Taking the Leap into Solo Practice as a New Attorney

Solo practice is an adventure. It is the experience of being both the firm and the attorney at the same time. It is a traditional and common enterprise in the law, where many lawyers start and finish careers and how many well-established firms started out. Solo practice is ultimately a practice of self-reliance, patience, and continuous refinement. As a newer, younger attorney, it is a leap into a world of small business, direct client interaction, and the community.

I started a solo law practice in September 2019, to advocate for youth and families in juvenile and family law matters. Before that, I clerked for a state district court judge. I spent about a year developing a business plan, attempting to identify each step necessary for the business to be successful, at least on paper. I had never practiced law on my own before nor with a law firm. After just over 10 months into this adventure, I can report that solo practice is not only possible for a new attorney, it can be immensely fulfilling.

Answer the Question of Why Solo Practice
Before entering solo practice, I asked myself, “Why would I want to be a solo practitioner?” I spoke with several attorneys about their experiences opening up a solo law practice and had many conversations with my mentors about whether solo practice was right for me. As a new attorney, it’s probably a common experience to be told or to feel as though you lack the sufficient knowledge and training to step into the practice of law by yourself. If you are considering solo practice and begin floating the idea among your family, friends, and mentors, expect pushback. I was told flat out it would be a bad idea for me to start a solo practice, that I didn’t have the experience, wherewithal, or grit to survive in it. I was also told Minnesota-nicely that it would be a bad idea for me to start a solo practice, that it would be better to find a job with a firm for a few years and gain more experience and mentorship first.

But the first question is not whether it will work or whether it’s risky. There’s no way to know if it will work for you until you’re doing it. And there’s no question as to risk; it’s risky to start your own practice as a new attorney, both financially and for your career. The first question must be: “Why is solo practice right for me?” For me, it was about proving to myself and others that I could do excellentlegal work, that I was committed to the field of law I had chosen, and that I was willing to fight to do exactly the kind of legal work I wanted to do. It was about self-determination, about wanting to build something myself, and about serving the clients to a standard I would set.

Opening a solo practice is about being a business owner first and a lawyer second. It’s about starting, managing, and maintaining the flow of legal work and money. Without that flow, there is no firm and there is no long-term sustainability in solo practice. To that end, I was willing to learn all I could about starting and running a small business. How is each and every process—from finding clients to client intake to managing client funds—going to actually work in practice? I was fascinated by the prospect of building something from the ground up and immersing myself in the continuous process of refining a business.

Solo practice is also about being able to rely on yourself to get the work done, whether it’s direct, consistent, and prompt communication with clients, problem-solving on emergencies, or completing essential administrative work. It is not writing memo after memo or brief after brief. It’s sitting down with clients, evaluating the facts presented, explaining their options in a way they understand, and finding routes to success, however defined, through the law. It’s a continuous process of problem-solving and engaging with clients about the problems they face. This is also something I knew that I loved and wanted to do every day.

Solo Means You’re on Your Own
At the end of the day, it’s up to you to return the call to the client, follow up with court administration or opposing counsel, make sure deadlines are met, and practice law. It requires direct, clear, and consistent communication with clients from start to finish, on every aspect from signing an engagement letter to understanding options to dealing with outcomes. Every day, I am tasked with evaluating whether a client or potential client’s position is something I can advocate for in the law. Every day, I am tasked with returning calls and emails, giving legal advice, and tracking the financial state of the business. It is a business that begins without the luxuries of firms, whether it’s templates, paralegals, or consultants. (Your consultant may be a lawyer down the hall who knows what to do in a given situation.)

Solo Doesn’t Mean You’re Alone
There is an amazing and supportive community of practitioners in Minnesota who are willing to answer questions and find solutions, including the section forums of the Minnesota State Bar Association. Finding mentors who are willing to speak with you about legal issues, to confirm or reform your legal thinking, is essential to competency and confidence in practice. I call and email mentors to discuss the generalized problems my clients are facing. The issue-spotting abilities and instincts of an experienced practitioner have been an invaluable resource to me as a new attorney. Being out on your own in practice does not and should not mean existing on an island.

Ask around about the actual experience of solo practice and decide if that’s an adventure you want to go on. Whether you’re willing to accept that the practice of law is one slice of the work you’ll be doing on a daily basis will be crucial to deciding whether you want to leap into doing it all on your own. If you’re invigorated rather than drained at the thought of returning phone calls and emails to clients and attorneys, living with your cases to solve your clients’ problems, and building a business every day, solo practice may be right for you.

Take the Leap
Starting a solo practice as a new attorney requires looking before leaping. The leap is a risk; there will be many questions without solid answers until you are actually in practice. It took me over a year to evaluate whether I would actually be a solo practitioner so that should give you some indication of how terrified I was of taking the leap. How would I handle all of these rules on trust accounting? How would I find clients? How would I withdraw from representations that went awry? What would I do when I couldn’t find the answer to a client’s question? If I didn’t make a dime for several months, could I survive? These were questions I had to answer for myself before I started, even if the real answers would only emerge in practice. I developed a business plan and tried to think through every process and answer every question above. There is no guarantee of success, but if you do business planning as carefully as you can at the beginning, you set a foundation for success in practice by avoiding common mistakes.

