It was a beautiful Monday in August. The preceding weekend was beautiful too—and I completely missed it because I spent both days drafting a summary judgment motion.
My boss rolled into the office at about 11:00 a.m. and then appeared in my doorway, incensed: “I can’t believe you made that argument in this summary judgment motion. What were you thinking?! Re-work it!”
Besides his bluster, he was tanned and rested, having spent that perfect weekend between his boat and vacation house on Cape Cod, a boat and vacation house my billable hours bought. As I defended the summary judgment motion, he snapped, “If you don’t like it, you can leave, because my name is on the door!” His name, indeed.
That was my moment of clarity. Two months later, I quit that firm and launched my own solo law practice.
Maybe you too are a lawyer with a jerky boss. Or you’re underpaid and/or overworked. Or you’re practicing in a mind-numbing area of law. Or you want more flexibility. Or you’re still looking for a law job. Or you simply want to strike out on your own. Perhaps it’s time to launch your own solo practice as well.
The beauty of launching your own law practice is that, unlike many businesses, you don’t need much to get going. Here are the most important tips I learned from starting a solo law practice:
1. Do the math
First, you need to take a hard look at the numbers and fully assess your finances. How much money do you need to generate to feed yourself and your family, pay the mortgage, and keep the lights on? Make a list of every real and estimated expense, both personal and business. Then think about the expenses you can reduce or eliminate. (Do you need HBO and Showtime?)
After you tally it up, take that total run-rate, add 30% more for taxes, and calculate how much business you’ll need to do as a solo law practitioner. For example, if your monthly personal bills and anticipated business expenses total $6,000, with taxes you’ll need to generate about $8,000 a month. Then figure out what rate you can reasonably bill at. If it’s $200 per hour, you’ll need to generate 40 billable hours a month. That’s 10 hours a week, two hours a day. Can you do that? How?
2. Get a great computer (if you don’t have one already)
As a solo lawyer, your computer is your most important hard asset. If it goes down, you’re temporarily out of business, so don’t skimp on it. Really, a laptop is all you need to get your practice up and running. But you will also likely need a printer, scanner, and/or copier. An external hard drive may prove useful as well. (Not to mention the number for your local computer support/repair company on speed dial.)
3. Keep your overhead low
You’re in charge now, and every dollar adds up quicker than you think (especially if you just invested in that great new laptop!). One of the biggest potential expenditures is office space. Think about what type of location would work best for you and your clients: Do you need office space in a central location, or will your home office work?
If you end up buying or leasing a space, give particular thought to your office neighbors, since they may become a PRS: potential referral source. Because when you run your own business, everyone is a PRS.
4. Be thoughtful with your banking
When it comes to managing your money as a solo lawyer, you’ll need an operating account, as well as an IOLTA (Interest on Lawyers Trust Account) account, at the very least. You’ll also want to review the rules for maintaining the IOLTA. They’re not difficult to understand, but they are important.
Be thoughtful in picking the bank for your business accounts too. Do you want or need the footprint of a national bank? Or would a smaller neighborhood credit union offer more value? Research the banks’ respective offerings for small businesses. And, again, don’t forget about those PRSs: small banks may be more likely to refer you their real estate closings, for example, than one of the big banks.
5. Get your website and other materials in order
Yes, you need a website, even as a small solo law practice. How fancy does it need to be? That probably depends on your practice; the transactional lawyer’s website looks different from the immigration lawyer’s. But remember that your website often makes your first impression for you—so make it a good one.
Luckily, this doesn’t have to be complicated, and there are ample website design and hosting services with reasonable prices to choose from. You might even enjoy picking your website template, picture, and fonts. (Then again, you may also want to call in that favor from your cousin who is a Web designer...)
What about the physical trappings of your solo practice? Will you order custom stationery or print it yourself? And if you customize it, will you go to Staples or the Mom-n-Pop print shop up the street? (Whatever your answer, if you at least thought about potential PRSs, you’re already getting the hang of things!)
6. Name your solo practice carefully
One fun aspect of launching your solo firm is, of course, naming it. But before you mimic those big, well-known firms around you, be careful. There are rules about law firm names. If you want to name your firm Smith Law Offices—note the plural “offices”—but you only have one office, that might get you in trouble. Also, it may go without saying, but you can’t be Smith and Johnson, LLP if there is no Johnson.
7. Buy law malpractice insurance
Even if it’s not required in your state (for example, it’s not required in Massachusetts), it buys peace of mind. If you’re just starting your solo law firm, you don’t have much exposure yet, so the price can be less than $1,500 for a year. You may be able to spread the payments out over 12 months too.
8. Use your network
In addition to everyone being a PRS, think about potential referrers in your existing and extended networks. If you’re doing family law, talk to counselors. If you’re doing tax law, let your accountant know. If you’re doing personal injury work, reach out to that physical therapist friend. However, if you’re currently at a firm, be wary of the rules about advising clients of your intent to start a solo practice. Start by following the Meehan v. Shaughnessy case. (Don’t do it the way Jerry Maguire and Bob Sugar did it!)
Also, remember that it’s never too early to network. If you’re planning to launch your solo practice in six months, let people know your plans now. Then remind them closer to your official launch date.
9. You can rise to the challenge
Having your own solo law shop is challenging. You need to generate the business, do the legal work, send out the bills, fix the copier, maintain the files, and lick the stamps. On the other hand, it is tremendously rewarding. You practice the law you want, you pick the clients you want, you work the hours you want. And you keep the profits.
Often, the idea of launching a solo law firm is more daunting than the reality. Think of all of the people you know who are doing it—including that jerky (if perfectly suntanned) boss of yours. If they can do it, so can you.
David Russman is the principal and founder of Russman Law, a general practice firm located in Boston, Massachusetts, with an emphasis on civil and commercial litigation. He is also an adjunct professor of law at New England Law | Boston.
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