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    Wisconsin Lawyer
    June 10, 2009

    What Keeps You Awake at Night?

    What factors should I consider in trying to decide if I should remain in a mid-sized law firm or start my own small practice?

    Wisconsin LawyerWisconsin Lawyer
    Vol. 82, No. 6, June 2009

    I am a partner in a mid-sized law firm. My individual practice is successful, and I am one of the top producers. I’m considering starting my own small practice. What factors should I consider before I make the leap? 


    Hire Experts to Help You

    Elizabeth G.   RichThe current economic climate creates unique opportunities for entrepreneurial attorneys ready to strike out on their own. Many large, institutional clients are reevaluating their relationships with outside counsel and are willing to consider working with qualified attorneys in small or solo practices. In short, the upside practice-development potential is huge.

    The solo practitioner of today can have a law practice that operates at the same sophistication level as a large law firm. The key is to hire experts to help you with technology, Web design, and practice development, because most of us don’t know how much we don’t know about those subjects. Investments in large dual or triple monitors can double productivity, and desktop scanners and a commitment to electronic filing reduce time wasted searching for documents.

    Learn about the myriad free friends of solos, such as free conference calls, free email organization software, free Internet phone service, and more. Subscribe to electronic lists dedicated to solos, such as the State Bar’s solo and small firm electronic list, the State Bar’s Practice411 electronic list, and the ABA’s Solosez. They are the virtual equivalent of the camaraderie and professional support of a law firm, offering not only invaluable assistance on legal and technological issues but also some personal fun.

    Contemplating a move from law firm to solo can be intimidating. At times, I felt like I was jumping off a cliff. But with the expert help I received, it was more like stepping off a curb.

    Elizabeth G. Rich
    Elizabeth Gamsky Rich & Associates S.C., Plymouth

    Going Solo is About Value Added for Clients

    Chris   DoerflerTwo years ago, I left a large firm in Phoenix and after spending some time there as a solo decided to return to Wisconsin. No job, no client base, just everything I knew about law and the business of marketing it. I understand the differences. There are the obvious things: working alone versus having colleagues; doing more of one’s own work versus having an assistant; working in a modest office versus a marble office. And, of course, the stresses, including the learning curve of running a business.

    Other stresses and differences aren’t as obvious. You might have a nice client base now, but what will you do to attract new clients? You might learn that it is the large firm’s decades’-long tradition that brought in clients, and while you might keep the clients you have, the firm will still tend to attract the new folks. You might have to market aggressively. As an example, I launched and promote it through multiple media outlets. Is something similar in your comfort zone? Or are you worried about what your colleagues will think of your efforts to set yourself apart?

    Finally, what is your plan for doing law better alone than with a firm? Going solo isn’t just about how nice it is for you, but about value added for clients. If you can’t give them something better on your own than the firm can, you’ll have a hard time keeping them.

    Chris Doerfler
    The Doerfler Law Firm, La Crosse

    If Your Lifestyle Requires a Steady Income, Think Again

    Nick ZalesGoing solo can be a liberating experience but it’s not for the weak- or faint-hearted. Going solo means leaving behind a highly structured workplace and a steady source of income. Opening your own law firm means paying for everything yourself and spending the time necessary to create and maintain an entirely new workplace that suits you, and it will not be cheap. Everything you now take for granted, from office rent to copiers to staples, will be gone. As a solo you will lose about one-third of your time to administrative matters you previously did not have to deal with, such as rent, insurance, buying and setting up equipment, and paying bills.

    A key question is where to work. Opening a new office will be expensive. Working at home is relatively cheap and is a useful partial tax deduction, but if you have a family – and let’s be honest here – they will get in the way. In addition, your home may not be a “professional” enough setting to suit your type of client. Working at home also means dealing with cabin fever. If you need interaction with other lawyers, you will not get it as a solo – at least not to the same degree as in a law firm.

    Once you are set up, the hardest part of solo practice is finding your own clients. You will always need new ones, and you will have to constantly motivate yourself to find them. Most people go to mid-sized firms before seeking out solos. So you will not have that same kind of steady income as before. In fact, you will have no steady income at all. You must be ready to deal with lean times when you have no new income and none is on the horizon. If you lead a lifestyle that requires steady income, solo practice is probably not for you.

    Nick Zales
    Zales Law Office, Milwaukee  

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