I knew I would need a net. I reached out to everyone I knew to tell them I was considering starting a solo practice and I started meeting with people. I introduced myself, my interests, and my plans, and followed up with emails and thank-you notes to those gracious enough to speak with me. In doing so, I developed a network of mentors in both solo practice and in the particular areas of law I was planning to practice. I joined the sections of the bar associations and reached out to attorneys. I asked direct questions about how things are actually handled in practice. I asked that they consider me for projects, such as document drafting or review. It has been critical to my competency and confidence in the practice of law to have a network of experienced attorneys to reach out to when I need to be pointed in the right direction.

I ran a budget and ran it again in a worst-case scenario. I calculated how many matters the firm needed to have, how many hours I needed to bill per month, and how many hours I’d have to work for the firm to be able to pay me. Of course, in practice, my estimates of everything were far off, but the process of taking account of the real risk I was taking was essential. I vastly underestimated the time it would take to secure clients through administrative processes, from phone calls to emails to engagement letters, all things that occur before performing billable work. I also had to consider the cost of paying my own health insurance and other essential living expenses. The budget, despite being an Impressionistic portrait of reality, gave me an essential idea of what I was getting into: a life of small business in which every dollar counts and every expense must be justified.

Starting the Business
The process of starting a business is relatively simple. Follow the requirements for your chosen business type with the state and federal governments. Claim your social media presence and reserve at least a landing page of a website. Obtain malpractice insurance and study trust accounting. Keep the Lawyer’s Professional Responsibility Board’s advisory opinion number in your contacts and reach out liberally. Watch on-demand CLEs on trust accounting and review the applicable ethical rules. Tell people you’ve started, what you do, and how you can help. Be open to every kind of legal work, from document review and drafting to consultations. Every person who is willing to speak with you is a lead on business.

What is challenging is maintaining a sustainable practice. Starting out, I had the idea of an efficient, yet comfortable office in or near downtown Minneapolis. That was a head-in-the-clouds idea that was quickly cleared up by a look at the long-range costs of not only a lease but also parking for myself and my clients. Minimizing overhead costs is essential and avoiding long-term contract commitments is the number one practical piece of advice I received from multiple solo attorneys. The fancy capabilities of the major legal research companies are attractive; but, if you start calculating the cost of those services over the life of a contract, you start feeling your shoulders sink below water. Evaluate the necessity of every cost. To date, I have made use of a virtual office arrangement and that’s kept costs well below the expense of a lease. Clients are happy to conduct matters virtually or over the phone, especially now, and meetings in-person can be arranged at courthouses, state law libraries, and hourly conference rooms.

Find your first client. This is the question that kept me up at night for months: how am I even going to get my first client, let alone enough clients to keep the doors open? One key is to start looking before you start the firm. Let people know you’re starting a practice, let them know your experience, passion, and expertise, and ask for referrals to start as soon as you open for business. Be willing to take cases at lower rates and know that your initial work is watched closely. Referral sources and clients who feel heard, respected, and well-served by you will be your primary sources of work. When I started out, I had the philosophy of getting as busy as possible as quickly as possible, and so I asked for cases from everyone and volunteered to do pro bono work. Demonstrating you can advocate well and getting into court as quickly as possible are, after the business aspects, the first steps to building a law practice.

What It’s Like in the Wide World of Solo Practice
The solo practice of law is about two main things: client communication
and diligence.

Client communication is initially about gaining the trust of your clients so they can have confidence in your abilities and your loyalty to them. From there, it’s about expectation management, letting them know frankly the prospects of success and failure. Be prepared for clients to overestimate what you can accomplish for them. The ordinary client does not understand the law, the rules lawyers follow, or what is important to a court. I know I deliver a service if I am clear and direct about expectations for the client’s relief in light of the law and the court’s decisions.

The practice of law is not just about explaining the state of the law or applying the law to the facts, it is about giving advice that is counsel. It is about counseling clients on the impact the litigation will have on them, on those they care about, and on others. As a solo practitioner, I am in the litigation with my clients and I see the intersection of their personal lives with the pressure of being in court. I assist my clients in solving problems not only through legal arguments but also by helping them see a compromise as an option that can save them time, money, and stress.

Diligence is doing what’s required and what’s expected promptly and to the best of
your ability. It is your responsibility to maintain the ethical practice of law, including
careful trust accounting, competent representation, and avoidance of ethical pitfalls.
As lawyers, enormous trust is placed in our abilities, particularly when the course
and conduct of people’s daily lives are at stake. I rely not only on myself but also
on what I learn from the community of practitioners, my mentors, and experience.
The practice of law is a continuous process of refinement. There is an incessant
and unending stream of legal updates, business applications, and client problems.
Finding a way to sort through everything promptly, consistently, and competently
is the practice of law.

Making It
As attorneys, every time we look up, we see someone higher and think, “I’ll have
made it when I’m in their spot.” As a solo attorney, I feel I’m making it every day.
I see good legal work yielding good results and I’m making an impact by building
my own business and serving my clients in their time of need. There have been
numerous setbacks and mistakes, , but it has been an adventure I’m glad to be on. I
took the leap. New attorneys should know that despite the challenges, solo practice
is an invigorating, satisfying, and worthwhile way to practice law as a new attorney.

Cresston Gackle
cdg@cresstonlaw.com
Cresston Gackle is a solo practitioner of juvenile and family law and a part-time public defender of children in child protection and delinquency matters. Before entering solo practice, he was a law clerk in the Fourth Judicial District. Originally from Iowa, Gackle pursued his education at the University of Minnesota as an undergraduate and then as a law student. Pre-COVID-19 pandemic, Gackle was an avid fair and festival goer and he now spends most of his leisure time learning and playing modern board games online.