October 2016

Success is Possible, Failure is Certain: My First Year as a Solo Attorney

By Evan Walker

Attorney at Law

 

“The triumph of hope over experience.” Samuel Johnson

Every worthy endeavor carries the reward of success or the weight of failure. My first year as a solo attorney was no different. After spending almost seven years as a defense attorney working for companies and defense firms in Connecticut and Louisiana, I moved to California, passed the July 2015 bar, and opened my own practice on October 1, 2015. My practice has now been open for a year. During that time I have experienced both success and failure. Happily, success has outweighed failure.

Here are the successes and failures of my first year as a solo attorney.

Successes

One success was the sheer ability to practice law the way I wanted (within ethical guidelines of course). I could represent people, not defend companies. I could communicate with clients through email and text, not through letters and faxes. I could run a paperless office, not lug around manila folders stuffed with disorganized documents. Lastly, I could write the way I wanted, not rely on conventional language and well-worn legalese. I was free. But more important, I was happy.  

A second success was that I ran a law firm at a profit. Within a few months I broke even and began turning a profit.

A third success was positive client outcomes. One particularly successful outcome was when an insurance company tendered the policy limits to my minor client who was struck by a car, after it (and the police) had initially found my client to be at fault.

These successes taught me you could find freedom and happiness in practicing law as a solo attorney, as well as financial reward and client victories.

Failures

Failure is blunt. 

My list of failures reads like a textbook example of what not to do in your first year (or any year) as a solo attorney: Taking (almost) any personal injury and property damage claim that crossed the threshold of my office door; deciding to handle (almost) all claims on contingency, chasing judgment-proof defendants; failing to have a consistent mentor; and neglecting my health. Of course I was forewarned about each and every pitfall. But desperation coupled with ambition led me astray.   

Naturally, the results of taking almost every personal injury or property damage claim I encountered led to wasted time, wanted money, and wasted resources, not to mention useless outcomes.

It is axiomatic that an undercapitalized business cannot operate long on a contingency basis. I tried to run a practice based entirely on contingency and I failed. Eventually I drained my savings and borrowed from my wife, but early on I gratefully found billable work in addition to my contingency cases.

If you want to waste time and money, chase a judgment-proof defendant (i.e. a defendant who is not covered by insurance). I wound up doing so as a direct result of taking almost any personal injury or property damage claim I came across. Bad decision.  

It’s hard to go at it alone. Mentors, therefore, can be a godsend. Although I relied on a few attorneys for counsel and advice, I lacked a consistent mentor. That was a mistake.    

My final failure was my greatest — I failed to take care of my health. I exercised, ate right, and avoided intoxicants. Constant stress from my practice, however, took a toll on my health. During the first six months I had a cold almost every month. I ignored the fact that my left eye had been twitching for months due to prolonged stress. Around the eighth month, I had a viral reactivation in my left eye that was brought on by stress. That incident showed me that proper maintenance of my health was vital. I had to avoid or at least minimize the stress my practice caused. 

Avoid what I did and instead choose cases with merit, avoid only taking contingency cases if you cannot properly capitalize your business and avoid judgment-proof defendants, and find a consistent mentor. Most importantly, take care of your health. A successful (but stressful) first year as a solo attorney is not worth your left eye. 

Hope Triumphs Experience

Those were the successes and failures of my first year as a solo attorney. The sweetness of success was indeed mixed with the bitterness of failure. Success was possible, and failure was certain.  

Hopefully I can repeat the successes and avoid the failures of my first year as I move into my second year as a solo attorney. Regardless, I have never been happier as an attorney.

Contact other solo attorneys for advice if you want to open your own practice. Find a mentor. And know that for me, opening my own practice was the best business decision I made as a lawyer.