Going It Alone

The transition from a law firm to a solo practice is scary, but the move can pay off

For attorneys moving from an existing practice at a law firm to the solo world, the leap can be scary.

That transition involves moving from a world with safety nets such as support staff, multiple income streams and malpractice insurance to one where help comes from outsiders and the only book of business is one’s own. But attorneys who have made the leap say that the management aspects of a law firm are manageable and that solos should count on the kindness of strangers.

Making the Leap

For Karen Steinhauser, the transition to solo practice in 2016 came as one more step in a long career where she had worked at law firms and organizations of various sizes. Starting her own business after more than 30 years of practicing law required expanding her work to include a lot of things outside of the practice that she never had to do before.

Steinhauser had worked in the Denver District Attorney’s Office before becoming a law professor. After that, she took her criminal practice experience to now-defunct Isaacson Rosenbaum where she worked in criminal defense and domestic relations and later transitioned that practice to a Denver family law firm. 

Her goal was to transition her practice to solely criminal defense — which it is now. At the time she went solo, though, she wanted to keep as much business as possible. 

“It was scary enough to do this on my own, let alone limit it to one area without knowing how that would go,” Steinhauser said. Despite that fear, she said she saw other solo attorneys who didn’t seem to be better lawyers. If they could do it, she could, she said. 

The transition to a solo practice, while scary, was also an opportunity to put her in control of her own work. 

“I reached a point where I was tired of working for other people,” she said. “I was tired of having hourly requirements dictated by others, tired of other people making decisions about what cases I could take pro bono versus how much I could charge for a retainer. … I worked for wonderful people, but I reached a point where I was tired of working for other people and felt like I could do it.”

Although there are many paths to starting a firm as well as reasons why to do so, the fear of moving to a solo practice might be the one commonality among sole practitioners. Michele Clark, who operates solo at Michele Clark Law, started out her career at a legal aid nonprofit, but after seeing how differently private practice lawyers were perceived in the courtroom, she decided she needed a change in her work. For her, that meant completely overhauling her practice to focus on working with sophisticated business clients instead. 

Despite feeling “terror” that clients might not retain her and having to get used to not having the security of a regular paycheck, Clark appreciated the opportunity she got from launching a solo practice to shape her work how she wanted. 

She said attorneys considering going solo should plan their practice around the type of clients they want to work with, build a practice around the things they love and hire someone else to pick up the work they’re weak in.

“A lot of people, when they start out, will take anything that walks in the door,” Clark said. “That’s not going to be satisfying. Really think about who you want to work with.”

Writing The Book On Marketing 

While attorneys who launch their own businesses say they enjoy the benefits of being in control of their work, they are also in control of all aspects of the business, whether they want to be or not. That requires setting up a business and deciding how it should be incorporated, handling the finances or finding a CPA to do so, tracking billable hours, managing schedules, marketing the business and billing clients. 

The 2017 State of U.S. Small Law Firms study by Thomson Reuters found that the biggest challenge to small firms was the amount of time spent on administrative tasks, with business development close behind. For attorneys well acquainted with practicing law, the transition to the other business tasks can be daunting. 

When Ben Wick launched his firm, Wick Law, he was the sole practitioner. After leaving a general counsel role at a startup company, he didn’t have a book of business to bring with him, so early days at the firm meant doing lots of networking lunches and coffee meetings while taking on the administrative tasks of setting up a business without having any income coming in. 

Holly Franson, who now works alongside Wick, said she now handles marketing responsibilities at the firm, which involves doing lots of external work to raise awareness of the firm among other attorneys who might provide referrals as well as with potential clients — for them, public employees who might pursue labor and employment claims. That involves writing articles as well as publishing a book that serves as a practice guide for other attorneys. And while the book might be geared toward attorney readers, she said it helps lend credence to her expertise when potential clients meet with her and see the book. 

While Franson had exposure to marketing in her previous work, the process of marketing a law firm might be the biggest change for other attorneys. Steinhauser had experience as the marketing partner at a firm prior to starting her own practice, but the world of marketing continues to change, and that is an area she continues to develop. Clark said that while she had business administration experience from starting her career at a legal nonprofit, marketing “meant taking out an advertisement in the Yellow Pages.”

And while the business aspects of running one’s own firm are a challenge, Steinhauser said one of the skills she had to develop on her own was doing collections.  

“In your own practice, you have to get good at asking for money and asking people to pay you for time and expertise,” she said. “You have to get into that mentality that you are entitled to get paid for what you’re doing.”

Solo but not alone

While launching a new business is inherently a “Do-It-Yourself” endeavor, that doesn’t mean attorneys launching their own firms must work alone.

Outside of the structure of a law firm, lawyers might lose out on the collegiality that comes with working with others as well as the mentorship and expertise that attorneys with more or different practice experience can provide. Steinhauser, a member of legal coworking space LawBank, said she relies on the other attorneys around her to get over the loneliness she experienced as an extrovert working alone. 

“If you’re going to go solo, do it in a way you don’t isolate yourself — a shared workspace or something that enables you to be around people and other lawyers,” she said. “The isolation that can come with being a solo is something that’s not healthy.”

Similarly, Franson said she and Wick rely on other solo attorneys to provide expertise in other areas. Wick is chair of the Colorado Bar Association Solo Small Firm Practice Council and relies on other members of the group for advice. Franson said she sees the importance of having a network of other attorneys to reach out to and doesn’t hesitate to “pay it forward” when someone else asks for advice on a legal matter. She said she can’t count the number of times she’s called a solo or small firm attorney and asked for 10 minutes to use them as a sounding board. They’ve never said no, she said, and neither does she.

“Reach out,” she said. “You’re not expected to know everything.” 

—Tony Flesor

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