How to Avoid the Traps of Solo Law Practice

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Being a solo is tough. It’s especially tough in the beginning.

It’s you against the world. It’s you creating something out of nothing. It’s a weird mental space that keeps you spinning, wondering, and thinking about all the possibilities for success–and failure.

Your brain runs fast. It goes to places of greatness, but it also wanders into the dark, scary, lonesome recesses. You’re solo, and that’s a very solitary feeling.

Be aware, even when you’re having those dark nights of the soul, that you’re kind of amazing for your willingness to take on this adventure. Many lawyers can’t handle it. They’re scared. You’re bold.

You’re doing something that defies logic.

You’re taking nothing other than a laptop, a cell phone, and a legal education, and turning them into money. It’s incredibly difficult to turn nothing into something. You’ve got to see it in your mind, believe it’s real, and then convince others to see it as well. It’s great until you think about it, and then it’s overwhelming.

You have an amazing superpower

Your superpower is seeing that what you already have can morph into something more with your added energy. You have a vision, while the rest of us require somebody else to provide vision for us.

In fact, most lawyers would rather take a job. They’d rather let someone else create the script, and they’ll just play a role. You’re different.

You’ve figured out a way to manage your thoughts and get going. Now you’re going to keep going.

But the path is not clear. There are traps. There are tricky spots. There are doubts.

Of course, they can be navigated. For every tricky problem, there’s a solution.

Let’s run through the challenges you’ll overcome.

1. You don’t know when you’re done for the day

There’s no boss to tell you when you’ve done enough.

You get up and get working. It’s increasingly common to work from home, so your commute involves walking from the bed to the desk, with a brief potty break on the way. Here we go. The day is underway.

You’re up and started early, before the sun has even risen, working on a blog post. You’re driven by caffeine and anxiety, and you’re off to a strong start each morning.

As the sun comes up, you start calling prospective referral sources, catching up with clients, and researching the law in an unfamiliar area. You’re busy and grateful that you’ve got things to do. It beats sitting around twiddling your thumbs.

But before you know it, it’s the end of the day. You’re proud of what’s done, but you’re not finished. And, truth be told, the bank balance isn’t much different from what it was this morning.

Do you stop? Do you keep working? And even if you stop working–call it quits for the day–how do you stop thinking about it?

You aren’t alone in feeling like your work hours are 24/7/365. The mental break never comes. That’s one reason so many lawyers run into substance abuse problems–yep.

The solution

What’s the answer? How do you know when to stop? When have you done enough?

You’ve got to set the agenda at the outset of the day. Plan the day in advance. Then work through the agenda, and declare victory. Be done when the agenda is done. Don’t keep working. Stop. Enough is enough.

There’s no alternative except to work until you can no longer hold up your head. That, my friend, is unsustainable.

So you’ve got to come up with a plan, stick to it, and then quit for the day.

Sometimes you’ll finish early, and sometimes you’ll finish late. That’s life. But if you define the job of the day at the outset, and you’ll know when it’s quitting time.

2. You’re lonesome

It’s weird how lonely it can be to run your own practice, especially in the beginning. In the early days, you have no staff. You have no one. It gets especially lonesome if you work from home.

Interestingly, I know lawyers who worked from home before starting their solo practice, and still felt the impact of leaving their old jobs. Working at home when you know others are also on the team–even when you’re not talking to them–feels different from knowing you’re flying solo. It’s harder to work for yourself at home than it is to have a remote job working for someone else.

Being a solo is dramatically different from having a job. You’re doing it by yourself, and no matter how great your mentors, advisors, coaches, friends, and family are, it’s still you against the world. There’s an intense feeling of operating without a net.

The solution

Here are some ideas:

A. Friends. Amp up your relationships. This is the time to be spending more time with friends. You’ll need their support and input, and you’ll appreciate their referrals. Set up more coffees/lunches than usual. Get yourself out there in the world each day. Make connecting with people part of your “work” schedule.

