The Moot Times UCalgary Law
A Modern Take on Solo Practice
Updated: Nov 14, 2021
Guest contribution by Britta Graversen
Prepared to answer questions from The Moot Times
What made you decide to start your own firm?
Just over a year ago, in September 2020, I left my job as an associate at a boutique firm in downtown Calgary. To be honest, I gave my notice before I was 100% confident about my next steps. I had been casually looking for a new opportunity for a few months and I was not set on staying in the law. I applied to a handful of small firms, a few corporations (in legal-adjacent roles), and a winery in the Okanagan (I could be a financial manager, right?).
To be clear, I met amazing people at my previous firm, some of whom I am lucky to call mentors and friends to this day. I was grateful for the opportunities afforded to me but I had come to realize (likely earlier than I would have in a world without COVID) that being a lawyer in a law firm was not going to be an ideal long-term fit for me. With some distance, I also came to realize that I had been experiencing burnout. Once I felt more like myself again, I began setting up Modern Wills.
This may sound awful but … I think what really crystalized my decision was being offered a position that I genuinely thought I wanted. It was a law firm, but they did things in non-traditional ways; they spoke about software and technology in the interviews; there were appealing opportunities for growth. Yet when it was offered to me something clicked. I would not be in charge, and I would like to be. I hung up the phone and sat alone with my thoughts at my makeshift kitchen-table-turned-office, papers still stacked in the corner from when I came home with a banker’s box six months prior. I think that was the first time I admitted to myself that I not only wanted to start my own business, but that I believed I was capable of doing so. (I will note that the unnamed firm proved my initial opinion of their greatness in how they graciously they accepted my decision and in that they enthusiastically wished me well.)
Had you always wanted to start your own firm? Did you have that as a goal while in law school?
Going into law school, I thought I wanted to be a corporate lawyer who worked with small businesses. I wanted to work with entrepreneurs like my parents, who started their own company when I was twelve. I helped in their business throughout my teens, mostly with filing and data entry. When I started my business degree I continued working there part-time, in addition to a few retail jobs. Eventually, I took on a more permanent role. I had the opportunity to handle accounts payable, accounts receivable, and payroll; I prepared an in-depth policy and procedure manual; I occasionally helped with quoting, IT, and HR. I learned a lot. I thought I learned that I would not want to run my own business, because I saw how hard, and how much, my parents were working. I saw the stress that they took on, knowing other people’s mortgage payments were on the line. That was a major factor in my decision to apply to law school. It seemed like a career that could offer me security.
In law school, my plan did not change much. I did not know what “big law” meant but, once I learned the term, I had a feeling it would not suit me (that doesn’t mean I didn’t send out a few last-minute applications during the articling recruit out of sheer panic). I learned that I wanted to be a “solicitor” not a “litigator” (more terms I’m not sure I previously knew). But I also learned to say: “Who knows! Litigation might surprise me! I’m open to it!” when asked what I wanted to do. One surprise came in that my favourite 1L class was Property Law. It led me to take Wills & Estates, which led to Basic Tax. A couple of friends took the same courses and had similar thoughts about big law, litigation, and working with small businesses. We daydreamed of one day opening a practice together, but we never made even tentative plans.
I think over the years I realized that what I had actually learned from working with my parents was how to see things through an entrepreneurial lens. That for me, my values, and what I envision for my life long-term, the advantages of entrepreneurship may outweigh the disadvantages. That it can be a blessing to be continuously striving to do things in a more efficient, cost-effective way. However, I did not start thinking about opening my own firm as a legitimate option until a couple years out of law school.
What exactly is Modern Wills? Why Modern Wills?
Modern Wills is technically a law firm. But it focuses exclusively (for now) on estate planning packages (Wills, Enduring Powers of Attorney, and Personal Directives). I founded Modern Wills to serve a middle ground between offering Wills as a loss leader to bring in other business and offering more comprehensive planning. Most people would benefit from having customized estate planning documents prepared by a lawyer, but the process and cost can be off-putting. I knew technology already existed that could help. Having a niche practice and some great software allows us to automate many processes (and streamline the rest) so that we can spend significantly more time connecting with our clients one-on-one, while creating custom documents at reasonable flat rates. One year on, the goal is to continue implementing technology and scale the practice.
What were some challenges associated with starting Modern Wills? What have you learned from those challenges that may be helpful for current law students?
As a solo you have to wear a lot of hats (or hire/contract others to wear those hats). This is challenging even if you enjoy the other aspects. Personally, I like marketing and project management. I had fun learning how to design my website. I started doing my own bookkeeping, because of my background, but I might advise against that. I found great IT help. My (now retired) mom helped with in-person signings when needed. I do not mind the administrative work, but a local assistant is on next year’s to-do list. Finding the time to do all those things and the legal work resulted in some long hours at times. For me, being able to use my brain in different ways and having control over my schedule make the occasional late nights worth it.
The thing I was most scared of when starting my own firm was: what happens if an issue comes up that I have never encountered? It turns out, you do the same thing you would have done in a larger firm. You research, then you ask other people for their thoughts. With everyone working from home these last 20 months, it has become clear that you can still have an excellent relationship with colleagues and mentors without having an office next door, even without working for the same firm. I learned 99% of people are kind, genuinely want to see you succeed, and will be so generous with their time.
The main challenge was cash flow. Law firm start-up costs are not exorbitant compared to other types of businesses, but Law Society dues and insurance are big expenses. My partner also took a leap in his career in 2020 (a similar, less-money-but-more-happiness-type decision). I took a few months to get processes and precedents in place, so I had no income during that time. My line of credit came in handy on a couple occasions. That said, we do not have kids or a mortgage. It was a privilege to be able to focus on new ventures for the last year. I am grateful that I broke even within a few months but, to paint a fully honest picture, I am still making minimum payments towards my student loan and lines of credit.
More optimistically, revenue is on track to double next year and, ultimately, I am building a life that should allow me to be (what I consider to be) a well-rounded human being. I am excited about that. I picked delaying my goals of buying a home and having children to set up this business, but everyone has different priorities. Plus, not everyone can, or would, make the same trade-offs. If I have any advice at all to give, it would be to articulate to yourself what you value and to not be afraid to carve your own path, regardless of what that looks like. It is not worth worrying about the judgment of others in the profession because they have not done, and likely do not understand, what you are trying to do (… at least that is what my therapist says).
To learn more about Modern Wills visit www.modernwills.com
or follow @modernwills on Instagram.