Work + Growth

A (Very) Brief Survival Guide for the Solo Lawyer

  • Being a solo lawyer means you’re also a small business owner and must plan accordingly
  • Your network is your most valuable asset for finding new business
  • Specializing in a niche practice area might be challenging early on, but it’s key to long-term success

Maybe you can’t handle another day working for that cruel partner who seems to delight in your failure.

Maybe your circumstances have changed, and more flexibility has become necessary. Or maybe you saw the recent Attorney Compensation Report that revealed solo lawyers make a median income of $148,000 and your interest was piqued.

Whatever the reason, becoming a solo practitioner is an appealing option for many lawyers. Those who work alone are fortunate to be able to take on only the clients they want and generally set their own schedules, but also face a host of challenges their counterparts at larger firms don’t have to worry about.

Your success as a solo lawyer really comes down to whether you can project, promote, and prove your expertise. Here’s what you need to know to make it on your own.

Budget, Budget, Budget

Before you venture out on your own, make sure you have a full understanding of your finances and how much you really need to make in order to stay afloat. Calculate how much you spend on as many expenses as you can think of—your mortgage, your car payments, your groceries, and so on. Then, add 30% to that (to account for taxes), and you’ll have a rough estimate of how much you need to make in a year. Financial calculations can be complex, so some solo practitioners hire CPAs to help them out, which might be worth considering.

Going Solo = Becoming a Business Owner

Remember that law is still a business. And when you own and operate your own law practice, you’re really also owning and operating a small business. As such, you’re no longer just in charge of the day-to-day elements of being a lawyer. You have to handle billing, you have to get your own malpractice insurance … heck, you even have to fix the printer when it jams. If becoming a solo practitioner is where your career is headed, you’ll need to make sure you’re prepared to handle all elements of your business, not just the hours of billable work.

Make Marketing a Priority

Similar to that last point, when you’re on your own you also have to handle your own marketing. And when you’re just starting out as a solo lawyer, marketing is extraordinarily important. This means you’re in charge of defining your brand, setting up your website, and taking care of details such as making sure you’ve got custom stationary and your own business cards. You’ll likely need to bolster your online presence with content like blogs and social media posts, too, which takes time and effort. In short, don’t underestimate the value of marketing, no matter how skilled a lawyer you might be.

Leverage Your Network

Your network is extremely valuable for finding business. Think beyond just your friends and family, and focus on those you know who operate in a space relevant to the type of law you practice. Doctors, realtors, and other small business owners you know might be able to refer clients your way, for example. You also shouldn’t overlook any social or civic organizations you belong to as places where you might find business. Be sure to thank anyone who refers clients to you; a gift card and handwritten note go a long way.

How’s networking going for you? Do you believe you’re using it effectively to find business?

Resist the Urge to Avoid Specializing

At first, it might feel like any business that comes your way is worth taking on. After all, you’ve calculated a figure that you need to hit by the end of the year in order to cover your cost of living. Long term, however, it tends to benefit solo lawyers to specialize. There are many reasons for this, but chief among them is that specializing in a niche area allows you to quickly earn a reputation as an expert. When you specialize, your community becomes more defined, which helps you zero in on new business. It doesn’t hurt that specializing makes marketing your practice simpler, too.