Solo Post-Mortem: Seizing Failure

At My Shingle, Carolyn Elefant copies an email on one of her listservs (which I would guess comes from the ABA’s Solosez listserv), which she describes as “one of the best and most objective post-mortem analyses of a solo practice that didn’t quite make it to the finish line.” The first clue that failure was inevitable was that he was engaged with the Solosez listserv, the mother lode of self-perpetuated ignorance about how to achieve success in the law.

The unnamed author started explains how he came to go solo:

I came to solo practice through a wholly voluntary decision to leave a partnership-track position at one of the most prestigious and high-paying  ”white-shoe” firms.  I had a significant pool of savings to draw on as start-up capital and to cover living expenses during the early going.

The reasons for leaving my position were two-fold:  no interest in practicing high-stakes business litigation, and a desire to have more time to spend on family and personal interests. 

Apparently, no one told him times were tough out there. He had a good job, and chose to walk away for personal reasons.  I’m sure the many young unemployed lawyers suffering crushing debt can empathize with his reasons. Who doesn’t want work that fascinates you and plenty of free time?

So the author conducted “market research” and decided to go out on his own.

I planned to practice criminal defense, immigration, civil rights (police and corrections misconduct), and consumer law (debt defense and FDCPA).  My essential plan was to finance contingency civil rights work with revenue from flat-fee criminal, immigration, and consumer work and contingency FDCPA work.  My market research told me that criminal defense would be very competitive and hard to generate business in; however, I had always wanted to do it.  Immigration also appeared competitive based solely on the number of lawyers practicing it; however, because one of [state immigration courts is in smaller city], I anticipated generating business representing individuals from a broader area and so felt the demographics overstated the competitiveness.  My research showed very little competition and a lot of need for civil rights representation and for certain aspects of consumer law (debt defense) but other areas very competitive (FDCPA).

He clearly thought this through, having chosen a variety of interesting practice areas where competent practitioners with experience and well-earned reputations die daily.  The ace in the hole was consumer law, where there is no shortage of need, and no money with which to pay a lawyer.

The transitory solo eventually connected up with a lawprof who hooked him up with a job. But his “insights” from his failed venture make this worthy of discussion.

In retrospect what I would have done differently:  not rented my office ($18,000 in unnecessary rental expenses over 2 years, plus probably $4,000 in gas); turned down a couple clients and required a couple others to pay expenses; done more revision of my web marketing earlier (started to generate lots of leads when it was basically too late to do anything with them as I was already in discussions over this new job).

I have somewhat mixed feelings about leaving the solo life.  It may be that had I stuck it out, somehow, for six months or so, I would have gotten over this hump and begun making ends meet.  It’s also possible I would have been totally insolvent within that same time frame.  My marketing was just starting to work a lot better and I was starting to be appropriately discriminating in what civil rights cases I would consider accepting.

Naturally, the focus immediately shifted to this tale of woe being a clarion call for social media marketing.  Just as every inmate in prison for 20 years knows every trick about winning a case, so too does the failed solo show the path to success. Yet, my takeaway is somewhat different.

First, in an economy where the business of law is in the toilet, the idea of giving up a stable, well-paid job is borderline idiotic.  Did he hate it that much that he was willing to trade poverty for the drudgery of doing work that didn’t interest him? Was more time with his family worth feeding his family?  It smacks of entitlement, a theme that carries over to his next poor choice.

So market research suggests that criminal law is “competitive,” but you “always wanted to do it?”  Practicing law isn’t a game that you want to play, but a responsibility to clients. Did anyone on the Solosez listserv suggest you might want to gain competence before holding yourself out as prepared to take someone’s life into your hands? It’s not about what you want to try, but what you are capable of doing without screwing up someone else’s life.  The good news is that a young lawyer’s interest in being a criminal defense lawyer isn’t much of a reason for anyone to retain him, thus saving poor defendants from a poor lawyer.

In Part II of the story, Carolyn includes what this intrepid solo was doing to market himself as the pall of death descended on his budding solo practice.  The gist is that, had he marketed himself this way from the outset, he wouldn’t be moribund now.

I started a blog on blogger, which I promoted on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.  I wrote substantive content at a rate of 2-3 articles per week.  I also systematically used Twitter to tweet or retweet updates and news relevant to my practice areas.  I targeted local people and attorneys in similar or related practice areas as followers, and went from 200 to over 500 followers.  I also reviewed my presence in various online yellow-pages type sites and found that with respect to many that I had thought I was listed in, I either was not or the information was sparse and not up to date.  I submitted to dozens of listing sites and submitted updated information to others. I created a JDSupra profile and Justia profile, answered Justia and AVVO questions, and linked together my website, online listings (where possible), Q&As, JDSupra profile, and blog.

