February 08, 2008

Rolling Admission Continues for Solo Practice University - Here's A Course Sample

Now that Solo Practice University has more than 500 students, I thought I would give you a taste of the style and tone of the very popular Solo Practice University E-zine so you can decide if you would benefit from signing up for this free newsletter or know of others who may.  This edition is called "Why The Solo Choice"

I'm a big believer in getting to the heart of the matter.  If you've subscribed to this newsletter chances are you fall into one of four categories. You are:
  • A Student (traditional or non-traditional) who already knows you want to seriously consider the solo option either right out of law school or shortly thereafter;
  • A New Lawyer (out of school less than three years) who either can't get the job they want or just wanted to get their feet wet first before striking out on their own; or
  • A Veteran Lawyer (practicing more than three years) who now wants to strike out on their own after years of working for another and/or feels they have no future or stability in their current employment.  You've defined going solo as the only option; or
  • A Current Solo Practitioner who wants tips on how to improve their practice.

If you fit into any of these categories, this newsletter will help you but it is primarily geared for those who want to get started.

So, let's get started!

In his very popular book, "How to Start and Build A Law Practice," Jay Foonberg pretty much says it doesn't matter why you are starting a solo practice. Then based upon his personal experiences goes on to tell you his perspective on how to do it.  His book has been a best seller for decades.

I disagree with Foonberg's premise 'it doesn't matter why you are starting a solo practice.'  It does matter why you are going into solo practice because your attitude about your choice (and everything in life is a choice) will color your entire professional career.  It will determine your financial and personal success as an entrepreneur in the legal profession. 

Your attitude is key to your success.

What is irrelevant is what others think about your choice to go solo. Unless they are your spouse or significant other, they don't get a say in your life.


Some of us are born entrepreneurs.

You know them, the friend, the family member who just grabs an idea and runs with it, genetically gifted when it comes to marketing, networking and turning mud into gold. They don't take refuge in employment.  They use any employment as a calculated stepping stone to their next entrepreneurial adventure. Sometimes they succeed; sometimes they don't. But they persevere because they know no other way. Nor do they want it to be any other way.  And they find success, sometimes success being defined as the process.

Some of us back into entrepreneurship.

You've always been intrigued at the idea of operating your own business and have often said, 'some day.' You are more cautious, cautiously optimistic you can do it.  But you get deeply upset, sometimes thrown off track when those you respect, including professors, career counselors, accomplished lawyers, point out all the reasons you can't accomplish your goal.  They fuel your natural insecurities.  This is human nature.  People you seek out for advice will project their fears upon you when you look to step out of THEIR comfort zone.  You need to learn how to recognize this.  Then separate yourself from it.

Some of us are forced into entrepreneurship.

You've been hit flat upside your head with any number of career surprises:

  • poor job prospects whether driven by the economy or school ranking,
  • unanticipated unemployment,
  • disenchantment working for Big Law,
  • a move cross-country to a strange city

You've experienced a professional disruption and simply don't know what to do.  You just never envisioned your current status.  Plus, you've never considered going solo before now. But you feel you either need to go solo or quit the profession.  You're paralyzed and frustrated, a little angry and scared.

You fit into at least one of these categories. Which one?

Just remember:

Every single one of these situations presents opportunity.  Entrepreneurs recognize opportunity and know how to capitalize on it.......

If you would like to finish reading the rest of this newsletter as well as others, sign up for Solo Practice University E-zine, Helping You To and Through Starting Your Solo Practice... and continue your education....tuition-free!

(Oh, and one other little surprise.  The final blueprints have been approved. As you are reading this, the foundation for the real Solo Practice University is being poured.  Dreams can come true. I promise to keep you posted ;-)

June 07, 2007

The Joy of Teaching - Part IV

The semester is over and I have just graded the final student's two year business plan for opening up their solo legal practice right out of law school.  This year I had 30 students which was a first as normally it is seminar style, 16-20 students.

There were quite a few revelations this semester which are worth noting.

