Flying Solo: Five Key Lessons I Learned From Starting My Own Practice

By JONNA SPILBOR

Tuesday, Jul. 22, 2008

It may sound strange to say my solo practice was born by accident, but it’s true.

I do not mean to imply that one day I simply landed in my new office space -- in much the same way John Cusack’s character was suddenly spit out onto the New Jersey Turnpike in the film “Being John Malkovich.” My story, however, is not that far off from that scenario.

Lesson #1: Going Solo Has a Huge Upside, and a Lot of Downside Risk

My journey began with the decision to leave the safety and stability of the small firm in which I was six short months away from becoming a partner, so that I could do what virtually every other lawyer who leaves a firm desires to do: make more money.

Actually, in my case, it was a matter of wanting to keep more of the money I already made. As an “Of Counsel” member of my previous firm, I knew that a whopping sixty percent of all the fees I earned were kept by the firm. Doing the math, I determined that I could increase my income by as much as forty percent if I became captain of my own ship, so to speak.

To accomplish this goal quickly (and to keep startup costs low), I sought, and found, a fellow attorney who had been on his own for quite a while and who, like me, was ready to grow. Just like that, a partnership was born!

Or, so I thought.

Together, my future law partner and I did all the things a responsible professional partnership does. We formed a corporation, retained an accountant, entered into office equipment contracts, fought long and hard for particular phone numbers, went over-budget on a logo and letterhead designs, registered domain names for our new website, and ultimately, found ideal space with incredible Hudson River views. Everything was falling into place.

The only thing left to do, before we could open the doors for business, was to sign a – gulp -- five-year lease. Unfortunately, the day before we were scheduled to plunk down a big check and sign on the dotted line, my prospective partner pulled the plug, completely and unexpectedly.

“I’m sorry. I can’t do this. Don’t hate me,” he said.

I felt like a bride about to be left at the altar. Or, like Carrie Bradshaw getting broken up with a brief message on a Post-It note.

My shock literally made his words sound as if they were spilling from his mouth in slow motion.

“What do you mean ‘you can’t do this’?” I queried, half thinking he was playing a practical joke. He repeated the phrase again, confirming that I indeed heard it right the first time.

Lesson #2: Location, Location, Location

I left that meeting with a big decision laid out before me: Do I scrap the whole idea, cut my financial losses, and go back to my old firm with my tail between my legs? Or, do I go it alone and hope I can keep my head above water all by myself?

As an added bonus, I had less than 24 hours to make what would in all likelihood be a life-altering decision.

The thought running through my head most frequentlly was how much I did not want to relinquish the office space I had found. With its proximity to the train station, the courthouses, local businesses, and a very popular restaurant that was situated directly downstairs with a six-figure advertising budget, I knew that my office would receive high visibility and traffic.

Then there was the view.

From every square inch of my suite, there is an unfettered view of the Hudson River. Not only does the view provide a beautiful landscape for me, my staff and my clients, but it impresses all who grace my floor. I embraced this view, and recognized its immeasurable value. In the legal profession, image is not merely important, it’s key. You wouldn’t want your high-priced lawyer (and what lawyer isn’t high-priced?) tooling up to represent you in court wearing a tattered suit and driving a three-hubcapped jalopy, would you?

In a word, the space was perfect. So perfect, I knew it would not continue to be available in six weeks, or six months or however long it would take me to find another suitable partner.

Thus, the next morning, I stepped across the threshold of what was to be my new, solo firm, took a deep breath, and with a smile hiding every bit of nervousness I felt, I politely asked the owner to scratch my partner’s name (and our firm’s name) off the lease and replace it with my own. He did so without question. After that, I wrote a big fat check by myself, shook his hand, and prayed I’d be able to afford the next month’s rent!

Lesson #3: Budgets Were Made To Be Broken

I’m not going to lie to you. Opening a solo law practice is no cheap task.

Aside from the cost of renting (or buying) space, to do it right, there are many other costs to budget. For instance, in my experience, the single most important aspect to running a successful solo practice, is a good legal assistant, and to hire someone skilled, it’s necessary to pay a respectable, competitive salary.

