I want to be clear from the outset: This isn’t an article about landing your first big case as a recent law school grad. That’s fodder for a whole different article; perhaps a book.
No, this article is about the experienced lawyer who toiled away at a large law firm for years, has finally taken the plunge to open a solo practice, and has an opportunity to take on a really large case.
Allow me to set the stage:
Your team: Your new practice consists of you, and maybe one paralegal who works part-time.
Mark claims XCo misappropriated his trade-secret technology after he gave the company’s executives a brief sales presentation. According to Mark, XCo secretly had a software engineer in the meeting who later reverse engineered his technology. Mark was never compensated by XCo for its use of his technology. You are approached by an individual (we’ll call him “Mark”) who invented a new technology that can drastically decrease self-checkout times at grocery stores. Mark wants you to sue a major grocery retail chain (“XCo”) that has 46 stores located throughout the state.
Mark claims XCo misappropriated his trade-secret technology after he gave the company’s executives a brief sales presentation. According to Mark, XCo secretly had a software engineer in the meeting who later reverse engineered his technology. Mark was never compensated by XCo for its use of his technology.
If Mark prevails against XCo, his damages award will be in the millions.
Your opponents: XCo is represented by a large, international firm with thousands of attorneys practicing in offices in 5 different countries. The local office, who you will primarily deal with, employs 342 lawyers, 167 of whom work in the litigation department.
So, do you take the case?
This is definitely going to be a David v. Goliath type of situation. A lot of solo practitioners would be loath to take on an opponent of that size with pockets that deep.
As a former lawyer who has worked as both a big-firm attorney and a solo practitioner, I’m here to tell you that you can absolutely take on — and win — Mark’s case.
Here’s what you need to do to get there…besides having a great case and an honest client, that is.
#1: Prepare before the case comes in
Unless you are taking some of your old firm’s clients with you, you will likely have a whole lot of time on your hands when you first open your solo practice.
Don’t waste this precious time! It’s actually a great opportunity to get your templates and forms in order.
For example, you can (and should) create boilerplate for things like:
- Initial disclosures
- Discovery requests
- Discovery objections
- Affirmative defenses
- Proofs of service
- Standards of review
- And any other language that you’ll use in your litigation files over and over again.
When you begin litigating your first big case, you won’t want to be wasting time doing things you could have done ahead of time.
This is also a great time to shop for a case management system and automation tools if you don’t already have something in place. When you start working on that big case, you’re going to need every bit of efficiency you can get from the right tools.
#2: Eat a piece of humble pie
Once you decide to take on Mark’s case, you’re inevitably going to have a conversation with the attorneys for XCo.
Believe me when I tell you that you’re going to be very tempted to regale them with stories of your legal victories, law review articles, and “lawyer of the year” awards.
Don’t do it.
When you become a solo practitioner after practicing in a big law firm, you’ll very quickly realize that most other attorneys hold very unflattering stereotypes about you. They may think you weren’t smart enough to get a job with a big firm, or that you didn’t go to a good law school, or that you’re disinterested in hard work.
I’m here to tell you that you can play all of those stereotypes to your advantage.
While the other attorneys are busy underestimating you, you can quietly and diligently be performing the best legal work of your career.
By the time they realize you’re a force to be reckoned with, you’ll already be capitalizing on their mistakes.
#3: Have a mentor
Just because you have your own practice does not mean you don’t need colleagues to bounce ideas off of.
In fact, having a good legal mentor is more important now than ever.
Although you may be tempted to turn to a trusted elder from your old firm, you’re better off finding another solo practitioner who can not only hash out legal issues with you, but can offer advice about running your new practice as well.
Moreover, if you pick the right mentor, they’ll have already won several David v. Goliath cases of their own.
They may be able to provide advice on which judges are sympathetic to solo attorneys, which law firms are the most unreasonable to deal with, and where to get quality legal help when you need it quickly — see below.
#4: Find your freelance tribe
When I was a big-firm-big-client lawyer, one of our standard tricks was to bury solo attorneys in mountains of discovery requests, warehouses full of documents, and endless motions.
We did this, of course, to overwhelm the lawyers with work and overwhelm their clients with fees.
Sadly, it’s a game that is still played today.
Today, however, freelance attorneys are available all over the internet, sometimes at surprisingly affordable prices. And while you may have some vetting to do until you find your “diamond in the rough,” a good freelance attorney (or multiple freelance attorneys) can be a godsend for your workload and for your client’s bank account.
#5: Become a great leader
I bet you didn’t start your own firm to become a great leader.
I hate to break it to you, but if you’re going to take big cases, you’re going to have to be great at leadership, and you’re going to have to get there fast.
While your army may be small, it still needs a commander.
As the lead attorney, it is your job to keep your paralegal, your client, your freelancers, and anyone else who touches your case running on all cylinders at all times. You’ll be the one keeping morale up, making sure that all the pieces fit together, and coaching your client through a harrowing process.
The idea that great leaders are born, not made is nonsense. Leadership is a skill, and there are plenty of resources to help you work on it.
I’m not going to lie to you and say that it’s easy to handle a big case when you’re working as a solo practitioner.
I will tell you, however, that it is entirely possible to handle these cases and to win them.
I can also tell you that there may be no better feeling than being the solo attorney who crushed the big firm.
Which is why my final suggestion is that you celebrate the heck out of small and large victories alike! After all, you’ve earned it. Plus, celebrating wins is one of those leadership qualities that will help you motivate your team to achieve great things.
A final note of encouragement
There’s a reason your client picked you for this big case. It’s going to be tough, but you have all the skills and experience you need to tackle this challenge.
Good luck. You’re going to be great.