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Fork in the Road: Do You Take the Job, or Stay Solo?

By Jared Correia

Imagine the following scenario: You’ve got a nice little Saturday going: You didn’t get the job you wanted coming out of law school, but you’ve been running your own solo law practice for a few years now, and it feels like you’re starting to turn the corner. You’ve kept up on your networking, of course, and developed a number of key relationships with more experienced lawyers.

Then, the unthinkable happens: One of your contacts offers you a job … as an associate at her law firm.

Stop. The. Presses.

You were cruising along, and now all of a sudden, you’re faced with a big, fat fork in your road, and you’re twisting like spaghetti. Well, don’t get it twisted. I have some suggestions on how to view this new opportunity, against the backdrop of your prevailing experience.

There are two major considerations that most deeply affect any career move — including whether to shift from a solo practice to an associate position:

  • The lifestyle revisions that a career change would necessitate.
  • The new financial compensation arrangement.

These are difficult considerations to weigh on their own. What makes things worse is that they sometimes cut against each other. By way of example, maybe your real passion in life is to dress up opossums to look like Stan Musial. That’s decidedly a niche, and you’re not likely to make much money doing that. So, you do something else to make money, and capture opossums and turn them into Stan the Man on the side. You’re really strange; but, what you’re doing is balancing lifestyle and financial considerations, as we all do.

The Game of Life

Let’s dispense with the obvious: All things being equal, you’d rather work for yourself than for someone else. (It’s okay, Satan felt very much the same way. Sorry, that’s probably a bad example.) So, let’s focus on a few specific questions under this lifestyle tent, before exploring the money question.

Nothing facilitates lifestyle choices like flexibility. As a solo lawyer, your ability to get flexible with your schedule relates directly to how you’re feeling that day. As an associate at a law firm, people are gonna start to get squirrelly about when you come and go, and whether you are handling/can handle/are willing to handle the workload — especially when you’ve just started.

The central question, which should be resolved before you agree to a new job, revolves around expectations. How often will you be expected to work in the office? During which hours? If you are able to acquire some flexibility, will you be able to act on it? One of the most compelling reasons to join a law firm might be that someone else can cover your business expenses. Will the firm provide you with technology tools that facilitate mobile work? If not, can you purchase (and be compensated for) your own devices, and use those? A related question is whether the firm uses cloud technology, and to what extent. Even if you are allowed the hardware to work remotely, that hardware must be supported by accessible software, through which you can update case and client information.

There are culture and “fit” issues at play as well. If you’re the only one in the office who gets to work remotely, or to do so extensively, will that engender bad feelings? Will you feel compelled to spend a significant chunk of your time in the office, even if you’re not required to do so? Anytime you add another human being to the mix, your life becomes more complicated, and when traditional worklife mores are thrown on top of already complex human relationships, things can become difficult.

The question of flexibility can also extend to billing — even though you might have hoped that another reason to join up with a firm would be to avoid that hassle altogether. If you typically use flat-fee billing or alternative fee arrangements, how will you adjust, potentially, to an hourly billing model? Do you want to bill that way, or do you have a fundamental disagreement with a traditionalist’s approach to law firm billing? How will you revamp your time capture process to meet the requirements of incremental billing? The way you capture time, and the way you bill, reflects the way you work, and the way you interact with clients. It’s just another domino that may fall one way, or the other, toppling a potentially viable choice along with it.

Although it’s rarely discussed, the practice areas you choose have a profound effect on your lifestyle. It is difficult for attorneys who are head down, immersed in their own niches, to fully understand what everybody else’s backyards look like. But, the life of a criminal lawyer is substantially different from the life of an estate planner, so much so as to be almost incomparable outside of the broad category of “lawyer.” If you join a law firm, will you focus in the same practice area you did before? If not, what will your new practice area be? Does the change jibe with you? If you have to learn a new practice area, how will you do that? Who will your mentors be (within your new law firm, or without)? How will you build new referral pipelines once your old ones have been imploded? When considering a move to a law firm and a shift in practice areas, you need to figure out whether it’s the challenge speaking to you or just the money talking.

Money: That’s What You Want

The challenge of exploring the ramifications of accepting an associate position is exacerbated because you won’t have an opportunity to investigate your prospective law firm’s finances. Associates are not generally privy to that information, let alone prospective associates. So, in a very real way, you’re operating blind here. You won’t have any true idea about the revenue the firm generates, or what it pays in the way of overhead; you’ll have to conjecture, and make your best guess about whether the firm seems stable enough to take on an associate at your salary plus benefits, plus the raises you would anticipate receiving, assuming you are effective in your new position.

Of course, none of that means you can’t center your preliminary conversations on your personal income potential. Ask about salary and raises. If you’re asked to name a starting salary, aim high so you can comfortably negotiate down to your real price. Inquire about the possibility for percentages paid on business that you bring in, especially if you can move over some of your existing clients. Determine whether there is a potential for you to move forward on a partnership track, and what that process looks like. Even if you don’t have any idea what the firm’s total revenue is, you can probably determine what your salary, benefits and percentages would look like over the first five years of your employment. If you can do that, you will be able to compare those figures to the revenue projections for your solo law firm over the same period. At that point, you’ll be able to make an apples-to-apples comparison and settle the money picture. Comparing expected income figures will allow you to make a better-informed decision, as well as to give you a window into the growth potential for your own practice.

