Welcome to part 3 of this series, which will discuss why going solo could be a lawyer’s best shot at personal satisfaction and financial success. Part 1 of the series discussed financial aspects of becoming a lawyer that anyone thinking about going to law school should read:https://freerangelaw.net/2019/04/30/should-you-go-to-law-school-arguments-for-and-against-part-1-of-4/, and part 2 of the series discussed what it is like to work in the legal profession: https://freerangelaw.net/2019/05/10/should-you-go-to-law-school-arguments-for-and-against-part-2-of-4/.
For some people considering law school, the answer to whether or not they should go may hinge on one question: Whether or not they are willing to start their own small firms after law school, instead of going to work for established firms.
There are plenty of lawyers who found working for traditional firms to be unsatisfactory, but became much happier with their legal careers after going into business for themselves (either going solo or forming small firms with partner attorneys). There are even successful lawyers who started their own firms right out of law school, and never worked for someone else’s firm.
The traditional idea of a successful legal career goes as follows: A fresh law graduate puts all of their energy into getting that first firm job. The bigger the firm, the better. Then, that person must make as much rain as possible, to continually ascend the law firm ladder. Finally, making partner is viewed as the ultimate milestone of success.
Law schools and BigLaw tend to encourage the traditional idea of legal career success. This is because solos are BigLaw’s competition, and are also seen as a threat to the rigid culture of most big firms. Many lawyers are conditioned to believe that small firm entrepreneurs were unable to get or keep jobs at established firms, and are struggling financially.
However, according to Martindale-Hubbell’s 2018 Attorney Compensation Report; the median annual income for solo lawyers and small firm lawyers was $148,000.00. The average annual income for the same groups was $198,000.00, suggesting that top earning solos and smalls were earning much higher amounts. Not too shabby. And, these numbers look much better than most of the overall median salaries for attorneys in most practice areas that I went over in part 1 of this series. The report surveyed 6,902 U.S. attorneys practicing full-time, in over two dozen practice areas.
Furthermore, being your own boss allows you a great deal of autonomy in making decisions about your own career and work life, whereas big decisions would be made for you if you worked for someone else. When you are a self-employed lawyer; you can choose your practice area, your clients, your work hours and how many cases you will accept, and the culture and mission statement of your law firm. Of course, you will be subject to the demands of your work and of your clients, as is the case with any business. But you will enjoy far greater autonomy than a big firm associate will.
Diversity and opportunity:
Additionally, being self-employed as a lawyer could give you better career opportunities than working for a large firm. According to the National Association for Law Placement’s 2018 Report on Diversity in U.S. Law Firms, equity partners in multi-tier law firms are still mostly white and male. Women made up only 18.7% of such equity partners, while racial and ethnic minorities made up just 6.1%. These numbers are very slow to increase.
According to MyShingle.com, 12 of the 19 black women who won Harris County judgeships in 2018 were law firm owners – which demonstrates the empowerment inherent in entrepreneurship, as opposed to being unfairly overlooked in big law firms.
Finally, also according to MyShingle; Freedom Law, P.C., a small, woman-owned law firm in Eastpointe, Michigan; allows their employees to take new babies with them to work until they are six months old. The rule applies to all levels of employees – not just the lawyers – as well as to both mothers and fathers. This shows the potential for changing law firm cultures when diverse lawyers are making workplace rules, and how powerful and life-changing it truly can be to decide how your own business will operate.
If you embark upon becoming a solo lawyer, remember that you will first need to find a mentor. You will need to learn the ropes of law practice, and law school will not teach you that. You will likely need to do grunt work for not very much money for a senior attorney for years. Just don’t get taken advantage of, and make sure that you are actually learning good stuff from them for the work you are putting in. You will likely have to live simply and might not make much on a regular basis in your early years, but your sacrifices early on can pay off quite well later on if you become successful.
When you are in practice for yourself, you must hustle hard and often for business. This is true in any business, including law. There is a lot of lawyer competition out there. At the same time, there are also always plenty of people getting divorced, committing crimes, getting hurt at work, having disputes with their employers, having disputes with their landlords or tenants or neighbors, being negligent and accidentally hurting someone else, dying and having their heirs fight over their estate, and more. People are pretty darn good at getting into trouble, and when they do, they will often need legal representation. If you can be there to get their business and make them like you enough to want to work with you, there is a steady supply of work out there for you.
Keep in mind, though, that going solo is not an automatic path to success. You must be able to both practice law and run a business, and much of your success will depend on your doing both of those things well. Many mediocre attorneys succeed in business because they market themselves well, and many good attorneys do not succeed in business because they do not market themselves well. Entrepreneurship, like anything with a high potential payoff, is always a risk.
If you are sure that the law is for you and that you have what it takes to run your own firm, you could become successful as a solo. With a good combination of lots of hard work and luck, you will become profitable soon enough to pay off your debt before it becomes so big that you may not be able to catch up. You decide whether to take that gamble.
Stay tuned for the next part of this series, where I will discuss alternative careers in the law to being a lawyer which can pay well, do not require a law degree, and have low barriers to entry.
As always, dear readers, thank you for following me. I hope you enjoyed this, and learned something valuable.
** Got a legal subject or question you are curious about? Email it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Your question may be discussed in a future blog post!
Please note that the above is offered for educational purposes, and as a means of encouraging intellectual curiosity about the law. The information presented may not take into account every exception, variation, or complication which could apply to someone’s legal matters. Accordingly, nothing in this post or blog is ever intended as, nor should be construed by or relied upon by anyone, as legal advice. If you need legal advice, please consult an attorney who can give you assistance specific to your needs.