Every semester I poll the students on the last day of class to see how many now see a solo legal practice as a viable employment option.  They are told it has no bearing on their grade, more to see if learning the business end of running a practice including extensive marketing techniques and the true costs of starting up (including how to manage student loans) has influenced their attitude from the beginning of the semester until the end.  Do they feel they could do it now if they had to?  Normally, I get a show of hands in the neighborhood of 50 percent.  This year I got 75 percent.  And having talked with the students and gotten to know quite a few, this wasn't 'make sure you please the professor, raise your hand.'  This was legitimate.  Most said they realized they could now do it if they chose to or had to.  This gave them a lot of comfort though many still had some trepidation, but at least not as much as they did at the beginning of the semester.

What did surprise me is the absolute resistance to blogging.  Most didn't really know what it was or had very little knowledge, most of it wrong.  Even those who agreed blogging could be beneficial felt they had to have a static website first.  Most thought it would be too time consuming to maintain and felt why would anyone want to read what they have to write?  And even though they were thoroughly educated on the methodology and the benefits and return on investment compared to more traditional methods, they still resisted.

Many, however, were very intrigued and then incorporated into their business plans the concept of a paperless office.

Many, and for all the right reasons, felt very comfortable with the idea of a home office.  They understood the ways to deal with clients when working from home and appreciated the value of keeping their overhead very low.

Those who chose a private office, virtual office or shared space had very sound reasons for doing so.

While all the students were given the opportunity to have start-up costs up to $15,000 (of which they had to account for legitimately based upon their current circumstances and, if the money was borrowed, bank, 401k, credit card, relative, how it would impact their monthly debt service) almost all recognized they could be starting out for less than a third of this and did so.

The educational, emotional and financial backgrounds of the students were quite varied.  Some had overcome so many challenges in their short lives, starting a practice was not intimidating in the least.  Several had been successful (under age 24) entrepreneurs while in undergraduate school and starting a business was second nature. 

Several were older, all knowing they only wanted to go solo right out of law school.  One was such a hot commodity because his background was so unique, every major law firm in the country in his area of expertise wanted him 'of counsel' and he was already working with a few while he was in law school!  Another had a disabled husband, very sick herself, brimming with confidence that if she could handle everything she has in life so far, she'll do this, too.  She knew going to law school no one would hire her because of her precarious health.  She knew from the minute she was accepted to law school she would be going solo.

Almost all had paying legal jobs while attending law school, getting a head start on the learning curve rather than getting their fourth and fifth year of law school post-graduation 'on the job.' 

About two-thirds had staggering student loans and still others were more fortunate.  Yet seventy five percent knew they would go solo, if not right after school, within the first two years.

The practice areas for these students ranged from criminal to trust and estates to real estate to copyright to aviation to energy-regulation to family to full general practices.  No plan presented was unreasonable when the action plan for success was outlined.

The only thing that still troubles me is the more innovative the technology, the more the marketing game changes as a result of these technologies, the more rigid and intractable these students became in their beliefs in the old ways of attracting their clients.  And this from the younger generation.

Overall, there is immense satisfaction knowing these students are now armed with an opportunity, a choice, a road map for going solo upon graduation if this is what they want to do or need to do.  Some will use it right away.  Still others may use it one or two or three years down the road and others, never.  They will be able to modify it based upon their changed circumstances because they understand the concepts, the 'why' behind the 'how to.'   But, at least now, they know 'how to."

April 04, 2007

Going Solo Success Stories

This original column appeared the first week of the new year, 2006.  I'm resurrecting this column and posting it now as submitted, the unedited version, because it is the time of year when newly minted lawyers are thinking about their options and this may provide some much needed inspiration.

Solo Success Stories

Connecticut Law Tribune - January 2006 (unabridged version as submitted)

It is the first week of the New Year, 2006, and everyone needs a little inspiration to pursue their dreams. Every once in a while, it’s more inspiring to read about real life solos with the same fear and anxieties as yourself, successfully venturing out on their own. Here are three favorite inspirational solo success stories.

