Opening Your Own Personal Injury Firm - ABA YLD 101 Practice Series

By David A. Glazer

You've grown tired of working for other people and are now ready to try and start your own firm. You are experienced and knowledgeable. The real question is what do you need to do in order to be successful? Here are a few helpful tips to get you started.

First, You Must Have Clients
This may seem to be an obvious idea, but the reality is that without enough clients ready to go with you, it will be very tough to succeed. If you are on the defense side, you cannot actively solicit clients from the firm that you are currently with. In fact, you cannot even actively solicit new potential clients while you are still with your current firm because you have a duty of loyalty to your current employer. So, how is this possible? Well, you have to know your potential clients well enough and have strong enough relationships to be able to make an educated guess as to whether or not they will give you enough business to get established. If you are on the plaintiff side, the issues are the same. You need a referral base that will be loyal to you and willing to continue to give you plaintiff's cases after you have set up your own firm.

Have Sufficient Capital
I recommend that you have enough capital to cover the equivalent of at least one year's salary and initial startup costs. If you are starting a plaintiff's practice, then you should have enough capital to last you 18 months without any income. The last thing that you want to be worrying about while trying to build your client base is whether or not you will be able to get paid.

Have a Good Business Plan
A good business plan will enable you to get a business loan. It is useful to have a revolving line of credit in the bank. Without it, you're more likely to be forced to put in your own money in the business. If you have friends who are in the corporate world, ask for their help in preparing and/or revealing your business plan so that you have a firm grasp of what you need to get your new firm established.

Find an Inexpensive Place to Rent for Your Office
Rent will likely be the largest monthly cost that you will have. Therefore, it is imperative that you keep your costs to a minimum when beginning your firm. However, location is also very important. I recommend finding an office suite, or an existing law office that is willing to sublet some space for your office. This set up should enable you to keep your rent costs under control while also allowing for you to be in a quality location. Additionally, renting such a space may help you avoid the need to purchase or rent furniture.

Invest in Your Office Technology
Buy as powerful a computer as you can afford for your desktop and make sure that you have a server sufficiently powerful to enable you to expand rapidly, if necessary. Your server in particular should have a large amount of storage space because a personal injury practice is document heavy. You will need large storage space for the plethora of documents that will be created as part of your practice.

Invest in Case Management Software
The personal injury world is heavy on depositions and court appearances. It is heavy on document creation. Quality case management software will help organize these materials and help you organize your court calendar. This will prevent you from overscheduling a particular day with court appearances and depositions. By avoiding scheduling problems, you'll save money because you will not have to hire a per diem attorney to cover an appearance.

Invest in All-Purpose Cell Phones
A good-quality cell phone will make sure that you are never out of touch with your office. Additionally, some cell phones such as the Blackberry have calendaring software in them that you can link up with your desktop computer so that you always have your calendar with you. If all the attorneys in your firm have such cell phones, it will prevent scheduling conflicts.

Establish a Clear Organizational Structure in Your Office
It is important that your employees understand their job functions. Efficiency is the key to a successful start up law firm. In order to keep expenses at a minimum, staffing must be kept at a minimum. That means that you and your employees must have clearly defined job functions so that the work can be done as efficiently and quickly as possible. Duplicated job functions means lost time which means lost money.

Make Sure Your Case Management Software Has Accounting Features
Good case management software will make your accounting easy. Such software can track your assets, your liabilities, your deposits, your payments and any other accounting feature that you can think of. By having quality accounting software, you will save money by eliminating the need to employ a bookkeeper and minimizing your general accounting expenses. It will also enable you to increase your efficiency by identifying wasteful spending.

Buy Dictation Software
The capability of such software has improved tremendously and is now as good as a mediocre secretary. Having the ability to dictate your work, without having to pay a secretary to type it, is a tremendous cost savings. While you will eventually need to retain a legal secretary, good dictation software can delay that need and enable you to increase your likelihood of success.

Make Sure That You Have a Good Information Technology Company on Retainer
The first month of your new firm will be filled with technological hassles while you get your systems running and your software to coordinate properly. A good information technology company can guide you through these early hassles with a minimum of disruption. Do not go with the first bid. Make sure that you interview at least three to four different companies to make sure that you'll be buying the proper equipment and that you'll be able to have your systems up and running from day one.

Have a Website
One of the simplest and most effective marketing tools can be having a decent website up and running as early as possible. There are several Internet companies that can help you create a basic website that looks decent and that will convey the information that you desire. Furthermore, these companies very often have basic designs available so that you can create the website yourself and thus save you some money. When creating your website, make sure you choose a domain name that is intuitive and easy to remember. As an example, the law firm of John Smith would ideally have a domain name of Smithlawfirm.com. Remember, the main purpose of website is marketing and simple is better than clever.

Submit Your Website Information to the Big Search Engines Such as Google, Yahoo and Ask.com
You should also register your firm with Martindale Hubbell. People do use Martindale to select a law firm. It is worth the investment to pay for a listing. But, they won't find you unless you register your site with the big search engines.

Arrange for High-Speed Access to the Internet
Ideally, you will have your own DSL or T-1 line. That way, you can avoid having viruses that were introduced by someone from outside your office infect your system. It is important to have a good firewall to protect your computer systems. Access to the Internet is an important tool that every law firm should have. The ability to research opposing parties on the Internet, obtain court calendar information, perform legal research, get your email, etc. is vital to an efficient law firm.

Get Your Insurance Needs Lined Up Before You Open
You will need malpractice insurance, business interruption insurance and renters insurance. The need for malpractice insurance is self-evident. Personal injury plaintiffs are notorious for suing their attorneys if they are unsatisfied with the result even in the absence of malpractice. Thus, it is vital that you have your malpractice insurance in place for the day you open your new firm. In the age of catastrophic results from natural disasters and terrorism, it is important to have business interruption insurance no matter where in the country you are located. This insurance can save you from bankruptcy in a catastrophe. Finally, renters insurance is important to protect you against theft, water damage and fire.

Don't Forget Networking
Even if you have a steady stream of business when you open your firm, you can always use more business. Thus, if you are on the plaintiff's side, you should get involved in the local communities and meet as many people as possible to increase your referrals. If you're on the defense side, get involved in local business organizations. You are more likely to get business for people who know you than people who only know you from marketing materials.

Have a Phone System Ready for the Day You Open
All of the above will be useless if you don't have phones. Make sure you have an easy to remember phone number as well. You should also make sure that your phone system has an adequate voicemail system so that you do not miss any important phone calls.

Finally, good luck. Starting your own firm is a wonderful, yet difficult project. It can be frustrating and invigorating at the same time. If you follow all of the steps listed above, you just might make it.

Resources

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About the Author

David A. Glazer is a managing partner at the law firm of Shafer Glazer, LLP in New York City. His practice focuses on personal injury defense litigation, labor and employment law and corporate law. Mr. Glazer is a member of the American Bar Association Tort Trial and Insurance Practice Section, the New York State Bar Association, and the New Jersey State Bar Association. He can be reached at DGlazer@ShaferGlazer.com.

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