From Student to Solo: A Comprehensive Guideline for Solo Practice Success

by Ryan Sullivan

A law degree opens the door to a vast array of career opportunities. Although most law grads seek employment with medium and large firms, some take jobs as judicial clerks, as in-house counsel, or as law school professors. Still other students find work with non-profit organizations, or even leave the legal field entirely and work in insurance, banking, or other career fields involving critical thinking, problem solving, and writing. What remains is a group of graduates who choose, for one reason or another, to go solo—to work for themselves by starting a solo law practice.

While all career choices possess a certain degree of risk, opening a solo practice presents unique risks not realized through other career options. Mainly, instead of guaranteed starting salary, solo practitioners begin with zero income. In fact, most solos are likely to lose money their first year. This reality often pushes even the most entrepreneurial minded graduate towards the safety net of firm work. However, given the recent economic downturn, and the near cessation of firm hiring, graduates are now more likely to consider solo practice as a practical option.

That said, going solo is not for everybody. Solo practice requires a great deal of ambition, discipline, business sense, and tolerance for risk. With these vital attributes in hand, the recent graduate must then develop a plan for success. Running a solo practice, like any business, involves a substantial amount of forethought and planning. One can perform a cursory internet search and locate a number books and articles discussing the topic of “Going Solo” and “How to Start a Law Firm.” These writings are very helpful in offering general guidance in starting a law practice, and are recommended resources to use in conjunction with this article. However, while these books are written in general terms and offer only vague advice and instruction, this article offers specific recommendations for survival.

The article will first discuss how the recent economic downturn has created an environment that will encourage more new graduates to choose solo practice. This section will discuss how changes in the economy and the legal job market have and will cause law graduates to consider solo practice as a feasible career option post-graduation.

Next, the article offers some “how-to” guidance for the new solo practitioner hanging a shingle immediately after law school. To endure the first few years of solo practice, economic efficiency is a must. Most businesses fail due to a lack of cash flow—that is, their expenses exceed their revenues. Thus, the first substantive sections of this article will focus on how to limit start-up costs, control overhead, and avoid common costly mistakes. The greatest two expenses of most law offices are wages and office rent. This article suggests how new practitioners can use technology to offer legal services out of a home office without the need for legal support staff. Because even the most economically efficient law office can’t generate a profit without clients, Part III of the article will describe various techniques for acquiring clients, including specific marketing tactics and advertisements.

Finally, Part IV will discuss three practice areas most suitable for newly degreed lawyers working out of a home office. In order for a new lawyer to achieve success, he or she must both attract a sufficient volume of clients and be capable of offering these clients competent legal services from a home office. These three practice areas are simple to market and require a minimal amount of expertise. Further, these services can be provided with limited face-to-face attorney-client contact—eliminating the need for a formal office setting.

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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