A Dozen Great Reasons: The Challenges and Triumphs of Starting Your Own Firm

If you scan this article to look for a dozen reasons why you should leave your big law safety net and take the leap to start your own firm, you will not see them. In reality, there are far more than just 12 reasons to take the risk, but just as many challenges to navigate as well.

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When we thought about how we could share what we have learned with others, we looked around our firm and saw a dozen amazing women. Every day, we celebrate the leap we took in January 2010, and appreciate that it was well worth the sacrifices. A little over six years ago, we launched our own firm with barely more than a handful of clients, working out of 800 square feet of subleased space. Over these last six years, we have learned much about what works for us and what does not. As a result, our original three-person team has grown into a 12-person team including 10 lawyers, occupying over 8,000 square feet in a high-rise building in Center City Philadelphia.

Since our firm’s inception, we have faced many challenges that, when looking back, often made us question whether we made the right choice to strike out on our own. But with each challenge and each obstacle overcome, successful client pitches and new team members followed. Unlike many traditional firms—large or small—our firm focuses on a collaborative team approach that avoids internal competition. In our view, such competition discourages collaboration and interferes with client service. This approach has helped us grow from our initial base to having handled more than 550 matters for more than 250 clients, including Fortune 500 companies, small and privately held business, nonprofits, government entities and entrepreneurs.

Starting your own firm is not for the faint of heart. It requires an ability to take setbacks in stride and keep pushing the boulder uphill in a Sisyphean struggle. Here are three of the toughest challenges we faced, and how we tackled them successfully.

Select your team carefully to maintain your culture.

The success of a law firm depends heavily on the members of the team, and their ability to sacrifice and collaborate for mutual benefit. Being a great lawyer or a heavy rainmaker does not necessarily mean someone will be a good team player or colleague. We invest in each of our team members, so when one turns out to not be a good fit, it’s not only expensive but disappointing as well. On balance, we have been able to attract and retain wonderful talent.

Unlike many traditional arrangements, we do not attribute origination credit or hoard client work. All clients are firm clients, and the work is performed by the team members who can achieve the best results most efficiently, to provide real value for every dollar spent. Many of us came out of environments where the first lawyer to ever “touch” a client was bestowed in perpetuity with the credit and compensation for everything that ever flowed from that client, until, upon retirement, a preferred designee inherited the relationship. We eschew those outdated and divisive policies and have found our clients are happy and well served when we are all responsible and all credited. As a result, we are also not hoarding work or wasting energy looking over our shoulders for fear a colleague will steal something away.

Our philosophy only works if the team embraces it, and it is not a philosophy that appeals to everyone. We have often declined to proceed with bringing on new lawyers on the eve of making a deal, because the lawyers wants to renege on the no-origination agreement and negotiate rainmaking credit. So we add team members judiciously, and only once we feel confident that the new colleague will sincerely embrace the collaborative culture we inculcate.

Define a clear brand that distinguishes your firm from the competition.

We launched our firm during one of the roughest economic downturns across all sectors, and at a time when law firms were struggling to retain clients and maintain profitability. Widespread layoffs hit the legal market and a number of venerable firms went under.

In such a highly competitive market, it is important to differentiate your firm in ways that are attractive to clients. We accomplished this in various ways, including highlighting that we provided top-notch services in terms of responsiveness and results, and we did so economically. We also promoted our niche practices, so that when potential clients and referral sources were seeking specialized expertise within our wheel house, we were top of mind.

Our team reinforced our reputation for concentrating in particular practice areas by becoming thought leaders through consistent writing and speaking on the subject matter. We became actively involved in the professional associations where industry players congregated, and volunteered for projects that allowed us to collaborate with others in the field and to showcase our knowledge. Those efforts, in turn, led to media inquiries for our comments on cutting edge issues, which further bolstered our reputations in the areas we selected as our focus.

In addition, we were certified as a woman-owned business, enabling us to access opportunities specifically intended to promote diversity and inclusion in the legal profession. But we did not try to be all things to all clients, and we referred matters to others when we felt we were not the best team for a particular engagement.

Your brand, however you define it, should stand for real value for every dollar spent. That requires setting rates that are fair and reasonable, assuring that time billed is well spent, and making sure clients are prepared for the bills they are about to receive. Each invoice we send is reviewed by at least two people to assess whether the client received services and results that justify the invoice amount. And sometimes, if we put in the time but feel the matter does not warrant the expense, we do not charge the client for it. Clients expect to get more than they are paying for, and in this competitive legal market, it is important to bear that in mind.

Create a community around your firm.

Initially, the firm was just three of us with a handful of clients. We did not have the resources or networks of a large organization, and we had to find a way to maximize the return on our outreach efforts. This was a significant challenge, and we needed to find innovative, cost-effective ways to build our network near and far.

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We have implemented a number of initiatives that have yielded far more than we anticipated or hoped for. Two of those stand out – calendars and art exhibits. You may be scratching your head, wondering what we are thinking. We are a Philadelphia-based firm, with lawyers licensed in several jurisdictions and areas of practice with national and international scope. As part of our outreach to friends across the map, we created our firm desk calendar, which depicts images of Philadelphia sights so recipients everywhere will be reminded of us daily, and we hope think of us when they have legal needs in Philadelphia. Our annual supply of 500 calendars gets distributed quickly, and we have a loyal following seeking more and more of them every year. On our more local focus, our first year in operation, we persuaded a successful local artist to loan us several paintings to adorn our sun-lit bare walls, and in appreciation, we hosted our first “Meet the Artist” open house. We are about to host our 11th art exhibit, and have hosted 15 artists in the past six years. As we grew, word of our exhibits spread attracting more guests and wonderful media coverage. But more importantly, these events allowed us to enhance personal relationships with our professional contacts, and to introduce members of our orbit to one another so they too could pursue relationships.

It should be obvious, but a key element of our approach is to treat everyone we encounter with respect and generosity and to surround ourselves with like-minded clients and contacts. We do not view other lawyers as competitors, and form alliances for mutual support and friendship. By creating a community, we have found many others with whom we do business and enjoy the rewards of reciprocity of taking good care of one another.

About the Authors

Griesing Mazzeo
Francine Friedman Griesing (left) is founder of Griesing Law, representing clients in complex business transactions, high stakes litigation, and alternate dispute resolution matters. Fran can be reached at 215.618.3721 or fgriesing@griesinglaw.com. Jessica L. Mazzeo (right) is director of administration of Griesing Law, LLC, where she is responsible for overseeing all aspects of the firm’s administration, including business development and marketing. You can reach Jessica at 215.732.3922 or jmazzeo@griesinglaw.com.

(Feature Image Credit: ShutterStock)

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