A former student, Frank, is 36 years old, one young child, a wife who is well paid in the corporate world, and in his last year of law school discovers they are pregnant, again. He has ten years of experience in the lucrative health care market and upon graduation is offered a job with the state which he gladly takes because he is legitimately scared to be without a paycheck, even though I told him with his wife providing a steady income and insurance, with his professional experience and connections he will be profitable in no time. He, quite frankly, is too concerned about "being without a job." Within a year, he calls me and tells me due to State cutbacks he’s been let go and decides he "has no choice" but to start his own practice. With slow and deliberate care, initial lack of support by his spouse and no support from his family, he baby steps his way into opening his own practice, sweat breaking out on his brow, even afraid to tell people. Just as he is about to open his doors, his wife is laid off just three weeks after returning from her maternity leave. She receives severance which gives them a little financial breathing room. With no other options, Frank plunges full steam ahead into building his practice. His wife now joins him to help with the research, filing, telephones and calendars. Long story short, within six months Frank is on track to earn a full fifty percent more in his first year of self-employment then he did with the State. The icing on the cake? The State looks to rehire him. Once paycheck dependent, Frank tells me he could never work for someone, again. The freedom he enjoys determining his own day, the balance in his personal and professional life, the unexpected pleasure of partnering with his wife (who is now thinking of going to law school) cannot be replaced by the false security of a paycheck even though he had been repeatedly told he must first start out working for "the firm."

Another favorite student, who ventured out on his own with another fellow student and with no help from me other than my class, did so right out of law school, and just 25 years old. His attitude was, "I have nothing to lose right now and everything to gain." He understood that once passing the bar the state says he is qualified to practice law and the state doesn’t require an apprenticeship at a law firm for a number of years. He had full faith in himself and his partner and their ability to get the job done. They had no money and, are you ready for this, took free space in his father’s building, literally a cleaning supplies closet, sharing their space with shovels and brooms and detergents, setting up their computer and telephone on a folding card table which they had to supply themselves. They signed up for every court attorney’s list, met clients at the court house or the client’s home. That was five years ago. Today he is married, purchased his first home in an upscale community, is established in a spacious and more appropriately decorated office, has hired associates and administrative help to assist with their burgeoning practice all while continuing to provide internships to Quinnipiac University law students to show them they can do it, too. His one wish, teach more about opening a practice in law school.

And one last favorite story is based upon an e-mail I received June 11, 2004 from a former student, just 26 years old, who, too, hung his shingle the minute he passed the bar. This is the abridged version, but his words verbatim.

"As you may recall my original intention was always to go out on my own straight out of law school–which I did. I am doing so much better than I ever thought was possible.....I know you always told us not to harp on the money side of things, but quite frankly, that was always my true driving force. And without going into specifics, I can tell you this: I was sworn in on February 20, 2004 and I have already made more money than I would have made all year if I went to work at some private firm.....I always took the attitude that I refused to work for someone else and for some reason that attitude was always looked down upon in law school....I’ll never forget one day in class you said to us ‘after you pass the bar the state will have told you that you are qualified to practice law.’ I think of that statement every time I go into a situation which I feel may be beyond my capabilities....one example of that was when I was going to my first pre-trial. I was back in chambers waiting for my turn to speak with Judge Kavenewsky and the State’s Attorney. Waiting behind me was Mickey Sherman...he represented Michael Skakel and Judge Kavenewsky presided—so you can imagine how under qualified and out of place I felt. I was so nervous I could have thrown up...I really began thinking to myself I had gone way too far and taken on more than I was ready for. The one thought which kept running through my head was what you told us in class. That, and that alone, was what helped me keep my composure. As it turned out everything went really smoothly. When I was leaving the court I did not think I could have felt better until, get this ( and I swear this is true!), I bumped into a kid who I went to law school with. He was always cocky about everything; his connections with New York City law firms, his grades, his BMW, etc. I talked with him for a few minutes only to learn he was still a TAC!"

Be inspired. Believe in yourself. Happy New Year.

April 02, 2007

National Law Journal Discusses How Law Schools Fail The Entrepreneur

The National Law Journal interviewed me a few weeks ago regarding an article on how law schools are failing the entrepreneur, "When Hanging A Shingle, Solos Are Reluctantly Solo". And I also suggested they speak with Melanie Jester and Bill Conger at Oklahoma City University School of Law who teach a course called Introduction to Legal Practice. (Melanie and I had e-met as well as talked on the telephone a few years ago discussing our frustrations as well as (dis)similarities in course content.) 

