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May 29, 2008

"You Ask...I Answer" - What Role Does A Spouse Play in Going Solo?

Question: Let me start by introducing myself to you. I am a paralegal student. I love your weblog and it has truly been a source of inspiration to me.

My husband is an attorney. I came to the United States as a student from India, completed The image “http://www.shaadidirect.org/wp-content/uploads/2007/08/married-couple.jpg” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.my Masters in Computer Sciences, worked for roughly 2 years in the software industry until last fall and now I am enrolled in the paralegal program due to a keen interest in law and thanks to my husband's encouragement that I could potentially be a lawyer myself. We got married last year. He moved to my part of the country to be with me while I finish my paralegal degree, but now we intend to move back where he is from and hang a shingle. I come from a family of entrepreneurs and the idea of a solo practice is very appealing to me as well (my aunt in India has been a succesful solo practitioner for many years).

I am also currently doing some IT-related work as I finish my paralegal certificate program part-time. However we hope to be able to move in a couple of months and I am unsure and concerned as to what my role should be. I am trying to help my husband out as much as possible by helping set-up a website etc., for his firm, but I am afraid if I will hurt more than help by not having a steady job as he sets out on his own. My husband however wants me to help out and thinks that he will need all the help he can get from me. We do have some capital saved up to keep us going hopefully until his practice gains momentum.

I however would love to hear your 2 cents on what you think a spouse's role should be while setting up a solo practice.

Answer: This is a great question and I'm sure of interest to many.  I will answer this scenario only, though, as it is unique but it will give others what to think about when considering the role of the spouse in this context.

So much turns on the level of support you feel you can offer your husband and how desirous he is of that support.

Most importantly, your husband wants your support and you want to support your husband.  This is the crucial ingredient. Now you both need to determine what he means by support and decide if you can fill that role and if that role is right for you...and your marriage.

You both have an entrepreneurial spirit as he wants to start a solo practice and you love the idea of being an entrepreneur and maybe even a lawyer.  Given you are newly married and you make no mention of children, you just have the two of you to take care of at a time in your life when you will be laying important foundations for your professional and personal growth AND have the time and energy and desire to do so.

These are very compelling arguments.

In addition, given your IT background and your paralegal background you will be actually contributing significantly in a tangible way to your husband's practice.  Without your assistance, he may have to do the paralegal work himself thereby taking away from important marketing/networking duties or higher rate billable hours.  In the alternative, he will have to hire a paralegal or administrative help, both which cost money.

When you do your cost/benefit analysis, any other type of job you take on will have to compensate for this expense.

From an emotional perspective, you have to decide if you can work well together; do you have the personality to work in away which allows him to thrive in his practice; do you want to eventually get your legal degree and become a partner?  All these thoughts and ideas and goals must be clarified as they play a very important role in both your futures as a business partnership and a married couple.  If you decide to have children how will this impact your working relationship?

In the final analysis, if everything else fits....from the description you provided, it might be very wise to devote your considerable talents and energies to helping the practice grow.

There are many successful husband and wife law firm partnerships as well as spouses who work within the law office of their lawyer-spouse.  It turns on mutual goals and respect and the talents each one brings to the practice.

I know many of my readers are practicing with their spouses or have their spouses in their law offices. If you would like to help this reader and others with your experiences, please share.

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Comments

Chuck Newton

This is really great. My wife (a/k/a Girlfriend) and I are both lawyers. Although not really partners in the since of the law firm, we work together on almost every case. We work from our home. I have got to admit that early on there were rough patches as to work styles, etc., but it is really quite wonderful now. The difference is that we applied to law school together, went to law school together, took every law school class together, and both studied for the Bar with a newborn baby in our lap. (That newborn is now in law school). The bottom line is that whether or not your spouse works with you, no solo practice in a marriage is really solo, because the practice affects the marriage and the family (hopefully in positive ways) and the marriage and family affects the practice.

Kira Fonteneau

Honestly, the most important thing a spouse can do to support the new solo is be supportive. That can mean working a steady job that provides health insurance and a stable income, or it could mean providing office help. At this stage, your husband probably does not know what he will need, so it is important to be flexible and understand that the needs may change. When I started my practice in 2006, the most important things my husband did for my practice were believe in my ability and give me the space to follow my dream even when I was not sure of myself.

anon

To the wife-- make sure you make a rock solid employment agreement and get paid a salary from the firm. You shouldn't be doing the work for free. Worst case scenario is you will spend years building this firm, may or may not become a lawyer, and will end up with nothing to show for it if you part ways with your husband, leaving you destitute. Be cautious!

PerGynt

Having a spouse that buys in to the idea that you are in business for yourself is essential, especailly if you are working from home. None of this, "You don't have a real job, why don't you go do the grocery list, and then go get the kids." That kills a business effort.

Anonymous

Kira and PerGynt both have it right. The inconvenient truth for those contemplating or pursuing solo practice is that the absence of spousal support can make the process far more difficult than it has to be. Repeated questions concerning long and short-term priorities, reliance on a banker who demands ROI faster and greater than any commercial lender, "requests" like those PerGynt referred to for time away from your "real" job regardless of consequences. . . many of us can't escape those. No matter how sound the advice is in general, there are times when it is neither prudent or possible to avoid the potentially most negative person near you.

Don't get me wrong. Your spouse likely knows you better than anyone else. It would be foolhardy to ignore their observations and suggestions. There may be times that one's family responsibilities (either financial or in terms of work/life balance) properly dictate changes in career management. The fact remains that one is better off (in lawyer's terms) working from a presumption of success within the family unit. The burden that its absence imposes on the new solo can be crushing.

N.B. Bruce Allen's Marketing Catalyst blog published a letter he drafter for a BigLaw attorney's spouse describing the new commitments he/she would have to undertake in support of a rainmaking campaign and asking for support for the effort ( http://tinyurl.com/5zvuzu ). It's a good start on a checklist for the sort of discussion within the family before the start of any solo venture.

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