10 Harsh Truths No One Will Tell You About Starting a Law Firm

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Man, I wish someone had told me this stuff before I struck out on my own.

I made a semi-spontaneous decision to quit my job when I got into an argument with a partner over a CLE reimbursement. I had this weird out-of-body experience during which I watched myself resign. Suddenly I was putting my stuff in a white banker’s box and walking out into a cold winter rain.

I’m not exactly sure how it happened, but I was off on my own without a plan. Fortunately, a friend with spare space took me in at his office. Unfortunately, the space he loaned me had only three walls and no door. I was basically in a hallway next to the copier. It was a rocky start.

I wish someone had sat me down, poured me a beer, and told me the following. So go ahead–get that beer now, and settle in.

1. There’s more freedom in a job

Some of us leave a good job because we’re tired of being told what to do. Some of us start our own practice straight out of law school, after three years of being bossed around by our professors. We each come to the point of starting our law firms from different places and for different reasons, but freedom is always a component.

We dream of charting our own course, making our own decisions, and finding our own way. We want to be the boss, make the decisions, and decide what time to get up in the morning.

Welcome to reality, where the alarm clock will still ring too early. The pressure cooker heats up before you’re ready, and your calendar is controlled by a host of other people with their own agendas. Your freedom is not on their list of priorities.

You’ll dream of taking a vacation, but find yourself unable to be away without someone to cover for you. You’ll go out to dinner only to be interrupted by your most important client. You’ll plan time with family only to find your thoughts trapped elsewhere.

I used to visit prisoners in jail, and envy certain aspects of their lives. They didn’t have to answer texts, emails, or calls from stressed-out clients. Plus they didn’t have to pay rent or make car payments. Okay, I didn’t really envy them, but it did kind of seem like they had more freedom than I did, in certain respects.

Owning your own firm only means freedom if you choose to see it that way, and that can be tough to do. Sometimes the responsibility of the law firm makes life feel very confined.

2. You can’t do it all alone

The solo warrior image is awesome. We fight the good fight on behalf of sympathetic clients needing our help. We make victory happen, and ride off into the sunset feeling good about ourselves and the work we did to make things better for our clients. We control our destiny.

Somehow, in that image of ourselves, we’re the solo warrior getting it all done. It’s magical.

Realistically, we can’t get anything done without a lot of help. Sometimes that’s the contractors we use to get things done more efficiently, or maybe a small staff that we assemble. In many ways, we even need our clients to participate to make the case a success. Oftentimes it’s the bureaucracy at the courthouse or city hall. We need people, lots of people, to help us get the work done. Securing their cooperation is never easy. People are trouble.

People problems are often at the root of how we end up with our own firms. We imagine a world filled with only the special people we select. We believe, on some deep secret level, that they will cooperate, engage, participate, and pay their bills when they owe us money. That’s a fantasy.

Your days will be filled with other people, and many of those people will throw up obstacles to your progress. Doing it alone doesn’t lead to a successful law practice. You’ll be surrounded, and confounded, by other people on your endless journey.

3. You’ll perform without a net

I remember my first real trial. A partner sat second chair. As much as she annoyed me with her incessant whispering in my ear, it was helpful to have her remind me of why I’d just objected to opposing counsel’s question. I felt supported, and I very well might’ve lost that case without her input.

When you’re on your own, you’re really on your own. That second chair is occupied by the client, and his whispering won’t prove helpful.

No matter how many mentors you gather, no matter how many friends you have backing you up, you’ll be out there on your own. The stakes are real. The risks are high. The fall from the tightrope is dangerous.

When we dream of solo practice, we imagine ourselves perfectly balanced as we cross the high-wire. But sometimes, like me, you’ll slip. There is no net.

4. Success takes longer than you think

They say it’s a marathon, not a sprint. They’re lying.

It’s more like an infinite loop, entirely uphill, and all you get is an occasional banana or a Gatorade. There are no cheering crowds. It rains, it’s cold, there are puddles, and your shoes and socks are soaking wet.

We imagine our practices as a path to the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. It’s out there, but it takes much longer than we expect to get there and many of us give up along the way. I finished a marathon once; it was easier than building a law firm.

5. Your emotions will twist you into a pretzel

I had a heart attack requiring bypass surgery after running my law firm for eight years. The surgeon said I had the arteries of a 70-year-old man.

Cortisol is useful when you’re running from a lion. But a chronic, daily stream of cortisol is not your friend.

Starting a law firm is filled with cortisol–be ready for it.

6. You’ll spend most of your time selling

Too many of us don’t want to be in sales. But your law practice needs a salesperson. Guess what? You’re it.

