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The Solo Side: Going Solo Doesn’t Mean Going it Alone

By Cresston Gackle

Opening a solo law practice can seem like setting sail for a distant shore of stability, crash landing on an island of independence, and being asked to build a thriving enterprise from nothing. It’s a daunting and overwhelming thought to think of practicing law entirely alone.

Fortunately, establishing a solo law firm today is nothing like that. It’s about building connections and cultivating self-development rather than finding mythical independence. No lawyer is an island capable of developing every answer from scratch. Instead, the solo practice of law is defined by asking for help when you need it, especially when you are a newer attorney. 

My practice of law requires consistent improvement to competently and zealously serve my clients. Trial and error is not a satisfactory or sufficient way to continuously improve and refine my processes, arguments, and advice—just as running headlong into a wall to see if today’s the day I get into wizarding school is not productive. Instead, in addition to referencing the relevant rules and law and CLEs, it is essential I regularly seek mentorship and advice from more experienced attorneys. Crucial to the practice of law is continuous learning, and that’s even more true in solo practice where processes and institutional knowledge are not a given. 


Mentors offer many benefits including the following: 

  • They know the answer. Drawing upon the vast wealth of knowledge and experience in the profession is always illuminating. I find that five minutes with an experienced practitioner is often worth more than an hour of legal research, as they can frequently point you in the right direction or to relevant controlling law. Even if they are just confirming an answer you believe to be true, it gives you confidence that you are providing solid advice to a client.

  • They can often identify a practical answer that is far more useful than a legal one. Sometimes the best “answer” to a complex situation is not to go on an endless hunt for the perfect on-point case or rule, but rather to take a different tack on the problem entirely. Experienced mentors have guided me to better resolutions of disputed issues with both litigants and courts with a lessened emphasis on law and a greater emphasis on appealing to everyone’s desire to resolve matters more quickly and efficiently. This can especially come in handy with managing client expectations. In some situations, while a legal outcome may be possible, seeking that outcome through heavy litigation is simply not likely to be fruitful, and saving energy and money for post-litigation or a future issue is more important and in the client’s best interest.

  • They can refer contract projects and potential clients. Mentor attorneys can be an excellent source of legal work. They frequently have contract work and potential clients they are looking to refer to someone they know and trust. They trust you by knowing you ask questions when you don’t know the answer and by promptly providing good service on the projects they refer to you.

  • They can point you in the right direction for your career. Mentors usually have a broad array of experience and connections that they can call on to provide your next step in your career

 

There are many programs run through the bar associations, the affinity bars, and the law schools that promote mentor-mentee relationships. The key is just to start the conversation with someone whose practice you are interested in for any reason. I have found that it really is just sending an email or a thoughtful note or picking up the phone and giving a call directly to another attorney that sparks the beginning of a valuable mentorship. In Minnesota, we are privileged with a bar full of attorneys who are willing and ready to assist other attorneys if asked. Even just asking a question or making an announcement that you are seeking a mentor on the MSBA forums is likely to set you well on your way to developing a healthy network of mentors who advise and ultimately advocate for you.

Finally, be on the lookout for mentors in bar and affinity group organizations. They’ve been somewhere similar to where you are now and can give you guidance you need to avoid common mistakes. I find judges and court staff too, if asked and if you remain open with them, also are willing to give guidance on the practice of law, sometimes implicitly and sometimes quite directly. Additionally, attorney coaches are taking our profession by storm and can help advise you on managing and developing your practice in a way that is healthy and fulfilling. 

I’ve always thought that the phrase “hanging your own shingle” was a bit odd. It struck me as strange that solo practice is akin to building a roof over my own head. Instead, my understanding of solo practice may be closer to the original meaning of that phrase, which may refer to hanging a sign, a shingle, outside an office to notify others you’re open for business. That small, official act just means you’ve joined the neighborhood. As a solo attorney, I’ve benefitted enormously from the strength of my neighborhood and the neighborhood of attorneys we have in Minnesota. A neighborhood’s strength is in its level of connectivity, something we call community. In Minnesota, community is the true foundation of any solo practice.


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, Mr. Gackle pursued his education at the University of Minnesota as an undergraduate and then as a law student. Pre-COVID-19 pandemic, Mr. Gackle was an avid fair and festival goer and he now spends most of his leisure time learning and playing modern board games online.

 

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