Celebrating 10 years! 2007-2017

How do people get the courage to go solo?

Interested in hearing stories. I cannot do it. I am applying billcarson11/12/18
Keep your cost of living and expenses low, and volatility is jeffm11/12/18
At the time, I was really really miserable working for other fettywap11/12/18
I knew the firm I was working for was in trouble. An opportu newsolo11/12/18
And you knew how to be a businessman. You were good at that: kappel11/12/18
getting screwed over financially by bosses gets tiring after dingbat11/12/18
I left my first cushier craplaw job due to serious ethical a billcarson11/12/18
yeah, I'd have reported the old f-ck, except that I'm prohib dingbat11/12/18
Charles Pitman. Research his story. If he can make it, I fee kappel11/12/18
My experience has been that solos typically fall into one of onehell11/12/18
You forgot one People who had a successful job, but wante dingbat11/12/18
This is the single largest category IME. Many of them treat midlaw11/13/18
I had 3 motivating factors. (1) A truly horrendous boss (who uknownvalue11/12/18
Thank you for your post. billcarson11/12/18
"jeffm says..." Ha ha! Flattering. As long as we're on jeffm11/12/18
Raise your rates. Best advice I ever got. When you’re dingbat11/12/18
Was going to say this. midlaw11/13/18
That's funny- my story pretty much mirrors yours. I left my cranky11/13/18
onehell: "3. People who are born salesmen. Gift of gab. It jeffm11/12/18
I found it’s a combination. Anyone can learn a script, bu dingbat11/12/18
By having a source of money to front you. trickydick11/13/18
I see two types going solo, the confident ones and the compe wallypancake11/14/18
Onehell summarized it perfectly. Throughout my career, I catwoman33311/14/18
I feel your pain on SSD/I cases. As I understand it, the fee onehell11/15/18
Sadly, yes, Onehell. That's why I am looking to leave pract catwoman33311/16/18
Quick thumbs up here for criminal work. I worked as a prose bigbossman11/17/18
don't people who aren't making a lot as solo's (in addition bobm11/19/18
You are talking about the decision process of someone who is jeffm11/19/18
That's fair bobm11/19/18

billcarson (Nov 12, 2018 - 12:50 pm)

Interested in hearing stories. I cannot do it. I am applying for only non-lawyer jobs. I head up a rather small practice with my buddy and even this is stressful.

How did you break from a steady salary and benefits (unless you had none) to volatile income (good weeks versus weeks you are at or in the red).

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jeffm (Nov 12, 2018 - 2:44 pm)

Keep your cost of living and expenses low, and volatility is not as big a problem as it otherwise could be. Also, once you've been going for a year or two, pay becomes more steady and predictable.

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fettywap (Nov 12, 2018 - 12:59 pm)

At the time, I was really really miserable working for other people and didn't know what I was getting myself into. I don't have the motivation to do it anymore. It was easier to hustle when I was younger.

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newsolo (Nov 12, 2018 - 1:47 pm)

I knew the firm I was working for was in trouble. An opportunity presented itself to take over an office space from an attorney that was moving out of state. Having an established phone number and the ability to take some of my clients with me was enough to take the risk. It also helped that I was single, with no children and no mortgage.

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kappel (Nov 12, 2018 - 2:00 pm)

And you knew how to be a businessman. You were good at that:)

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dingbat (Nov 12, 2018 - 1:54 pm)

getting screwed over financially by bosses gets tiring after a while.
My last boss, I brought in half a million dollars of new business. Got a $500 bonus (and no raise)

Same boss also thought it was a good idea to come in with me on my consultations, and would provide bad legal advice. Boss didn't understand anything beyond the basics of what I do, and rather than acknowledge that more complex solutions might possibly provide an advantage, would instead try to talk the clients into fitting into his per-conceived solution.

I once had to spend 25 minutes arguing in front of a client that what my boss wanted to do was a bad idea (and the clients had already stated they didn't want it)

Another time, existing estate planning client came with their financial advisor, so the two could make sure everything was coordinated with their plan. Boss finds out client has REITs. "well, I watched a documentary that said REITs are risky" (followed by the FA very politely explaining that there are less risky reits, that reits provide extra portfolio diversification, and how the reits fit into the overall investment strategy. Boss then suggests I take the FA out for lunch to convince him to send more clients our way!

