Subject Overview

Solo & Small Firm Practice Subject Overview


Being a solo practitioner or member of a small practice provides attorneys with many unique opportunities, such as the potential for more informal work environments, increased client contact, and increased opportunities for hands-on experience. Despite these potential benefits, solo and small practices do present a number of challenges. Attorneys will (for solos) or may (for small practices) have to learn how to start and manage their practice along with ways to effectively generate business.

In addition to these structural and networking requirements, attorneys practicing in solo and small firms must—like any attorney—develop the substantive knowledge and skill sets associated with the areas of practice upon which they choose to focus.

Solo and small firm practitioners are not equipped to handle certain complex matters that simply require more resources than they can provide. That being said, there are numerous subject matter areas where solo and small practices can and do thrive. Examples of such subject matters include consumer transactions, personal injury, small business practice, real estate/landlord tenant, tax, bankruptcy, and elder law.

While attorneys have many options, there are several subject matters that traditionally form the core practice areas for a significant percentage of solo and small firm practices. These core areas are family and estate planning, criminal, and immigration law.

Because these three subject matters are among the most prevalent for solo and small practices, the subject overview that follows will focus on them. However, regardless of whether you desire to practice in any of these areas, law students potentially interested in a solo and small firm practice should still review this subject overview because it includes many generally applicable discussion points that are not subject-matter specific. 

Establishing and Managing a Practice

Students interested in establishing their own firms must understand the start-up process. For example, you will need to think about the required start-up capital; choose a business entity; purchase malpractice insurance; locate suitable office space; ensure you have the proper technology for legal research, billing, and client data retention; and develop your fee structures.

After you have initiated all these start-up requirements, you need to ensure that you maintain accurate data collection, retention, and filing records so that your practice continues to run smoothly and adheres to all your legal and ethical obligations. These considerations and others are addressed in a course and symposia on Law Office Management offered by South Texas College of Law.

Growing Your Practice

A well-designed and technology-integrated office space is important, but solo and small firm practitioners cannot succeed unless they generate business. Attorneys must be able to attract and retain clients. To attract clients, attorneys will need to network with other members of the bar and effectively use social media to generate business. These commitments are part and parcel of the practice of law in a small firm environment. Referrals also come from former clients.

Over time, as you develop a solid track record of helping clients, these former clients can end up being a primary source of your referrals. Since referrals by former clients often play a central role in business development, it is important to ensure that, regardless of the issue or potential fee involved, you provide each client with the highest level of service possible.

Clients choose attorneys because of attorneys’ perceived expertise, but clients also want to hire attorneys who are trustworthy and demonstrate an invested interest in the successful resolution of their cases. For this reason, making sure you have the proper skills to interview and communicate with clients effectively is important. Coursework in client counseling and interviewing, therefore, is recommended.

Additional networking and business generation considerations are discussed below, under The Intersection Between Specialization and Generating Business, because their significance can be better understood after a review of the considerations that go into choosing your areas of focus.

Some Core Practice Areas (and an Explanation of the Accompanying Pathway)

As noted above, solo and small firm practitioners can develop the expertise needed to assist clients in a vast array of different practice areas. Since criminal, family and estate planning, and immigration law are among the most common practice fields for solo and small firm practitioners, the following discussion will review the subject matter expertise and skills relevant for each. The fact that these subject matters are among the most common practice fields for solo and small firm practitioners, however, does not mean that one or all would necessarily be the best fit for you.

The following represents a condensed discussion of the subject matter for each type of practice. For additional information, please consult a subject matter’s individual subject overview and pathway.

Also, note that the solo and small firm pathway accompanying this subject overview differs in design from most of the subject-specific pathways. While the others are intended to provide an in-depth description of all the relevant courses, the purpose here is to distill the absolute core classes that would comprise a general expertise in the three subject matters.

Whether and to what extent you should consider additional or fewer courses in any given area will be based on the specialization(s) you choose. Considerations when making a specialization decision are discussed below in further detail, under Important Considerations When a Choosing Specialization.

