Should I just go solo after graduation? (Part II)

Posted by T. Greg Doucette on Nov 29, 2011 in The 3L Life | Subscribe

Sunday night I posted an entry outlining my rationale for seriously considering solo/SmallLaw practice after I (hopefully) graduate from NCCU Law on May 12th, 2012.

And yes, I keep a running countdown of the 165-in-151ish-minutes days until I’m done with school ;)

This entry goes over some of the pros and cons I’ve mulled over a bit as I tossed this idea around in my head these last couple weeks. It’s not intended to be an exhaustive list, and our commenters from the last entry had links I need to review with info I haven’t checked out yet (it’s on the post-exam to-do list).

I’m writing it down now to (i) get feedback from you readers and any current/aspiring solos who happen to stop by, and (ii) provide a record for myself so I don’t forget :beatup:

We’ll start with the risks/cons/downsides, because frankly right now they scare me more than the rewards/pros/upsides…

T.’s Initial Reasons AGAINST Going Solo After Graduation:

  • Risk of shortchanging clients due to inexperience: This is far and away my biggest worry — I don’t want to be doing “on the job training” when someone else’s interests are at stake and risk screwing up as a result. Maybe it’s just not-a-lawyer-yet naiveté that I’ll outgrow, but the risk of someone paying me for something and getting less-than-perfect representation just really unnerves me. It’s one thing to go solo after working in a firm where you’ve had a chance to have other people looking over your shoulder for a few years, but I’d literally have nothing but clinical experience to guide me if I went solo right out of the gate.
  • How are bills getting paid again?: Second issue priority-wise is finding revenue those first few months out. I know I could manage money frugally enough and hustle hard enough to build up a financially adequate client base over the long-term, but have no clue at all how I’d keep the lights on from August through February.
  • There’s a lot of @#$%ing paperwork: Incorporating. Insurance. Leases. Taxes. Contracts. Employees one day, with all the payroll stuff that goes with it. Making contingency plans for clients in case I die unexpectedly. There’s a lot of paperwork and related stuff that has -0- actual relation to the law part of practicing law, that I’d not only have to knock out up-front if I started my own firm but also monitor regularly for eternity. And after already becoming a criminal because I forgot a postage stamp, I’m not exactly enthused by those obligations.
  • The Triangle has several metric tons of attorneys: Although I’m not categorically averse to moving elsewhere in North Carolina, most of my network and support structure are here in the Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill area… along with what seems like every other attorney in the state :beatup: Being a new entrant in an established marketplace is a difficult challenge without some kind of hook/niche I could stake out.
  • I’d need a secretary…: This ties in to the 2nd and 3rd issues above. Given my own personal shortcomings, I’d need someone on staff to look over my shoulder and make sure paperwork gets completed, calls get answered, appointments don’t get double-booked, and so on. But I have no clue how I’d be able to afford them until I’ve got a decent stream of clients coming in.
  • …but I’m a big teddy bear when it comes to critiquing/firing people: My management skills also apparently need work. I’ve been told that I’m stellar at motivating people, getting a team to get things done, that sort of stuff; I’m also brutal when people are so glaringly incompetent that they have to be canned. On the other hand, I’ve also been told I’ve let people remain in positions long after they should have been fired when they’re less incompetent and more just lazy, instead hoping they’ll shape up. Not sure I’m sufficiently dispassionate to make the tough decisions on disciplining/firing people.

So that’s the first batch of reasons why me going solo would be a bad idea. Now for the counterweight:

T.’s Initial Reasons FOR Going Solo After Graduation:

  • After 13 years in NC, I’ve got a fairly wide network: The main justification for starting a business of some kind, be it law or otherwise, is that I’ve been incredibly blessed to meet a boatload of people since I moved to North Carolina way back in 1998. I know folks from my first time at N.C. State, the places I worked over the 5 years I was a college dropout and political activist, my second time at N.C. State, and everyone I’ve crossed paths with in my roles as Student Senate President, UNCASG President, and SBA President here at the law school. These folks, and the folks they know, would be the first step in a potential client pool.
  • I’ve got a talent for building things: It’s something reflected thoroughly in my personality (at least in every personality test I’ve taken). Whether it’s my brief stint as a professional web developer back in the early 2000s, restructuring Student Governments, writing a blawg for a couple years, or something else — I greatly enjoy (and am at least marginally skilled at) building organizations. The whole “vision thing” hasn’t been a problem yet.
  • Excellent support at NCCU Law and NCSU: Part of my reluctance to leave the Triangle is knowing I’ve got a top-notch set of faculty and staff I can ask for information or ideas if I really need it. It’s an ironic by-product of being a less-than-stellar student academically but otherwise a reasonably acceptable human being :)
  • Free access to 3 different libraries: State law requires that library facilities at UNC-system institutions be open to the public during “regular” operating hours, which includes NCSU, UNCCH, and NCCU all here in the Triangle.  There’s also a requirement that the law libraries at NCCU Law and UNCCH Law have kiosks for public use of Wexis as well. I could save a ton on legal research just by using the resources made available through my tax dollars.
  • No significant monetary commitments right now: I don’t have a mortgage, my car’s paid off (even though it breaks down regularly), I’m unmarried, and the only dependent living in my apartment has four legs and barks at people. For the past 2 years I’ve lived off less than $30,000 and been more-or-less-OK financially. I’d certainly like to make more than that — especially with student loan payments coming up — but I’m not addicted to a huge salary so I’ve got some flexibility to take calculated risks right now.
  • I am my own IT Department: If there’s an upside to taking 6 years to get a 4-year computer science degree, it’s being able to handle tech needs on my own without hiring an IT guy :beatup:
  • Freedom: The biggest upside to going the solo/SmallLaw route is having freedom to do whatever. If I want to create a specialty practice, I can. If I want to go a general practice route, I can. If I want to randomly change what I’m practicing entirely, I can do that too. It ensures I’m never more than a single decision away from continuing to enjoy what I do for a living.

