“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.
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.
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.