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January 30, 2009

"You Ask...I Answer" - Should I Leave My Six Figure Job for Solo Practice?


I am a prosecutor with the Department of Justice. I've been at it for 6 years, and prior to that was at the state AG's office for 6 yrs … and the list goes on.

Basically I have been practicing for about 16 1/2 years. I've considered going out on my own off and on for many years but fear has held me back. I have a very decent salary well over $100,000 and the thought of starting my own practice in this economy scares the heck out of me. But.. I am really unhappy working on somebody else's schedule and just really not caring or being passionate about my job.  I feel completely removed from the reason that I went in to law - which is to help people. 

I'm just wondering is it really a foolish idea to consider opening my own practice in this economy? I'm interested in domestic law and wills and estates. 

Thank you.

Right now every lawyer who is looking for a job and terrified of their student loans and this economy is screaming, "NO! What I wouldn't do for a job like this! You're crazy!"

Well, that's like a group of larger sized women looking at a size four woman who used to be a size two and not understanding she still feels uncomfortable and miserable in her clothes even if a size four is still considered small by all standards.  Although she is slender compared to someone who is larger than a size four the discomfort that comes from not being comfortable in your skin still impacts your self-esteem, how you feel every morning when you wake up and your overall health on a daily basis. (This was not meant to be a sexist statement, just an analogy maybe some can relate to.)

So, how to answer this question?  This person is employed but miserable in her job.  Regardless the economy, my advice would be the same and what I have counseled others to do.  If you are employed, stay employed but with the goal of working towards a different type of employment - self employment  - if that is what you have your heart set on because no one can understand your angst at working in your chosen profession in a way which leaves you feeling empty regardless the size of the paycheck.

Therefore, is it foolish? It's your life, your risks and your rewards. You have to listen to your gut..  I don't know all your particulars such as whether or not you have a spouse and that person has steady employment? Do you currently live at the edge of your income?  Do you provide the benefits for your household?  Nor do I know your skill sets and whether you have built a reserve to cover you while you are getting your feet wet. But you do make a decent salary and probably work 9-5. And this economy is undeniably in a tailspin.

However, imagine if you constructed your business plan, started a VLO and did trusts & estates outside of your traditional work hours providing you are permitted to moonlight.  There is no litigation so you are not limited to traditional work hours and depending upon how you construct your VLO, meeting clients can be limited.  You work to build your client base as well as get a feel for whether or not you truly like what you envision is the greener pasture. You develop your network through blogging and other social media sites such as LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook.  You build a cash reserve to cover your expenses. Once you feel comfortable doing this and having planned financially...then decide if 1) you like working on your own and the pasture is in fact greener and 2) are really ready to get rid of the paycheck and benefits.

It seems to me if you are miserable in your job or feel unfulfilled for some reason, you should explore the opportunities and learn about being out there on your own without jeopardizing your current situation. Just planning for self-employment can make your current situation more palatable.  (However, it has also been known to make people very anxious to jump into solo practice sooner then they are ready.) This is a luxury many new solos don't have.  You at least have a safety net and practice area interests which permit you to work non-traditionally. And the added bonus, no one is really secure in their job.  Creating a plan B, even if you don't use it voluntarily, gives you some comfort. You know it is there if you if you need to use it because of an involuntarily layoff.  In today's economy, I think every employed lawyer should have a plan B which doesn't include getting another comparable legal job.  Why? The odds of getting a seat in today's legal jobs musical chairs game are getting slimmer and slimmer....as more and more chairs disappear.

I would also like to throw this question out to my readers.  What advice do you have?  What have been your experiences or feelings on the subject?

(And in case you didn't see, check out our recent faculty announcements at Solo Practice University.

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I think we need more information about this person's pension. He says he has 16 1/2 years in...6 for the state and 6 for the federal government. When does his nice federal pension kick in? How much will it be? Perhaps he could hold on for a few years and then practice as a solo to supplement his retirement income.

This may not be what this person wants to hear, and as you say, we do not know his financial responsibilities. Sometimes in life we have to keep doing things we do not like because we have to be responsible adults.

If we get more info on his pension then we can give better advice.


DOJ lawyers are not permitted to moonlight, so the VLO idea won't work. The only option is to either stay where he/she is, or leave DOJ. The latter means having enough reserves to support a practice for many months, if not a couple of years. It's particularly true if he/she does not want to be a criminal defense attorney. As a former DOJ prosecutor, I can tell you that criminal prosecutors know next to nothing about estate work, or anything other than criminal trial work.

I made the jump 9 years ago, but moved to a law firm where I handled (i.e., learned) complex civil litigation. Although the economy is bad, there actually is a market for people who know how to try a case and talk to a jury. Law firms figure they can teach you a given area of law; they can't teach you 16 years of trial experience. A decent law firm might be the best transition from DOJ to solo practice.

On the plus side, it was the best move I ever made. I didn't want to move at the time, but had to relocate and the U.S. Attorney's Office in my new home wasn't hiring. I terribly missed being a prosecutor, but soon began to enjoy the new challenges and new areas of law. I particulary enjoy the freedom of running my own business. It's terribly stressful in this economy, but I do enjoy being free of rules handed down by clueless bureaucrats.

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