So much of what one does in the practice of law is sales. Those who don’t spend time selling don’t really practice, because they have so few clients.

You’ll be selling to prospective clients. You’ll be selling to referral sources. You’ll also be figuring out other marketing approaches–websites, chatbots, advertising, and more–and wondering how you’re supposed to master all of this while getting the legal work done. It’s stressful, and you’ll struggle to keep up.

If you don’t like selling, don’t start a law firm. It’s that simple, because without a commitment to sales, you’ll struggle and then you’ll fail.

7. It’s shockingly hard

The work, the stress, balancing all the priorities, learning to do what you’ve never done–it’s really, really hard.

It’s easy to romanticize the idea of having your own practice. Somehow we all have visions of beaches, hammocks, and fruity beverages with cute little paper umbrellas. Reality is different. It’s rough.

The best law firms–those that are running smoothly, making money, minimizing people problems–have big problems. There are closed-door meetings, whispering, upsets, conflicts, and unpleasant departures. Law firms are complicated organisms.

And that’s just what’s happening behind the scenes. Out front, there’s the need to manage clients, keep up with rapidly developing law, improve our skills, and perform under pressure. You can’t ever stop juggling all the balls. There’s always at least one ball coming down fast.

There is nothing easy about the practice of law, and having your own practice, being ultimately responsible for all of it, makes it harder–not easier.

8. The clients you steal will run dry

Many of us leave a firm with a small collection of clients. The partners in the old firm freak out about the “stolen” clients. I’ve been on both sides, and have learned that clients can’t be stolen. They go where they need to go for their own self-interests. They’re free agents, so they go wherever is best for them. In an odd sort of way, I view a client leaving with an associate as a good sign. Our associate made the client happy, so I declare victory and go get another client.

But the clients you steal will not last. No matter what practice area you’re devoted to, you’ll find that you must generate new business. The existing clients will leave eventually, even if you make them exceptionally happy. Some matters finish, some clients close up shop, some switch law firms. Marketing will always be an essential element for all law firms.

New solos often have a base of initial clients and enjoy a lucrative first year. They smile, tell everyone how great it’s going, and then slam into the guardrail when they finish up existing matters without adding fresh work to the pile. If your time isn’t filled with adding to the top of your marketing funnel, then you’re headed for a hard landing. Get started with selling on day one, and never lose focus.

9. Your employees will be as bad as your clients

Do you think your clients drive you nuts? Just wait until you hire someone to help you. They’ll take you to new levels of nuts.

I’m not suggesting that employees can’t be awesome, but even the best employees can make you miserable. Over the years I’ve wanted to kill more employees than clients. Unfortunately, you’re not supposed to kill either.

You’ll have great people helping you. But you’ll also have terrible people. The desire to fire everyone will be an ongoing fantasy. I wish I’d known.

10. You’ll partner up and that’ll sour

Joining another lawyer in partnership is a path most of us follow–at least once. I’m not sure if it’s the misery loves company thing, or maybe just a belief that there’s less risk in greater numbers. We’re drawn to one another, we sign leases, create logos, redo websites, and intertwine our finances.

Then we start complaining about each other. We fight over money. The partnership melts down. Sometimes we litigate the issues, and embarrass ourselves.

I’m sure there are lawyer partnerships that work. But most lawyers who’ve ever had a partner also have a long tale of woe. Be ready to watch yours play out.

Why does anyone do this to themselves?

Finished with that beer yet? Feel like you need another? I do.

Reading all of the above, after writing it, makes me wonder why anyone, myself included, does this to themselves.

I suppose I’d respond, at least from my perspective, that many of us have no other choice. Either we do it because it’s who we are–part of a deep internal drive–or we do it because it’s what we must do to survive. Most of us won’t slow down in our march toward law firm ownership, even if we know it’s going to be difficult.

But at the same time, it’s good to know what’s coming.

Knowing, in advance, that we’ll face specific challenges coming from unexpected quarters, makes it easier to cope. Knowing that we’re not alone, that others have survived what we’re now struggling to handle, reminds us of the light at the end of the tunnel even if we’re not yet seeing it.

Many of us have a deep internal need that compels us, energizes us, and forces us to go out and start a firm. That deep need is essential. Without it, we can’t do what we do. That need is a good thing, even though it results in our making ourselves occasionally miserable. In the end, we do what we’re doing because it’s what we must do. We make it work, we get things done, we achieve our objectives and we learn, grow, and score personal victories. Yes, I wish someone had told me everything I know now, but I would have done it regardless. I’ll bet you would too.

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