By Tom Jarvis

In the intricate tapestry of the legal profession, there exists a distinct and often underestimated cohort: the solo practitioner. Amidst the towering edifices of law firms and the bustling corridors of corporate legal departments, these individuals stand out as champions of autonomy, navigating the legal landscape independently. In a profession where camaraderie and collaboration often define success, these lone practitioners defy convention, carving their own paths and shaping their futures where self-sufficiency is paramount.

Some attorneys opt to practice solo immediately after law school, eschewing the traditional trajectory of joining established firms. According to the American Bar Association, less than one percent of all law school graduates choose this path. In comparison, nearly half of all law school graduates take jobs at law firms, and 12 percent enter government positions.

So, what motivates those who instead choose to chart their own course from day one, and what are the challenges and triumphs they face?

Attorney Coda Campbell graduated from the University of New Hampshire Franklin Pierce School of Law in 2023 and promptly established her solo practice in military and criminal law.

“It was not an easy decision,” Campbell says. “I submitted applications to a couple of places and got some offers that I don’t think accurately assessed or evaluated my experience both in life and in law – especially considering my prior work as a legal assistant before law school.”

Having served in the Army for four years on active duty and four years in the National Guard, Campbell was drawn to military law but felt she wouldn’t receive adequate mentorship at a firm due to the lack of military law practitioners.

“So, why would I bring a practice to a firm? Plus, based on the offers I received, it’s my perception that they were going to take 80 percent of my profit and undervalue that,” she says. “I also didn’t think I would have the autonomy to do what I wanted to do – like DOVE [Domestic Violence Emergency] cases and pro bono work – without having to ask for permission. Everything in me said this is for a reason, and that’s why I went solo.”

Campbell continues: “Sometimes when doors close, another opens somewhere, and you have to go find it. I wasn’t going to feel bad for myself because I didn’t get the offer I wanted, and I wasn’t going to let anyone undervalue me. I know my worth, and I was going to do it. I have made more money than any of those offers that I received, and I’ve been doing what I wanted to do. I’ve done more pro bono work than I believe anybody would have ever allowed me to.”

Attorney Peter John, a 2020 graduate of the Massachusetts School of Law, started a part-time solo practice immediately out of law school due to his full-time employment as a sergeant of the criminal operations at the Belknap County Sheriff’s Office. Realizing that balancing a full-time job in law enforcement with a traditional law firm position would be impractical, he moonlights as a solo practitioner.

“I feel like I’m not going to be hired somewhere else because I already have a full-time job – no one is going to hire an attorney part-time,” John says. “It seems like all the jobs out there are full-time attorney jobs. I’ve been in law enforcement for 17 years, so I’m waiting to become eligible for retirement before pursuing law practice full-time. That’s kind of the advantage of where I’m at now as a solo. I don’t need to hit the ground running tomorrow to pay off my school loans because I already have a job. I can slowly build my practice and figure out what I want to do over the next seven or eight years and then make that transition. That’s kind of how I’m looking at it in a macro sense. I have thought about maybe going to work for a firm for a year or two or three so I can learn quicker once I’m full-time. I think that would have some advantages, but I’m still trying to figure it out. I have time on my side.”

Embarking on the solo journey straight out of law school is not without its challenges. For these intrepid attorneys, the road ahead is fraught with hurdles that demand resilience, adaptability, and strategic planning. Unlike their counterparts in established firms, solo practitioners must contend with the dual responsibilities of legal practice and business management, wearing multiple hats to ensure the success of their endeavors.

“It was the right choice for me, but it’s not the right choice for everyone,” Campbell says. “I think that my background is why I was able to jump directly into it. I know some others who dove into it, and they’re overwhelmed by the administrative stuff. There’s a lot, but you have to know what you’re doing when you’re getting yourself into it. It’s not for the faint of heart, it’s not for the financially weak, and it’s not for people who don’t know how to run a business. You have to be savvy in those things.”

Having previously worked as a legal assistant, she was able to learn the other aspects of running a law office.

“As a solo, I don’t have any support staff, and that’s what I think a lot of us do,” she says. “You have to understand what the administrative people do because it’s a whole job in itself; drafting pleadings on your own, filing pleadings, going and finding court rules, etc. So, if you don’t have an opportunity to be a paralegal or a legal assistant, you have to spend time with them and understand what they do.”

