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Ten Hard-Earned Tips for a Solo Practitioner

Fifteen months ago I started a solo practice in which I intended to specialize in brief-writing for other attorneys on a subcontract basis. I now spend about half my time on the subcontract work and half my time representing my own clients in litigation. The following are tips I learned along the way:

  1. Making copies of all checks from clients before you deposit them. You need information from the check to find out from the bank whether it has cleared or bounced. Long story, but you can probably guess how it goes.
  2. Carrying business cards with you wherever you go. Invariably, the very few times I happen not to have a card with me, I meet someone who wants one. Once, when I was on vacation, I met a potential client on the beach. I borrowed a pen and wrote my information on one of my daughter's (clean) diapers. Still waiting to hear from him…
  3. Co-counseling cases with other attorneys. Of course you need to screen these cases as carefully as you would any other; you need to make sure the other attorney is competent and trustworthy; and you need to have a clear agreement up front about how compensation will be divided. I co-counsel cases outside my areas of expertise to gain experience; I co-counsel cases with high costs so that a more established practice can carry the out-of-pocket expenses; and I co-counsel some run-of-the-mill cases because I like working with other lawyers.
  4. Networking for maximum effectiveness. One-time events are not as good as ongoing participation where people will see you over and over. Attending five cocktail parties is less effective than attending five meetings of the same committee; just showing up on a committee is less effective than taking a leadership role.
  5. Giving it time. Conventional wisdom says it takes two years for a business to make a profit. Because I was able to keep costs down, my practice was profitable the first year, but it took about ten months of part-time practice and intensive networking before I hit a critical mass where my phone was really ringing.
  1. Accepting referrals of dog cases from other attorneys. If another litigator is referring a case out, they probably have a good reason for it. Gain experience with decent cases, not with dogs.
  2. Agreeing to represent a client who is not committed to seeing a case through to the end. If they can't accept from the beginning that they may need to take their claim all the way to trial, walk away.
  1. Signing up for the referral list with your bar association. While I receive one to three calls a week from people referred from the list, the vast majority of them do not have good cases. In fact, so far I have only agreed to represent one individual referred by the list. Fielding the calls takes significant time. Overall, I would recommend this for people just starting out who have more time than cases, as a good marketing tool for future business.
  2. Requiring a cost retainer up front for contingency fee cases. I started doing this out of necessity because I simply couldn't afford to carry out of pocket expenses for cases in litigation. On the plus side, this screens out clients who want something for nothing, and keeps clients invested in the case. On the down side, it also screens out clients with good cases who simply can't afford to pay up front. My current policy is to inform all potential clients of my policy during my initial conversation with them. I then usually screen the case. Occasionally, if I really want to take the case, either because it's a great case or I just like the client, I will waive the cost retainer. Interestingly, women practitioners tend to encourage cost retainers while male practitioners warn me away from them. I don't know if this has to do with economic status, risk aversion, or something else.
  1. Working from home. Working from home has been phenomenal for the brief-writing portion of my practice. All I really need is my telephone and my computer system, and the convenience can't be beat. On my "non-working days" I often work from 6 AM to 8 AM while my husband gets up with my daughter. When attorneys who hire me are in a real crunch, I can work all night, something I would definitely not feel comfortable doing in an office building. Note, however, that I have a private office in my house that no other family members are allowed to enter; this is key for protecting my work and client confidentiality. Working from home is becoming less practical as my litigation practice grows. I could really use a part-time secretary for the litigation work, something I can't have in my house; meeting with clients is problematic; and I get no walk-in business.

Finally, the most important tip for practicing law or just living: Be yourself. There is no cookie-cutter model for a successful law practice. The lawyers who do best are those who know their strengths and play to them. But that's another article.

Nina Kallen, a litigator in Massachusetts, subcontracts to other attorneys on brief-writing and sundry other legal work, including tutoring on effective legal writing, and also represents parties in litigation.

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