January 2011 | Glass Ceiling or Hot Air?
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Making Your Dream a Reality: Tips for Owning Your Own Firm  

By Lisa Harris Jones


Following these six tips will not only help you become your own boss, but they will also help keep your practice operating to its full potential once you reach your goal of self employment.

Whether you have considered hanging out a shingle or have been self-employed for years, the dream of being your own boss comes with many challenges. Below are a few tips to help you make your dream a reality.

(1) Have a plan.

If I could impart only one piece of advice on those seeking to open their own firm, I would encourage them first and foremost to have a plan.

Before you make the leap, develop a portable book of business that will follow you to your new firm. This requires building relationships with your clients. If they trust you and genuinely believe in your abilities, they will stand by you as you set out on your own.

Next, sit down with your accountant. Understand what it is going to cost to lease your office space, to purchase your computer, to design your letterhead and pay your staff. Determine what services you intend to offer and what rates you can charge based on your skills and experience.

Developing a name for yourself is going to take some time, so be patient. It is important to be reasonable with your salary until your cash flow begins to stabilize. In most cases, this is going to require a pay cut in the short turn.

Then, take the gut check to see if you: (a) have the clientele; (b) can cover your overhead; and (c) can afford a pay cut, in order to get your business off the ground. I would hate to see bright, ambitious lawyers abandon the dream of owning their own firms simply because they had not taken the time to set the proper foundation.

(2) Be confident.

If you have heeded the first bit of advice, you are well on your way to a successful practice, so congratulations! Give yourself a pat on the back, because there will be no fireworks and no firm meeting to celebrate your accomplishment. It is just you and, hopefully, your administrative assistant. It is time to understand that the success or failure of this venture rests squarely on your shoulders.

You are now the Chairman, President, CEO, Director of Marketing, Chief Financial Officer, Disciplinarian and Rainmaker of “Insert Name Here,” Incorporated. Ah yes, and you are also an attorney with contracts to review, pleadings to file and clients to service. You are going to encounter difficult situations, many with which you have never dealt. This may include everything from the first time you have to reprimand your new assistant for oversleeping to the thrill of filing your first collection action on a deadbeat client; all things which you probably never had to do when you called someone else “boss.” Needless to say, you are going to feel overwhelmed at times. No matter what the challenge, face it confidently. You are not the first person to climb this mountain and you will not be the last.

With every rule there is at least one exception. In this case, do not let overconfidence be your downfall. It is extremely difficult to turn away a paying client, especially when you are just getting started. However, do not bite off more than you can chew. Taking on more work that you are capable of servicing will lead quickly to disgruntled clients and expose you to a malpractice suit.

(3) Be an expert.

It does you no good to be a jack of all trades and a master of none. One of the keys to developing a name for yourself is to become an expert in a particular subject matter. This is not accomplished overnight. It will take many years of hard work and requires constant sharpening of your skills. However, clients will eventually come to you because you have built a reputation as a leader in a particular area, be it contracts, litigation, government relations, medical malpractice, etc.

So, find a practice area that stimulates you and seek out ways to build your understanding of it. This includes reading journal articles, reviewing the law, talking to other practitioners, attending events with other experts in the field and, most importantly, being published.

Publication does not necessarily mean drafting a 50 page journal article (though this is certainly impressive). Publication can be as simple as writing an op-ed for a local newspaper or a short paper for a legal magazine, like Law Practice Today. However, the best publicity is the kind that comes to you. News articles written about your accomplishments offer unbiased third party credibility and can bolster your status as an expert in your practice area very quickly.

Also, develop connections with experts in other practice areas. These relationships can provide mutually-beneficial referrals and advice on discrete issues that will arise from time to time. I have friends with practices in employment, tax and corporate law with whom I share clients and ask questions of on a regular basis.

(4) Volunteer.

Get involved in a peer building or advocacy organization as a volunteer. Organizations like the local women’s or county bar association are great places to meet other practitioners and are constantly looking for individuals to help lead events and projects. These groups also provide excellent opportunities for seeking guidance, mentorship and resources to help you build your business. Other organizations you may want to seek out are chambers of commerce or non-profits in your community. These groups can expose you to a broader spectrum of strong women and men in a variety of businesses, non-profits and governmental capacities while simultaneously allowing you to give back to your community. Some of my best referrals have come from other practitioners and business leaders with whom I worked as a volunteer.

(5) Foster your relationships.

It is important to remember all of the people who got you to where you are today. Before you opened your firm, you were a daughter, son, sister, brother, mother, father, aunt, uncle, best friend and partner to many people. Despite your best efforts to juggle the mountain of commitments in your life, your six year old will never understand why a meeting with your biggest client means you will not be there to walk him to the bus on his first day of school. And your significant other, as patient as they may be, will still feel slighted when an office-related emergency forces you to cancel your dinner reservations. When these things happen – and they will – be sure to remind all of the people you love how much they mean to you. Make time to foster the personal relationships that have made you a success.

(6) Get certified.

Many states, counties and municipalities have procurement opportunities specifically set aside for woman-owned and minority-owned businesses, also known as “women business enterprises” (WBEs) and minority-owned enterprises (MBEs). Generally speaking, it is easy to become a certified WBE or MBE, which can allow you to contract your services to businesses bidding for public works contracts and even provide services directly to government agencies. Most jurisdictions have WBE and MBE goals for their procurement of between 5% and 20% of the total contract price, requiring businesses and agency officials to use their best efforts to include businesses like yours. My firm has built a significant practice providing contract advice, labor negotiation and other legal counsel to local governments and businesses in the construction industry that work on publicly-funded projects.

About the Author

Lisa Harris Jones

, Esq. is the Managing Member of Harris Jones & Malone, LLC, a woman and minority business enterprise law firm based in Baltimore, Maryland. Her practice is focused primarily on state and local government relations in Maryland, and also includes business, contract and real property law. For more information about Ms. Jones, please visit www.mdlobbyist.com.

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