Matt Wertheim logoContact Matt at 415-775-8950
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Matt Wertheim logo

Contact Matt at 415-775-8950
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Flying Solo: Starting and Building a Solo Practice - University of San Francisco Law (CLE) Program Talking Points

University of San Francisco

School of Law CLE

FLYING SOLO: Starting and Building a Solo Practice

March 4, 2014


I. Introductions (3 mins – 1 min each)

Thomas J. Brandi
The Brandi Law Firm
354 Pine Street, 3rd Fl.
San Francisco, CA 94104
Tel: (415) 989-1800
Fax: (415) 651-8613
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Matt Wertheim
2135 Lombard Street
San Francisco, CA 94123
(415) 775-8950
(415) 601-9908 (cell)

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Thomas Trombadore
654 Sacramento Street, Suite 300
San Francisco, CA 94111
(415) 644-4811
(415) 651-9489 (Fax)
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Here is the question to answer (1 minute or less each):

  • Describe yourself, your current practice and law firm setting\history; and
  • Do it in 30-words or less.

II. What Are Your Top Three Priorities/Advice for Successfully Opening & Thriving in a Small Firm or Solo Practice in Today’s Changing Economy & Practice (5 MINS Each or Less)

Dilemma & Thesis: It is better to have a client base, knowledge base/expertise, skill set before launching into small or solo setting.

QUESTION: What are the recommendations for the (predominantly young) lawyers who have little to none of the above; and whose employment opportunities to win the clients or mentorship/practice experience may be limited?  

QUESTION: What are the priorities for more experienced lawyers who are retooling, but who have no ready-set clientele and who have never owned or operated a business?

QUESTION: What about those lawyers who are re-entering the lawyer workforce after long hiatus?

Whoever you are and wherever you are in your changing career, here are some pragmatisms to frame your thinking, to help keep you grounded and sane. In no particular order:

  • Start & Own It. Choose a realistic starting point, but start networking and developing your knowledge base/skill accepting the personal commitment as if you were a small or solo lawyer no matter in what employment setting you find yourself. That method will guide your success whether or not you end up in a small or solo law firm. Increasingly, large law firm and institutional settings for lawyers are silo-ing lawyers’ practice substantive expertise and skill sets within niche practices anyway. Institutional law firms are still struggling to shake that model without good success these last five years. This is your advantage in competing against them. Think like a small or solo lawyer no matter where you are.
  • Work with Good People: Never forget this: Your financial success and emotional satisfaction in law practice likely will be defined more by the clients whom you choose to turn away, than those with whom you CHOSE to work. Second, choose clients and your business partners wisely. Hire slowly. Fire fast. Third, “Hire” clients who pay their bills ... Focus first on people and businesses you know, with whom you enjoy working. Fourth, the #1 rule of successful entrepreneurs – hire to your weaknesses. Know your limits. Associate in the subject matter or skill expertise you don’t have; learn their trade from these expert mentors whom you pay. If you can’t find a mentor, hire one. Maybe your client will even pay for it too!
  • Professionalism: Be good. Do good. Your professional good will and reputation is all you’ve got. Do the right thing – always – even when you could really use the money. Never, ever go to the dark side, right? Go drive a cab before you do that.
  • Choose cases and clients carefully. Trust your gut-judgment. If it doesn’t seem right, it probably isn’t. Again, your professional and economic success will be measured equally by the clients & cases you decide not to take.
  • Pace yourself. Be realistic. Take time to care for yourself. You have must take good care of yourself before you can take care of others. Practice in your own life, the good judgment you will preach.   It is the person who makes the lawyer, not the lawyer who makes the person. Embrace that notion and wallow in it every day.
  • Keep Your Priorities Focused. Identify and maintain your and your client’s priorities & goals. Your time is your money now. Manage how you spend your time accordingly.
  • Excellence - Discipline of Doing the Work Well – getting it done well - all the time, every time. Be disciplined about it. Excellence matters.
  • Provide Exceptional Client Service and personal attention – means more than doing just great work\getting great results. Good people skills count. Communicate, communicate, communicate;
  • Never Stop Listening to Your Clients. Learn from them. Be inquisitive.
  • Building & Keeping Good Quality Referrals.
  • Network, Network, Network: Building a Bigger & Better Quality Circle, Stay in Touch.
  • Strive to Up-Date\Up-Market Your Practice, Knowledge Base & Skills Sets, no matter where you find yourself along those continuums today or tomorrow.
  • Social Networks\Media: Exploit face to face and virtual paths (online) to keep current with wider and wider pools of potential clients and client referrals.
  • Become and Stay Active within Community, Industry & Professional Networks serving your constituent practice skills and potential client pools.
  • Start with what you know, can do and enjoy. Then broaden your expertise from there.
  • Make the Hard Decisions Early. Make them logically, rationally and thoughtfully with good and disciplined risk assessment/management. Do not procrastinate in making hard decisions. If you can’t do this for yourself well, how can you expect to help your clients do it? So get over it and make a good decisions for yourself already, will ya? Stewing only wears you out – so stop that.
  • Keep Moving. Never stand still. Make yourself learn, learn, learn. No two matters are ever exactly alike. Your devotion to life-long learning will prepare you well to deal with those challenges. Strive to learn from the best – seek them out.
  • Get Out There, Stay Out There, Be Present.
  • Be smart, Know your limits, but Be Not Afraid of What You do not Know. Learn it. Get the Help You Need. Associate Practice Skill/Subject Matter Experts/Mentors. You can learn the subject matter and circle yourself with the expertise required. Along this path you will sow what you reap. No one can do it all, all the time, all by themselves ever. Your skill assembling the right problem solving teams/skills is a huge asset not a weakness. Work with people smarter than you whenever you can.
  • Solve Problems First & With Intellectual Honesty. One of your most valuable assets to clients is your reputation and ability to solve problems even if it means finding them a set of other or different professionals (a multi-disciplinary team) whom your client has to pay to solve the problem/challenge. We call this, thinking outside the I.R.A.C. box. Consider what your mother/father taught you “back on the farm” as it were– a dose of good old fashioned common sense and fairness never hurts. It’s called judgment, remember? Never forget.
  • Confidence. Embrace your inner fears/inhibitions and let your self-doubt inform and hone your good judgment and the discipline of your practiced, problem solving skills within principles of the applicable law.
  • Bill and Collect, always.
  • Solid Low Cost/Time Efficient Office Platform, Financial & Risk Management Platforms.
  • Sticking With Who You Know: do not discount the value of your rolodex, friends, family, church, alumni, community service organization, school/sorority/fraternity and other personal or affinity circles or groups in your life, your spouse/partners’ lives, your family’s and children’s’ lives.
  • Keep moving – never stand still. Always have a move ready and be ready to move.
  • It’s the Practice of Law: Hey, it’s a discipline, remember? Law practice is a skilled process that you must practice and work at all the time. Maintain mental acuity and clarity and practiced logic and step-by-step deductive reasoning within principles of law, equity and justice. Do not skip steps in your reasoning. Pay attention to each step. Shut out the noise in your brain when practicing. Remain focused and confident in your intellect, and logical reasoning based on thorough fact finding and legal research, as much as is possible. The well-informed good judgment that comes from that discipline of work works. Never guess at what you don’t know; even when you think you know it. Always double check the law and the rules. Never pretend to know what you actually do not. Check the law every time. Just when you’ve learned it, the law changes – so keep up with the changes of your practice areas and learn those changes as they develop. It’s a discipline. You are only as good as the discipline you practice. It’s hard work, but it becomes manageable as you maintain the priority of your intellectual discipline. Let the fruits of that practiced discipline (i.e. hard work) guide you through the difficult judgments and decisions you will be confronted to help your clients make.
  • Anxiety? Embrace It. It’s Common. Here is a corollary to the preceding point. The day you get too comfortable practicing law or think you know it all, is the day you should give up the practice and go drive a cab. Think about it. Embrace your anxiety and inquisitive self-doubt. You can never know everything. Yet, you have basic tools to figure it out. That’s the practice of law. How well you do that, will dictate how successful you will be, or not, professionally. So again, embrace your self-doubt and anxiety. It will guide and inform your practice discipline and resulting, good judgment that is so essential to your successful practice of the law.  And remember, balance is critical. Never let your self-doubt overwhelm you to the point of being stuck. When needed, go find the help or subject matter expertise you need to solve complex problems bigger than your own brain; if that is what it takes.
  • Don’t Burn Out: You can only be as good to your client as you are to yourself first. Always remember: your clients’ problems belong to them. Keep it that way. Your job is to fully and accurately inform/educate your client about the risks your client confronts so your client can make informed decisions about how to best manage his/er own risk and make his/er own decisions about how to proceed. You lay out the options and risks and benefits of each course of action/solution. Your job is to assure that your client is fully and accurately informed about the risks s/he confronts so s/he can make informed decisions about managing her/his own risk/outcomes. You client decides how to solve her/his problems. Don’t decide for your client. That is not your job. If you strongly disagree with your client’s decisions, that’s called irreconcilable differences and your remedy is to withdraw if you can.
  • Never guarantee any outcome or probability, ever. If your client expects you to be a genie who can grant three wishes, run like hell. Get out as fast as you can. You are a lawyer, not a magician.
  • If it Doesn’t Seem Right, It Probably Isn’t … Right? Right.

III. How To Do It - To Start & Thrive in a Small or Solo Law Firm in Tough Economic Times. (15 mins)

There is no right or wrong way. No single recipe for success exists. See the attached hand out for the checklist on starting a law firm in 48 hours.

IV. Top Strategies for Thriving Well (10 mins)

How do you keep the work flowing, the money coming in, the bills being paid and end up with enough to provide for you and your loved ones, while staying happy and healthy, having a little fun making an impact while practicing law along the way with your name(s) on the door, and retiring comfortably without burning out? Is that too much to ask?

-          Where do I find that first client? How do I start?

-          What can I do? What can I learn?

-          Generating referrals.

-          Recession proof your practice – how?

-          Staying connected with current and former clients.

-          Benefits of online social communities. What’s the point?

-          Start now, and decide to never stop looking for that new work, that job, that new client, no matter where you end up and no matter how much you might enjoy what work you are doing right now.

V. Question & Answer Session (Remaining Time)

VI. Wrapping it Up: (1 minute each)

Panelists: What’s your #1 most important thought for people interested in starting a small or solo law firm today?


You may enjoy reading the Basic Handout from this same event.

The information you obtain at this site is not, nor is it intended to be, legal advice. See disclaimer.