Even as a solo practitioner, or perhaps especially as a solo practitioner, it is vital to have an assistant. Being a lawyer is a very hands-on profession and as such, most clients do not want to feel as though their attorney is merely a recorded voice on a lonely answering machine. When the phone rings during business hours, clients expect and appreciate a live, well-informed voice at the other end.

Solos like me who litigate are away from the office quite often. Court commitments can be very time-consuming. And an assistant is necessary to handle the business end of running a law firm – including receiving fees and making appointments for potential new clients.

In addition to a live body to help run the joint, a solo needs essentially the same office equipment as his or her bigger brethren. My commercial copier, for example, does everything but make me coffee. It faxes, copies, collates, prints, scans, and keeps track of who is copying what for billing purposes. Fortunately, much like an expensive BMW, it’s leased, which means that I did not have to outlay the thousands of dollars that would have been needed to buy it right away.

There are times when a solo has to be two places at once. Getting really good at time management will help, but based on the nature of the legal profession (you can’t always predict when a client is going to get arrested, for example), it is never completely avoidable.

Lesson #4: Leap, and the Net Will Appear

There are also perks of going solo.

For one, I get to create a space that’s untraditional. I am a woman, and proud to have one of the few women-owned law firms in my area. I’m also the head honcho, and as such, I was able to bring my own flair to my space. My law office is, well, pretty. The walls actually have color on them. The décor is tasteful, professional, and understatedly feminine. Heck, even the coffee cups get noticed.

I couldn’t resist one small splurge. My conference table is actually a pool table with a custom-built cover on it. I realize it may sound very “Ally McBeal-ish” and, sure, I could have found a regular conference table for less money. But, I justified this decision by waiting to buy the pool-table table until after my first client walked through the door. I guess you could say, I earned it.

More generally, I followed the philosophy of “Earn, then buy.” Especially after losing a partner at the last minute, I quickly learned to spread my expenses out to the greatest extent possible. After my assistant’s salary, computers a phone, a couple of client chairs and a box of pens (so that clients could actually sign their fee agreements – and their declarations for pleadings), I slowly purchased the rest of the pieces necessary as the money started coming in.

Lesson #5: Look Far and Wide for Referrals, and Be Prepared to Expand Your Expertise

And by the way, the money did start coming in.

In addition to a handful of clients who opted to follow me to my new firm, I began acquiring new clients nearly right away by tapping into my established network of colleagues – including other lawyers of course, as well as realtors, business owners, friends, and friends of friends, the UPS guy, the parking lot attendant and the baristas at Starbucks! In other words, I picked up the phone to call, had a face-to-face conversation with, or sent an email to just about every person I know to announce the news that I had not only changed firms, but that I was on my own. Almost immediately, I began receiving client referrals. In the legal profession, word-of-mouth is often an effective form of rainmaking.

With my cheap but effective advertising method in place, I also expanded what I do. When you are a solo, clients will come to you for all of their legal concerns. A client who gets arrested on Wednesday may be getting divorced on Friday and, in my experience, will look to an attorney they trust – you – to handle it all. Expanding your areas of expertise before you take the solo leap will increase your bottom line. It has for me.

As I sit here barely six months from my firm’s humble beginnings, I like to think I turned the lemon of losing a partner at the last minute, into a truly unique law firm. There are days when I truly wish I had a clone, more sleep, or a stronger cup of coffee, but all in all, I manage to keep my clients happy, and that makes it all worthwhile.


Jonna M. Spilbor is an attorney and legal analyst on "Kelly's Court", airing daily on the Fox News Channel. Jonna is also the host of a call-in radio show Thursdays on WPDH FM, and a frequent guest commentator on MSNBC, Court-TV and other television news networks, where she has covered many of the nation's high-profile criminal trials. In the courtroom, she has handled hundreds of cases as a criminal defense attorney, and also served in the San Diego City Attorney's Office, Criminal Division, and the Office of the United States Attorney in the Drug Task Force and Appellate units. In 1998, she earned certification as a Court Appointed Special Advocate with the San Diego Juvenile Court. She is a graduate of Thomas Jefferson School of Law, where she was a member of the Law Review.



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