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Going Solo - The Secrets to Starting a Successful Law Practice - Articles Surfing


If you watch movies, you are undoubtedly already sold on establishing your own law firm. You will drive a Porsche (remember Jan Schlictmann in A Civil Action) and have a paralegal that looks like Julia Roberts (Erin Brockovich). You will be sleeping with beautiful office colleagues (Ally McBeal) and fighting society-changing cases (Philadelphia or To Kill A Mockingbird). You do not really even need to be a lawyer (My Cousin Vinny). And the funny thing is--it is all true. So how, you ask yourself, do you live this glamorous life? Here are the little known secrets to a successful practice:

Get Confidence.

A quick review of various articles and books on starting your own practice will likely zap your confidence and fill you with doubt. Moreover, your practice will undoubtedly be busy on some days but slow on others. Do not get bogged down in worrying where your next payment is coming from. Believe that it will come and, in the meantime, work on marketing your practice or taking care of the clients you do have.

Practice pointer: Have faith. Think of all of the attorneys you know who have their own practice or a small firm and who you know are terrible attorneys. If they can make it, you can make it.

Find Mentors.

There is no need to reinvent the wheel and forge a new path. Learn from other's mistakes. Seek out mentors who can serve as a resource as you set up your practice and deal with day-to-day issues that arise. Read books and articles on well-known lawyers to learn what makes them successful.

Practice pointer: Call sole practitioners you know and ask them to coffee or lunch. Ask them how they got started and what lessons they learned.

Do Your Research.

Look through books and articles on setting up your own firm for checklists on the minutiae of starting your own practice. A good resource is How To Start & Build A Law Practice by Jay Foonberg. The State Bar also prints a book called Opening A Law Office. Learn about trust accounts, attorney-client retainer agreements, conflicts of interest, malpractice insurance and the "business" of law.

Practice Pointer: Check out eBay for less expensive, used copies or search for books at your city's main library. The State Bar website has sample Attorney-Client Retainer Agreements.

Avoid Overhead.

Focus on building income rather than building expenses. Many attorneys are working from home. You can sign up for a corporate identity package with an executive suite. These packages give you an office address and telephone number, the use of conference rooms if you need to meet with clients and various other office amenities. If you are looking for an office, consider a short term licensing agreement versus a long term lease. Do not forget everything that you need to make an office usable: telephones, a copy machine, computers, printers, a postage machine, a Westlaw or Lexis/Nexis subscription and office supplies. Subleasing an office from a law firm or renting from an executive suite will help you keep costs down since they already have a telephone system, a copier and the like.

Consider being of counsel to a firm who can refer hourly contract work to you while you build your practice. Consider doing contract work for other attorneys to bring in income. Unless you are independently wealthy, remember to budget in your day-to-day living expenses for the first few months when you may not collect any payments.

Write Down Your Goals.

It is said that most people spend more time planning a dinner party than they spend planning their life. It is easy to get bogged down in the emergency of the day. Set aside time to consider the big picture: what type of practice do you want to build? If asked, have you thought through a 50 word description of your practice that you can present with confidence? Develop a marketing plan to reach your potential clients.

Practice Pointer: Spend a day away from everything and everyone where you can focus on your plan without any distractions. Turn off your phone and the radio. Take a blank pad of paper and brainstorm uninterrupted for at least one hour.

Work Efficiently.

Once you have set your goals, start each day with a list of what it is that you want to accomplish that day. Stick to the list and check off each task as you complete it. Do not start each day reacting to the latest e-mail. In fact, do not even look at your e-mail during the first few hours of the day. It is too easy to get distracted from the goals you have set. Do not let others determine what you will work on each day.

Practice Pointer: Turn off the automatic notification on your e-mail and only check your e-mails in between other tasks. You will find that all of the urgent e-mails you receive are really not that urgent.

Leverage Yourself.

Recognize that your highest value activity is billing. As soon as possible, hire others (even on a part time or by assignment basis) to type, copy, file, bill and take care of other non-billable tasks. Internet services allow you to fax a document and receive back a typed Word document by email quickly and without the need to hire a temporary secretary. Look for ways to free up your time for marketing and billing.

Practice Pointer: Hire university students part time. They are smart, eager to learn and not expensive.

Solo or Partnership?

While it is easy to enter into a partnership, it can be extremely difficult to get out of one. Before entering into a partnership, make sure that you have a frank discussion with your potential partner about your goals, your business, your work style, your vision for the future and what you hope to achieve. How will you split the costs and income? If you decide to enter into a partnership, make sure that you have a well thought out partnership agreement which sets forth a dispute resolution mechanism in the event that the relationship sours. Think through the issues which may cause tension in the future and decide on how to resolve these disputes beforehand.

Learn the 15% Rule.

The 15% rule states that 15% of your clients are not worth the trouble and aggravation. When you are first starting out, you do not want to turn clients away. But some clients should be turned away. There will be clients who complain day in and day out. These same clients will fall behind on their bills but call you every twenty minutes. They will challenge every entry on your bill. They are more likely to sue you for malpractice, especially when you try to get them to pay their bills. Have the confidence to "unhire" these clients. There is no benefit in working for free and you will free yourself to find paying clients.

In the same vein, insist on a retainer large enough to commit your client. If the client cannot pay a retainer before hiring you, what makes you think they will be able to pay after you have completed the first month's worth of work (and paid for the expenses out of your own pocket)? When a client begins to fall behind on their bill, cut them off sooner rather than later. A deadbeat client will have more incentive to fight or sue you if he or she owes $40,000 rather than $4,000.

Practice Pointer: offer to discount a late bill if the client will pay immediately. Cash in hand can often be better than a large receivable.

Sell Value.

Clients typically seek a solution to their problems. While no client wants to pay for a lawyer or a legal dispute, price is typically not their primary motivating factor in hiring a lawyer. Instead, they want peace of mind from knowing that a qualified lawyer is going to resolve their dispute or structure their transaction.

Practice Pointer: Be confident in the rate you quote your client and do not discount it as a matter of course. Build a reputation for the service you provide and not for the "blue light specials" that you offer.

Take Action!

There is no substitute for just doing it. As lawyers we tend to sometimes overanalyze everything. Our clients are often those who jump right in and make things happen.

Practice Pointer: Be willing to take risks and, again, have faith that you will succeed.

Submitted by:

Laine T. Wagenseller

Laine T. Wagenseller is the founder of Wagenseller Law Firm, a full service real estate litigation firm in downtown Los Angeles. The firm represents real estate developers, owners, and investors. For more information visit http://www.wagensellerlaw.com or contact Mr. Wagenseller at (213) 996-8338.



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