These are my musings on starting your own law practice. Take them for what they’re worth…
I’m going to preface this post with a quote from a friend of mine, who will remain anonymous: “I went into solo practice after getting laid off from biglaw. I worked in biglaw for over 10 years… this was such a change. My first year in solo practice, I made about $7,000. I went from making over $150,000 a year to $7,000. I lost everything that year – my savings, my IRA, I even had to sell my car and my motorcycle… at one point, I actually went on food stamps. I felt bad, being a lawyer and getting food stamps, but I qualified for them. Things are finally starting to turn around, but man, I lost everything…”
A stark contrast from what you hear over at Solo Practice University, where all solos are happy, making lots of money, and spending their time just generally being awesome. (well, the solos who sign up and pay money, of course!)
As you might imagine, I get a lot of calls and emails that go like this:
“Hey Jordan, I hate working for this law firm. I’m thinking about starting a solo practice. What are your thoughts?”, or “Hey man, I just graduated law school and I can’t find a job. What are your thoughts on opening up a solo practice? Is it realistic for me? How much will it cost? I don’t have anything in the bank right now except $70, but that’s already spent…”
I wish the answer was “Hanging a shingle is a license to print money! Everything is so awesome. When I’m not counting my money, I’m out driving my new BMW and spending my summers down the Jersey Shore! Every lawyer should be a solo! You don’t need money, a plan, experience, a network, or anything to get started – just a desire to be awesome. Hell, a new client just made me a trophy for badassery!”
Too bad I’m not here to pat you on the head, rub your belly, and give you a balloon. More importantly, I’m not here to sell you anything. Honestly, I don’t really care whether you start your own practice one way or another.
So, as a young guy with a law firm, I will try and answer those questions and explain… but like all things in lawyer life, “it depends.”
Right off the bat you should know this: I spend more time working now than I did when I was a full time associate at a law firm. I also make less money.
Got that? Starting your own law firm is not a way to get rich quick or make a lot of easy money. On the other hand, I get to write this blog, I have a Twitter account, all my clients are mine, and I can drink a margarita or browse the internet during the workday if I feel like it. I take on clients who I want to, and reject matters I think are stupid. That stuff isn’t usually okay if you work for a law firm.
Whether you should start a law practice depends on you. It’s not a good idea for everyone with a law license.
Should you start a practice? Depends on what you want out of life. If the answer is “lots of money right now and less work” the answer is no. Solo practice is a ton of work, and it won’t pay as much as a law firm job in most circumstances. (unless you bring a huge client with you).
If you value independence, freedom to be selective about clients, and risk taking, you might like solo practice. But when you run the place, you will spend many many many hours working. You have to be pigheadedly dedicated to having your own firm. There are a lot of ups to being the boss, but a lot of downs, too.
The upsides are generally this: no firm politics, take a half day when you feel like it, take on clients you want, reject clients you don’t like, work from home without permission, choose your own hours (I like to start late and work late), and wear whatever you think is appropriate to work. You’ll never come into work and find out you’ve been laid off or fired. Most law firms also won’t let associates have a Twitter account or write blog posts without approval. (which makes sense because you don’t want your associates running around and saying stupid stuff that could hurt the firm or lose a client. It’s not out of “meanness”, it’s out of doing what is best for the firm). It’s also nice to handle matters from the intake to the conclusion, and make a difference in someone’s life.
But there are many downsides to having your own firm: money is inconsistent (especially at first), you are responsible for EVERYTHING, not knowing where your next meal is coming from, it’s expensive, and the hours can be incredibly long without much money. It takes a tremendous amount of dedication to run your own firm. You will get burnt out from working all the time, but you can’t dump off the slack on someone else. Without a staff, vacations are difficult because you don’t have associates to cover your hearings and paralegals to check your email.
Are you willing to starve sometimes for freedom? Can you afford to starve for a little while, or do you need a guaranteed steady income?
There is absolutely nothing wrong with having a traditional job with a steady income. Even more so if your family situation warrants it.
Candidly, there are days when I wake up and say “I miss working full time for my former firm. All I had to do was show up, bill my hours, do a good job, go home and enjoy my money.” Vacations were easy to take because a paralegal monitors your email and your colleagues cover everything while you’re away. Sometimes I look at my colleagues and think to myself: “Wow, Joe Smith just got promoted to partner and bought a brand new BMW. It must be nice to make that kind of cash… hopefully I can afford to pay all my bills this month.”
