Happiness is not an automatic by-product of practicing law. Some lawyers do not enjoy the area of law in which they are practicing; some are unhappy with their compensation; some have clients who are aggravating; and some are working in firms that do not fit their work-life balance philosophies. Indeed, some lawyers can identify with each of those problems, which pretty much guarantees career misery.
Going solo may be right for you if you feel that you can relate to these issues (were you nodding your head as you read that list?) and have three critical interests and abilities: (1) bringing in legal work, (2) doing high-quality legal work, and (3) using business practices that ensure that you will be paid for your work.
I graduated law school in 1991, got married 18 days after taking the bar exam, did a one-year judicial clerkship, and then worked at a few small law firms before deciding to go solo. My experiences with the small firms varied: some were positive, and some were…not. What motivated me to go solo in 1997 was that I knew I wanted children sooner rather than later. I had been with my husband for 10 years at that point, and I was 30 years old…so young, yet old enough to already see the exhaustion in my friends’ faces as they tried to bill 2,200 hours a year without also taking care of a baby or two.
I knew that I wanted to practice law and spend time with whatever children I would be lucky enough to have. So, instead of deciding not to work (which many women lawyers at that time felt was their only choice), and instead of deciding not to have children (which many other women lawyers at that time felt was their only choice), I decided it was time to go solo.
And I did. And I am delighted to say that 18 years later, I am still positive that was the right choice for me. I am a happy lawyer. Here is why, in no particular order:
1. I practice the substantive area of law that I really enjoy.
I represent employers and employees in all aspects of employment law. This area is very interesting; everyone has a story about his or her boss, employee, or job! Because I am solo, I do not have to decide to represent “only management” or “only employees.” As long as I do not have a positional conflict, I can take on whatever cases I choose. In fact, part of how I have marketed my firm is by emphasizing that I understand how both sides operate, because I represent both companies and employees.
2. I get to see my children and friends a lot.
I did not want to have children and never see them. I wanted to be able to be there when they were healthy and when they were sick. I wanted to attend their school performances and be there when their friends came over. I did not want to completely outsource the parenting function and miss out on all the fun I had heard raising children could be.
My son was born in 1998, and my daughter was born in 2001, and I never stopped working. I worked differently (i.e., more efficiently) and on a different schedule (i.e., when they slept or were at school) than before, and that schedule has continued to evolve. I really did watch them grow, and they really saw me doing mom things and yet working in a demanding profession. Now that my eldest is about to start college and move hundreds of miles away, I am even more grateful that I could be present while he grew up. My weepiness is that I will miss him, not that I did miss him.
And my friends — I have a lot of them! I get to see them! We eat lunch; we get dinner; we go to concerts and shows; we work out together. Because of my work situation, I can make my family and my friends my priority, and I structure my schedule to ensure that these relationships get the attention they so deeply deserve.
3. I can decide to represent whoever wants me to represent them without having to vet the client to my firm.
I do not have to worry if the client’s matter is too small or may conflict, either in perception or in reality, with someone else’s client(s). If I find a potential client truly problematic, I can heed those warning signs and decline the matter, because there is no one senior to me to dictate what cases I will and will not accept. I need to make a living, but I do not have billable hour requirements. This gives me breathing room.
4. I can decide whether I want to work at my office, or from home, or from somewhere else.
There is no “face time” in my practice. I can work anywhere that I can get my work done. My voicemail is emailed to me as soon as the message is left, so I am on top of my incoming calls. I don’t have to pretend I am sick if I feel like working while sitting outside in my backyard instead of in my office; I just set up outside and get going. Traffic or weather is bad? Who cares. I don’t have to make any excuses for where I choose to work!
5. I don’t have billable hour requirements, and I keep all the money I earn.
I do as much work as I need to do to make the kind of income I want to make. I do not have to arbitrarily bill 2,000+ hours to meet someone else’s definition of success or hard work. I have no billable hour requirements that result in pressure to inflate bills or churn clients. And, after my expenses are paid, I keep everything. I do not have to worry about carrying someone who is underperforming or whose realization rate is not good. This enables me to budget and plan with much more certainty.
6. I get to do whatever volunteer work or outside work that I want to do.
I am an adjunct professor of law at American University’s Washington College of Law, where I just taught employment discrimination last fall and where I have taught employment law for many years. I am vice-chair of the D.C. Bar’s Continuing Legal Education Committee, and I teach a number of CLE courses each year. I have cochaired ABA Section of Litigation committees (including chairing the Solo and Small Firm Committee for two years). I have chaired committees at my children’s schools, including two years chairing a 5K road race fundraiser for the PTSA. I have helped with other school-related events. I became certified as a Maryland EMT and volunteered as an EMT with our local fire department for several years. If I did not have my own firm, I do not think I would have the autonomy or flexibility to explore all these different opportunities.
7. There are no office politics.
If my name is on it, I wrote it. If the client retains the firm, I brought in the client. If a client is or is not happy, I am the one who is responsible. If money is saved or spent, I decided what to save or spend. There is no issue of who wrote that convincing letter, who gets origination credit, who is handling the client relationship, or who is too cheap or spends too much! I share office space with very nice people with whom I have no office politics or drama, and it is a joy.
8. I get to go to the gym.
This is huge to me. Like, tremendous. As in, there have been times I have considered changing my work situation, and my first thought is, “But I won’t be able to go the gym in the morning, so it wouldn’t work.” During the workweek, I am there every morning Tuesday through Friday, and that is as critical a part of my day as is the time I spend at my office or with my family. It is to best ensure my mental and physical health, and as a solo, I will never have to apologize for it or get questioned about it.
9. I don’t worry about losing my job.
Again, as long as I can bring in the work, do the work, and get paid for the work, I have job security.
10. Clients like that they will work directly and only with me.
Clients who are comfortable retaining a solo have often told me that they like knowing that I will be the only one with whom they will work. They do not worry that I will bring them in and then have a different attorney doing their work . . . which is not what they wanted. It gives clients one less thing to have stress about, and I like that.
If you read this article, and are still nodding your head, maybe it’s time to go solo.
Diane A. Seltzer Torre is the principal of The Seltzer Law Firm in Bethesda, Maryland. She served as cochair of the ABA Section of Litigation’s Solo and Small Firm Committee from 2008–2010, and as cochair of the Section of Litigation’s Employment and Labor Law Committee from 2004–2008.