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‘I Don’t Think I Was Meant to Be an Employee’

Six attorneys on the ups and downs of going solo

Photo by Dustin Snipes

Published in 2023 Southern California Rising Stars magazine

By Steve Knopper on June 2, 2023

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Back in the day, if you wanted to go solo, you’d rent an office with shelf space for legal books, hire a secretary, hang a sign to draw walk-up clients, and contract an accountant for self-employment taxes. It’s a little different now. You might not even need the office. “All you need are a laptop, an internet connection and an email address,” says Stephen Chen, who opened his family law practice in 2012.

“And,” he adds, “you need to be able to produce quality work.”

It still took Chen two difficult years to establish his client base, but the flexibility he earned is precious to him. He’s obviously not alone in his solo-ness, either: According to a 2020 ABA survey, 26% of responding lawyers were solo practitioners. This spring, we spoke with six such attorneys to hear their stories.

The Leap

Rabiah Rahman, Rabiah at Law, Ventura; Employment & Labor: I always wanted to be in control of my cases and the case strategy, and take more of a leadership role. I wanted to have my own law firm so I could create my own definition of advocacy.

Jesse A. Arana, Law Office of Jesse A. Arana, Downey; Criminal Defense: I joined the Ventura County DA’s office and had a great learning experience there, [but] it became overwhelming—emotionally—prosecuting drug cases when I thought the person should be receiving professional medical help instead of criminal punishment. After a year, I said, “Thank you so much for the experience.” I applied with the public defender’s office in Los Angeles and Orange counties. Nobody was hiring. So I put up my shingle.

Stephen Chen, The Law Office of Stephen Chen, P.C., Los Angeles; Family Law: I worked for a few family law firms coming out of law school and soon came to the realization: “I don’t think I was meant to be an employee. I don’t think I was meant to work at a firm as an associate.” Maybe that’s how I was raised. My dad was an ophthalmologist and he had his own practice.

Xinlin Li Morrow, The Morrow Firm, Newport Beach; Business and Intellectual Property Litigation: I decided to go solo about nine years into my legal career. I was counsel at Hueston Hennigan. At Hueston, there are some really great rainmaker partners but you work on cases they bring in. I wanted to have more autonomy and control over my own caseload. I wanted to develop and focus more on a niche area—complex business and IP litigation involving Chinese parties. I’m fluent in Chinese and I wanted to use that.

Jeremy Jass, Jass Law, Newport Beach; Personal Injury and Criminal Defense: I thought I would practice somewhere for five years and learn the ropes before going out on my own. But I worked just short of a year. It was a long commute and it wasn’t really the practice area I wanted to focus on. I thought, “I can try this now. … If it doesn’t work, I’ll get a job somewhere else later.”

Yesenia Acosta, Mundo Legal, San Bernardino; Immigration: I found a firm where I worked for about seven years—a large firm in San Gabriel Valley. They gave me my own department. They wanted to do more family immigration, and that’s where I came in. That helped give me the confidence to hang my own shingle.

“You [have to] get comfortable not always having the answer. You figure, ‘I’m not going to know everything, and what I don’t know, I’ve got to go learn it, research it, figure it out.’”

Jeremy Jass

The Office

Chen: When I first started, I did a virtual office. It was about $500 a month. You do need an address. You can’t be using your home address—that doesn’t look good for potential clients. You can share rent with other lawyers to keep your costs down. In 2014, I started getting more clients. Not many people were using Yelp back then, and I was pretty early into the whole Yelp game.

Arana: I went online and looked for available office space. I came across this building that’s owned by a husband and wife, and they were so grateful, they were so amazing. They allowed me to lease the available suite with furniture included.

Jass: At first, I rented a P.O. Box for mail, then mostly worked out of home. Most of the time, clients were more than happy to meet somewhere, or I would offer to go to their house. A lot of clients appreciated that. They thought, “Oh, wow, look at this service!” Being a lawyer, it’s probably a lot easier than if I was a dentist or something.

The Challenges

Arana: I had a nice condo overlooking the Channel Islands. [But when I went solo], I actually moved back with my parents for six months. The challenges were, “How am I going to get clients, how am I going to make money, how am I going to pay for next month’s office rent?”

Chen: There were periods it wasn’t going as well as I wanted it to. I started to work at other firms. It went to the same cycle: “This is not working for me.” “I’m not meant to be an employee.” “I won’t get to where I need to go in life.”

Morrow: The one thing I miss is having colleagues to talk case strategy with, have shop-talk with, bounce ideas off.

