The magic number in your legal career is five.
At year five, you should realize two things: you can and are bringing in business and your firm is keenly aware if you are not.
As a new attorney, you do not realize you are a financial drain on your firm. The time it takes to train you takes away other attorneys’ time to bill clients.
The business you bring in, if any, will not offset your salary and benefits. If you think the time you write down as billable time is passed on to a client, think again.
Most of your time is shaved off or written off because partners are cautious when billing their clients to offset your learning curve. An experienced paralegal can often do what you are doing in a fraction of the time.
Benefits you offer are your raw knowledge to analyze and your potential to grow into a proficient and profit-making partner. It is at about the five-year mark that your potential to be profitable (or not) becomes evident.
You may have started reaping a nice client base; other clients have become loyal to you. You have managed cases successfully and know how to navigate the court system.
The judges know you by name. You have established friendships from involvement in The Jacksonville Bar Association and other professional organizations, and you have referral relationships.
It is at this point that you say, “Hey, I can do this myself!”
Leaving a firm to start your own practice is not a good idea if you are simply unhappy.
In fact, it may be one of the worst decisions to leave on bad terms and burn bridges.
Your former firm may be a significant source of referrals. Leaving a law firm to start your own practice should be about taking a new direction based on your personal and professional goals.
For many women, you may now have a family. There is often an unspoken tension between your partners and your baby fighting for your attention.
Before children, you have no problem staying late every evening. You know you have to stay until the partners leave, even if you were far more efficient than the best of them.
With babies, you have heartache when you may not see them due to the late nights at work. Sadly, many women give up practicing entirely. However, it does not have to be all-or-nothing. Starting your own practice may save all your years of education and hard work.
One other reason you would consider starting your practice is for the freedom of choosing your own clients. This includes making your own calls on when and how much to bill them.
You can also focus on a different area of law other than what you had to focus on for the firm. Not having to seek permission to practice law that best suits you is a great feeling. You also have the freedom to come and go as you think is most profitable.
Spending a day at the golf course, planning speaking engagements out of town, having a two-hour lunch with a referral source are all your own decisions.
What do you lose when you leave a firm? The view of Downtown from a high-rise, the lavish waiting rooms and conference rooms, the “who’s who” coming in and out and/or the team of attorneys to brainstorm? Yes. Those are big losses.
However, you may be surprised to learn many people (including attorneys, public officials and judges) do not want a large- or mid-sized firm knowing their personal, family and business issues. A solo firm fits that bill.
Many other potential clients do have buyer’s remorse when they engage an attorney only to have the case passed on to associates and paralegals. In a solo practice, they engage you and know you are overseeing all of their matters.
As for resources, gone are the days of the expense of big libraries. The Internet saved that cost.
As for the office itself, a smaller suite can be as professional at a fraction of the cost.
Your office can also be free to bring in other valuable assets to welcome clients. At our firm, clients look forward to being greeted by a well-trained golden doodle named Milkshake.
As far as colleagues to have around to discuss ideas on a case, it is best to share space with older seasoned attorneys.
If that is not possible, create a network of colleagues as a resource. The Jacksonville Bar Association is an excellent source for those networks.
So if you have five years of experience under your belt, and your life has changed sufficiently where you would relish the feeling of freedom, take the plunge.
If you want to hear more from others who have managed their firms, check out the Solo Practitioner/Small Firm Committee of The Jacksonville Bar. Flying solo does not have to sabotage your career. To the contrary, it may be the best decision to meet your professional and personal goals.
Rose Marie K. Preddy owns Preddy Law Firm, P.A.