July 2018

Some Lessons on Flying Solo

By Matthew Lab

Director, Access to Law Initiative, California Western School of Law

For most attorneys, the thought of opening a solo practice is exciting, liberating and terrifying at the same time. Since its inception in 2012 as the first attorney incubator on the West Coast, California Western School of Law’s Access to Law Initiative (ALI), has been privileged to provide support, tools and training to empower entrepreneurial and public service-minded attorneys to launch and develop their law practices. ALI encourages its attorneys to include “make-a-difference-law” as a component of their law practices through the provision of pro bono and/or “low bono” legal services to modest means clients. With this commitment to public service in mind, I thought it might be helpful to share some thoughts from ALI alumni attorneys about interesting lessons they have learned through the process of developing their practices:

Extend Courtesy. “This is one of the most important characteristics that I have developed since starting my solo family law practice, although it has not been easy. To my dismay, I discovered early on that not every opposing counsel will extend courtesy, even if it seems warranted. I will never forget the time that I had to go on emergency medical leave and requested that opposing counsel push back a hearing that he had set on calendar, which he summarily denied without reason. As such, I had to drag myself to court the following day, ex parte, to request a continuance of opposing counsel’s hearing, which was granted. Later, after the postponed hearing (at which my client prevailed, by the way), perhaps recognizing that his earlier lack of courtesy was in bad form, opposing counsel began treating me with respect, professionalism and, yes, courtesy. This change of environment allowed us to work amicably together, and efficiently resolve the divorce. The best characteristic I continue to enhance as a solo practitioner through ALI thus far is to be courteous, while understanding that there will be those who do not reciprocate.” Jylan M. Megahed, Esq.

Keep up with Invoicing. “Bill twice per month: on the 13th and two days before the first of the next month, and give the client two calendar days to review the invoice prior to payment due or the transfer of money from IOLTA to your operating account. This has several benefits: (1) the client is not shocked of the accruals along the way which avoids surprises and disputes, (2) it keeps them informed that work is being performed consistently on their case, and (3) it helps you figure out how you are doing financially mid-month, which helps you decide how hard you need to work the second half of the month. Billing should be easy. Prepare your time sheets simultaneously as you perform work (use a smartphone app if necessary), that way by the time you do billing, it is just a few clicks.”  Brianna S. Davis, Esq.

Networking Is Even More Important Than They Told You. “When you are a solo attorney, you should aspire to become a walking (ethical) advertisement. Aside from going to networking events, make sure everyone you know and meet knows you are an attorney. This includes your friends from high school, your Uber driver, your barber, etc. It might sound pretentious on the surface, but context is key. If you are having a pleasant conversation with someone long enough, eventually what you do for a living comes up naturally. Even if the person you are speaking with has no use for the practice area(s) you focus on, assure them you may know other attorneys that can assist them with their legal issue. If that means investing time to find an attorney for them, do it. In turn, the client will be grateful that you went the extra mile to make sure they got the help they needed, and the attorney will likely be grateful for the connection and keep you in mind for referrals as well. One side note to this: if possible and ethically permissible, send a referral fee to any attorney that thinks enough of you to send you potential clients! The free exchange of work is good for everyone.”  Clark Ovruchesky, Esq.

Carve Out Time to Recharge.  “We have all heard the saying, Don’t leave money on the table! which makes sense – to a point. Although it can be tempting to take on every matter that comes through the door for which you are qualified, it is always important to analyze the toll that the additional work might take on your current caseload as well as your personal life and well-being. While you may arguably have the time for the extra work, (after all, there are 24 potential work hours in the day!) the cost of doing so may lead to burnout on both the professional and personal sides of your life. Those additional late hours might be time that could otherwise be spent relaxing and recharging with your friends and family. Work-life balance is extremely important in any job, but especially when you are the owner of the business, because if the captain goes down, so does the ship. If you have overflow work and think that taking it on will adversely affect your well-being, consider referring it out to another attorney, which may lead to a referral fee. This way, you can look after your work-life balance without affecting your finances.” Matthew A. Lab, Esq.

Most Attorneys Do Want To Help You. “Since venturing into the solo practitioner world with ALI, the most important thing I have learned is that most seasoned attorneys actually enjoy being a resource for less experienced attorneys. Why? I don’t know. But the more important question is ‘how do I find these more experienced attorneys who really want to answer my (sometimes basic) questions?’ When you get involved in the San Diego community, you will meet these special people. So join as many SDCBA Sections as you like and attend mixers and community service events, join Lawyers Club and get on a committee, join diversity bar associations like the Tom Homann LGBT Bar Association. Most people you meet will actually want to know about your experiences in your shared practice area. Most will willingly offer their business cards and make themselves available to you via phone or email to answer your questions. And so, yes, most people in the San Diego legal community really do want to assist you. They won’t come to you — you will have to make the first move by becoming engaged and active in our legal community.”  Julie O. Wolff, Esq.