Bottom line: starting your own firm has it’s upsides and downsides. Not everything is bad about firm life. Not everything is great about being on your own. Whether you should start a law practice depends on what you want out of life and your own circumstances.
You are not entitled to practice law. Even if you have a law license. Anyone who tells you differently is giving you bad advice or trying to sell you something.
“I don’t have any experience, any money in the bank, or any potential clients. But I really want to practice law and there are no law jobs out there! People are telling me I should just open up a solo practice. Is that a good idea?”
That’s a recipe to fail. Sorry. It just is.
Solo practice isn’t a magical alternative for anyone with a law license but no job and no money. If you have no clients, no experience, and no money in the bank, starting up a law practice is probably a bad idea for you. It’s not realistic. It’s not a good idea. It’s a way for you to get yourself into trouble and possibly hurt your clients.
Keep in mind that Jay Foonberg drove a taxi for a few years while saving up money to open up his practice. It’s in his book in the part where he suggests having a years worth of living expenses saved up.
Just because the economy stinks and law jobs are scarce doesn’t mean that solo practice is right for you.
I know it’s not what you want to hear. But I’m telling you the truth. Anyone who tells you differently is trying to sell you something.
If you can find a job right out of law school, that is a better route to take.
Some of the best advice that was ever given to me was this: “Work for someone else as long as you can. Then, when you think you’re ready to start your own practice, work a little longer.” That was from my former boss, James, who started his practice about three years out of law school. Almost 30 years later, he’s doing just fine and ready to retire with all his boats, vacation houses, and money.
Personally, I could not have started a law practice right out of law school. I would have made too many mistakes, and most of the mentorship advice I get comes from my former employers. There is just so much to know. My partner Leo did it, but he is pretty exceptional. He also started by taking on very small cases, and eased his way in. And he had free and fully furnished office space from his now partner (me).
Working for other people allowed me to build my social network and save up money.
My Uncle Jim, a successful commercial litigator with his own practice gave me this advice: “Your goal should always be to build a practice, and to have your own clients, but do it as much as you can on someone else’s dime. Work for someone who will let you bring in your own clients and will also teach you how to practice law the right way. There is no shame in collecting a paycheck from someone else. I had tried about 20 jury trials before I went out on my own.”
Some folks will try and sell everyone on solo practice. They will tell you how great it is, how you don’t need a boss, and how it’s so much better being solo than working for someone. And of course, for a fee, they’ll be happy to mentor you and teach you all you need to know! But they’re also looking to make a few bucks off you, so take their advice with a grain of salt. It can be very dangerous for you and your clients to start a solo practice with no money, no experience, and no network.
Having a job at a law firm and working for someone else is a great situation, especially for new lawyers. Working at a law firm (even a big one or “sophisticated one”) is not nearly as bad as SPU makes it out to be. I learned a tremendous amount of stuff while working at a high end boutique firm, and made some money to boot. I am still Of Counsel at my former firm, because they were understanding enough to give me a part time / per diem position. Imagine that.
Every law job you have will create more contacts and increase your social network. Your former bosses will often be people willing to mentor you, or help you out with cases you’re not able to handle.
If you can find a job right out of law school, take it.
It’s never the “right time” to start a law practice unless you have portable clients, experience, and money in the bank.
If you want to start a solo practice, when should you do it? I asked my Uncle Jim. His response: “Honestly, it’s never a good time. You won’t wake up one day and all the stars have aligned. I would do it before you have kids if you’re dead set on it. The answer to your question differs from person to person, and it varies on whether you have money in the bank, portable clients, and a good network. It also depends on if you have a spouse that works, health benefits, and how much money you need to survive. You are not going to make any money your first year of practice – trust me! I took it to the chin that year. Thankfully, my wife had a good job that kept the bills paid.”
It will take you at least a month to setup the bank accounts (trust and operating, and you may need a separate one for each state), email accounts, calendar, fax, phone, website, getting your licenses / tax accounts, setting up your e-file, ECF and PACER accounts, form file, etc. You won’t be making money during this time, so also take that into account. (And don’t start your own law firm while working for another law firm, that could get you into trouble if they don’t know about it. You don’t want to be accused of fraud. That would be bad.)