Boss would also continually give bad tax advice even after I provided multiple examples of case law showing he was wrong. "well, it should be that way"

On top of that, boss asked me to violate the rules of professional conduct in three separate ways over the course of six months (one request was repeated just about weekly). The last time, the fees to the firm were only about $2500, and I had to refuse four times before it even occurred to him to contact the ethics hotline - which shot him down immediately.

Sorry, but my law degree (and subsequent license) cost a lot of money. I'm not putting my livelihood at risk just so he can make an extra few grand.

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billcarson (Nov 12, 2018 - 2:17 pm)

I left my first cushier craplaw job due to serious ethical and accounting issues. Thing is, they are all still comfortable and in business. Meanwhile, I am on a dead cat bounce off rock bottom.

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dingbat (Nov 12, 2018 - 3:17 pm)

yeah, I'd have reported the old f-ck, except that I'm prohibited from doing so because it would violate client confidentiality.

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kappel (Nov 12, 2018 - 2:03 pm)

Charles Pitman. Research his story. If he can make it, I feel that the vast majority of the people in the legal profession have a decent shot.

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onehell (Nov 12, 2018 - 3:48 pm)

My experience has been that solos typically fall into one of four categories in terms of how they got started, in order of most to least likelihood of success:

1. The Connected. Usually from inherited wealth with lots of family members who will steer them work, and/or came from some big firm where they made partner and have a book. They can leverage existing connections to get clients.

2. People who don't really need the practice to keep the lights on. They have a spouse with a good job, or a pension, or an inheritance or something. Number one reason small businesses fail is that they are under-capitalized and they have a leg up because this concern doesn't apply to them. The practice can lose money for 3 years straight and they still won't be homeless.

3. People who are born salesmen. Gift of gab. It cannot be learned or taught, it's innate. Doesn't really matter whether they're selling real estate or insurance or annuities or legal services or used cars, they can just sell. Decent likelihood of success, but more likelihood than #s 1 or 2 to get in trouble with the bar. When successful, these are the people that run the mills and plaster their names all over giant billboards.

4. People who have no choice because they simply couldn't find a job. They can't make rent if the practice isn't profitable, and they have no ready source of clients other than taking whatever happens to walk in the door. These people are most likely to never reach profitability and end up in doc review or something.

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dingbat (Nov 12, 2018 - 4:08 pm)

You forgot one

People who had a successful job, but wanted to make a go on their own. (a) reached their peak in their current position, such as an associate who clearly won't make partner, (b) short-term frustration with their current position, such as a dislike of their boss and/or co-workers, or (c)a "grass is greener" moment, such as wanting more free time.

These tend to have some starting capital, maybe 6 months to a year's worth, and may have a small book of business, but not enough to be profitable right away. They also tend to have higher expectations of what they want/need to bring in.

Chance of success is pretty small - they lack the ability to really give it a go, and have too high a requirement to survive on the small starting income. the vast majority will be looking for a real job before the year is out.

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midlaw (Nov 13, 2018 - 1:50 pm)

This is the single largest category IME. Many of them treat solo practice as a semi-paid vacation and always intend to join back up with another shop.

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uknownvalue (Nov 12, 2018 - 6:23 pm)

I had 3 motivating factors. (1) A truly horrendous boss (who I am now really good friends with) (2) experience in running solo practice (the aforementioned boss was gone for several months at a time) (3) very low personal expenses. My now spouse covered ALL of my rent, utilities, food, entertainment, emergencies, pet stuff, necessities and personal "luxuries" for at least 3 years AND I had Obamacare (which was cheap and generous). I don't know how people do it without significant support.

After 5 years I am okay, but I still feel a lot of pressure to never miss a client call or potential intake. I know jeffm says to not hire anyone and I have not, but I also work 6 days a week every week and rarely leave my office for lunch or before 730 pm. I skipped taking a honeymoon or vacation for the last 4 years (my husband routinely threatens to divorce me - but I don't think he is serious, I hope). I am going to quit in the next 4 years for a lowing paying, low stress, low responsibility job or something like that - lol.

In general I don't recommend solo life. It really is highly volatile and for the life of me, I still cannot predict when I will be too busy to breath and when I will actually have time for a life.

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billcarson (Nov 12, 2018 - 6:39 pm)

Thank you for your post.

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jeffm (Nov 12, 2018 - 9:05 pm)

"jeffm says..."

