If you’re an in-house or BigLaw attorney, there is a statistical probability that you have thought about pivoting away from those traditional paths at some point in your career. You may be one of scores of lawyers who resigned from your job in the wake of the pandemic or were recently laid off. You may be contemplating your options and wondering what it would be like to establish your own practice. Would you have enough steady business to pull it off? What are the risks? Would you have time to do the other things that bring you joy in your life? Would you be happy?
If you polled lawyers who had either established a solo practice or were thinking about it, you’d likely hear about the complete control you get to exercise over just about every facet of your practice: From major aspects like work hours, work environment and decisions about which clients or matters you take on and which ones you don’t, to less significant choices like office supplies or the logo on your business card. You’d also likely hear about the delightful absence of office politics, horrible bosses and coworkers who drag you down in some way or another. And undoubtedly, you’d hear about the potential for a higher return on your investment: As a solo, you reap what you sow and share it with no one (save for Uncle Sam). What’s more, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the demand for lawyers is projected to grow 10 percent from 2021 to 2031, faster than the average for all occupations.
But for all of these seemingly excellent advantages, these poll respondents would also likely tell you about the many challenges solos face. For starters, many solo practitioners struggle with balancing the demand between legal work required by their clients and administrative tasks required to run a business. Ironically, many solos often end up spending the free time they thought they were gaining by leaving their firm or in-house job having to manage the minutiae of the business side of their practices. According to the 2022 Thomson Reuters State of U.S. Small Law Firms, spending too much time on administrative tasks and not enough time practicing law remained the top challenge for solos and small firms, as it has for the last several years, with 80% of respondents saying that they saw at least a moderate challenge from spending too much time on administrative tasks.
Another major worry for solo practitioners is the ability to maintain a steady diet of paying work. As a solo lawyer, it can often feel like you’re too busy to engage in the marketing and networking that will surely be the source of future work, or conversely, like you’re not busy enough with paying client work and therefore aren’t earning enough income to meet your needs or expectations. Indeed, business development remained the number two challenge faced by solos and small law firms, according to the 2022 Thomson Reuters Report. And even in the best of times, the reality is that there is a cap on a solo attorney’s revenues without bringing on additional talent because there are only so many hours in the day and there is only one of you. If you don’t hire associates, or join forces with new partners, you miss out on the financial upsides of their revenue-generating work, yet hiring or partnering up both come with significant risks and added burdens.
Also, it goes without saying that practicing law as a solo can be very lonely. Unless you have been diligent about building and maintaining a network of lawyers with whom you can collaborate, it can feel as though you have no one to turn to when you have a novel legal issue or an idea for how to approach a matter that you want to kick around with a colleague. And when life happens, it is nearly impossible to find reliable last-minute coverage. These and other challenges can cause attorneys to abandon their solo practice or never choose that path to begin with.
Despite these challenges, solos and small firms (2-9 attorneys) comprise the overwhelming majority of the legal profession in the United States. According to a 2020 ABA report, although less than 1% of all law school graduates start a solo practice after graduation (compared to nearly half of all law school graduates who take jobs at law firms), the number of attorneys that go the solo route eventually swells. In 2016, almost half (49%) of all lawyers in the country were solo practitioners according to the ABA, and in the current economic environment, that number may be on the rise. These statistics would seem to indicate that a large percentage of lawyers choose to practice law on their own despite the inherent challenges in doing so.
But what if the challenges of building your own practice could be addressed without sacrificing the freedom, flexibility and joy derived from doing so? What if there were a platform that supported entrepreneurial-minded attorneys with in-house or law firm backgrounds who are ready to strike out on their own but not alone? And what if that platform provided its lawyers with the networks and tools necessary to minimize the downsides?
Enter: The distributed law firm.
There is a new emerging law firm model that provides an alternative to a traditional private practice. By leveraging technology and a distributed structure, firms like Scale LLP provide attorneys with a more satisfying, flexible, lucrative practice and clients with a more connected, efficient legal service provider. The Scale community particularly takes pride in its collaborative, team-based work environment and every unique client’s needs are met by forming agile teams from across the network. Over 50% of the work is performed by attorneys who were not the original source of the work, so referrals fuel both the success of the community and of each individual attorney. The incentive structure is set up so that there is a strong motivation to share work.
Distributed law firms like Scale are purpose-built for entrepreneurial attorneys from in-house and law firm backgrounds, with key components in place to support a successful practice. For example, a solo lawyer would have to set up and maintain basic infrastructure like malpractice and business insurance, billing and accounting tools and practices, review and selection of best in class software, risk management strategies like engagement letters, conflicts checks and client trust accounts, and a host of other administrative burdens that require thoughtful consideration, not to mention time. But with those things in place, Scale attorneys hit the ground running and save themselves admin headaches and hassles time and time again.
Scale founder Adam Forest explains the model: “Previously, in-house counsel [who want to start a private law practice] faced a binary choice between hanging their own shingle or joining a large firm with a salary. To some degree, that’s a Hobson’s choice. Going out on your own is lonely. Joining a firm means giving up the majority of the value you create. Tech-enabled, distributed firms provide a middle path that is much more attractive for in-house counsel in particular, because you get the infrastructure and network of a big firm without the expensive trappings. I started Scale in part because I suspected it would be easier to build my practice in a community of other lawyers like me, both from a community and brand perspective. And our data has proven that suspicion to be true: 50% of our work at the firm is shared, meaning that our lawyers are a lot busier than they would have been had they gone out on their own,” says Forest.
Attorneys that have joined Scale hail from in-house legal departments and large and boutique law firms alike, and come from varied backgrounds, areas of the country and specialize in different areas of law, but they share a common strand: The desire to build a successful practice on their own terms as part of a community of like-minded practitioners. Though many thought about building their own boutique or solo firms prior to joining, at Scale, they were able to sidestep the pain points of going it alone by leveraging the Scale platform and found a fulfilling, collegial, team-based practice.
If you’re an entrepreneurial-minded lawyer considering a transition from in-house, Big Law or boutique firm practice, consider the emerging distributed model at a firm like Scale.