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Flying Solo: The Nuts & Bolts of Building a Solo Law Practice

March 21, 2011

 

         On February 22, 2011, I recently had the privilege of participating in a panel called “Flying Solo: The Nuts and Bolts of Launching a Successful Solo Practice” at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, co-sponsored by law school’s Innovation Practice Institute and Career Services Center. I participated with Charlie Grudowski, of Grudowski & Thompson  and F.J. Lucchino, of the Law Office of Frank J. Lucchino Jr.. The moderator was Justine Kasznica, the director of the Innovation Practice Institute.  Since I had to prepare my comments ahead of time (we were given a discussion list), I thought that I would share some of wisdom from the trenches here.

Salene, Justine, Don

A.  Introductory Remarks

         February marked my one year in solo practice. What a whirlwind this past year has been …. so professionally gratifying.

        Maybe you are reading this post because you are unemployed or still don’t have that job upon graduation or maybe you have hit a wall in your firm and doubt your upward mobility there.  The legal profession is a noble profession.  Do not despair and throw in the proverbial legal towel.  You worked hard to get through law school (and paid a heavy pricetag for it).

        Admittedly, starting one’s own firm is a daunting task, especially if you have to worry about paying student loans or a mortgage or feeding children.  But, you are the architect of your own fate.   With perseverance and the willingness to network and ask questions, you can do it.  

     Whether practicing as a solo or as an associate in a firm, let’s face it, the reality is that if you want to control your own destiny, you must bring in business.   Without a doubt, operating your own practice, whether in the short or long term, will better position you for your future.

      Okay now that I am off my cheerleader soapbox, here are some of the topics we discussed at the panel:

B.  Nuts and Bolts of Creating a Law firm

       One of the students asked us if there was some sort of checklist we used before we launched.  Our answers were mixed.  I, being sort of anal retentive and detail-oriented, gathered as much info as I could before I officially flipped the “open” sign.  I had googled “how to start a law firm”, I called the PA state bar law practice management advisor (she sent me a huge packet of reading materials), and I listened to podcasts and webinars on the subject.  I also bought the book Solo by Choice written by Carolyn Elefant. Check out her website and blog.   Get her book on Amazon here.

This was the list I complied (not all of them of course are necessary, as Charlie pointed out):

1.  Basics:

  • open checking accounts (one regular; one IOLTA)
  • incorporating as entity with state and federal authorities (if necessary)
  • finding an accountant
  • finding a computer technician (you will likely have computer issues you cannot resolve as I did-was a disaster!)
  • office supplies (computer paper, folders, highlighter, pen, stapler) & furniture (I am still using my grandmother’s rocking chair as a chair)
  • email account (the gmail or yahoo ones don’t look so professional)
  • scanner, fax machine, phone, phone number, copy machine, fax line, capability for conference calls
  • bookkeeper/accounting system (quickbooks) (you need to have basic knowledge of how to keep books)
  • payroll service if incorporated (you do not want to get behind on your tax liabilities)
  • timesheets and perhaps timekeeper software (FJ uses PCLaw)
  • conflicts check system
  • office space (for those of you not working at home.  consider sharing office space or renting a space on a per-meeting basis.)
  • wi-fi
  • smartphone and bluetooth (has enabled me to work virtually as often as I do)
  • treatises/books/guides (I splurged on a few practice areas that I wanted to learn)
  • law library card pass (I used law library at court house, until I signed up for a westlaw plan)
  • westlaw or lexis research account (don’t get locked into too expensive of a plan that is of too long a duration)
  • malpractice insurance (find out your state bar’s rules and requirements re: this)
  • legal assistant/servicing agent/paralegal (for paralegal work, I charge half of my billable hourly rate.  I definitely use servicing agent for large mailings.)

2.  Marketing:

  • professional photo  (not necessarily professionally taken but a good one)
  • social media accounts (twitter, linkedin, SKYPE, facebook page).  I use LinkedIn the most.
  • website domain & website (for me this was all-important since I would be working with people all over the country and often never meeting them face to face; google websites to learn how other firms lay out their info)
  • logo and color scheme (if you are into branding your firm, which I am)
  • business cards (can get cheapy ones from vistaprint and I did that at first but got better ones later)
  • envelopes, stationery, mailing labels with name and logo
  • announcement & your “rolodex” (either postcards or email announcement to tell the world your door is open; pull out those camp address directories from high school and college and find your old pals via LinkedIn)
  • 30-second elevator pitch (I found this challenging at first but it is necessary).  See other blog post I wrote re: this.
  • Pick a few KEY networking organizations and become an active member.  http://www.acba.org  or the http://www.aba.org.  (I love the solosez listserv via the ABA.  In fact, you should have a networking plan/journal. See blog post re: this.  Be discerning and calculated re: groups you will join and events you will attend.  Be mindful of the “never eat lunch alone” marketing tip.  In my first few months, I spent half of my work time marketing/networking).