What I'm proud about (please indulge me one Cheshire cat grin) is the mention of Temple University's Career Counseling Office's ridiculous postings regarding solo practice right out of law school.  I had posted about this earlier here (without mentioning their name) and as a result the NLJ interviewed the school and they are going to change their current 'presentation' regarding solo practice as an option, claiming they were unaware of the website's content." Huh?

In furtherance of this failing, at the Ms. JD conference this weekend, an assembly of women from every corner of the legal profession, a few 'in the know' little birdies whispered in my ear something I know they would never admit publically.  There were many Career Counsel Officers present, having flown in from across the country.  When one was questioned 'why the resistance to providing support for solos within law school?"  The answer, "you will always have an uphill battle because our agenda is driven by ranking with U.S. News & World Reports.  If we turn out too many solos instead of placing within employment it impacts our all-important ranking." (Yes, sodium pentathol was flowing freely at this conference.) 

So, it will take a lot of chutzpah, blogosphere amplified conversation and a conscious decision by the law schools to toss out the U.S. News & World Reports ranking in order to create a curriculum that addresses the paying customer's real needs. In some bizarro way I understand the reason for the enslavement to a magazine's annual 'list' but I don't applaud it, I rebel against it and this sacrifice of multiple thousands of students on the altar of the false god of artifical lists. I would strongly suggest other magazines start creating more informative rather than competitive lists tailored to students' individual successes based upon quality of their education combined with after-graduation success as practitioners which would give rise to intelligent and thoughtful lists that actually matter in the real world.

Regardless, if you are unable to read the whole article (as it is by subscription), here it is:

When Hanging a Shingle, Solos Are Reluctantly Solo

Lack of business training in law school is decried.

Sandhya Bathija/Staff reporter
April 2, 2007

Luz Hererra opened her solo practice in Compton, Calif., she had no idea how to bill or create a retainer agreement, what to charge clients for consultation, where to drum up business — or who to ask for help.

"It took me two years before I felt comfortable running my practice," said the Harvard Law School graduate. "It shouldn't take that long, and I don't think it does for people who have support from their law schools."

It's a complaint of many solo practitioners, who claim their law schools failed to prepare them to "hang a shingle."

And while some law schools are beginning to address the problem with courses on law practice management, most schools aren't catching on, said Susan Cartier-Liebel, a solo practitioner in Northford, Conn., who teaches a course called "Law Office Management" at Quinnipiac University School of Law in Hamden, Conn.

Solo practitioners make up 48% of the private-practice lawyers, according to the American Bar Foundation's Lawyer Statistical Report. But only 5% of graduating law students immediately go into solo practice following graduation, according to a separate 2004 American Bar Foundation study. This is because schools aren't encouraging students to believe they're capable, Cartier-Liebel said.

"Law schools aren't preparing their students to take the bar and immediately hang a shingle," she said. "That's a significant portion of people in law school who are not recognized for their ambitions."

Discouraging words

On the career Web site of Temple University James E. Beasley School of Law in Philadelphia, students are told that solo practice means lawyers who are "generalists or practice in the personal injury area. It is difficult for someone to establish a solo practice immediately upon graduation after law school."

Louis Thompson, assistant dean for career planning for Temple's law school, said he was unaware that this was on the Web site and that the school will change it because it wants to encourage students to go into solo practice. The school introduced a course this year called "The Business of Law," he said.

" 'Difficult' may not be the right word to describe it," Thompson said. "But realistically, going into solo practice requires thought and planning, more than just doing a passive job search."

Which is why students are starving for help from their law schools, said Bill Conger, a professor at Oklahoma City University School of Law who teaches the course "Introduction to Legal Practice."

Students in Conger's class create a business plan, where they create a law firm, a Web site, lease office space and draft a lease agreement.

The course also addresses malpractice insurance, how to enter into a fee agreement with a client and how to set up trust accounts.

Tim McKinney, a solo practitioner in Guthrie, Okla., took Conger's class in law school and opened up his solo practice in 2005, immediately after graduating.

"The class helped me know what to expect," he said. "And it helped me refine some of the business."

Yet career development offices at most first-tier law schools only cater to students who want big-firm jobs,
Herrera said, explaining that she approached her alma mater, Harvard, to set up a program for students wanting information on going into solo practice.

