A half-dozen hot tips for starting a solo practice

Issue Vol. 12 No. 1 January 2010 By Peter Elikann

Nearly a decade ago, the American Bar Association's Lawyer Statistical Report determined that 89 percent of all lawyers in the United States work in solo or small practices. With the lion's share of the legal profession comprising firms with one to 10 lawyers, it is surprising that, in the following 10 years, so many people don't know where to begin or where to turn for training and support when they set out to form their new practice. After all, starting a solo practice or, in fact, any kind of nuts and bolts law firm management is not something generally taught in law school. It is not so much a legal endeavor calling on lawyer skills as it is a small business endeavor for which many of us have no skills.

There are some lawyers who are going out on their own solely because of today's economic downturn. Through no lack of talent and no fault of their own, they can't land an appropriate first job or are laid off by the big firm. For those attorneys, they should know there is no shame in being a solo practitioner and they should never be apologetic to clients telling them how they can now be cheaper or explaining that they are where they are because of a tanking legal market. Clients have their own problems and aren't interested in yours. They also don't want it driven home to them that they should hire you only because you are a self-proclaimed cut-rate discount bargain lawyer.

1. Determine whether a solo practice is for you

As a solo practitioner, you are the boss and master of your own fate. You answer to no one. That's the good news. It's also the bad news.

When a solo firm fails, it is usually because one is a bad business person, not because one is a bad lawyer. Do you have the drive to keep a number of balls in the air, because only part of your time will be doing the actual lawyer work, with the rest going to marketing, accounting, keeping equipment running and the office supplied and paid for?

We can all think of superstar lawyers who were part of a big firm or agency or prosecutor's office who have brilliant legal minds and are well-respected for their lawyering skills only to be a disaster when they tried to put out a shingle and go off on their own.

Perhaps a prosecutor is remarkable in trying a case, but when he leaves the district attorney's office and starts his own private practice, he just doesn't have the personality to attract and massage clients or to chase them for bills. Paying bills, scheduling, e-mails, phone calls, appointments, insurance, office supplies, taxes, bar dues, communicating with clerks/coordinators/other lawyers, etc. may just not be their cup of tea.

Are you a procrastinator who, left to your own devices, will not get everything done without someone to answer to or someone to pick up your slack when you don't complete your to-do list? Time management is the most pervasive specter hovering over the self-employed attorney.

Or do you function better if you're in control doing things your way? Many lawyers have done poorly as cogs in the wheel of large law firms, but lack the self-confidence to go on since they were not successful at their initial big firm law job. They go out on their own and promptly turn their lack of accomplishment around as they are no longer obsessed with pleasing the boss, but rather are relying on their own judgment and gut instincts. Poor past performance may not be indicative of future victory in another job setting that's a better fit.

2. Keep overhead down

Your friends, family and business contacts may hire you eventually, but they'll rarely do so right away. They have to need to hire you, not just want to. Even if you do acquire sufficient clients at the outset, count on it being at least six months before you begin to have a regular income coming in. Contingency fees, hourly billing and pay for contract work such as court-appointed bar advocates on criminal cases may not see actual checks in the mail at the outset. Figure out first how you can survive. Do you have savings set aside? Can your spouse's income carry you? Are you fresh out of law school and still have a part-time job doing anything?

Then, since monthly overhead is the key back-breaker of every lawyer, find ways to run your practice close to the ground doing things inexpensively or free.

A. Office space

Home offices are so much more accepted by clients today than they ever were, not just for law practices, but for every business or service. With the advent of such things as computers and e-mail, even many corporations came to the realization that they don't need to maintain office space in a central building, but rather, keep all their employees at home linked electronically.

The key is that, if you are to set up a home office, you must have a presentable looking space with its own entrance, if at all possible. Setting up your laptop and phone in a corner of your bedroom just might not cut it.

Virtual offices come in a variety of arrangements and can give off a real air of professionalism. You can have a remote receptionist; an address in a prestigious building with use of the conference room to meet clients that can be paid for on an hourly basis; mail, overnight deliveries and packages can be received at said address; use of services such as secretaries, typists, fax, video conferencing, etc. It gives the appearance and services of having an office without actually having the expense of one.

