How to start a solo career in law

How to start a solo career in law

Many lawyers think about flying solo at one time or another. Some choose to take a leap of faith while others opt to play it safe. In this article, I cover some of the tough questions I had to ask myself before taking the leap and provide tips for future solo practitioners whether they are currently students, newly qualified lawyers, or experienced lawyers.

A couple of words about me. I went into solo legal practice back in 2015 after I qualified as an English lawyer. Having trained at a top-tier law firm in London, I had the option of continuing to work in private practice or to carve out my own path. Having set up my own IT outsourcing business in 2012 and having built software products used by over 10,000 in 2000, it seemed inevitable that I would do something different from my peers. 

As of this writing, I am in a full-time role that makes use of my legal, management, and technology skills, so I am not running my own legal practice currently. However, since I managed to practice independently for over five years, I believe my experience might help someone who’s apprehensive about “going it alone” to take the leap into solo legal practice with confidence.

Fight or flight?

There were many questions that I asked myself before taking the leap:

  • What will people think if I step away from working with a prestigious law firm?
  • Do I really think I can charge rates that will let me earn a sustainable income?
  • What if I make a mistake and get sued for professional negligence?
  • Will I ever get to work on high caliber matters if I work on my own?
  • Will I be able to manage my clients and their expectations?
  • What makes me think I can do it better than an established law firm which covers all types of operations such as finance and marketing and not just giving legal advice?

Sound familiar?

These are highly complex questions that need serious answers before pursuing the solo route. I did worry about what people would think if I stopped working at a great law firm — that people may think I’m not a real lawyer and that my opinion wouldn’t matter. I wouldn’t doubt that some may have come to that conclusion, but I decided not to let this bother me because I wanted to focus on knowing there were people and businesses out there with real needs that I could support. 

What did my journey look like?

I planned my journey by analyzing the answers to my questions above, organizing the analysis, creating a roadmap, and executing till I was happy with the results. I believe managing risk is incredibly important and future lawyers should always ensure they are performing their work in an ethical and regulation-compliant manner. 

Bearing in mind proper planning and risk management, I took the steps below to boost my confidence and excel in my independent legal career.

Step 1: Building a good reputation

At the beginning, I thought to myself, how could I ever earn enough on my own? I knew I had no visible reputation besides what was on my LinkedIn profile in 2015. So I had to build it through using freelancing services. I started off with a very low hourly rate to get work, and I ended up taking on small fixed-price contracts with an effective hourly rate of under $4 an hour (well below minimum wage in the U.S.!). I did this to build relationships and obtain good feedback.  Once I built a portfolio of at least two ongoing client engagements with occasional short-term contracts, I was able to raise my rates and meet some key clients with this approach. Clients also referred others to me. 

There is no hard and fast rule about how many clients one should have, but the more clients you have, the more diversified your income risk is, the more references you can get, and the more management of clients you have to do. Once your schedule becomes full, you can plan ahead and bid for more work close to when any client engagements may end. After about three months, I was able to sustain my independent practice without worrying about not having enough work to do.

Step 2: Performing higher caliber work

So let’s say you are able to sustain your engagements. Wouldn’t it be more fulfilling if the work was high-caliber? What I learned is that the limits of the caliber depend on continuing to grow a reputation while also excelling in the art of legal practice. It’s hard work whether working in a law firm or independently. 

Larger firms often have the advantage of providing more of the “cutting edge” intellectual work that can be validated by market leading lawyers. But that shouldn’t discourage you from strengthening yourself through continuing education and collaboration with other lawyers.

Step 3: Making peace with being responsible for everything

What’s more challenging than performing legal work is taking on all of the additional responsibilities of an independent lawyer: entering into fair agreements with clients, ensuring proper time tracking, sending invoices, collecting payment, and providing repeat services or finding new business. Let’s also not forget about taxes and complying with legal practice standards. If you’ve decided to go solo, you’d better get on top of everything.

Step 4: Learning to stay organized

What about staying organized with doing the legal work when there are so many other things to do to keep the ship running? I relied a lot on my IT skills in this case — organizing my email inbox, using Microsoft Word and Google Docs and storing files on a secure cloud, creating templates of different types of contracts and adapting them for different business cases, and using tools such as Practical Law and Google generally to find best practice approaches to solving legal issues.

