Learning the Business of Being a Lawyer: How I Started My Second-Career Solo Practice

Young female attorney hanging open sign on the door or her new law office

One of the odd things about running a solo practice is that, on occasion, my boss-self needs to sit down and have a conversation with my employee-self about what it takes to meet the firm’s business goals. That will make sense once I give you a little background about how I got to where I am.

Prior to my law career, I was a physical therapist at Swedish Medical Center for 25 years. In 2012, I graduated from Seattle University School of Law and then opened my law practice, Pathway Law PC, the following year.

I went to law school in significant part because I wanted to advocate for the LGBTQ community. After law school, I saw an unmet need to serve LGBTQ seniors, and that has shaped my practice. I set out on my own to be able to advocate in my own way. I have full discretion about how I use my time and what kinds of cases I take on—I get to figure out my own work-life balance. This is important because after my first career in physical therapy, I knew the risk of burning out from productivity quotas in the healthcare arena and I did not want to simply replace one stressor with the same thing in the form of a billable-hour requirement. Of course, I also need to be profitable, hence the times when I have those sit downs with my competing selves.

Solo practice can be a roller coaster, and I periodically revisit this choice. The benefits of having my own practice are that I get to steer my own ship and create my own vision. But I had no prior small-business experience (although in my physical therapy work I had worked in both staff and management roles, which gave me some framework for organizing the professional part of the work).

I have heard many comments about how different physical therapy must be from law practice—that hasn’t been the case. As an elder law attorney my interactions with clients are not so different from when I was a physical therapist: I am still working with people one-on-one to educate, problem solve, and come up with a plan of action (although law practice is easier on my back).

The new territory for me turned out to be learning the business ropes of being a lawyer; the most radical difference between physical therapy and practicing law has been the shift from working for a big institution to being an entrepreneur.

Solo Practice First Steps: Financing and Tapping Into Community

Fortunately, I did not have a high debt burden when I transitioned to the legal profession, but I also did not have much capital to invest. During law school I did not think running my own practice was even a possibility, until I spoke with a practicing attorney at a law school reception who told me about virtual office arrangements. I was thrilled. A virtual office gave me a low-risk way to test the waters. Even now in my sixth year, I continue to run a low overhead practice based on a virtual office contract and a home office.

Getting to where I am now required that I learn business skills from scratch, I found there was a lot of help available. For anyone considering a solo practice, here are some of the resources I have found the most useful.

I have also found that the flow of business seems directly proportional to how much I am getting out and making connections. For instance, I serve on the board of Generations Aging with Pride, an organization dedicated to serving LGBTQ seniors. It is important for me to meet other attorneys, community organizations, potential clients, other affiliated professionals, and LGBTQ groups. As a solo practitioner, one of the biggest lessons I have learned is the absolute importance of being active and visible in the community.

Mentorship has been invaluable and I have found the local community of elder law attorneys to be incredibly collegial and supportive. I post questions on various list serves and often reach out to a few specific small practice attorneys for advice, though I try to spread my questions around so as not to wear out my welcome—and I make a point of helping those who reach out to me. Although I sometimes wish there was another member of my firm down the hall I could turn to, I certainly do not feel alone on this journey.