Interview with a Solo Attorney

Over the holiday I had the opportunity to sit down with Thomas. His life experience as an attorney and businessman so intrigued me that I felt compelled to share his insight and his lessons. Thomas, with incredible grace granted this interview.

JC: Thomas, I want to thank you for allowing me to interview you and share your insight. What impulse brought you to the bar?

Thomas: I came to the bar not from an initial love for the law, but rather as a last career option on a list of career options that through parental influence, and personal choices was narrowed down to law. But once I applied myself to it, I found it exciting and intriguing. So the natural and logical thing to do was to go to law school, take the bar, and start practicing law.

JC: Which areas of law did you focus on and why did you choose them?

Thomas: I initially focused on Personal Injury cases for the high...

dollar value of the cases, and in 1989 the cases were plenty and the settlements were quite high. Very little in the way of fighting with the insurance carrier was required. However, as the PI market changed, I started to accept criminal and business/corporate cases. From a purely financial view point, criminal cases were quick, profitable, and accessible. The business/corporate cases were generally drawn out litigation matters, and early in my career I found myself drawn to litigation. The criminal cases were also great sources of trial work and litigation experience.

JC: It sounds like the money became a motivation for you to take on work. It's a pressure I am sure most solo attorneys feel. Tell me what strategies you tried to make your cash flow work.

Thomas: I initially concentrated on word of mouth to obtain clients, which actually worked very well for a few years, and generated nice cash revenue. As word of mouth became less productive, I concentrated on affiliating myself with business organizations, the Chamber of Commerce, community organizations, and in the case of criminal cases, with the panel attorney mediums to generate alternate sources of revenue. I stopped short of spending any money on print, TV, or radio advertising, and I certainly did not spend any money on referral type services. My objective was to keep overhead down, and revenues slightly ahead of my expenses. It worked for a while.

JC: A stable business is not easy to create. Most attorneys end up creating a 'job" rather then a "business". As the burdens of the "job" began to mount did you also see any of the benefits of being the "business" owner?

Thomas: I certainly saw the independence of being a business owner. Unfortunately, even after several years of practicing law I realized that I had not come any closer to being a "business" man, let alone a "business" owner. It was a pretty hard truth to realize, but it also was daunting to think that I didn't have the time that I thought was needed to become a business owner, rather than a slave to my own creation. The only other benefit I realized was the ability to make unilateral decision, but this was also a drawback, especially when I reached a point in my law practice that I would have given my eye-teeth for direction and advice from a seasoned business owner, and not necessarily an attorney at that.

JC: You say “you saw the independence of being a business owner”. I am curious what that means? What were you independent of and were there any trade offs?

Thomas: Independence really refers to not having a third party boss over you, dictating your course of action, how much you are getting paid, and when you will be fired from your job. In retrospect, however, having a steady income and no worries about overhead are definite advantages to not being a business owner.

JC: If you had the opportunity to start over today, with what you have learned, what would be some of the things you would do differently?

Thomas: I would do the following:

• Hire an individual with law firm management experience, and this individual would not necessarily be an attorney.
• Establish definite revenue goals, and limit my overhead so that my revenue to cost ratio would be at least 2 to 1.
• Reinvest more than 70% of net profits into the practice to build a financial foundation for the lean times.
• Concentrate on practicing law rather than the business of law.
• Conduct some focused marketing such as getting involved with business organizations and communities where a long term relationship may be established for future profitability.
• Concentrate in complimentary areas of law such as criminal and personal injury cases. The revenues generated from criminal cases would help sustain the firm while waiting for the PI cases to settle out.

I’m sure there are other ways of improving upon the way I was doing business. All in all, more wisdom would be a good thing.

JC: When you were under the most pressure where did the pressure come from?

Thomas: From a lack of case flow and revenue to meet my overhead, which of course would not magically disappear. Add to that the fact that at the lowest point of my practice I was forced to lay off 90% of my support staff, so the bulk of the work had fallen on me to complete. Between court hearings, office management, and desperate attempts at raising revenue, I was working 14+ hours a day, 7 days a week just to keep my head above water. It was a grim and dark time.

JC: Did anything in your education or background prepare you for the “business of law”? Did you have any prior clue that the business part would be harder on you then the practice?

Thomas: The honest answer is no, to both parts of your question. What law schools need to do is to introduce a mandatory course in the “business of law”. This is my honest view. I am a hardened sole practitioner who has been through the cycle of success and failure. Talking about this with you can’t fully convey the hard realities of owning and running a law business.

JC: Why do you think local Bar Associations are not a strong resource for attorneys? Why does it seem like the law schools and legal professionals conspire to hide the realities of the business of law?

Thomas: To answer both questions, you have to understand a bit about how local Bar Associations and law schools operate. Local Bar Associations are not interested in promoting individual attorneys beyond providing consumers with referrals, for which they charge the attorney. Bar Associations generally are more interested in expanding their own revenue base, and are generally headed-up by individuals who do not have any business experience, or very little to speak of. Law Schools are stuck in a box, and have academic tunnel vision. Legal Professionals don’t want any competition, so it’s better to keep the secrets of the Holy Grail to themselves than to disseminate it to prospective and possible competitors. It’s very sad and devious.

