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Starting Solo

Making the decision to start your own law firm

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So, things didn’t go so well in court today.

You’ve been in practice for a few months now, and you’re feeling good. Maybe you’ve helped some family members draft simple wills or you’ve advised clients on contract drafting–maybe even examined some leases. You’re confident. Ready.

Then you get your first day in court–small claims, Superior/Circuit Court, or Federal Court–it doesn’t matter. They all have their quirks and their rules. First things first: read the local rules for any court you are about to enter/file an Appearance in. Second: be prepared.

One thing that Ben and I learned the hard way (well, me more so than Ben) is that you will think you are prepared; you will think you’ve got the perfect outline; you will think your exhibits are perfectly organized; and you will think you’re ready. But you’re not and that’s okay. The first time I stepped into Court I was blindsided by the opposing party who brought up things I simply hadn’t prepared for. I was able to rebut it and come out on the other side with the result my client needed, but I was shaken.

It still gives me a pit in my stomach just thinking about it. But you’ve got to pick yourself up and move on.

Once the dust has settled, the best way to handle it is not to be the loudest attorney in the room, but to be the best prepared attorney in the room. That advise is not novel, but it’s easy to forget. In fact, it was my partner Ben who reminded me of that. Things may go wrong and the Judge may ask you something you didn’t think of, but if you’re prepared and confident in your preparation then you can be confident that your preparation can and will carry you through. You may not win the case or get the result you want for your client, but you can walk away knowing that you did the right things–you prepared as hard as you could and advocated for your client as hard as you could. The legal profession and our clients deserve that from us.

How Much Capital Do I Need to Start a Small Law Firm or Office?

By: Brandon E. Tate

Tate & Bowen LLP

December 21, 2016

There are many factors that should go in to determining how much initial capital you need to start a law firm or office. First and foremost, what funds do you actually have available to invest as initial capital (i.e., personal savings funds). Next, you will want to look at what it is your firm or office will be doing and what the expenses are associated with that. Expenses range anywhere from office rent, paper, and toner, to computers, staff, furniture, etc. If you are starting an office with a base of clients to service (i.e., you leave a firm as a partner to start your own firm), your initial expenses will likely be higher then those of someone starting a solo-office straight out of law school who still needs to build a base of clients and likely won’t have any staff members starting out. They will also have a better idea of the initial capital needed based on their experience in their previous position.

For the purpose of this article, we will focus on those that are starting a small law firm or office without the security of a consistent client base to start. A small law firm or office does not take an exorbitant amount of capital to start, as I can attest to for someone that did it straight out of law school in 2013, as long as you breakdown what you estimate your initial startup and monthly expenses to be and get creative in ways to decrease them. For example, starting out, instead of going to a box store and paying retail value for office supplies or furniture, find office supply and furniture auctions. As well, don’t be bashful; ask around to family and friends to see what furniture they have that they may want to part with. Even other law firms may be in the process of getting rid of furniture to bring new furniture in or they may have furniture in storage that they have no need for anymore. Do I really need a staff member to start? Can I use my laptop to start and avoid the cost of purchasing a computer for the office? Do I need permanent office space or can I go the virtual office route? Can I use Google Voice in lieu of paying for a phone line? The key to minimizing expenses at the onset is getting creative and finding ways to avoid them.

In addition to estimating expenses, you will want to conservatively estimate income that will come into the firm or office based on your advertising and marketing plan. Once you determine those estimates, keeping in mind that they are just that, estimates, it is about what you are comfortable with. Do you want to have enough capital to cover the first three (3) months of operation if the income hits below your estimate? More/less? Do you want to or need to take out a loan to provide initial capital?

There is no set rule on how much initial capital you need to start a small law firm or office. It is not an easy decision to make, and is not one that should be made lightly. Whether you start with $1,500.00 or $20,000.00, you can be successful, as is evidenced by the many solo and small firm attorneys throughout the state of Indiana.

DISCLAIMER:
All information included in the above blog is solely for informational purposes. The information above does not create an attorney/client relationship and should not be interpreted as legal advice. Seek legal advice on the topic before relying on any information contained herein, as laws change and the information may be out-of-date. The author of this blog is licensed to practice law in the state of Indiana.

