Thoughts and Considerations for Lawyers Looking to Transition to a Solo or Small Firm

Issue May/June 2021 June 2021 By David J. Volkin
Solo/Small Firm Law Practice Management Section Review
Article Picture
David J. Volkin

Four score and … Ok, maybe not that long ago, but over four years ago, I transitioned from firm life to the life of a solo practitioner. There were a lot of changes in how I spent my working hours and several cultural changes. Here, in this article, I will relay my personal experiences and challenges I faced, as many other people who are forced into this challenge or want to make the change may have a similar experience.

There is a process to making the transition. There are many questions I had to think about, including:

  1. Do I want to remain in Boston or someplace closer to home, or just do a virtual office and work out of the home?
  2. Do I want to focus my practice on one or two areas, areas I have experience in, or become a generalist?
  3. Do I want to form an LLC or be a sole proprietor?
  4. How do I open a business bank account and set up an IOLTA account?
  5. How do I maintain an IOLTA account?
  6. Do I want to hire a receptionist or paralegal, use a service, or just pick up my own phone calls?
  7. What furniture, equipment and software will I need?
  8. How do I inform existing clients about the move?
  9. How do I get new clients?

I found that these questions were only the beginning of the journey. And while it may seem daunting, these questions are addressable if you come at them with a plan of action as opposed to waiting for things to become a problem and then figuring out the solution. Being lawyers, you need to approach your new business with the same vigor as you would handling a client’s case. If that is just not “you,” then perhaps rethinking the idea now rather than making the big move is preferable.

Once you have made the leap, it is important to have both feet in — whether it’s the investment in small things like business cards, to longer-term commitments, such as leasing an office, or signing contracts with companies like Westlaw or Lexis.


Deciding on whether to work in the city or not is the first question, understanding that some clients still have a perception that “Boston lawyers” are intrinsically better than lawyers in the suburbs. One easy solution is to get a “mailbox office” so that you can keep an address in Boston and any mail that comes there is sent to you. Another option is to rent one or a group of offices but share reception and conference rooms. Another lower-cost option is to sublet a space from an existing firm with extra office space. Post-COVID, there is likely a lot of office inventory or going to be a lot of office inventory in the city.

However, there is nothing wrong with opening up an office outside of the city. The advantages include reduced commuting times and generally a lower cost (depending on the town). Today, many sophisticated law offices operate in the suburbs doing complex commercial litigation to mergers and acquisitions. While the advantage to being in Boston is the implied marketing, the advantage to being in the suburbs is access to clients who may not want to go to Boston for legal services either out of convenience or the perception of fee amounts.

Depending on the type of law, some attorneys can work directly from home. Some have homes that can be co-zoned for business where a client and work area can be separated from the residential part of the home. More often, some people prefer to work from home for the convenience but will rent conference room space to meet with clients.


Choosing an area of practice requires some thought. As opposed to an attorney fresh out of law school, it is assumed that you have spent some time working in one or two areas of law. Just because you have experience in one or two areas doesn’t mean you can’t change, but it requires more work.

Some thought needs to be given to how easy it will be to position yourself in that area as a small-firm or a solo practitioner. You need to consider your size and how able you would be to handle certain types of cases or projects. You may also want to broaden your area of expertise to take on more potential clients.

Living as a generalist in the suburbs can also be a good living if you are not taking cases you cannot handle. The advantage is that you can focus your marketing and advertising to the local community.

Unlike in years past, you can also be a specialist and thrive in the suburban market, but it does require marketing to areas at least as large as the county.

Business Formation

Other than issues dealing with taxation, this does not need to be decided right away. Many people start as a sole proprietor and move into an LLC, LLP, PC or other type of formation. However, it often does require changes to the bank account and any contracts you may have with vendors or landlords.

Opening a Bank Account/IOLTA

If you are an attorney who takes fees upfront for work not yet performed (retainers) or accepts settlement payments on behalf of your clients, you may need to create an IOLTA account. Not all banks offer IOLTA accounts, and it must be a designated IOLTA account, i.e., you can’t just create a savings account and call it an IOLTA account. IOLTA accounts are regulated, and reading the rules carefully if you have not been responsible for one before is crucial to a successful practice. The vast majority of bar complaints resulting in suspension relate to the mismanagement of IOLTA funds. The Massachusetts Law Office Management Assistance Program (Mass LOMAP) and the Massachusetts Bar Association (MBA) have useful guides and seminars on IOLTA management.

