WMU-Cooley Professor Gary Bauer has decades of business and marketing experience, alongside nearly 20 years of teaching experience. Read Professor Bauer's blog, which originally posted on SoloLawyerByDesign.
Professor Bauer recognizes there are many characteristics of successful solo practitioners. In this blog, he talks about your ability to choose fearlessness.
Fear is natural. We all look for predictability and prefer to maintain the status quo. Fear can be very beneficial, or paralyzing, depending on how you deal with your fear. All business is about risk. The following quote from the Harvard Business Review helps put into perspective the difference between risk averse behavior that is advantageous vs that kind of behavior that is short-sighted and destructive;
When Tony Hayward became CEO of BP, in 2007, he vowed to make safety his top priority. Among the new rules he instituted were the requirements that all employees use lids on coffee cups while walking and refrain from texting while driving. Three years later, on Hayward’s watch, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, causing one of the worst man-made disasters in history. A U.S. investigation commission attributed the disaster to management failures that crippled “the ability of individuals involved to identify the risks they faced and to properly evaluate, communicate, and address them.” Hayward’s story reflects a common problem. Despite all the rhetoric and money invested in it, risk management is too often treated as a compliance issue that can be solved by drawing up lots of rules and making sure that all employees follow them. Many such rules, of course, are sensible and do reduce some risks that could severely damage a company. But rules-based risk management will not diminish either the likelihood or the impact of a disaster such as Deepwater Horizon, just as it did not prevent the failure of many financial institutions during the 2007–2008 credit crisis.
These are the kind of organizational risk averse protocols which can lead to unintended consequences. In the same way, many of the students and practitioners I see engage in a strategy as perverse as that which led to the BP catastrophe.
Instead of the lids on coffee cups, many new graduates seek cover under the letterhead of an experienced attorney to “learn the ropes” before going out on their own. They feel they will find out how to practice law under another attorney’s shadow. Indeed, they find a path. But it is often not the one intended. Instead, they end up “shoehorning” themselves into the pattern and style of practice dictated by their superior. They are told to take charge of a family law file and complete the work in that case. If the new graduate’s passion is really estate planning, that is, more likely than not, not what they are told to work on. So they submit and complete those matters assigned. They do it in lock-step with the senior attorney’s orders. If the senior attorney is aggressive, you will be expected to be aggressive and assume the mantle of persona that that attorney projects. Soon, you find that you are attempting to be a “mini-he” and lose all perspective of who you want to be or how you would like to practice law.
Trapped in Fear
Your fear of going it alone has trapped you into believing that the only way to practice is the way you were taught. If you rebel and decide that you no longer want to take orders from someone else and go out on your own, you have spent valuable time waiting to reset your clock and start all over again. We often see this in large firm associates leaving after a couple years after being “burned out”.
Where is the greatest risk, really? If you put yourself out there and do your very best. If you seek the advice of other experienced practitioners. If you work through each case, learning as you go, you will find your way. Malpractice insurance is cheap when you first start out, and it is essential to give you greater confidence. It allows you to have someone “watching your back.” There are no lack of resources available for you to gain experience. You will often find that other solo practitioners will be more generous with their time than attorneys employed in large firms. Their time is their own. Other solos will empathize with you. The good ones will not see you as competition. The bad ones, who won’t give you the time of day, are not worth learning from anyway.
Working for someone else also leads to financial dependency. Even if you find yourself in a firm where you are treated with respect. Even in a firm which gives you some choice about what kind of law you can practice. Even in a firm that provides a generous and predictable income, it can become the “golden handcuffs”. Soon after starting work in that firm. you purchase a house. Soon you buy a car and get married. You have children. Your financial obligations mitigate against departure because you cannot survive without that regular income. So you stick it out. Even though you might wish you could leave, you can’t.
During the financial collapse of 2005, many attorneys found themselves with few options after being discharged. There is no such thing as job security. The only employer you can really count on is YOU!
However, your fear is real. How do you deal with it? As a recent graduate, consider what you have to risk? My former private investigator, Vic Hedges used to say, “you can’t fall off the floor” when we took cases to trial when the prosecutor wasn’t willing to consider a reasonable deal for our clients. The same is true for many of you who are recent grads. What do you have to lose? If you have student debt, the lender can defer those loans (at a cost), but they can be deferred. Your greatest risk is inactivity and failing to take action. If you cannot handle that fear and you will freeze, then maybe finding employment with someone else makes sense. But, time after time, I have had former graduates tell me that they were glad they took the risk. It paid dividends in terms of control over their lives. It paid dividends financially over time. And most of them tell me that they are much better off financially than they would have been working for someone else.
The best way to conquer your fear is to visit other solo practitioners in your area and find out how they did it. Ask them about the “good, the bad, and the ugly” of going solo. Establish a business plan based upon the demographics and demand for quality services that others are not providing. Establish relationships with good practitioners to mentor you as you develop your practice. Do the things you are passionate about. Get up before everyone else and work long into the night investing your energy to build the best practice possible and YOU WILL SUCCEED. Conquer your fears and move forward.