It’s a common problem:
You’ve made the decision to go solo. But what kind of law do you practice?
In this post, I’ll go over the most important factors you need to think about when deciding on a practice area.
Hopefully by the end of this article, you’ll have a good idea of where to head in order to start your solo practice off right!
What’s the best practice area for a solo attorney?
For new solos, this is often a difficult thing to figure out. There are nearly infinite areas of law and specific types of clients that you can go after.
When I started my practice right out of law school, I suppose I was lucky.
I had been an artist for a video game company in my pre-lawyer days, so that experience was something I wanted to transfer over to my new career as an attorney. I was also an avid board game and video game player, so I had the requisite industry knowledge to speak intelligently with prospective clients right off the bat.
Others may not be so lucky.
That’s why I’ve assembled a list of 6 principles that you can use in deciding
I recommend doing some brainstorming as you go along. Get out a piece of paper, turn off the phone for 30 minutes or an hour, and write down everything that comes to mind as you read these 6 principles.
Let’s get started.
Principle #1 – Matching up with your abilities
The main thing that lawyers need to do is competently represent their clients.
Particularly for those attorneys (like myself) who are moving into solo practice either right after or soon after passing the bar, competence is a huge issue.
So what are you good at? What areas of law are you most knowledgeable about?
These aren’t necessarily the only types of law that you can practice, but they’re certainly a start.
So, get out your paper and start writing down the various things that you have experience in, legal-wise.
For me, it was the following:
- Drafting intellectual property-related agreements, such as licensing and distribution agreements
- Doing chain-of-title searches for the above IP agreements
- Doing some basic LLC and corporation setup work
- Drafting and advising on basic securities and fundraising issues
- Trademark clearance searches and counseling
You get the idea.
Most of that was related to work I had done during school at my various internships.
Note for current law students: Get in as many internships as you can if you plan to go solo after law school – that experience is invaluable and can help you to develop skills and find mentors that will be essential in your solo practice!
If you’ve worked as an attorney after school, you probably have a broader base of things you’re good at.
Write them down, and then move on to the next step.
Principle #2 – Achieving work-life balance
One of the main reasons that attorneys go solo is to get a better grip on their work-life balance.
If you don’t know, this basically means that you have a comfortable balance between your work and your life, rather than your work life constantly overtaking your non-work life. The law firm life is a difficult one for many, particularly those who have serious commitments outside of work or just want to have a nice vacation away from work once in a while.
Assuming you have experience with the type of work you listed under Principle #1, go through the list again and evaluate how work-intensive those kind of tasks (and associated legal work) can be.
Principle #3: Your ability to get the work done
Related to this is the all-important question of whether a solo attorney can possibly handle all of that. I don’t want anyone ending up like this (Better Call Saul spoilers below):
Some things to consider:
- Financial resources: if you’re planning on doing class action (or any serious) litigation, particularly on a contingency basis, you need to determine if you’re going to have the resources to competently serve your clients.
- Time: Other practice areas may also require large amounts of time and manpower, whether due to a huge volume of documents that need to be processed or just the need to be in multiple places at once due to overlapping commitments
- Localized or National Practice: Unauthorized practice of law is always a concern. Though I’ve heard different opinions on this from a number of other lawyers, you generally want to stay within the state that you’re licensed to practice in. So, you need to be sure that the kind of work you’re doing will be plentiful within the jurisdiction in which you’re allowed to practice law. Or, if you do federal practice (like my intellectual property work), you’ve opened yourself up to a wider client pool, but also more competition.
That leads us right to the next Principle:
Principle #4 – Is it a good niche?
Many new solo attorneys believe that the best way to get lots of clients is to cast a wide net.
This is generally the wrong approach.
While there are exceptions, having a “generalized” practice can actually result in less clients and a worse overall experience.
