When you start your own law firm, there’s a lot to consider. What will you call it? Where will your office be? Will you have a solo practice, or hire other lawyers and start building something big?
Choosing a direction for your law firm is a big decision. Whether you’re striking out on your own, looking for a partner, or considering hiring additional staff or attorneys, there will be plenty of benefits and challenges to face. How do you know what will work best for you?
Unfortunately, we can’t see your future. But, we can get insights from other lawyers who have been there and done that.
Three lawyers shared their experiences with us—two have grown firms to teams of over 40 lawyers, and one has (mostly) stayed solo:
- Kelly Hayes, Owner and Managing Partner of Burgeon Legal Group, now a team of 40+ lawyers
- Aaron Hall, CEO and attorney at JUX Law firm, now a team of 40+ lawyers
- Carolyn Elefant, Founder and Owner of Law Offices of Carolyn Elefant, editor of MyShingle.com, and author of Solo by Choice: How to Be the Lawyer You Always Wanted to Be.
Based on those conversations, here’s a look at some of the key differences between staying solo and growing a team:
Solo Practice: More law
When comparing life as a solo to life as a small- to medium-sized firm owner, the solo route might be better for those who want to spend more time actually practicing law.
Without employees, there’s no payroll to manage, and no office policies to keep updated. Carolyn says that as a solo, she finds there’s much less administrative work to do overall. That leaves more time to spend practicing law.
Team: More management
Both Kelly and Aaron agree that firm growth means more time spent on management.
“The larger you become, the more time you spend managing the organization, and the less time you spend doing legal work,” Aaron says. “My advice is, don’t grow unless you’re willing to spend less time practicing law and more time managing.”
A career in management might not be what you expected after law school, and it isn’t for everyone. However, you might like it more than you think. While Kelly misses practicing law, she enjoys managing her firm.
“It’s a different challenge every day,” she says.
Solo Practice: More flexibility
Why did Carolyn go solo? “It’s been mostly for the flexibility,” she says. “I like the flexibility of being able to stay on the edge of practice areas. I like taking on different types of cases.”
In addition to being a respected writer and speaker in the legal community, Carolyn is an energy and eminent domain attorney, and has taken on cases involving ocean renewables, wind, solar, and more.
Of course, it’s also worth considering the potential advantage of a flexible schedule that comes with going solo. Just look at Shanita Gaines, who balances her career as a solo lawyer with life as a single mom.
However, there’s also a degree of flexibility that comes with managing a larger team: Kelly points out that, when you’re not going it alone, “the firm continues to make money if you’re not working,” so vacations and/or the odd day off might be less troublesome.
Team: More camaraderie
For many people, working with a team is one of the benefits of coming to work every day. Both Aaron and Kelly say they enjoy the energy and camaraderie that comes with life at a larger firm.
“It’s easier to feel energized in a workplace,” Aaron says. “Maybe you can get that from an office sharing environment, but with a team, you have other people who you can bounce ideas off of and relate with.”
At Burgeon Legal, things are a bit different, as everyone works remotely. However, Kelly and her partner Betsy invest a lot in making sure everyone is connected. “I love the camaraderie that comes with a sizeable team,” she says. “There’s always someone to talk to.”
Solo Practice: Difficult to retire
If you’re a solo lawyer, you need to consider what the value of your business will be when you retire. For Carolyn, this is a big question that anyone choosing a solo practice needs to answer.
“If your firm becomes a ‘cult of personality’—if clients are coming because of you and they don’t want to work with other lawyers—if you want to sell your firm or give it away [when you retire], it won’t be as valuable an asset,” she explains. “I think that’s something a lot of solos don’t think about. Your business should be an additional asset.”
There are creative ways to tackle this issue. For example, Carolyn has been looking into building a contracting arm that would be easier to sell off or give away.
Team: Difficult to manage risk of clients leaving
At a growing law firm, Aaron says retaining clients might be more difficult than you think. He points out that in some states (including his native Minnesota), lawyers cannot sign non-compete clauses. This helps protect a client’s right to choose his or her own lawyer.
