Intellectual property and business law attorney Nancy Baum Delain shares the story of how she built a thriving solo law practice after starting a second career as a lawyer.
Not all paths to success are the same. I should know because I was not a traditional young lawyer when I graduated from law school in 2003. I was in my late 40s when I started my new career as an attorney.
Before attending law school, I was a technical writer and editor for over twenty years. I was motivated to change careers because, frankly, I was bored with my chosen profession. But I knew I could apply what I’d learned over two decades in that profession to a law practice.
I’d often thought how cool it would be to become a lawyer, so when the opportunity to go to law school presented itself in 1999, I grabbed it.
Like all lawyers, I had to decide what type of law career I wanted to have. Was I going to get a job with a law firm that offered a steady paycheck or would I risk going out on my own?
Being my own boss and running a solo law practice meant that clients would come and go, but the vehicle through which I earned my living would remain. I know from experience that I simply don’t like working for someone else. That piece of self-knowledge sent me in the solo practice direction.
Over a decade later, I have never worked for any law firm other than my own. I passed the bar, got admitted, passed the patent bar, hung my shingle in New York’s Capital District, and never looked back.
How did I do it and find success? It wasn’t easy, but it’s possible with these tips:
I value time over money
It’s common for Americans to define success in terms of money. But I believe there are things that are more valuable than cash. Of course I need money to pay my bills, but I don’t need to become wealthy. Nor to do I want the pursuit of money to control my life.
Obviously, if I wanted tons of money, then a law firm job would have been the route for me to follow. Instead, I decided that the freedom to set my own schedule was more important to me.
As an employee in a law firm, I would have been forced to work according to someone else’s timetable. As a solo, I still work long hours, but I set my own schedule. Money is secondary to other things in my value system and, for me, control over my time ranks high.
If you define success as having a lot of money, then there is no question that a lucrative law firm job is the route for you. As a solo, I bring home less income, but I control my life. There’s a lot to be said for that control.
I want the freedom to manage my practice
As a solo, I make an effort to really get to know my clients and develop meaningful relationships with them so I can do my job better.
As a result, my relationships with my clients have really defined my success. My solo practice has made it possible for me to make sure my clients know I care and has allowed me to give them the personal attention they deserve.
As an employee working at a law firm, I would not have done much for clients for the first several years and it would have been impossible for me to control my interaction with them.
To me, being successful means having the freedom to be the type of lawyer I want to be and treat my clients the way I think they should be treated.
I’m not afraid to ask for help
Many people are afraid to ask for help because they fear rejection or judgement when they ask someone for a favor. To be honest, you’ll need to get over that fear as a solo attorney. A huge part of success is recognizing when you need help and having the guts to ask for it.
In my case, I had a lot of help along the way.
My family has been a huge help and other lawyers have been a huge help.Being a lawyer means you can’t be afraid to ask for help, because you will need it! Click To Tweet
I still use the entire New York State Bar Association’ General Practice listserv as my “senior partners.” I run questions by them and get good answers from people who have been practicing far longer than I have. By the same token, I am generous with my time and responses to my colleagues’ questions in areas that I have some expertise. Those contacts are invaluable.
When you’re a solo, some of your best resources are other lawyers. You need a support network of people who understand what it’s like to manage a law practice. Do not hesitate to reach out to your peers for advice or ask for a referral.
I already had self-discipline
The solo lifestyle requires self-discipline. It’s easy to slack off when you are your own boss.
I can’t waste time on social media and still expect my law practice to thrive.
That kind of self-discipline doesn’t come easily for everyone, especially if you start experiencing failures. It can be discouraging to work hard at growing your practice and not see the results you expected.
As a technical writer, I took on many freelance projects, which helped me learn the work ethic I needed to be a solo lawyer. Of course, there are still some days when it is difficult to focus in the face of never-ending work and the obligations of managing a law practice. And that’s okay.
It’s also okay for me to take time off when I need it — as long as that time off does not interfere with time-sensitive client work. I don’t have to go running to a boss or an HR department to ask for permission to take the time that I need.
