In advance of CBA-CLE’s Hanging Your Shingle event, Solo in Colo spoke with keynote speaker Carolyn Elefant. The Washington D.C.-based solo and blogger talked about getting her start as a solo, learning the ropes, and the importance of technology. Below is the first half of the interview. Read the second half here.
Solo in Colo: How did you know you wanted to go solo and what did you do to ensure you were ready to go solo?
Carolyn Elefant: I always thought that I might eventually work for myself because I like the flexibility, but when I actually started my firm I was not really ready to go solo. I was five years into my legal career and I was laid off from my position as an associate at a medium-sized energy law firm and I looked around for other positions but it was a recessionary period, though not like it is now, and I didn’t find anything. I thought, well, I thought about starting a firm, I might as well do it now. I was married and just bought a house but I didn’t have kids and I didn’t have student loans, so I figured I might as well do it now.
To make sure that I was ready – that was in 1993 – at that time the D.C. Bar had one program on how to start a law firm. It was basically just one woman talking about her own experience starting a law firm and it was very different from the experience of most of the people who attended the session. She had been a partner at a big firm and had essentially broken off her practice and took two associates and a paralegal and a secretary and that was her version of starting a law firm. There was also one solo energy attorney who was renting space in the office where I had my firm. I talked with him a little bit about his practice.
Because I wanted to take cases outside of energy cases, I looked around for programs I could take. The public defender’s office in D.C. had a three-day training program that was free, so I signed up for that and took that program. I think from there, that was pretty much what I did.
Solo in Colo: You say you are solo by choice (the title of your book and your keynote presentation at Hanging Your Shingle), but at a time when the economic outlook is shaky, are you seeing more lawyers that are solo by necessity? If so, what advice do you have for them?
Carolyn Elefant: Even though people are becoming solos by necessity, they still do have a choice. My choice was to choose law. When I lost my position I remember talking to friends who said well you’re in your late 20s, you’ve been married for a year or two, why don’t you just start a family and leave the profession? There are different options. There are also people who leave the law entirely, so my feeling is even if starting a law firm is your last resort, you’re still making a choice – you’re choosing to have a career in the law.
I do think there are definitely more people who are looking at the solo option these days and it’s a much more diverse range than it ever was – from those graduates who just can’t find a job, to young associates and also older attorneys.
The biggest piece of advice is to know why you’re starting your firm. Don’t be embarrassed about the reasons you’re starting it and whichever strategy you decide to take, just commit to that strategy and be flexible.
For example, when I started my firm, honestly I thought of it as a gap-filler that I would do for a year or two and after that have kids or get hired on by another firm when the recession abated. As it turns out, I enjoyed practicing on my own so much that when I had kids my firm was starting to take off and I didn’t want to stop. I stayed solo because it accommodated a family.
The second piece of advice is to make use of technology to the extent that you’re comfortable with it. Becoming familiar with tech tools that will support the goals that you have in your practice will give you an edge over your competitors.
Solo in Colo: What is one thing you learned in the first year (or few years) of practicing on your own that you wish you had known?
Carolyn Elefant: If there’s an opportunity, take advantage of it, even if it’s risky. When I started out I was very risk-averse. Sometimes there would be a book that I could have used for my practice that was really expensive. Instead of just buying the darn thing I would make 10 trips to the library, when it made more sense to just have it. I think there are many times when people can put some money into their practice that will save them time and they’re just so busy pinching pennies that they don’t do that. As a result, they wind up wasting time and it takes them longer to grow. I think on one level you should keep your overhead low and not spend beyond your means, but on the other hand if there is something that involves a little risk you should go for it because it will enable you to grow faster and make better use of your time.
Solo in Colo: How would you recommend new solos find what area they want to practice in?
Carolyn Elefant: I think in terms of practice area and figuring out what to do, you don’t necessarily need to specialize right at the beginning, but I think you should at least rule out stuff that you don’t like or you’re not good at – subjects that you hated in law school, things you have no interest in – and maybe focus on a couple of different areas. Focus on at least one area where there appears to be a demand. Usually for solos starting out, there tends to be demand for court appointed criminal work, family law, or, if you have the skills, immigration law. I would also look into working in areas where you have a built-in niche or interest. If you’re a new lawyer who loves to ride motorcycles and you’ve been riding with the same group for a few years, maybe doing something like motorcycle law. Also, look at areas where you might have had some background or built-in contacts and then figure out stuff that you like. There’s also pro bono. There are a multitude of cases you can take. You can take one or two of those and see if you like it, see if you’re good at it, and maybe turn it into something that you do for pay also.
Solo in Colo: Inevitably as a solo you’ll run into a question you’re not sure how to answer. How did you know when to go to a colleague for help and how did you choose the person you sought out?
Carolyn Elefant: Often it would depend on the practice area that I was in. If I needed assistance with energy work I have one or two colleagues who I was able to call on, and I had done some work for them or some favors for them in the past, so I didn’t feel like I was taking advantage of them.
For things that were outside of my energy experience, for example if it was a criminal matter, at the public defender’s training they gave us a number and said we could always call. When you take a CLE (and this is a benefit people don’t realize when they take a CLE or a pro bono program) … the people who teach those classes will often stay available to answer questions.
Finally, there are listservs. I belong to the solo set of listservs and from time to time when I’ve had some questions I’ve posted them on the website and we have a local contingent of solos, so I’ve met with some of those people informally to ask questions. Sometimes if it’s a really complicated matter I offer to pay someone for a few hours of their time.
Please note: this interview was edited and condensed.