Lessons Learned Starting a Solo Practice
Meet Kelly Staples, Family Law and Father’s Rights Attorney in West Saint Paul, Minnesota.
I recently had the opportunity to meet with Kelly Staples, of the Law Office of Kelly A. Staples. Kelly is a successful solo attorney focusing her practice on family law and father’s rights in the Twin Cities metro area. Kelly was kind enough to share some insights about managing a successful solo practice, words of wisdom for attorneys considering a solo career, and what she wishes they would teach in law school about solo practice.
Kelly knew very early on that she wanted to be an attorney. “I was inspired by the OJ Simpson trial, I actually used to watch it with my mom,” Staples said. Fueled by a passion for argument and debate, she knew from a young age that she wanted to pursue a legal career, and even began studying for the LSAT exam in high school.
After graduating from William Mitchell College of Law in 2003, Kelly accepted a judicial clerkship in Minnesota’s First Judicial District. Set in a rural community, Kelly was clerking for the only judge in the county, which consequently, exposed her to a wide range of cases. This experience solidified her interest in her current focus, family law and father’s rights. “When hearing cases as a judicial clerk, I often found myself leaning towards the father’s side,” Kelly said, when describing what inspired her specialty.
“There are many intricate details that you would learn in a larger law firm that a new solo attorney will need to figure out. There is a lot of risk involved.”
From Judicial Clerkship to Solo Practice
In 2007, Kelly became a mother to her first child and left her clerkship to spend time with her growing family. After taking time off to be at home with her new baby, Kelly decided to get back into practicing law and made the decision to pursue solo practice. “I wasn’t ready for a 60-hour per week commitment that comes with practicing in a larger firm,” Kelly said, “I wanted to be able to have flexibility to balance work and family.”
Kelly is pleased with her decision to go solo, and says that getting to know her clients, their stories, and all of the important details of their cases is one of the most professionally rewarding aspects of her practice. Kelly also appreciates that she is able to spend time up front to make sure that the representation is a mutually good fit and is able to manage expectations about the case outcome early on in the process.
Understanding the Challenges & Risks of Solo Practice
For attorneys considering solo practice, Kelly cautions that it is imperative that they be prepared to wear a lot of hats. “There are many intricate details that you would learn in a larger law firm that a new solo attorney will need to figure out. There is a lot of risk involved,” says Staples.
Asking for Help
“You need to know how to set up your trust account, manage your billing software and make sure that you don’t miss deadlines,” Kelly cautions, “If you’re going to take on a solo practice, you’re going to do these things on your own without the support that you would typically get in a firm. You really have to make sure that you are ready to take these risks on. Make sure that you know what you’re doing.”
Kelly strongly reiterated the importance of asking for help when you need it. “Solo practice can feel isolating at times and it is important to stay connected to the legal community. It can be intimidating to ask questions and to acknowledge that you don’t know everything,” she says, “but it is important to ask the questions. Nobody wants to see another attorney fail. There are other solo attorneys out there that are willing help.” Kelly highly recommends finding an online community to connect with other attorneys. She has found success connecting on listservs and recommends checking with your local Bar Association to see if they have online communities, or signing up for the Thomson Reuters Legal Community for small law firms, which is free if you’re a customer.
Time management is another area that a solo attorney must approach wisely. “I would suggest that solo attorneys schedule uninterrupted time to work on bigger projects such as drafting or legal research. I tend to do these projects at night when I’m not distracted by phone calls, etc.” Kelly says, “I personally have certain parts of the day that I devote to each task: phone calls and emails, billing, organization, client meetings, and drafting. Trying to work on an invoice and an affidavit while answering client calls can be very overwhelming and ineffective.”
Kelly also emphasized the importance of time management on client matters and recommends keeping overhead down by spending time on the front end of the case getting to know the client, the details of the case, and developing a solid strategy. After doing this, Kelly makes sure to organize her thoughts before jumping in, “I step back and take a few days or weeks, depending on my deadlines, to just let everything process in my mind before I start drafting. I find that it makes the process of compiling pleadings, etc. more fluid. Plus, I am very mindful of not overcharging my clients, since the majority of them are lower to middle class and don’t have thousands of dollars to spend on attorney fees. Giving myself that extra processing time seems to cut down on the amount of time I spend sitting in front of the computer or statute book, and thereby saves the client money in the long run,” Kelly says.
Developing a Client Base
One of the main concerns we hear from solo attorneys is developing and maintaining a steady client base. Prior to becoming a FindLaw customer, Kelly relied strictly on referrals, Craigslist ads, and her work as a volunteer attorney to generate her client base and also found success appearing on a list of attorneys to whom clients that don’t qualify for free legal services are referred.
Kelly also chose to develop her business plan with a FindLaw website. “I chose a FindLaw website because of the reputation of the company, it was local, and I could be as hands on or off as I wanted to be in generating the website,” she says, “I am not super tech-savvy, so having easy-to-read monthly reports about visitors to my site, and phone calls that resulted from those visits, was easy for me to understand and let me know in what areas to focus my marketing attention.”
“While law school does an excellent job of teaching you how to research the law and find answers to legal questions, it does not teach you how to interact with other attorneys, judges and clients.”
Difficult People and Courtroom Etiquette: What They Don’t Teach You in Law School
Finally, I asked Kelly what she wishes she would have learned in law school about solo practice and I think a lot of attorneys will be able to relate to her answer. “Everything!” She exclaimed, “While law school does an excellent job of teaching you how to research the law and find answers to legal questions, it does not teach you how to interact with other attorneys, judges and clients.” Maintaining a connection to the legal community through networking events, online communities, and even office sharing opportunities is important. Connecting with your peers in these ways will help you expand your legal network allowing for Q&A opportunities and even mentor relationships. That’s where solo attorneys learn some the courtroom skills that they don’t teach in law school.
Ten Years as a Solo: It’s all about Striking a Balance
This year marks Kelly’s tenth anniversary as a solo attorney. She has three children now and loves the balance she has in her solo practice. “My office is at home and a majority of my work is done at home,” Kelly says, “It makes it really easy to keep up with the kids and spend time with them. As a solo I can control my workload. I can do more in the summer, and I can schedule things around school activities, sports and dance. Personally and professionally I like the balance solo affords you. I can work in my pajamas if I want to, or I can throw on a suit and go into the office. It’s all about striking that balance and that’s what is most important to me.”
Have any words of wisdom for attorneys thinking about flying solo? Please share in the comment section below!