Criminal Law

Since prosecutors represent the government in criminal matters, solo and small firm practitioners practicing in the area of criminal law will focus on criminal defense. The two main areas of criminal defense are white collar defense and “street crime” defense. White collar defense involves representation of clients accused of criminal activities with a business focus. “Street crimes” include drug crimes and one-perpetrator-one-victim incidents such as burglary or assault.

There are numerous types of crimes that may form a part of a criminal defense attorney’s client base or may serve as the sole area of focus, including homicides, driving while intoxicated, and requests for expungements and pardons.

All criminal charges take place against the backdrop of a potential trial. So, in addition to developing a knowledge base of the substantive law surrounding the crimes they specialize in, criminal defense attorneys must ensure that they understand rules of evidence and procedure and obtain the trial advocacy skills necessary to defend their clients in court.

All criminal defense attorneys must draft and respond to motions and trial briefs, so legal research and writing skills are particularly important. Further, since most cases do not go to trial, criminal attorneys should be comfortable negotiating plea deals.

Some criminal defense attorneys choose to specialize in a stage of the litigation process rather than—or in addition to—particular types of crimes. While many attorneys dedicate their practice to the trial stage, some choose to focus on appeals. For attorneys who focus on appeals, coursework in appellate practice is essential. As a practical matter, students should keep in mind that the percentage of attorneys who specialize solely on appellate cases is small.

For additional information, please consult the Criminal Law Subject Overview.

Family Law and Estate Planning

Family law attorneys focus on a variety of family-related issues, including divorce, custody, support, visitation rights, adoption, and child neglect. The docket for family attorneys practicing in solo or small firms does not diverge considerably from the type of family cases handled by larger firms.

Students wishing to practice family law in a small firm environment should become familiar with the main dispute resolution processes that family cases regularly require. These include litigation and pretrial litigation, negotiation, representation in mediation, and, to a lesser extent, collaborative law. An understanding of procedure, however, is particularly important.

In addition to these dispute resolution processes, transactional work can represent a significant amount of a family law practice. Family law attorneys regularly complete pre-drafted standard forms such as prenuptial agreements, and they independently draft more complicated documents such as mediated settlement agreements.

Estate planning issues regularly intersect with general family law matters, even more so in the small firm setting. Divorce regularly requires that clients re-evaluate their estate planning strategies or redraft wills or trusts they established before the dissolution of the marriage. Even outside of divorce proceedings, clients may seek advice about estate planning strategies. For estate planning issues, attorneys regularly need to consider tax law.

Knowledge of several additional subject matters would also benefit family law attorneys. The most important additional subject matters are corporate and non-corporate business structures and tax law because family law attorneys must be able to “find the money.” Familiarity with immigration, bankruptcy, probate, and secured transactions could also be beneficial.

For additional information, please consult the Family Law and Estate Planning Law Subject Overviews.

Immigration Law

Immigration attorneys can represent clients in a variety of different contexts. As a solo or small firm immigration attorney, you will be able to perform many of these tasks. Some of the main capacities for solo and small firm practitioners include family-based immigration, humanitarian-based immigration, and defending individuals whom the government seeks to deport.

In family-based immigration, attorneys help clients obtain visas that are based on clients’ relationships to a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident. Attorneys practicing in this space understand the types of familial relationships that may qualify for family visas and they are able to navigate the application process both in the United States and abroad at consulates.

Humanitarian-based immigration includes helping clients obtain visas grounded in humanitarian concerns, such as T visas for victims of human trafficking. It also includes helping clients obtain certain forms of protection based on a fear of harm in their home countries; asylum is an example of these forms of protection.

A third main capacity is defending clients when the government places them in removal proceedings—“removal” being the technical term for deportation. These administrative proceedings are less formal than proceedings in Article III courts, but a successful attorney must still be versed in the general stages of the litigation process.

Oftentimes, the core of the case is proving that a client qualifies for potential avenues of relief from removal available under the law, such as asylum, cancellation of removal, and adjustment of status. Criminal law issues often surface in these cases, so much so that the intersection between criminal law and immigration law has its own name: “crimmigration.”