B. Co-working. Find a co-working community. I work in co-working offices all over the world. They’re great. You’ll build relationships with other people who are working solo. In larger cities, there are more and more co-working offices filled with lawyers. In smaller cities, you’ll meet solos from all kinds of businesses. These are great places to build friendships and get referrals. You’ll rarely be lonely in these offices.

C. Coffee shop. Get yourself a good coffee shop for part of the day. Some coffee shops are better than others for building relationships. Starbucks (to me anyway) tends to feel pretty anonymous. I might as well be at home. Independent coffee shops often have owners/employees who pay attention to their customers and promote relationships among the regulars. Look for a place where you’ll get to know people.

D. Rosen Institute. Join Rosen Institute as a premium member and get active on Slack. You’ll find educational material published each week. More importantly, you’ll find a community of other lawyers in the same situation who are working together to overcome the challenges. This supportive, participatory community will lift your spirits as well as your income.

Part of going solo–and it’s a big part–is being alone. You’re facing many challenges on your own. However, you don’t have to be lonely while you do it. Being surrounded by friends makes it easier.

3. Your emotions are ruled by your revenue

A good revenue day means you’re happy. A bad revenue day means you’re not. It’s no way to live. Allowing your mood to be ruled by money is exhausting, destructive, and counterproductive.

The stress of living life by the revenue is horrific. You start to link your self-worth to your bank account. It’s damaging to your health, wealth, and relationships.

Been there, done that, and didn’t even get a t-shirt. My revenue took over my life. I had to make a break from it, and sadly, it still pulls at my emotions. It’s a very tough trap. It’s easy to fall into, and difficult to crawl out of.

The worst news, though, is that letting your revenue rule your emotions results in bad business decisions. You need some independence of thought, in order to make good business decisions. You can’t afford to have your mood swinging up and down with your revenue. It’s dangerous, because the decisions you make often outlast the mood.

The solution

Put your focus on value instead of money. Obsess about adding value, and let the money follow.

You need some emotional distance between you and the money. You’ve got to get focused on the effort and know that the money follows the effort. If you did the work today, if you added the value and exerted the effort, then you’ve got to tell yourself that the money will follow.

The interesting thing is that money does follow value/effort. If you put in the work, you will see the money.

Focusing on adding the value gets you the money much more easily than focusing on the money.

Keep your brain aimed at your contribution, and don’t look at the money. If you’re contributing, then the bank balance will keep going up.

If you focus on the money, you’ll end up swinging yourself up and then down and then up again. In the end, you’ll earn more by staying focused on the value you add.

Should you even think about money at all? Of course. But limit how much you focus on that part of the plan.

Set a revenue goal for a specific period (a month works) and then look at how the month turns out. Let the win/loss impact happen once a month rather than at the end of every workday (22 times a month). Sure, you’ll still feel the elation/disappointment of a good/bad month, but it’ll be less frequent.

You can add value every day and measure it against your plan. You’ll have more up days than down. Don’t use the money as your measure. Measure yourself against the value, and the money will come right along.

4. Your competitive spirit is eating you alive

No matter where you are, there will always be someone ahead of you and someone behind you. You’ve got to run your own race and compete only with yourself.

I was about 40 when I ran my first road race. It was a 5K distance and I got passed by a 60-ish-year-old speed walker. That was not good for my ego. The same thing happened, repeatedly, when it came to my law practice. You win some; you lose many. It’s the nature of the game, but it doesn’t feel good to lose.

Your peers are also your competitors in many practice areas. They love and support you so long as you stay in your lane, don’t get ahead of them, and accept their advice. But when you start winning (and that is your master plan, right?), they won’t all enjoy sharing your victorious moment. Expect resentment.

It’s easy to get lost in the competition. It’s not hard for our competitive spirit to take over, consume us, and get in the way. Before we know it, we’re running their race instead of our own. They’re competitive too, and they’ll suck us in if we’re not careful.

