Elisabeth Porter is the founder of Elisabeth Porter, P.A., in Greenacres, Florida. She can be contacted through www.elisabethporterpa.com.
After five years carrying a heavy caseload at the Office of the Public Defender in West Palm Beach, Florida, I decided to take all that I had learned and start my own practice. My first year “flying” solo has been challenging, but also very rewarding. I offer my fellow fledgling solos the following advice for successfully starting your own practice.
1. Be prepared for the investment. My friends warned me that I would need plenty of startup capital. During this economic recession, larger, more established law firms with plenty of capital seem to be weathering the storm, but criminal defense lawyers like me have had trouble finding paying clients. My startup capital was essential to making it past my first quarter as a solo.
2. Ask the experts for help.
While friends can be a great resource, it’s often best to rely on the experts for advice on starting your business. I started by calling the Florida Bar’s Law Office Management Assistance Service (LOMAS) and received a comprehensive checklist with all the information I needed to start my own practice. Contact a similar entity in your state, and take advantage of the free online resources of the ABA General Practice, Solo, and Small Firm Section ( www.abanet.org/genpractice/resources/
3. Establish your business. I sought advice on how to incorporate from an accountant who was referred to me by a successful business owner friend. For me, the best option was to incorporate as a professional association, and I did so with no problems. The accountant even provided the advice for free!
Next, I went to my long-time bank and opened a small business account. They waived the monthly fees for me (another freebie!). I had worked in small businesses before and knew what was required before I went in to meet with the manager, who was very positive about my practice’s possibilities, even in this down economy. I will not be able to obtain a line of credit for the first two years due to the credit crunch; however, I was able to obtain a business credit card.
4. Market yourself. I met a public relations professional who specializes in law firms through the Florida Association of Women Lawyers. I asked her about media opportunities, and she suggested that I establish my own Web site, which I did for less than one hundred dollars. When I was creating my Web site and business cards, I asked the Florida Bar about their current advertising rules for attorneys. Although it took them a couple of weeks, they answered all of my questions, and I am confident that my Web site will meet any new Florida Bar requirements. Make sure to seek similar advice from resources in your own jurisdiction.
5. Research, research. Once you’re on your own, it’s time to get your own subscriptions to legal research services. There is a huge debate right now over what is the best research tool on the market. Many lawyers have chosen to cut back on Westlaw or other subscription services due to the high costs and are opting for Fastcase offered by the Florida Bar because it’s free. However, Westlaw recently offered me a very low introductory price with two months’ free service. Research the options available in your area.
6. Establish your office. The main business expense that most small firms face is office space and phone service. No one in this day and age can run a business without phone service and Internet access. As I’m still establishing my practice and cannot afford to rent the office space I desire, for now I rely on friends with businesses allowing to me to use their conference rooms. I sometimes meet with clients in my home office, a simple room adorned with the requisite law books and degrees. I hope that as business improves, I will be able to move into a formal office shortly. The good news is that the commercial real estate market is great right now, and everyone I know who rents office space is renegotiating!
7. Reap the rewards . . . but keep working.