Another hurdle that solo practitioners encounter is the absence of colleagues or mentors to confer with.

“I think my biggest challenge is not having somebody in the area to bounce ideas off,” John says. “I never want to be blinded by my own bright idea, but sometimes it just seems like it takes me twice as long to do something. If I was in the office with somebody, I could just ask them a quick question. They could give me the answer, and it would take 30 seconds. Understanding what I’m doing, how to do it, and doing it correctly is probably the biggest challenge. But I guess that’s part of why you do it solo. You kind of trudge through it and learn it and you understand the why at the end of it.”

As a member of the NHBA’s Special Committee on Attorney Wellness, Campbell is also aware of the isolation a sole practitioner must sometimes overcome.

“I’m such a social person and I have a lot of circles, so I have people that I can reach out to, but I know that there are other people who just become hermit crabs and they roll up in their little shells and suffer quietly,” Campbell says. “And I think that that’s probably one of the biggest obstacles that solo practitioners face is that kind of isolation and lack of access to people.”

Among the myriad challenges facing solo lawyers, perhaps the most pressing is the need to establish a client base from scratch without the institutional support and built-in networks afforded by larger firms.

“It’s challenging to build up a practice, and it was a challenge to learn how to do things on my own, not having any type of mentorship or anything like that,” says attorney Gordon Snyder, who has been practicing law for 50 years [See his profile in the special 50-Year Lawyer Supplement in this issue]. Having never worked at a law firm, he drafted bills at the New Hampshire Office of Legislative Services for two years after law school before starting his solo practice in 1976.

“It was very difficult to be on my own at first,” he says. “Other attorneys were almost always glad to assist but the difficulty was finding a time when you could get assistance because everyone was so busy. One of my tactics was to hang around the courthouse, and when a lawyer was hanging around waiting for a case, I could ask him a question and get the information I needed.”

Despite the challenges, Campbell celebrates the advantages of solo practice.

“One of my favorite things is being able to do DOVE cases. I also have the flexibility to do reduced fees on cases,” Campbell says. “Usually, you would charge $2,500 plus to defend somebody against a stalking petition or for a domestic violence protective order. But I care about people, and I kind of see a lot of these lower-income people as my people. That’s where I came from. I’ve been in their shoes, and I’m in a position of privilege now where I can give them something that they don’t have access to, and I do it. I don’t think a firm would have let me do that. I don’t have to ask for permission to help somebody.”

For John, being solo is the only way to go while moonlighting.

“The hours are right,” he says. “I can just do it from my house whenever I want. That’s what I need at this point in my life with a full-time job. I also think I’m learning everything too because I’m doing it all. I do the business, the billing, the management, and the law part. So, it’s not just being an attorney. It’s kind of being everything.”

As a solo practitioner for 48 years, Snyder offers some advice to those considering a solo career.

“It’s really important to get some mentoring and to specialize as opposed to being a general practitioner,” he says. “It doesn’t have to be just one area; you could specialize in two or more. It’s also good to participate in Bar activities to meet other attorneys, especially in your practice area. I probably could have done more of that.”

The NHBA has a Mentor Advice Program that facilitates connections between new and experienced attorneys. Thirty percent of its participants are solos, and it strives to match new solos with seasoned solos who can provide practice management advice.

In the dynamic realm of solo law practice, attorneys like Coda Campbell, Peter John, and Gordon Snyder epitomize resilience, adaptability, and the relentless pursuit of autonomy. Campbell’s decision to embark on solo practice straight out of law school stemmed from a desire to chart her own course in military law, unencumbered by the constraints of traditional firm structures. Similarly, John’s dual role in law enforcement and as a solo practitioner highlights the flexibility and freedom inherent in solo practice. Snyder felt the market was better for solos at the time and had a strong desire for the freedom a solo practice would provide.

While the path to solo success is not without its obstacles, aspiring solos can forge that path through proactive preparation, specialized training, and a commitment to community engagement. As Campbell, John, and Snyder exemplify, the journey of solo law practice is as much about navigating challenges as it is about embracing opportunities and shaping one’s destiny on their own terms.