Hanging the Shingle: A Young Lawyer’s Experiences in Opening and Developing a Solo Law Practice
( Part One of a Series)
Earlier this year, I accomplished a longstanding professional goal in opening up my own solo law practice. It has been a very rewarding experience as I have been able to connect with my clients on a new level and further develop my passion for practice of law. As is customary in starting a new professional initiative, I have learned many lessons along the way.
This article is the first of a series of articles that will discuss my initial experiences and offer ideas for you to consider in starting a new solo practice or analyzing your current practice. In this article, I discuss considerations in choosing when to start your own practice, the importance of budgeting, and how networking is crucial to developing a solo practice. Future articles will discuss additional ideas, opinions, and lessons learned from my own practice.
Choosing the Right Time to “Go Solo.” Between graduating law school in 2003 and taking the bar exam, I wrote down my professional goals that I hoped to accomplish. One of my top goals was opening my own practice. I discussed this goal with a solo practitioner whom I clerked with while in law school, and he gave me the valuable advice of putting that goal on hold until I had a few years of law firm experience under my belt. He suggested that in addition to gaining legal experience at law firms, I would also learn the administrative side of practicing law, including such tasks as managing files, billing, and client development.
I have since had the opportunity to work as an associate for two well-respected midsize law firms and also as in-house counsel for a corporation. The legal and administrative experience I gained at each position has been invaluable toward effectively developing my practice, and I am convinced that my solo experience would be much more difficult without my prior experience.
I recognize that many attorneys (particularly in this economic climate) do not have the opportunity to gain law firm experience prior to opening up a solo practice. I know several solo practitioners that “hung a shingle” immediately after being sworn into the bar. In my experience, the most successful of these solo practitioners developed a mentor-mentee relationship with other solo practitioners to help gain knowledge regarding the legal and administrative aspects of solo practice life. Regardless, I assert that an attorney must be comfortable in handling the legal and administrative sides of being a solo practitioner, and much of that comfort level comes from experience.
Plan a Budget, Adhere to the Budget, Revisit the Budget. If we learn nothing else from the current economic downturn, it is the value of budgeting. This is particularly important in starting your own practice. Prior to making the decision to go out on my own, I sat down with my wife at the dining room table and, after a couple hours of asking “What if?” questions regarding our personal and professional lives, we developed a budget for my law practice that made sense and also reworked our personal budget to make suitable accommodations.
In formulating the law practice budget, we were careful to focus on the essentials, such as legal research costs, bar association dues, office supplies, and client development costs. After much consideration, we concluded that I would operate out of the home for the first couple months prior to seeking office space. This enabled me additional freedom to devote additional cash to other areas in my budget and provided me time to “test the waters” prior to signing an office lease. I ultimately moved into an office in April, but still enjoy the flexibility of working out of the home when convenient.
A budget is useless if it is ignored. I sit down at the end of each week and measure my weekly expenses against my budget. If my expenses are on track to exceed the budgeted allotment, I make necessary adjustments and reduce future spending. If there is a particular type of expense that consistently exceeds the budget, I revisit and rework my budget so that it matches up with my reasonable expectations.
I also consider how the products and services I have purchased within my budget match up with my expectations. If an item or service does not match up favorably, I consider the benefits and costs to my practice and budget in returning the item or cancelling the service. For example, I purchased expensive law office management software within a week of opening my practice. Within the thirty-day trial period, I determined that the software did not meet my expectations and would not be cost effective in the long-term to maintain. Therefore, I returned the software and applied a portion of the financial outlay to a more pressing budgetary need and the remainder went into cash reserves.
As income from the law practice increases, it is important to revisit the budget to factor in your salary or draws and to consider if the income should be reinvested in the law practice. In my initial months of starting the practice, I have reinvested much of the firm income back into the firm. As the firm income continues to increase, I will continue to revisit my budget and assess how much of the income I can take as a salary or draw.
I am frequently asked by other attorneys how much money should be set aside in order to start a solo practice. In my opinion, this amount will be different for every solo practitioner. What I suggest is to carefully consider your realistic monthly family and law practice expenses for the first six months of your solo practice and to have this amount (at a minimum) saved. Of course, the more you have saved, the better off you will be. However, having substantial financial resources should never replace the discipline that comes from sound budgeting.