The competition likes to win as much as we do, and they’re not always thrilled when they perceive our victory as their defeat. We’re not good at celebrating on behalf of one another. Don’t expect a supportive environment, and you won’t be disappointed.

The solution

Competition can be invigorating, motivating, and energizing, but it can also become exhausting. Not to wear out the race metaphors, but this is a marathon, not a sprint. You’ve got to set your own course through this journey. You don’t want your actions to be reactions to your competitors.

It’s essential that you create and see your own vision for your practice. You need to make decisions about the way you’re going to practice: the values you’ll embrace, the clients you’ll serve, and the kind of work you’ll do for those people. Your vision will guide you far better than letting your competitors influence your path.

As you race forward, pay attention to your reactions. Expect some competitions to go well but others to go poorly. Watch yourself as you win, but watch yourself especially carefully when you lose out, either in court or in business. Use every experience as a learning experience. Each win and each loss are opportunities for growth. Growth over the long term is the course to follow.

5. You’re feeling overwhelmed

The feeling of overwhelm–too little time to do too much work–can seem like a good thing, initially. Many of us go through a long, dry spell as we work to generate enough business to feel busy with client work.

But the overwhelm can quickly become … well … overwhelming.

When we start to feel like we’re drowning, unable to come up for air, the novelty of being busy wears off–fast. We’re gasping for a breath that we can’t catch as deadlines stack up, calls go unreturned, and the backlog of work we need to process grows.

The solution

When we start to feel overwhelmed we often react by searching for better systems, software, and productivity apps. We desperately hunt for ways to get more done in less time. But all too often, the real solution to our problem is more hands on deck. We need the help of a bigger team. Unfortunately, even with all the work we’re doing, the money just isn’t there to enable us to add personnel.

How can we be so busy yet so broke?

Overwhelm is often preceded by taking on a great deal of work at too low a price. We’re appealing to clients with our affordable rates, but we’re doing premium work. We’re selling ourselves short when we don’t bring in the fees required to deliver on our promises. Big promises in exchange for low fees leads to more work than we can do in the time allotted. The solution? Higher prices, which often require better marketing so that we can attract better clients.

Congratulate yourself on generating the work you’ve been successful in bringing in so far. Double down, get caught up, and then go back to the pond to find some bigger fish.

6. You feel unqualified and ill-prepared

Imposter Syndrome is real.

Feeling as if you’re faking it is common, and many of us suffer from feelings of inadequacy. We don’t talk about it much because we’re so busy trying to bury those feelings so no one will know. When you look for our feelings of inferiority, you don’t see them because we develop thick skins and adequate coping mechanisms. But trust me–we’re feeling it.

Even when we get over it, we’re not over it. When we feel pretty good about our ability to do one thing well, we get a client who asks us to level up and do something we’re not yet ready to do. Then, when we master that higher level, it’s time to level up again. We’re definitely feeling it.

We work in a field where substance abuse is more common than open and honest conversation. We’re not willing to be vulnerable and share our feelings of inadequacy, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have those feelings.

The solution

Imposter syndrome is a thing. It’s going to happen. There’s only one way to completely stop it, and that is to stop doing more, stop stretching, and stop growing. You’ll stop feeling like an imposter when you stop striving to become the lawyer you aspire to be. That’s not likely to happen.

Our destiny is to keep growing, to keep moving up to the next level, to keep taking on more challenging work. Bring your imposter feelings along with you. Knowing the rest of us have those feelings, just like you, makes it a little less scary. But it’s never easy. Keeping it under control requires frequent conversations with yourself, and reminders that you’re getting better each and every day.

7. You’re not earning what you deserve

We come to our solo practices with high expectations. We’ve worked hard, we’ve suffered long, and we’re ready to reap some rewards. That will happen. But it won’t necessarily happen as quickly as we expect.

