Starting Solo

Making the decision to start your own law firm


February 2016

Identifying Why You Want to Go Solo

How am I going to do this?  Where do I set up my office?  What areas of law should I plan to practice in?  How much money should I spend on a desk? Do I want to be a general practitioner or have a niche area?  These are all valid questions that should be running through your head when you decide to start solo.  However, before you tackle such issues as acquiring firm capital and looking at office space  you should determine either on your own or with your partner(s) why you want to go solo.

I firmly believe, and from what we have gleaned from solos and other attorneys we have talked to, that if you make this decision in a default mode (that is, you decide to go solo because you couldn’t find anything else) then you may find yourself struggling more than others.  However, if you come into this adventure having pondered the various reasons you want to start solo or begin a small firm then you are more apt to have the mindset required to make this work.  I was first turned onto this concept by both the professor of our Law Practice Management course that Ben and I took (more on that in another post), and the book we used, How to Start and Build a Law Firm by Jay Foonberg.  Ben and I had and continue to have many discussions about why we want to start solo, and what our goals are for our firm (both individual and mutual).

I mentioned in my first post that I made my decision to open my own firm after I interned with a small firm in Indianapolis after my 1L year.  That is true, but what is worth discussing is how I came to that conclusion because it is directly related to why I want to start solo.  I was a high school teacher for almost ten years before I made the difficult decision to come to law school.  I left a community of students and teachers that I loved and a school that I loved.  Crazy, right?  Although I loved my students and my peers, it was time for me to leave education: time for new challenges, time for new opportunities, and time to provide more for my family.

I decided that if I was going to leave a job and a community that I loved I was going to do it my way.  Given the still precarious status of the legal market I didn’t want to end up at any firm that would hire me.  I didn’t want to work in an area of law that didn’t interest me just to gather a paycheck.  I had invested too much of my time and effort to not do this exactly the way I want.  I want to advocate for my own clients rather than through a supervising attorney, I want to work for my own bottom line, and I want to build something.

On a deeper level, I want to follow in the footsteps of my grandfathers and great-grandfathers.  They built businesses–a successful regional drugstore and a corn seed company respectively.  I want to follow in their footsteps in both the successful way they built their businesses, but the way they did it–with integrity, honesty, and hard work.  I do not want to toil away day after day for senior attorneys/partners only to see my efforts realized by their gains.  Granted, I am not railing against big law nor do I think that working for medium or large firms is by any means wrong.  Many attorneys have had very fulfilling careers doing just that.  But for me, I want to focus all of my efforts on my client’s objectives as well as try to build my own successful law practice.  I want to do this to honor my parents and grandparents as well as show my children what it means to work hard for something you want.

These deep seeded reasons for why I want to start and build my own law practice help keep me focused on my goals and gives me direction.  In later posts we will discuss specifically what next steps to take after you have identified the various reasons why you want to start solo.  Once you identify those reasons, continue to revisit them as this is a long process, and you will occasionally need to remind yourself why you have chosen this road.


Our First Steps

As J.T. stated in our first blog post, we have been planning to open our law firm right out of law school for the last two years.  That means we have two years of experiences in planning our firm to catch up on in order to fully outline the steps we have taken to open our firm.  Here is a brief summary of what we have been doing in the last two years to start our firm.  In all likelihood, we will write more thorough blog posts on each of these individual topics.  For now, this is what we have been up to:

First discussions:  When J.T. and I first sat down to seriously talk about the idea of opening our own firm, we started off with what our interests were in the law.  This is important as it will guide you towards who you should meet, what area of law you should strive to practice in, where you should locate your office, what sort of starting capital you will need, etc.  We also discussed what goals we have and what we hold important.  By doing so, we could guide the development of our practice to achieve our individual and mutual goals.  From this first discussion, we assigned different tasks to each other, including:

  1. Is our idea feasible?
  2. Who has done this in our area in the recent past?  Will they talk with us?
  3. Are there any programs in the law school, town, city, or state that run programs to help attorneys start their own firms?
  4. What resources are there for new attorneys hanging their shingle?

Discuss with Loved Ones:  After J.T. and I made some goals and really felt that this was something we wanted to do, we both met with our families to see if this was something our families were willing to support us on.  This step was (is) crucial.  Both J.T. and I our respective familial obligations and responsibilities that come well before law school and starting a law firm.  Thus, it is extremely important for both of our families to know what we want to achieve so that we could have their support.  Have this conversation with your spouse, parents, children, partner, etc. early and often.  The more they know about your decisions, the more they are able to give input and feel comfortable with the risk/reward of starting a small business.

First Professional Advice-Talk to a Practicing Solo/Small Firm Managing Attorney:  Early on in the decision process to start your own law firm, it is important to meet with as many practicing attorneys who started and manage their own solo or small law firms as you can.  Preface the meeting with an introduction that explains where you are in the process of starting your own firm.  This will allow the attorney to gauge and prepare what to discuss with you at the meeting.  Prepare for your meeting by making a list of questions.

Also, prepare for the attorney to use descriptors such as “crazy” or “risky” or even “stupid” when describing your idea to start your own firm.  Unfortunately, some attorneys have been jaded or simply have different backgrounds than you may have, making them less than eager to tell you all of the advantages of owning your own practice or help you on your path.  You may even have an attorney tell you to forget your “dream” and obtain a judicial clerkship with the 7th Circuit.  Although pursuing a judicial clerkship is a noble and rewarding pursuit, it is not every law students’ ambition to do so.   If you find yourself in this situation, let it soak in and motivate you to pursue those ambitions.

Do not completely ignore this attorney and remain steadfast in your resolve…starting your own firm is possible and there are many attorneys out there that love being a solo/small firm owner/practitioner and are excited to help you do the same.  One thing that we dedicated ourselves to from our very first meeting with a practicing attorney was to debrief after the meeting.  We routinely take a few minutes after any meeting to chat about what went well and what was difficult.  It is at times a stretch, but we make it a habit to take away at least one piece of positive advice from every meeting we have.  Sometimes it requires seeing the flip-side of a negative comment, but we strive to build and take from the vast range of experiences that the attorneys we meet with have to offer.

J.T. and I continue to meet new attorneys, and through the law school we met two attorneys in particular, Brandon Tate and Kevin Bowen of Tate and Bowen, that have helped us walk in their footsteps of starting, owning, and operating a small firm. If you have any questions related to this post or any particular topics you would like us to write about, please comment on this post.

Starting Your Own Law Firm

Welcome to Starting Solo!  We hope this blog will provide you with information, resources, and insights on how to start your own law firm.  My business partner, Ben Spandau, and I hope to especially target current law students or new lawyers who are considering starting solo.

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