In the process of hanging my own shingle, I must have participated in at least 100 informational interviews. The following are the four largest pitfalls I have found for new solos.
Low overhead is critical for any new startup, including a new law office. Many books about soloing will say you need at least one year’s worth of salary saved before hanging your own shingle. For many new lawyers, that is not even close to possible. Many lawyers will say you have to spend money to make money. It is true that opening a solo office does cost some money, but a lot less than you might expect. Technology is your friend and there are a lot of resources at your fingertips. You don’t need Westlaw, or a one-year lease, or a bunch of legal books, or staff. The number-one key to still having your doors open in a year is low overhead.
No matter what you decide to charge per hour or how you decide to structure your fee model, you actually need to bill your clients. You need to keep track of your hours, you need to actually invoice for all of those hours, and you need to track your accounts receivable. I met with many solos who continued to grow their offices, but were so bad about tracking their time that they got busier while their income remained stagnant. I also know younger attorneys who shave hours off their bill. I think this devalues your work, but if you are going to discount your product, at least let the invoice reflect it, so the client knows the value of what you actually provided.
Your own expectations may be a pitfall. It is important to be optimistic when starting a new business, but it is also important to be realistic. You are starting a brand-new small business. Most startups are not successful right out of the gate. New ventures take time to have revenue, let alone profit. Many solos I have talked to told me it took between six months and two years for them to feel financially stable. Even once you hit that point, the nature of a solo office is that your income varies. You have to expect that. You cannot close up shop six months after opening because you are making less than you made before; you’ve got to give it at least one year.
I know young lawyers who swear by informational interviews. For me, it was hit or miss. Some were great and I made connections I now cherish. But many were downright discouraging. Many older solos told me to get a “real job.” You have to know when to take advice with a grain of salt; just because a lawyer is more experienced than you does not mean he or she know the only way to succeed. They don’t know you or your situation. Ask for advice, but don’t let negativity stifle opportunity.