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An Excerpt from Solo out of Law School | Turn Downsides Upside Down

There are endless reasons not to start a law firm. Think about it.

After all, you have no experience, no paying clients, stiff competition from alternative legal service providers with massive marketing budgets and worst of all, a very real fear that people may actually know that you feel like you don't have the slightest clue what you are doing.

Most people would be hard-pressed to name another profession where an otherwise bright individual (you did make it through law school, sit for and pass the bar exam, after all) would look at the current state of his or her industry, see the bleak outlook, and move forward anyways.

So how are you going to use those challenges to your benefit?

As an attorney, you have acquired the ability to think about practically anything from multiple perspectives. In the field of law, two sides can look at the same set of accepted facts and draw two entirely different conclusions based on perspective. I'm a big fan of the television show, Dateline. Dateline has become mostly an investigative and true crime show typically showcasing hour long real life murder mysteries. One of the most frequent themes seen during an episode is police officers confronting a suspected killer (usually an ex-lover or spouse) with news that their loved one has been murdered. Often, the reaction by the unsuspecting interviewee is central to the question of guilt at a subsequent trial. Prosecutors and police very often point to subdued reactions as an indicator of guilt, the logic being that anyone who finds out that someone they care about has been killed will react in an outburst of forlorn emotion. Of course, those that react with such raucousness are also pinned as murders who must just be "putting on an act." Meanwhile, the defense views such reactions very differently. Perhaps the lover was so overcome with shock that the surreal news produced no emotional response. Or, naturally, for those that do react with an outburst of tears and desperate screams are reacting as one should react to hearing such life-altering news.

The point is that the undeniable facts of the situation can be interpreted in two entirely different ways depending on the lens through which they are viewed. As an attorney, you can probably see both sides of that coin. After all, it's your job to take the facts of any situation and use them to your client's advantage.   

The ability to take that skill and apply it to building your business is going to be essential to your success. Just like a good prosecutor or defense attorney faced with a client's taped reaction in a murder investigation, you need to take the facts of your situation—whether real or perceived—and make them work to your benefit.

For example, maybe you’re afraid that a potential client, when facing a choice between you—a newly minted attorney without much more than some mock trial experience and a summer internship at the District Attorney's office under your belt—and Joe Lawyer—who has practiced civil litigation for 25 years and successfully negotiated dozens of cases to six and seven-figure settlements—would never realistically chose you over him. But, that lack of experience does not have to be a negative. Instead, maybe it can mean that, unlike Mr. Lawyer, you have no preconceived notions of what the process should be. A settlement may not be in your client's best interests. Mr. Lawyer may know that he can take a quick paycheck by getting out early because he has handled a similar case before. To him, it’s an open and close case.

Meanwhile, because of your lack of experience handling that type of case, you know that you are going to have to spend countless hours poring over statutes and case law to build a working knowledge of the issues involved. During your research, say that you find a rarely seen exception to the law that means your client will easily win on the merits if the case goes to trial, meaning a much higher payout for both you and your client.

The very lack of experience that you were viewing as a negative has all of a sudden turned into one of your strongest traits. Not knowing the law led you to uncover a way for your client to win big. It led you to see the case as a unique set of facts and circumstances while custom fitting a solution to those facts and circumstances.

Your lack of experience isn’t a weakness. It’s a strength. It enables you to represent clients without any preconceived notions of process or outcome.

What about the lack of paying clients? Clearly, your business is doomed to fail if you don't have a steady flow of new business coming in. And, in the beginning, taking on a new client is probably going to feel less probable than winning the lottery. Trust me, I've been there, and it gets better in a hurry. But until it does cash flow will be limited for a time as you get yourself established.

Unfortunate? Sure. But, look at it through a different lens. Without much technical legal work to do, you have ample time to focus on business development. You have the ability to spend your valuable and limited time perfecting your product and your delivery. What makes you stand out from the crowd? What's your angle? Akin to developing a prototype of a new invention, which can be tested and tweaked until it is the best it can be and ready for sale, you are going to need time to test and perfect your product. Honing what you have to offer future clients will give you the foundation you are going to need to survive long-term.

It’s not a negative, it’s a positive.

Lack of paying clients merely frees your schedule so that you can focus on developing a product that paying clients will want to use and recommend.

What about the lack of a steady stream of income? While it obviously may seem bad, try looking at it differently. Right now your funds are limited which means that you're going to need to maximize every dollar you spend, whether on advertising, software, networking or even paying for your personal needs. You simply don’t have the luxury of wasting a single cent. That’s going to force you to think about what expenses are essential to the operation of your firm. It's going to force you to cut out everything that is unnecessary to running a successful business.

Lack of money enables you to stay lean and able to adapt to changing market conditions. 

What about all that competition? After all, you're not the only one out there practicing in your area of legal specialty. Stiff competition in a crowded industry may mean fighting harder for each client. But, it also means that there are countless other lawyers and firms from which to learn. Look at the firms that have been around for 100 years. What do they do that is so effective? What about the lawyers that have weathered the storm and figured out how to make it five or ten years on their own? How did they find their footing and how do they distinguish themselves from the masses?   There is competition in every industry. Embrace it and make it work for you. 

Lack of a client base, lack of income, and stiff competition can all potentially unhinge your fragile business before it gets off the ground by stomping you down mentally. But, viewed through a different lens, they can create an ideal environment in which to build a new business. It's all about perspective, and by turning negatives into positives, you are going to give yourself and your business more than a fighting chance to succeed.

To read more, check out Solo out of Law School | A "How-Can" Guide to Starting a Law Firm as a New Attorney

Solo out of School is a book for both law students thinking about a solo career and attorneys looking to open their own firms. It's about mindset, motivation, and viewing your solo career with perspective that allows you to see yourself and your work as something you can be proud of.  It's not a "how to" guide to starting a law practice. It doesn't say anything about the tools you'll need or whether to open a brick and mortar office. Rather, it's a "how can" guide to developing the mental toughness and right mindset to succeed as a solo attorney.  It's a collection of little lessons and simple reminders for when your choice to go solo in the first place come into doubt.  Solo out of School is about finding the strength and motivation to keep pushing. By embracing the words on its pages, my hope is that you'll realize, no matter how much you doubt yourself or second­guess your actions, you are good enough to be successful as your own boss.