My vacation allowed me to think about my place in the legal profession, such as it is. I have decided to relate a few personal experiences to approach from a different angle the topic of why solo practice is a bad career path for most new attorneys.
I have an unusual experience in that I have developed a solo practice and have turned a $25,000 profit after business expenses and taxes in one year. Also, this current year is getting progressively better. Because of a variety of factors with my constantly changing debt payments, I did not subtract student debt from this “profit” calculation—which is important to recognize.
Most people would see this first year out of law school as a pittance, which it is. After seven years of post-high school education and a lot of stress, opportunity cost, and debt, I am able to make the same amount of “profit” that I made before law school. And I am a rarity! I know of no other recent graduate in this hyper-glutted city to earn this much money as a solo attorney out of law school. So, I relate my experience as a warning that I am the so-called “success story” for hanging out a shingle. This reality should scare you. It scares me.
Keep in mind, I only have paying clients (no government work), and I only eat what I kill. The optimist in me looks at my situation and sees a solid beginning for an upward climb. I have been steadily increasing my monthly client retention and retainer intakes, finding bigger cases, and if all continues I am set to make as much as an entry-level mid-law slave by the end of this year. Of course, keep in mind that I do not get a guaranteed salary—a dry month could be right around the corner. I get no benefits. I get no retirement plan. The market could again shift, causing my various sources of clients and income to dry up.
Yet, on the bright side, I have no boss, which is easily the biggest perk of solo practice. I schedule my own cases, which means that I can take (theoretically) a vacation whenever I want to by scheduling my court dates accordingly. Also, unlike most law school graduates, I actually enjoy day-to-day lawyering, including the legal research of weirdly specific issues (did the prosecutor check the correct box on the Order of Protection?). My work on a few big-dollar cases has made me proud. For example, I wrote an excellent motion for keeping an autistic young man off of the sex offender registry after he plead guilty to statutory rape and several other felonies. I love appearing at court dates, litigating, writing motions, bargaining with over-worked prosecutors who want to lighten their caseloads if given the right incentives, and I shine during a trial. I have not yet had a client’s case end with a conviction of the original charges.
However, I spend 20-30 hours a week hustling, advertising, making “connections,” and engaging in other unorthodox methods of finding work. I expend this time and effort after I do all of the actual lawyering work, including client consults, court appearances, legal research, motion practice, investigation, etc. My solo practice is really a hodgepodge of various sub-businesses and arrangements, which includes a sprinkle of per diem work and drafting motions for attorneys who have now seen my usefulness with specific tasks. My channels for getting the big-dollar clients ($5K retainers or higher) are unorthodox. If you do not love the work, as I do (so far), this type of makeshift law practice will bore, frustrate, intimidate, and depress the average new lawyer. It will take as much time as a Biglaw career but without the financial rewards.
Some shills might argue that I am living proof that solo practice is a realistic option for new attorneys. It is not! I am an unusual bird for many reasons and not representative of the typical law school graduate. I have seen a few other people try to solo “on the side” and to take $500 divorces or misdemeanors or whatever comes their way. Or they take whatever “pro bono client” an older attorney dumps off on these naïve souls. These younger attorneys get sucked dry before they even start. Most new solos have a desperate doe-eyed look that attracts the bloodsuckers (including other attorneys who will take advantage of their desire to get “experience”).
Other unusual factors of my situation: I have a husband with good business sense and disciplined accounting. He brings in a part-time income as well. And we have no kids! This is extremely important—seriously. If you plan on having kids, or if you already have kids, you cannot be a new solo—sorry! It is financially impossible. My husband and I barely can afford our nephew! If you don’t believe me, just ask Charles Cooper. He provided an excellent detailed account of how easy it was to fall from Biglaw to Mid-law to Rock Bottom Solo despite his excellent credentials, experience, and drive. The responsibilities of family (and common sense) made it impossible for him to stick out the dubious solo-waiting-game for more than a few months.
I think it is important to provide my story of currently surviving total destruction (so far) and of starting to find a place in The New Normal of the legal profession. However, this path is not realistic for most people, and it is not what most people signed up for when they attended law school. It was not what I expected. No one ever taught us how to develop and operate a business, how to catch clients, how to get paid, how to network with quid pro quo arrangements, and how to perform very basic tasks in any single area of practice in our jurisdiction. I did not even know how to do an arraignment or calendar call until I faked my way through it a few times. I am guessing that most new lawyers or current law students have no desire to follow this stressful path, and some might complain that it is reckless and unethical to even try (although no more reckless than a client hiring most of the “grey-beards” who I see in court).
A new attorney going solo "by default" is not a viable backup plan for temporarily avoiding unemployment. For most people, a half-assed last-minute solo practice just wastes more time and money on a losing proposition. For a few of us, a carefully developed small-budget solo practice allows us to survive and to practice our favorite areas of law despite the daily struggles...Or perhaps it just extends the path to inevitable financial ruin. I shall see, I suppose.
For a solo practice to succeed in both the short-term and the long-term, an attorney must make an all-consuming life commitment to his business. And for the first few years, the "successful" solo will be only a step ahead of dumpster diving and homeless panhandling. Not many young lawyers understand that after the three years of stressful law school exams followed by the more stressful bar exam, those people who did not get into Biglaw will earn a lower salary than before they went to law school, and yet they must suddenly throw a huge percentage of that income into the black hole of enormous debt. A person must sacrifice everything, including one's first born children, to keep treading water. And still, the few people who actually start to make any money will face the strong likelihood of eventual failure.