JC: Thomas, I want to thank you for your time. Your insight will, I am sure, give food for thought. I am sure there will be questions and comments from my blog reader. Would you be will to respond to them sometime in the future?

Thomas: Absolutely. Let me thank you for your providing me with a forum to perhaps assist other attorneys who are thinking about going solo, or those who are solo and are wondering why things are not going so well.

Written By: Jonathan On January 3, 2016 07:08 PM

Jack -

This bothers me for so many reasons.

First, Thomas chose PI work for the high dollar cases. That is so narrow minded. PI work is not just about the high dollar cases. I spent over 8 years as an adjuster. I have more respect for someone who gets into PI work to help people than someone like Thomas, who should, quite frankly, be embarrassed for making that statement.

Second, money as a motivator? I like to make a fair profit as much as the first one. But, money should not be your motivator. If it is you are narrow minded for a few reasons. You are not going to make a ton of money in law. Oh, you can, but its not guaranteed. Further, you are doing a disservice to your clients.

Finally, in the short time you have had a blog, you have managed to insult solos and firms. I think that might be a new record. Congrats!

Written By: Jack Casey On January 3, 2016 07:38 PM

Jonathan,

People are motivated in many ways based on their goals and life experience. Whether you agree or disagree it is his story. I am not at all embarrassed by his story or for his honesty.

Eight years as an adjuster and two law firms then into your own business “to better serve the clients” I have reviewed your story too. There are many paths people take. Some by plan others by circumstance and we all can learn a little from listening to those stories. If it bothers you then you have choices.

In his story you have seen where you don’t want to go and sounds like avoided a path that would have made you unhappy. There are others on the brink of the choice you have already made. Not every blog is going to have a connection. And as humans there are many contradictions we all embody. I have and will challenge the status quo. I disagree strongly that the word “insult” applies.

Jack

Written By:Thomas On January 4, 2016 10:51 AM

Jack

I have read with some interest the ongoing fencing match between you and the gentleman named Jonathan, and I have a few comments to make about this, if you would indulge me.

The practice of law is a very personal experience, and the ownership and maintenance of a solo law practice is even more personal. Yes, it’s even emotional. But that’s where it stops.

I owned and ran my own law practice for 8 years, and I litigated cases against the smallest and the biggest guys in the industry for 15 years. I have defended petty and major criminal defendants, and I have had the good fortune of working side by side with some of the most powerful attorneys in our State. Having stated the foregoing, at the end of the day when I would go back to the sanctity of my office, I would feel glad and content that I had the courage to take a step most would not, or could not take. But it all comes down to choices.

When my solo practice fell apart, it was because of the choices I had made. I chose not to go to someone with more business savvy than myself to salvage a good law practice. I also chose not to take steps to protect myself when it all hit the fan. Ethical obligations aside, the lack of business sense does not discriminate between a law practice or an autobody shop. It’s all the same premise.

Should a solo practice be run like a corporation, or at least subscribe to the model of how a corporation is formed, operated, and maintained? Absolutely!

A solo practitioner runs his or her law business without a safety net. The same protections that are in place for corporations do not exist for a solo business. But this does not mean that a solo cannot establish corporate-like protections, and it all begins with making intentional choices for the ultimate betterment of the business. Client care is important, but it is only one part of the equation. What good is client care when the practice’s infrastructure is defective, or unable to support the idealistic goals of the solo attorney. The reality of practicing law and running a law practice is not in how tough it is, but rather how quickly things can go to heck without a solid business framework.

If law students go to law school with the intention of becoming lawyers, it goes without saying or doing much marketing research that the newbie lawyers want to make MONEY!!! As do the middle to late career attorneys. But wanting to make money is a far cry from making it steadily, safely, and continuously. Most lawyers, and I include myself in this group, have the education and smarts to convert clients into revenues, but most do not know where to begin and how to really do it. This is where a non-attorney with a strong business background can help focus and direct an attorney’s practice building needs and efforts. Attorneys have to come to grips with the fact that zeal and energy can never replace a healthy dose of Business-101. Look at it, adopt it, deal with it, and get over it.

On a final note, much to everyone’s relief, law school does not train law students to think like lawyers. This is at best a fallacy. What law school does is it gathers up a student’s jumbled and pathless thoughts, and focuses them on the issues at hand. This is not lawyerly thinking, it is thinking logically and with common-sense, something engineers and scientists do day in and day out. What a law student needs to learn about law practice and becoming an attorney is learnt in only one place. The trenches.

Regards

Thomas

Written By:Moe Levine On March 8, 2016 03:57 PM

i have a solo practice, not much different, although have had the good fortune not to bust out.

great interview--would like to some how hook up with Thomas, but like him I remain anon on the net

Written By: Jack Casey On March 9, 2016 02:21 PM

I would be happy to pass your comment and should you send me, your e-mail to Thomas.