Going It Alone
Six attorneys share the risks and rewards of a solo practice
Published in 2021 Missouri & Kansas Super Lawyers magazine on November 15, 2021
Some attorneys are thrust into solo practice after conflicts at large firms. Others unintentionally wind up alone after a partner leaves. Still others simply pursue their dream of hanging out a shingle.
“I knew what I wanted to bring to the world as a lawyer, and I think the only real way that an attorney can do that is by being in practice for themselves,” says Rachna Lien, a family law attorney in St. Louis.
Though none of the six Missouri and Kansas attorneys we spoke with would claim that going solo was seamless, most, like Kristi Kingston—an employment & labor attorney in Overland Park, Kansas—only share a single regret. “Psychologically, I lacked the courage to go out on my own sooner,” she says. “Having done it now for about six years, I shouldn’t have been so hesitant.”
Roger Fincher, personal injury: plaintiff; Topeka, Kansas: I started in a law firm right after law school doing personal injury work—car accidents, slip-and-falls, workers’ compensation. I was 20 years younger than everybody else.
Kristi Kingston, employment & labor; Overland Park, Kansas: I worked in the same small law firm with two other attorneys for 18 years, and I literally started that job as a law clerk during law school. … I never intended to become a solo practitioner. In 2015, I started the firm with one other attorney, and in 2016 my partner left. So I continued running the firm on my own.
Rachna Lien, family law; St. Louis, Missouri: After passing the bar, I started a nonprofit organization and we focused on doing legal services for survivors of sexual abuse. I wasn’t my own boss, because the nonprofit is run by a board of directors.
Gerald Gray II, personal injury: plaintiff, employment & labor: employee; Kansas City, Missouri: Immediately upon graduating law school in 2014, I worked for a small firm that had about 15 attorneys. … I got on the Criminal Justice Act panel within four months instead of it taking me five years. A partner really kind of did everything he could to sabotage it. I’m very vocal, so if I feel like I’m being mistreated or I see something wrong, I speak up on it. There was a tug-of-war, to a degree, and in October of 2015, they said, “Hey, we don’t think you’re a good fit.” So I went out on my own.
Ronald Nguyen, immigration: consumer; Kansas City, Missouri: My first job was half time with the economic development unit at Legal Aid of Western Missouri, and half time in the immigration unit. A couple of years in, I became the supervising attorney of the immigration unit for Legal Aid.
Lisha Prater Seery, estate planning & probate, elder law; Springfield, Missouri: To begin with, I was an associate in a big firm. I did whatever they told me to. I’ve worked in a law office since I was 18 years old. I got my undergraduate degree at night and worked for lawyers in the day. … I got a little burnt out and wanted to do something a little bit different. I went solo and continued to do family law, but also started to bring in estate planning and elder law.
MAKING THE TRANSITION
Lien: The hardest part of going solo is thinking about it. As lawyers, we’re told that hanging up your own shingle is this really big deal.
Nguyen: I shared space with three other attorneys with their own practices. I’m very fortunate for what they did: They covered my rent for the first two months. Then they each sent me a case per month for the first two months just to help me get into my groove.
Kingston: Having a partner for a year was good preparation for ending up being solo, because we had to go through all the logistics of creating a new firm. It wasn’t difficult to keep the business going after he left.
Gray: I’d describe it as a nervous joy. There were some days it was kind of crazy, like, “All right, it’d be a good day if the phone rang.”
Seery: Several of my clients went with me, and my name was well-known, so the phone never stopped ringing. It’s like jumping off a cliff but not knowing if your parachute’s going to open. But it worked.
Fincher: There were four lawyers [at my previous firm], and we shared expenses. We also had our own staff. Going solo was kind of like moving my operation to a different location. It didn’t change a whole lot.
THE GOOD … AND SOME BAD
Nguyen: I’m a younger-looking individual of Asian descent. It was scary, because a lot of clients would come in and say, “Where is the lawyer?” They were thinking I was the paralegal. My parents raised me to be more of a traditional Asian—head down, work hard, study hard, do good work. It becomes harder when you’re in private practice, especially as a solo practitioner, because you have to speak up and advocate for your clients.
Seery: One of the things I liked least was having to run the business portion of it. I didn’t like having to worry about the bookkeeping side and the contracts for a copier. I wanted to practice law, that was it. It was like, “Well, crap. I have to do this other stuff.”
Fincher: Being with a firm, you have somebody sharing all your expenses—and you also have a receptionist, a bookkeeper, an office manager that works for everybody. You’ve got to do all that yourself when you get out on your own. On the other hand, if you’re doing well at producing, you make more money on your own than you do with a law firm.
