Just Keep Plugging Away – Some Thoughts From A Year In Solo Practice

We’ve been in business since February of 2012. Since it’s been longer than a year, apparently this is the part where I’m supposed to write a congratulatory blog post patting ourselves on the back, telling the world that our law firm is the greatest success ever, and that starting a practice was the best decision of our lives.

Truth be told? Money is still tight. I’m worried that every client who calls will be our last. I am still learning the basics of how to run a business, and I have made mistakes. I work longer hours than I did as an associate at a law firm, and there is no guarantee there will be enough money at the end of the month to buy craft beer. I’m still driving the same 2004 Honda Civic I bought right after law school.

That’s the glamorous life of a self employed young lawyer. Anyone who tells you differently is either lying or trying to sell something. It’s a hard living. A very hard living, and it will be for a long time. I can see why people burn out after a few years of doing it.

Now, things have gone well for us, and they are a lot better than when we first opened the doors. We just expanded our physical office space, and we have a part time per diem lawyer doing coverage work for us. Part of me was tempted to write a “we’re so awesome because we’ve done this for an entire year” post. I admit it.

But I still remember the first day we started. Well, more accurately, I still remember that first Friday being out on my own. Before starting my own firm, I worked as an associate at a reputable mid-sized shop making a comfortable living. I woke up every Friday and there was money in my bank account.

On this particular Friday, I woke up and there was no money in my bank account. I sort of panicked. What if I didn’t make enough money to pay the mortgage?

I needed some reassurance. A pat on the head. Someone to tell me that I hadn’t make a huge mistake and that everything would be fine. I called my former boss, James. James started his own law firm three years out of law school. Now he is getting ready to retire, where he can spend more time sailing and with his family. I was certain that James would tell me everything will be okay, and that someday I’ll retire rich and successful like him….

“Hey James, it’s me Jordan.”

“Yes?” James was always a man of few words.

“So… I started my own practice.” I wondered if he could hear the panic in my voice.

“I always knew you would someday. Do you need anything?” I thought this is the part where James was supposed to say ‘Congratulations! You made a great choice!’

“Can I be honest with you? I’m nervous. This is the first Friday in years that I didn’t get a paycheck. What will happen if I can’t pay my mortgage?”

“Well, the bank will take your house…” James said in a matter fact tone.

“James, c’mon. I’m being serious… I’m looking for some reassurance here. I just threw away a good job to start a law firm, and I have like $72 in my personal bank account. My mortgage is due at the end of the month. Everything is going to be okay, right?” I guess when you put it like that, it sounded like I may have made a very bad financial decision…

“Jordan, I hate to tell you this, but starting a practice is hard. There is no guarantee you’ll pay your mortgage. Success doesn’t come overnight, either. When I started mine back in the 1980s, I think it took about three years to know if you were going to succeed. I struggled to pay my own mortgage for years before it picked up enough where I didn’t have to worry about money. And let me tell you, I got lucky. There are some clients and cases I pulled in just through sheer luck. Many of my peers who started their own practices didn’t make it. They either got out of law or found a job working for someone else. There is no guarantee your practice will succeed. I wish I had better news for you.”

“Ok, well, when will I know if I’m there?” Instantly I knew I had asked a dumb question. But James had an answer…

“Obviously I can’t answer that. But if I had to guess? In my day you knew you were there if you managed to stay in business for three years. If you could keep the lights on for three years without starving to death, by then you had usually made it. But I think it’s different in this day and age. There are more lawyers, tort reform has ruined the profession, insurance carriers won’t pay you any money, and you have a lot more student loan debt than I did. You are starting a practice in a different world. So in this day and age? I don’t think you have made it until you manage to keep the lights on for at least five years. It used to be three, but now it’s five. Maybe more.”

“Five years?”

“Yup. That isn’t scientific or anything. It’s my just viewpoint from someone who has been doing it for thirty years.”

“So what do I do? I’m worried…” James got silent for a moment.

“Just keep plugging away.”

“What?” What the hell was that supposed to mean? I just threw away a good law job to start a practice and that is all James had to say?

“Just keep plugging away. That’s all the advice I can give you, and all you can do, really. The nuts and bolts of setting it all up is the easy part. Building it long term is the hard part. If you want to build a law practice, there are going to be many ups and downs in your career. I had years where the secretary made more money than I did and I had to layoff associates. I had other years where we had a lavish Christmas party and my associates got bonuses. You take your licks, and when you get knocked down you get back up. And you will get knocked down. But if you’re dumb enough to keep getting back up, maybe you’re tough enough to stay in the fight. Lord knows I’ve taken my punches… and you’ll take yours, too.”

“Somehow, this conversation was actually helpful…”

“Good luck, kid. You’ve got a long road ahead of you. You’ll need it.”

4 Responses to Just Keep Plugging Away – Some Thoughts From A Year In Solo Practice

  1. It’s the same way I felt after I started out on my own in real estate. It gets easier, it will “click” between year 2 and year 3. Clients come with more regularity as your name becomes more popular. Stay strong and stay with it.

  2. Jordan, you are active on the social networks not as a “let me advertise myself” annoying bug, but as an attorney representing clients and jumping into legal issues for your clients. You also have some good mentors and have aligned yourself with attorneys who will gladly help you throughout your career.

    I smiled when I read your post because our firm is coming up on its third year in just a few days. I have been running our firm, and we have had really good months, and some really terrifying months. There are no BMW sport cars in my garage, and I am still driving the same 20-year-old Buick I’ve been driving for years. The airbag light comes on once in a while, and most of the profits from our firm go into private school for our kids, the school loans, basic living expenses, and the occasional vacation to a hotel an hour or so drive away from our home. The firm rents out an office from a reputable management company, but we keep our expenses low, and we pay for services that benefit our clients rather than those that make myself and those that work for me feel important. There was even a point where all we were were a few folding tables, a scanner, and a few laptops.

    So you see, there is little glamour in running your own firm, but one of the parts that you will grow to love most is that it is your firm that you built with your “blood and sweat.” When your peers are pushing 80-hour weeks and you’re able to take the day off to spend time with your family and the clients still come in, you’ll know you’re doing okay. But even then, always keep working — you never know when your firm will hit a dry spell. Always plan and save for the worst, and enjoy good times when they show up.

    These are my philosophies surrounding our firm.

  3. […] Fishtown Lawyers — Leo Mulvihill and Jordan Rushie – took the discussion in a slightly different direction before Greenfield weighed […]

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