At some point, you have to make the decision, but the answer is different for everyone. I decided to start my practice right after I was married, but before I had kids. I started it because I knew I wasn’t going to be happy working for a law firm long term. Was it the right time? I dunno. We’ll see.
The common solo practice pitfalls.
The biggest mistakes I see young lawyers make when starting a firm is this:
1. Not being committed to starting a solo practice or starting a solo practice for the wrong reasons
2. Being under-capitalized in terms of experience, a network and money.
3. Not comprehending how much work goes into having your own practice, and often for not a lot of money.
4. Wasting money on crap like marketers and snazzy websites and not focusing on building real relationships with real people, and taking on stupid cases because it’s “easy money”
5. Not having a plan on how to start and grow a practice – (setup your email, calendar, website, practice areas, etc.)
Do you really want to have your own practice, or do you want to get rich quickly, not work very much, or half-ass it until you find a job?
Starting a solo practice “until something better comes along” is a recipe for failure. Starting your own practice requires a huge commitment.
When money comes in, often you need to dump it right back into the firm to upgrade your technology, take high quality CLEs, wine and dine potential clients, replenish your supplies, get better office space, hire staff, up your malpractice insurance coverage, fund a contingent fee case, etc. This means putting money back into your firm before taking a nice vacation or buying a new iPad. A lot of the money you make will go right back into the firm. That is how your firm will expand and become profitable.
Unfortunately, many young solos I have met aren’t committed to their practice. They are just taking stuff on until a real job comes along. In turn, they never buy the nice scanner, hire the secretary, or upgrade the office space because “that good job is right around the corner.”
If you want to succeed in your own practice, you have to commit to it.
Do you have enough money to start a law practice? Under-capitalization is bad.
Uncle Jim: “Don’t take on clients that you don’t like. If you don’t like them, neither will the jury. You’ll also find that 80% of problems come from about 10% of your clients. You’ll regret the bad cases, but you’ll rarely find yourself wishing you hadn’t turned down a matter. Try and cut that 10% as soon as possible.”
Imagine this: your mortgage is behind. Your office rent is due in 5 days. The phone hasn’t rung in weeks, and a client stiffed you on a big bill.
And you’ve got $35 in your operating account.
Plus, you had no money when you started the law firm. So you spend a lot of time at the post office, the bank, and keeping your books yourself. You don’t have a good scanner, a good printer, or a postage machine. You had to turn down a good case because it would have to be filed in federal court, and you don’t have the $201 to get admitted there. Most of your time is spent chasing your tail doing administrative stuff instead of working on client matters and getting new clients in the door.
Suddenly you get a call: “Hey, I ate a bay leaf in a burrito over the weekend. It really hurt. I’ve worked with three other lawyers but I don’t want you talking with them. But I will pay you $2000 to file a lawsuit.”
If I got that call, the response would be a letter thanking them for contacting us, but we’re not interested. Here is the number to the Philadelphia Bar’s lawyer referral service.
But you need the money so you take on the case. Now the bench and the bar know you as “the guy who took on the suit where the guy swallowed a bay leaf.”
Making matters worse, the bay leaf guy calls you constantly, sends you several emails a day, and he is always questioning your judgment. You also lose a lot of time because there is time spent on his case that you can’t bill for – like taking the mail to the post office or having to drive to your buddy’s office to borrow a scanner and printer. At the end of the month, bay leaf guy even demands you cut your bill for all those phone calls and responding to those emails. And you do it, because otherwise the rent isn’t getting paid.
That’s no way to succeed.
While the solo cheerleaders tout Jay Foonberg’s book, one part they always overlook is the chapter where Foonberg said he had a years worth of living expenses before starting his practice. Foonberg worked as a cab driver and saved all his money. Not having any money means having to take on crappy cases and crappy clients.
If you’re undercapitlized, you’re desperate. Desperate is no way to practice law.
