The Ups and Downs of Starting Your Own Law Practice

Going it alone ain’t easy.

For a lawyer who’s thinking about striking out on their own and starting a firm, there are naturally pros and cons. You gain more autonomy in how you practice, but lose the structure of an established firm. You get to choose how you run your business, but you also take on more risk.

In Washington, a significant portion, 44 percent, of WSBA members are either solo practitioners or part of a small firm, but are still in the minority. According to a 2020 survey of small firms, lawyers reported spending only 56 percent of their time practicing law compared to administrative tasks, which was down from 60 percent a few years prior. Yet, in the same survey, 88 percent of those lawyers said they consider their firms to be successful or very successful.

Despite continuing and growing challenges for small firm lawyers, an overwhelming 88% of survey respondents in the report say they currently consider their firms to be either successful or very successful. And firms also are optimistic about the prospects for continued growth, with a majority of lawyers saying they expect increased demand for legal services, and growing revenues and profits over both the next year and the next three years.

The risk is real, but so is the allure. For Sart Rowe, the allure was enough to inspire him to open a small practice. Rowe opened Inclusive Law—which covered housing, family law, and intellectual property law—becoming its executive director and picking up insights along the way. Read on to learn from Rowe’s experience. To learn more from Rowe and others who started their own firms, register for the Feb. 24 MentorLink Mixer.

What most surprised you about starting your own practice?

Two things: the need for outreach and marketing—and this was during the plague. Law school doesn’t teach anything about outreach or marketing. The amount of individuals and connections you can find online by contributing positively to communities was extremely important.

Also the value of having an accountant. I thought that I could do the books. I’m not bad at math, but hiring an accountant to keep everything in order saved me huge amounts of time.

If you could go back in time and give yourself one piece of advice about starting a practice, what would you say?

Pick up the accountant as soon as possible. Additionally, find a way to manage having a part time legal assistant that is helping you out on billable work. You can be so much more efficient with one other person, even if they’re just part time.

For someone on the fence about starting a practice, what do you believe is the biggest downside and what is the biggest benefit they should consider before making a decision?

The biggest downside is that you are alone initially and you need to surround yourself with a bunch of individuals that will help you out. Create community. Find those connections. The incubator program through Seattle U was extremely useful. Reading groups or online groups related to being a small firm helped with community. So it is a bit isolating.

The biggest positive, though, is that you have a lot more discretion in your cases; you have a lot more opportunity to do the things that you are really passionate about. And you have the ability to say no to things that are outside of that scope.

What type of person/lawyer do you think would do best striking out on their own? Similarly, is there anyone for whom going solo might not be a great option?

You’ve really got to be motivated. Your time management, your ability to track projects, to prioritize, is extremely important. If you have not invested a significant amount of time in learning how to do basic project management, how to get things done, how to prioritize, I recommend reading books like Getting Things Done. The time management aspect of it is so important. If you need someone to kind of direct, keep you on track, give you constant feedback, it’s not a good idea—or you need to create a peer set or go out with somebody else who has that other skill.

After successfully starting a practice, what is the key to maintaining that success?

Keys to maintaining success are learning when to say no and constantly reevaluating what is working and improving the processes. I did leave small practice because I love creating systems that work for individuals, and I’m now in a firm at 20 people running the tech and doing legal stuff. In that particular environment through a lot of the things that I learned from small practice are extremely relevant. How to optimize systems and make them better for everyone interacting with the system.

So good luck starting your own small practice. Wish you the best.