3.  Strategy

  • BUSINESS PLAN (drives the “copy” for your website).  ALL IMPORTANT.  See other blog post I wrote re: business plans.
  •  advisory board (circle of business people who can guide you along the way as a business owner; for me my BNI http://www.bni.org chapter served this purpose, as well as a few key former colleagues). See blog post I wrote about advisory boards.
  • backup attorney to cover in case you are sick or unable (find someone who can cover if necessary)
  • list of go to/sounding board attorneys who will answer your ask questions (do not be afraid to reach out!!)

C.  Staying Current

     We were asked, “How do you stay current, and develop your niche expertise? CLE’s?  professional development seminars?”   My response:

  • research for and write blog posts on this blog about topics in which my clients or colleagues may have an interest
  • pull relevant articles from Westlaw
  • listen to webinars whenever possible if I can find them online
  • listen to podcasts on my iphone while I am running or in the car.   Listen here for lawyer coach podcasts of Cordell Parvin.  Read blog post about radio podcasts here.
  • serve as a faculty member for at least one conference a year to knock out a bunch of CLE’s at one time,  build my public speaking resume, and keep current with hot topics or changes in bankruptcy law.
  • listen here to the WSJ podcast every day almost via phone or podcast
  • subscribe to the Pittsburgh Business Times

D.  Administrative Support:

” What tools do you use to get organized and keep track of clients/workflow (scheduling? filing system?)?”

  • servicing agent
  • virtual assistant
  • iphone
  • bookkeeper
  • excel timesheets

E.  Parting Wisdom: 

“Any additional advice to law students? Benefits v. challenges?  Most rewarding aspects of solo practice?”

  • practice law in an area that you love (if you love horses, do equine law; if you are a musician, represent singers; if you love fashion, become the expert in fashion law).  So many other lawyers have had a laser-focus like this.  Google them.  You will become inspired.  See Staci Riordan’s fashion law blog.  
  • find good mentors (other solos, professors, and lawyers who will let you ask questions)
  • befriend other lawyers who practice in areas that will compliment your chosen practice areas (i.e., I need a commercial litigator “on call” for most of my engagements).
  • create and become active in a referral source network
  • do not be afraid to ask questions (I keep repeating this); know what you don’t know.
  • become comfortable being uncomfortable  (I think Charlie said this.  My husband frequently says this, as does my yoga instructor.  I like it; it is an effective, motivational quip).
  • after you do something once, it will be so much easier the next time.   Every great lawyer has to start somewhere. 
  • clients don’t expect you to know every single answer off the top of your head
  • don’t give away for free too much of your time; many people are just fishing for free legal advice.  Do not do too much research/legal work without first getting a signed engagement letter and retainer (formally establishing the attorney/client relationship is also important and necessary for liability purposes) 
  • figuring out how to get paid is important, as FJ Lucchino noted.  Get retainers up front where possible.  Be sure your engagement letters are clear. 
  • save as much money as you can before you go solo

       For me, one of the most rewarding aspects of solo practice was described by Carolyn Elefant in her book.  When practicing solo you build the entire car (i.e., work on an engagement) from start to finish as oppose to being a part of the assembly line in most firms.  Building the entire car yourself makes you a better business person and ingrains in you the mindset that you have been hired to solve a problem or accomplish a task in a reasonable amount of time at a reasonable cost.  Clients passing out upon receipt of a steep legal bill will not lead to repeat business. 

GOOD LUCK everyone and feel free to email me with any questions or comment here.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. April 25, 2011 11:14 pm

    I recently went solo myself and, like you, did a lot of research about it upfront (including reading Carolyn Elefant’s book). I honestly wish I had been able to read this post back then! This is a clear, concise, and (importantly) specific list of things to address when going solo. I just wanted to say that this might actually be the best post on the subject that I’ve come across. And it goes without saying that I’ll be following your blog from now on. Thanks!

  2. Clare permalink
    November 21, 2012 7:09 am

    Salene,

    I just found this post via google and I echo Brady’s comment. I’m getting ready to start my own practice after a 3 year hiatus from big-law, and this is definitely the most helpful article I’ve found. Thanks!

    Clare

    • November 21, 2012 7:57 am

      Clare, thanks so much. I am glad that my experience can help ease the transition. the law is such a noble profession. you can do it! i really do love practicing through my own firm. 10 years ago when I was a BIG LAW I never thought that I would be doing this, but am so glad I did. feel free to email me with any questions you may have along the way. salene@mazurkraemer.com

  3. January 17, 2013 8:00 pm

    “Flying Solo: The Nuts & Bolts of Building a Solo Law Practice “In Plain English”” was indeed a very good
    posting, . I hope you keep creating and I will continue
    to keep following! Thanks for your time -Alfonzo

  4. January 24, 2013 7:31 am

    I really was looking for ideas for my web site and
    uncovered ur post, “Flying Solo: The Nuts & Bolts of
    Building a Solo Law Practice “In Plain English””, will you mind in
    cases where I actually use some of ur points? Appreciate it
    ,Cornelius

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