How to know when to give up your own legal practice?

When I first started my own attorney legal practice in 2004, a law firm owner friend asked me if I was ready to fight. As I was a litigant I initially associated his question with my professional work, for which I was of course ready! However, as my legal practice developed, I learnt more and more that starting and growing a small legal practice meant fighting for and with clients, fighting for and with staff or colleagues, fighting for and with service providers and landlords, fighting workaholism or burnout, and some months, fighting to survive financially! On some level, fighting for clients’ matters turned out to be the easiest wins!

Reflecting on the global and local events of the past year, South African legal practice owners had to adopt to many changes and new strategies to survive and continue providing top legal services to clients. Most established legal practices reviewed and revised their recruiting plans and/or were forced to scale down due to the economic impact of the pandemic. The orders from government to “work from home if you can”, further helped a lot of young new start-up legal practices get on their feet fast, as many legal services can effectively be provided remotely and require little infrastructure.

The starting phase of a legal practice can be very exciting as it involves creativity, exploring of new freedoms and development of own and new ideas to improve your legal career. However, starting a legal practice can also be scary as it involves risks, uncertainties and no guaranteed fixed income. In this regard, starting a legal practice can be compared to starting a romantic affair with a demanding partner. At the beginning everything is magical, challenging and exciting, but also scary and uncertain. Bedazzled with love hormones, we tend to gladly sacrifice spending our time and efforts to explore and develop the new relationship.

Considering how wonderful it is to fall in love with someone, it is very hard to process that after everything that goes into a romantic adult relationship, generally at least 1 out of 5 marriages end in divorce. Regrettably, and similarly, not all new legal practices will survive their third year. The truth is that some things are easy to start, but difficult to sustain.

Like every developing romantic relationship, every business, including a legal practice, go through different phases. Some phases are more enjoyable or taxing than others. After the starting-up phase, a phase of growing and working hard may follow. Growing requires flexibility in plans and constant changing. A new small legal practice demands substantial time, attention, dedication and sacrifices from the owner lawyer. Such focus requires a lot of energy and can easily disturb the balance of the owner lawyer’ personal life. When the honeymoon phase is over, different types of new stress may arise including financial stress, stress finding new clients and stress not having a good plan or guarantees for success.

Few people start new ventures or relationships with the end in mind or with the aim to fail. In the legal profession, where winning and loosing are part of our daily work, no lawyer wants to think failure is an option. I certainly did not start my legal practice with the plan to give it up soon. Lawyers automatically make a huge emotional investment in their own legal practices, as, unlike a different type of business venture, a legal practice is attached to the owner lawyer’s personal career and development. The decision to give up on a legal practice may therefore be equally weighty on emotional and business levels. On a business level, true entrepreneurs know that failure may always be a risk, but that failure is not all bad. Failure could create new business opportunities and teach valuable lessons. As most lawyers do not start their legal practices with an entrepreneur-mindset, lawyers are at risk of thinking harder and longer before considering closing their own legal practices.

For lawyers stuck in this thinking, if closing your legal practice means taking charge of your life, there can be nothing wrong with giving it up. We have all been in situations when we had to advise a good friend in a bad relationship. Often the only answer is to get out. Some super legal practitioners are just not meant to be legal practice owners. Other legal practice owners may start to feel if they are stagnating at the top or even discover that they enjoy other business interest more than practising the Law. This does not constitute failure, merely a preference and focus on strengths. The skills required to be a top lawyer are not necessarily the same as skills required by business or legal practice owners.

The decision to close your own legal practice could be based on many reasons, including financial challenges, career rerouting, retirement, relocation, immigration, family responsibilities, burnout, health challenges or threats experienced due to political, economic or legislative developments. I came to the very difficult decision to sell and let my legal practice go in 2015 due to a combination of many reasons, but possibly, mostly because I felt the chapter was completed and I have achieved my professional goals as attorney in private practice.

Facing or considering a decision to give up on your legal practice can create a real dilemma for hard working lawyers. If you are a lawyer struggling to decide whether to keep on pushing or to give up your own legal practice, ask yourself and reflect on the following 5 questions:

  1. Consider why you started. What was your initial goal to start your legal practice? For instance, if your top goal was to make money, but you are continuously adding financial obligations and stress operating your own legal practice, is there another way to reach your goal faster? If starting your legal practice was driven by the desire to help people, consider if there is another business model you could explore to achieve the same goal and values.
  2. What will you loose giving up your own legal practice? Sometimes legal practitioners associate work freedoms, autonomy to make own decisions and being in charge of your own legal career with owning and operating an own legal practice. These may be aspects which are hard to give up. However, sometimes your financial obligations or other added stress of owning and operating a legal practice start to outweigh these aspects.
  3. What could you benefit by giving up your own legal practice? Consider what skills, knowledge and experiences you gained by going through starting and operating your own legal practice. How could these aspects improve your professional lawyer profile and personal CV? Consider what you could gain emotionally and mentally by making this change to gain more space and time for yourself and things which are important to you. Consider the lessons you learnt from this phase in your legal career. Will you gain a chance to start over, set boundaries and take charge of your own life? Could you reach your financial goals faster by exploring your other career options?
  4. What are your further legal career or business options? Giving up your legal practice does not necessarily mean merely closing your legal practice. Could you consider selling your legal practice? Did you explore merging or partnering with other lawyers? If the lesson you learnt from operating your own legal practice is that you were not a good fit for private practice, consider what legal careers and options are available in the public sector. Is it an option to consider applying for positions as corporate counsel in corporate business? While deciding to give up your legal practice may feel like the end of your world at that time, it could certainly also just be the start of an exciting new chapter in your legal career.  
  5. What is holding you back from “divorcing” your own legal practice? Sometimes we know what to do, but we are slow to do it. Emotions can motivate us to move forward or procrastinate. Having feelings or thoughts of failure or shame may come to visit, but should not become the place where we live. True success is not measured by never falling down, but rather by how we get up and get going again. The sooner you make a decision and plan for the future of your legal practice and legal career, the faster you will get going in the right direction again.  

When couples are experiencing relationship or marital problems, they often seek professional help to try explore and overcome their issues. For some reason, lawyers often feel that they should be able to resolve all their own problems themselves, as they are solving problems for other people. But, can a surgeon operate on himself if he needs his appendix removed? Instead, lawyers should start thinking that asking for help shows strength.

Operating your own legal practice and facing difficulties affecting your legal career and income can start to feel very alone. Non-lawyer friends or family may show little understanding or sympathy, merely as they have little experience to help with lawyer career dilemmas. A few sessions with a professional lawyer coach could be a great support for lawyers facing crossroads in their legal careers, especially considering giving up your legal practice or making a career move.

If you are interested to obtain more information about lawyer coaching, you are welcome to visit www.lawyerfirst.co.za or connect directly with me, Emmie de Kock, professional Lawyer Coach, on [email protected].

I am an admitted South African attorney, former law firm owner, and qualified SA Business Coach, offering professional coaching to lawyers. It is my passion to support and motivate other legal practitioners and legal practices to start-up, grow and succeed. I am  also the founder and manager of “Lawyers Working From Home”, an enabling online platform which provides marketing, networking, coaching and training support to lawyers.

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2 thoughts on “How to know when to give up your own legal practice?

  1. Avatar
    Margaret on Reply

    Morning Emmie
    Thank you so much for your professional and motivational advice.I am a practicing on my own account from home. I am struggling financially to sustain myself. I have been working and applying government post with no luck. I am.stuck and dont know what to do.

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