Executive suites or rented office space. Executive suites are similar to virtual offices except you likely pay a regular monthly fee. You might have your own desk in a large room of desks, but when meeting clients, can use the conference room and either pay for secretaries, copying, faxes, etc. on a per-use basis or a flat fee. You can also rent office space in someone else's office for a minimal fee and don't have to worry about the actual running of the office. It might be best to rent that space in another lawyer's office, particularly where there are a number of lawyers so that relationships can be established and referrals received.

B. Use services that are cheap or free

It used to be that lawyers spent, at least, a couple of thousand dollars a year keeping up their law libraries. That is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. Most research is now done online. Rather than fill law offices with voluminous case reporting systems, it has long been cheaper to use legal search engines such as LEXIS and Westlaw.

However, lawyers may now have moved beyond the transition period of paying for legal search engines. Now there are legal search engines available for free.

Casemaker has been offered as a no-cost perk for members of the Massachusetts Bar Association. This alone has more than paid for any member's annual dues of several hundred dollars. Recently, Google launched a free online legal research tool. Currently, it only features case law and can't compete with Lexis and Westlaw for those who need to research such things as regulatory practice areas, including energy, securities law, communications or tax, where LEXIS and Westlaw aggregate reported agency decisions. These other legal research tools keep adding on extra features such as the recent addition of providing access to legal briefs.

Unless you are so flooded with work, these legal search tools make it easier to forgo the expense of a paralegal. In the same vein, with everything on word processor and software available to take you through every office task, such as accounting and billing, the need for a secretary is not always there. If business is, on the contrary, great and there doesn't seem to be enough hours in the day, then any time taken away from lawyering to do office administrative work is probably not cost effective and it's cheaper to have someone do it for you.

3. Marketing yourself

So, you rent an office, get some equipment, put a shingle out in front of your office and then open the doors. Do not expect a single client just to show up attracted by the shingle.

The good news is that you can now open a solo practice without having to have either been born in the community or established yourself socially in town for years as professionals did in decades past through joining social and community organizations such as a country club or the Kiwanis Club. Marketing is more accessible than ever.

A Yellow Page ad might possibly have less of an impact than it did some years ago, before an increasing number of people turned to the Internet as a way to locate and look up any business whether it be a doctor, a Chinese restaurant or a lawyer.

Web sites have become increasingly popular. A consultant could help you with the art of having your Web page stand out and having it placed high enough on the list to attract clients.

But, at this moment in time, we're riding the cusp of the next generation of media marketing and a great deal of it costs nothing. Professionals are increasing their visibility through social media including Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, MyLife, Zoominfo, YouTube and MySpace. Setting up and regularly contributing to your own blog might also draw a following.

A number of organizations such as the Massachusetts Bar Association and the Boston Bar Association have attorney referral services where, for perhaps an extra $100 a year, one can have cases referred to them. The cost of this and the cost of several hundred dollars to join the bar association is negligible when compared to the profit from landing a single case. Civil attorneys have, indeed, landed million dollar cases through the bar associations and criminal defense attorneys can land a $10,000 or $60,000 case.

The most perennial way of marketing oneself - after pushing friends and relatives - is, of course, through personal referrals from previously satisfied clients. But make sure that these clients know that just because you represented them on one kind of case (let's say a divorce) doesn't meant that you don't do other kinds of cases and, if you don't, you can certainly refer them to another attorney, thus, at the least, gaining a referral fee. This underscores a key marketing device - establishing relationships with other attorneys for mutual referrals. Whether you're on the referring side or the receiving side, you win.

Volunteer to give talks to business or community groups. Media appearances on television, cable access, being quoted in a newspaper or getting articles published can also draw attention to yourself as you are immediately classified as an "expert" in the mind of a viewer or reader.

4. Mentors and buddies and gaining experience

Solo doesn't actually mean you always have to be out there winging it on your own. There isn't a new lawyer who doesn't have a person or two who will tolerate them calling and asking endless questions. There's a great deal of necessary knowledge you need to acquire that isn't available in a book, whether it be getting the lowdown on a particular judge you anticipate appearing before or looking for potential pitfalls in drafting a document that only experience can teach. Identify mentors, use them and then pay them back if need be by doing some legal tasks for them. Although, if truth be told, most lawyers who have been around for a while love to pontificate and show off their experience; if you walk up to a lawyer in a court where you've never been, chances are they'd be glad to give advice to a stranger as to the local lay of the land.

