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Becoming a solo success story
By Michael Rappaport
August 08 2008 issue

Solo by ChoiceBy Carolyn ElefantDecisionBooks300 pages ($40)

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An opportunity to be your own boss, achieve greater work/life balance, obtain more client contact and gain complete control over files or pushy partners, tedious work and long hours at a large law firm — any one of these factors may lead lawyers to daydream about flying solo.

For Carolyn Elefant the decision to leave the large firm life style and hang up her own shingle was not entirely her own. One day, a manager walked into her office without warning and told her that she was not “partnership material” and gave her six months to find a new job.

That meeting was more than 15 years ago —and Elefant hasn’t looked back since venturing out on her own in 1993. As a sole practitioner focusing on energy regulatory law in Washington D.C., Elefant earned recognition as one of the first lawyer-bloggers at her blog: Recently, she’s penned Solo by Choice: How to Be the Lawyer You Always Wanted to Be — a step-by-step guide book and stirring manifesto for any lawyer who has ever contemplated flying solo.

“I always thought about starting a practice, even while in law school,” Elefant says in an interview with The Lawyers Weekly. Had she not been let go from her firm, she continues, “Eventually, I would have done it, but perhaps waited until I was a little more senior and had clients to take with me.”

Deciding to go solo
If you’re unsure whether the solo life is for you, the book provides a handy personal assessment. Ask yourself the following questions:

Do you crave independence? Are you comfortable wearing many hats? Do you thrive when you’re in charge? Are you enterprising? What is your tolerance for risk? Are you a self-starter? Are you resourceful?

Before flying the coop, Elefant argues that you must feel really confident in your legal abilities and capacity to learn the necessary skills to run a solo practice. For these reasons, the book doesn’t recommend going solo straight out of law school in the U.S. or immediately after articling in Canada. It generally takes a lawyer about three years to establish a network of professional contacts to serve as a source of referrals and references.

On the other hand, if you are employed by a large law firm, Elefant cautions against staying more than five or six years if you are planning to start your own practice. As your income rises so too do your spending patterns and if you wait too long you may find the so called “golden handcuffs” are fastened too tight for you to risk a drop in salary and a steady pay cheque.

Which brings us to the main drawbacks of going solo: the salary is generally lower and less regular.

“It’s very rare for solos to have a steady stream of income. Most have months that are very high and months that are very low,” Elefant says. “Income tends to ebb and flow... but it works out over the year.”

Another downside of being a sole practitioner is that many solos lack support staff. “You wind up doing more grunt work than at a law firm like proofing documents,” Elefant sighs.

Sole success:
If you’re not daunted by the added risks and responsibilities of striking out on your own, the book provides step-by-step guidance, tasks and timelines, annotated lists of resources and Q&A’s with about a dozen sole practitioners. Every aspect of becoming a successful solo is covered in the book, from setting up a practice, billing and fees, generating cash flow and growing and marketing your practice.

These days it’s possible for a lawyer to set up a practice with only a laptop, telephone, printer and scanner, Elefant says. Whether you decide to work from home or rent commercial space, the book discusses the pros and cons of various office space options, including some emerging options which may not be on everyone’s radar, such as establishing a “virtual” office. According to the Office Business Center Association International there are more than 4,000 shared-office business centres across North America. These centres rent out office space on an hourly basis and can also provide secretarial and administrative support. Today, a sole practitioner working from home can still have a prestigious perch on Bay Street to meet clients and a virtual secretary to screen calls.

The book is chock full of marketing advice, which is an area that sole practitioners tend to neglect. As Ed Sharkey a solo lawyer quoted in the book says: “If you want to grow your practice, don’t work 100 percent of the time. Work 80 percent and market yourself 20 percent.”

By launching a blog, creating a website, using social networking sites, submitting articles to publications, and speaking at conferences, it’s possible for solos to market themselves as well as lawyers at big firms and be equally successful.

Carolyn Elefant, working out of her home office in Washington D.C., is living proof.

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