For many law students, working in a large prestigious firm is their ultimate goal. Many of them make it there and many don’t. For those that do, they may realize over time that it’s not the best fit for them. If you find yourself in Big Law and are considering going solo, this post is for you.
Leaving Big Law to go solo is a big deal. It is not for the faint of heart. There are many, many perks to Big Law that are hard to leave behind – the large paycheque, the beautiful offices and views, the support staff, the talented lawyers just down the hall, the retreats and of course, the prestige.
Yet for many lawyers, the lure of Big Law wears off over time. Where lawyers once saw opportunities, camaraderie and advancement, they now see politics, red tape and tradition.
When you have decided that enough is enough and that it’s time to go, there are certain steps that you can take to leave in a way that will set you up for success as a solo.
1. Vision. Many of the lawyers that I work with fail to take the time to determine why they want to leave. Is it to not work on weekends? Is it to do work with a particular group of clients? Is it to have more control and autonomy? What do you envision for your life and career when you leave Big Law?
A great question to ask yourself is the magic wand question: if you could have everything that you wanted, what would that look like? Then answer the question, no holds barred. Really go deep here and consider things like what will your office look like, how many hours will you work, who will your clients be, what will your clients say about you, how much money will you make and what will you do in your free time. All of these answers make up your vision. Once you have that, write it down. Seriously…write down your vision. It will help to solidify it and also will be so satisfying when you look back at it and realized that you have made your vision come to life. Keep this vision in mind whenever you are making decisions about leaving Big Law and also as you set up your new firm.
2. Read your Contract. Review your employment contract to determine how much notice you need to give before you leave. Check to see what it says about your departure – does it specify how you can inform current clients? If you are unsure, speak with an employment lawyer. You want to leave on good terms (see the next point) so understanding what is in your contract is very important.
3. Don’t Burn Bridges. Even though you may want to go tell that lawyer down the hall who always gives you a hard time what you really think of him, nothing good will come out of it. When you leave Big Law, go out with your head held high. Go around the office and say good-bye to the lawyers and staff. Let them know how they can contact you. Stay in touch with them. You never know when they may have some work that they can send your way. In addition, don’t be surprised if some of them come calling after you have left to see if they can come work for you.
Not only that, but I have seen many lawyers go solo and have their current employer become one of their clients. If your firm needs your services after you leave, they could become one of your first clients. How cool is that?
4. Budget. The decision of when to leave can be a tricky one. Part of that can be due to the drumbeat of that regular paycheque. The fear of not making enough money is one that many lawyers have when they consider going solo. So before you announce your departure, take some time to put together a rough budget for your new practice. This doesn’t have to be elaborate – just list the expenses and income that you anticipate in an excel spreadsheet. Keep in mind, you don’t need to go broke to go solo.
If the amount of money you think you will need makes you really uncomfortable, consider sticking around in Big Law to save some money before leaving. Or consider staying until your annual bonuses are paid. Ideally, if you have 4 to 6 months’ worth of salary saved, you are in very good shape. This will allow you some cushion when you first go solo so that you don’t feel so desperate that you take every file that comes through the door.
5. Speak with Potential Clients. Before you speak with your current and potential clients, make sure to review your employment contract (remember step 2). Is there a non-solicitation clause that prohibits you from speaking with clients? Are their restrictions dictated by your law society? If so, you may have to skip this step.
If there are no prohibitions, let them know about your plans to go solo. Set up a time to chat with them to find out about their needs and how you might be able to help. This way, you may be able to line up some clients right off the bat.
6. Speak with Other Solos. Don’t forget to speak with other solos who are running their own firms. How has their experience been? What do they wish they did when first starting out? What advice do they have for you?
If you don’t know solos, you will likely be pleasantly surprised by how supportive the solo/small community is. Find someone whose practice interests you and reach out to them. Chances are they will be happy to chat with you. And if they aren’t, find someone who is. There are some great Facebook Groups dedicated to solos, including one that I run for Canadian female lawyers.
I was trained on Bay Street and worked in Big Law for nearly a decade before going solo. I now help other solo/small firm lawyers launch and build their practices, through 1:1 consulting. I help lawyers implement a marketing strategy, hire help, overcome mindset blocks and build a profitable firm that suits their lifestyle. Interested in learning more? Check out my services page.