10 Things Learned From 1 Year In Solo Practice

OK, the title is a bit misleading. I’ll try to focus on things that I learned in this first year of private practice (October 1 Anniversary), but I’ll often bleed into the 7 years of non-private practice before. It all gets blended for me. Much of it addresses the Criminal Defense Lawyer (CDL) community, and may seem a bit foreign to our expensive-suit-wearing corporate brethren. Deal with it. Wear whatever shoes fit, even the cheap ones from Payless.

Some of it will be about business aspects. Some will be about the pure practice of law. Ultimately, I’ll type whatever the voices in my head tell me to write. I may amend this post from time-to-time if the voices forgot something.

Here goes.

1. While being a lawyer may not be inherently blue collar, practice like it is.

Let’s get this first point out of the way right off the bat. It may make a few of you cringe, or pissed.

You know what separates you from your clients? Circumstance.

I am fortunate that my parents loved me, stayed married, served healthy meals, attended youth sporting events, allowed me to participate in Boy Scouts, and talked to me about a lot of difficult subjects. They weren’t overly rigid, but they weren’t excessively permissive either. Our annual income flirted along low income lines, but they made it go a long way. I’m lucky. Most of you are similar to me, or better. Those of you who faced a few pitfalls either had support in overcoming them or possessed amazing will and tenacity.

Most of our clients lacked the upbringing or resilience many of us take for granted. They’ve faltered. They are still faltering. They may continue to falter for years-to-come. This doesn’t make us better than them. We’re just different.

These “different” people are trusting in you and hoping that you can help them out of their latest pothole. Work hard for them. Get bloody and battered. Don’t advocate a cheap deal if you know the case stands a decent shot at trial.

To truly understand your client and their case, you must work hard and subject yourself to work that is decidedly unsexy. It gets you grimy. Your bones ache at the end of the day. Learn to love it, or get out of the profession.

2. Lots of people remember to have 6 months of expenses saved before starting, but few remember to save at least 12 months of patience.

You’ll plan your new business. You have your tax estimate, your phones working, your internet communicating, and your files waiting to be filled. Then, the day comes when you flip the switch, the website goes live, and your name is out there.

Then, silence.

You wait for the phone to ring.

You wait more.

Still more waiting.

Ring!

Damn, wrong number.

Ring!

“Um, I don’t need plywood insurance today. Maybe later.”

Ring!

“Oh hi. Yes, I am a lawyer! Sure, I’m interested in your situation!” Pause. “I’m sorry, did you just say that government agents kidnapped you and stole your ovaries?”

Ring!

“Sorry, I don’t practice buffalo husbandry law in Wyoming.”

Ring!

“No, I still don’t think I can help get your ovaries back from the government.” Pause. “Wait, what? You’re a man?”

Get ready for it. For every legit call you receive, you’ll get twenty of these. Some will be wackos who find you sterling internet page. Some will be folks who’ve been spurned by all the established lawyers in town and now have a fresh face to try. We all get them, but the frustration caused by them is huge. In time, they become less and less.

Just remember to not freak when the phone doesn’t ring for awhile (or doesn’t have quality rings). Law is a cumulative profession. You gain clients, and you maintain those clients for several months, or perhaps years. Eventually, getting that one or two clients a month will keep your practice humming and successful. You just need patience.

Don’t freak-out and start calling people who market themselves as “consultants” or “gurus.” You know just as much as they do. You’re just as smart as they are–I promise you. They feed upon your lack of patience. Have patience.

Patience, patience, patience.

3. You haven’t earned the BMW. You may never earn the BMW. Ungodly debt for the BMW is stupid.

Don’t expect to earn a BMW in your first year. Or second. Or third. In fact, you may never actually earn it.

I told you that you should treat your law practice as though it were blue collar. Well, I hate to break it to you, but the pay can be decidedly blue collar, too. And, I’m not talking the “I’ve got the UAW getting me PAID” kind of blue collar pay. I’m talking about the “I’m waiting on the street at Day Labor, Inc. for a guy in a moving van to hire me to pack his truck” kind of blue collar pay.

You see lawyers wearing custom-tailored suits, driving BMWs, and living in fabulous gated communities.

You can’t afford this (unless you’ve got a trust fund fit for a king), and you may not afford it for a long time.

