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Guest Post: Establishing and Managing a Solo Law Practice: Ten Pointers

We are pleased to proffer, below, a second guest post from Kenneth Reich, who has previously written, for the LOMAP Blog, on the topic of effective legal writing. (You can read Mr. Reich’s prior effort, here.) Mr. Reich offers mentoring services to attorneys with various levels of experience. During his career (for more on Mr. Reich’s career highlights, you may view his profile, at his legal website), he has served as a mentor to law firm associates, junior government colleagues, recent law school graduates and law school students; he enjoyed these experiences so much, in fact, that he has established a mentoring consulting service as an adjunct to his continuing law practice. Mr. Reich provides mentoring on a group and individual basis, with a focus on: the development of practical skills; the provision of advice in specific matters, including substantive advice in areas of Mr. Reich’s practice; business development advice; and, career counseling. You can learn more about Mr. Reich’s mentoring services at his website and Facebook page.

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Disclaimer. This is not intended as a nuts and bolts guide to setting up a solo practice. For practical information on purchasing electronic equipment, developing timekeeping and billing systems, establishing a collections protocol, etc., please consult the very helpful personnel at LOMAP and materials for solo practitioners available on the ABA website.

Introduction

Before deciding to set up your own practice, you need to identify the reasons that you’re doing so, and you need to define your goals. Is this a deliberate career move or your last option? Are you doing this for the money, the freedom or for other reasons? Essential questions you need to answer before you hang your shingle (or the electronic equivalent) are:

-Can you support yourself and your family for six months to one year, while your practice develops?
-Do you have clients, or a concrete plan to get some?
-Do you have a detailed business plan, or at least an outline of one?
-Do you have a specialty, or a plan to develop one?

Top Ten Tips for Starting and Maintaining a Solo Practice (or any practice)

(1) Find a Mentor

Going solo does not mean that you need to practice entirely on your own. Identify a mentor and other more experienced lawyers, with whom you may consult, on your very first case, and on subsequent cases.

(2) Develop a Detailed Business Plan

For your first year, that includes the following:

-Expenses and earning needs/goals (keeping your overhead as low as possible)

-A Determination of how you plan to cover initial cash flow needs: for furniture, for office equipment, for electronic devices, for clerical staff, for bar association and other dues, etc. (Will you use savings, or loans (from a bank, from your family or friends)?)

-Identification of potential sources of business

(3) Do Low-Key, Inexpensive Advertising

-Write, and publish your writing.

-Create respectable business cards (no gimmicks) and a website.

-Post an announcement of the opening of your firm in your hometown newspaper, in the newspaper in which your office is located (if different) and in bar journals.

(4) Circulate, Circulate, Circulate

No one ever developed his or her first client without leaving the office.

(5) Other Strategies for Finding Clients

-Contact family, friends, and close colleagues from high school, college and law school. Get back in touch with former employers and former professional colleagues, and ask them for their business.

-Sign up for lawyer referral services.

-Publish business profiles and your content on social media: Facebook, LinkedIn, etc. (The strategy of which social media outlets to employ, and how to employ them, has been extensively written about, including here.)

-Attend business events sponsored by non-lawyers/non-lawyers’ groups. (When asked why he robbed banks, Willie Sutton famously said, “Because that’s where the money is.”)

-Become involved in charitable and non-profit organizations, in order to meet a broader range of people (i.e.–prospective clients).

(6) Develop Your Lawyer’s Skills

-Consider drafting simple wills, or handling landlord-tenant matters for family and friends.

-Take cases from the Volunteer Lawyers Project, or other legal services organizations; they’ll train you for free.

-Take court appointments, e.g.–in Boston Housing Court.

(7) How to Handle Your First Case

-Consider partnering with a more experienced lawyer; or,

-If you must turn business away, arrange for a quality referral. The client is interested in only one thing: having his or her case handled competently. Whether that competent handling is done by you, or by someone good that you recommend, is essentially immaterial to the client. If the client is satisfied, they’ll remember who provided them the referral.

(8) How to Set a Fee

-Set your fee based on the type of case. Ask around in order to obtain a range of rates charged by comparably experienced lawyers. Discount the rates charged by big firm associates: you don’t have their high overhead and you’ve got to attract business on your own at reasonable rates.

-Flat fees are good for simple, predictable tasks (think: drafting an uncomplex will, or reviewing a lease); but, be prepared to undercharge the first few times you apply a flat fee until you determine how long it takes to accomplish these sorts of tasks.

-Hourly rates are preferred by most corporate clients, and are more appropriate when the amount of effort is not predictable.

-Beware of taking contingency cases without expert advice. The art is in valuing those cases, and (based on that valuation, and certain other factors) figuring out which cases to take, and which cases to refuse.

(9) Billing + Collections

-Next to compliance with the Rules of Professional Responsibility, the most important matter to attend to is your billing and collections.

-Keep track of your time on a daily basis; you’ll definitely short-change yourself and give a windfall to your clients if you try to reconstruct the time days or weeks later.

-Consistently bill at the first of the month; and, don’t be shy about following up: it’s your money. You worked hard through law school and the bar examination period, and now in your practice, to justify your fees; and, you’re not a bank.

-Consider retainers if you can get them.

(10) Adopt the Proper Professional Attitude

You’re a lawyer, and you had to go through three years of law school and then pass rigorous competency examinations and a character evaluation to be licensed. Act, think and dress like the select prof
essional that you are. Clients expect no less. Consider your expectations when you visit an accountant or a physician.

Conclusion

Deciding whether to open your own legal practice is an important decision, and you should approach it with the same care with which you approach any other important decision. Once you have decided to open your practice, you’ll need to utilize available resources, including good advice from more seasoned attorneys and mentors, in order to learn the practical aspects of the law that they did not teach you in law school. Never be afraid to ask for assistance. Enjoy what you do.