Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Solo Practice, Just Add Water!

On March 2, 2009, the National Law Journal posted an on-line article entitled, Layoff Option No. 1: Start Your Own Firm.

I read the article carefully and then clicked "comment" and gently informed NLJ that I thought the article was a complete and utter piece of crap. I made sure to explain why. Not surprisingly, the comment was never published. Hence, this post.

Now let me be clear: There is nothing wrong with going solo. I went solo seven years ago. It was the single greatest decision I've made. What irks me is that Staff Reporter, Karen Sloan, wholly oversimplified, even glorified, the process of going solo without any objectivity whatsoever.

According to Ms. Sloan, experts say it's a good time for laid-off, large-firm attorneys to go solo. But who are these "experts"?

The one and only expert Ms. Sloan quotes is Susan Cartier Liebel. Ms. Cartier Liebel is the founder of Build a Solo Practice, LLC. Her tagline is, "Teaching Lawyers How to Create and Grow Their Solo Legal Practice." This year, Ms. Cartier Liebel plans to open a new on-line business called Solo Practice University.

I have a full and thorough respect for Ms. Cartier Liebel. I follow her on Twitter (and I am finicky as to whom I follow). She was a successful solo and I think her business concept is brilliant. What I take umbrage with is that Ms. Cartier Liebel's biases were entirely lost on Reporter Sloan. Ms. Cartier-Leibel wasn't so much providing an expert opinion as making a sales-pitch.

Turning back to the article, Ms. Sloan introduces us to three recently laid-off attorneys who we are lead to believe have been successful in going solo. Two of these appear smiling blissfully in photographs atop the body of the article. Ms. Sloan indicates only in passing, however, that one of the three returned to the corporate world after a brief two-year solo stint and another still has serious misgivings about her decision.

Permit me to set the record straight: Starting your own firm is not Layoff Option #1. To the contrary, it's not a very viable option for big firm lawyers at all.

First, starting a practice involves an enormous outlay of cash. A full year of salary is a good rule of thumb. How many lawyers have that type of money just lying around? If they don't, how are they going to get it amidst this credit-crunch?

Secondly, most Biglaw attorneys simply don't have the skill-set necessary to handle small firm cases. They may be smart enough but it takes years, if not decades of practice, to swim with the sharks who grew up in and now infest the waters of matrimonial, personal injury and construction law. (On second thought, perhaps I should be encouraging former biglawyers to take on these types of cases and then convert my practice to a lawyer malpractice boutique.)

Lastly, Ms. Sloan cites as one of the benefits of going solo that, "cost-conscious clients are more willing than ever to retain smaller outfits that offer lower rates." Wrong. Typical big-firm clients like Ford and Microsoft aren't going to elope with a laid-off associate or even a junior partner. If anything, these companies will pressure their firms to lower prices or will jump to the next highest bidder. To make matters even more difficult, many states have strict anti-solicitation laws which prevent attorneys from directly or even indirectly contacting persons with potential cases.

All said and done, starting a small law firm is not a realistic option for most former big firm attorneys. The National Law Journal wields tremendous power of pursuation and should have been more responsible in the message it delivered. The big firms are going under. I'd hate to see a whole new crop of solos following suit.


Christopher G. Hill said...

Good thoughts. I have thought on several occasions about taking this plunge, but have on each realized that I am better off at my 12 member firm (for now)

Chris Davis said...

Nice post. Couldn't agree more. I've been a solo personal injury attorney in Seattle for nearly 15 years. The first 5 yrs were tough, especially when you're taking cases on contingency. It took me another 5 yrs to hone my case selection skills. Then another 2 yrs to really understand how to run a business law practice. As a solo, not only must you be a good lawyer skill-wise, but you must also be a good business person. You have to know how to attract clients, serve them, hire and manage staff, invest in your practice, all while practicing law. I don't believe this can be learned over night, or even in a few years.

Chris Davis, Esq.
Seattle, WA