Don’t try to get it before it is time.

First, you don’t need it. You need to get where you need to go (many automobiles (even *gasp* used ones) can do this). I drive to cases in a Nissan Freaking Versa (yes, I had the dealer add the special “freaking” package). You need to look presentable and professional (your local JC Penney can do this (St. John’s Bay in the hizzouse!)). And, you need a decent place to live, cook meals, sleep, and hang with the family (if you have one). This does not require a McMansion, a swimming pool, or a personal tanning bed.

You may establish yourself as a legal force in your community and command a never-ending line of clientele’ in time. If you do, great. Use your hard-earned profits as you see fit. If not, live within your means. It ain’t that bad. Really. Trust me when I say that debt is worse than living modestly.

Whatever you do, do NOT go $80K in the hole for a BMW (bad, bad debt) and charge thousands of dollars on the Bevis Bank Credit Card for custom suits from some guy named Emil (really, really, really bad debt). You’ll be rolling in style and snappily dressed, but suffering from debt stress the whole time. It ain’t worth it.

4. Can you practice law after a huge bolt of lightning strikes your office?

True. I type all my legal documents on a computer. They are all backed-up safely and securely just in case my office disintegrates for one reason or another. At the same time, if lightning strikes, I can still practice law. I did it just the other day. I sat near a window writing a brief on a legal pad using my paper file for reference. Later, I typed it into the computer. In a pinch, I could have busted-out the typewriter. Either way, the system works (will work) fine. Your system should, too.

Technology and connectivity is not an excuse to procrastinate. Always submit matters in enough time for first class mail to arrive.

5. Blogging is great if you like to write. Blogging is stupid if used for marketing.

At first, I saw the oodles of advice out there saying that a blog was an essential marketing tool. I am embarrassed to admit that I bought this for a few weeks back in mid-2010. Since then, I’ve done it for the sole purpose of writing for the love of writing, and subjecting myself to the best type of criticism–peer review.

I’ve taken steps to divorce this blog from my practice, and I like it better that way.

I’ve never had a potential client contact me because of my blog, and that’s just fine with me.

For me, it is nice to write something that is not a motion, brief, or other paper to be submitted to opposing party or judges. This is my stress relief, and my amusement.

Blogs done for the purpose of marketing look bad, are obviously disingenuous, and do nothing helpful for your practice.

On a similar note, don’t scrape other blogs for posts. Perhaps you don’t believe me on this one. Perhaps you think “Hey, it’s all out there in the open. I’m just going to do it. Stupid bloggers aren’t going to do anything about it.” Au contraire! They are waiting for you. They will destroy you. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Similarly, don’t place promotional comments on blogs or send spam email in order to gain precious Search Engine Optimization. Just wait until your spam comment/email hits Popehat. You won’t like it, but I’ll be amused. Plus, SEO is the most overrated concept since the Epilady, and, once you get that SEO you so desperately craved, the pain feels the same.

Just remember, blogs do nothing for your practice. They are like nipples on a man. Lots of fun for some people, but otherwise useless.

6. Find a mentor. Be genuine with them. Call them just because.

A lot of more seasoned lawyers out there want to help you, and they care about you. They’ve worked hard to build their practice and contribute positively to the legal community. They’d like to see the fruits of their labors continue into the next generation. They might seem grumpy, unhappy, and in need of Geritol, but they actually appreciate when they see someone from the next generation who gives a damn about doing the right thing.

Great mentors have been doing this law thing for more than 10 years (20 even better). 5-10? Well, they are OK, but they are really just experienced peers. Under 5? Worthless as mentors. Zero. None. Nada. They still haven’t found the bathroom in the courthouse. I know. I was there. It applied to me. (NOTE: Law School years do not count toward legal experience.)

The burden of gaining mentors is on you.

Meet mentors. Tell them who you are. Tell them what you do. Be honest. Then listen. Call them for no particular reason. Then listen. They don’t tell you things just to hear themselves talk. They’re past that narcissistic point in life. They want to give you something that will help you. Take it. Thank them for it.

Then, send them something for the holidays.

