Uncertainty, Anxiety, and the Rewards of a Solo Practice

By Cresston Gackle 

The thought of practicing law on one’s own can seem foreboding. Most law students enter the field in search of financial certainty, often with eyes on a salaried job as an associate in an established law firm, preferably as prestigious and high-paying as possible. We are trained to be issue-spotters and problem-identifiers and we’re expected to both recommend and take the safest path, not set out upon the less-traveled ones. 
To many, uncertainty and fear are interchangeable synonyms. Why face the uncertainties of going without a salary and of trying to build a practice you don’t know will succeed? It can strike many as foolhardy and unnecessary to take the risk of failure in the world of small business. 
At first glance, solo practice is daunting. You take responsibility for finding clients, maintaining case files, and running a business. There’s uncertainty about earning money and earning it consistently. But these uncertainties are far less abstract and unsolvable in practice than they may seem at a distance. We need to remember that as lawyers, our training is to identify and solve problems, not simply to fear and avoid them. 

Set a budget for business and life 

Starting a solo practice, as with starting any small business, does not mean risking it all. It means planning one’s personal budget carefully over at least a 12-month period: what are my core costs for housing, medical care and insurance, and other necessities? Solo practice doesn’t require a reduction in quality of life, but it does mean planning for the possibility of not earning consistent or significant money for several months. To approach this uncertainty, I ran budget analyses that included the potential of not making money beyond breaking even with business expenses for the first six months. Health insurance can easily cost over $10,000 per year out-of-pocket on the open market and housing costs, whether in rent or mortgage, as well as debt, can and must be factored into budgeting before starting a solo law practice. 

Recent analyses of law student debt data indicate that, on average, a law student graduates with over $160,000 in debt.1 Over half of those graduating with debt have equal or more debt than they did when they graduated.2 Many law graduates are postponing buying homes and cars, having children, and choosing jobs that pay more instead of jobs they really want to do.3 Law school debt and its consequences have fallen more heavily upon law students of color than their white peers.4 

Finding paying clients and legal work is uncertain unless one is continuing with clients from a pre-existing firm. There are other avenues to find consistent work, however, and these depend on connections with other attorneys. When I began my practice, I was fortunate to have networked with established attorneys who were willing to entrust research and writing projects to me through independent contracts. Building a reputation of consistently and reliably doing the work is critical to maintaining those connections and continuing to receive legal work.

To many, uncertainty and fear are interchangeable synonyms. Why face the uncertainties of going without a salary and of trying to build a practice you don’t know will succeed? It can strike many as foolhardy and unnecessary to take the risk of failure in the world of small business. 



In budgeting for the business, it’s most important to minimize upfront costs and avoid long-term contracts. There’s no need for a fancy research package, use the local law library or the State Law Library for free or low-cost use of legal research resources. Fend off the constant attempts to tax your firm’s budget by online legal referral services and instead invest your time in bar associations and networking with practitioners within your field. Establishing trusting and friendly connections with other attorneys, particularly within your legal area, can quickly lead to referrals from those attorneys for work they simply don’t have time to take on. Networking, bar association involvement, and writing for bar association publications have easily led to more paying leads of potential clients than ads on social media. Investing your time is far more impactful than investing your money. 

The biggest and most easily avoided overhead cost is maintenance of a separate physical office. In the days of the pandemic and since, I’ve found most clients have no expectation of ever meeting me in person, let alone dealing with the hassle of coming downtown and trying to find parking. Cutting out rent for a space that won’t be used to its full potential is a great way to cut costs. 

Finally, value yourself and your time. Charge a reasonable billable rate and require reasonable upfront retainers for the work you do. If a client is unable to pay your rate or retainer, it may be best to refer them  to another organization rather than undertake a matter on which you will be underpaid but still expected to provide competent and diligent representation. 

Make an Exit Plan 

In my business plan, I acknowledged the possibility the whole solo practice thing wouldn’t work out. I formulated a brief exit plan within my business plan with some ideas for what I would do  if, after 12 months of trying solo practice, I found it unsustainable. Again, try approaching the uncertainty of what comes next not as  a fear-inducing exercise, but instead an evaluation of new opportunities. For me, that meant considering seeking salaried legal employment, going to graduate school, or leaving the legal profession to try something different. 

There is a fear of failure built into our profession. We have been taught to constantly define success by the yardsticks others lay out for us and to seek one linear model of success  by becoming a law firm associate. Starting a business and going out on one’s own, we get the opportunity to define for ourselves what success is. Is it breaking even? Is it making a certain dollar amount or building a larger law firm? Is it that we tried at all?  Being an attorney does not need to be just treading a well-worn path to financial security, but instead can be defining the value of a career for yourself. What do you want out of the law? What do you want out of your career? How do you want your career to fit into your life? 

The natural reaction to uncertainty is fear, but the reasonable response to uncertainty is to see opportunity. Every day in solo practice brings opportunities to decide how we are going to do things better, more efficiently, and with more attention to what makes us happy. In the uncertainty of solo practice, I’ve found the opportunity to define my legal career on my own terms. I truly believe there is no more rewarding way to practice law.

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.  



1 American Bar Association Young Lawyers Division. 2020 Law School Student Loan Debt Survey Report. American Bar Association and AccessLex Institute, 2020. 
2 Id. at 10. 
3 Id. at 13-17. 
4 Id. at 17-19. See also American Bar Association Young Lawyers Division. Student Debt: The Holistic Impact on Today’s Young Lawyer: Selected Findings from the 2021 American Bar Association (ABA) Young Lawyers Division Student Loan Survey. Brandeis University, Heller School for Social Policy and Management, Institute on Assets and Social Policy, Stalling Dreams: How Student Debt is Disrupting Life Chances and Widening the Racial Wealth Gap. September 2019. Center for Responsible Lending. Quicksand: Borrowers of Color & the Student Debt Crisis, 2019.