"They told me students weren't interested in that," she said. "But then I worked with several student organizations to plan a session on it, and at least 40 students came."

Mike Armini, a spokesman for the school, said that when Herrera contacted the career services department, the school was very interested in working with her but the schedule was booked.

"It was a timing issue," Armini said.

Harvard Law School will start a course in professional services in spring 2008, which focuses on how to run law firms and law practices, Armini added.

It's seems when schools are called on the carpet and there is negative publicity afoot, they sing a different song.  Quite frankly, I don't care why they change as long as they change!

(Update:  You can see the whole article on Law.com where it was picked up.)

March 17, 2007

"Tip of The Week" - Stop Telling Me What 'I Can't' Do

Connecticut Law Tribune - March 19, 2007

When I was growing up my mother forbade my brothers and I to say, "I can't." Without fail, she would repeat her mantra, "Say, 'you don't want to' or 'you don't know how' or 'you don't have time.' But never let me hear you say 'you can't."

Therefore, I would like to officially strike the two words "I can't" from our lexicon. It has to be the most debilitating phrase in the English language. It serves no other purpose than to express fear at trying something new, encourages us to never challenge the norm, or, in the alternative, is a phrase we use to avoid doing what is requested of us.

When I was in the fourth grade, our class was going to put on the musical "The H.M.S. Pinafore, by Gilbert & Sullivan." I wanted nothing more than to be the Monarch of the Sea, one of the lead male singing roles. When I told the teacher I wanted to audition for the part, she explained it was a male role and "you can't." I didn't understand why? It made no sense to me.

I was getting my first lesson in blind, thoughtless, habitual sexism. I got off the school bus so upset I was inconsolable. Finally, my mother asked why I was so upset. I told her the story. She explained to me as only a mother can that the teacher was just buying into the norm. She was going along with "the rules" because it was easy. She lacked creativity and a mind of her own and wasn't looking for the best person to fill the role, just looking for the correct gender to fill the role. Therefore, if I really wanted the part, it was my job to let her know in no uncertain terms that I had the right to try out for the role.

My mother asked me about the tryout process. I told her that none of the boys really wanted the role. They were told they didn't have to memorize the words and they could even sing facing the wall, their backs to the audience, if they were scared. My mother said, "Go back to school, demand an audition, then memorize the lyrics and sing straight into the audience." I did. I got the part. It was one of those life-defining moments.

As a new lawyer, when I started my own practice right out of law school, my two partners (also newly minted) and I had a running joke. If I suggested something legally innovative, they would say, "You can't do that." I would say, "Show me where it says I can't?" And they would laugh, "The law according to Susan." From fourth grade on, the motivating principal in my life has been: Until someone shows me legitimately why I can't, I'm going to assume I can.

As new lawyers, we are told over and over again that "we can't" open our own practice right out of law school. Like my fourth grade teacher, these naysayers in the form of professors, career counselors, other lawyers, judges and family members are just projecting their fears upon you, maybe the very same fears that stopped them from venturing out on their own and pursuing their dreams. Find out why they are so fearful of you, so you can address the obstacles to the success they perceive to be insurmountable, one hurdle at a time.

You can open your own legal practice. Some perceived hurdles might present challenges you're not willing to take on. That, however, is very different than saying, "I can't." If you're just not willing to make those hard choices, that's perfectly alright. But you absolutely can open your own law practice if you want to.

I've stricken the phrase, "I can't" from my vocabulary and banished it from my household. If my husband says those words, I give him the raised eyebrow. If my three-year old says those words, I immediately say, "Don't tell me you can't. Tell me you don't want to or you're scared because you don't know how. If you're scared because you don't know how, I'll teach you how." •

Susan Cartier-Liebel is solo practitioner, adjunct professor at Quinnipiac University School of Law and a business consultant for solo and small firms. Her blog, Build A Solo Practice, is at susancartierliebel.typepad.com. She can be reached at [email protected]. Copyright © Susan Cartier-Liebel (2007) All Rights Reserved. No portion of this material may be copied, transmitted, posted, duplicated or otherwise used without the express written approval of Susan Cartier-Liebel

February 15, 2007

The Joy of Teaching (Part II)

