September 01, 2017

Building a Practice: Starting Out Solo

Gabriel Cheong

The “Great Recession” was a tough time to find a job, and it was also a tough time to start a law practice as a new law school graduate, but that’s where I found myself in 2007. Even though I didn’t know what I was going to do when I graduated, I knew that hanging my shingle might have to be a reality. So in my 3L year, I had the foresight to borrow more student loans than I needed in order to fund whatever endeavor I decided upon after law school. Student loans plus a small loan from family provided me the seed money for my law practice.

After I took the bar exam and before I learned the results, I spent my free time researching and reading all about law practice management and how to practice law. I quickly discovered that what you learn in law school has no practical application to real-life practice. I also found out that law school does not teach you how to start or run a law firm. The good news is that there are myriad free sources online to teach you how to run a law practice, and I tried to absorb as much information as I could before I was sworn in.

My free time was also spent networking with other attorneys. They were happy to help mentor me, and I took their advice and incorporated it into my developing practice and style. I joined civic groups and bar associations so I could meet new people. I slowly learned the art of networking, which is a lot more than simply asking for business. It’s developing relationships with people so you can refer them business and make new friends.

While I was waiting for my bar results, I started developing the business plan and branding for my law office, designing letterhead and business cards, and getting phone lines ready. I knew that I had to be very deliberate and careful with how I spent my limited funds because I needed to bootstrap my start-up and make my money last until revenue came in. I had developed a low-cost marketing plan to write lots of content to drive traffic to my website, and I read all about search engine optimization (SEO). I was lucky that I could do all this myself because my undergraduate degree was in computer science, and I could build my first website on my own.

On the day I was sworn into practice, I turned to my neighbor, who was also newly sworn in, and I gave him my brand-new business card. After that, I quickly set up my business banking accounts and trust accounts, and I went about networking every day to drive business. As time went on and I made more money, I revised my business and marketing plan so that the business could grow faster. Three years into my law practice, I hired my first associate. Now, ten years in, I’m still constantly working on the business, but I’ve also put in place systems that allow the practice to run by itself without my daily input.

The practice and business of law have evolved and gotten much easier owing to technology. A new lawyer can now bootstrap a law start-up very efficiently and cheaply, whereas a couple decades ago this wouldn’t have been possible. With technology, dedication, drive, and some luck, I believe any new attorney can start out solo.


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