In other words, should an attorney choose to leave your firm, they’ll likely have the option of taking their clients with them.
Aaron admits that lawyers working in partnerships are less exposed to this risk (he doesn’t currently have any partners), but still, this is a key consideration for those looking at growing their law firms—especially since client acquisition can be costly, depending on your area of practice.
How can you combat this? Take the time to build a culture, mission, and core values that bring your legal team together. Aaron says he hasn’t seen much of this in the legal industry in the past, but that he expects to see more focus on culture going forward.
Solo Practice: Lower administrative costs
As a solo, you’ll likely pay less to keep your firm running. There are plenty of costs that come with operating a law firm, even as a solo. But, as you your law firm gets bigger, those costs grow.
“When you grow a firm, you need processes, procedures, and business infrastructure to support those who are practicing law” Aaron says.
Certainly, once you consider the costs of additional malpractice insurance, extra office space, and more tools and resources, expenses can add up quickly. Before you start adding people to your team, you need to make sure you’ve got a handle on all of the costs involved.
“When I hired the full time associate I needed it to be more profitable than it was,” Carolyn said. “I think that’s one of the things people need to take into account when they hire associates. You need them to be a revenue machine that generates two or three times what you’re paying them.”
Team: More backup
While hiring a team can be costly, sometimes, that extra backup can be priceless. “As a solo, you don’t have somebody to back you up and take on cases if you have to leave the office, or if there is an emergency,” Carolyn says.
Similarly, Kelly notes that she enjoys not having to do every single task at her firm on her own. “I still work 50 hours per week, but I can delegate tasks like client intake. I don’t have to return every phone call,” she says.
Finally, you may be able to tackle larger cases when you’re not alone. Aaron says that having a larger team has allowed him to work with larger clients on more sophisticated, more complex, legal issues.
So, should you be a solo practice or build your team?
Only you know what’s best for your life and your business, so only you can make the decision to go solo or start building a bigger team. Keep in mind that your location, practice area, and personal preferences should also play a part in your decision making.
For example, will you be alright with having a team of remote workers, like Kelly does? Or will you need to rent/buy a large office to keep your team all in one place? Will you be lonely as a solo lawyer? Or will you enjoy the flexibility of jumping in to help with different firms and different teams?
While you’re thinking it over, here are a few final tips from the lawyers we spoke to:
- Ignore the naysayers. Looking back, Carolyn says she would have told herself to ignore those who were discouraging to her. “I would have told myself to think a little bigger,” she says. “Originally, I thought it was a placeholder. I thought I’d experiment for a year or two, then go back to something else. I wish I’d thought of it as a bonafide business venture from the beginning.”
- Think about what you want. Aaron says he would have told his younger self to spend some time thinking about what growing a law firm might mean before he headed down that path. “Think about whether you want to spend more time running a business or being a lawyer. Then, pick the path that makes the most sense,” he says. There is no right or wrong answer here.
- Prepare for changing challenges. Finally, Kelly would have told herself to be prepared for the different types of challenges that come with growing a team. “I think I thought that growing would just bring more of the same types of growing pains, but there are different challenges that come with having 10 versus 30 versus 50 staff,” she says. “For example, a team of 50 needs much more sophisticated processes and technologies than a team of 10.”
One more piece of advice from Carolyn? Even if you stay a solo practice, don’t be afraid to ask for help:
“Lawyers take pride in doing everything by themselves. I even know one lawyer who did his own process serving. Even if you stay solo, you still need to have a team behind you. Don’t be afraid to outsource work so you can take on bigger projects.”
That team may take the form of a network you can refer work to, or a suite of tools that you use to automate administrative tasks to save yourself time on non-billable work.
Whatever you choose, don’t let yourself get pressured into (or scared away from) having the practice you really want. There are plenty of tools available to help you reach your goals.