Solo and Small Firm

So You Think You Want To Go Solo: Seven Skills for Solo Success

By Somita Basu


Many attorneys have considered hanging out their solo shingles. We’ve all had frustrating days when the partner or senior associate just doesn’t like any work product we generate. We can’t seem to say or do the right thing. And as we drive home late at night knowing full well we will have to turn around and go back to the office in seven hours, we dream of working for ourselves. Imagine having the freedom to take the clients we want, our name on the door, and no partners breathing down our necks. It’s not all a dream! It’s possible and within your reach — if you have or can develop the following seven key skills for success as a solo practitioner. Read on and see if you’ve got what it takes to hang out that shingle.


Let’s be honest. Entrepreneurship is not an easy road. But it can be immensely rewarding to be the master of your own fate. But perseverance is the word of the day for all solo and small firm practitioners. There are great times — when a large retainer comes in or when you win a long, hard-fought case in trial. But there are also valleys. Days when the work can seem overwhelming or clients are all clamoring for your attention at the same time or opposing counsel is being difficult just to be difficult. But the times when your grit and perseverance will be needed the most is when the flow of clients through the door seems to slow to a trickle through no apparent fault of your own. You have to tighten your seatbelt and keep going. Keep doing all the things we talk about below (Skills two–seven!) and keep your motivation as high as you can. It’s completely normal to feel sometimes like you can’t make it. But trust me, you can. Talk to your friends, your mentors, your colleagues, and your family. Unburden yourself, have some nice wine (not the bad kind at networking events, see infra), and start again the next day. Perseverance – it does a solo good.


Let’s face it, many of us are just not extroverts. If making small talk or walking into a large room of 100 people drinking bad wine from plastic cups makes you hyperventilate, don’t worry. Many of us feel this way. There are many kinds of networking, from one-on-ones to small groups to the dreaded ballroom full of bad wine and insincere glad-handing. You will need to find your lane. But make no mistake, networking is one of the biggest foundations to success as a solo and small firm practitioner. Referral partners are a good source of referrals, and that includes other attorneys. You will have to actively network all year long, including during busy times! So make a plan and devote the time in your day to make it happen. Obviously, you will need to adjust your plan as you learn more about your networking style and who your preferred referral partners are. Be prepared to kiss a lot of frogs before you find the ones that will turn into referral partner royalty for your practice.


Do you have a “messy” desk but know where everything is? That’s wonderful! But it won’t serve you well as a solo and small firm practitioner. Clients generally don’t want to wait around on the phone or in the waiting room for their attorney to find their file. If you like paper files and don’t use an online document organization system, then your organizational system will be more important than ever. It’s important to note that most solo and small firm practitioners are extremely mobile. Solo practitioner life brings with it the flexibility to work from wherever we want — provided we have Skill 4 (see below)! However, even old-school practitioners can be mobile and effectively service their clients if they are well organized. As a practical tip, that means don’t leave papers unfiled or put to the side for later. Handle the papers that come into your office as quickly as possible. Leaving them for later leads to disorganization and sometimes sheer panic. Set up your organizational system — either virtual, paper, or both — as one of your first tasks when you open your doors.


If you love the smell and warmth of freshly printed paper, you are probably going to need to adapt your mindset to take full advantage of the tools that lend flexibility to the solo and small firm practitioner’s life. Legal technology is growing at an exponential rate. We don’t need law books in our offices anymore. The updated legal codes and regulations are all available at the touch of a keyboard or smartphone. There are numerous practice management software platforms available at reasonable prices. Do your research and get as many free trials as you can to see which platform serves your style and your goals best. Ask other solos for what works best for them and why. Document management can be done through multiple online platforms and you can access your case files from just about anywhere. Have a system or software to track all the people who contact you. There are multiple affordable options available now with more coming to the market every day. Technology is the secret weapon that allows solo and small firm practitioners to practice efficiently and profitably. Make sure it’s in your arsenal.


All attorneys have MCLE requirements. Solo and small firm practitioners, however, need to seek training that is timely, affordable, and convenient. To all the other hats solos wear, add student as another one. It’s important for solo practitioners to ensure they are up-to-date on the latest trends and developments in their area of law. In addition to substantive knowledge, solo practitioners need to enhance their financial literacy skills, their soft skills, and all the other skills that are needed to make a law practice thrive. Look for educational resources beyond your bar associations. There are many affordable and accessible training opportunities online. And even more in your local community. Find the best options for you. Eventually, it should be your goal to educate others — it’s a great way to network and establish your credibility amongst your peers and in your local market.


As a solo, you are your brand. Clients looking to hire a solo or small firm practitioner are not normally looking for the steel and glass highrise office, the super high-end snacks and coffee in the waiting room, and the valet at the office door. No, clients looking for you as a solo are looking for direct access to a qualified and experienced attorney who will listen to them. Regardless of the type of law you practice, all clients want someone to actually hear their concerns and address their legal challenges in a way that they can understand. Understanding that your clients are human beings with full lives who are experiencing some hardship will go a long way to establishing your reputation as a solid solo practitioner.


If you were previously in-house counsel or working for a large firm, you likely had very limited insight into the financial workings of the corporation or firm. But as a solo practitioner, your legal practice is your business. You are now officially an entrepreneur. Understanding the financial impacts of every decision you make will be one of the biggest factors in determining not just the success of your firm, but your satisfaction with your practice as well. For example, if you know what your overhead costs are and how much time you actually spend on client matters as billable time versus administrative and networking tasks, you can analyze your operation and determine how your profitability is most impacted. One of the biggest reasons why solo and small firm practitioners fail is because they take cases they do not want with clients they do not like due to revenue pressures. The beauty of running your own practice is that you can practice the way you want and take the clients you want. Knowing your financials, no matter how bleak it may seem at the start, will keep your feet firmly planted on the ground and help you to make better decisions when deciding which clients to accept and which clients to reject.

Somita Basu is a partner and co-founder of the estate planning and probate law firm Norton Basu LLP, which has offices in the San Francisco Bay Area and in Los Angeles. She serves as Chair of the Solo and Small Firm Section.

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