By Michelle Gastil, J.D.
Owning your own law firm is most certainly different than being one of dozen associate attorneys in a firm’s civil litigation department, or the like. As such an associate, clients streamed in, fee arrangements were set, there were templates galore for pleadings and forms, practice books were everywhere, and senior attorneys and paralegals provided support. Another perk – as an associate I received the same stable paycheck whether a client paid or not.
If you’re thinking of starting a solo practice or small firm, whether you’re transitioning from being a law student, associate attorney, or from being unemployed, then hopefully you are thinking about answers to important questions. What area(s) of law will you practice? Do you know how to practice that area of law competently? What will you charge for your services? Where will clients come from? How will you sustain your business?
Though answering these practical questions is important, my favorite piece of advice I have received is the following:
Dive in! Jump!
Sounds careless. But being overly cautious is likely to keep you stuck in a firm you do not truly enjoy for five years or more. And is that what you really went into law school debt for? No. So, jump!
I worked at firms for five years before starting my solo practice. Would I go back in time and just jump? Probably not. It’s a nice thought though, and it felt like a jump when I went solo regardless of all the preparation I had gone through. So, I supplement my favorite piece of advice with: Be comfortable with the risks and hard work that come with jumping and diving, and only do so after asking and answering those important questions. If you have a vision, these questions should not be hard to answer. If you are resourceful and diligent, you will accomplish your specific goals.
One of the most obvious risks you take, especially if you’re transitioning from a full-time job, is a financial risk. Most attorneys do not start out their solo or small practice with a large book of clients. There are several ways you can ensure you do not start out with $0 income, including performing part time contract work, which can include document review, part time litigation work, appearance work, and the like. Another opportunity is co-counseling on cases. All in all, do not presume that you must make money off of your own book of clients alone – you can maintain income in other ways so that you are not worrying about paying bills too much while you are building your dream practice.
While you are staving off financial difficulties with contract work and co-counseling, remember to make those meaningful connections last, whether the connection is with your contract employer, opposing counsel, co-counsel, or the clients you work with. Everyone is a potential future referral source for your firm, not to mention, you can make great friends along the way.
Before going solo, I rarely sought out potential clients when I worked at firms – a client stream already existed. Now, I am sure to make it point to tell people that I am a lawyer – I handle consumer debt litigation/bankruptcy, land use, and general civil litigation – and I want clients so send them to me! Say it once, say it again, and then send a holiday magnet. As an associate at a firm, I had almost no dealing with a client who did not pay a bill. Now, if a client does not pay a bill, I send reminders and courtesy emails, and sometimes I have to let clients go. When I worked at a firm, I had senior attorneys, fellow associate attorneys, and paralegals right outside my office door to brainstorm with and ask questions at a moment’s notice. Now, I often have to leave a voicemail or await an email response to reach my former colleagues and mentors that know my areas of law – the fun and benefit of brainstorming is not always as immediately available.
Still, I jumped! I dove in! It is the most fun I have ever had as a lawyer.