Nearly two years ago, I decided to open my own law office. Like so many people who start their own businesses, I felt that if I could do the work of being a lawyer then having a law office would be no problem – little did I know! Many a lawyer cautioned me and even told me that I was making a horrible mistake. But, in the words of McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc, “If you’re not a risk taker, you should get the hell out of business.”
This article is not a detailed how-to manual on starting your own law practice. There are books out there to help with that. My hope with this article is that it lessens the fear of going solo and helps you overcome the roadblocks that lay in your path.
There are so many obstacles to consider before deciding to go solo. You may be concerned about finding clients or having enough money or knowing how to run a business. The list goes on. It’s easier to think of reasons not to do it than to do it. Older lawyers are trapped in the dogma of the past where you needed to work for someone to get experience. So, let’s talk about overcoming some of these common fears.
Getting Clients Whenever I go out with another lawyer, especially older lawyers, they always ask me how I get clients, without wanting to divulge anything about how they get clients. This is a common question from attorneys at every stage of their career. I know this sounds trite but the old adage “Build it and they will come” is true! When you open your own practice, and people know about it, clients will come from friends, family, former law school classmates, law school professors and other lawyers.
Other lawyers in different practice areas are a good source of referrals. So, how do you meet these lawyers? Networking is essential, so join bar associations, especially those that have a variety of practice areas.
Volunteering at public interest legal organizations can potentially lead to clients as well. First, in my opinion, we have an obligation as a lawyer to help underserved communities and to those who can’t afford a lawyer. So, volunteering helps you fulfill that aspect of your duties as a lawyer but it could lead to clients and has for me. In fact, my biggest legal fee to date (which still isn’t saying much) came from a referral from a public interest legal organization.
You should have a way of staying in continuous contact with people so you are on their minds when a potential case/ client comes across their desk. You should keep a database of contacts and reach out to them at least once a month.
Surviving Financially Nearly all solo practitioners tend to struggle financially. Getting the capital to start your own business is one of the most challenging obstacles preventing attorneys from making the leap. I started out with a free loan from the Jewish Federation (No, you don’t have to be Jewish to qualify). Other attorneys have used credit cards to finance their litigation costs. I just caution people to be wary of the high interest rates. Others have received loans or financial gifts from friends and family.
No matter how you find that original capital, it is essential that you build a budget and stick to it. You should keep expenses low, otherwise that money will evaporate quickly.
In the early years, I did contract work for other lawyers – particularly established solos – who needed help with their caseload, including making appearances for them, defending depositions, drafting discover and motions. This helped me survive before my cases started to pay off.
Handling the Caseload Once your caseload starts building, you may need to co-counsel with older, more experienced lawyers who have both the knowledge and the money to litigate alongside you.
Before you forge any sort of business relationship, ask for references and research their case results. You want to co-counsel with lawyers who have support staff who can take on some of the workload. When considering a partnership, remember that it is like marriage, you’ll fight about money and it could end in divorce. Think twice before moving forward.
Conclusion Steve Jobs, the late co-founder and CEO of Apple, said in his commencement speech at Stanford University in 2005 that “It was impossible to connect the dots looking forward” when discussing his early career moves that laid the foundation for Apple but it was “ … very clear looking backwards.” He advised that you must trust that the dots will connect in the future because that will give you the confidence to “follow your heart even when it will lead you off the wellworn path.”
So, take the plunge and start your own practice, with the conviction that the dots will connect looking back. I wish you the best of luck. Joshua Cohen Slatkin