As one Seattle attorney told me, “I took a job at [Firm X] with the belief that I would be able to originate my own clients, which [didn’t] pan out due to conflicts of interest. Meanwhile, an old colleague urged me to simply go solo. I recall talking to him on the phone while looking 27 stories down to the street below, thinking that, to go solo, I’d truly be making a leap of faith. I took his advice, feeling all the time like I’d actually jumped out my window. However, I secured my first big client within 50 minutes of giving notice and have been happy ever since.”
Leaving the security of a law firm and the benefits it can offer (a well-known name, steady work, regular paycheck, office support, infrastructure, health insurance, etc.), is truly a leap of faith. As stated by Tacoma attorney Sarah L. Small Point-Du-Jour, who opened her solo real estate practice, SPDJ Law, Inc., PS., this January, “It takes determination. You’re on your own, and you have to do all of it.”
Sarah looks forward to life as a new solo practitioner, stating, “Steering your own course is kind of freeing.” Starting a small business is a risky venture. Why do attorneys forgo the security of a larger firm and leap into solo practice?
For me, the motivating factor was simple: to truly enjoy practicing law. I started my own office in 1999, 12 years after my law school graduation. In looking back at my career of more than a decade, I realized to my dismay that I had fallen into a common malady of the legal profession — “The Job Hopper Syndrome.”
I had held a wide variety of legal positions, had disliked all of them and was preparing to revamp my résumé for yet another job-hunting extravaganza. I paused, took a breath and began analyzing what I was doing and what I wanted out of my career. I definitely enjoyed my work as a lawyer and especially liked working with my clients. So, what was the problem? I asked myself two key questions.
Question #1: Did I like the lawyers I worked with and my office environment? The answer to that question — a key component in my decision to leap into my own practice — was a resounding no.
My work environments had varied from office to office. However, I had often ended up working with some truly creepy attorneys. These creepy attorneys had varying degrees of control over my income, the type of work I was doing, how I approached my cases and the quality of the overall office environment where I spent the majority of my waking life. That control had, over the years, simply become intolerable. The law firms, in essence, imposed an artificial barrier upon my ability to reach my best potential.
Question #2: Could I do it better? Could I create a business structure that would enable me to practice law enthusiastically, obtain and retain good clients, and make a good living? I boldly answered yes to this second question.
Over the years, I had developed a basic understanding of the business of practicing law. I also believed that I could represent my clients in a dramatically improved manner, given the complete freedom to practice law in my own style. In retrospect, I did not truly understand the incredible amount of work the start up process requires and how much I had to learn. To leap into solo practice successfully, you have to understand and enjoy the complexities of running a small business.
Still, taking that leap to gain control over my professional life was one of the best decisions I ever made. I now feel happy to go to work and my days are fun and interesting. Most importantly, every day I have the opportunity to reach my full potential. Life is short. Very few things are more important to me than being able to say, “I love what I do.”
Jeffrey Herman, of the Herman Law Firm, LLC, is similarly motivated by the desire to control how he structures his practice. His leap became an opportunity to structure a solo practice that reflects his ethics and values.
“I practice personal injury law exclusively,” Jeffrey said. “Initially I went into practice for myself because I found out … my last employer was doing unethical things. But I didn’t realize all the other great reasons to leave until after I left. Now, if my client is poor and needs a break, I can write off the costs from the case or give a discount on the fees.”
He also has the freedom to “take extra steps and give clients a little more because nobody is standing over my shoulder telling me to stop wasting my time and make him more money instead.” At the end of each case, Jeffrey donates 5% of his fee to an appropriate cause: MADD, if he was representing a victim of drunk driving, or to Medic One, if his client had been resuscitated. “Nobody would ever let me do that at any of the firms I worked for,” he said. “[They] never did pro bono work and never did anything for charity either. … The difference in my productivity and attitude is amazing.”
Other attorneys make the leap, in part, to change their areas of practice. To have a truly satisfying law practice, your practice area must be an authentic fit with your personality. Lori Rath, of Rath Law & Mediation, PLLC, previously practiced general commercial litigation and employment law at Riddell Williams. Now, her solo practice focuses on estate planning, probate, mediation, and property and relationship agreements.
She explained, “I worked with a professional coach for a few months and after exploring things like my strengths, my interest in people and their lives [and] families, my interest in mediation, and my desire for a flexible schedule, starting my own estate planning and mediation practice just felt really right (although very scary!).”
Lori found the book Finding Your Own North Star: Claiming the Life You Were Meant to Live, by Martha Beck, particularly helpful in this process. “Making this move felt really authentic,” she said, “and I still really like talking about what I do because — unlike the large firm — this work does feel like me. I greatly enjoy learning about my clients’ lives and helping them to make decisions for themselves and their families.”
Seeking a life-work balance, Michelle Hayden Bomberger, of Small Business Legal Services, PLLC, in Bellevue, started her own practice after working for a few years at AT&T Wireless. Michelle’s motivating factors were both to structure her practice to focus on small businesses and to balance her practice with being a mother.
“After the Cingular merger, I knew it was time to go out on my own with this practice. It is an underserved market with needs that I felt I could fill,” she said.
“My decision, in part, was based on allowing me to be home with my kids part of the time and ‘balance’ my professional and personal life. The balance thing is really tricky, I’ve found. I work most of the time my kids aren’t awake,” which Michelle says results in sleep deprivation, “but I’m working on resolving that.”
Wanda Nuxoll, of Wanda Reif Nuxoll, P.S., in Issaquah, transitioned from a two-person partnership into a solo practice seeking balance, in part, to pursue different business interests. “Competing time commitments (both legal and non-law-related interests) can be more logically balanced than if I were in a firm,” she explained.
“I wanted the flexibility and independence to manage both my legal career and other business interests that compete for my time,” Wanda said. “As a solo, if I need to spend two hours one day on work for a rental property issue, I don’t feel the guilt of taking time away from the firm and can adjust the time I spend in my law office accordingly. By owning my own firm, I control the balance and determine for myself which aspect of life needs attention at different times.”
I believe, for most solo practitioners, their decision to leap is primarily based on a strong desire for either control or balance, or a combination of the two. Although the risk is great, the rewards gained by taking the leap can be greater. Control and balance can truly be achieved, with work and persistence.
Stacey L. Romberg, attorney at law, focuses her practice on small business law, estate planning and probate. You can learn more about Romberg’s practice by visiting her Web site: www.staceyromberg.com.
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Reprinted from February 2008, King County Bar Association Bulletin, by Stacey Romberg