I graduated from law school and took the bar in 2013. For the past year, I’ve been working as a law clerk in the Denver District Court and laying the groundwork to open my own practice. On Sept. 1, I officially launched. It’s been a wild ride just getting here, and I’ve learned a lot along the way. So, for anyone out there thinking about going solo, here are the top three lessons I’ve learned from hanging a shingle.
Lesson 1—There’s More to a Law Practice Than Practicing Law
If you’re toying with the idea of starting your own practice, ask yourself this: how much do you like learning to do things you never thought you would do? If that doesn’t sound fun, don’t quit your day job.
Since deciding to open my own practice, I’ve designed a website, set up an online ad campaign, learned about search engine optimization, written articles online and off, taught myself business accounting, and learned the finer points of trust accounting.
Before I set out on my own, I did not know how to do any of that. Still, I’ve had a ball. I’ve learned what I’m good (and bad) at, and there’s nothing like solving a new problem to boost your confidence when it comes to your ability to improvise.
Honestly, I sometimes wonder how I have time to practice law given everything else involved in running a business.
Lesson 2—Lawyers Love Supporting You (Even If They Think You’re Crazy)
When I say I’m opening my own practice, fellow attorneys have two responses: “That’s great!” and “That’s … brave.” I’m pretty sure those in the second group are not saying what they are thinking.
Still, even the people who have serious doubts about my sanity have been more helpful than I had any right to expect. The overwhelming response I’ve received from attorneys has been: “It’s been great to meet you. Call me if you need anything.” Two or three lawyers have even offered to act as co-counsel on a case until I get comfortable on my own. Another one made room in his office suite for me to rent.
The lesson from all of this: If you meet enough people, you will find some who think you’re crazy, but you’ll also find help, support, and friendship.
Lesson 3—You Have to Want to Do It and Believe You Can Do It
Launching a practice has been a ton of work. It’s hard; it’s scary; sometimes it feels impossible. More than once, I’ve woken up at 3 a.m., heart beating like a bass drum, thinking I’ve made a terrible mistake. Every time, two thoughts have sent me back to sleep: hanging a shingle is what I want to do, and I can do it.
So, why do I want to do this and what makes me think I can? Well, I always thought I’d eventually end up running my own practice. Autonomy and the chance to rise or fall on my own talents and hard work are too attractive to pass up. But, during law school I imagined it would be a long time before I was able to reach my goal. A couple of things changed my mind and gave me the confidence to go solo sooner.
First, I worked at a district attorney’s office during law school. After reviewing hundreds of misdemeanor files and trying around 20 cases, I realized that with enough help, it’s possible to be competent quite quickly. After graduating, I clerked in the Denver District Court, and experienced the best and the worst of civil and criminal litigation. After seeing that, I realized that with enough work and a lot of help, I could do it.
Where is all of this help coming from, you ask? I’m a solo practitioner after all. Well, this goes back to lesson two: Lawyers like helping lawyers. Since deciding to open my own practice, I’ve built a support network of colleagues who have been happy to help if I need it. Without that, I don’t think I would be able to practice on my own. Online resources have also been extremely helpful. The ABA and CBA both run listservs for solo and small firm lawyers where people can ask for referrals, case law, or just the name of a good printer repair person. Add to that the mass of books, blogs, and websites devoted to setting up and running a practice, and a budding solo lawyer can find all the help he or she needs.
Opening my own practice has taught me more than I imagined it would. I’ve received incredible support from other lawyers, and found myself facing challenges I never thought I’d encounter.
Now, all I have to do is master practicing law.
That one’s probably going to take a while.
By Sam Cannon, who practices employment law, personal injury, and criminal defense in Fort Collins. He’s been running his own practice since September 1, 2014. So far it’s going well. He can be reached through his website a www.cannonlaw.com.