It’s normal and reasonable for most professional services firms to take a couple of years to get revved up. Building a base of clients and referral sources doesn’t typically happen overnight unless you’ve built that base elsewhere before hanging out your shingle.

Expect to invest time, and sometimes money, in building your reputation in the community. Only then will new client inquiries come your way. Don’t look for shortcuts. Don’t take the easy way. Do the work and you’ll earn what you expect.

The solution

First, budget carefully for this undertaking. Spending the money before it flows into the law firm coffers always leads to disappointment and debt. Bide your time and the money will come. Watch your personal expenses as well.

Be cautious of the lifestyle creep many lawyers experience. We look around at successful lawyers, who’ve already been working to grow their practices, and we start living the way they’re living and spending the way they’re spending. We’re tempted to keep up with the Joneses.

Second, stick to your vision. Work to bring to fruition your clear sense of what you want to build. Invest time and money in making your plan happen. Don’t expect to spend the money until you fully work the plan. Getting distracted and failing to keep moving directly toward the vision you’ve created slows your progress, reduces your chance of success, and leaves you with less money in your pocket.

8. You’re not sure you can make this work

You wouldn’t be normal if you didn’t have any doubt. I’ve known lawyers–cocky, seemingly self-assured, confident lawyers–who, when the going gets tough, get very down on themselves. In private they aren’t nearly so confident. When they worry about paying the rent or making the car payment, they tear up if we’re in a private setting. We all harbor doubts. We all feel it.

The pressure builds when something goes wrong. And it’s never just one thing. We lose a hearing and later that day a prospective client decides to hire a different lawyer. We’d been counting on that fee. And then the paralegal quits and your car needs a major repair. There’s always something else to make things worse.

On those dark days, we stare at our hands and wonder if we’ve got what it takes to pull this off. Clients are counting on us. There are others counting on us as well, needing us to succeed. We have others still, who invested in us and expect us to make it work. We feel the pressure we put on ourselves, but we feel even more pressure in the expectations of all of the people who surround us, support us, and believe in us. We’re just not sure.

The solution

Know that you are not alone. Everyone has doubts. Every successful lawyer has passed through dark periods and come out on the other side. Some of us will even talk to you about it.

Don’t sit by yourself and let the doubts flood your mind. Reach out. Ask us about our dark moments. Misery loves the company, and we’re a talkative group of folks. We don’t mind sharing our stories of struggle and survival. We feel your pain and we’re willing to listen and to share the resources we found to make it work. We’re not afraid to be vulnerable with you, if you’re vulnerable with us first. Lawyers are usually pretty good people once you peel back the wool suits and leather shoes.

More importantly, though, is your belief in yourself. Sometimes you have to remember the courage it took to open your practice on day one. You need to remind yourself that you stepped forward boldly. The courage you demonstrated on that first day is still right there inside you. Sometimes it just takes a smoke break out in the alley. You need to find your courage when you need it, because it’s in there–it hasn’t left you.

You’ll survive, thrive, and be fine–I promise

Being a lawyer is harder than it looks. We live well, we dress well, we have big pretty smiles. But it wasn’t easy to pull that image together. We’ve all faced challenges.

We look around and see others succeeding, and they often seem invulnerable. But you should know that they wear a thick protective mask that hides their scars well. We all have scars. We didn’t make this work without some suffering.

Yes, you’ll wonder if you’re going to make it. You will. We did. Most of us do. It just takes perseverance, hard work, some luck, and the willingness to face a big dose of stress, fear, and anxiety. You’ll make it.

There are other traps of being a solo, but these are the biggies. They’re tricky if you don’t see them coming. However, knowing they’re out there changes everything. Knowing you’re not alone and that what you’re feeling is normal makes it easier. It’s simple to be proactive about dodging the traps before you fall in. You’ll quickly find a path around the trouble and stay on the path toward success as a solo.

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