So you’ve decided to leave the law firm life behind and launch your own independent law practice.
Congratulations! Now what?
For independent-minded lawyers, launching a solo practice can be very fulfilling and may just be the key to your personal and professional happiness.
Unfortunately, it can also be very intimidating, frustrating, and overwhelming. After all, nothing in law school, nor in the practice of law, really prepares attorneys to be CEOs of businesses.
Have a Plan
One lesson lawyers can learn from other start-up companies is the importance of developing a business plan. There are a number of templates available on the web, but the most important thing to do is just have one. It doesn’t have to be SBA-loan ready or consist of 50 pages of graphs and charts. It does need to clearly define your purpose, mission, start-up needs, marketing plan, business management plan, and financial plan.
While every practice and situation will require some special nuances and considerations, there are a few key areas that all new independent practitioners must address as they develop their business plans, namely: workspace, equipment, business development, training, mentoring, and business management.
Workspace & Equipment
Technology has made the physical equipment demands on an independent practice fairly low. Essentially, all an attorney needs to practice law effectively is a computer, internet access, a smartphone, and basic office machines like a printer and scanner.
However, an attorney – particularly one who represents business clients – also needs secure and professional workspace to meet clients, conduct conferences, receive guests, and accept mail/parcels, etc.
When I launched my own solo practice more than a dozen years ago, I had four main options for workspace: get my own office lease, go to an executive suite, sublease from another firm, or work from home.
Each option has its pros and cons, and at various points I’ve used all four options in my years as an independent lawyer. However, none of those options really provided the business image, security, services, or resources that I needed in my business law practice. Here’s a breakdown of the key pros and cons of each:
- Office Lease. Signing a lease for space can provide a secure and professional environment, but it can be cost-prohibitive and onerous to sign multi-year leases and then pay for rent, deposits, furniture, phone, internet, office equipment, and office supplies. Plus, as a solo, you will be all alone in that office; you’ll have no one with whom to collaborate, fix the printer, or help with marketing initiatives.
- Executive Suite. Executive suites can be more cost-effective in terms of start-up costs for a solo, but a typical executive suite will not provide the business image or secure space needed by business attorneys. Mail is often simply placed in a folder or open cubbies, and fellow tenants are not attorneys.
- Firm Sublease. Subleasing space from a law firm will likely present a better, more secure professional image than an executive suite. However, the fact that your firm is legally separate from the larger firm has some security and confidentiality implications, not to mention having to explain to your clients and guests why some other firm’s name is on the door. Moreover, law firms are subject to changes such as firm splits, additions of new attorneys, etc., that could adversely affect your ability to use the space.
- Home Office. Working from home is certainly one of the most cost-effective workspace options for independent attorneys; but, it doesn’t provide the professional image business attorneys need, doesn’t provide the access to conference and meeting space, nor does it provide other attorneys for networking and collaboration. Home-office attorneys typically try to avoid meeting clients and prospects at their homes and often use public spaces like coffee shops (and their extremely vulnerable public wi-fi) to work and meet.
While traditional marketing and advertising options can be helpful to lawyers, most independent attorneys generate new work through personal relationships and networking. For business attorneys, the most reliable source of quality new client referrals is other business attorneys. As such, networking is a critical element of any independent attorney’s business plan.
The difficulties, however, include making time for networking and networking efficiently. The most logical activities would be those which involve other business attorneys such as seminars, outings, and happy hours hosted by bar associations and sections, alumni groups, etc.
Training and Mentoring
Law is not practiced in a vacuum. Like networking, discussed above, independent attorneys need access to mentors and colleagues to share ideas, referrals, collaborations, and joint ventures. When we were part of a law firm, a network of mentors and sounding boards was built in. As independent attorneys, however, we must look elsewhere to build a network of like-minded peers with whom to collaborate.
In addition, all attorneys need CLE training each year. While there are a number of resources, CLE training can be expensive, time-consuming, and inconvenient.
Moreover, independent attorneys aren’t just lawyers; we are also CEOs of start-up businesses. Nothing in law school nor law practice has prepared us for this role. As such, without training and guidance, we are likely to make expensive and time-consuming mistakes.
The law firm uses its larger pool of resources (i.e., a percentage of your collections as well as those of your colleagues) to hire in-house or contractor experts to handle software, IT, marketing, insurance, accounting, and other business matters of the firm. In a newly-minted solo practice however, chances are economic forces will dictate that you will be handling a lot of the technology, facilities, bookkeeping, and management duties yourselves – all while you’re out networking to generate new business and making time to log a few billable hours now and then as well.
These challenges are not insurmountable, but they can be money and time-consuming. Just the sheer volume of the items you must address can be quite intimidating.