Going Solo; Confessions & Inspirations - Jerry Bartholomew
Jerry Bartholomew writes a beautiful post which will inspire even the most fearful. He has five kids to feed. He is living in Michigan with a seriously depressed economy. Yet July 4th was 'his' independence day and as he writes this post he is just three days into his new solo practice. Be very inspired.
Guest Blogger - Jerry Bartholomew
Less than two weeks ago, I told my boss that, after nearly three years at his small firm, I didn’t see that it would work out for me to stay on. His response? An offer for partnership that I had until the following morning to evaluate and either accept or reject.
Well, this week I am, happily, a new solo attorney. July 4th became my own personal “independence day.” As I write this I am beginning the third day of my practice being in business. Though I can only develop the storyline so far from that vantage point, I can give you my thoughts on what brought me to this transition and where I see things headed.
I was for several years a Latin teacher and coach at a private school in Miami. As enjoyable as those years were, my wife and I really wanted a large family and knew that a private school teaching salary would only go so far to feed many mouths. The law certainly seemed to suit my analytical nature, so off we trekked across the country so that I could attend Ave Maria School of Law in Ann Arbor, MI. The education was great and the people were terrific. And I left with more than a degree—I had begun law school with three children and graduated with five, and I now had roughly a bazillion dollars in debt.
The fact that I was graduating amidst a collapsing Michigan economy didn’t help. I was offered an associate position with a small firm with whom I’d been clerking, and as I was gearing up to slide into that position, an attorney with whom I’d had intermittent contact over the previous year offered a position that seemed full of promise, including very good potential income and fast-track partnership. More than 18 months after joining that firm, I received an employment agreement, which, among other things, indicated that I would be considered for partnership once our two-attorney firm was handling more than 600 cases per year! (At the time we were handling perhaps 80 or so.) Life at this firm really began to deteriorate from that point on. Add to this that the boss clearly wanted me to remain a "back office" workhorse rather than do any networking or rainmaking. Although he made some offers to change that arrangement toward the end, I made the judgment that the relationship was too damaged to sustain and doubted whether the promises would ever come to fruition. So, with my wife expecting and the firm still not providing health insurance, it became clear that I could not invest any more time into a relationship in which so much trust had been lost, and a role that just was not the right fit.
My wife and I have for well over a year now been devotedly taking advantage of a number of resources online: Susan’s incredibly inspiring blog, Enrico Schaefer’s posts on the new way to practice law over at the Greatest American Lawyer, numerous other bloggers on solo practice and marketing, as well as following the Solosez discussions on a daily basis. From all of this we took away one overarching lesson: the practice of law has entered a new era and a good many of the old rules aren’t rules any longer. And for that reason, solo practice is a possibility today in a way that it was not ten or even five years ago. The technology, the tools, the software, the mentors, the community, the social media—they all open the door to entrepreneurship for an attorney with a skill set and the passion to make it work.
So, after more than a year of being inspired, of learning and preparing, and then finally having made the jump, here are my take-aways:
- 1. Big Law is not the only bad guy out there. Any job can be the wrong fit. Be true to your own ambitions and talents.
- 2. Remember that the boss who keeps reminding you of “paying your dues” like he did didn’t get the memo that, though we don’t eschew hard work these days, there is a new practice model that utilizes technology, emphasizes what is right for the client, keeps overhead low, and thrives on collaboration. And yes, you can be up and running in about 48 hours, which is about how long it took me.
- 3. This economy is scary. I live in Michigan where, in my area, unemployment hovers around 10 percent, foreclosures are rampant (I can see five from my front yard), and legal competition is fierce. Yet, there is tremendous opportunity, especially in those practice areas friendly to economic volatility (see Susan’s posts in the category Demographic/Economic Trends on bankruptcy, landlord/tenant, etc.). Look for the opportunities. In times like these, people need help, and attorneys are always in a good position to help people.
- 4. Amidst an unstable economy and an evolving legal practice landscape, solos are in the best position to adapt. At my last firm, making the smallest change, such as updating an address on the website, would literally take months. Changing a practice model? Forget it. And that was a very small firm! One of the earliest observations Enrico Schaefer blogged about at the Greatest American Lawyer was his ability to innovate: he could wake up with an idea in the morning and have it implemented by noon. That is the speed of business today, and those who can’t innovate will feel the pain later.
- 5. Fear is a huge factor in making the jump to go solo, and it’s palpable. First, I recommend addressing this fear spiritually. Second, it helps to have visual imagery. Enrico used the image of the Greatest American Hero and adapted it to the practice of law. For myself, with my family hanging in the balance, I looked inside for a fighting spirit and found the image of Ron Howard’s Cinderella Man for inspiration. Find your own image that will help keep you focused on your goal and able to face down the fear.
- 6. Get connected. Build relationships, both online and offline. This is old school in many ways, but today this practice has a significant new dimension due to word of mouth marketing, blogging, and the ability to build trust virtually. But don’t just get out there to “network.” Be genuine. People can tell when you’re not.
- 7. Take advantage of virtual offices, voicemail options, and tools like Basecamp to create a business model that keep overhead low and allows you to focus on your clients.
- 8. Read Michael Gerber’s E-Myth books. Read Malcolm Gladwell. And Seth Godin. And Tim Ferriss. You’ll start to see possibilities you never knew existed.
Leaving my job was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. With many mouths to feed, lots of debt, a baby on the way and a depressed economic environment, most people would quickly conclude that I was crazy. But I disagree. The alternatives weren’t better, and this path is true to who I am. I find myself full of hope and a fighting spirit, standing on my own two feet for one of the first times in my life, deeply committed to making this work. I have some very good cases right out of the gate, and plenty of reason to think more will follow soon. I want to thank Susan and everyone else whose inspiration and sound advice has made this week possible.