After a certain amount of time, legal permanent residents can attempt to naturalize. Naturalization and other citizenship issues comprise another area of practice that some solo practitioners and smaller firms choose to handle. While employment-based immigration does not ordinarily make up the bulk of solo and small firm practice, immigration attorneys may be able to carve out a practice in this area under certain circumstances.

For additional information, please consult the Immigration Law Subject Overview.     

Important Considerations When Choosing a Specialization

There is a natural tension that a solo or small firm practitioner must balance when deciding on which areas of law to focus. On the one hand, there is an understandable desire to make your practice as broad as possible so that you have a larger number of potential clients who could seek out your services. On the other hand, the complexities and nuances within different practice areas make it nearly impossible to develop a sufficient level of expertise that encompasses too many practice areas. This is a particularly important reality to keep in mind as a new solo practitioner or a member of a start-up small firm.

To illustrate, simply review the number of courses that STCL Houston offers within the Estate Planning Law Pathway. The depth of courses reflects the intricacies involved in the practice in that field. It is also indicative of the complexities found in many fields of practice. Students who wish to differentiate themselves in practice will have a much harder time doing so if they initially try to develop expertise in several complicated fields.

While there is no finite cut-off point regarding the number of subject matters that a solo or small firm attorney can effectively practice, there are several general guidelines that may be beneficial. First, you need to assess the complexity of the subject matter that you may desire to practice in. Simply deciding that you enjoy family law, estate planning, bankruptcy, and criminal law does not necessarily mean that you could equip yourself to handle all of these issues by the time you graduate law school.

Related to this point, you must be honest with yourself about your ability to learn on the job. Depending on the practitioner and the complexity of the issue, a general understanding of some subject matters might be sufficient if you are able to employ effective research strategies and understand the resources available to you in order to feel comfortable broadening the types of cases that you would be willing to take.

Second, consider subject matter and skill set overlap between different fields. Equipping yourself with substantive and skill-based expertise that is relevant to multiple practice fields could allow you to maximize the utility of the courses you take in law school. For example, since both family and criminal cases may include an in-court component, certain course work that covers motion writing skills or advocacy skills could be applicable to both practice fields. 

Third, consider the types of clients that you plan to seek out. Are certain issues likely to surface that would make a specialization bundle particularly valuable? For example, if you choose to focus you practice on criminal law in a community with a high number of non-citizens, you might find that your clients regularly ask you for advice about the immigration consequences of pleading guilty to certain crimes. Thus, you could narrow your focus to criminal defense and the part of immigration law that concerns criminal convictions.

To provide another illustration, if you decide to focus on divorce within family law, you might discover that dividing spouses’ assets regularly requires that clients re-evaluate their estate planning strategies or redraft wills or trusts they established before the dissolution of the marriage. The proper bundle for you requires a significant amount of planning and research prior to choosing your areas of specialization.

Finally, keep in mind that limiting your areas of focus as a new attorney does not mean that you cannot branch out in the future and expand your areas of expertise. But it might mean that you do not have to branch out if you do not want to because you developed a reputation in the community as an expert in your limited field, and that reputation enables you to maintain a full and steady docket of clients.

The Intersection Between Specialization and Generating Business

As mentioned above, an important ingredient for success as a solo or small firm practitioner is an ability to engage and network within the legal community. Attorneys may refer cases to other attorneys because, for example, they do not have the time to take on a new case or the prospective client has a problem that concerns a legal question outside the attorney’s area of expertise. If you were to refer a client to an attorney, would you be more inclined to choose an attorney who dabbles in four or five practice areas or one who specializes in the specific type of problem encountered by the prospective client?

While it may seem counter-intuitive at first, specializations can help to increase the chances that attorneys will refer a case to you—assuming you have adequately networked and marketed your expertise and skill sets. From your vantage point, a specialization might make you more likely to refer clients to other attorneys when the client’s needs do not match up to your knowledge base (and you do not feel comfortable becoming an expert on that subject within a short amount of time). While it may not be monetarily beneficial in the short term to send prospective clients elsewhere, doing so can have significant long-term monetary benefits because you have put yourself and your specialization on the radar screen of the attorney to whom you referred the case.