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The Struggle of the First Year of Practice

Sometimes I get feedback from readers about how much harder it is today than it was in the past. “In the past,” like when I started my practice in 1990.

Yes, yes, I know: I’m old, and life was easier for me than it is now.

I get it.

Except that it wasn’t easy in 1990.

I started my practice after a reasonably spectacular flameout in my original firm. I had worked there for three years when we had a disagreement about my budget for continuing education (involving a trip to St. Martin), and I quit. It was sort of an out-of-body experience as I watched my mouth quitting my job with no specific plan for what was next. It was very odd.

That happened in January. I was engaged to be married in June, and my fiancée, now wife, wasn’t sure what to make of what I’d done.

I rented a room in someone else’s office and bought some furniture. I was up and running in 48 hours and off to the races.

I worked like crazy chasing after new clients, scrambling to get the work done while figuring out how to deal with the mundane issues of setting up a law practice. It was crazy, exhausting, and exhilarating.

I wasn’t hugely worried about income because my wife was working as a teaching assistant and earning $7,000 per year. I’m kidding, people (yes, $7,000 was worth more in 1990, but not that much more). I was PANICKED about income.

As the end of the year rolled around, we calculated what I had pulled out of the practice.

The grand total?


Yes, $700.

And no, $700 wasn’t worth very much in 1990 (even though it was a very, very long time ago).

That worked out to $63 per month. Life was good!

So, what’s my point (don’t you frequently find yourself asking that question here?)?

My point is that I made it. There was nothing magical about life 21 years ago. It was hard, but I did it. When you look around at successful small firm lawyers, you’re seeing lots of them who also made it. They may have started long ago, but they struggled, survived, and thrived. You can too.

There’s nothing uniquely horrible about this time. You’ll be fine if you chase after new clients, scramble around to get the work done, and deal with the mundane issues of setting up a law practice.

You might even earn more than $700.

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  • Mike Whelan

    Did you focus on divorce when you started? And have an office, staff and yellow pages advertising (a la Foonberg’s advice)? I’m trying to find a way to start differently than you did bc my little family would flame out on $700 the first year. Do you think $700 is something I should accept as a fact of starting or can I follow all your other advice and take home a salary in year 1?

    • Lee Rosen

      Yes, I had an office. Eventually (about 4 months) I added an Admin. I had a yellow pages ad for a year (huge call volume but, few good clients). The $700 really depends on whether you suck out every penny or reinvest in the practice. I spent a huge portion of my revenues on marketing (which paid off in year two, etc.). That’s a short-term vs long-term choice you’ve got to make.

      • Mike Whelan

        Is the old guy in the picture meant to be you? I wish I could grow that much hair at that guy’s age. He’s got a man beard.

      • Afi Johnson-Parris

        Thanks Lee.  We can all use a little encouragement some days.  My goal during the first year was to make enough to pay for childcare.  I did that and then some so it’s possible to make more than $700 but the trade off is not being able to invest heavily into things that will grow your business.  

  • Leanna

    This is a great article. I now feel wildly successful because I took home $3000 my first year.  Thankfully that has much improved. I’m about to hit 6 years. In the beginning I had no staff, just networked and didn’t do paid advertising. My office was too expensive, but my very kind landlord let me out of my lease after 6 months and I moved into a office -sharing arrangement where I had the office 2.5 days a week and worked from home the rest of the time. Then sublet a whole office from someone and then finally 3 years ago moved into my own office suite with a colleague where we have a waiting room, conference room, space for our assistant, etc.  These were all in the same building which helped me feel less scattered and I wasn’t sending out change of address things every 6 months.  

    In terms of staff, I had no one for a long time.  Then started working with a  virtual assistant, last year we moved to a 2 day a week person that we share, and now have a 2 day a week person plus 2 on-call people, plus our VA.

    People kept saying it will take 3-5 years to really feel good and safe in your practice. I think that’s true. And I still remember how good it felt to go from waking up in the middle of the night to worrying about where my next client would come from to waking up to worry about how I’d get all the work done. Now I sleep through the night.

    • Lee Rosen

      Glad you’re sleeping well. I’m still working on that.


  • Tori White

    Bravo!  May I add that although it is very, very difficult to maintain;  the journey is somewhat more tolerable with an ever-faithful support system.  I’m so happy to have found your blog, Mr. Rosen, and one day, I will be even happier to say, “I made it (too).”  

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Lee Rosen

Lee Rosen has practiced family law for more than twenty years. With four offices, Rosen Law Firm serves Raleigh, Charlotte, Durham and Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Rosen served as the Law Practice Management Editor of the ABA Family Advocate for more than a decade and received the ABA James Keane Award for excellence in eLawyering. He served as Chair of the Law Practice Management Section of the North Carolina Bar Association, is a frequent speaker and is often sought out by the media as a source of family law insight and commentary.