 

Continued Networking After You Open

One key thing that Ben and I continue to do is NETWORK. There are some differences, however, from networking now versus while you were in law school.

One, since you have passed the bar and been sworn in you are not just another law student seeking advice from practicing attorneys–you are a practicing attorney. As such, you are now a colleague of all of those attorneys you spent time having coffee or lunch with.

Two, here is your chance to reconnect with those same attorneys who hopefully gave you sage advice while in law school. Go to a bar event with them, grab coffee, lunch, or even a post work cocktail. Discuss with them your firm’s intended practice areas and talk about how you can help each other rather than only gleaning advice from them. In addition to reconnecting with attorneys, look for other service providers and specialists in and around your practice area.  Ben and I practice in real estate and property development so although we want to and have been meeting with real estate attorneys, we also meet with realtors, title companies, and property developers (both private and commercial).  Find those ancillary professions that can and do work alongside the lawyers in your practice area.

Three, thank them! Granted, this is not a difference from when you networked while in law school, but important enough to deserve the reminder. At this point all you have is your reputation, and even after all your coming years of practice, all that may be left in the end is your integrity–not huge settlements or big wins in District Court, but how you treated the profession. This includes clients (of course!), but perhaps just as important it includes your colleagues. More civility rather than less civility is always a good thing. You can still advocate for your clients without being a jerk.

So, as you continue to network after opening your doors, remember that although you are a green attorney you have been deemed competent to practice law in your jurisdiction. You should not be afraid to offer your services to others (within the confines of the rules of Professional Conduct, of course!). And always be gracious when others give their time to you because you may be the one helping law students find their way sooner than you think.

Bar Preparation While Building Your Firm

For those of you reading this blog who have already passed the bar skip this article.  If you are still reading and are in the midst of bar prep–STOP!  Focus your efforts on studying and forget about how you have slowed your preparation of opening your firm to a trickle.  After all, opening the firm and practicing law all hinges upon successfully passing the bar and being admitted to practice in your chosen jurisdiction. For the rest of you still reading, here is a bit of advice on focusing on bar preparation while still continuing to build towards opening your law firm.

Take a commercial bar preparation course and, if it is available, take a live course. For Indiana Bar takers, J.T. and I both took IndyBar Bar Review, the live course, and both highly suggest IndyBar’s program.  However, there are many programs to choose from, just make sure you look into each program’s structure and process before choosing.  There are many courses out there to choose from and many that give the convenience of home study, but let’s face it bar prep is not supposed to be convenient!  It is a grueling, exhausting, and lonesome endeavor that you really don’t want to have to do more than once.  So take the best course available and try to make it your only responsibility.

Take the time to take care of yourself.  Even though law school demands a lot from both you and your family, bar prep multiplies this demand and it is a time where you have to be selfish with your time. This also includes time to take care of yourself by allowing your brain to rest. Find something that allows your brain to reset. For me, it was playing video games that did not require a lot of thinking. I could just let my brain drift into a maze of instinctual responses totally devoid of life estates and corporate forms. Depending on what point I was in studying for the bar, I took about 10 to 15 minutes per hour of study per day to just relax. This allowed me to get back to studying and really let my brain absorb the materials.

If you have to, or feel that you can continue to build your firm during bar prep, make sure you limit it to tasks that are easily achievable and do not require much brain power. I personally did not complete any firm building tasks during bar prep because I felt that it would only be a distraction. However, I have heard of individuals who work on building their website, create their logo, or come up with simple forms for their firm.

Relax. One of the factors that is common in unsuccessful bar attempts is stress. This does not mean that you will not be on the edge of a panic attack throughout studying. You will have highs and lows. However, with practice and quality studying you will learn to curb this stress and turn it into productivity on the exam. Relax, this too shall pass.

Good Luck!

