I opened my private practice after graduating law school and passing the California bar exam. I made a conscious decision to go solo at the time, and I was going to make it work no matter what. With support of my husband and family, I plunged into the world of a solo practitioner. I learned and grew a lot since that time and would like to provide some advice about choosing to go and remain solo.
The Practice of Law
As a solo practitioner, you do not have a senior partner or a colleague next door to whom you can go and ask questions. And believe me, you will have a lot of them. So what do you do? When I started my private practice, I joined the mentorship program offered by the San Joaquin County Bar Association ("SJCBA"). They paired me up with an experienced lawyer in family law, the area of law I was most passionate about. I was able to ask many questions, but more importantly, I was able to build a relationship with my fellow colleague and member of the local legal community. Throughout the years, I acquired more mentors to learn from and lean on. As a solo practitioner, you should have as many mentors as you can possibly get.
Another area of importance is continuing legal education, especially in your chosen area of law. The State Bar and the SJCBA both offer a wide variety of live and online educational programs throughout the year. It is extremely important to stay current with the law if you want to be a good lawyer.
The Practice of Business
They don't teach business practices in law school. This is something that you have to figure out on your own, or have a mentor to help you with. Decisions you have to make will range from choosing your entity formation to business card design, to budgeting, hiring, firing, and all the good and bad that comes with being in business for yourself. However, the beauty of it all is you get to make your own decisions. The downside? There is no one else to blame for the wrong choice.
To begin your law firm, you will need office space, equipment and furniture, telephone and fax lines, an office management program, supplies, and more. You will need a minimum of two bank accounts: an IOLTA and business operating account. You need to have a firm website and, better yet, build your professional profile on websites like Yelp and Avvo, where potential clients can get information and give reviews about your work.
You will need to decide how to market yourself. Are you going to pay for Google Ads, the telephone book, or the local newspaper? You need to have a bookkeeping system in order to generate your profit and loss statements. And don't forget to get a city license to do business.
The business aspects of your practice will require daily attention and time. You will need to allocate regular time for your business, just as you would allocate time to keep up on the law. It is just as important to be a good business person as it is to be a good lawyer if you want to have successful practice. Your nightstand, iPad, or Kindle should be filled with equal amounts of law and business books.
As a solo practitioner, you need to get out there. It is pretty isolating if you are in the office all by yourself, so you need to socialize with your fellow colleagues as much as you can. You also want them to know who you are and what you do in order to build relationships and get referrals. When I started my law career, I joined the SJCBA and several of its sections. It allowed me to meet and get to know people through a number of events it offers throughout the year. It is intimidating at first, when you don't know anyone in the room, but pretty soon, if you are consistent at getting to know people, you will enter a room full of friends and acquaintances.
If you passionate about a certain cause, volunteer at the organization of your choice. They always need extra help, and they love lawyers. Give back to the community. One such opportunity I have volunteered for is the Lawyers in the Library program offered by the SJCBA. This program allows you to provide legal counsel to community members at large on a monthly basis.
When you work solo, you don't get promoted to a partner, you are your own partner from day one. You don't have fifteen hundred billable hours per year; it's more like 24/7 year-round. You don't get to see your clients' satisfaction survey; you will get that through word of mouth and the amount of business your clients will refer to you if you do a good job for them. It is hard to be a solo practitioner. There will be days that you doubt yourself as a lawyer and a businessperson. However, those will be outshined by the days you will see no limits to what you can achieve as a lawyer and a businessperson. You will look up in the sky and realize that that is the only limit. So, fly high. Fly solo.
Anna Maples is the Chair of the San Joaquin County Bar Association's Women Lawyers Section.