Last fall I left my job as a senior litigation associate at a big firm to start my own boutique commercial litigation practice. So, how did I do it? Over the past few months, dozens of big firm associates have asked me that same thing. Inevitably, the follow-up question comes: “How did you get clients?” They have come in such varied and random ways that it is impossible to boil it down to a formula.
To my mind, the key to successfully leaving the big firm and starting your own practice has little to do with trying to “get clients” and everything to do with methodically preparing for the rigors, responsibilities, and rewards of being the star of your own show. I think “getting clients” is a by-product of that sound preparation. What follows is a ten-step road map that I created as I prepared to leave my big firm. Bear in mind, it is a process, and it takes a while.
1. Define your own success. Life in the big firm is all-consuming and hierarchical with a vengeance. Many associates eventually come to equate success with making partner. When it finally sets in, it means that you have stopped defining success for yourself and instead allowed an institution to define it for you. Therefore, as your first step, you must reclaim the right to define your own success. The world offers unlimited opportunities for smart, ambitious, well-trained lawyers. It is absurd to assume that your highest calling is climbing the ladder in the particular big firm that happened to be your place of employment in the first few years of your legal career.
2. Get over losing a rigged game. If you are seriously considering starting your own law practice, almost certainly you are an ambitious, competitive individual accustomed to setting goals and achieving them. At one point or another, making partner at the big firm was probably a goal. Leaving the big firm means abandoning that hope. And, especially for those who are senior enough to have actually been passed over for partner, it can feel like admitting personal defeat. Get over it! There is no shame in not making partner at the big firm. The logic of the model requires that many great lawyers will be passed over for partnership. Beyond that, look at the lives of big firm partners. Some are quite happy, but many are not.
3. Throw away your crutches. You also need to begin taking stock of what the big firm life may have done to you. Often it is a life of enormous pressure, extremely long hours, and not enough sleep. Associates often respond, over time, in ways that are unhealthy. And all too often, these “crutches” are widely accepted within their firm’s culture. So, if you are going to succeed in your own practice, you may need to fix some things about yourself. When you start your own firm, you need to be physically, mentally, and emotionally ready to handle not only the pressures of starting a business, but also your clients’ fears, concerns, and needs.
4. Save your pennies. You also need to mind your money. Starting your own firm actually costs less than many might imagine, but it does cost money. So you need a start-up fund. As a big firm associate, you are earning a very healthy salary. Saving enough money to start your own practice is totally doable. Associates often ask me just how much money they need to set aside to start. My answer: as much as possible. Personally, I set aside enough to cover my start-up costs and to pay for my life and business overhead for six months—meaning that I could have survived even if I hadn’t brought in a nickel for half a year.
5. Get your significant other’s okay on the plan. You cannot start your own law practice unless your spouse or significant other is 100 percent on board. That means he or she needs to understand that you will be giving up a reliable salary while also spending a great deal of up-front capital with unknown revenue prospects. More than that, he or she needs to recognize the real possibility that the venture could fail, that you will run through substantial savings, and that in six, eight, or ten months, you could find yourself out there looking for a job.
6. Make two lists to ensure success. For this step, you will sit down and make two very important lists. The first list is your “referral” list, which will include everyone you know who could send or refer business to you. Buy a good contacts database software program and input their mailing addresses and e-mail addresses. This will be the list you use to send announcement cards for your new practice. The second list is your “role model” list. It will include every lawyer you know who has started his or her own firm; each time you meet other lawyers who have launched their own firms, you will add them to this list.
7. Build alliances one lunch at a time. Next, proceed to take everyone on your “role model” list to lunch. They have been in your shoes. They are invaluable resources.
Ask about their billing rate. Ask about malpractice insurance and support staff issues. Ask how they back up their data. You will receive great advice and loads of encouragement. Not only that, but down the road these role models are likely to remember you and your enthusiasm, and they may refer business to you.
8. Get out of the office. If your objective is to start your own law firm, then you’ve got to make it a priority to meet other lawyers. Bar association events are excellent places to meet other solo and boutique practitioners, who are natural allies and referral sources. Others may have different social settings that are more to their liking. You need to get away from your desk and start meeting people, wherever, whenever, however you can.
9. Appreciate the gifts your firm gave you. Now is the time to give credit where it is due. Ask yourself, what has the big firm done for you? A lot, actually. You have a start-up fund because the firm paid you a good salary. You have good relationships with many prominent members of the bar because the firm gave you an opportunity to work with these first-rate lawyers. You have relationships with potential clients because the firm gave you an opportunity to represent them. You have become a seasoned and capable lawyer because you received excellent legal training that will serve as the foundation for the rest of your career.
10. Walk out the door to applause. Now it is time to gracefully exit the big firm to launch your own firm. Pick a date to leave and give plenty of notice. Make a list of the colleagues you want to tell in person. Start making the rounds. As for poaching clients on your way out, my general advice is: don’t. Finally, prepare a departure e-mail to send to all those you have worked with at the firm.
For More about the ABA Law Practice Management Section
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