Professor Gary Bauer has been a member of the full-time faculty at WMU-Cooley Law School since 1998. He now teaches Estate Planning to third-year law students and a directed study class he created called Solo By Design. Professor Bauer’s blog, found at sololawyerbydesign.com, provides law students, recent solo practitioners, and seasoned professionals who wish to go solo, with information and resources to be successful in the legal business. This blog was originally published in January 2015.
I have heard, from someone who has experienced tremendous success in solo practice, that the greatest obstacle to your success or failure as an attorney in solo practice is your fear of failure. As I tell students, “You can’t fall off the floor. . . .”
“I am not afraid; I want to work for someone else to get experience before I go solo.” This is a common response. The truth is that your experience will be hard earned. It will not come easily when you are struggling to bill the minimum hours for your employer. Do you really think the experienced principals in your office will be sitting by your side teaching you how to practice law step by step? They are billing at $300 an hour and you are billing at $100 an hour. How much time do you think they will devote at the $100 rate tutoring you? while missing out on their own billables? They can’t double bill. The new reality, even in the large and well financed law firms, is that they are looking for “practice ready” lawyers to populate those firms. Sure, the real large firms will invest time and money in you – but are you graduating in the top of your class and do you think you will land the $160,000 first year job? If not, take a lesson from those who have been down a different road.
This is the new norm – first day for the new associate after being escorted around the office to find the coffee-maker and restroom; “We have a hearing scheduled next week on a motion to dismiss. Here is the file, prepare a response.” So you ask the paralegal for assistance – “Sorry, I am too busy, and I have minimum billables to produce just like you.” You ask for assistance from another junior associate – “Sorry, I have enough trouble meeting my required billables, and besides, I don’t have any more experience than you. Go figure it out.” (To herself, “besides, I am competing against you why should I help you?”) So, you figure it out and do your best and present your work to your superior who proceeds to chew you out. He tells you that, “we got deadlines to meet, get it done and done properly, do it over . . .” You soon find out that you will learn a great deal by osmosis and observing about the culture of the firm. But the substantive law, for the most part, will be gleaned from the practice manuals and research that you do on your own. And once you have a steady paycheck, you begin to acquire a car payment, a house payment, marry and have dependents who need medical insurance. Four years out when you have finally established yourself as a family law attorney with a good reputation and understanding of that area of practice, you are too far in debt to quit and go out on your own. So you look for someone on the outside to partner with you to help you restart and break free of the “rat race” so that you can have time with your family. Let’s hope that your new partner will feel the same work ethic as you and won’t be on the golf course on Friday afternoons when you are completing the brief that is on deadline.
Here is another scenario which I want you to think about. Go solo right out of law school. Keep your overhead low and establish a business plan before you leave law school. I can help you do that in a way that will help you to succeed in the business end of this profession. You will also find out that there is help out there to get you acclimated to the practice principles and tools that you will need to be confident that your lack of experience will not hurt you at all. I call it Solo Lawyer By Design. It is a Blog for law students and recent grads who are going solo. This is a resource for materials, guidance and information from experts and lessons from those who failed so you know what not to do. It may surprise you, but in today’s law firms, you are a solo. If you can’t work independently and develop business contacts, you will not be retained. So if your feet will be held to that fire in a firm, why not fan a fire of your own? Go solo!
But I really believe that you don’t fear failure – you fear success. As I heard Sarah Ostahowski, http://www.ski-law.com, a recent very successful graduate say, “It is your fear that if you are successful and bring in a lot of clients – what do you do with all of them?” And she was right. When a client asks a question and you don’t know the answer – what will you do? Follow my posts and the answer to that question will be made clear.