About two and a half years ago, after several years of consideration, I took the plunge—I left the security of a firm job, where the paycheck magically appeared every two weeks and the benefits were covered, and hung my own shingle. This was one of the best professional decisions I have ever made. It was also one of the most terrifying.
Anyone who tells you that running your own law firm is easy is not being honest. I work harder now than I did when I was at a big or medium-sized firm; however, to me, it is far more rewarding to be doing it for myself.
People frequently ask me what advice I would give to someone wanting to start their own firm. The following list contains some of the things I think are the most practical starting tips:
- Really think about why you want to have your own firm, and if you are the type of person who can manage the day-to-day operations of a law firm in addition to practicing law. It is definitely not for everyone—but, if you have to hire an office manager to handle the administrative things from the very beginning, that will come at a significant cost. However, it is better to do that than to run afoul of trust accounting rules or to have your electricity turned off because you forgot to pay the bill. Decide if you can really do it all on your own. If you decide you can, be ready to work harder than you ever have.
- Have sufficient funds in savings to be able to fulfill your financial obligations for an entire year without a paycheck. You hope you will be able to pay yourself before then, but you will have far less anxiety knowing that you are not going to lose your home or starve during the start-up process.
- Reach out to every person you know who has started their own firm. While I certainly did not do everything perfectly, I was able to avoid some common pitfalls by spending a lot of time talking to colleagues about their mistakes.
- Keep overhead low. I cannot stress this enough. It was important to me to have a physical office outside of my home, so I rented the smallest space I could find. However, a lot of great office-share opportunities are cheaper than renting your own space, and provide amenities such as a receptionist to sign for packages when you are in court or at client meetings. The shared space also provides the additional benefits of people to network with who may need to engage you—and it cuts down on the “loneliness” many solos may experience after having spent years in offices filled with people. I also have several friends who enjoy having a home office, which obviously is a nice cost-cutting measure.
- Unless you do not have any other choice, do not go out on your own directly out of law school. I spent two years clerking for a judge and then over 12 years in private practice, at both large and medium firms, before I started my own firm. The mentoring and experience I gained during those years was invaluable.
- Use local, state, and national bar associations as resources. Many of them offer free or low-cost benefits that are specifically targeted to solo practitioners. Take advantage of these and join the solo and small firm sections or committees; you will meet people who have been where you are and who are more than willing to help you.
- Spend time researching and selecting good document management and timekeeping software. These do not have to be anything fancy. Surprisingly economical options are available for both, and the amount of time you will save yourself by having good software is well worth it. It is difficult to switch between time-keeping software, in particular, once you have selected one and started inputting your clients’ information. Most of these programs offer you free trial periods, so try them out before you open your doors.
- Along the same lines, research and select good technology. That doesn’t mean you have to spend a fortune on it, but having a good printer, scanner, and the like is critical—particularly when you are your own IT department. I have a spent a lot more time learning about technology in law firms since I have been on my own, and I have been able to use technology to do things more efficiently, and from anywhere in the world.
- Brand and market yourself. Spend a little money to get a logo and send announcements—whether by email or regular mail. It is important for your friends and colleagues to know you have opened your own firm and what kind of work you are doing. Be as specific as possible about the kind of referrals you want; otherwise, you will have to field a lot of calls for cases in which you have no interest.
- Once you start getting busy, use a service to answer your phone. I elected not to do this for the first several months and found myself constantly getting interrupted to answer the phone and with a long list of voicemails to return. Affordable, professional services are available, and I am extremely happy with the one I use. It saves you a lot of time and provides you with a log of your calls.
Almost any solo practitioner I have ever met has been more than willing to answer my questions and provide me with helpful advice. It really is a remarkable network of people. If you have any questions about anything in this article or if you think I can help you in any way, please do not hesitate to contact me. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the Author
Paige A. Greenlee is a commercial litigator and bankruptcy lawyer who founded Greenlee Law PLLC in Tampa in 2014, after 12 years of practice at large and mid-sized law firms.