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Hanging a Single Shingle: A Primer for Practicing Law Solo

According to the American Bar Association, the United States is home to nearly 1.3 million attorneys. Of those, it is estimated that about one-third are solo practitioners.

That means single shingle law practices where there are no associates, no one serves as Of Counsel and no one lords over the practitioner. While an attorney might practice law alone, hanging a solo shingle isn’t the only way that can be accomplished. Whether driven by the lawyer’s personality, work style or economics, there is definitely more than one way to toil alone in the legal profession.

The Ultimate Networker

Although it wasn’t necessarily his intention, attorney Gabriel Acevedo is a serial freelance lawyer. Since graduating from Texas Wesleyan School of Law (now part of Texas A&M) in the year 2000, Acevedo has not held a steady attorney position. Instead, he has practiced law for countless firms, more like a freelancer, performing such tasks as document review, project management and litigation consultant.

“I didn’t know what I wanted to do” with my law degree, other than be a lawyer, says Acevedo. Being an attorney is definitely a profession that’s not foreign to his family; his father is a retired attorney and his sister also practices.

When Acevedo returned to his native Maryland in 2003, he took and passed that state’s bar exam. Eventually, he waived into the DC bar, too. He sought work as an attorney and applied to a temp agency with the thought that if he got hired somewhere, at least he would have work while he continued his job search. But that’s not exactly how things unfolded.

“I started temping and then just kept going with it,” he says. He also started networking with law firms and hiring temp agencies so if an employment opportunity arose, his name would be on people’s minds. That was nine years ago, and Acevedo continues to “eat what I hunt.”

He admits this type of employment situation isn’t for everyone, but it has succeeded for him so far. One of his favorite aspects of practicing law this way is the freedom that comes with the territory. “When I’m done for the day, I’m done. My work does not weigh on my mind like a permanent job would,” he says.

He also likes knowing that if he doesn’t enjoy the task-at-hand or the people he works with, he can just walk out. Conversely, the lack of a permanent position can get worrisome for Acevedo, he admits.

Sometimes, “the downtime when I am not working is frightening beyond belief,” he says. He also dislikes the powerlessness that accompanies temporary work. “I have a lack of leverage,” he says.

A Soloist in the Truest Sense

In contrast to Acevedo, Virginia lawyer Christopher G. Hill worked for several bosses until he made the decision to open his own law practice 3 ½ years ago. After graduating from Washington University School of Law in 1997, the Virginia native returned home to practice law with the Virginia Attorney General’s office.

He stayed there five years, moving on to a ten-attorney firm in Richmond. He practiced construction law there for 4 ½ years, leaving for an 18-lawyer law group in 2007. During his three year tenure with that firm, Hill discovered that as the only lawyer on staff who toiled in construction law, his practice didn’t benefit from him working in a firm setting.

Happily, most of his clients followed him since he works in such a specialized niche of the law. Hill sees several benefits of practicing on his own. For example, he says he likes to “be in charge of everything.” He also enjoys the flexibility of billing clients as he wishes.

While he recognizes that as a soloist, he can’t just walk down the hall and knock on another lawyer’s door asking for help, he’s okay with that. “Now that I’m a solo practitioner, there are a number of people I can bounce things off of,” he says.

He attributes his smooth transition to being a solo lawyer to what he learned about running a practice in the two firms where he worked. “I could not have done it right out of law school because I didn’t have the experience. The AG’s office gave me great experience in the courtroom,” he says, while attracting clients was a focus in the two firms.

To reduce overhead, Hill rents a private office from Regus, a commercial real estate developer that serves professionals like Hill who desire a dedicated office with shared support staff. When people call his phone number, a secretary answers the phone using his firm’s name, lending the impression she works only for him.

Top Tips

Now that he’s been on his own for a few years, Hill can put his solo practice experience into perspective. He suggests solo practitioners “work to build a network of small practice attorneys, especially outside their area of experience.”

One reason is to increase the likelihood of client referrals and the other is simply to share the camaraderie of lawyers outside the soloist’s comfort zone.

Susan Cartier Liebel, founder and CEO of Solo Practice University, offers several tips to attorneys considering hanging a single shingle, namely:

• Cultivate two mentors who believe in you

• Don’t expect to know it all. Have faith in yourself you can find the answers

• Maximize your use of technology to keep competitive, efficient and effective.

Hill has another suggestion, but it applies to every attorney: be sure to obtain and maintain malpractice insurance. “That’s very important,” he says.

Tami Kamin Meyer is an attorney and writer in Ohio.

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