It is entirely possible to succeed as a solo lawyer without having already succeeded as a solo in something else. You just need to muster the self-discipline to get work done and the perseverance to stay dedicated in spite of setbacks. Growing a law firm is a long journey with many peaks and valleys.
I practice in a niche area and grow my practice by referring out cases I won’t take
There is a lot of competition out there. New York admits thousands of new lawyers every year. That is why it is so important to differentiate yourself.
I set myself apart from the general competition by narrowing my practice area. As tempting as it might be to try to be all things to all people, I cannot possibly do that. Therefore, I only handle cases that touch on my areas of expertise.
My particular niche is transactional intellectual property and business law. My clients are mainly innovative businesses and individuals with patent-eligible inventions or other intellectual property that needs protection. I do not litigate, handle divorces, put together real estate transactions or represent anyone in criminal matters; these are practice areas I simply have no interest in.There are millions of lawyers out there, find your niche and the clients will follow Click To Tweet
I do develop patent applications, trademark applications, copyright applications, business plans, business formation and business closing documents, contracts, and deals with other businesses or individuals. I love handling those matters. I know lawyers who don’t.
Narrowing my practice areas made it easier for me to keep up with industry developments and build expertise in areas that I found interesting.
For any case I encounter that is outside of my practice area, I know other lawyers who can handle those cases far better than me. I refer those cases to other lawyers with a smile. I know — and, more importantly, those clients know — that I am sending them to a lawyer in my network who is competent and trustworthy.
The lawyers I send referrals to are generally happy to return the favor. In the end, narrowing my practice area has actually increased my business significantly.
I defined my “ideal client”
Do you know who your “ideal” client is? I certainly know who mine is. My ideal client is a small-to-mid-sized business in an innovative area or an individual with a patent-eligible idea. The individual may want to start a business, or protect the embodiment of his or her idea.
Having a specific, concrete definition of my ideal client that I can easily explain to the people I meet has helped me attract qualified referrals. I know what I’m looking for and, therefore, can communicate it effectively to others. This is critical to my marketing and networking.
I give back
Some of my business law work involves bankruptcy, and I do a fair amount of pro bono bankruptcy work. I’ve learned that pro bono work pays off many times over in terms of goodwill.
For example, I often appear before the same judge when I handle bankruptcy matters and he knows that bankruptcy is not my main practice area. He also knows that when I’m in front of him, it’s probably a pro bono matter. As a result, this judge has praised me in open court for taking on indigent clients, and he and his chambers staff bend over backwards to help me out when I need their help. This does wonders for my reputation within the legal industry.
Additionally, potential clients see that I do pro bono work and learn that my heart is always in the right place. Those potential clients see me as a human being who values more than just financial gain, which often makes them want to hire me.
My newest client told me he wanted to work with a lawyer he likes and said he hired me because he respects the fact that I do pro bono work. If you do good things and show people who you are, then you’ll win their business.
I have been able to show people who I am with my pro bono work, but there are dozens of ways you can do this. Giving back is just one of them.
Where am I now?
I’m loving every minute of having my cats help me practice law in my home office. I control my time and my clientele. I choose the cases I take and don’t take.
While I still bring home a significantly slimmer paycheck than I would have if I worked for a law firm, I am much happier with the career I have built for myself. My path to success isn’t a traditional one, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
About Nancy Delain
Nancy Baum Delain, A.B., M.S., J.D. is a solo intellectual property and business attorney practicing in the historic Stockade section of Schenectady, NY. She was a technical writer, editor and project manager before law school, and she brings those skills to bear in her law practice. Nancy has practiced as a solo attorney for over 12 years, and takes pride in the personal and prompt attention she gives her clients. Nancy graduated from Smith College with an undergraduate major in Biological Sciences; Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute with a Master’s degree in Technical Writing; and Franklin Pierce Law Center (now University of New Hampshire School of Law) with a J.D. She is admitted to practice in New York, before several federal courts, and before the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office; she anticipates being admitted to the SCOTUS bar in late June, 2016. If you want to contact Nancy, you can visit her website or connect with her on LinkedIn.