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May 09, 2012 Articles

A Recent Graduate's Toolbox for Building a Law Practice

By Sofia S. Lingos

The phrase "hang your shingle" is commonly used to define a lawyer's bold decision to embark on a formidable journey toward self-employment. This locution clearly oversimplifies the process that goes into finally opening one's doors. For that reason, I prefer the analogy "build your house." As a young lawyer and entrepreneur, I chose to build my own practice directly out of law school, and through research, experience, and trials and errors, I have created a toolbox of ideas that can be used to build your house.

Drafting Plans
As a business-law practitioner, my first inquiry to a new client is whether or not he or she has developed a business plan. Unfortunately, all too often, the answer is no. A business cannot achieve success without a clear plan analyzing one's current identity, resources, and goals and setting a distinct timeline for plan implementation. Copious planning will save time, frustration, and money.

There are a plethora of reasons leading attorneys build their own practice. Whether one's entrepreneurial business spirit and creative passions are being stifled by working for "the man" or one is beginning a temporary endeavor until other career opportunities become available, before you begin to build your house, you must decide into which category you fall. Are you going to rent or buy into your practice?

Renting is a growing field in this economy for new graduates and displaced practitioners alike. If you plan to rent, you will be developing and promoting your practice to make yourself a more attractive candidate for your future dream job. One should be frugal with infrastructure and careful with self-promotion. You are not only selling yourself to potential clients but also to possible employers. You want to demonstrate to firms that you emulate their ideals and, if possible, that they are better off working with you than competing against you. Know your audience, research and identify potential firms with whom you would like to work, and notify them of your interest and temporary plans. Offer contract work at a discounted rate to begin forming relationships and allow them the opportunity to observe and appreciate your work. This route allows you to keep your legal abilities keen, practice business-development skills, and hopefully generate an income.

If you have committed yourself to buying into your practice, congratulations! You are ready to invest in infrastructure, develop your brand, promote your practice, and prepare for the challenging and rewarding path ahead. Get ready to build your house.

Construction Crew
As attorneys, we are service providers; therefore, the investment is in self-development rather than inventory. You have a Juris Doctor, a bar card, and at least a modicum of practical legal experience. The next step is to evaluate your skill set, explore your interests, and determine the area of law in which you wish to practice. Become a specialist; general practice is a risky endeavor. You cannot be great at everything, and it is difficult to distinguish yourself as an expert. Knowledge is power. Identify and utilize continuing education resources. The practice of law requires a commitment to a lifetime of learning.

There will be times when a task you encounter is outside of your skill set, and the opportunity cost to learn the task is outweighed by the ability to hire someone else to do the job. This is reflected in both legal and nonlegal work. Compile and keep a list of reputable attorneys in each legal area in which you do not practice. Build a personal relationship with this network and inform them of your intentions to provide them with referrals. Hopefully, they will do the same for you.

With regard to staffing, hiring full-time employees is a costly and complicated risk. These individuals depend on you for a consistent paycheck and require space. Additionally, you have to comply with state and federal employment guidelines and deal with human-resource issues. Evaluate your staffing needs and plan for growth. Will you need a secretary, a receptionist, a paralegal, an IT expert, a marketing manager, and/or an accountant? Outsourcing work to virtual and contract employees can fulfill many of your needs without incurring the costs associated with maintaining a full-time staff.

Finding a mentor and cultivating a personal-development relationship with more experienced individuals who are willing to advise you on particular matters are imperative when practicing on your own. Locate experts in your practice areas, in marketing, in practice management, and in other fields in which you will inevitably need advice. The alumni relations department of your law school, local and national bar organizations, former professors and employers, and active, more senior attorneys in your field are all excellent options for finding a mentor. The best mentors will find satisfaction in merely sharing their expertise, but do consider what you can bring to the table in return. Offer assistance with social media or share articles that you think may be of interest. Do not forget to maintain the relationship after it has been formed.