Kingston: The space that we had been renting, my partner and I, was his father-in-law’s. So I had to find new office space. I started driving by buildings that had office-lease signs out front, and I quickly learned that was so time-consuming. Probably the greatest thing, now, is that I’m two miles from my house. To have such a short drive to the office has been fantastic.
Gray: My wife ended up being in the hospital for almost a month before our son was born. Then he was born at 30 weeks, and ended up being in the NICU 38 days. So, the whole summer of 2016, I lived at a hospital. I look at it as a blessing in disguise, because if I had still worked at a firm, I wouldn’t have been able to be away and tend to my family like I was.
Lien: The process of actually incorporating and starting a business was very simple. The logistics of it are pretty easy because you can Google just about anything nowadays.
CARVING A NICHE—OR NOT
Kingston: My primary focus is still plaintiff’s employment discrimination, retaliation cases. The thing that’s changed the most is I’ve taken on more hourly cases like drafting contracts, negotiating severance or separation agreements. And that’s been nice because it helps bring in steady income.
Fincher: I have kind of a big operation. … You can’t accept all these cases unless you have a great staff.
Lien: I do mostly family law, and I also work with new entrepreneurs and small-business owners—mainly in service-oriented businesses, kind of like my own. I work with women, and they have to be in a mindset where they’re looking at long-term goals. If they’re stuck in a sort of victim mentality, which unfortunately we see a lot of in family court, that’s not the type of client that I tend to work with because I don’t do well fighting over rugs and vacuum cleaners.
Nguyen: Although I do focus on immigration, it came to be that I started to do other areas of law because that’s what the Vietnamese community needed. They needed a Vietnamese lawyer who practices family law and personal injury. So it’s really changed.
Fincher: I get people that come in here very desperate—that have lost their job because of a work injury or a car accident, with broken legs, in wheelchairs, and the immediate need for income replacement. Helping people like that, with day-to-day things, is more satisfying to me than working on a case where you settle for $1 million or $500,000.
Kingston: I represented a gentleman who had worked at a car dealership and had gotten fired. We brought claims for race discrimination, and him being fired in retaliation for having reported race discrimination. … It was interesting, because the person that ended up firing him had a number of overtly racially offensive posts on his Facebook page. Of course, the defense attorneys were like, “Oh that’s never going to come in,” but it did come into evidence at trial.
Gray: Another lawyer said, “Here’s a tough case that I’m not doing anything with. Do you want to try?” As a matter of fact, he gave me two. In October of 2016, I settled both of those cases on the same day. And, in that one day, I essentially made more than I would’ve made in a year and a half had I still worked at the firm that I worked at. And, you know, I cried.
Lien: There is a cluster of clients who really exemplify the values that I portray, and who used family court as a launching pad for their success. My favorites are the ones who started businesses of their own once they got through whatever it was they were going through—a bad work environment, a divorce, something that was bringing them pain. Watching that is just beautiful.
HOW IT’S GOING
Gray: A lot of my practice now involves referral clients from word of mouth. The phone rings every day, multiple times a day. I’ve had no regrets. All of these firms that I used to want to work for—now I have cases against their best lawyers. And things are much better than they ever would have been had I worked for any of those places.
Lien: I’m very happy with my life right now: I get to make my own rules, which I love, and I’m accountable to no one but myself.
Nguyen: I’m really enjoying my time, the flexibility of the hours, the ability to work nights and weekends and feel satisfied with it—because I at least know the work I’m doing is benefitting me directly. It’s not like I’m working myself to the bone for someone else.
Fincher: Most days I’m really glad I have my own place, and I can do my own thing and make the choices about which cases I want to handle. I would do it all over again. But there are certain days where I wish I had another lawyer to send to court.
A BIT OF ADVICE
Kingston: It was difficult for me to find a work-life balance being solo. I’d go on a family vacation and, initially, I found myself working while my family was out doing activities together. I got up early to do my email-checking and work before they all got up, and then I would try very hard not to touch my cell for the day.
Seery: Don’t get too cocky. You’re not going to be bringing in hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars. It’s like, “Cool, I made overhead this month.”
Gray: A judge who used to be a solo practitioner, when I first started out with my own practice, told me, “However hard you think you’re working, it’s not hard enough. Work harder.” Another federal judge would tell me, “If you’re going to worry, then why pray? Enjoy the process—the nervousness and all the chaos—because, if you don’t, life passes you by.”
Lien: Don’t be afraid to break the mold of what a lawyer is supposed to be, because when you have your own firm, you really have the flexibility to be whoever you want to be and to offer whatever it is you want to offer to the world. If you have a desire to go into solo practice, the only thing stopping you, really, is yourself.
Words from the Wise
Tips from the solo practitioners
- Reach out to other attorneys you trust for advice.
- Don’t skimp on hiring staff.
- Invest in yourself through training and other resources.
- Plan, plan, plan.
- Be realistic when projecting your income.