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September 25, 2008

'Going Solo - Confessions and Inspirations' - Ryan Roberts

Ryan Roberts is a relatively new solo in Texas who works with startups.  He is known to his clients and on the internet as The Startup Lawyer.  His effective use of technology has helped him get large clients who also consider BigLaw.  Why?  Because he has effectively used the internet (at low cost) to level the playing field.  So, I introduce you to  The Startup Lawyer,  Ryan Roberts.

Guest Blogger - Ryan Roberts

I launched my startup two years ago. I call my law firm a startup because I run it like one:  bootstrapped, mobile, and flexible. I wanted to go solo because I am a family man and want to be there for them on my schedule, no one elses.

After I graduated University of California, Hastings School of Law in 2003 and passed the bar exam, I worked at a startup company for three years.  Thus, I had the luxury of already experiencing a bootstrapped startup environment when I opened up a solo law practice. 

Working at the startup, I became familiar with the business decisions a lawyer deciding to go solo will encounter:  What type of office should I get?  How should I set up telecommunications?  What type of office furniture and equipment are necessary?  What type of online presence should I have and how much should/can that cost?  How do I network with other people and set up strategic relationships? 

I firmly believe starting and running a law firm is half-business, half-profession.  I don’t feel that believing practicing law is also something in addition to a profession cheapens the practice.  If you go solo, you are an entrepreneur launching your own business.  And if you don’t get the business side of your law practice right, you will never get the chance to practice the professional side.   

While I had decent business experience, I had no network of clients and attorneys when I went solo.  Thus my “professional” side was lacking.  While I would have liked having either a foundation of clients or network of attorneys starting out (and I would have loved both), I want to stress that going solo can be done completely with a clean slate.   

Furthermore, I really did not know how to practice law when I went solo.  While I handled a lot of transactional work during my three years at the startup, I never had to find a client, interview a client, manage client expectations, bill, or use a paralegal, etc.  Thus, I also want to stress that going solo can, in fact, be done right out of law school.

The following is some advice I have for those going solo or just thinking about it:

How did you choose your law firm’s location?

I selected my law firm’s location based on what I’ve dubbed the “Cheesecake Factory Principle.” Growing up in California, I noticed that the Cheesecake Factory always opened their restaurants in thriving business areas. Thus, I decided to open my law firm in Southlake, Texas, a suburb of Dallas and also home to a new Cheesecake Factory. I figured I would just borrow the Cheesecake Factory’s R&D on Southlake and move on to other decisions. The point is– try your best avoid paying for or wasting time on answers to questions that have already been answered by others.

What type of office do you have?

I started out in a mid-range executive suite and have since moved to one with a better location and conference room. I have intentionally avoided signing any type of long term lease (12+ months) because I feel flexibility is key in your first 2-3 years as solo. You might need 3 offices next year, or what you thought was a great location might not be that great 6 months later.

How do you market your law firm?

Before I started out, I was warned by an older attorney that I wouldn’t be able to go out on my own because I couldn’t afford the overhead expenses like yellow page advertising (in addition to a secretary, a huge office, etc, etc). Yellow pages? The last time I saw one of those books it was being torn in half by The Power Team in my high school’s auditorium.  I avoided large marketing expenses and bootstrapped my firm’s marketing. If you are going to spend, do it on your business cards and website (and when I say “website” I mean blog used as a website).  And don’t forget to blog.

How important is technology?

You have to use technology and use it to your advantage. If technology makes you nervous, then I would reconsider going solo. Effective us of technology is that critical to a solo’s success.  In the least, technology has been important to my early success.

As lawyers, we are about 6 years behind the tech curve and that may be generous. For example, law firms are not currently interested in search engine optimization (SEO) and you can level the marketing playing field via blogs and practice area websites. For example, Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, a fantastic law firm with a killer venture capital practice states on its website:

“We have more experienced attorneys focused on representing start-up companies seeking venture capital financing than any other law firm.”

Well Google doesn’t think so. I googled “venture capital lawyers” and stopped looking for a Wilson Sonsini URL after the 10th page.

How did I select practice areas?

I’m a big believer in focusing in on one or two (if both are related) areas of law. If your practice areas look like a laundry list of legal areas, you run the risk of becoming a jack of all trades, master of none. While difficult, resist the urge to cast a wide net for potential clients. The more I have reduced my areas of practice, the better the practice has done in terms of both revenue and clientele.

What would I do different?

React quicker. I saw a t-shirt at the mall recently that said “Procrastinators Unite Tomorrow.” I felt like buying one just to tack to my wall. As a solo, you can change every part of your law firm quicker than any larger firm, and you have to use this to your advantage.

Good luck.

Twitter:     www.twitter.com/startuplawyer
1560 E. Southlake Blvd., Suite 220
Southlake, Texas 76092
T:      +1 972 951 7575
F:      +1 888 839 6343


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Thanks Ryan, great post; very inspiring.


Interesting Article, I moved to Grand Prairie ( 360 & NW 19th) and would like to add Texas consulting to my Chicago practice. I am not licesed in Texas and don't know if I want to go through the process. I find Texas law very different from Chicago, or maybe it is the same "who you know." I am interested in your thoughts and talking to you.

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