If you’re currently working for a law firm, completely unhappy, and set on a solo practice, see if your firm will let you work there part time or per diem. It makes the transition to solo practice much easier. This is what I did. By maintaining a reduced roll at my former firm, I keep my cash flow, contacts, relationships, and it gives me a place where I can bring in bigger cases that I couldn’t take on with just Leo. (read up on this, though. I suggest the “Complete Guide to Contract Lawyering.” Make sure you’re cognizant of conflict and ethical issues).
Do you have a plan?
Here is a bad plan: I want to hang a shingle and take on any work where clients will pay me. I’ll figure it all out as I go. I’ll get all my clients off Twitter, Craigslist, and Facebook. I hear that’s the new thing.
Here is a good plan: I want to take on certain kinds of clients. I will not take on clients too far outside the areas of law where I am comfortable.
To make it all happen, I will use Google Apps for my calendar and email, and Dropbox for my network. (as my state ethically allows cloud computing). Our phone system will be through Nextiva, because I priced it all out and they were the most reasonable. My office will based in (a part of town where I can afford it, and there is a market for what I do.)
If I get in personal injury cases that I can’t afford to finance, I will co-counsel with Joe Lawyer. If I get in a bankruptcy case, it will go to Amber Able.
Based on the amount of work I have coming with me, and the amount of money I have in the bank, I can afford to go XXX months without turning a profit while keeping the lights on.
How much money will it cost me to start a solo practice? Is starting a law practice realistic?
This varies depending on how much stuff you already have. The short answer? A lot. Between $15,000 and $30,000 if you want to do it right. You can do it on the lower end if you have a working spouse. If you plan on taking contingent fee cases, you will also benefit from having a line of credit.
Here is what I believe you need at a minimum:
- Good clients with money. Otherwise, how are you going to pay for all this stuff?
- Corporate formation if you’re starting a firm. Costs around $600 – $1200. If you’re starting a partnership, you’ll need by-laws or a membership agreement, plus a plan in the event one of the partners dies. (if you have pending cases, how much goes out to the deceased partner’s spouse, etc.)
- Scanner (recommendation: ScanSnap S1500). Cost: $500. Bonus: it comes with Adobe Acrobat Pro.
- Good computer. I use an iMac and Apple for everything. (Sorry, Tannebaum.) That said, if you’re going to use a Mac, I highly recommend you have access to a PC. There are some things (like SSI) that you will need a PC for. My backup laptop is a PC. The iMac cost me $1800 and the PC cost me about $1000. Leo uses a Macbook.
- CLEs to keep your license current. You can find some free ones, but normally you’ll have to pay for some of them. We spend about $2000 a year on CLEs.
- Malpractice insurance. Many state bar associations require malpractice insurance. This is about $1200 a year, give or take, for a young lawyer to get 300/600 coverage. You can usually pay this in monthly installments.
- Office space. There is no debate, you need an office starting out. Are you planning on taking depositions in your living room? I pay $490 a month for two offices (mine and Leo’s). However, to get the space in the first place, I had to put up three months of rent. Factor in money for internet, electric, taxes, etc. Plan to have to pay first, last, and a security deposit up front.
- Cell phone. Just don’t give it to clients. Trust me. Smart phone is unnecessary but convenient.
- A postage machine and postal scale. I recommend the DymoTwin Turbo and an Endicia account. The TwinTurbo cost me $140, plus I keep about $100 worth of postage at all times. A lot of people like Pitney Bowes machines, which also work well. But if you don’t have a way of printing postage from your office, you’re going to waste a lot of time at the post office. And yes, you will still have to mail physical stuff no matter what anyone says. Many older clients don’t use email, and many courts still don’t have e-filing. Sorry it’s not convenient.
- At least a case of paper. Many courts will require paper copies of stuff.
- Good laser printer and backup toner. Yes, you might need to file a hard copy of that 2000 page brief. If it’s due today, and your printer runs out of toner… you’re screwed. Cost is between $200 – $500.
- Office supplies: blue pens, yellow pads, paperclips, staplers, staple remover, envelopes, post-its, etc.
- Fax machine. I recommend MyFax. It’s $10 and you can put up to 5 users on one number.
- Hard drive for backing up your files.
- Adobe PDF Professional. Version 8.0 comes with the ScanSnap S1500 and can be upgraded to version X for $199.
- Health Insurance (if your spouse doesn’t have a job). Ours costs $121 per man. It would cost me $400 m/o for a family.
