One question I’ve received a number of times from newly minted attorneys is whether I think it is a good idea to go solo straight out of law school. And, to be entirely honest, it’s something I struggled with myself when I first finished law school. Owning my own practice had been my goal since before I stepped foot into a law school, but I was afraid to enter solo practice straight away. I wanted to develop my legal skills working alongside other attorneys before offering my services to clients. I also worried about making mistakes, about paying off my significant student loans, about having the money to make the practice a success, and about whether I would find any clients. I had known attorneys who had hung their shingle straight out of law school. Each of them had successfully weathered their early years. Still, I wasn’t sure I believed I’d be as successful. My doubts got the better of me and I started my career as an attorney working for a large, international law firm.
Working for a big firm wasn’t so bad either. Indeed, in many ways it was a great gig. In each of my yearly reviews I received what one supervising partner described as “top marks across the board.” I was given significant responsibility; I was trusted to interact directly with clients; I received a steady pay check; and I worked surprisingly reasonable hours (unlike many of my colleagues). Yet, I never felt satisfied with my career. I didn’t like working in the primary practice area I’d been assigned to and I actively questioned whether I actually would ever want to make partner (which I concluded would actually lead to longer hours and less flexibility than I’d had before).
When I left for a boutique firm several years into my career, I thought I’d find greater job satisfaction. It wasn’t so. I was still working for someone else, working on someone else’s cases, and responsible for working on cases and in practice areas that didn’t interest me. Moreover, I had learned little about running a business or marketing to clients. A little over a year later I left to start my own practice.
So, looking back, do I still think I made the right move by beginning my career as an associate at a law firm? It’s hard to say for certain, but I do now believe that solo practice can be a viable route for new attorneys and could have been a viable route for me. The concerns I’d had when I first launched my career – money, mentorship, and marketing – are still valid concerns for any new attorney. Nonetheless, there are certain skills necessary for solo practice (including those related to running a business) that you won’t learn working for a law firm.
Moreover, in my experience, partners and senior associates at law firms (big, small, and everything in between) rarely have time to train the new guy/gal. More importantly, your most valuable lessons will occur in the field. After all, whether you are in solo practice or working at a big firm, you are going to make mistakes. You’ll learn the most when you do make those mistakes. For example, you’ll learn a lot about the practice of law when you stumble your way through your first deposition, the first time you forget to look at the local rules and get a motion tossed out due to technicalities, and every time you’re thrown an unanticipated curve ball by opposing counsel, a client, or judge/mediator.
Ultimately, whether solo practice is the right choice for your career is a question you’ll have to answer for yourself. After all, it isn’t an easy road. There will be tremendous challenges that will confront you. However, it’s also true that you’ll be confronted by many of those challenges regardless of which route you choose for your career or when you decide to enter solo practice. It’s also true that you will already have access to all of the tools you’ll need to succeed.
Are you a solo attorney? If so, we’d love to hear from you. Please share your advice and opinions in the comments section.