Book review: Solo by Choice

This is the first in what I hope will be a more than occasional foray into book reviews at Law21. There are so many good titles out there now that deal with law practice issues in an innovative way that I’d like to bring some of them to your attention. I have a few more books lined up to review over the next several weeks, but please drop me a line if you have any other suggestions for future reviews.

Solo by Choice: How to Be the Lawyer You Always Wanted to Be, by Carolyn Elefant (Seattle, Decision Books, 2008 )

If you’re even vaguely familiar with the legal blogosphere, you’ll know about Carolyn Elefant, a sole practitioner in Washington, D.C., who authors the MyShingle blog and is widely regarded as a leading spokesperson for and authority on solos and small-firm lawyer issues. Solo by Choice is her first book, a detailed compendium of advice, instruction and encouragement for sole practitioners that’s already destined to become just as much, if not more, a touchstone for the sole practice bar as the ABA’s Flying Solo.

Carolyn is an advocate for solo life and makes no bones about it: the book opens with six reasons to start your own practice and makes clear the author’s intent to defeat negative stereotypes of sole practice. But she’s equally clear that soloing isn’t for everyone, and the opening exhilaration of the promise of sole practice is tempered with a sober assessment of the demands of this type of career, especially straight out of law school. Carolyn supports solo practice, but won’t be zealous about it to the point of underselling its challenges or misdirecting lawyers into this line of work who don’t belong there.

In 250 pages (plus 50 pages of appendices), Solo by Choice covers every aspect of sole practice, from making the gut-wrenching decision to hang your own shingle to meeting the financial and client-relations demands of a sole practice. There is not an ounce of fat in this book: it is lean, powerful, tightly written and economical. Carolyn tells you everything you need to know about life as a solo and not a word more, making it the rare text that is both comprehensive and readable: her blogging background is evident in the concise style.

A particularly attractive feature of the book is the plethora of what we in the publishing business call “points of entry,” design features that attract the eye. There are no pages of continuous grey text: sidebars, headings, checklists and bullet-point lists promise short, to-the-point nuggets of information that busy lawyers can start and finish in rapid succession. In addition, Carolyn inserts anecdotes from her own experiences as a solo and, in a smart move, first-person accounts and advice from other solos that provide more voices and fresh perspectives.

Good lawyers will tell you that extensive preparation is the key to success, and Solo by Choice exemplifies that: the first 90 pages are devoted to making the decision to go solo and planning the launch of the new practice. No one who takes this book’s advice will rush to hang out a shingle until they’ve paid meticulous attention to critical matters like leaving their current employer, choosing a business structure, setting up an office, and even seemingly minor matters like choosing a firm name and making the official announcement.

The heart of the book, to my mind, is Chapter III, “The Practice.” Under five headings — Dealing with Clients, Billing and Fees, Generating Cash Flow, Growing Your Practice and Outsourcing — the book provides an intense tutorial in the fundamentals of sound law practice management for solos.

But the remarkable thing is that much of Solo by Choice isn’t just for solos. The client relations and marketing sections, for instance, are equally applicable to lawyers who work in major global firms as they are to sole practitioners. Solos have little margin for error, and so they must operate with efficiency, client focus, and a careful approach to finances. These ought to be characteristics of every lawyer’s business, and so this book is useful for lawyers in all shapes and sizes of practice.

There are very few criticisms to hang on this book. It’s written by an American attorney for an American audience, so for readers outside the US, repeated references to state bar exams and ethics rules can be distracting. The absence of an index is surprising, and somewhat reduces the book’s ability to serve as a quck reference guide. And the typeface is one of those annoying fonts that uses a capital “I” in place of the number “1” — that’s always bugged me.

But these are minor objections, at most. Solo by Choice is an outstanding guide to the practical realities of being a lawyer, absolutely essential for solo and small-firm lawyers and valuable for lawyers in mid-size or large firms too. Highly recommended.


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