- As a new attorney, the idea of opening your own firm is intimidating. Your career is just taking off, you don’t have a sizeable clientele, maybe not even sizeable capital.
As a new attorney, the idea of opening your own firm is difficult and intimidating. Your career is just taking off, you do not have a sizeable clientele, maybe not even sizeable capital. You may still be very new in the courtroom, or may have no experience at all. You have book knowledge, but may be lacking the practical knowledge that grows over time. In starting my own firm, I learned of some of the pitfalls that plague new attorneys, not just as a new litigator, but as a new business owner.
Over the course of a year, I have started to learn the some of the ins and outs and functions of a solo practitioner. Those include making sure to not run afoul of the Rules of Professional Conduct, but also how to best optimize my time, understand case management software, manage discovery without the manpower of a large firm, and how to collaborate with other firms around me. Reaching out to the seasoned attorneys who know way more than you does not show that you do not have the capability to do the work, but rather that you are willing to learn how to do the work correctly.
As your practice starts to grow, the risk of crossing the professional conduct rules can grow. This is not to say that you need to live in a perpetual state of fear or chaos, but you must keep track of your practice and your clientele. This article offers guidance to new practitioners who are not sure where to start.
So, you just got licensed and want to strike out on your own. What do you do? One of the first things you should do is to find a mentor. Find someone you can shadow and lean on when you have questions or concerns. “Hanging your shingle” is intimidating and isolating enough on its own, so having support and someone you can speak to and ask questions of is imperative. Additionally, when you are out on your own, you do not have someone above you to monitor your progress or to give you critiques. In many ways, this can leave you feeling as though you are not doing well or progressing in your career. Having someone to speak to will keep you accountable and feeling like you are on track. Also, it is best to reach out to “seasoned attorneys.” They know the ropes and are an excellent resource. Make sure that you ask them as many questions as possible. They’ll be willing to help. They will not look at you as if you are incompetent for not knowing the answer, because they understand that everyone had to start from somewhere. If you fail to ask now, you will never understand why you are doing what you are doing, or find out if what you are doing is correct. Additionally, speaking with the seasoned attorneys also helps you build rapport with them. You never know who you might be working alongside or against in the future.
After you’ve gotten your mentor, the next step is setting up your firm to run efficiently. You can glean a lot of information about running your firm from online CLE courses. Not only will you be able to get CLE credit, but they contain a wealth of knowledge. Many CLEs discuss the pros and cons of running a business and law firm and it will help you weigh the cost and benefit of the starting a firm. For example, one I particularly enjoyed watching had to deal with case management software. So many different types of case management software are out there that it can feel a little overwhelming. The good news is that when you are starting out on your own, you do not have a massive caseload and can spend time testing out different software. Take advantage of the companies that have free trials, learn which software works for you and run with it. Also, if you do not have a lot of capital in the beginning of your practice, investigate free billing/case management software and then you can later ease into one of more expensive software programs.
Now that you have your software and have all the pieces to run your firm, how do you get and retain clientele? When I started out, I began with court-watching. Court-watching is an essential part of learning the ropes of any courthouse you go into. Not only do you get to learn the flow of the courtroom, but you will meet a lot of “seasoned attorneys” that way. I began by taking court appointments. Taking appointments not only will grow your practice, but you will rapidly gain court experience. As you gain clients, you will need to start getting into a groove with how to deal with your clientele and stick with it. As the lawyer, you are to be that stable, confident force in the courtroom to guide your clients through this difficult process. Go easy on yourself as you gain your footing. The legal field is already stressful enough, and there is no need to add additional pressure on yourself by being hard on yourself. You are still learning! Once you find your footing, keep the structure and framework that you started with in the beginning. Be consistent when you find what works for you. One great piece of advice I can give regarding starting on the right foot is to make sure to calendar EVERYTHING. The best thing to do when you get a new case is to look at the statute timeline requirements and calendar in the statute of limitations date. Give yourself a few weeks before each case deadline to refresh where you are on the case. Each month, try and check in with your clients. It will keep you on track for your cases, as well as let your clients know that you care. This helps grow your reputation of being a litigator who cares.
In addition to calendaring all of your dates for your cases, keep your personal calendar close by and make sure to block out some time to take care of yourself (i.e. vacations, self-care days). You cannot work efficiently and ethically if you do not take care of yourself. One of the major violations of the Rules of Professional Conduct is failure to check for conflicts. One of the first things I learned when I started on my own was to have a great system for checking conflicts. Some case management software will help with checking conflicts, and that should play a factor into which software you chose. However, if you are just starting out you may not have the capital to get the most expensive software out there. Another option may be to use spreadsheets that help you easily see any potential conflicts before taking a case. Also, when you are first starting, you may be eager to take on as many clients as you possibly can, however, make sure that you pace yourself and give yourself time to get your footing on the new cases you gain. After all, you cannot be efficient if you are overwhelmed from the start.
Now that you have gained some clientele and are working your cases, another major part of your cases is discovery. As someone on your own, you don’t have the manpower backing you, and yet you still need to know what is going on in all the discovery. The best way is to try and get the discovery as soon as you can (i.e. as soon as you file your case, go ahead and ask for discovery). Get binders for the discovery and label the front of the binder with what is in it. Use tabs so that you can keep track of what is within each binder. PACE, PACE, PACE yourself when reviewing discovery. Some days are going to be longer than others when you are reviewing your discovery. However, make sure that you give yourself breaks. Remember, the goal is to run your practice efficiently and succinctly, you cannot do that if you are exhausted.
While this is not an exhaustive list of tips or tricks, hopefully some of these provide guidance in the future. Remember, hanging your own shingle is no small feat, so make sure that you are knowledgeable about the market in which you plan on opening your practice and realize that it takes a lot of work, but it is something that many attorneys have risen to the occasion for and if you believe you can do it, you absolutely can.