As a new graduate from law school, chances are that you will be facing significant debt, unless you were fortunate enough to have a scholarship or worked during law school to reduce your debt. If you are one of those with typical debt, you can avail yourself of loan deference or income-based loan repayment plans. However, those programs do not stop interest from accruing on your overall debt. So, tread lightly when taking advantage of those options.
In my opinion, your best course of action may be to increase your revenue stream by seeking employment and reduce your expenses to pay down those loans as soon as possible. You might even consider going solo right out of law school, and prepare a business plan to generate more income than you would working for someone else.
Can’t go solo right out of law school? Need to work for someone else to “learn how to practice law?” The truth is, that in most firms you will be gaining experience the same way you will gain experience working for yourself. What do I mean? In most law firms, you are not a profit center until you begin to make money for the firm. If the partners or other senior associates are in the back room showing you how to do things, they will be exchanging their $300 per hour time for your $100 per hour billing rate. How much time do you think they have to give away before their billables suffer?
If you want experience, and to start out with individuals to back you up, I recommend you find a shared office space with several solo practitioners. Keep your costs low by asking to occupy a broom closet. Yes, a broom closet! Almost every shared office will have a small, poorly used room that you can occupy. You can meet your clients in the conference room, so they will not see your actual office. Be honest with those running the shared office space. Tell them that you have no money. You only have student debt. Lean on them, negotiate and ask for time for your cash flow to build. Ask for the first two months’ rent to be waived. In return, offer to cover hearings, conduct legal research, file documents, and help your new office mates get their technology updated. Perhaps you’re competent with social media marketing and can help with that as well. You can also research changes in the law that are proposed or have changed recently. Offer to write about it so your new colleagues can distribute it to their existing clients to better inform them and encourage more referrals.
Having a brick-and-mortar office setting is going to produce greater income than if you operate out of your home. If you don’t believe me, check out the annual financial surveys for different states. Also, you will have at your disposal the services and mentoring of your office mates. The truth is that solos own their time, unlike members of a law firm. You will find that your solo office mates will furnish forms, strategies and legal resources that they have acquired during their careers. They will have empathy and relate to your situation, unlike many large firm attorneys. You will probably have a receptionist, copy machine, scanner and a coffee pot where the solos will gather at lunch or at the end of the day, where much of your professional development will build as they share their own experiences. They will keep you centered, and help you understand that the ups and downs you experience are normal. They will give you tips on how to deal with the normal stresses of practice in an ever-changing legal and economic environment.
When I started practicing law in 1988, the costs of opening a practice were quite different. You needed your own law library or access to significant paper-based resources. Publishers allowed you to pay monthly, and they would provide paper supplements which you had to add to your binders—and you had to be careful to supplement them properly or risk malpractice. Now, you may conduct research that is often furnished by your state bar, and Google Scholar gives you additional free research access.
No longer do you need to advertise in the Yellow Pages. So much free social media allows you to reach a much larger and precise audience, and social media is scalable and customizable with a little time and effort on your part.
You can operate in the cloud, having access to all of your documents anywhere you have internet access. In the past, you had to have access to paper files in the office. And access was limited to one person at a time. Not anymore. You can go paperless, and give your clients access to their files through a secure portal. You can use Google Voice to answer your calls, transcribe them to your email or text, and you can read them without listening to a recording while you sit in court. You can vet those messages to determine if they are critical or can wait for a response without interrupting your other activities. You can then answer from your cell phone—not a pay phone—from anywhere seamlessly, and your clients are none the wiser about how you spend your time. Think of it: you can practice without all of the hardware, paper, site location and cumbersome time-keeping that used to be the norm. And you can do it at low cost or no cost, unlike the days when I started practice in the ’80s.
What do you stand to risk going solo right out of law school? You can’t fall off the floor. At this stage in your life, you may have little to risk, and may not be committed to family support, mortgage payments, or other financial obligations that you might incur if you go to work for someone else. Once saddled with those obligations, it may be difficult if you no longer wish to play in someone else’s “sandbox.”
I have heard that lament from other attorneys who left large firm practice to go solo. It’s your choice. But do it with a business plan going forward. Many resources online can help you create a reliable and realistic business plan. You get to choose, if you only take the time to investigate your options and plan ahead. Go out and interview other solos and ask them how they did it. They will help you get grounded and start your practice on a sound financial footing with realistic expectations and goals going forward.
About the Author
Gary Bauer is a professor at WMU Cooley Law School, and is the author of Solo Lawyer by Design, published by the ABA.