- Business cards and letterhead. This doesn’t need to be extravagant. My first business cards came from VistaPrint. Now we have super snazzy business cards.
- Furniture: You will need a desk, client chairs, filing cabinets, bookcases, and some stuff to hang on your walls. Thankfully, most of this stuff can be bought second hand. Factor in about $3000, at least. Check out thrift stores, tenants who are leaving your building, and retired lawyers for a lot of this stuff. Craigslist is even good.
- Legal research: We get our legal research through the Pennsylvania Bar Association and Jenkin’s Law Library. I don’t recommend spending a lot of money on getting Lexis or Westlaw. We also take a lot of CLEs and have built up a nice law library. My PA Bar membership costs about $220 a year (worth every cent) and Jenkins is about $130 a year per lawyer. (also worth every cent). But you still need to spend some money on legal research.
- Bar dues: These are about $250 a year, per state. So we pay about $1000 a year to be licensed in PA and NJ. (for two attorneys).
- State Rules of Criminal / Civil Procedure, and local county rules if you do criminal or civil work. A lot of times you can get the current year from an older lawyer, as they come out every six months. $600.
- Federal court admissions: $201 per District Court but it’s a one time fee
- Telephone. Don’t be a loser and run your practice off a cell phone. My physical phone cost $80, and it costs $42 a month through Nextiva. (So that’s a total of about $84 a month for both of our phones, plus the $160 to buy the phones)
- Suits, ties, dress shoes, dress shirts, and a briefcase. When I graduated law school, my Uncle Jim gave me a bunch of his old suits and dress shirts. I picked up a few nice ones at the thrift store. Every year when people ask what I want for Christmas, that’s usually #1 on the list.
- Money in the bank for unforeseen circumstances. “Damn, the printer is completely dead and I have a brief due before 5:00. Take this stuff to Kinkos and get it printed now, I don’t care what the cost is.”
- A car. Leo and I split my awesome 2004 Honda Civic. You will need to drive to places.
Factor in how much of that stuff you already have, and figure out how much you need. That, plus living expenses (mortgage, groceries, cable, internet, car payment, student loans, etc.), is what it will cost you to start a law firm.
- An iPad. They’re cool but totally unnecessary. Do I have one? Yup. Did it revolutionize my practice, or infuse it with awesome? Nope. But I sure do like playing Kingdom Age, Spy Hunter, and Joust when I’m bored. It’s convenient if you travel or go to court a lot. That’s about it. Oh, and my wife and I keep in touch via “Draw” and “Words with Friends.”
- A super snazzy website. We’re still using the free website that Leo created. We have a nice, new, updated website coming out at some point but it’s at the bottom of our list of things to do. Just create a free website that lets people know how to contact you.
- A logo. We have one, it’s fun, not necessary.
- “SEO Optimization”. Unless you like getting lots of telephone calls from tire kickers.
- A marketing / PR firm. Spend your time developing relationships. Take friends, family, and other lawyers out to dinner or lunch. Join a neighborhood civic association, go to a happy hour, or join a bar association committee. Just get out there and interact with real people. A quote from my Uncle Jim: “Take potential clients to a ballgame. Even if it ends up being a total waste of time, at least you’ll have gotten to watch a game.” The more stuff you do, the more clients you’ll have.
- Social Media or a social media “consultant”: social media is fun. It is. It’s a good way to keep up with friends and family. It’s not necessary and it’s not the best source of clients. I get in about 5% of my work from Facebook friends, but they’re usually people I knew from high school who would have called me anyway. I’ve never gotten in a case from Twitter or through this blog. If you’re already on Facebook and you stay in touch with your friends, that is more than enough. Put it this way – I wouldn’t center your business plan on social media.
- Case management software. A lot of people like Clio or RocketMatter. I’ve heard good things, but I don’t think it’s necessary. Google Apps works fine for us.
- I prefer OpenOffice to Microsoft Office. OpenOffice is free.
- Leo prefers Pages to Microsoft Word. It costs $20, but it’s only available on Mac. It also saves stuff as a .pages, which can only be opened in Pages.
- Billings for Mac. Cost is $20. You will need some type of billing program to keep track of your time and generate invoices if your work is done hourly.
