Considering Going Solo? Wisdom from the Founder of Solo Practice University

Susan Cartier LiebelToday’s interview is with Susan Cartier Liebel, Founder & CEO of Solo Practice University, one of my favorite law-related sites on the Internet. (Not kidding, it’s great.) She’s here to talk about her unique career path, and what you can do to position yourself for success if you’re considering going solo.

Without further ado…

I’ve been working full-time for about a decade, but I’m thinking of going to law school. I’m worried that I’m too old to do it, and that there won’t be anyone to hire me when I get out. You had a career before law school — how do you suggest evaluating my options, so I can figure out if law school is a good idea?

How I got to law school is a very interesting story…at least to some.

I was working a full decade myself before I actually went to law school. I had been an advertising major and within two weeks of graduating college I got a job in New York City with a top ad agency. After a year of commuting four hours a day I realized this was not the life for me.

For the next nine years I continued in advertising, public relations, marketing, and sales but the end result was unfulfilling and I wanted to use my advocacy skills for something more worthwhile.

Four years before I went to law school I took the LSATs, applied to law schools, got admitted and then decided I wasn’t ready. Four years later, I was.

Tip: Plant many seeds in your professional garden as you never know what opportunities will grow.

I evaluated several things:

  1. Was I committed to the profession/and to the pursuit of the education? Was I ready to leave the working world and not only become impoverished for three years but then take on $60,000 in debt?* This was expensive back when I went to school!
  2. Was it cost-effective for me to make this decision regardless my passion for the education?

I assessed my lost income for three years at the level I was currently earning plus added in the student loan monthly debt service and thought about how realistic it would be for me to recoup the lost income plus my previous lifestyle and still pay down the debt without compromising my other life goals.

I concede to you that when I went to law school the debt/earnings ratio was not as out of whack as it is now and the job market was much better.

But then, again, I never was ‘employed’ as a lawyer. I went straight into my own practice upon passing the bar and I did so with two other new graduates.

* For the record — from the time I took out my first loan for undergraduate school until I paid of my law school loans was 34 years. Law school loan management is a job in and of itself. Just think about that!

I’m getting ready to start my final year of law school, and I’m giving serious thought to opening a solo practice when I graduate. What are the three most important things I can do over the next year, to ensure I’m ready to hit the ground running when I graduate?

The three most important things you can do over the next year to ensure you are hitting the ground running are:

  1. Take as many practical courses as you can and/or internships. This includes any school clinical work which will get you comfortable in front of clients and familiar with client files and client expectations, court filings, and opposing counsel tactics and personalities. Consider it a dress rehearsal for when you go from being the understudy to headlining in your own show. Very few can go on stage and pull it off without practicing. Your third year should be your year of being in pre-production.
  2. Get all your personal financial affairs in order so you have pared down your living expenses and obligations to the barest minimum. Debt will enslave you. While you have the opportunity this year to figure out how you are going to consolidate and put your loans in forbearance, you MUST trim your personal finances and debt NOW so you have some freedom to create your practice without being in financial panic-mode later. If you can start to put some money aside each month to build a cushion for when you first open your doors, do it. Again, you have the chance to do pre-production work this year and you should be doing it in earnest.
  3. Start building your professional connections within school and without. There is no reason you shouldn’t be attending professional functions now to learn and to observe. You should be introducing yourself around, learning who the ‘players’ are in the court house(s) where you might be practicing as well as watching the judges and learning courtroom procedure at the same time!

Get your profiles up on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ and start following people you can learn from and eventually connect with. You can even start with me at @SoloPracticeU and look at who I follow to see if they may be of interest to you, as well.

Building a network of connections takes time and having this foundation BEFORE you open your doors is time well spent.

Having a professional social media presence is not optional anymore.

3. Could you talk a bit about what you do in the average day at work, and how it’s similar to (or different from) what you thought you’d be doing when you started law school?

When I originally started law school it was not because I expected to be a practicing lawyer but because I wanted the education in order to navigate through life. Therefore, it was quite a surprise when I realized law school tapped into my genetic predisposition to help people in a way that very few can.

I have always been a strong advocate for my position and for others but paired with a law degree it was mentally stimulating beyond anything I’ve ever known.

Helping my clients by virtue of my ability to fashion a powerful argument and succeed against very experienced ‘adversaries’ was gratifying beyond any words I could put to paper.

I was able to get incredible clinic experience in my second year because I was on a trial for a month through finals. Prior to trial we were traveling to witnesses’ homes, interviewing them, taking depositions. The case ultimately went to our Supreme Court.

It was a pivotal experience for me and gave me the confidence to go out on my own upon graduating and passing the bar exam. It is also why I am such a strong advocate for practical training in law school. Actually, I’m passionate about it and why my career ultimately grew into teaching, then writing, then consulting, and then culminating in the creation of Solo Practice University.

There isn’t any real education for solos. There are some blogs, some conferences, some books, but solos have been seen as the stepchildren of the profession. And it’s offensive and foolish and a waste of valuable resources to say the least.

Anyway, when you practice on your own you are building a business no matter what others will tell you.

You are building a business that provides legal services.

You are also the sole ‘employee’ of your business who provides these services. As the business owner, you are responsible for generating revenue in order to stay in business and this requires providing a quality service and marketing it effectively through a professional and lay network you’ve created to an audience you’ve defined as being ideal.

Then once you have the clients, you — the ‘employee’ — have to provide them superior service in an effective, efficient, and ethical way utilizing 21st century tools in order to stay competitive.

As the business owner you have to learn when it is appropriate to delegate tasks that are costly for you to perform as others can do it for less while your unique skills are being used in a more profitable and necessary way. You have to adhere to your ethical responsibilities as a professional as well as a business owner.

Creating any business, a law firm or Solo Practice University, requires the same. Is it a different trajectory than I expected when I went to law school? Yes and No. (Typical lawyer answer, right?) Yes, because I envisioned I’d be running a business where I’d be practicing law, which I did for 13 years. No, because I know enough about myself that I have to always stay open to possibilities which may present themselves and be willing to step off the more traditional path.

Figuratively, I’m always wearing hiking boots.

Everything one does in life has a golden thread running through it which connects all one’s experiences. My golden thread led to me create Solo Practice University because there is not one experience I had prior which was not necessary in order for me get where I am today even if I didn’t realize it at the time.

Be open to the possibilities~

— – —

Thanks, Susan! Very interesting and inspirational. Do you have questions for Susan? Leave them in the comments!

Susan Cartier Liebel is the Founder & CEO of Solo Practice University®, the only educational and professional networking community for lawyers and law students designed for those who want to create and grow their solo or small firm practices.

A coach/consultant for solos and small firms, an attorney who started her own practice right out of law school, an Entrepreneur Advisor for Law Without Walls, an adjunct professor at Quinnipiac University School of Law for eight years teaching law students how to open their own legal practices right out of law school, a columnist for LawyersUSA Weekly, the Connecticut Law Tribune, The Complete Lawyer, and Law.com, she has contributed to numerous online publications such as Forbes.com, legal publications and books on this topic as well as the issues facing women in the workforce. She speaks frequently to law schools and professional organizations around the country on issues facing solos, offering both practical knowledge and inspiration.

Connect with Susan on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, or Google Plus.

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