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.