This is for a few reasons:
- Your marketing (a limited resource) is stretched thin, as you try to reach everyone
- You will be competing with every attorney out there, rather than just those in your niche
- You need to have an extremely broad base of knowledge – if you don’t, you may end up doing your clients a disservice and possibly committing malpractice
- You may be forced to take on clients and matters that you don’t like or don’t find enjoyable (see the next Principle) in order to survive
- A generalized practice is more likely to attract one-off and low quality clients
On the other hand, if you choose a more narrow practice niche, you have a few important advantages:
- You can become an expert in a particular field, and get recognized locally and nationally as such (through content marketing, speaking engagements, and more)
- You are able to concentrate your marketing on a very specific client archetype, which can either save money or use it more effectively
- You can command higher fees as a preeminent expert in your field, meaning that you can make the same money for less
- The niche you choose will hopefully have quality clients with regular work
- Clients who use your service within an industry will often refer you out, since you’ve proven your expertise (this is how I get most new clients these days)
As you can see, going small to go big is the way to go. When choosing your practice area as a solo lawyer, this should certainly be kept in mind.
In fact, I try not to think about it as a “practice area,” so much as it’s about who the ideal client is and how you can help them. When we say “practice area,” most lawyers think of things like:
- Real estate
- Commercial contracts
- Personal injury
All of those are so broad, that the designation isn’t particularly helpful. What about going after new home buyers, certain types of businesses selling certain types of commercial real estate, assisting with zoning issues, etc. instead?
For me, while I do any number of things in my daily practice, from IP registration to forming companies, my clients are 95% small-to-medium sized game developers.
I could have chosen any number of entertainment-based clients, but as I said, my background in games gives me some street cred there.
Some things to look out for when picking your niche:
- Are there other attorneys practicing in that area? Some attorneys is good, but a ton of attorneys is not good (it’s a crowded market).
- Is there money in the industry, or do the individual clients have money (you need to get paid, after all)?
- Does the niche offer room to expand? For instance, I went from video games to board games to websites/online businesses/general software.
If you keep those in mind during your brainstorming, I’m sure you’ll find a niche that’s going to be profitable!
Or maybe you’ll just love it:
Principle #5 – Do you love it?
Work is work.
Few people expect to start work every day and be happy all the time.
However, one of the benefits of solo practice is that you have the chance to design your firm so you have the best chance of doing what you love.
When you work for someone else, you generally need to do what’s asked of you. There isn’t much of a choice. Especially for you new attorneys just passing the bar.
So when you’re brainstorming and evaluating the various proposed practice areas and niches, ask yourself one question:
If you end up a solo attorney in this area and for these clients, will you love it (or at least like it a lot)?
Not just the legal work, either.
If you’re a solo practitioner, you’re probably going to be doing client outreach, speaking engagements, writing blog posts and guest posts, going on podcasts, and other marketing and networking activities.
So if you love the work and you love the clients, you’re going to be a much happier attorney.
Speaking of clients…
Principle #6 – Do you have an existing client base/overflow work?
Starting from scratch is difficult, if you don’t already have significant savings and an alternative revenue stream.
When I started my practice, I had no clients and only a small amount of savings. I kept the lights on by doing side hustles (writing blog posts for other lawyers) while I slowly grew my client base.
And I mean SLOWLY.
But it paid off, and I’d consider myself quite successful given the circumstances.
However, if you’ve done any of the following, you may have a leg up:
- Practiced as an attorney at a firm
- Worked in a particular industry for a time prior to being an attorney
- Have internships and mentors that you can draw upon
- Have friends or family members who may need work (or know someone who needs work)
All of these are sources of existing clients and potential overflow work that can help you get your practice started.
I recommend tapping into whatever you can, in order to get some steady legal fees coming in right from the beginning of your law practice.
Moving forward – choosing the best practice area as a solo lawyer
And that’s that.
Hopefully these 6 principles get the wheels turning in your head as you brainstorm and narrow down your list of potential practice areas and niches.
If you’d like to get your practice online and find clients through your website and other content marketing, sign up for the mailing list below to be first to know about my upcoming courses (and possibly get in on the preview version of them).
I’ve got lots of great things coming up, so I look forward to having you aboard!