Hanging Your Shingle: The ABC’s of Launching a Solo Law Practice

The ABCs of Solo Practice: An Interview with Richard Renner

Blueprint JD is pleased to feature an interview with attorney Richard Renner.  Mr. Renner’s wealth of experience as a solo practioner makes him an incredible resource for those law students contemplating hanging their own shingle.

Blueprint JD: Who is Richard R. Renner?

RR: I am currently a lawyer in private practice in Silver Spring, Maryland.  I am currently the principal of Tate & Renner.

Blueprint JD: What led you to open a solo practice?

RR: In 1995, my partner Al Tate proposed to open a private law office in Tuscarawas County, Ohio.  He and I became allies in the cause of civil rights while working for the local legal services office.  Both of us chafed at management’s restrictions on our practice of law.  I decided to join him in founding Tate & Renner.

Blueprint JD: When is the right time to start a solo or small firm law practice? How did you weigh these factors when you decided to take the plunge?

RR:I had some savings, and no outstanding debts. My partner and I had a business plan that called for 5.5 billable hours per workday, and 10 percent pro bono work. 

With regards to my firm’s pro bono requirements, I could never imagine practicing law without including a regular pro bono component. Pro bono work gave me the freedom to take a few cases I cared about.  It allowed me to explore new subject matter areas, support local activists, and meet and draw advice from practitioners I admired. It allowed me to tell judges that I would take pro bono referrals.  I tried to keep at least one pro bono case in each court I practiced in.

In creating the firm’s billable requirements, our business plan made such requirements easy to satisfy.  The billable hours provided my partner and I with a daily guidepost to keep us sufficiently focused on the bottom line — that is, the money we needed to generate in order to keep our practice afloat.  It also supported a budget that was easy to compute and project into the future.  With regards to the billable requirements, students with loans or other debts, who are interested in starting their own practice, will need to prepare business plans with an eye toward generating enough income to pay the these bills.  This can be done several ways: by becoming competent in select practice areas, which require upfront payment of fees.  Such practice areas often include preparing tax returns, wills, bankruptcies or criminal defense.  Also, selecting clients who can afford to pay the up-front fees can help generate income. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, don’t forget to advertise (check your state’s Rules of Professional Responsibility). Just as legal services work helped me become familiar with the law and build up some savings, a stint with the public defender or some other organization may help. 

Blueprint JD: How did you select the initial areas of practice for your firm? Did the breadth of your practice grow or change over time?

RR: We selected our initial practice areas by first identifying an underserved community and its respective needs. Since we were in this to make a modest living, we had to make sure the community could afford to pay reasonable fees. More specifically, in Tuscarawas County, Ohio, we found that domestic relations and consumer cases provided helpful cash flow while we took on contingency cases, most significantly on behalf of environmental whistleblowers.  Our firm took a financial loss our first year, but I was in the black by the second year.  After the first couple of years, I discovered that while serving the developing immigrant community was a rewarding pro bono endeavor, the community was not developed enough to support a private practice attorney, at least financially.  Over time, I began to focus more exclusively on environmental whistleblower matters, and most of my income came from those big contingency cases that I had pursued for years.  It was an easy decision to continue developing my practice in environmental whistleblower law because I believed it was a gift that I found.  The practice area was one that I cared about and in which I could succeed.  Most importantly, it generated an income to support the office and my family.

Blueprint JD: How important is having an office for solo practitioners? Has technology made having a brick-and-mortar office obsolete?

RR: I prefer to have an office and coworkers.  For me, it adds a level of seriousness and some discipline to my practice. However, since my relocation to the east coast and having had the opportunity to re-establish Tate & Renner, I have practiced from home.  Having only a computer, scanner, printer and Internet connection to do my work, I have been able to keep costs down while  figuring out what I want my next steps to be.

Blueprint JD: What was your approach to managing costs (additional staff, marketing, legal research, office space, etc.)? How did you prioritize expenses and/or navigate possible expansion?

RR: Three months after opening, I hired a part-time office manager.  I wanted someone who could handle the books and payroll.  She soon became full time.  Payroll was a top priority. As an attorney who litigated against wage theft, it was important for me to have integrity with my own staff.  My staff and I were also well aware of the liability that attaches to missing payroll. I never did miss a payroll, even if it meant drawing on my savings. My staff appreciated this commitment.  I had good longevity, and friendships that survived my decision to close the office and move to Washington, DC.

In regards to managing costs, I did not do any significant marketing. Other lawyers have had success by picking a subject matter and advertising for those cases.  Personal injury, bankruptcy and criminal defense are fruitful areas for advertising.  I used the county law library, the bar association, and other cheap references for research.  After my partner died, I took on associate attorneys to help manage my docket of cases.

Blueprint JD: All good things must come to an end. What prompted you to close up your solo practice?

RR: In 2008, I was offered a position as Legal Director of the National Whistleblowers Center.  My wife and I had an empty nest and we decided to take this opportunity and move to Washington, DC.  It gave me an opportunity to practice in a nationally recognized law office with a focus on cutting-edge litigation.  I  believed that the practice would eventually become more lucrative since bigger whistleblower cases paid off over time. 

Blueprint JD: Did law school prepare you for solo practice? What resources should law students or new solo practitioners use?

RR: No. I found that my law school’s academic program offered little useful preparation for individual’s looking to start their own private practice.  I did appreciate my experience in the Unemployment Action Center (conducting unemployment compensation hearings) and the criminal law clinic. The clinic provided me with my first supervised experience in court.  I appreciated the feedback about how I could perform better as an oral advocate. I recognize that my experience might have been better if I had been older when I entered law school.  I might have appreciated the opportunities for mentoring and networking. If I had been more aware of the opportunities to network, I think I would have had more support from my law school professors in getting more lucrative and fulfilling jobs. 

One valuable tip I can offer law students who are nervous about their preparedness for the practice of law is that you don’t have to wait to pass the bar to start getting some practical experience.  For example, unemployment hearings and whistleblower cases at the Department of Labor allow non-lawyers to represent claimants. Immigration and tax matters have an administrative process for non-lawyers to handle cases as well.

Blueprint JD: What, if any, regrets do you have regarding “hanging your shingle”?

RR: It took me a while to recognize that even as a solo practitioner, I could collaborate with attorneys who had more experience than I in any particular field of law.  I wish now that I had co-counseled more cases earlier in my practice, e.g.  when I stumbled across an area in which I had no developed expertise, I could have considered developing that expertise by partnering with an experienced co-counsel.  Because I did not do this, I eventually had to choose areas with which I was more familiar, focus on these areas, and drop those that were less familiar (thereby more time consuming and less productive).

Richard Renner is a co-founding partner of Tate & Renner, a private law firm located in Silver Spring, MD. Mr. Renner’s practice is devoted to advancing the civil rights of workers, immigrants, consumers, minorities and the poor. In keeping with this commitment, he previously served as the Legal Director of the National Whistleblowers Center, where he oversaw the advocacy for and representation of thousands of employee whistleblowers.