Leaving Big Law to Form Your Own Firm

Big law firms are still struggling to retain women lawyers. Women continue to leave. Some found their own law firms. This article highlights considerations related to leaving and the steps to take in starting your own practice.

Why do we join big firms to start with?

Joining a big law firm can seem like a secure move. You may also feel like you “made it” if you become a partner at a big law firm. A certain level of prestige is associated with being an associate or partner at a big law firm. Big law firms may (or may appear) to offer mentoring, sophisticated and challenging work, and readily available clients.

What are some of the positives of being part of a big law firm?

Being at a big law firm can provide the opportunity to be around some very skilled lawyers and to learn a lot about our chosen substantive aspects of practice. Big law firms may also create opportunities to develop a network that will serve you throughout your career. You may be able to get early visibility that would not be available by starting your own law firm immediately. Big law firms may be committed to CLE and educational opportunities. Big law firms typically have IT staffs. An established client base is likely to exist. A big law firm also may encourage speaking and writing.

Why do women leave big law firms?

Women leave big law firms for many reasons. A common one is control over compensation. Another reason might be lifestyle. In some instances, you may join a law firm for what you thought would be available, but isn’t. For example, mentoring might be a term that gets thrown about, but doesn’t really happen. In some cases, a woman attorney might be overlooked in terms of client opportunities. A female attorney may also find that gender discrimination still exists.

In serving on various American Bar Association Futures Task Forces and the ABA Commission on the Future of the Profession, I have heard endless disheartening stories about how women continue to struggle in big law firms. By outside appearances, many of these lawyers seem to be those who have “made it,” yet they often express significant frustration. In the current climate, the challenge for law firms may not only be about retaining women lawyers, but retaining good lawyers generally. Law firms need to find a way that lawyers at different career stages and with different skill sets can feel valued. Many law firms create cultures that value two things: working endless hours and making rain. Such an environment can be very unhealthy for those who have differing skills, or a desire for a personal life that is not completely overwhelmed by one’s work life.

What could big law firms do to retain women lawyers?

Law firms should provide mentors who are sincere in helping other lawyers succeed, support women in rainmaking efforts to the same degree that men are supported, and should create cultures where bias is consistently addressed and those exhibiting gender bias are held accountable. Law firms should consider making coaching available to lawyers.

There is a Chinese proverb that says “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Big law firms should consider having a deliberate mentoring program for women. That mentoring should provide a clear path for becoming a leader and an equity partner in the firm. Many areas of legal practice have a very high learning curve. A commitment to educating lawyers and providing CLE is important. Big law firms should assist lawyers with client development from a very early stage. Watching someone else develop business relationships is great, but the goal should be teaching young female attorneys how to develop their own client relationships.

Challenges in starting your own law firm.

If you start your own law firm as a solo, you may initially be the lawyer, the IT person, the marketing person, the office manager, etc. You might have no leadership experience. If so, that skill will be required quickly. Non-billable time will take a larger chunk of your time than you think

Benefits of owning your own practice.

When you own your own practice, you are the boss. You decide on firm culture. You decide which clients you take. You choose your own assistant. You choose your technology. Owning your own practice creates an enormous sense of empowerment. You might end up working the same or more hours, but your stress related to the hours is likely to be significantly less because of the control you gain over how and when you practice.

Top tips to start your own law firm.

  • Be clear that starting your own law firm is something you want to do. Hire a coach and evaluate. Starting your own law firm is a big commitment in terms of time and energy.
  • Hire an IT consultant to help you create the best possible system for your specific practice. Your technology should match how you practice personally, as well as the type of practice that you do. If you have to change to use the technology, you likely won’t use it.
  • Hire a marketing person to assist you with developing a strategic marketing plan and to assist in implementing it. Be clear about the clients you are going to serve and how to reach them effectively.
  • From the first day, define your “Ideal Client.” Seek clients that satisfy your definition. Be willing to terminate relationships with clients that do not fit that definition. Choosing your clients is one of the most amazing benefits of founding your own law firm. You might decide that an Ideal Client is one who has certain types of work and is easy to work with. You may also care about having clients that recognize your value and are willing to pay your rates.
  • Invest in a fabulous paraprofessional as well as an office manager. When you are just starting, your office manager may wear a lot of hats, so you must find a flexible person who has many skills. Consider using some of the tools available to ensure that you and any staff you hire will work well together.
  • Consider having a partner or two rather than practicing totally solo. It takes the pressure off of getting sick or going on vacation. Creating a virtual firm has become a reality in today’s environment. If you do decide to have a partner, invest time in making sure the partner is the right person for you to work with. Build the relationship.
  • As you start your own practice, re-invent the wheel. Refuse to do anything because it has “always been done that way.” Ask: “Why has it been done that way? Can it be done differently, more efficiently, and with a higher level of service?” When I started my practice, we eliminated paper. We discontinued the practice of putting backings on wills and created client portals. We transitioned to electronic minute books and brochures.
  • Define your niche and focus on the niche. When you leave a big firm, you can’t be everything to everyone. The best advice I ever got from a client was: “Mary, you are great, but the best thing you can do for me is to recognize when you aren’t the right person for the job, but know someone that is.” If you are starting an estate planning practice, decide whether your market is elder law, general estate planning, high net worth or asset protection.
  • Be innovative with respect to billing methods. Value your time as you design billing approaches. Rather than using flat fees, consider process-oriented fees. The first step in the process of almost every type of practice is some type of intake, analysis and recommendations. Assign a value to that part of the process. Then, determine additional fees based on the recommendations chosen. That keeps you from quoting flat fees that are too high or too low. The client can know what they will be paying while you are able to avoid some of the challenges of the straight flat fee.
  • Choose practice areas that you love and that create your relationships. I started my own firm 17 years ago. Doing so was the best decision I ever made.

About the Author

vandenackMary Vandenack is a founding and managing member of Vandenack Weaver, LLC in Omaha, Nebraska. She focuses her practice on tax and estate planning matters. She is secretary of the executive council of the ABA’s Law Practice Division, and is chair of the Editorial Board for Law Practice magazine.

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