Jass: It’s just the unknown, the scary part of “How do I do this?” You [have to] get comfortable not always having the answer. You figure, “I’m not going to know everything, and what I don’t know, I’ve got to go learn it, research it, figure it out.”

The Upsides

Morrow: I have practice-management software to keep track of my time. I thought I would spend more time on admin work, but with this kind of technology available, I really don’t.

Acosta: In San Bernardino, there’s less competition. Los Angeles has that concentration of immigration attorneys. Right away, when I came here, I felt the potential. Without spending any money, I was getting cases.

Jass: I had been a police officer, assigned to patrol. I wasn’t there very long. You realize, “Hey, putting people in jail is not actually that fun.” But I still had an interest in the legal process, so I decided, “Well, I always wanted to go to law school. Maybe I should just do it.” Just naturally, from law school, a lot of people knew my background. They would get a call on a case that wasn’t something they would handle, maybe it would be a criminal case, and they would say, “Do you want to do it?” Similarly, plaintiff side, excessive-force or wrongful-arrest cases, someone would be like, “Hey, they’re saying this happened, what do you think?” “If that’s what happened, that sounds like a violation to me.” “OK, do you want it?” You do one thing once and everyone thinks you’re the expert. They start sending you more.

Rahman: I realized within the first couple of months that I had built a lot of goodwill and people were open to referring me cases. I was probably profitable within the first three to four months.

The Cases

Morrow: I started my firm with a fraud case that involved a Ponzi scheme perpetrated in China. I represent this older lady who essentially lost her life savings to that fraud. The fraudster then came to the U.S., transferred a lot of money to family members in the U.S., [so] my client decided to pursue the case here. I was able to help her recover most of what she lost.

Arana: [My client] was an older man and he was this bodybuilder—looked very scary. A woman filed a restraining order against him and had someone serve it. He didn’t accept service but that’s not a legal defense. We were negotiating the charge and the prosecutor said, “Look, I’ll offer him trespass.” I told him, “All right, the offer’s trespass, but if we go to trial, there’s a risk you may be convicted.” He said, “Let’s take that risk, let’s go to trial.” We went to trial and received a favorable result of not guilty.

Jass: The first true police case I had, a guy was shot by some sheriff’s deputies. Another attorney asked me what I thought about it. “If what they’re saying is how it actually happened, then yes, there’s maybe a case here. But sometimes the way they tell it to you is maybe not exactly how it happened.” We met with the client. He had been at home with his girlfriend when they got into an argument and she called the cops. She met the deputies outside and told them that he was not armed and there were no weapons in the house. My client was standing about 25 feet away in his living room, unarmed, and there was an argument between him and the deputies: “Get on the floor!” “Fuck you, get out of my house!” As he knelt, one deputy fired a PepperBall gun at my client. Then the deputy standing next to the shooter fired his Glock at my kneeling client, striking him in the face and head three times. There wasn’t video, but there was stuff on the audio recording that was favorable to us. We brought suit against the deputies for violating my client’s constitutional rights—his Fourth Amendment rights—by using excessive and unjustified deadly force against him. We ended up settling it pretty favorably.

Rahman: During the pandemic, a woman had a boss—the harassment was so bad. He followed her home, she had a child, so she’s scared. How does she protect her child when there’s a strange man at the door with wine and flowers who is uninvited and unwelcome, knowing she has to go tomorrow into work and face him? As an employer, they have access to your home address, your personal information. We didn’t end up filing. We navigated it, while she was employed, through the owner of the company. He was dismissed and she kept her job.

Jass: There was a young lady who was sexually assaulted by a sheriff’s deputy. She’d had two or three other lawyers turn her down, and someone suggested she meet with me. I talked to her for a long time. There was a lot of stuff she said that made sense—like the lingo the deputy used, or the way he put his hands on his belt, on his vest. I could paint a picture of how an officer would talk or stand. I found her to be credible. I told her, “If all we have is your word against a sheriff’s deputy, there’s a pretty good chance we lose that case.” But I told her, “It’s not the kind of thing that happens once. If we do discovery, there’s probably a pretty good chance we find some other victims.” Sure enough, we did. I ended up partnering with another firm. I was kind of running low on resources to push that case where it needed to be. We ended up going to trial and we won. A couple local newspapers wrote about it. You get your name in the paper and that helps, too.

“Just do it! There are always going to be excuses and people telling you not to do things. Sometimes you have to take risks in life.”