The saddest, most astounding aspect is the shockingly absurd leap from the silent telephone to the belief that had he “revised” his web marketing earlier, his solo practice might not have failed, as it “started to generate lots of leads.” 

Leads?  You mean people calling and emailing for free advice, to find out how soon you can jump on their case pro bono, to inquire about whether you could do their murder case for $1,000?  Kid, it’s easy to get leads. Any idiot can get people with no money, bad attitudes and lousy cases to call.  That’s what they do after the first ten lawyers whose name they got through personal referrals sent them away. 

I know all about the calls and emails you received. I’ve gotten them for years, and expect that I probably get ten times the number you do.  These aren’t clients. This isn’t the basis of a successful practice. These are the multitudes of sad, angry, poor people who need a lawyer for grievances real or imagined and, just as you think you’re entitled to get what you want, believe themselves entitled to a lawyer, free and easy.

The problem with this leap of expectation is that you weren’t anywhere near having a successful practice with social media marketing.  You got all excited that the phone rang, and misunderstood a live voice on the other side of the line to be a potential basis for a thriving law practice. What you failed to perceive is that the sound you heard was poverty, misery and aggravation, not cha-ching. 

The interest that suddenly came your way was the annoyance that everyone else turned away. And what in the world made you think you would get anything else?  Because you’re the best lawyer in town, without reputation, experience or competence?  Clients would fling themselves at you because you are special?  Get a grip.

Of all the misunderstandings that are reflected in this solo’s post-mortem, the one that demands correction is his expectation that he would not only be able to create a viable practice out of nothing, but that it would allow him work/life balance.  The practice of law is hard. Its demands are unrelenting.  If anybody on Solosez told you that being a successful solo meant having more time to spend with your family, they either have no clue what they’re talking about or lied to you.

Best of luck in your new job. Working for someone else is what you were meant to do.

26 thoughts on “Solo Post-Mortem: Seizing Failure

  1. David Sugerman

    If only I had more Twitter followers and no office, I would have been a solo success. I woulda had work-life balance. Right. I suppose this is a shining example of the merits capitalism….

  2. CM

    I am one of this people you correctly described as borderline idiotic. I left a well paying job for a life in criminal defense and to date it has been a financial disaster. I made a stupid decision and now I’m paying for it huge. On top of the financial stress there is not a day that goes by that I don’t feel like a complete and total failure. Get a steady job? Well I’ve discovered that having “criminal defense lawyer” in my CV doesn’t suddenly catapult you to the front of the hiring list. Yeah I fucked up. Big.

    And just to be clear, I’m not blaming my shitty web-site or lack of social media presence. I am at fault. Me, myself and I.

  3. SHG

    I am sincerely sorry that I wasn’t there to offer you a damn hard smack before you made your decision. I wish you the best of luck, as you’re now in just about the shittiest position possible.

  4. CM

    Unfortunately we tend to focus on how these decisions impact our professional lives. But for me at least financial uncertainty and feelings of failure corrode every nook and cranny of my personal life. My relationship with my wife? Not good. I can’t look at my kids without thinking that I have let them down. When you feel like a loser you don’t really want to hang out with family and friends who ask, “how’s the practice doing?” Of course I just say its going well. Really do I want to tell my parents who are so proud of their lawyer son that really I’m just an anonymous lawyer who can’t get any clients? My dad gets such a kick out of asking me for my business cards so he can hand out to people. He’s my number one fan … but he has no clue.

    [Ed. note: I sent you an email. Call me. SHG]

  5. Dan

    I hear ya, bro. There’s something about our field that makes people think they way you’re thinking. Instead you gotta try to think like a hedge fund manager who had a nice ride, but eventually managed the thing into the ground and lost tons of money, only to start another one a few years later and raise tons of money. Those guys don’t walk around saying I’m such a failure. They walk around saying I’m so awesome, albeit my last venture didn’t perform on the profit-loss paramater that I had hoped for. That’s your attitude- you’re a good lawyer, the financial side didn’t work out.

  6. SHG

    A brave face is great if you’ve got enough money in the bank to keep your family fed, because the kids need to eat every day.  If not, it takes more.

  7. Dan

    I know it definitely takes more, believe me I know, but the feeling of being a failure can make one want to go hide and crawl under a rock where the opportunities to make money are even worse than sitting at a desk staring at the phone or standing outside an arraignment part trying to make eye contact with a sad looking family. Let other people say you’re a failure. Don’t decide it for them.

  8. SHG

    There were a few good souls who stepped up to help. We’re not nearly as mean a bunch as people think.

  9. Speedy

    “Any idiot can get people with no money, bad attitudes and lousy cases to call.”

    We have days like that at the PD’s office– we call ’em “weekdays.”

    Do you think academic training in how to run a business (say at the community college level) would be useful in how to run a solo practice? I ask because my earning potential as a PD will peak relatively soon (too soon, IMHO). On the other hand, I’ve never run so much as a lemonade stand before–if and when I ever make the jump to private practice, I’d like to be as prepared as possible for the business end of things. I’m not sure of the best way to go about doing that.