Ha ha! Flattering. As long as we're on that topic, you are breaking at least one of the cardinal rules. You shouldn't be working so hard unless you are making big bank. How much time are you giving away?

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dingbat (Nov 12, 2018 - 9:52 pm)

Raise your rates.

Best advice I ever got. When you’re running on full cylinders, raise your rates.

If you’re working that many hours, raise your rates. Any drop in clients will be made up by the higher pay from the ones that stay, giving you more free time for the same pay.

I’m quite expensive compared to other attorneys locally. I take in less clients. But I make enough to be comfortable and enough free time to enjoy it.

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midlaw (Nov 13, 2018 - 2:37 pm)

Was going to say this.

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cranky (Nov 13, 2018 - 11:54 am)

That's funny- my story pretty much mirrors yours. I left my last firm because I knew there was no future there, and it was run like a mess. Plus I could not find any other better jobs. I had a lot of money saved up, so I figured why not finally go out on my own. Sure I complain about the stress and dealing with all these annoying clients and trying to get paid. Yet I know I have a ton of freedom that I would not have if I worked for someone else. If you are working such awful hours, then maybe you should be turning down some of the lousier cases can raising your rates. If your spouse is still doing well enough, then perhaps you don't need to stress yourself out so much and jeopardize your relationship to make more money.

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jeffm (Nov 12, 2018 - 9:18 pm)

onehell: "3. People who are born salesmen. Gift of gab. It cannot be learned or taught, it's innate."

Maybe it's innate to some degree; maybe not. I know that I learned it from one of my best friends. Having seen it done really was a difference-maker. I would tag along with him and watch him close the deals. Then, my turn came to do the same. All I did was parrot him, overlaying it with my own style and knowledge.

You really need to know the product you are selling. By that, I don't mean you have to know everything up front, but you need to be comfortable with what you know and don't know in order to effectively close. Experience helps a lot. The client needs to be convinced that you know what he/she needs and that you aren't selling useless (or worse) services. Many times, you have to get basic facts over the phone and set a meeting. If it will help, do some research before you meet so that you show a command of the situation and a clear ability to handle it. Is selling like this a "personality" trait? I don't know. To me, it's finding and filling a need.

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dingbat (Nov 12, 2018 - 10:00 pm)

I found it’s a combination. Anyone can learn a script, but not everyone can understand it.

To me, the most important thing is to realize you’re not selling a product, your customers are buying a solution and/or a feeling. What are you providing that helps them?

Take the car salesman. A good one isn’t pushing a Honda or s Hyundai. They’re finding out, is the client looking for a utilitarian way to get from point A to point B? Are they buying a status symbol to show off that they’re rich? Are they sending a message that they’re hip? Eco-friendly? Are they looking for a p.ssy-magnet? A true salesman figures out what the customer really wants, and gives them the feeling.

Nobody cares what you’re selling, they only care why they’re buying.

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trickydick (Nov 13, 2018 - 11:59 am)

By having a source of money to front you.

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wallypancake (Nov 14, 2018 - 6:03 pm)

I see two types going solo, the confident ones and the compelled ones. The confident ones that I know seem to have success whereas the compelled ones, who lack confidence, struggle. Not surprising at all. People who had it with biglaw and just want to be their own bosses can start their law firm with confidence because they know that they can be successful in the legal field. In contrast, those without confidence and just go into it like they're playing craps tend to struggle.

A colleague who established himself as the traffic ticket guy complains to me how difficult the profession is and how business is weak. He started with a small firm that fell apart when the senior partner got sick and was unable to work. He was then on his own with no confidence in his skills. Nothing has changed since then.

A different colleague who started at a small firm and got himself a good name started on his own after 10 years went to his own firm with confidence. He seems to be doing very well in these small litigations.

How you bring yourself into your business and how potential clients see you is perhaps the most important part of starting a firm. Your confidence affects how you deal with others and how they will respond to you. If you don't have confidence and just feel compelled to start your own firm, it is better to look for a different way of supporting yourself.

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catwoman333 (Nov 14, 2018 - 10:22 pm)

Onehell summarized it perfectly.

Throughout my career, I have encountered so many #1s and #2s who glibly, condescendingly brag about their solo practice as if it's a breeze: "What's the matter? Why doesn't EVERYONE do this??"