- I use Mozilla Thunderbird instead of MS Outlook. Leo uses his Gmail client.
- Email, calendar, and document sharing is all done through Google Apps. Google Apps is free, but it’s not just a cheap alternative. It’s the best email, calendar, and document sharing tool around. Period. Yes, you can send emails from @yourdomain.com via the Gmail platform. Why any lawyer isn’t using Google Apps baffles me.
- Dropbox for electronic file storage. The free version accounts for 2GB of space. Once you need more than 2GB of space, you will have enough clients to justify paying the $90 to expand your storage.
- Endicia for postage. No monthly fee. You only pay for the postage that you use. You need to by a Dymo label printer, but this is a much cheaper alternative to Pitney Bowes.
- Square for taking credit cards. Yes, you should accept credit cards. Square is free to startup and the fee is reasonable. There is no excuse for not taking credit cards when Square makes it this easy.
- Adobe PDF 8.0 Professional comes with the ScanSnap S1500. You can upgrade to version X for $199. You need Adobe PDF Professional as courts are moving more towards e-filing.
- MyFax for faxing. It costs $10 a month. You can have 5 users on one account sending and receiving electronic faxes. Converts everything into PDF.
- PNC Bank, who hosts our operating account, gave us free business checks and a “for deposit only” stamp. PNC is a fantastic bank and their website is superior. (our trust accounts are with a different bank to make sure no mistakes are made.) If you’re unsure who to bank with, I recommend PNC.
- I listen to music all day at work through Pandora One.
- Skype or Facetime (for Mac). If a client can’t get into your office for whatever reason, you can still have a productive meeting using Skype or Facetime. Both are free.
- Google Scholar. There is a host of free legal information on here.
- How to Start and Grow a Law Practice by Jay Foonberg. The most important book you will ever read about the practice of law. I recommend it even if you work for a law firm.
- Solo by Choice: How to be the Lawyer You Always Wanted to Be by Carolyn Elefant. The most important modern book on how to start a law practice.
- $olo Contendre by Marc Garfinkle
- Make It Your Own Law Firm by Spencer Aronfeld
- The E-Myth for Lawyers by Michael E. Gerber
- The Millionaire Real Estate Agent by Gary Keller. To get an idea on how to start and run a successful business. A lot of the principles are applicable to law practice.
- Read My Law License, Simple Justice, and My Shingle. Do not waste your time on “solo cheerleader” blogs or Solo Practice University.
- I know I’m going to get crap for this, but I recommend you read Tony Robbin’s books. They are fantastic. A vision and motivation are important.
- Jay Foonberg also has a guide on how to manage a lawyer trust account with forms. Buy it. Managing a lawyer trust account is not exactly rocket science, but his guide is well worth the $80. (Hint: trust account money is not yours. You need to be able to account for every cent of your clients’ money. Keep your lawyer trust account managed meticulously. Make sure you can give each client an accounting at the drop of a dime. Be extremely cautious about any check you write from your lawyer trust account. Do not ever pay for personal expenses or firm expenses out of your trust account for any reason – even if you’ve earned the fee.)
- Technology is important. I like PDF for Lawyers, Lawyerist, Virtual Law Practice by Steph Kimbro, MyShingle, Legal iPad (sorry Brian), and other blogs about technology. Otherwise I would be running my practice a lot less efficiently.
- Personally, I hate the Solosez listserve. Yes, I met Leo and a few other good people on Solosez. But I can’t stand it anymore. You’re practically required to begin any email with “Hi: I’m a total idiot.” Followed by riveting questions like: “Would it be okay if I paid all my law firm stuff out of my trust account and then reimbursed my clients when I get money in? Stuff is tight around here right now.” But maybe you’ll like it. A lot of my friends do.
- Brian Tannebaum writes a section called “The Practice” on Above the Law. You should read it.
- Eric Turkewitz also writes a section on Above the Law. You should read it.
Is your social network big enough to justify starting a solo practice?
Another question I get in is “how do you get paying clients?” The answer? I just know a lot of people – other lawyers, neighbors, colleagues from high school, and college, etc. I try and leverage those networks.
It’s usually like this:
“Law office. Jordan speaking.”