So that’s my initial set of pros/cons as of tonight. I’m sure there will be many more down the road, but for now if feel free to share your thoughts at your leisure! :D

Thanks and have a great night!


From the law:/dev/null archives on me going solo after graduation:

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Nov 29, 2011 at 10:50 PM

Someone asked this question at a career fair at my school in regards to going solo for work. Every attorney on the panel discouraged it for a lot of reasons. First, because you don’t know much about your state specific laws on issues, you know little about the the business side of the law (for instance how much of a retainer should you get for X tort/crime), you run a huge risk of making sure you stay solvent and don’t commit malpractice. You also have comptency issues from a legal ethics standpoint which may exacerbate the money issues. Second, inexperience will also be a hard selling point for clients. Try to look at yourself objectively and think if you were a stranger would you hire yourself. A large network can help with this problem, but the nature of those relationships may create a conflict of interest problem. Finally, by going solo you get no feedback on your work other than wins and losses and that isn’t necessarily great way to get feedback on whether your process can be improved. Granted not all of these issues will be solved by going to a firm as the quality of your firm will dictate how you develop. But assuming you go to a firm where development is taken seriously and the lawyers are good, you won’t run into these problems. Moreover if you want to go solo later you will be in a much better position to do so.

Others may have a different perspective, but this was what the answer I heard when it was asked.

Julie Halatek
Nov 30, 2011 at 8:03 AM

I’m running into this same question myself. I was adamantly against going solo, but one of the first things I did upon getting my license was to get myself some malpractice insurance (for pro bono cases and the like). I have taken on my first “true” case (even though it’s pro bono) and am getting positive results. So much so that I’m being approached by others to handle other cases.

So my personal advice is what I’m thinking about doing now. Establish a PLLC for a firm in your name. Start there. This way, you have the limited liability; you can get the malpractice insurance; and you can open any accounts you need to. And then go from there. The advantages to doing this is that you have that PLLC backing you for your cases, and you have the option to expand at any time that you’d like. Plus, you can put it on your resume. The disadvantages are the time and cost associated with it, though it would be considerably less than immediately opening your own firm.

I’d go that route first. This way, you have your firm started should you decide to go solo; but if you don’t, you have something to put on your resume and something to work with until you make that decision in either direction.

I’ve heard both good and bad things from the recent grads who are deciding to hang their own shingle. Some successful, some not so much. So I think it really depends on a lot of things and you are more well-positioned than most to start your own firm.

Plus, don’t worry about clients–the SECOND you become a lawyer, they appear out of the woodwork.

Nov 30, 2011 at 11:25 PM

I think you would do fine. My suggestions would be to (1) keep costs very low–the difference between a struggling firm and an insolvent firm is the cost structure; (2) identify one or two core target clients, some combination of geography and legal issue, which you are confident you can attract business, plus three to six further target client groups to experiment with attempting to service; and (3) don’t try to practice in any area where you don’t have more experienced practitioners available from which to get practical advice. Areas of law where there are lots of small firms exist often easier to enter then areas dominated by large organizations, if no other reason than client expectations.

I’m not sure I follow the point about forming a PLLC as an alternative to opening a firm. Isn’t jumping through the hoops to get a professional entity formed part-and-parcel of opening a firm? Personally, if I saw a recently formed PLLC on a job seeker’s resume, I’d think the individual was solidly invested in practicing on his or her own. Nevertheless, I do think it is possible to form a regular LLC and then convert it into a PLLC once the certificate of eligibility can be obtained from the state bar.

Dec 1, 2011 at 3:30 PM

I think Julie may be a bit too optimistic about the ease of finding clients. While it may not be hard to find a few initial clients, you may need to diversify and have a high volume of one kind of work (traffic, for example) to keep the lights on and then have longer-term cases that are higher-risk, higher-reward or otherwise a long-term investment.

And one of the big problems with clients is billing and collections… It’s easier to find people who want a lawyer than people who want to pay for a lawyer, particularly when they don’t get the result they want. And, at a firm, your “learning curve” time may be written off… how do you handle that when everything you’re doing is for the first time?

Dec 3, 2011 at 8:51 PM

I don’t have a dog in this fight, so to speak. However, the practical realities are evident. Start up and operating capital are the biggest considerations it would seem and right now doesn’t appear to be the best time to engage in the pioneer sort of spirit, particularly when there are so many plowing the same piece of bottom land. However, I won’t dismiss prior conversations about litigating. We both know where the place is that is going to afford you the most opportunity to get in there and fight. The down side is the financial rewards. But the tenaciousness and skills you refine can serve you well on either side of the bar. In the final analysis, it is going to be what your heart tells you to do with that degree and license. If you’re happy and love what you’re doing, you’ll never go to work a day in your life. If the only thing that keeps you going to the office is servicing the debt you’ve accumulated… well.

Dec 10, 2011 at 10:18 AM

Thanks for the feedback y’all, I appreciate it :)

I’m still mulling over things and keeping an open mind. The points re startup capital, billing, etc are particular well-taken and I know that’ll be an issue moving forward. It’s just starting to look like the next best alternative if the DA’s office (currently imploding here in Durham) and the Atty Gen’s office aren’t hiring by Summer 2012 :beatup:

Dec 21, 2011 at 2:43 PM

That implosion may work in your favor.


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