Six attorneys share the ups and downs of building their own practice
Published in 2023 North Carolina Super Lawyers magazine
By Emma Way on January 19, 2023
When Jill Jackson appears via Zoom, she jokes about her background. It’s not a buttoned-up law office with books or framed diplomas. Jackson is sitting in the backyard of her Raleigh home. “Of course my dog was like, I need to go out now,” she says with a laugh.
Owning her own firm means independence, flexibility and boundless opportunity. The six solo attorneys in this story set their own schedules, choose the clients and cases they take on, and have the freedom to take calls while their pets get out the zoomies. They specialize in different areas of law, and serve communities across North Carolina, from sprawling cities like Charlotte and Raleigh to tightknit towns like Wilson and Salisbury.
But when it comes to being a successful solo practitioner, they’re in good company.
Anitra K. Brown; Employment & Labor: Employee: My dad pulled me aside after my freshman year in college, saying that he really thought I should pursue law. I said, “Oh, Daddy, you think I can do everything.” But after that, I had professors say the same thing.
Sonya Tien; Personal Injury – General: Plaintiff, Business Litigation: I’ve known from a young age. I respected lawyers, I thought they were very skillful, and I wanted to help and be a part of the profession.
Jill Jackson; Family Law: There was a moment in college when I thought I wanted to be a therapist. I ended up in family law, which is really a juncture of the two in a lot of ways. My favorite thing about family law is watching the evolution of clients. Clients sometimes come in, and they’re incredibly vulnerable and incredibly fragile. I can look at them and say, “Six months from now, you’re gonna be in a totally different place.” And months later, they’ll be a stronger person, a happier person.
Rhyan Breen; Criminal Defense, Business/Corporate, Civil Litigation: I always knew that if I was going to do this, I was going to come back home and ply my trade here.
Debra L. Foster; Estate Planning & Probate: I didn’t want to become a lawyer. I thought lawyers were boring people. By the way, we are not. I thought I would get my doctorate in clinical psychology and applied to programs, and I didn’t get in. I visited the law school at UNC, and I was fascinated by the Socratic method and thought the people who stood up to answer questions were incredibly brave and smart.
Ryan Stowe; Criminal Defense: I actually wanted to be in alternative dispute resolution, so I didn’t think I was going to do any trials, but a very close friend from college got a speeding ticket. I said, ”I really don’t know how to do that,” but she begged me. Four months later, she got a marijuana charge … and she refuses to hire anybody else but me. I opened up a criminal defense practice immediately after that.
Before Going Solo
Foster: I saw Charlotte as an up-and-coming city, so I took a job [at Grier, Parker, Poe, Thompson, Bernstein, Gage, & Preston]. They already had other female attorneys in the firm, and that was important to me. It was not quite so common in the South as it was in the North to be a successful female attorney.
Jackson: [Tharrington Smith] wasn’t a big firm in the way that some of the really big firms are, but we had all the resources a larger firm has. It was a great place to work. I made partner in 2009. I learned so many good habits about how to practice law, about how to manage a client, how to manage a case file, how to stay organized, and it was really a great experience that prepared me to be able to go out on my own.
Tien: I started out in big law, and I loved it. I thought it was wonderful training. I had wonderful mentors, I built a really strong network, and I really enjoyed collaborating on complex matters from the outset.
Breen: I was the low man on the totem pole [at Farris & Farris] so I ended up doing the bulk of the legal research and writing and the pleadings. Now instead of doing work for four attorneys, I’m down to one—me. I answer the phones. It rings direct to my cellphone.
Brown: [Employment discrimination] really picked me. I remember experiencing what I would now describe as employment discrimination at my first job. I remember leaving that having prevailed. And then I found myself in law school and now-Judge Joe Webster took me under his wing.