7. Technology is cool, but be real about it.

See that old Dell box sitting under your desk. Yeah, the one mommy and daddy bought for you in 2005 when you started law school. It’s just fine. You can still surf the internet, write word documents, and compose emails. Wow, that means it does everything you need it to do to practice law. Congrats.

What’s that you say? Windows XP is getting really slow and bogged-down? I understand. I have a solution. It is called Ubuntu (a Linux-based system). It is free. It can do the three things I talked about above. Did I mention that it’s free?

Sure, you may feel more comfortable buying a new computer. If so, fine, but don’t go overboard. And, don’t listen to the people who say that you need the latest Faberge’ 3000 Computer Luxury Center, a gold-plated iPhone, and an ethernet port surgically implanted 2 inches above your asshole. Those are all luxuries (even the ethernet port).

Here’s my guidance, if you’re looking on the cheap (which is good enough):

  • Old Dell Computer: $0 (it cost mom and dad thousands a few years ago, suckers)
  • Ubuntu: Free
  • Phone: Virgin Mobile Samsung Intercept, $99 with no contract (yeah, Android, too. I’m generous today.)
  • Phone Plan: $55 per month for unlimited data, texting, and minutes. Yeah, unlimited. (It piggybacks on the Sprint network.)
  • Printer: At least $300. Pay for a decent printer. Laser. If you don’t, you’ll have to kick your own ass. You can cut corners on almost everything else, but not this. If you go cheap on the printer, you’ll pay more in the long-run. Get quality.

Be real. Be simple. Don’t go overboard. Use it as a helper, not a centerpiece. Don’t allow your life and livelihood to depend on it. You’ll thank me for this.

8. Online branding is bullshit. Your professional reputation, abilities, and work ethic are everything, and they will carry you.

This requires no comment. If you need further explanation, you probably should seek other employment.

9. Intentionally Left Blank

10. People love lists that have round numbers–like 10.

Advertisements

7 thoughts on “10 Things Learned From 1 Year In Solo Practice

  1. I got a UAW card when I was in college and asked by the UAW to go to their secret luxury retreat in Black Lake, Michigan. I was sworn to secrecy, so I can’t tell you about it or I’ll have to kill you. But they had no computers there.

    In my first year of practice, I ignored the UAW card burning a hole in my pocket. Eventually, it expired. If I had only read this 30 years ago,

    That said, I note your use of the phrase, “be genuine” with mentors. This is a very fashion-forward phrase, as opposed to the old school “be yourself” or “be real.” Are people who are “genuine” more likely to have ethernet ports 2 inches above their asshole? Does that interfere with their tramp stamp?

    This is important as I’m considering whether to get my first tattoo and would have for it to interfere with my ethernet port.

    1. Come on, you’re a smart guy. Just make the tattoo work harmoniously with the ethernet port. Sure, this may cause you to abandon your dreams of the butterfly tramp stamp, but consider the following (and I know that you are just as smart as this fine gentleman (woman?)):
      Cat Tattoo

  2. This is wonderful advice. I’ve been in practice for twenty-seven years. Its a sad and sorry thing to read about lawyers who misrepresent themselves as having experience in every area, when in reality they know nothing about anything. I didn’t agree with Warren Burger on much; I do agree that advertising is disasterous for the profession.

    Good for you for holding to the true ideals of the law.

    At the beginning of my careeer I was a solo criminal defense attorney. As long as the folks in the jail and the courts knew my name, that was enough for me. You’re so right about doing good work to build up a good name.

    The only thing that I would add is, if you are practing criminal defense, don’t undercharge and get your money upfront.

    All the best to you. Our profession needs more like you!

  3. P.S. There is one more piece of advice I’d like to share, which was given me by my mother (also an attorney) at the start of my career:

    Don’t be one of those “I’m an attorney; you’re not!” types who are rude and curt to secretaries and clerks and court personnel. Those personnel often know more than you’ll ever know about things, and they can save your rear end if they like you, and you’re friends with them.

    My mother was a wonderful, wise, woman.

    All the best,

    1. Thanks Sir, I appreciate the comments.

      As for office/court personnel, thanks for mentioning that. I couldn’t possibly treat them badly. They outrank me.

  4. This is great advice. I’ve recently decided to go solo in criminal defense as well, and am often dealing with many of the issues from the list. Very cool.

Comments are closed.