Network in the Real and Virtual Worlds. Our profession is one that is built on a cornerstone of trust. In my experience, face-to-face meetings are crucial for developing trust among potential and current clients. Also, face-to-face meetings with other attorneys and business professionals are important for developing relationships that can lead to client referrals. As such, real world networking has been essential to the initial development and growth of my practice.
I frequently attend events sponsored by my state and local bar associations and various business associations. Local bar association events offer excellent networking opportunities to become connected with other attorneys, thereby leading to valuable information exchanges and client referrals. Local business associations (including my local chamber of commerce) offer excellent programs and events that connect businesses and professionals. I have been fortunate to receive many very good clients from these functions.
I also utilize opportunities generated through my “favorite network”: my family and friends. I have been very fortunate to have the enthusiastic support from my family and friends in opening my practice. Through their support, my family and friends have referred excellent clients to me and have an eagerness to continue to send me clients. I strongly urge that you do not underestimate the support that your own “favorite network” can provide you in building your law practice.
Virtual networking has also played a role in the growth of my practice. Although it does not take the place of the trust-building face-to-face meetings, virtual networking allows attorneys and other professionals to freely provide and exchange information and connect to potential clients and colleagues. In my experience, these connections and information exchanges lead to trust-building fact-to-face meetings that result in valuable business for my practice.
Two particular internet networking tools that I utilize at no cost are LinkedIn ( www.linkedin.com) and Twitter ( www.twitter.com). LinkedIn is a business networking website that is analogous to Facebook, but geared to professionals. Twitter is a “microblogging” site that allows you to share ideas with other attorneys and professionals. It is built on the concept of discussing what you are working on, thinking of, and doing in real time. I discuss below the basic mechanics of establishing an account and using each networking tool. Although much more can be written about each website, my discussion of each is simply geared toward providing you information to join each site and to begin making your own networking path.
I utilize LinkedIn to exchange information with my clients and colleagues and set up the important face-to-face meetings that lead to growth of my practice. In order to utilize the benefits of LinkedIn, you must first join and set-up a free account. From LinkedIn’s main page ( www.linkedin.com), click the “Join Today” link in the top-right hand corner. The next page will request basic information about you, including your name, location, email address, and name of your firm. You will also need to select and input a password. As with other password-protected websites, the quality of your password will help determine the security of the information you post to the website.
After you enter the information, click the “Join LinkedIn” button at the bottom of the webpage. At the next page, you may select how you will utilize LinkedIn and inform others how or why you wish to be contacted through LinkedIn by selecting from such options as reconnecting with former colleagues and accepting deal proposals. Upon clicking the “Save Settings” button at the bottom of the page, you will arrive at your very own LinkedIn webpage.
My favorite aspect of LinkedIn is the ability to create a free profile that allows you to discuss your practice areas and experience. This profile is searchable through the Google search engine ( www.google.com) and accessible to the online public (even to those who are not members of LinkedIn). Potential clients and referral sources can use your profile as a resource in finding out important information about your practice. You have control over what information appears in the profile, and you can tailor it to fit your needs. My profile contains information about my practice areas, my photo (to help add a human element to the website), and a link to my firm’s website. In order to put your best foot forward, I recommend that you tailor your profile to meet your needs prior to connecting to people or groups on LinkedIn.
From your LinkedIn webpage, you can begin searching for friends and colleagues that already have a LinkedIn account and add them to your network. You may accomplish this by using the search engine located at the top right-hand corner of the webpage (wherein you can search for people and companies) or by utilizing a LinkedIn application that scans your email contacts for possible LinkedIn connections. This application can scan contacts in a web-based email account (such as Yahoo!, MSN, or Gmail) or your Outlook or Apple Mail. Once you locate an individual you wish to add as a contact, you can click the “Add to network” link. You will be asked to verify how you know the contact (which must be confirmed by the contact) before the contact is added to your network and you are added to your contact’s network. Likewise, when a prospective contact makes the initial step to add you to their network, they will have to provide how they know you and such information would have to be confirmed by you prior to being added to your network. In my opinion, the contact verification process offers a good level of protection from preventing unwanted individuals joining your network.