Taking the Leap
Breen: I was looking for a change of pace. I was applying for government work. I applied for some jobs at other law firms. Finally, I was talking to Kellie Gonzalez who runs Capital to Coast [Law Group] and asked her about an associate position that she had listed. She said, “Why wouldn’t you just open your own shop? You got all the tools. Just go do that.”
Tien: When I did make the decision to go solo, it was to come back home. Starting a law firm here [in Raleigh] allowed me to be closer to home and my family. I haven’t looked back. It’s been exciting ever since.
Stowe: I was living at home with my mom. I didn’t have any kids. So there was little risk, and I’ve always been entrepreneurial. It’s easily one of the best decisions of my life.
Jackson: I had grown up. I had become a lawyer who had ways I wanted to practice and decisions I wanted to be able to make for myself, and flexibility I wanted to have for my family.
Foster: I wanted the opportunity not only to control my practice, but also to accept and work with a wide variety of clients, including those who could not pay full freight for my legal services. I do think that attorneys have an obligation to serve the public. And when we talk about serving the public, it’s the broad range of our neighbors. I represent clients who have enormous estates. And I represent clients who pay me in pound cakes.
Jackson: The first six months were scary. I have learned things that I took for granted and other people did for me at the law firm. I didn’t understand the logistics of the paperwork you file at the courthouse, or how the billing system works. It’s been a real learning curve.
Brown: I had so much help. I was also the chair of our Starting Out Solo committee with the NCBA. It felt like we were part of this bigger community. Anytime I didn’t know something, there was a mentor there who was willing to walk me through it. Those early days, certainly, I felt more insecure about my ability as a practitioner.
Stowe: When you first start, you’re so afraid to make a mistake. I took my time to get into more serious cases. I would watch court all the time. I would do my one case, and then I would just sit there all day and learn from everybody—what they did good or bad.
Tien: I came from big law, and we had an amazing tech department for all of our around-the-clock tech needs. One of the biggest challenges of going solo is that I had to become extremely tech savvy early on. Not just good at law, not just good at running a business, but I had to know how to run a server, run a network, manage a database, run the website, manage the apps.
Breen: I opened up shop November 2019. It was rolling for a good few months, when I got tagged right in the face. The pandemic slowed things down to a snail’s pace.
Trials and Tribulations
Foster: One of my friends, Lisa Kelly, was a wonderful estate planning practitioner. As I started contemplating leaving a larger law firm, she started talking with me about her firm, which was Essex Richards, also an excellent law firm. I left Parker Poe to work with Lisa … and we were happy. But Lisa was incredibly entrepreneurial, and she kept wanting to open up her own firm.
We opened Foster Kelly on my 50th birthday. We were setting up, and we were delighted. And then Lisa died of a ruptured brain aneurysm less than three weeks into the practice.
My world was unmoored. All of a sudden, I was left without her with boxes to be unpacked and clients to be notified. I gave myself a year to decide what I wanted to do. I had offers and still have them from other law firms to come in as a partner. But after a year, I realized how much I enjoyed fulfilling the vision that Lisa and I had of our firm together. So I stayed. I think about her every day.
Breen: I didn’t have time to look back. I just kept picking up speed. I had one case that was particularly difficult. It was a terrible, no good, very bad case. The defendant wanted to assert an insanity defense, which if you watch Law & Order it sounds like that happens every day. That does not happen every day.
It was one of the first times somebody was going to assert one in Wilson County. Based on the facts, we were unable to present that as a defense. He didn’t want to take any kind of plea, so we ended up having to try the case. At the end of the day, the prosecuting witness in the case came up and thanked me for treating her with dignity and respect.
Brown: I worked a pretty big case in one of my first cases. After almost a year of fighting this thing, the other side came with a huge settlement and my client does not take it. I had dedicated most of my life at this point to this case. I remember going away for a weekend and crying it out, contemplating leaving forever.