The other thing to note is that to open a bank account as a sole proprietor, most banks will require that you provide a business registration from your local town hall (local to where your business is predominately going to be done).

Hiring Employees

The next big decision is whether to do everything on your own or to hire. Hiring can be expensive, and you must comply with the employment and tax laws. Alternatives can be hiring a service or paying a temp agency for support when needed. Often, it depends on what type of practice you will be running and your own comfort level in doing tasks that are not billable or not ethical to bill (such as secretarial work). If you choose not to hire anyone or use any alternatives, you need to be comfortable doing the routine aspects of running a business by yourself, and that non-revenue-generating work can take up a substantial portion of your time. Whether it is bookkeeping, answering calls or creating envelopes, there are a lot of non-revenue-generating tasks.

However, like choosing how to form your business, this is one area that also can be done later as your new business grows. Often, an early mistake people make is to take on employees without having sufficient work for them or you to perform, leaving all of your revenue going to pay salary and other overhead.

Initial Purchases

When thinking about opening your own office, many decisions need to be thought through. If you are having clients in your office, do you need a conference room, a large table, a desk? Do you want to rent space already furnished? Minimally, you should make sure you have a good workspace including a desk, comfortable chair (you will likely spend more time in the office chair than any other furniture you own), a computer (or laptop), printer and phone (whether it’s your cellphone, hard line or Voice over Internet Protocol phone).

For the full range of technology you may need in starting your new office, I would suggest looking at the MBA seminar I participated in this past fall as part of the Resilient Lawyer series, which had several panelists go over such issues. That subject alone could be a 30-page article. However, litigators need some access to case law, whether it is the free service that comes with the MBA subscription, the Social Law Library, or Lexis or Westlaw. The other software purchases that should be considered include word processing, accounting, practice management and document editing.

Notification to Clients

How clients are notified depends on whether you are a partner in your existing firm. If you are a partner, there are additional duties you must do to ensure compliance with the ethical rules and your fiduciary duty to the remaining partners. An associate has no such fiduciary duty but must still comply with any relevant ethical rules on notifying or actively seeking to keep existing clients. All parties need to remember that a client can always choose their attorney.

Getting New Clients

If you were not the rainmaker at your previous firm, you may have questions about how to obtain new clients. While marketing strategies may differ depending on the type of law you do and whether you practice in downtown Boston or in the suburbs, there are universal strategies. The first is actively growing your network of lawyers in your networking circle. Fellow lawyers are often the biggest area of client referrals, whether you meet them through the bar association or they have been on the same or opposing side of a deal or case and you invite them to get a cup of coffee (post-COVID). With local or state bar associations, being a member alone rarely is going to build your base of clients. It is called networking because it involves work. That means being active in those organizations. There are also associations from paid networking groups to chambers of commerce. It is not unusual to spend an average of two to four hours a week in marketing and networking. Some actions have short-term results, and others may take over a year to come to fruition, but both are necessary.

In addition to marketing, there is also direct advertising. Whether it is a local billboard, town paper, digital advertising such as search engines, or lawyer directories, there are a lot of options and prices. There are people who will do it for you and easy ways to do it yourself. Having a website is also a part of advertising, and care should be taken in making sure it looks professional, as your business website does reflect on you even if it is not an accurate reflection.


While it is an intensely important decision to make for your career, the question of whether to open a solo practice should not consume you. If you become consumed by the process, try to keep these steps in mind, talk to other lawyers who made moves similar to the one you are contemplating, and try to get a good feel for whether that style of practice is conducive to you. It is not a decision that is right for everyone, and many people can be equally successful no matter which route they take. But giving thought to these areas will either help get you moving in the right direction, whichever direction that is, or help you get to some of the fundamental questions you may not have known to ask of yourself or others. 

David J. Volkin is the owner of the Law Offices of David J. Volkin, where he represents businesses and individuals in all aspects of commercial, employment and environmental litigation. Volkin also serves as a member of the Massachusetts Bar Association’s Solo/Small Firm Law Practice Management Section Council.