Asked & Answered: Stuart Collis Before you hang that shingle ...

By Jo Mathis

Legal News

The employment picture for new law school graduates isn't pretty. According to the Association for Legal Career Professionals (NALP), just 68 percent of 2010 law school graduates nine months after graduation reported employment in jobs that require bar passage. And less than 51 percent were hired by private law firms.

As a result, many are considering hanging out that proverbial shingle.

But it's not for everybody, says Stuart M . Collis, a solo practioner in Ypsilanti. Collis focuses his practice on collections, contracts, criminal and traffic law, and family law.

Collis talked to The Legal News about his own decision to start a practice, and what he would say to anyone considering a similar path.

Q: Let's begin with the reason behind your own decision to go solo in 1996 following graduation from Cooley Law School in Lansing. Why did you start off on your own?

A: I always knew that I wanted to eventually become a sole practitioner. However, when I passed the bar in 1996, I had little luck in finding a position in a law firm. I figured that by starting on my own, at least I would get a little experience and I could continue the job hunt in the interim. After a few months of being on my own and experiencing the thrill of sole practice, I decided that a law firm was not for me and I continued on my own.

Q: What do you know now that you wish you'd known in 1996?

A: I wish that someone had taught me all the things that are related to the business of the law rather than the actual practicing of the law. I have had to learn how the post office works, how to manage costs for the short and long term, how to develop and manage a clientele, and now I am learning how to manage a support staff.

Q: Some law students now who look at the dismal employment rate for young lawyers may think that having a solo practice is a safety net. What do you think?

A: There is no such thing as a safety net. When you start out on your own, you have a number of expenses that will be incurred quickly: malpractice insurance, rent if you are getting office space or sharing office space, advertising expenses, and potentially networking expenses. That being said, a young, creative new attorney can find ways to minimize these expenses.

Q: Who would be the ideal candidate for going solo?

A: The ideal candidate is someone who is hungry, self-starting, a go getter. That person has to be willing to go out and find answers and occasionally make mistakes. One cannot simply hang a shingle and expect clients to come in. An attorney has to develop a business sense and a network of people to make his or her practice work.

Q: What type of person should probably not even consider a solo practice?

A: Sole practice requires a lot of effort and energy. The hours that need to be devoted to a practice are quite laborious. Anyone who wants a steady paycheck or does not want to devote much of their free time to a practice should consider another way to make money.

Q: What are the most obvious up and down sides to owning your own business?

A: Freedom is the hallmark of the sole practice. I make my own hours, determine when and how often I take vacations and I never have to worry about being fired, laid-off or inter-office politics because I am my own boss! I can take an afternoon off to go play golf if I do not feel like working. Unfortunately, with freedom comes a price. If I am not in the office working on a file, talking to a client, in a courtroom or doing billing and accounting, I am not making any money. So, if I were to take a vacation, that means I have to have all my work done weeks in advance and there will be a rather large pile for me when I get back. On top of that, while I am on vacation, there is no money coming into the office and I cannot assist clients who have an emergency.

Q: How important is the location of your office?

A: I have always felt that location is a bit overrated. That is not to say that it is unimportant. If someone cannot find you, then they will go to the next attorney down the street. More important is that an attorney does not move their office too often because clients do not want to keep searching for their attorney. Therefore, once someone sets up, it is preferable to stay close to where one started their practice.

Q: You have been a sole practitioner for over 15 years. If you had to do it over again, would you?

A: Absolutely! I love the constant challenges and the busy lifestyle that I lead. I love the fact that I am the master of my own destiny.

Published: Thu, Feb 23, 2012