Do you ever think of starting your own firm? Many lawyers don’t—and perhaps women advocates are even less likely to consider hanging out their own shingle. While launching a firm may not be for everyone, our goal here is to make the process a little less mystifying for those who might be interested. We’ve just been through it ourselves. In September 2016, after months of brainstorming and preparation, we launched Deutsch Hunt PLLC, our boutique appellate litigation firm. This “first steps” article describes some of the lessons we have learned over the past months. We’ve boiled things down to seven tips we hope will serve as a useful guide to others thinking of starting their own practices.
1. Take Time to Plan
The idea of launching a firm came to us over a year before we launched. Although we can’t remember who first suggested it, we do know that we both thought it was a great idea. We started our planning process slowly with monthly breakfast meetings talking about broad objectives and goals to see if we were on the same page. Once the big picture was clear, about six months before launch, we set up a detailed launch plan, using free online project management software to divvy up tasks and set deadlines. Having a shared “to do” list helped make a huge project manageable, held us both accountable, and kept us on track and motivated as items were checked off week by week and month by month. Careful planning also allowed us to coordinate well so that each of us could finalize other work obligations and take needed personal time while the other kept things moving toward launch. Bar association resources (both ABA and local) proved a tremendous help in identifying the tasks at hand, and helping to find answers.
2. Don’t Be Shy about Seeking Advice
Both in the pre-launch planning phase and post-launch, we have benefited tremendously from the advice of many others who generously shared wisdom gained from their own practices. But you can’t learn from others unless you ask them to share what they know. You need to be willing to take the initiative to ask for help. Pre-launch, we identified the folks we wanted to talk with (other people we knew, some of them just barely, who had started similar firms); made up a list of questions/topics to cover; and scheduled a series of lunches, breakfasts, coffees, etc., to brainstorm with others. It was a true delight to discover how supportive everyone was. Because of others’ willingness to share their experiences, we avoided reinventing the wheel, and got a slew of recommendations on all fronts (service providers, invoicing procedures, practice management software, website design, malpractice insurance, you name it). As we gathered information, we followed leads, researched alternatives, and continued to refine our own launch plan. Post-launch, we have not hesitated to email some of these same folks with specific questions about how best to tweak our procedures to better manage our firm. For example, small things like putting wire transfer information and your firm’s tax identification number on an invoice can help to ensure more timely payments. Basic stuff to anyone who runs their own business, but not so obvious to two appellate lawyers turned entrepreneurs!
3. Know Yourselves
“This above all: to thine own self be true.” Polonius’s oft-quoted advice serves well. Whether launching a solo practice, or partnering with others to start a firm, self-knowledge is key to defining and achieving success. For us, it was important to articulate our priorities and motivations for starting a firm during the brainstorming phase. We discovered two core shared values. We both love the craft of appellate advocacy and wanted to continue practicing at the highest levels. We also shared the goal of maintaining a level of flexibility and control over our practice and our lives. Knowing ourselves and staying true to our shared goal of quality over quantity has allowed us to turn down work, even though startups are generally advised to “say yes to everything.” Knowing ourselves has also helped us play to our comparative advantages in divvying up the many nonlegal tasks involved in running a firm.
4. Make Sure You Have a Business Plan That Matches Your Priorities
If, like us, you want to balance flexibility with high-quality, high-stakes work, you must plan accordingly, because at the end of the day, you still need to keep the lights on! Our business plan furthers our shared priorities in several ways. First, we minimized overhead as much as possible (e.g., a coworking office instead of dedicated office space). Second, we designed our compensation system to take account of periods where we each would be more, or less, able to take on more work. We knew that appellate projects require collaboration, and that both of us should be involved in some way in every project, but wanted to ensure that whoever takes the lead on a project would be fairly compensated for that more extensive role. We also aimed to fairly compensate each other for the significant amount of time we dedicate to pro bono practice. Third, our management agreement, too, reflected our values. Because we value consensus decision making and control over our workload, we designed our agreement to require consultation before taking on new matters, as well as for making other decisions that might otherwise be left to individuals in a different firm’s operating agreement. Finally, we offered creative fee arrangements that reward quality as well as quantity and allow clients to benefit from our low overhead. Such practices helped not only to further our shared priorities, but to distinguish us in the marketplace. Ultimately, there is no one right way to structure your firm’s business plan. But what is certain is that one of the biggest advantages of launching your own firm is being able to creatively design a business model that reflects your values and priorities.
5. Be Adaptable and Learn as You Go
Despite all the planning, there will always be surprises and hiccups along the way. Nothing is written in stone, and any new business should be agile and ready to adapt as needed. In our first months, this has meant improving our engagement and invoicing practices with each new matter, and learning more each day about our relative strengths and weaknesses as lawyers and firm managers, so that we can leverage our comparative skills accordingly. We recognize there are inevitable growing pains, so we are giving it a year before making major changes. We are fully prepared to sit down and reassess the whole caboodle upon completion of our firm’s first year, and have detailed systems in place to help us carefully track finances and productivity, so that we can make changes as needed.
6. Let Your Work Speak
The single best marketing source is the quality of your work, which happily comes at no additional cost for marketing materials or conference attendance! Whether writing a Supreme Court brief, serving as pro bono appointed appellate counsel, providing regulatory analysis, offering appellate advice to trial counsel, serving as a volunteer moot court judge, or whatever your practice leads to, always doing your best work (even if it means taking a loss) will stand you in good stead. Maintaining connections is important too, so that people remember you are there. At the end of the day, good work leads to more good work. Every matter we have worked on so far has come from someone already familiar with the quality of our work.
7. Above All, Have Fun
If you love what you do, it will show.
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