"Going Solo; Confessions & Inspirations" - Solomon Neuhardt
This Going Solo; Confessions and Inspirations comes from Montana solo attorney Solomon Neuhardt, someone who clearly could have had a career at Big Law with his credentials but realized right from the start it simply was not for him. Sol's had a colorful career including being a criminal defense consultant for court TV. He also has some interesting experiences with completely outsourcing tasks to India as well as outsourcing his legal brief writing even though he has the skills to do a great job himself having been a sought after former law clerk and law review writer.
Guest Blogger - Solomon Neuhardt
My reasons for starting a solo practice were multi-faceted. After I graduated from law school I clerked for more than two years and gained tremendous experience. I interviewed with several white shoe, silk stocking type large law firms in Seattle during my clerkship. I knew that I didn’t want to work at one of these firms because my hours were going to be incredible. The firms bragged about how I would get a bonus because I was a federal law clerk and showed me a picture of new associates from last year that was almost entirely federal law clerks, including one from the galactic Supreme Court. I envisioned myself buying a cot and having a shower installed in my office. I did not follow up with any of these firms and knew that this would probably never be an opportunity I wanted to pursue.
At about the same time, I interviewed with several larger firms in Montana but the politics of the firms seem run thick and deep. I received great support from the Judge I was working for. I ultimately took a job with a small firm in Great Falls Montana. I was only there six months. At the time there were serious ethical issues looming over the firm that resulted in several of the attorneys being publicly censured. I left before the cow turds hit the fan.
In May of 2002 I took a position as a Deputy Public Defender in Yellowstone County Montana. This provided several opportunities for me. I was able to obtain courtroom experience which I was not able to do previously and criminal defense was an interesting area of the law. It was exciting and fun. This provided a launching pad for me to establish my solo practice. Before this I couldn’t figure out how that I could establish a solo practice without working for a law firm and have some experience. I wanted to start a solo practice for several reasons: flexibility in hours (although now I am working more hours total but just not the traditional 8-5), flexibility in choosing my clients, being able to associate with other attorneys for their expertise but not having to establish a partnership or be in a firm to work with them, and for hopefully being to make a better income.
In April of 2004 I opened my own practice in Billings, Montana. I remember the first day in my office I was laying on the floor (because I didn’t have any office furniture yet) wondering if I had made the right decision. In hindsight this is the best decision I have ever made. My practice immediately started booming with criminal defense cases and now I have shifted to primarily personal injury. I would offer the following words of wisdom for someone opening their own practice:
- It is really true that networking is your best source for new clients. Establish great relationships with your existing clients and take care of them. Have lunch with them on your dime. Go to their place of business or home to talk with them about other things than their case and show genuine interest in them. This is absolutely the best method for building your practice.
- Keep costs low for yellow pages otherwise it will kill you. This can be extremely difficult to do. You will be bombarded with phone calls and visits from the yellow pages to web sites that want to promote you or your firm. It is easy to spend 10 or 20 thousand a month on advertising. The biggest killer is usually the yellow pages however I have received some great results from yellow page ads also. I ran full page and half page personal injury ads very near the front of the yellow pages and received very few good phone calls. I researched yellow page advertising and expected it to be a big hit. It is really hit and miss and more miss than hit. I am trying it again this fall in another yellow page book and using what are called metered ads (each ad has a unique phone number that rings to my office). On the other hand for criminal defense and dui I ran two very small but dramatic eye catching ads that have paid for themselves a thousand times over. I highly recommend the book Effective Yellow Pages Advertising for Lawyers from the American Bar Association.
- Be careful about spending a lot of money on books, subscriptions, fancy furniture, and computer software. I bought an $800 calendaring, contacts, email, case management software that did not work out. I use Google Calendar and it works fantastic. My legal assistant and I both have access to make changes and we are both looking at the same calendar. Some books you need but a lot of information can be found on the internet. You can buy many books used on Amazon.com or halff.com. You can potentially share subscriptions with other lawyers that you office share (and I highly recommend office sharing initially). I don’t recommend cheap furniture from the big box stores such as Office Depot because it will fall apart the first time you use it but much of my furniture was made at Montana State Prison and is outstanding.
- Office share in a nicer space. I know I have been able to retain more clients with higher fees because I office share in a spot that looks great. Perception is reality for clients. I do recommend on spending a decent amount of time and money on the aesthetics. If your office and lobby look great this makes a great impression for clients.
- Hire a great assistant. This can make or break your practice. Sometimes this may be someone with no experience but they have a great work ethic and they can learn from others. I have every horror story possible related to my previous assistants and don’t wish this on my worst enemy (or enemies). I travel overseas typically when I travel and I have been burned almost each time. Just because you pay them more money doesn’t mean you will get a better assistant. Their interpersonal skill with clients, judges, other attorneys, etc. is critical and goes a long way. Treat them well and compliment them on a job well done. Do not hesitate to offer constructive criticism and do it right away. If you settle a large personal injury case for example, give them a bonus. Money talks and everything else walks.
- Outsource to India. This includes a virtual assistant for business and personal tasks, for your website, for maintaining computers in your office, for writing articles (except this one) and for any task that someone doesn’t have to be in your office. I started doing this recently and it will save you a ton of money and headaches. Hire a virtual assistant for $4 an hour to make appointments and make calls to clients. Have the assistant call clients to remind them of appointments. Have the assistant call your car dealership to set up a time to have your car taken to be repaired. Hire a good one and they are amazing. Outsource your brief writing. As a former published member of the Montana Law Review I think my writing skills are decent. I outsourced a brief I didn’t have time for and received back an amazing product that with some minor editing I filed for a charge of $400. These savings of course can then be passed along to the client. My website design and maintenance is done in India for $8 an hour. I was previously paying $50 an hour. I also hired someone to write articles on personal injury for $5 per article. The articles are consumer oriented and are one or two pages. It doesn’t get much better than this.