March 01, 2018 GPSolo

FAMILY LAW: Should I Open a Family Law Office?

By Ben Aguilar

Starting a family law practice is not for the faint of heart. There will be challenges along the way as well as very rewarding experiences. Since opening my solo family law practice, I have experimented extensively and found what works for me and sometimes what needs to be done differently. As you contemplate your own law practice, keep in mind the following practical issues as well as a few professional and personal decisions that must be made before you open your doors.

Logistics. Once my decision to open a practice was made, the first order of business was to organize my contacts list. I was not sure how to use the contacts I had made while working at a small applicant-side workers’ compensation firm, but I understood the importance of having an organized list at the start. I opened an Excel spreadsheet and got to work.

The next order of business was to decide on office space. Based on my experience sharing space with 12 other sole practitioners, I strongly recommend an office-sharing arrangement with attorneys who are facing challenges similar to the ones you face. Their shared experiences and best practices will be invaluable. Another bonus is the potential for cross-referrals.

Business planning. Create a business plan and review it at least quarterly. Set goals and expectations, not only for your business growth, but also for your professional development. Review, strategize, and update goals and projections regularly. Your plan is the lifeblood of your business.

Professional development is key to the solo. Attending conferences, seminars, CLEs, and volunteer opportunities will help you create relationships with other attorneys, the public, and businesses in your community.

Branding and referrals. Traditional advertising can be incredibly expensive, but there are a few nontraditional avenues that are free or inexpensive. As a new sole practitioner, this is where to start the branding process. Establishing and closely monitoring an online presence is important in the early stages of your practice.

Prior to investing money in advertising, I made sure that I had an online presence on LinkedIn, Avvo, and Facebook. Spend some time creating profiles on these sites. If you are not social media savvy or you are not into social media, find a friend or family member to assist you.

Include information that will help you connect with clients on a personal level. For example, I studied in Spain, Russia, and China; a number of potential clients have asked me about my experiences abroad. These potential clients call me because I have a connection to a place they love, their place of origin, or because they know I will understand traditions and cultural aspects of their families.

A few months after I started my practice, clients began to write reviews of my services. At that point, I realized my former clients are my best advertisement. One of my very first clients, a nurse at a local hospital, has become an unstoppable referral source for me. Every time she finds out that a co-worker or patient is getting ready to head to family court, she refers them to me for a consultation.

Never underestimate the reach of your personal and professional network. I have had cases referred to me by family members, high school and college friends, colleagues, former clients, and the occasional random friend-of-a-friend who saw or read a blog post about a case that resembled the facts of his or her case.

I am always interested in finding out how potential clients find me. This is a question I always ask clients during the intake process. You definitely want to invest more time and money in whatever advertising is yielding the best return on investment.

Pros of going solo. Prior to deciding to go solo, I met with a few friends who are sole practitioners and asked them about the benefits and disadvantages of operating a solo practice. They all cited how much they enjoyed being in control of their own schedules.

As a solo, I can freely plan when I can go on vacation, and whether I can make it to family events, and when I want to do community service work. While at a law firm, I had no control over deadlines or the cases assigned to me, which effectively prevented me from committing to volunteer activities. Once I started my solo practice, I quickly returned to my volunteer work in the community, which gives me great satisfaction, keeps me engaged in the practice of law, and informs my law practice.

Another huge advantage of going solo is being able to decide whether to take a particular case. Learn to trust your gut about problem clients. As the owner of your own firm, you may turn away clients without having to explain to anyone why you declined to represent them.

Caring about your client’s situation is one of the most important aspects of whether to take a case. I have been asked to work on cases that would be detrimental to the rights of nontraditional families. I am lucky to be able to turn away those cases that jeopardize rights and protections that should be afforded to all families.

Cons of going solo. No regular paycheck every two weeks, no holiday bonuses, and perhaps no support staff in the early stages of your practice are some of the more obvious disadvantages of a solo practice. However, there are other considerations unique to the family law practitioner. Family law cases can be high-conflict matters, and family law litigants can be emotional, unreasonable, and blinded by the heartache.

You must deal directly with each client until you are able to bring support staff on board. Keep this in mind as you consider whether to represent a new client. Generally, the higher the conflict between the parties, the more time a client will demand from you. You can mitigate these issues by setting realistic client expectations from the inception of the attorney-client relationship and reinforcing that message throughout the case. Keep this in mind when you negotiate your retainer with these clients.

Given that you will be the attorney of record in all your cases, you are responsible for making sure that all work is done properly, that the rights of your clients are protected, and that cases move forward without delay. This can result in long hours and weekend work, but this is not much different from working at a firm. As the business owner, you must work harder to retain desirable clients, but with a business plan in place, the right mentors at your side, and time set aside to develop your brand, you should succeed in growing your business as planned.

What I wish I had known. The practice of family law can be stressful. Some of your cases are likely to impact you in profound and personal ways. Caring about your clients and their problems is part of being a good lawyer and an ethical practitioner.

As a business owner, balancing your professional and personal life can be difficult. Some approaches work better than others. I strive to find time for activities that take my mind off my cases and clients. I also have found that completely disconnecting for a few days is a great way to recharge and regroup. Find things that help you relax and make a point of engaging in those activities regularly.

From your very first client, document the details of your law office procedures and each step of the legal process. This document will evolve over time and will be very useful as your practice grows, particularly once you bring in an intern, secretary, or law clerk. You may know all your clients, their stories, how files are organized, and how to prepare for trial or hearings, but your new staff will not.

Starting a solo family law practice is certainly not easy. Growing your practice takes time and serious dedication. As a family law attorney, you will be providing legal opinions to your clients, but you also will be acting as therapist and friend. Be sure to find time for your family, friends, and the other things that bring joy and excitement to your life.

ABA SECTION OF FAMILY LAW

This article is an abridged and edited version of one that originally appeared on page 6 of Family Advocate, Winter 2016 (38:3).

For more information or to obtain a copy of the periodical in which the full article appears, please call the ABA Service Center at 800/285-2221.

WEBSITE: americanbar.org/family

PERIODICALS: Family Advocate, quarterly magazine (three issues with how-to articles and current trends and a fourth “Client Manual” issue for lawyers and clients); Family Law Quarterly, scholarly journal; Case Update, monthly electronic digest of family law cases nationwide; eNews, monthly electronic newsletter.

CLE AND OTHER PROGRAMS: Monthly webinars, spring/fall conferences, and the ABA Family Law Trial Advocacy Institute, the premier trial training program for family lawyers.

RECENT BOOKS: Cross Examination: A Primer for the Family LawyerUnbundled Legal Services: A Family Lawyer’s GuidePet Law and CustodyDeveloping a Successful Assisted Reproduction Technology Law PracticeElectronic Evidence for Family Law Attorneys.

 

Ben Aguilar

Ben Aguilar is the principal of the Law Offices of Ben Aguilar in San Diego, California.