This is why I love teaching and consulting people on how to open their own law practice right out of law school:  (E-mail dated February 13, 2007 - Reprinted with permission.)
"I'm so sorry but I'm not going to make it to class tonight.  Believe me, if there's any class I don't want to miss it's this one.  (I am so not just saying this.)  I'm a 3L, in my last semester, and the only courses that make sense for me to be taking this semester are my externship and your class because they are both geared towards my very near future.  It seems like such a waste of time to take the other courses that I have at this point given the looming Bar exam and the need to prepare myself for gainful employment.
May I take a moment here to gush on about things?  I never dreamed of setting up my own business but already after only a month or so of this class, I know that I am going to do anything possible to find a niche aviation law practice for myself.  I do not want to work as an "associate" anywhere and do the big partner's (or senior associate's) crap work (partly because I'm over 40 and I feel as though I don't really have that much time to put in all those required years of crap work only to find out I don't make "partner" anyway!  Those snobs!)  Just by listening to your lectures and reading the textbook, plus all of the other materials out there on the internet to help people like me (including yours), I actually feel confident that this is all possible.
You cannot imagine how thankful I am that I took your class - I had no idea that it would be about setting up my own practice.  I thought it would be about managing a law office and nothing more!  You have given me hope.  You may have given me a whole new life.  No joke!  I'm sure I will tell you again and again, before and after the course is over, how grateful I am that I took it."
My response:
"And thank you for this wonderful e-mail.  It's not gushing, it's heartfelt and very much appreciated.  This class is a labor or love and hopefully inspirational in a profession where the thought of hanging a shingle out of law school has the same shock/insanity factor as someone running naked through a court room.
So, thank you."

January 09, 2007

The Joy of Teaching

Tonight was the first class of my course, "Law Office Management." ( I can't seem to get the school to change the title to what it is "How to Hang A Shingle Right Out of Law School"...even seven years later! ) But it never fails to excite me when I see the subtle shifting in the seats, the raised eyebrow, the hope when I tell my students, "when you finish this class you will have an actual uniquely customized functional two year business plan to help you start your own legal practice right out of law school." 

I've done this long enough to know some students sign up because the time slot is convenient; some because it satisfies credits.  Others sign up because they think it is a gut course and are looking for an easy "A."  Sorry, folks, not happening.  And yet each year more and more seek the class out and arrange their schedules around my class because they've heard what it is really about.....a game plan for entrepreneurship.

Sometimes I feel like I'm part of the underground.  One student last year actually said to me, "Does the school know what you are teaching?  I'm surprised they've let you out of your cage!"  I considered that the ultimate compliment. Imagine, someone not only telling them they can be their own boss right out of law school but encouraging it?

The thing I rail against is the lack of recognition by the legal community overall to support the very real desire law students feel to create their own destiny.  One student told me today he feels compelled to be an entrepreneur because it is in his blood.  His grandfather came over from Poland with $11.00 in his pocket and built a $25 million dollar construction company.  If an immigrant combatting language barriers and prejudice can build an empire, why can't an educated law student start his own legal practice?

What's worse, another student told me today that when she went to Career Counseling and told of her ambitions to start her own practice they so thoroughly disabused her of her dream she will never go back to their office.  This is right up there with one of my students telling me that during her exit interview last year she told Career Counseling as soon as she passed the bar she was going to open her own practice and the counselor actually rolled her eyes and said, "whatever."

But my all-time favorite story is the law student who was already employed in the IP firm she wanted to be working for and training in the area of law she wanted to continue practicing in.  She went to the Career Counseling Office for advice on other options, never telling them she was already employed.  She was told because she got a "C" in a first year class they would be unable to help her get a job!

First, I know absolutely no one in the Career Counseling Office at the Law School.  And I have to believe they are very good at what they do...when it comes to helping the top tier find employment. But as one student said to me tonight, "Aren't the counselors there to help all the students whether or not they are in the top third?"  I agree.  And I'm quite sure this "prejudice" is common in all law schools. Maybe a little open-mindeness and sensitivity training would be a good idea. Or better yet, let there be a specific counselor who believes in entrepreneurship available to encourage and guide these students.

So, the door to the forbidden has been cracked open for these students.  It will be very exciting to see the transformation as the semester progresses.