Quitting Solo Practice Can Be effortful)
Quitting Solo Practice Can Be Difficult
Years ago, it was not uncommon for lawyers to stay at law firms for years, if not decades, as they progressed in their careers. Indeed, many law firms invest time and money on associates in the hope that these attorneys will stay at shops for a long time and become part of the fabric of a firm. However, in recent years, it is not uncommon for lawyers to move from firm to firm in search of better salaries, benefits, and other advantageous. I personally worked at four different law firms in the seven or so years I practiced law before starting my own shop. However, solo practitioners may have a difficult time getting back into the associate hiring process, and lawyers should keep this in mind when they decide to begin solo practice.
One of the main reasons why it is difficult to leave solo practice and be hired at a larger law firm is since solo practitioners may have responsibilities to their current clients that are hard to shake. If a lawyer appears in court on behalf of a client, they likely need to get a court’s permission to be relieved as counsel for the client. In addition, it can be difficult for lawyers to withdraw from a representation in the middle of a deal since this can leave the client worse off than if the lawyer continued to work for the client. Depending on the type of matters handled by the lawyer, a larger law firm might not want to take on clients and matters handled by the solo practitioner.
I have a friend who tried solo practice for a few years but could not generate enough money to have a comfortable living. He was able to secure a job offer from a larger law firm, but the firm did not want to take on some of the contingency cases this lawyer handled as a solo. My friend tried to pawn off his files on other lawyers so that he could accept the position as an associate at a larger firm, but he had trouble doing so. I could kind of sense the desperation of this lawyer as he tried to sell other attorneys on taking over these files. I think my friend was eventually able to offload his files onto other attorneys so that he was able to accept an associate job at a larger firm, but he might not have ended up so lucky if other lawyers did not pick up his files.
Another reason why it may be difficult to quit solo practice for a bigger firm is since larger shops may not look kindly upon a job candidate that worked as a solo practitioner rather than as an associate at another firm. When individuals work as associates at law firms, they can be expected to understand firm hierarchy, some of the systems that are commonly used by larger law firms, and other skills that might make it easier to incorporate the job candidate into the fabric of another law firm. However, a solo practitioner likely does not have these experiences, so the time they spent in solo practice might mean less than time spent at another shop.
Also, there is sentiment within the legal profession that solo practice is not desirable, and people would much rather prefer to work as an associate at a larger law firm if this is possible. Of course, associates at larger law firms get a guaranteed salary, benefits, and often, the prestige of working at a certain shop. Accordingly, hiring managers may not think that a job candidate would have chosen solo practice unless they had to, and this can raise red flags about a candidate. Of course, these perceptions are largely false, and there are numerous reasons to begin solo or small-firm practice, but this sentiment pervades much of the legal profession.
It should also be noted that the lifestyle of solo practice might also be difficult to give up. Solo practitioners often do not have bosses and just need to report to themselves. This autonomy can be liberating, and solo practitioners often have a great deal of influence over how they schedule their time, the types of work they take on, and other matters. It might be difficult for such individuals to give up all of this autonomy to work for someone else, and solo practitioners might have a tough time adjusting to the regimented nature of firm life after they leave solo practice because of the freedom they enjoyed.
All told, as I can relate from firsthand experience, solo and small-firm practice can be an enjoyable experience, and numerous lawyers should consider pursuing opportunities as a solo or small-firm attorney. Nevertheless, individuals thinking of entering solo practice should have their eyes open about the fact that it might be difficult to quit solo practice if they wish to later work at a larger law firm.
Jordan Rothman is a partner of The Rothman Law Firm, a full-service New York and New Jersey law firm. He is also the founder of Student Debt Diaries, a website discussing how he paid off his student loans. You can reach Jordan through email at email@example.com.