Step 5: Managing risks and progressing

There are numerous guides I read online about running a service. But what taught me the most was setting up my own IT outsourcing business years before I went into independent legal practice. I built my confidence as a business person by simply “trying it out”. I knew that failure was possible, but I didn’t want to give up when the going would get tough. 

What if failure could be the result of making a mistake — legal malpractice, for example? What I did was I researched about obtaining professional liability insurance, and I also contacted legal regulators about how I would run my practice. 

My advice is when in doubt, contact lawyers who provide future solo practitioners with the advice they need to get off the ground and stay sustainable.

Every journey is different, and I have plenty of other tips to share on going solo whether you’re a student, a newly qualified lawyer, or an experienced lawyer.

Tips for students

It’s never too early to start thinking about what you want to do with your career. That noted, law school in the U.S. is well-known as an expensive pursuit. If you have dreams like I have had to be able to make the world a better place, the legal profession is one of many that allows you to make a difference. But the hurdles can be quite high depending on the type of impact. Impactful human rights lawyers that I have met started off working in large corporate law firms. So should you wait before going solo?

Consider the following to help you plan your journey:

  • One’s impact does not have to be defined by whether they could win a case at the Supreme Court of the United States. That’s why you can set the bar wherever you like and take into account “Step 2” of the journey I described earlier. 
  • If you are interested in business and want more of a freelancer’s life getting to set your own hours, then you don’t need to wait to get your legal career going provided that you become qualified to practice law. 
  • Whether you go straight to business or start off in a reputable private practice, and with legaltech becoming commonplace regardless of where you work, it’s never been easier to go into business for yourself — start networking and begin planning your journey towards landing that first client!

The biggest barriers to entry into the legal profession in the U.S. include obtaining the relevant degree from an accredited law school, getting admission to the relevant state bar after passing that state’s bar exam, and gaining experience through practice. Taking into account the cost of law school and the work experience that would benefit your resume, I would recommend pursuing work in an existing private practice for some time before going solo.

Tips for newly qualified lawyers

If you’ve just been admitted to the bar of a state in the U.S. or you’ve become qualified in a jurisdiction elsewhere, you are legally eligible to practice law where you are licensed to practice. 

That noted, bear in mind the following to make your journey to solo practitioner smoother:

  • Be careful not to make yourself out to be qualified in a jurisdiction where you are not.
  • Use appropriate disclaimers and notices to inform your future clients about what you can and cannot advise on. 
  • Let your prospects know and see if you can refer them to someone else if you are not comfortable with the subject matter. 
  • Build relationships with other attorneys who may be able to refer simpler work to you. 

In time, your experience will grow, you will get more comfortable with increasingly complex topics, and working as a solo practitioner will not necessarily hold back how much you can achieve. Your limits will be defined by you alone.

Tips for experienced lawyers

Whether you’ve been in private practice or in-house, it can be daunting to leave a stable full-time career in law working for an employer. I get it. There’s a lot of comfort in knowing the job market recognizes your value because of the firm or company where you work. Good employers provide consistent work and job security, so you wouldn’t have to worry about finding new clients. Leaving all of that security seems unreasonable, right? I believe, however, that all of the power and security rests in your hands if you take control and make it happen. You also have several distinct advantages by being a seasoned lawyer.

Keep the following tips in mind to boost your confidence when taking the leap to fly solo:

  • Take advantage of your extensive practical knowledge in delivering quality legal advice – it’s tried, tested, and relied upon. 
  • Have confidence that your knowledge and experience has been validated by partners or general counsel with reputation and authority in the field. 
  • Combine that confidence with a network of contacts and the ability to move up the independent reputation ladder faster than the competition, making the move to solo much smoother. 
  • If you were used to working with other support professionals such as legal secretaries, paralegals, and contract administrators, then have no fear, there is a wide open pool of talented virtual specialists waiting to support you.

Everything will depend on your willingness to see it through. Believe me, it’s possible – I’ve done it, and so can you. 

Risk and reward

My having a diverse set of skills allowed me to forge a path towards running an independent practice. I encountered many challenges and failures. The risks were often quite high when I had lacked experience in negotiating the right balance between customer satisfaction and self-respect. But it was totally worth it. 

The networks and resources are out there to go solo. If you can manage the risks that come from taking more control over your work, then the risk just may be worth the reward.

Raihan Islam a business and technology consultant who practices English law and advises clients on legal and regulatory risk.

*This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent those of people, institutions or organizations that the author may or may not be associated with in a professional or personal capacity. All information is provided on an as-is basis.

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