Breaking Ground
As with any business, you must make an initial financial investment to yield returns. You should determine how much you have, how much you need, how much you can obtain, and how long you can survive. Recognize the amount of nonbillable time that will go into getting your business off the ground. Invest time in researching the most cost-efficient business solutions available. Create a budget and stick to it. Make sure to detail your expenses. The majority of start-up businesses operate at a loss for at least their first year. Do not let this reality disappoint you, and instead stick to your plan and, if necessary, seek contract employment to supplement your income.

The Lot
Your office is more than just a room with a desk. Consider your locale and spatial needs. Can you work in a home office without being distracted? Can you afford to buy? Does a virtual office provide you with the support you require? Is shared space available? How much room do you need for staff and growth? Each option has costs and benefits. If you are interested in shared space, do not just consider those that are advertised—be proactive. If you are familiar with an office that you think would fit your needs, contact management directly and propose the idea of leasing office space, utilizing their conference rooms, or receiving mail at their address.

Establish a permanent address. After finding a space, moving in, decorating, and hooking up your telecommunication services, another move is costly in both time and money. Your address is part of your identity. What does your zip code say about your practice? Can you charge 90210 prices? Additionally, once you have printed your address and marketed it to your contacts and clients, you want to maintain consistency.

The Foundation
Forming a legal structure and registering your business is important because it helps you to protect yourself from personal-liability issues, tax consequences, partnership relationships, and state and federal regulations. There are numerous legal structures available. Common organizational structures for solo practitioners and small firms include sole proprietorships, general partnerships, professional corporations, S-corporations, limited liability companies, or limited liability partnerships. If you begin as a sole proprietor, you can avoid quarterly filings and registration fees, but you are not shielding your personal assets from liability. If you register under a more formalized legal structure, you are afforded more protection, but it comes at a cost. This decision should be made in the beginning stages of your practice, as your legal name should contain the suffix reflecting the selected structure.

Laying Bricks
Initial investments in equipment are costly, but there are some items you must have. Invest in a computer with adequate storage, a fast processor, encryption capabilities, antivirus protection, and a business-office program. Review the service packages and purchase additional protection that provides immediate service, loaner equipment, and, if necessary, a replacement device. Purchase an external drive and keep it in a separate location from your computer, backing up your files daily. Consider a cloud storage service to store your files virtually in a second location.

You can purchase an all-in-one printer/scanner/fax machine, but if this equipment fails, you do not have a backup option. Choose a laser printer for speed and cost efficiency. As opposed to installing a separate fax line, there are inexpensive electronic fax services, such as eFax, where everything is done directly from your desktop. A smartphone is essential, as you are expected to be accessible at all times. For an inexpensive alternative to a traditional business line, you can create a free, customized local number through Google Voice that will forward calls directly to your mobile phone. This includes caller identification, personalized greetings, voice mail transcriptions, and many other useful features. There are also inexpensive web-based plans through Skype. Invest in the necessary equipment up front so that you are prepared to fulfill your clients' needs.

Develop a toolbox of resources to assist you in your practice. Find a free or low-cost law library where you can access the resources you need. These may include law school, social law, courthouse, or other government libraries. Compile lists of free online resources and create a document with direct access to each of their links. There are numerous sites available, but a few to get you started include FindLaw, Nolo, and Justia.

Purchase a time- and client-management program. If you already utilize Outlook, there is an inexpensive option available called Credenza that integrates directly with your Outlook account. Other popular, but more expensive, services include Clio and Rocket Matter. Download the free trials first to see which programs offer you the tools you need.

Select accounting software that allows you to map out your financial plan. Open a business bank account and trust account. Inquire into the benefits and fees associated with each. Create a relationship with the branch manager who deals with small businesses or small law firms. Utilize a credit card solely dedicated to business expenses to assist you in itemizing your purchases for tax purposes. Take advantage of business-expense tax deductions. Compartmentalize your tools in an organized fashion and continue to build your resource bank.

