African American Solo Practitioners: Starting, Surviving, and Thriving Alone
While movies and television generally feature lawyers who work in teams, a more realistic portrayal would highlight solo practitioners. According to a 2013 report from the American Bar Association, in 2005, over 75% of lawyers worked in private practice. Of these, nearly half worked as solos. Moreover, data show that nonwhite attorneys are nearly two times more likely to enter solo practice than white attorneys. This article will examine some of the factors African American solo practitioners should consider when deciding to hang a shingle.
Make A Financial Plan
It is common knowledge that building a profitable law practice takes time. But a person’s other obligations do not end when she decides to go solo. Household bills, family obligations, and law school debt must all be managed. As such, anyone contemplating solo practice should plan for extended periods of lean times as the business grows.
A solo practitioner should not expect immediate success. According to recent data, the average solo earns just over $49,000. While $49,000 is not exactly a poverty wage, because it is an average, some attorneys may earn far less. To keep things afloat as business grows, many solos use savings or business loans to make sure the lights stay on – literally.
Advance financial planning is particularly critical for African American solo practitioners and other lawyers of color. Recent data show that while 40 percent of white law students graduate with over $100,000 in debt, 61 percent of African American students and 56 percent of Latinos will graduate with extensive law school debt. When this data is combined with statistics about the racial wealth gap, it is clear that African American solo practitioners need a financial plan in place from day one.
Make an Office Plan
Solo practitioners get to decide how every aspect of their business will function. While the responsibility can be liberating and exciting, it can also be draining. There is no IT department to call when your wi-fi fails. There is no billing department to magically collect payments from your clients. Building a firm from the ground up requires attention to every detail.
Some of the basic considerations are: will you have a physical office or a virtual office? Where will your physical office be located? Where will you store client files? Will you hire support staff? Will you keep your own books? Who will bill your clients? Who will call clients who have yet to pay? Will you hire an accountant? Will you file your own taxes or hire someone else? These questions are just a few of the many you will have to consider as you proceed.
As you plan, you will also want to consider a plan for technology and client data protection. How will you safely store sensitive client digital files and emails? What type of computers and printers will you purchase? Will you buy subscriptions to paid legal research providers or use free services? Will you buy landline phone services or use some other method? What sort of practice management software will you buy? Are there apps that will make you more productive when you are out of the office? Because the practice of law is becoming more automated, you will need to carefully consider your technology purchases.
Make a Marketing Plan
The difference between solo practices that succeed and those that do not is not just based on intellect. Rather, it is a failure to market and network. Successful solos have strong entrepreneurial instincts and a flare for marketing themselves and their business. So, if you prefer sitting alone at parties or cringe at the thought of introducing yourself, solo practice may not the right move for you.
To be a successful solo, you will need to market and network at every opportunity. Every business function should be viewed as an opportunity to grow your client base. You should have business cards, stationary, and other products that are professional and distinguished. Moreover, in today’s marketplace, you should not limit yourself to in-person interactions. To succeed, you will also need a website. Additionally, you must market yourself on social media and other digital platforms.
While marketing and networking are not easy for everyone, African American solo practitioners may have advantages in this area. HBCU graduates can reach out to their alumni networks. Graduates of PWI’s can reach out to their university’s Black alumni groups. Members of Greek organizations can network with other fraternity and sorority members. Black organizations like The Links or Jack and Jill may also provide useful connections. Moreover, nearly every city with a sizeable African American population has a Black bar association that could be a valuable resource. In the end, where you network is not as critical as creating a plan to do so.
Get a Mentor
Beyond marketing, finances, and office management, the biggest threat to a solo practitioner is not money: it’s the bar. Solo practitioners are far more likely than those in firms to be disciplined. In 2001, though solo practitioners were only 23 percent of all California attorneys, they were 78 percent of all disciplinary actions. In that same year, 67 percent of those sanctioned in Texas were solos, despite the fact that solos were only 34 percent of lawyers in the state.
While the statistics on solos are disturbing, attorneys of color should tread even more lightly. As previously noted, lawyers of color are overrepresented in solo practice. Therefore, if solos are disciplined more often, African American solo practitioners must be sure to avoid any ethical issues that could open the door to discipline.
Apart from substance abuse, most lawyers make ethical mistakes when they are overwhelmed or unsure. Having a mentor can be a saving grace in these instances. Just because a solo can’t walk down the hall to discuss a case does not mean that she shouldn’t seek help from someone. Find a trusted person who has successfully navigated solo practice and seek their advice on practice management, legal issues, and other matters. A “silly question” is not silly when getting help could be the difference between keeping and losing your license to practice.
Solo practice is not for the faint of heart. However, solos can be successful with proper planning, marketing, and mentoring. The African American Attorney Network can help African American solo practitioners connect with clients, mentors, and other solos. Join the Network today to see how it can help you grow your practice.