Jackson: I had one case [a custody action on behalf of the dad] that went to the North Carolina Supreme Court called Routten v. Routten. After I left [Tharrington Smith], he came with me and said, “You’re the one I want to continue to handle it.” We’ve had very good success in that case, and it’s a case that continues to be complicated. He’s the one paper file I have left because most everything else is paperless. I’m proud of that one.
Foster: I represent a lot of physicians, and I came to understand what the term hero truly meant. They were getting ready to go into the hospitals to care for COVID patients. What do you truly say to somebody who’s in that situation? Other than “Godspeed, I’ve got your back in this area. Your planning is all done. I’ll take care of your family if need be.”
Tien: I focus on high stakes litigation and complex litigation. It ranges from intellectual property litigation to serious injury litigation. Those are exciting matters we work on. I love the practice of law, but I think it’s even more rewarding to grow a practice. Individual case victories are always wonderful. But on a larger scale, growing the practice has been exciting.
Breen: I’m just going to keep plugging away and doing my best to keep representing the people of this county. I like it just being me. I’m very hands off when it comes to delegating. I really like knowing that what is done is done to my specifications. And if something falls through the cracks, there’s no one else to blame, but me.
Stowe: We just bought a building, and our firm is going to hire additional staff.
Jackson: I’m the vice chair of North Carolina Bar Association’s Family Law Section, so this year I’ll be the chair, starting in July. That’s exciting because I’ll be in the know about whatever’s current in family law. I love my practice, and I love my clients, but I also get a lot of fulfillment out of doing this.
Brown: I’ve been working on a proprietary process that I’ve turned into intellectual property that walks clients through from the point they feel like something is going on at work, all the way into building the case before they get fired, or before they quit. It’s called Legal Therapy.
Foster: I hope we still help people. I hope we still help our neighbors. I would be delighted to be exactly where I am today.
Tien: You have to be confident in your work. If you know you’re a successful attorney, then you would do the same in your own practice. Go for it. Make it happen.
Jackson: It has been amazing. It is an amount of freedom for me to choose what cases I’m going to take, and when I’m going to work. That’s given me a lot of freedom to be available for my kids and my own sanity.
Brown: There’s no better time in history to go solo than right now. When I was chair of Starting Out Solo, I spoke often about how within five to eight years, practice was going to be different. I encouraged people to leverage technology and innovation. It’s interesting when a pandemic hit … people were scrambling to keep their practices open. And mine only got stronger.
Stowe: I mentor a lot of new lawyers and people who are starting their own firms. A couple of things that I think are really important are to utilize technology as best you can, and to create as efficient intake processes as possible.
Breen: Remember that you’ve got to take time for yourself. You can’t pour out into anybody else’s cup if your cup is empty. That’s probably been one of my favorite parts of being in private practice. When I’m done, when I can’t do it anymore for the day, I can just close up shop and go home.
Foster: Attorneys used to be called counselors at law. We’ve abandoned that nomenclature. But estate planning in particular affords me the opportunity not only to be a technically adept attorney, but also really to be a counselor at law.
Jackson: People are kind. People are so kind. Other lawyers are kind, and they want to help you and they want you to succeed. The clerks at the courthouse are kind, and they want to help you and they want you to succeed. Just go ask questions and be nice. You’ll learn so much and make connections with people, and then you can help other people who come behind you.
Solo But Not Alone
6 tips from solo pros
- Get tech savvy. “If you’re determined, anything that you need to know, you will learn it,” Tien says.
- Find your niche.
- Buy your own printer. Jackson’s first office was in a Raleigh coworking space, where she quickly learned “their version of an industrial printer and copier is not the same as a lawyer’s.”
- Solidify your client base.
- Find a mentor. “Find somebody you can talk to and bounce ideas off of,” Breen says. Many county bar associations have mentorship programs like Mecklenburg’s Linking Lawyers and Wake’s Connections Mentorship Program.
- Stand up, speak loudly, make eye contact. Those are the tips Jackson gives the middle school mock trial team she coaches in her free time.
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