Jason Allen graduated from Northwestern University School of Law in 2009 and currently practices in New York. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. [Editor’s Note: I have known Jason for many years. Jason is not only bright and very articulate but is also one of the nicest men you would ever want to meet. He was recently married and is expecting his first child. Also, Jason is the son of a very active and dynamic person in our Division, Jeff Allen. To me, it is a testament to both Jeff and Anne that they raised such a wonderful and talented son. I hope you enjoy the article.
The Basics of Solo Startup
Many students enter law school with dreams of starting their own practices, and many recent graduates toiling away in large shops fantasize about the same. Yet, few people leave law school feeling prepared to run their own practice, and conventional wisdom—at least that which makes its way through most law school rumor mills—about starting a solo or small practice often serves as an additional deterrent to those just starting their legal careers.
Timothy O’Shea, however, has a slightly different story to tell. Prior to law school, Tim incorporated and then managed the Chicago office of Nova Group, a Japanese company that provided English-language instruction to Japanese students. Navigating the various legal issues related to managing that office sparked Tim’s interest in law, and, at age 34, Tim entered DePaul University College of Law in 2004. After graduating in 2007, Mr. O’Shea founded O’Shea & Associates, LLC, located in Chicago. By relying on his prior business experience, and by minding conventional wisdom without feeling bound by it, Mr. O’Shea continues to grow his civil litigation and criminal defense practices.
While Tim’s growing practice may not provide the roadmap for successfully starting a small practice—doubtful, indeed, that any one, “best” route exists—the development of O’Shea & Associates offers both general tips and specific steps that new lawyers interested in hanging a shingle may find useful.
Getting Started—Keep Overhead Low
Many have probably heard that starting a law practice requires initial investments of $15,000 or more. With today’s technology and a growing number of programs and services geared toward entrepreneurs, however, financially judicious new lawyers can keep their startup costs relatively low.
Securing office space often proves one of the most substantial startup costs for a nascent law practice. The prospect of being saddled with a long-term lease before collecting one’s first fee is enough to deter some from pursuing their dreams of an independent practice. While O’Shea & Associates has since moved into a traditional office, for the first year Tim operated his practice out of a “virtual office,” a service available to small businesses of varying stripes.
For a fraction of the cost of the monthly rent for a traditional office and without the long-term commitment of a commercial lease, Tim’s virtual office provided phone messaging and routing services, a physical mailing address, and a specified number of hours of conference space each month. This arrangement permitted Tim to provide clients with the professional setting that they expect for meetings and calls without wasting resources on more office space than his budding law practice actually needed.
On the other hand, while many new technologies come with useful bells and whistles, they tend not to come cheaply. Lawyers nurturing young practices will often do well to wait until their practices outgrow the technologies they already use before purchasing the newest and shiniest products. Mr. O’Shea, for example, finds Microsoft’s Office Suite sufficient for his current needs, and has delayed purchasing specialized case or office management softwares as a result. The appropriate time for technological upgrades is certainly debatable; the point here is that cost-conscious practitioners must carefully assess their needs before making potentially substantial investments.
And, of course, one should keep an eye out for less-conventional means for getting things done. For example, one of Tim’s former clients, a web developer, created the O’Shea & Associates website— www.osheaandassociates.com.
Client Development and Management
Perhaps the biggest challenge facing new lawyers is building a book of business. O’Shea & Associates has not used advertisements, though Tim believes that prospective clients expect reputable businesses today to have a website. Fortunately, establishing and maintaining a domain name is inexpensive.
Tim has secured most of O’Shea & Associates’ business by developing and leveraging various personal and professional relationships. O’Shea & Associate’s biggest civil client knew and worked with Tim before he went to law school. Soon after Tim started practicing, this client, remembering Tim’s work ethic, sought his professional assistance. This has developed into an ongoing relationship.
Doing good work, of course, is vital. Many clients of O’Shea & Associates have referred others to the firm. Even an opposing party, impressed with Mr. O’Shea’s work in the courtroom, has referred a client to the firm. However, lawyers looking to build a book of business cannot rely solely on their work in the office or the courtroom. They must meet other lawyers and business people.
Tim is active in several local bar associations, which affords him the opportunity to interact with other lawyers working in a variety of practice areas. Developing relationships with other lawyers working in the same areas of law allows a new lawyer to get practice pointers and to learn from others’ experiences. Interacting with attorneys working in other areas of law, however, helps to build a professional network that has led to several new client referrals.
The Upshot—Be Creative and Use Common Sense
Although there is no silver bullet for new lawyers looking to develop a small practice, the continued growth of O’Shea & Associates—even during challenging economic times—demonstrates the importance of common sense. Keep overhead costs low: look for opportunities to avoid substantial financial obligations and approach potential new expenditures with a critical eye. Increase public recognition of the firm: websites offer an inexpensive, easy-to-maintain, and accessible medium for potential clients to learn more about the firm. Success begets new clients: do good work and clients will return with more business and bring new clients. Finally, join professional organizations and spend time meeting other lawyers: develop relationships with other lawyers who can support professional development and who may refer new clients.
Starting and running a small practice is challenging, but extremely rewarding as well. Mr. O’Shea believes that the work of small and solo practitioners follows the finest traditions of the legal profession—he works to devise workable solutions for real people facing real challenges.
Jason Allen graduated from Northwestern University School of Law in 2009 and currently practices in New York. He can be reached at email@example.com.
© Copyright 2010, American Bar Association.