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Be Reasonable | An Excerpt from "Solo Out of Law School"

The following is an excerpt from "Solo Out of Law School--A How Can Guide to Starting a Law Firm as a New Attorney"

Solo out of Law 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 Law 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 second-guess your actions, you are good enough to be successful as your own boss.

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Be Reasonable

There's nothing wrong with making plans for your business. You should consider all of the standards—cash flow, startup costs, when you are going to get clients, how you are going to get them, what you are going to do to generate referrals, and so on. But, my advice is that you need to be reasonable in your projections and your predictions.

The reality is that it's likely going to take much longer than you think to get to where you want to be.

When I started my business, I made the mistake of spending a substantial amount of my startup capital on advertising. I thought, almost embarrassingly, that if I pumped enough money into sponsored listings with search engines and social media websites, clients would be flocking to me right away. That certainly was not the case. Because of that hasty decision-making and unreasonable expectation, I put myself and my business into a hole early on. It would have been much easier, and much less stressful, to start slow and start smart. 

It’s easy to fall into a trap like I did, as we tend to tell ourselves something is bound to happen if we really want it. Silly, I know, but everyone can relate.  It’s human nature to have faith in our beliefs even if that faith is unfounded. By putting some reason behind those beliefs we can give faith an objective ally.

In the beginning, there is really very little that you need to get started. Any new attorney can send out a nice letter to family and friends letting them all know what he or she is doing. In fact, I guarantee that, if it hasn’t happened already, your family and friends are going to be approaching you with plenty of legal issues they need advice about. Naturally, you’re not going to be able to help everyone because you simply don't have the expertise. But my point is this: There will be work that you will be able to do, and it will come to you with little or no effort. Of course, it’s probably not going to be enough to keep you up and running for the next few years, but it will hopefully show you that there are going to be people that need your help, and if you can keep reasonable expectations of how often those opportunities are going to arise, you are going to be ready to assist when they do. 

That definitely does not mean that you shouldn't have lofty goals for what you want your business to become, but it does mean that you need to remember that it's going to take some time to reach those goals. In the short term, you need to look for small victories. Setting yourself up to meet realistic expectations is going to give you perspective and it's going to enable you to set realistic benchmarks for success. Hitting those will provide you with the motivation to keep pushing and give you optimism that you're on the right track. If you don't set reasonable expectations, you're never going to hit those benchmarks on time, and you may quickly convince yourself that you must be doing something wrong, or it's just not for you.

Set your expectations low and set yourself up for success.

Thinking that you're going to be pulling in $15,000 a month on a steady basis isn't realistic unless you are in an incredibly unique position in the market or geographically.  I didn't pay myself a salary for six months as I built up a cash reserve and kept the lid on my spending. When I finally did pay myself, it was much less than my business plan or projections said it was going to be.

If you're expecting a $100,000 salary in your first year, don't bother taking the plunge into the world of solo practice. As has been said by practically any attorney who has done this before you, starting a firm isn't easy. And, a hefty paycheck certainly isn't going to come overnight. Reign in your expectations. Figure out the minimum you need to live and aim for that in the beginning. Your goal at the start is just to make it one more day. You're going to need time to feel out the market, establish yourself, and build your brand.

Understandably, it's hard to gauge where your firm will be in the future and when it will be there, so my advice is talk to other lawyers that have done it and ask them how long it was before they really truly were where they wanted to be. The answers might surprise you. They might give you a pessimistic view of whether you can actually succeed. But you know what? You can and you will, but only if you take it one day at a time and set reasonable expectations.

Oxford dictionary defines success as "the accomplishment of an aim or purpose." Often times we think of success in terms of achieving a particular level of wealth or outcome in a relationship or career. But look at the definition. Success is a finite concept. Once you find it, there's nowhere to go. You've hit the finish line. In business, how are you going to even begin to define what that finish line will be? Take a look at successful companies and you'll realize that they never hit the finish line—they aren't successful, but instead they are continually reaching for success while constantly redefining what success means to their businesses. You need to do the same thing.

Success by definition is a terminus. It's essential to the growth of your business that you don't ever feel satisfied. You should continually strive for success, but in doing so you need to always adjust your expectations and objectives in a way that is going to keep you moving forward. In business, there is no finish line. 

Michael F. Brennan is an attorney at The Virtual Attorney™ a virtual law office helping clients in Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota with estate planning and small business legal needs. He can be reached at michael.brennan@mfblegal.com with questions or comments, or check out his website at www.thevirtualattorney.com.