Building Your Safety Net-work

One of the most important steps that you will take in opening your own practice is creating and maintaining your Safety Net-work.  Your Safety Net-work is a way to mitigate the risk of hanging your own shingle.  Connections you make have the ability to add to your book of business, advise you on best business practices, and even guide you in your own practice of law.  There are many ways to build and maintain your network and our way is not necessarily the best, but it works for us.  Below is how J.T. and I have built our own Safety Net-work:

Networking 101

One of the best opportunities I took advantage of in law school was attending a social function directed in part by the IU McKinney Office of Professional Development.  The OPD enlisted the help of a professional connector, a person whose job it is to network and connect individuals across the professional spectrum.  The event was open to all professionals spanning the professional spectrum; it was our task as law students to engage and network with as many of these professionals as possible.  Prior to mingling and stuffing our faces with the hors d’oeuvre as any self-respecting law student does, the professional connector lent us some advice on how to properly and effectively “work” the crowd.

He said that we should group together prior to entering the network function and learn at least three facts about each other: (1) professional interests (really, what type of law are you interested in); (2) hobbies; and (3) a fun fact about yourself.  Armed with at least the above three things about each person in your small group, you hit the network floor and introduce yourself to as many people as you can.  Once you start talking with someone, guide the conversation by asking questions that may answer one or more of the topics you know about each of your group members.  Ask questions like: What do you do professionally?  Do you have any hobbies?  Etc.  The answers from the individuals you talk to will align at some point with one or more of your colleagues interests.  It is then your job to introduce this person to your colleague for which there is a shared interest.  If done successfully, you will have multiplied your coverage of the room by the amount of people in your group as each person is looking out for the best interests of each other.  This method works great.  In a room of probably 500+ people, I was able to meet more individuals with whom I shared an interest than I would have if I had done it on my own.  I was also able to help my colleagues make valuable connections.  Try it for yourself.

Managing Your Safety Net-work

Making connections is usually the fun and easy part of building a professional network.  Alternatively, maintaining your existing network can be damn near exhausting depending on the size of the network you wish to maintain.  J.T. and I have worked hard to connect with as many individuals as possible in order to widen our book of business, but a widening book of business requires structure and organization to effectively maintain.  Through trial and error, combined with a little bit of research, we came across Judy Robinett‘s book How to Be a Power Connector:  The 5+50+100 Rule for Turning Your Business Network into Profits that gave us some ideas on how to stay connected with our network.  Robinett’s book essentially teaches you ways to organize your network to make your network work for you.  By organizing your network in categories, you allow yourself to be more effective with your network.

Keep Your Eyes and Mind Open

Do not, do not, do not, do not, I repeat, DO NOT limit with whom you network.  Networking is supposed to not only expand your connections within your industry, but is also to expand your connections globally.  You never know who will be able to give you that invaluable lead or what business-changing advice you may receive from someone you least expected.  With no technological knowhow and no thought of working in a technology field, I made a connection with a software designer who ended up giving me a wealth of business advice.  You see, he was not just a software developer, but had started dozens of businesses of his own.  Although there are many differences between the business structure of a software company and a law firm, the business ideas helped guide the planning of the firm.  You never know where that lead or next big idea will come from, so keep your eyes and mind open to new opportunities.

We may supplement this blog post as we go forward, so check back for updates!

Attend Solo/Small Firm Conferences

Networking is an essential step in building your practice. One of the best decisions we have made thus far was to attend the Indiana State Bar Association (ISBA) Solo & Small Firm Conference. We were able to receive scholarships through IU McKinney’s Office of Professional Development.  Which, by the way, is another great reason to get connected with IU McKinney’s (or your own law school’s) Office of Professional Development.  We didn’t know that this conference existed or that we could receive scholarships to attend, but getting connected with the Office of Professional Development afforded us this opportunity.

The ISBA Solo/Small Firm Conference is routinely held in French Lick, IN. The conference is a three day whirlwind with cocktail hour meet-and-greets and sessions on technology, best practices, client matters, etc. The conference was a great chance for Ben and I to start to get to know other solos from around the state. We heard war stories, gleaned advice, and got to know people. One of the best parts of the conference is that new attendees are matched up with conference veterans or leaders in the ISBA. We were luckily matched up with Brandon Tate and Kevin Bowen of Tate and Bowen. We spent the conference chatting it up with newly minted solos and 20 year legal veterans. We spent time sharing our business plan with others and we soaked up as much advice as we could. One piece of advice that may seem obvious to some is that rather than attending sessions together Ben and I split up and attended different sessions. We met up after to share notes and compare impressions. It spread our reach and allowed us to cover more ground.

