Going solo: MBA conference, resources help launch firms

Issue June 2015 By Mike Vigneux

For attorneys who want to start their own solo practices or small firms, knowing where to begin is often the first challenge.

Attorney Marc L. Breakstone believes a practical place to start is with this question -- What does success mean to you? That question is often the way he begins "How to Start and Run a Successful Solo or Small Firm Practice," a Massachusetts Bar Association conference he has co-chaired for the past 20 years with his law partner and MBA Past President David W. White.

Breakstone and White ask attendees to write the answer to that question on a piece of paper. That answer ultimately helps steer the new solo or small firm in the right direction based on work/life balance. The key is to find a practice area that you can enjoy and have satisfaction working in while still building in time for what's important to you.

"It's a very personal voyage starting your own firm, and we really try to emphasize that the practice should be built around you, rather than you building yourself around the job," said Breakstone.

Another key goal of the conference, which was most recently held on May 29 in Randolph, is to simply instill in attendees the confidence to go out and start their own solo or small firms. While starting a solo practice or small firm may seem daunting and overwhelming at the outset, this conference provides some practical and simple steps that can be taken to ease that anxiety.

The conference is just one of several resources the MBA provides for attorneys who are thinking about starting their own firms. In addition to free continuing legal education courses for members, the MBA also offers networking and career building opportunities in specific practice areas through its sections, committees and social events. The MBA also works in collaboration with area law schools to host events and programs geared to law students and recent graduates.

"The MBA has made great strides in providing so many resources now to law schools and law students than it ever has before," said Beth M. Padellaro, chair of the MBA's Sole Practitioner & Small Firm Section Council.

Who's going solo?

Designed for recent law school graduates, young lawyers who have started their own practices and groups of more experienced attorneys who are leaving firms to start their own small firm, the conference typically attracts a diverse group of attendees.

"There's always a broad cross-section," said Breakstone. "Sometimes we have lawyers with 30 years of experience who have finally decided to go out and do their own thing."

Breakstone and White note that recently the conference has primarily drawn younger lawyers and recent graduates, a fact they attribute to a tight job market and the merging of many large law firms. Given the current job market, employment options for young lawyers and recent law school graduates can be limited with many becoming public defenders, assistant district attorneys or serving in legal roles with nonprofit or service organizations.

"It's difficult to get experience without going into some sort of a public sector," said Leo M. Spano, vice chair of the MBA's Sole Practitioner & Small Firm Section Council.

With limited opportunities at larger firms, starting a solo or small firm practice is another option for young lawyers or recent graduates to pursue. In addition to resources such as the MBA's solo and small firm conference, advances in technology have made starting a solo or small firm less complicated.

New technology and 'virtual lawyering'

In the pre-Internet age, attorneys could market themselves in person through word of mouth or pay for advertising in the yellow pages. Today, the Internet is the primary source of finding lawyers for most people. This technological shift has required most attorneys to have websites and perhaps a presence on free social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. The conference addresses the most recent technologies to market a solo practitioner or small firm including the use of social media, options for creating a website and how to appear on search engines.

"We are always evolving the course and no new technology escapes us as far as we know," said White.

Thanks to the prevalence of technology, launching a simple website for a solo practice or small firm is now relatively easy, inexpensive and can be done quickly.

"You can really get up and running for next to nothing today," noted Breakstone.

As technology keeps advancing, Breakstone believes there will be a shift from brick and mortar to "virtual lawyering" with more lawyers practicing remotely. In the '90s, Breakstone met 100 percent of his clients face to face. Today, he only meets 30 percent of his clients. In most of his smaller, non-complex cases, most business is handled over email and the phone. He believes the legal field will continue moving in that direction.

"With all the technology out there, all the office equipment out there, and the idea that you can really work from your home, the library or the coffee shop, I think is somewhat appealing," added Spano.

Word of mouth still relevant

Even with advances in technology, word of mouth marketing is still very much a part of starting a solo or small firm. Breakstone and White urge conference attendees to tell everyone what they do and that they are available to help. Clients can be found at health clubs, churches or rotary club meetings. Anyone could realistically be a potential client.

The conference also addresses the importance of joining bar associations, registering for referral lists and networking with other attorneys for cross referrals.

"You really need to be in front of people all the time," said White.

Networking opportunities are provided at the conference for attendees to connect with each other. One popular feature of the conference, known as "the ultimate networking lunch," involves experienced attorneys in specific practice areas talking with attendees about the secrets to their success. As a result of these networking opportunities, law partnerships for small firms have been formed at past conferences.

By joining the MBA and participating in conferences and other events, the networking opportunities can be vital, especially when starting a solo or small firm in the early stages of a legal career.

"Sometimes the only way to get your face out there is to join an organization," said Spano.