You Can Do It! (Or Can You?) Starting Your Own Law Firm

Right off the bat, you need to know that having a solo practice is not for everyone. Not everyone can handle the bad things about having your own practice. Not everyone can handle the good things, either! Here are some things I was told or heard from others:

  • You should never start your own firm. You have no idea what you are doing and have no legal experience, plus no one will hire you if it fails. It will be impossible to find clients because everyone does their legal documents online, and again you have no idea what you are doing. Plus think about your wife and kids! When it fails, what will you do?
  • You should definitely start your own firm. You have tons of business experience, an undergraduate degree, a graduate degree, and now a J.D. You are friendly and outgoing, you’ll talk to anyone, anywhere, about anything. You don’t want to go through your whole life working for “someone else” and then think about your wife and kids! When you help others, you’re happy, and you should definitely do something that will make them (and you) happy!

Quite the dichotomy, isn’t it? Eventually I took the leap and started my own firm. While it is quite frightening to think of everything that could go wrong and causing it to fail, it is satisfying to be one’s own boss. It’s also nice to think of all the rewards I will (hopefully) reap when this firm succeeds and takes off.

Many of you reading this are either right out of law school or have been out for only a short time. Many of you may be in debt. Some of you are married and have kids.  Some of you, like me, may be much older that the rest of the folks in the YLC and entering the legal profession as a second career.  Here are some of my thoughts:

  • Your situation is unique to you, and before you take the leap and do something radical, please do some serious research.
  • Consider taking a business class (or several) to learn how businesses are run. Make no mistake, a law firm is a business. You are the primary “expense” of the firm and a law firm MUST turn a profit to survive.
  • Get a business plan together as soon as possible. If you do not know what a business plan is, you need to learn, quickly. Many local, county, and state organizations can help you understand how a business works. In some cases, they may help you start up your business (with advice, planning, tax benefits, and sometimes, financial help).
  • Get your act together and look at the tools you need to run a firm. You certainly can run a law firm with a Big Chief legal tablet and a #2 pencil, but there are dozens of law firm management software companies that would love to help you start your own firm (if you agree to use their software, of course).
  • Other solo practitioners can be consulted for advice. You should talk to a mentor—actually two, or more—about how to run your law business and about how to run your law firm.
  • Join some civic organizations: Rotary, Optimist Club, Kiwanis, etc. Pick one whose goals match some cause that you are passionate about and join it. Interface with others in the community.
  • Volunteer with the VSB and/or VBA and your local bar association.
  • Get your business’s name out there any way you can (legally) and promote yourself.
  • Get going! You can totally do this! Never put off until tomorrow what you can do today.

You are going to hear this trope all the time: this is a horrible time to start a law firm. Yes, it sure is. The “glory days” are gone; Lincoln the solo circuit riding attorney would never make it today. The idealism of Atticus Finch won’t pay the bills. No one trusts lawyers anymore. Everyone can do everything for themselves online. Artificial intelligence will mean the end of human lawyers (and humanity, but that’s an article for another day). Everything is getting so safe that there will soon be no personal injury. Society wants everything for free. Profits at all firms are way down. In short—you stand no chance, you will fail, and we are all doomed.  Hogwash.

This is a great time to start a firm. The amount of technology that is out there is amazing. The number of new processes, business models, technological tools, and other methodologies is exploding. Technology allows you to help your clients with their legal needs from anywhere in the world. You can interact with clients in real time face-to-face, or via video, or you can go back and forth with cataloged, autosaved emails that an AI helps you write. Heck, you can have an attorney-client relationship and never ever physically meet the client.

For all the complaints about whole areas of the law being replaced by robots or AI, you can find the “flip side”: people talking about new areas of the law that are completely unmapped and untapped. Sure, maybe there are very few lawyers that handle personal injury lawsuits based on steam engines exploding and injuring workers, or product liability due to faulty dot-matrix printers, but what about clients who are hurt by 2-mile long fully autonomous freight trains or 3-D printers that explode ink into their eyeballs?

In my area of practice, most people are supposedly doing their wills online for $99 or less. What an opportunity for us to make our estate planning practices more efficient and more accessible! Maybe I can’t do a will for $99, but I can save my clients a bunch of money and charge them less than $10,000 and provide more robust service than the online $99 will-writing folks. Seek that middle ground. What about robots and AI? Well, when I think about elder law, all I can think about is how frustrated I get with the online ordering process on many cell phone apps.  Such technology is even more frustrating to many senior citizens. Don’t you think you can serve clients better than a computer?

Evolution of the legal industry continues at a breakneck pace, and the process WILL NOT wait for any of us. We can try to protect our corner of the legal industry and continue to ignore the outside market pressures that have radically changed the rest of the world from top to bottom. Retreat from the challenge and seek safety in large organizations and hope that their size protects us from change. Or, we can be flexible, nimble, and small while going out on our own and making our solo firm the best it can be at serving the needs of a very specific marketplace niche. Whichever course you think is now best, investigate the solo alternative and consider the risks and benefits. Then do what you know is best.

Jeffrey B. Sodoma is a 2018 graduate of Regent University School of Law.  He is the founder of Sodoma Law, PLLC, an estate planning and elder law focused firm, based in Virginia Beach but serving all of Virginia.  Jeff is part of the Young Lawyers Conference of the Virginia State Bar.