The The ISBA Solo/Small Firm Conference or any similar conference in your area is a great place to get quick feedback on your business plan, meet other solos, and start to make connections with not just other attorneys but with your state bar association as well. If you’re considering working for a small firm or going solo or even if you work for a medium to large-sized firm head to the ISBA Solo/Small Firm Conference. 2016 ISBA SSFC Brochure

What computer should I buy?

If you have gone through the process of deciding whether or not to start your own firm then I am sure you have begun to consider what technology you will need.  We will discuss specific tech items in other posts, but in our modern world an attorney really needs two things: his or her brain and a computer.  The question then becomes: what computer do I need?  There are countless blog posts out there about what type of computer to get.  These range from a full-fledged support for Macs and arguments for either from The Frugal Lawyer, but as Ben and I got started we found articles from Lawyerist to be quite helpful.

More than anything we have to agree with the Lawyerist article linked here and above.  You need to decide what you can afford and what you are comfortable with.  Ben and I decided to go with Macs.  The main reason we have done so is the compatibility with other apps and products we plan to use as well as Mac’s ease of use.  Further, we are limited in our resources so we didn’t want to have to budget for IT help.  I have used Macs since college (back in the early 2000s), and I used them when I was a teacher.  They are steady, secure, powerful, and they do what you want without fuss.  This was key for us as our laptops are going to be one of our most valued tools.

The takeaway: get what you are comfortable with, but be cognizant of what type of IT support you may need and what your budget limitations are.

Identifying Why You Want to Go Solo

How am I going to do this?  Where do I set up my office?  What areas of law should I plan to practice in?  How much money should I spend on a desk? Do I want to be a general practitioner or have a niche area?  These are all valid questions that should be running through your head when you decide to start solo.  However, before you tackle such issues as acquiring firm capital and looking at office space  you should determine either on your own or with your partner(s) why you want to go solo.

I firmly believe, and from what we have gleaned from solos and other attorneys we have talked to, that if you make this decision in a default mode (that is, you decide to go solo because you couldn’t find anything else) then you may find yourself struggling more than others.  However, if you come into this adventure having pondered the various reasons you want to start solo or begin a small firm then you are more apt to have the mindset required to make this work.  I was first turned onto this concept by both the professor of our Law Practice Management course that Ben and I took (more on that in another post), and the book we used, How to Start and Build a Law Firm by Jay Foonberg.  Ben and I had and continue to have many discussions about why we want to start solo, and what our goals are for our firm (both individual and mutual).

I mentioned in my first post that I made my decision to open my own firm after I interned with a small firm in Indianapolis after my 1L year.  That is true, but what is worth discussing is how I came to that conclusion because it is directly related to why I want to start solo.  I was a high school teacher for almost ten years before I made the difficult decision to come to law school.  I left a community of students and teachers that I loved and a school that I loved.  Crazy, right?  Although I loved my students and my peers, it was time for me to leave education: time for new challenges, time for new opportunities, and time to provide more for my family.

I decided that if I was going to leave a job and a community that I loved I was going to do it my way.  Given the still precarious status of the legal market I didn’t want to end up at any firm that would hire me.  I didn’t want to work in an area of law that didn’t interest me just to gather a paycheck.  I had invested too much of my time and effort to not do this exactly the way I want.  I want to advocate for my own clients rather than through a supervising attorney, I want to work for my own bottom line, and I want to build something.

On a deeper level, I want to follow in the footsteps of my grandfathers and great-grandfathers.  They built businesses–a successful regional drugstore and a corn seed company respectively.  I want to follow in their footsteps in both the successful way they built their businesses, but the way they did it–with integrity, honesty, and hard work.  I do not want to toil away day after day for senior attorneys/partners only to see my efforts realized by their gains.  Granted, I am not railing against big law nor do I think that working for medium or large firms is by any means wrong.  Many attorneys have had very fulfilling careers doing just that.  But for me, I want to focus all of my efforts on my client’s objectives as well as try to build my own successful law practice.  I want to do this to honor my parents and grandparents as well as show my children what it means to work hard for something you want.