Overhead costs for law firms have a clear effect on income potential for lawyers. While you cannot know the overhead of the law firm you may associate with, you can make educated guesses, which will serve to refine the blade of your revenue projections. By asking the right questions, you can find out what technology the firm uses, and how they market the practice — the latter being something you might be able to figure out solely by looking online, starting with the law firm’s web presence. If you know the firm uses MyCase for practice management, for example, and how many employees it has, you can figure out what the monthly cost is for that product. You could take every technology platform and do the same, if you can get the managing partners to name them. Your questions may be perceived as welcome intellectual curiosity, or evidence of your businessperson’s acumen, and can advance your cause — when, really, you’re just trying to reverse engineer their overhead.

Trying to calculate the law firm’s budget is important because when you’re a solo you can control your own overhead costs, and seek the lowest common denominator for baseline efficiency. When you work for someone else, though, you’re stuck with what the managing partners have chosen, for however long they keep wanting to choose it.

Perhaps the most important questions respecting your potential income pertains to personalized marketing. If a law firm is willing to let you market their firm in much the same way you’ve marketed your solo practice, then you will, to a large extent, be able to maintain your brand, your existing clients and potential clients disposed to your message. However, if it wishes to force you into following a cookie-cutter marketing formula, which you may view as outdated, that could have an even more detrimental effect on your ability to make money than will a law firm’s outdated, expensive technology substructure.

Law firms that have subsisted on word-of-mouth advertising need to find ways to allow their associates to convert their own clients; but, there is often not an impetus for change — and by the time the pinch gets felt, the name partners may be ready to retire, a transition never happens and the client base slowly dries out. And if you, the associate, are in no position to truly resurrect how the firm’s lawyers market themselves, you’re just along for the ride down the River Styx. It behooves you, then, to defend your brand, to perpetuate it, and to make its maintenance a condition of accepting a position. Without a personal brand, you have no hope of developing a loyal client base within your new firm; and that is essentially important, if you want to retain the flexibility to make another move, down the road.

Moreover, if you take a job as an associate at a law firm and end up wanting to stay there, you’ll only remain relevant if you become a rainmaker. Your personal magnetism, your personal brand, must remain regardless of where you ply your trade. The more closely you can draw your clients to you, the better position you will attain, whether you stay solo or go to work for someone else.

The Association

You may find the lifestyle your new firm would offer is palatable, that the money’s right and that you’ll be able to market yourself as you see fit. Even so, as you work through your decision, you still aren’t able to get over the hump. Something just doesn’t feel right: and it’s that nagging feeling that an associate position means subordination, dependence; that no matter how it’s dressed up, it still speaks to an authority you’d rather not answer to, at least not in full. If that’s the case, you may consider offering an alternate affiliation model. An of counsel role would allow you to maintain your own practice while affiliating in a more than passing way with a firm you respect, whose offer of employment you genuinely see value in. An of counsel role would also allow you to test, in a “safe” way, whether you want to associate with the law firm in a more binding fashion. This ends up being the law firm version of dating, rather than going steady. They hold onto their letter jacket, you hold onto … well, let’s not go there.

Keep in mind as well that, in the long term, roles within law firms can become fungible. Promises are made, promises are broken. As a new associate, you’re still last in and first out — if it comes to that. Even if you are successful to the point that the managing partners are talking about retiring, making you partner and letting you run the show, that may all be all there is: Just talk. Retiring lawyers often talk a big game, but until they actually call it quits, there is no guarantee you’ll get what you feel is coming to you. Even then, it might be a fleeting victory. Sometimes retired lawyers come back, like so many Redweld-wielding zombies.

And the morbidity doesn’t stop there. In the case of many senior lawyers, retirement is truly the final reward — they die at their desks. Lawyers who are managing partners don’t like to retire for three main reasons: (1) they hate to give up control; (2) they often have not saved enough into retirement to maintain the lifestyle they prefer without continuing to work; and (3) they don’t know what to do if they don’t have the job. When you add it all up, it means that you may never know what it’s like to have the job.

So, if you are a solo who has taken an associate job, the lesson drawn from all of this analysis is that you should never waste your prime earning years waiting on promises that may never be fulfilled.

In the end, when you go to work for someone else, you’re making a decision to opt for the stability of income over the potential for income. People end up taking all the guff associated with having an employer so that they can get that steady paycheck. Of course, the dark secret is that you’re taking a chance in either scenario: Certainly, the potential income you envision from your solo practice might never materialize as you wish it would; but, on the other hand, there is no guarantee (especially in this economy) that the law firm you go to work for is unsinkable. In fact, it probably stands on as tenuous a footing as your own solo law firm — only you won’t know that going in.

“Infrastructure,” “long-standing”  … in point of fact, those things guarantee nothing more than an impressive letterhead attached to today’s mail. The only difference is whether the feet of clay are your own or stilts that someone else is providing.

The broad question that will determine whether you, the solo, should take an associate position or not is: Which business model do you truly believe in? If it’s yours, stay on. If it’s theirs, move on.

Illustration ©

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Jared Correia Jared Correia

Jared D. Correia is CEO of Red Cave Law Firm Consulting, which offers subscription-based law firm business management consulting services, and works with legal vendors to develop programming and content. Jared is also COO of Gideon Software, Inc., which offers intelligent messaging and predictive analytics software built exclusively for law firms. A former practicing attorney, Jared is the host of the Legal Toolkit podcast and speaks frequently at industry events. In addition to his Attorney at Work column, Managing, he writes an advice column for Lawyerist and on tech startups for Above the Law. Follow him @JaredCorreia.

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