“Hey Jordan, it’s me, Chris. I met you back at the happy hour a few months ago. Do you happen to handle unemployment compensation stuff? I just got laid off and the employer is disputing my benefits.”
“Sure. Can you come to my office this week? Let’s sit down and talk about what’s going on.”
“Law office, Jordan speaking.”
“Hey Jordan, it’s me Kevin. I just got in an inquiry about a First Amendment case. You know I only do personal injury. Would you mind sitting down and talking with this client.”
“Sure. Thanks for thinking of me.”
“My pleasure. Thanks for sending me that good personal injury case last year.”
Facebook Message: “Hey Jordan. We used to have math together back in 7th grade. You were always getting put in detention. I can’t believe you’re a lawyer now! I’m contacting you because I started this business and I need a hand with it. Would you mind sitting down and taking a look at this stuff? I was gonna use LegalZoom, but I figured I should hire a lawyer for something so important.” (Yes, I get a few cases off Facebook. It’s usually from old friends. It’s not from having a law firm Facebook page, it’s from knowing people.)
My social network also allows me to take on new cases I couldn’t handle without co-counsel, and to figure out whether I can take on a certain type of case. It goes down lik ethis:
“Hey Adam, it’s Jordan.”
“What’s up good sir?”
“Just got in a great case. My neighbor was sitting at a toll booth and was rear-ended. Huge damages and liability is clear cut. You wanna co-counsel with me and split the fees? I’ll pay half the costs, you first chair the trial if need be.”
“Sounds great. Let’s setup a meeting with the client and discuss.”
“Hey Pete, it’s Jordan.”
“What’s going on, man?”
“I haven’t handled a certain type of case before. I know you do a lot of this type of work. Do you think I should refer it out or take it on? I’d be happy to give the client your number if you think I’m in over my head.”
“Nah, you’ll do fine. Tell you what – drop by my office and I’ll lend you my practice guide on how to handle these types of cases. If you have any questions just give me a call. I know you’ll do a good job. By the way, I just got in this new potential client but I don’t have time to deal with it. I’ll give her your number. Could be something there.”
You need a social network. The bigger network you have, the more clients and resources you will have. Most of your clients will come from people you meet while “out and about” and other lawyers. You will also need a network of lawyers who you know are good, and that you can refer work to with confidence that they will do a good job. I have someone I trust for bankruptcy, personal injury, criminal defense work that is outside our league, etc.
I didn’t meet these people off Twitter, either. They’re people I know, whose work I’ve seen, and I can vouch for. I know that my clients won’t come back and say “Why did you refer me to that lawyer? She was a moron!”
It’s also much easier to develop a social network while you’re employed. You’ll become friends with co-counsel, opposing counsel, and other members of the bar. Once your network is developed, work just sort of rolls in.
Mentorship is important, and it can’t be bought.
Finally, you will need mentors. The more, the better. Good mentorship can’t be bought, either. There is nothing more valuable than calling someone with 20 years in the trenches and saying “What do you think of this?”
Unfortunately, the response will often be: “I think it’s stupid and the judge will sanction you. You need to think more, ya dummy.”
If you’re paying someone for mentorship, do you think they will be that candid with you? Do you think they’ll tell you that your idea is stupid, and that you’re going to get yourself into a lot of trouble? I dunno.
But it’s better to get torn down by a mentor than it is a judge, the disciplinary board, or a malpractice attorney. Bad things happen in law.
My uncle and former employers are usually my “go to” mentors.
The things to consider:
– Do you really want to commit to starting your own firm? Or are you being sold snake oil that starting a law practice from scratch is a ticket to print cash and enjoy having more free time?
– Are you throwing away a good law firm job just to work more hours often for less pay?
– Can you afford to starve for awhile?
– Do you have a plan about how you’re going to setup your practice?
– Do you have enough money to start your own firm?
– Does your social network warrant starting a law firm?
Ask yourself those questions first before you jump into solo practice. And just remember, “it’s gonna take money, a whole lotta spending money, it’s gonna take plenty of money, to do it right child. Its gonna take time, a whole lot of precious time, its gonna take patience and time, to do it, to do it, to do it, to do it, to do it, to do it right child.”
[Update: Sam Glover from Lawyerist did a nice post about this topic yesterday]