Another of my favorite LinkedIn features allows you to join discussion and networking groups. For example, I am a member of bar association groups, professional groups, and alumni groups. You can search for groups via the search engine in the top right hand corner of your LinkedIn webpage. Participation in these groups is a great way to reconnect with former colleagues and discuss items of interest to your practice. Participation in these groups generally involves group bulletin board postings and exchange of direct messages between group members.
I utilize Twitter to exchange ideas and legal news with attorneys and other professionals. As a solo practitioner, I miss the exchange of ideas and information that takes place within a law firm, corporate, or government environment. Therefore, Twitter helps fill this role for me by allowing me to exchange ideas and news with people of my choosing. Of course, Twitter does not replace the value of face-to-face meetings. As such, I use this in conjunction with attending local bar events and business association meetings rather than in place of attending such events.
In order to join Twitter, go to the Twitter main page ( www.twitter.com) and select the green “Get Started – Join!” icon in the middle of the page. The next page will prompt you to enter your full name and select a username. As Twitter continues its meteoric rise in popularity, desired usernames will be more difficult to obtain (as witnessed during AOL’s usage surge in the 1990s). You will also need to select a password which will be entered along with your username in order to log-in to Twitter. Finally, you will have to retype two words that appear in a white box. This is a type of verification process that is common when signing up for a new email account or making an online purchase. Upon entering all of the information, click the “Create my account” green arrow. Thereafter, you may have Twitter scan your online email account for contacts already on Twitter or you may select the blue “skip this step” link. You will then be directed to your new Twitter home page.
From here, you may enter your first “tweet” by answering the question “What are you doing?” As you will note, your “tweet” must be 140 characters or less. You should also complete your Twitter profile at this stage. This can be done by selecting the “Settings” link in the top right-hand corner of the page and completing the information on the “Account” tab on this page. As you will note, your profile is very brief and consists of a brief bio (160 characters or less), your location, and a link to your website.
At this stage, you should begin to locate people that you wish to “follow” on Twitter. Also, people may seek to “follow” you on Twitter. Be mindful that the default setting on Twitter allows the online public to “follow” you and see your “tweets” without requiring your permission. You may change this setting and require your permission prior to being “followed” by checking the “Protect my updates” box on the bottom of the page. Therefore, this feature helps you control the amount and type of interaction you want to have on Twitter.
Perhaps my favorite aspect of Twitter is the ability to share links to news articles, blog postings, and other websites. You may be wondering how this is possible within the context of the 140 character “tweet” limit considering the length of some website links. However, you may utilize a free web service such as TinyURL ( www.TinyURL.com) that will shrink a lengthy URL by creating an alias URL. For example, the URL to the Winter 2009 edition of SOLO is http://www.abanet.org/genpractice/solo/2009/vol15no1/vol15no1.pdf. Utilizing TinyURL, the same issue can be accessed at http://tinyurl.com/cq84xb (a shortening of 40 characters). In fact, if you post a website link into your “tweet,” it will automatically use TinyURL to shorten the length of the link. This generally allows you to post a link to a website while leaving enough characters to make a short comment about it. Once you start doing this, you are really on your way to discovering the value of “microblogging!”
Regardless of the virtual networking tools you utilize, you should take great care to maintain the decorum and professionalism you would exhibit in a client meeting or in the courtroom. It would be detrimental to your practice if you refer potential clients or colleagues to your Twitter or Facebook page wherein they can see pictures of you at a party excessively celebrating your alma mater’s recent football championship.
This wraps up my first article in this series. I look forward to drafting future articles that discuss my experiences in starting and building my solo law practice. In the meantime, I welcome ideas from your own practice and perspective. Please feel free to contact me at email@example.com or connect with me via LinkedIn or Twitter.
Brian Annino is a solo practitioner with Annino Law Firm, LLC, based in Marietta, Georgia. His practice focuses on estate planning, business law, and real property law. Mr. Annino is admitted to practice law in South Carolina, Georgia, and Massachusetts, and has been published in the ABA Journal.
© Copyright 2009, American Bar Association.