The “Dirty Dozen” Tips For Solo Success

photo-1441716844725-09cedc13a4e7In 2003, which is an eternity away in terms of technology, I circulated a survey to over 2800 solo practitioners in the state of Michigan in an attempt to determine factors which would predict success in solo practice. Facebook wasn’t launched until 2004, and LinkedIn wasn’t launched until 2003, payphones peaked in 1995 and have been made almost obsolete by 2011.

It was crafted, with the help of analysts, to derive scientifically valid data. It was also very long and tedious for the respondents to complete. It was over 6 pages long with almost 25 questions per page. And, it was all paper based. At that time, Survey Monkey had not matured as it was only founded in 1999. And, I chose to use a paper format as my platform. What is surprising is that, even though it was time-consuming to complete, and it required the time and effort to apply postage to return it, I still got almost 400 of those surveys returned. This tells me a lot about the hearts and souls of this profession. That that many busy souls would take the significant time and effort to share what they learned with others for no personal gain is a tribute to our profession.

In the end, I was unable to find factors that law students possessed which were predictive of success in solo practice later on. None of the factors I assessed stood out or proved to correlate with one another. But, what I did get was a wealth of information shared by those respondents in the “Comments Section” where I asked for their advice on what a new solo should know. With over 600 separate comments, I categorized them as best I could as dealing with various topics, like money management, niche practice, marketing, etc. at the top of the list was money management, which was no surprise to me or any of you out there who have been in practice for any length of time.

What I will do in this blog, and maybe subsequent blogs, is to share some of those comments with you that I found to be repeated again and again, or comments that were novel yet beneficial for any law school graduate. So, in no particular order, here are some of them;


2. Most opportunities don’t come knocking, you have to be ready to make things happen.

3.Remember – every minute of the day contributes to your reputation.

4. Set realistic goals, but be flexible to change course if necessary.

5. Watch your cash flow – in other words, keep overhead and fixed costs low and always have cash reserves. (multiple responses like this)

6. Do not expect to become rich or even very comfortable. (I would dispute this, but I am only the reporter.)

7. Expect a lack of collegiality.

8. Expect to work like hell.

9. In all retained cases, get the money up front, get the money up front, etc., etc. . . . (multiple responses)

10. Forget retirement.

11. Find specific areas of law and become an expert in that area. (multiple responses)

12. Find a working spouse with benefits. (multiple responses)

The good news is that you can “tailor” your practice to do what you like to do and, in time, you will be able to regulate your life in accordance with your own desires., etc. (several like this)

I agree with many of these comments and disagree with some of them. For instance, “forget retirement” is true if you don’t have a solid business plan and execute on it. The respondents could chose to remain anonymous, and many did. I suspect the person who wrote that comment was far along in his or her practice and without good planning found that to be true. However, part of any good business plan is to set aside reserves and a portion of your income as a matter of course. There will be times when it just isn’t there, but there will be times when you feel that you can do no wrong and the cash flow is significant. The key is to balance those time out so that you understand that there will be peaks and valleys and to plan accordingly.

These are a few select comments. Most of the comments were focused on the business and management aspects of running a law office and some very profound. Overall, it was a mixed message about going solo or not going down that path. There were a few who said don’t do it and just as many who were very encouraging. Some of the respondents made numerous suggestions and the sum of those with multiple comments, either good or bad gave me a pretty clear picture of whether they were making it or not. What I would say from the overall picture, is that you can be highly successful or fail miserably in this business. It isn’t the profession or the style of practice that dictates the outcome, it is the person in charge.

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  1. Thanks, Gary, for giving us this blast from the past. I was probably one of the lawyers who took your survey back then.

    There are some great tips that mesh well with what I have learned in 35 years of mostly solo and small firm practice (with some time at legal aid and teaching law full time). Many of these tips are included in the Law Practice Management class I teach at Stetson.

    My favorite tip relates to monitoring cash flow and keeping overhead low. I emphasize that to my law students.

    Lee Rosen talks about a law practice being more of a hobby until you gross a certain amount (I think Lee has gradually moved that monthly gross number upward from around $20,000 to $30,000). He doesn’t mean to demean anyone grossing less, but his point it that you should not consider hiring your first employee until you consistently reach that level. Employees are the most expensive part of “overhead.”

    Living modestly helps. Don’t graduate, pass the Bar, then lease a BMW or Lexus, rent a pricey downtown apartment, rent a fancy office, and buy high-end new furniture just because that is part of being a lawyer. In a year or so, that high-end furniture will belong to the bankruptcy trustee.

  2. I agree! I’m a very new solo but I met with many, many solos in my area for a year prior to making the jump. I was shocked when I saw many didn’t factor matter life cycle, cash flow and client demographics into their business plan (if they had one).

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