By Gretchen Otto
Congratulations! You have decided on the challenging and rewarding prospect of opening your very own law office. You will enjoy unparalleled flexibility with your time, schedule, type of practice, and you will also avoid the politics of law firm life. Since you have now taken charge and will “pilot” your own career, it’s time to start creating your own instruction manual for a smooth and safe flight.
Much career turbulence can be minimized by formulating and sticking to some accepted strategies for your new business. Joseph Borman of Minneapolis chose a solo career right out of law school. He never considered anything else, finds his career very rewarding, and never looked back. Borman recommends minimizing office overhead for your start-up practice. Maintaining flexibility in the early months is crucial to finding successful ways to avoid extensive overhead.
Borman relates tales of fellow solo practitioners who rented office space very quickly and collapsed under the weight of playing catch up to meet their bills. He started on a gradual and deliberate plan that allowed him to work out of his home for two to three years while gradually building up his client base. He did have some client meetings in his home, but he also used some flexible options for his early criminal matters, including renting space at low cost in established law firms. Law schools and law libraries may have space available for meeting with clients. Borman also met clients at coffee shops and other public areas.
Borman was so successful after three years of practice using his low overhead plan that he garnered many new clients and eventually took in more than he could handle. He sought the services of a partner, Joan M. Schulkers, who was fresh out of law school.
Schulkers suggests office-sharing with another lawyer to keep rent and other office expenses down. Further, she recommends that using electronic calendaring software, word processing programs, and voice mail instead of hiring a secretary. Schulkers also urges the new solo practitioner to remember that the practice of law can be cyclical, and a lawyer should save enough money during the better collection months for the inevitable dips in income in other months.
Avoid the overhead expense of a library or fancy research tools by relying on the Internet and making good use of law libraries in your jurisdiction. Borman recommends www.thelawengine.com as a great starting off point for all your legal research needs. Many local law libraries will fax cites or opinions for the asking. Borman is adept at using library resources in person for research. He also makes use of local law schools and their library resources. Most will have the full collection of state’s published opinions on CD-ROM.
Bar association dues can be money well spent in your first years of practice. (And many times your first year’s dues are free!) Many state or local bar associations have form banks, legal search engines, referral services, meeting rooms, and other resources for free or low cost to members. Borman’s state bar association offers court system opinions on its site for members. Many court systems now offer websites with downloadable forms, court rules, and indexed opinions.
When you are stuck in an ethical quandary, many states offer free and confidential ethics opinions. Your malpractice insurer may also have form banks, free CLE, technical support, practice management recommendations, and phone support. Borman recommends that you look up the ABA link on “Risk Management Resources” ( www.abanet.org/legalservices/lpl/preventionlibrary.html) for guidelines.
Part two on this series on setting up your own office will deal with marketing. It will be featured in our next issue.
Gretchen Otto is a lawyer and freelance writer living in Northern Virginia. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.