GP MENTOR: Opening an Office on a Shoestring Budget

Vol. 31 No. 1

By

Joseph Dang (joseph@josephdanglaw.com) is a personal injury attorney in San Diego, California.

All you need to start a law firm is your bar membership, a computer, and a phone. To be honest, though, practicing law with just those three wouldn’t be enjoyable.

If you want to open an office on a shoestring budget, you have to be smart with your initial purchases.

Minimum Requirements to Open a Law Firm

When opening an office, you have to ask: Do you need an office? Maybe you can work at home and meet clients at a local coffee shop. Perhaps all you need is a virtual office where you get a mailing address, answering service, and access to a conference room. At the upper end of a shoestring budget, you can splurge on an executive suite. Rates vary, so check frequently to find an office that fits your budget. Finally, you can see if any law firms are subleasing an office within their firm. This also has the added benefit of potential referral or overflow work. If you need furniture, scour Craigslist for fire sales. Some great deals can be found.

So what kind of computer and telephone do you need? A well-priced, reliable laptop makes sense, especially if you are not renting a full-time office. The computer can travel with you from your home to a coffee shop or virtual office. Buy at least two backup hard drives, back up often, and keep the backups in separate locations.

When deciding on a phone system, I would choose a mobile phone before a landline system as it gives you the flexibility to move around town. Plus, you probably already have a mobile phone, so there is no added expense. You don’t need to give out your mobile number. You can grab a number from CallFire (callfire.com) for a couple bucks a month and have calls forwarded to your mobile phone. If you want a landline, then adding a line to your existing home system, or a VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) phone system can be had for a $50 monthly cost for one line.

Eventually, you’re going to need to print, scan, and fax documents. Grab a capable multifunction machine for $99 to $150. For three years I used a multi­function machine that I bought for $130 from Fry’s Electronics. I’ve since upgraded, but the multifunction copier served me well.

You need Internet access, so if you already have it at home, great! Coffee shops usually have free WiFi. Of course, if you’re in an office, you will need to pay for it.

Every lawyer will eventually need malpractice insurance. It’s a significant expense, so you will have to decide for yourself here whether you need it right away or not. Check with your jurisdiction’s requirements regarding malpractice insurance. Definitely purchase coverage when your budget allows it. (For a sobering examination of the risks of delaying coverage, see “Attorney Malpractice Insurance: Who’s Got Your Back?”)

Marketing

You need clients. Without a big budget you can’t afford expensive advertisements, so you need to go after the low-hanging fruit. Depending on location and practice area, the cheapest sources of clients are referrals from family, friends, and business acquaintances. Your friends and family don’t know what you do, so be sure to tell them, tell them often, and tell them some more. Identify one or two potential referral sources a week and make an effort to reach out and meet them.

Setting up a blog and using social media to build relationships organically are also great ways to attract prospects.

Growing into Growth

After the essentials discussed above, there are items you can add when your growth and revenue allow it. This includes nicer furniture, phone systems, computers with multiple screens, and a dedicated scanner. Or maybe you are thinking of adding staff and a larger office space. Once you budget for it, and the cash flow allows it, you can slowly add the pieces you want.

But for now, stick to the basics and you will have your office up and running with minimal investment.

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