These deep seeded reasons for why I want to start and build my own law practice help keep me focused on my goals and gives me direction.  In later posts we will discuss specifically what next steps to take after you have identified the various reasons why you want to start solo.  Once you identify those reasons, continue to revisit them as this is a long process, and you will occasionally need to remind yourself why you have chosen this road.

Our First Steps

As J.T. stated in our first blog post, we have been planning to open our law firm right out of law school for the last two years.  That means we have two years of experiences in planning our firm to catch up on in order to fully outline the steps we have taken to open our firm.  Here is a brief summary of what we have been doing in the last two years to start our firm.  In all likelihood, we will write more thorough blog posts on each of these individual topics.  For now, this is what we have been up to:

First discussions:  When J.T. and I first sat down to seriously talk about the idea of opening our own firm, we started off with what our interests were in the law.  This is important as it will guide you towards who you should meet, what area of law you should strive to practice in, where you should locate your office, what sort of starting capital you will need, etc.  We also discussed what goals we have and what we hold important.  By doing so, we could guide the development of our practice to achieve our individual and mutual goals.  From this first discussion, we assigned different tasks to each other, including:

  1. Is our idea feasible?
  2. Who has done this in our area in the recent past?  Will they talk with us?
  3. Are there any programs in the law school, town, city, or state that run programs to help attorneys start their own firms?
  4. What resources are there for new attorneys hanging their shingle?

Discuss with Loved Ones:  After J.T. and I made some goals and really felt that this was something we wanted to do, we both met with our families to see if this was something our families were willing to support us on.  This step was (is) crucial.  Both J.T. and I our respective familial obligations and responsibilities that come well before law school and starting a law firm.  Thus, it is extremely important for both of our families to know what we want to achieve so that we could have their support.  Have this conversation with your spouse, parents, children, partner, etc. early and often.  The more they know about your decisions, the more they are able to give input and feel comfortable with the risk/reward of starting a small business.

First Professional Advice-Talk to a Practicing Solo/Small Firm Managing Attorney:  Early on in the decision process to start your own law firm, it is important to meet with as many practicing attorneys who started and manage their own solo or small law firms as you can.  Preface the meeting with an introduction that explains where you are in the process of starting your own firm.  This will allow the attorney to gauge and prepare what to discuss with you at the meeting.  Prepare for your meeting by making a list of questions.

Also, prepare for the attorney to use descriptors such as “crazy” or “risky” or even “stupid” when describing your idea to start your own firm.  Unfortunately, some attorneys have been jaded or simply have different backgrounds than you may have, making them less than eager to tell you all of the advantages of owning your own practice or help you on your path.  You may even have an attorney tell you to forget your “dream” and obtain a judicial clerkship with the 7th Circuit.  Although pursuing a judicial clerkship is a noble and rewarding pursuit, it is not every law students’ ambition to do so.   If you find yourself in this situation, let it soak in and motivate you to pursue those ambitions.

Do not completely ignore this attorney and remain steadfast in your resolve…starting your own firm is possible and there are many attorneys out there that love being a solo/small firm owner/practitioner and are excited to help you do the same.  One thing that we dedicated ourselves to from our very first meeting with a practicing attorney was to debrief after the meeting.  We routinely take a few minutes after any meeting to chat about what went well and what was difficult.  It is at times a stretch, but we make it a habit to take away at least one piece of positive advice from every meeting we have.  Sometimes it requires seeing the flip-side of a negative comment, but we strive to build and take from the vast range of experiences that the attorneys we meet with have to offer.

J.T. and I continue to meet new attorneys, and through the law school we met two attorneys in particular, Brandon Tate and Kevin Bowen of Tate and Bowen, that have helped us walk in their footsteps of starting, owning, and operating a small firm. If you have any questions related to this post or any particular topics you would like us to write about, please comment on this post.

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