Stephen Chen

The Pandemic

Rahman: I was right on the cusp of hiring an assistant in March 2020, when the pandemic took off—and I decided to hold off. I don’t know what I would have done if I’d had an employee and taken on that responsibility.

Morrow: The technological advancements necessitated by the pandemic actually made my practice easier. Instead of driving an hour or two to hearings, hearings were conducted over Zoom. That was a huge cost savings for me and my clients.

Acosta: The pandemic was the turning point, where I thought, “I can make this work.” I liked that model of having the flexibility, having my family so much closer and not having to commute.

Rahman: People had so much need for how to navigate the pandemic in an employment context. I worked harder than I ever worked, because it was just so busy, and there was so much uncertainty. People were just really scared. My natural disposition is to be reassuring and to put people at ease. I think that resonated.

The Advice

Morrow: Put yourself out there. If you think your cases are going to come from other attorneys, make sure every attorney knows you have your new firm. Tell them, so they think of you when they
have referrals.

Jass: Don’t be shy. Seek out mentors. You can join a local bar association and go to an event. We’re pretty collaborative. Even attorneys that you’re technically in competition with for clients, we all generally root for each other. Don’t be afraid to partner on cases if it’s something you need additional resources or something that’s outside your wheelhouse.

Chen: Just being a good lawyer, doing quality work, generally looking out for your clients’ best interests over making money—that, in and of itself, will spread word of mouth. It’ll create
your reputation.

Rahman: I can’t expect somebody else to have the level of luck I had. Before I even launched my firm, I had a guaranteed office space [in] a building full of attorneys. You had your natural referral services right there. It was in a suite [with] a desk person to help transfer my mail. I didn’t have to hire anybody right away because—to be completely honest—I didn’t have enough money in my budget initially. I had a good friend who was like, “Let me help you with the website.” And I went to my first boss and told him about opening my own firm and he said, “Let me walk you through what you need to do to manage your own bookkeeping” and “I’ll send you any cases our firm is not able to take.”

Acosta: There are podcasts from different attorneys who talk about unbundled services. I started getting inspired: “There are so many models out there!” You don’t have to say, “I have to have this nice, fancy office, I have to go show this certain image.” Clients judge you by your reputation.

Chen: Just do it! There are always going to be excuses and people telling you not to do things. Sometimes you have to take risks in life.

Arana: Now I have a career that I am passionate about. It’s my name, my office, my practice. So there’s a sense of pride in growing and nurturing this law practice through my own efforts. I can leave the office early on a Friday to pick up my daughters and take them to Disneyland. Those are the perks I can enjoy as a solo practitioner. I’m my own boss. 


The Law Office of Attorney at Law P.C.

What’s in a firm name? Solo practitioners have many options, and our six attorneys run the gamut. Here’s why they chose what they chose.

  • Law Office of Jesse A. Arana: “When I first opened my office, I had ‘Law Offices’—plural. I pictured myself having offices in Orange County, Van Nuys. As a solo practitioner, I realized I can’t do that, I can’t drive on a whim to Van Nuys or Orange County. So I changed it to ‘Office.’
  • Jass Law: “‘The Law Offices of…’ just sounded older, more traditional. Jass Law sounded more modern. Also, I didn’t want to put ‘The Law Offices of’ when, at the time, I only had a P.O. Box.
  • The Law Office of Stephen Chen, P.C.: “I just felt like, ‘I’m going to be very straightforward with what my name is.’ What you see is what you get.”
  • The Morrow Firm: “Just ease of pronunciation. My first name starts with an ‘X’ and a lot of people get tripped up on how to pronounce it. A lot of people are going with firm names that have nothing to do with lawyers’ names now—that seems to be a trend, so I may go with that direction. That’s probably better for marketing. And if you combine forces with other attorneys, [firms] don’t necessarily have to change their names.”
  • Mundo Legal: “Mundo means world, so I like that. I like that world where it’s ‘I’m making the law accessible to everyone.’ It’s not ‘Look at this fancy skyscraper, we’re only catering to this.’ There’s no intimidation factor, there’s no issue that we can’t break down into something that’s understandable to any person.”
  • Rabiah at Law: “I have this goal in life to be a one-namer like Oprah and Beyoncé. I want to reach that notoriety. It’s a vanity thing, but my first name is unique, it’s distinctive, so I want to be, ‘Hey, if you’re facing harassment in the workplace, you need to call Rabiah.’ I’m Rabiah to my clients, to individuals I mentor, and to the community. I’m not going around being called ‘Ms. Rahman’ or ‘Attorney Rahman.’ I wanted to model my firm after that informal environment.”

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