You’re thinking you took the MPRE, and you’re well versed in the rules regarding your professional responsibility.  While that might be true, it is always good to take a second or 12th look before mistakenly violating ethics rules. Check the ABA’s site and your state’s rules. It’s better to save your bar license and reputation now than after a long, arduous investigation based on an alleged violation. I doubt if the “ignorance is bliss” method will work in this case.

Research! Research! Research!

You just graduated law school, took the bar exam and passed. Congrats! You should be relatively familiar with how to do this. Running a law practice is the equivalent of running your own enterprise, and unfortunately, that is something law school does not prepare us to do. Pick up any books or materials you can find about starting your own practice. Google it, Youtube it, ask solos, check Amazon or your local library. Any place you can gather resources, do it! You will need them. My suggestion is to start with two books I found to be very helpful: Jay Foonberg’s “How to Start and Build Your Own Law Practice” and Carolyn Elefant’s “Solo By Choice.” Also, Solo Practice University is the perfect community and educational resource to navigate the uncertain waters of your entrepreneurial legal pursuits.

Starting a solo practice is challenging, but do not let anyone tell you it cannot be done straight out of law school. Yes, you are bound to make some mistakes, but if you have a vision and work towards your goals, your life does not have to be filled with Ramen noodles and 12 housemates in a one-bedroom apartment. You have worked through four years of college, three-to-four years of law school, and the Board of Law Examiner’s have given you a license indicating you are competent to practice law in your designated state. Take control of your legal career and go solo! You’ve got this!

Jo-Ná Williams is a 2010 graduate starting her own solo practice in New York. She hopes to build a practice centered on the legal issues in the Entertainment industry. Look for her on twitter @jwilliamsEsq or email at [email protected]. Her site will launch this fall at www.jawilliamslaw.com.

About The Author

Matt Wilson is Adventurer and Co-Founder of Under30Experiences. In just a few short years U30X has grown to 12+ travel locations worldwide and 25+ local communities throughout the USA and Canada. Matt is the Host of the Live Different Podcast and has 40+ Five Star iTunes Ratings on Health, Fitness, Business and Travel. He brings a unique, uncensored approach to his interviews and writing. His work is published on Under30CEO.com, Forbes, Inc. Magazine, Huffington Post, Reuters, and many others. Matt hosts yoga and fitness retreats in his free time and underwent the Crossfit Level 1 Coaching Course. He buys all his food from an organic farm in the jungle of Costa Rica where he lives.

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