The MBA has its own mentoring program where you can call in.

Another great source of free advice is to identify blogs or get on a listserv where you can actually throw a question out there and then sit back as you might get 50 responses giving you the answer. This is true for substantive law questions as well as questions on how to run a solo or small practice. If you go on the Net, you'll see numerous blogs giving advice to solo practitioners, including myshingle.com or the ABA's Solosez.

An invaluable resource here in the commonwealth is the Massachusetts Law Office Management Assistance Program, a free confidential consulting service that will meet with you over the phone or in person to advise on setting up a new practice, maintaining the existing practice or transitioning out of a practice.

For learning how to do things, there is no substitute for sitting in court and watching other attorneys or tagging after a more senior attorney as he or she engages in a deposition or conference. But, for real hands-on work, if you have the time, there are pro bono clinics in almost every area of the law, such as immigration, consumer rights and domestic relations, where they will train you first and then give you real cases to do. In other areas, such as criminal law, you can get on the lists for paid court-appointed work

It's also important to have a few colleagues you can call on, perhaps at a moment's notice, to cover you if you can't make a simple court date, conference or other event because you have to be elsewhere. It will help you retain cases rather than have to turn them down. It will cost you nothing if you and your colleague simply cover each other as kind of a quid pro quo. However, if you have to pay a minimal fee to someone to cover things for you on an as-needed basis, it is still likely to be very cost effective rather than paying permanent staff.

5. Concentrate on a few areas

Years ago, it was thought that, to survive as a solo practitioner, particularly in a local neighborhood, a lawyer had to do a little bit of everything. Therefore, the generalist could provide cradle-to-grave service for an entire family. As society has become more diverse, the law has become more complex and former backwater areas of the law have zoomed to the forefront. New laws are booming.

Since a growing number of lawyers have specialized, their level of expertise in their chosen fields has increased, and this makes it more difficult for a generalist to compete with them. It's no different than if one of us had a rash, we'd probably head first to a dermatologist rather than to our family primary care doctor if we had a choice. In the past, a general practitioner might have taken on a client's son's drunk driving case, but now even a criminal defense attorney might be wary of such representation as there are lawyers who have an even more limited concentration and handle drunk driving cases almost exclusively. How could a general practitioner who very occasionally represents a person accused of operating under the influence compete with an expert who has a cutting-edge, state-of-the-art knowledge of the increasingly byzantine and scientific aspects to this law?

If you think your small community might not generate enough work for a narrow specialist, remember that with the advent of the Internet through Web sites and networking groups, it's easier to advertise and make yourself known in all the surrounding communities, also.

Rather than just lapse into an area of law by default because you happen to start out with a few similar cases, one should be proactive and decide first what area you would love, if there is a need for such a lawyer in your community and, perhaps, what areas of law are generally underserved by the profession.

6. Be wary of ethical pitfalls

Not running afoul of the ethical code is a subject that merits a book-length discussion.

But, so many solo practitioners, overwhelmed by trying to do everything, from time to time do unwittingly break the rules.

Most of this could be avoided just by putting systems into place from the opening day of your solo practice. There are software programs to maintain calendars; records management; time-keeping and billing.

The chief problem is that a "solo act" attorney pulled in too many directions might get in trouble with every lawyer's nemesis - time management. Again, organization at the outset along with systems in place in advance will help an attorney maintain control. The problem of managing one's time, along with its inherent stresses and strains, are serious enough that it's worth noting that we have an organization here in Massachusetts for attorneys overwhelmed by the stress - Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers.

In addition to putting systems in place, review the ethical rules in advance for potential pitfalls. You may call the Massachusetts Board of Bar Overseers advice line if questions come up on such things as conflicts or confidentiality, and there are many additional listservs to anonymously contact other lawyers. Generally speaking, your gut instinct will almost always tell you if you're about to butt heads with an ethical rule.

The two greatest bits of advice to any lawyer wishing to avoid problems with clients are (1) use fee agreements and (2) return phone calls. Client communication is paramount and it always boggles the mind how so many lawyers run afoul of irate clients for failing to do the simple, quick action of merely returning a phone call.

The Author

Peter Elikann is co-chair of the Massachusetts Bar Association's General Practice Solo & Small Firm Section Council. He is an author, Court TV Network commentator and Boston-based criminal defense attorney.