Risk aversion can be accomplished through insurance. Malpractice is not the only coverage to be considered, though it is imperative to have in place. Limitation of liability as a registered legal entity does not protect one from all possible claims. Though the overhead may seem high, mistakes do happen. You must also consider your options and personal need for health, disability, and life insurance. Make sure you are protected from property-liability claims involving your office space. Insurance is not a legal requirement in many states, but operating without protection can result in irreparable consequences.

Selling Your House
Your house is built; now it is time to put it on the market. Hanging a shingle will not result in an immediate client base. Moreover, it may induce a myriad of other professionals to offer their services for a cost. Do not take the bait. As lawyers, we learn how to teach ourselves new skill sets with each novel matter we face. As solo practitioners, marketing is just another challenge.

The For-Sale Sign
You must first begin to develop your brand. Notify colleagues, contacts, and potential clients that your doors are open for business. Build a virtual presence by establishing accounts through social media and developing a website. Even referral-based practices need an online presence. When a potential client wants to confirm the legitimacy of your business, he or she will turn to the web. Various website hosts are available. My experience with GoDaddy is that it is both economical and user-friendly. There are design programs and other website-building tools available to complete the task independently. However, if you do hire a web designer, make sure that you have access to the site for updates. Otherwise, you may incur charges every time you want to add a new article or accomplishment or make other alterations.

LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter are the most widely utilized social-media outlets. These accounts can be established in minutes and allow your audience to be virtually endless. LinkedIn is a business-oriented networking site. It is a great place to follow your colleagues, join virtual interest groups, and promote your practice for free. Facebook is a more socially oriented networking site that also allows you to create a business page. Twitter provides real-time updates on topics and individuals of interest to you and allows you to create virtual relationships with like-minded people and entities.

Blogging is another way to gain recognition and share your expertise. No longer is there an editor that stands in the way of you disseminating your message. Now, with the click of a button, your audience receives a monthly, weekly, or daily update. Many attorneys are taking it a step further and filming YouTube videos to create a personalized connection with potential clients and to share legal advice. There are also a variety of free online directories where you can add your business listing. Do not forget to join legal sites such as Avvo and Martindale.

Many of your messages may be delivered virtually, but there are advantages to producing a printed product. At the very least, you must have a business card. These can be produced almost instantly at many print shops and overnight via inexpensive online printers. VistaPrint offers copious options for printed marketing materials. Make sure to hang your shingle in as many windows as possible.

Joining a Board
Get out from behind your desk. Do not just join bar associations, but become an active member. Your colleagues are the best referral sources. Get involved with organizations other than legal associations—volunteer, attend a church, or join organizations that are relevant to your practice, such as a small-business group or a real-estate board. After you initiate a relationship, have a contact-management plan in place to continue cultivating these connections. Actively assist others in building their network. Be seen as a leader. If a group does not exist, build it. These undertakings can be laborious and time-consuming, so undergo trial periods where you evaluate the benefits that each offer and commit yourself to those that provide the best return.

The Realtor
As an entrepreneurial legal practitioner, you play many roles, but never forget that you must constantly sell your services. Always be conscious of your behavior in public, because your reputation is your most valuable asset. Hand out your business card to everyone you meet. Develop your elevator speech and deliver it to anyone who will listen. Use your company name to sponsor a neighborhood activity. Be creative and get actively involved. Make yourself known as "a" lawyer, establish yourself as "the" lawyer, and, hopefully, you will become "their" lawyer.

Maintaining Your House
After you build your practice, you must constantly engage in home maintenance. Do not let all of your hard work go to waste. Each new client provides a novel challenge and experience. Revisit your business plan often; it should evolve with your practice. Though your clients should always take priority, do not forget that if you neglect your house, it will fall.

Keywords: litigation, solo practitioner, small firms, small business

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