I used to feel like a loser listening to them and in comparison to them because I often struggled to stay afloat, didn't understand why it was so hard for me and easy for them. Then, after doing a little digging into their circumstances, I discovered that MOST of these "Big Successes" were, in fact, being propped up by hefty family inheritances/loans or spouses with FT, well-paying jobs who didn't mind paying their bills for YEARS while they established themselves. Either that, or they were living up to their eyeballs in debt.

My practice is exclusively admin. (representing disabled clients seeking federal VA, SS benefits). The biggest challenges are the lengthy waiting periods (at least 2 years) before a case decision is rendered (and payment is made). Also, as I work contingent fee basis, I don't get paid unless we win, so I can't afford to accept any/everyone for a CLT. Consequently, I am forced to take a lot of contract (flat fee per hearing) work during the lean months when I don't get paid.


The BIGGEST challenge I think for ALL solos (and many big firms) is the ridiculously high #s of attorneys competing for a shrinking pool of CLTs. By virtue of simple math, it's just getting tougher to establish and maintain a decent profit margin. And that problem ain't going away anytime soon.

I've been at it (solo practice) for almost a decade and am so ready to chuck it. I am hoping to find a "conventional" employment (legal-related or not) soon. I might be more inclined to stick it out if I had a steady source of income: aka, rich, generous relatives and/or spouse. But I have neither, so returning to the 9-5 is probably the most prudent thing for me. Yes, it stinks working for "bosses" or in "toxic" workplaces, as others here have noted. But the older I get (and more experience as a solo), the more I realize that there is A LOT to value in a steady job and being able to rely on a regular monthly/biweekly paycheck, health care, and pension benefits--even if one has to make unpleasant compromises to get them. Some people might view that as "a ball and chain" or straightjacket; others might see it as a nice security blanket.


Good luck whichever path you choose.

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onehell (Nov 15, 2018 - 1:05 pm)

I feel your pain on SSD/I cases. As I understand it, the fee has to be approved and it is mandatory that it be contingent and at most, the lesser of 25% of the retro check or $6,000.

If the most you can possibly make on any one case is 6k, and you have to wait years for an ALJ hearing to get it, AND you get to compete with nonlawyer "disability advocates" its a miracle anyone can make this work outside the Binder & Binder type mill models, which depend on an army of paralegals doing most of the work and a huge advertising budget to get to volume.

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catwoman333 (Nov 16, 2018 - 11:47 pm)

Sadly, yes, Onehell. That's why I am looking to leave practice for a more stable paycheck. Most of the "established" small firm owners I know (i.e., NOT B & B "mills") are much older attys who started out doing SS law decades ago and, over the years, built a decent-sized, stable clientele back in the day when they were the ONLY SS firm in town. Now, even they are squeezed by the rise of big, nationwide "mills" who have deep pockets to invest in 24/7 TV ads. When they eventually leave the field or retire, only the "mills" will be left. Sad, not just for the these small firm attys, but for the clients (persons with disabilities) who rely on the "mills" for representation (not knowing better). IMHO, these poor people get royally screwed by big mills--many non-attys--who treat them/their case like another McDonald's Drive-thru order, rarely render "real, competent" legal advice, and who usually do a crappy, often incompetent job representing them (not preparing the case prior to the hearing or mounting a vigorous case during a hearing).

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bigbossman (Nov 17, 2018 - 2:12 am)

Quick thumbs up here for criminal work. I worked as a prosecutor for ten years, came to know the right people including those who ultimately went on to be in charge of assigning indigent defense cases. It's been a couple years now since I went solo, and I still get just about as many of those as I can handle. I've added in several other areas of work in case that dries up but it very much looks the opposite where I am, there is way more of that defense work than I can take on.

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bobm (Nov 19, 2018 - 7:54 pm)

don't people who aren't making a lot as solo's (in addition to relying on fam if possible), also do things like doc review to supplement?

given that-why is that "courage" any diffrent from a regular doc reviewer-this guy just also puts away some time toward attempting to build and serve clientsi nthe hope of one day breaking out-vs those that don't want to (or have tried and failed)

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jeffm (Nov 19, 2018 - 7:57 pm)

You are talking about the decision process of someone who is underemployed and doesn't have to give up full-time employment. That is a different scenario. It does take courage to walk away from a full-time job.

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bobm (Nov 19, 2018 - 7:58 pm)

That's fair

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