  10. RTK

    I caught SHG’s comment on this same topic at Lawyerist earlier. I have a bad habit on Lawyerist of checking the comments first before reading the actual posts. So, I actually read the post-mortems, parts I and II, after reading SHG’s remarks and was probably biased.

    When I read Part 2 of the post-mortem, I thought there was a technical issue with the website and that something was missing. For me, the problem was that Carolyn stated, in the header, that the marketing plan “started to work;” yet, there was no indication in the post that this was true. I clicked on the post three times to see if half of it was cut off.

    Overall, I agree that leaving a comfortable job to start your own firm is idiotic, but I’m hoping there are exceptions. And, in my experience so far, these exceptions are purely practical and go well beyond platitudes like “do good work.” They’re more like “be indepdently wealthy” and/or (mostly “and”) bring a bunch of immediately paying clients with you. Jordan Rushie wrote a great post on his blog covering many of these awhile back. I’d say that’s required reading for anyone contemplating going solo. I would link to it here, but another helpful tip when making an idiotic move is to respect appropriately those who’ve done it before you.

  11. SHG

    Yes and no. You need to understand running a business to survive, but the practice of law isn’t a business like others, despite the arguments to the contrary.  While you need to understand profit and loss, cost/benefit and the like, you need also to be guided by our ethical constraints which other business do not.  Lawyers don’t exist to turn a profit, but to serve clients. On the other hand, if we don’t turn a profit, we starve. It’s not easy.

  12. SHG

    Starting a practice can be done, and done successfully. But you didn’t miss anything at Carolyn’s post. There was nothing there to suggest he was any closer to “turning a corner” than before. Getting up to 500 twitter followers does not a successful law practice make. 

    Jordan has written some terrific stuff from his perspective on the ground. There are plenty of other great posts and advice as well. You will find them coming from lawyers who have been there, not social media marketers who talk fast and sweet, but have nothing to say.

  13. Kevin Grierson

    I find it somewhat humorous that you ask for comments to be respectful when your own comments aren’t. Solosez is “the mother lode of self-perpetuated ignorance about how to achieve success in the law”? Wow, I guess we’re all just a bunch of idiots who have no idea how to make a living. Who knew that ad hominem attacks were necessary to success in the law?

  14. SHG

    And your comment certainly does nothing to change my view. You might want to learn what ad hominem means, by the way, so that you don’t spend your entire life looking like a “bunch of idiots.”

  15. Kevin Grierson

    I’m well aware of what ad hominem means. To clarify, I thought your deconstruction of the unfortunate solo was on point, if somewhat unkind. My objection was to your characterization of the Solosez list, which seemed rather gratuitously dismissive. Nowhere in your analysis did I see any reference to any advice given to the solo by a Solosez member, good or bad–did you read any of it? In fact, some list members had pretty much the same reaction to this tale of woe you did.

  16. SHG

    If you’re well aware of what ad hominem means, then you wouldn’t have used it. Now to your more important point: I’ve heard from a great many lawyers who are or were on the solosez listserv, and the stories have been singularly disturbing, that those who embrace the solo agenda, social media marketing and self-serving innovation are loved and appreciated, and those who don’t are shunned and ridiculed for not being a knee-jerk solo cheerleader.

    I am not a member of the solosez listserv and know what I’ve been told over and over by refugees (and even a few of the more thoughtful “involved” people who believe that most of its members are dangerous cheerleaders).  The few people who have had positive things to say about it are not people whose opinions I respect, and who tend to be more concerned with promoting their personal agendas than the welfare of anyone else.

  17. Formerly Solosez

    I was on solosez and it’s a disaster. Sure, there are people who occasionally challenge all the happy bullshit, and all the ass-kissing pretenders tell them to get lost because they’re making them feel bad.

    Who are you kidding, Kevin? It’s all about preaching to the choir.

  18. Happy to meet you

    “The practice of law is hard. It’s demand are unrelenting.”

    Evidently, spelling and grammar are equally challenging for you, sir.

  19. Timothy P. Flynn

    As a partner in a small law firm of 10 attorneys and 15 support staff, if I had to choose between word-of-mouth marketing and social media, I would take the former. Solo or general practice is challenging, with no revenue guarantees.

    The first rule is that you must take care of the clients you have; if you do, then more will come. The internet is and always will be a secondary source; a crap-shoot.

  20. Neutral on Solosez

    Cheerleading is the least of the Solosez listserve’s problems.

    Posters who need to respond to every email with their non-legal related trifles and inanities or pontificate on “important” news stories are the problem.

    They are the ones who routinely get fired from law firms because they come to the office to have a social life and distract everyone from doing what they are supposed to do — serve the client.

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