I’m Ready to Start My Own Law Practice—What Are the Pitfalls?

Kerry M. Lavelle
You cannot get clients by sitting at your desk waiting for the phone to ring. Be present in the community where clients and referral sources exist.

You cannot get clients by sitting at your desk waiting for the phone to ring. Be present in the community where clients and referral sources exist.

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Kerry Lavelle is the author of The Business Guide to Law: Creating and Operating a Successful Law Firm and The Early-Career Guide for Attorneys: Starting and Building a Successful Career in Law. Both books are available to purchase at Shop ABA.

Congratulations to you! Either by design, or necessity, you are going to hang out your shingle and become your own boss in the practice of law. But running a successful law practice takes more than a fancy sign. Consider these words of wisdom, based on experience.

Ensure Quality

Are you ready to do A+ work? The law profession has no room for C and B players. It is a profession where only A+ players survive. If you worked for a law firm in the past and got great training, you are probably prepared. If you have never worked at a law firm or are coming right out of school, you may need mentoring. Join bar associations and attend meetings, particularly in your substantive area of the law, and learn from seasoned professionals. One benefit the profession of law does possess is wonderfully experienced lawyers willing to mentor young attorneys and teach them about the practice of law. Take advantage of their wisdom.

Client Development

Now you need clients. You cannot get clients by sitting at your desk waiting for the phone to ring. Be present in the community where clients and referral sources exist. Join the local Chamber of Commerce, attend meetings, and volunteer. If you have a specialty niche practice, join the relevant bar associations and talk to lawyers that do not handle the type of work that you do. You would be a perfect referral for them.

Join an industry group. Whether you are passionate about manufacturing, retail sales, healthcare, or technology, join an industry group and start meeting players that work in that field. Remember, you are there to network and meet people. You must attend meetings, volunteer your time, and when invited, take a leadership role in committees and philanthropy projects. Developing your client base is more than just social networking; it is building a “lead-generating system” for your law office.

Client Management

All facets of generating leads must be coordinated in a unified system.

Make sure you have a great website and that you constantly update the website with quality content. Twice a month, publish and post a new article. Along with a website, be active on at least two social media platforms. LinkedIn and Facebook are good places to start. Different social media platforms lend themselves to different kinds of practice groups. A person looking for an estate plan might find you on Facebook while a person looking for a defense lawyer for a recent DUI might do a Google search. Be active on the social media platforms and Internet portals where your clients can find you.

Do not let inbound telephone calls from potential clients go to voicemail. Hire a live operator, or pick up the phone yourself, and be ready to be hired on the first inbound call. Remember, do not give legal advice over the telephone. Listen to their story and invite them into the office for a consultation. You will increase your chances of being hired if you schedule an appointment in your office and demonstrate to them your passion and knowledge in the area in which they need your assistance.

Attorney Fees

Examine your fee structure. While you should be committed to pro bono work, your practice cannot survive without paying clients. Examine your fee structure and issue invoices that will be paid. Cash flow management is essential to the survival of your law practice.

If it is a flat fee project like residential real estate, immigration, or a business start-up, ask for a partial retainer, if possible, and make the arrangements for the final payment very clear in the retainer letter. If it is hourly work, make sure your client signs a retainer letter and gives you a partial retainer at the time of being hired.

Getting Paid

To ensure clients pay their bills, they need to understand how hard you are working for them. Where appropriate, copy the client on all correspondence and have them review all drafts of documents intended to be filed in court and contracts before they are sent to opposing counsel. Have the client fully engaged in your work product. For every court hearing, send the client a copy of the court order with a letter explaining in plain English what happened in court and when the next court date is scheduled. Have the client attend as many court hearings as he or she can attend. That way, the client will see how hard you are working on their behalf and understand how a simple status hearing can last a few hours when the judge is late, cases are delayed in getting called, and the general disruptions in the court call.

If you do not make it a priority to be paid in a timely fashion, the client never will. If you wait until the bill is 90 days late before you call the client, there is an expectation that a bill is not late until it is 90 days past due. You will not be able to pay your bills timely when clients pay you late. Once a bill is approximately 20 days past due, call and email the client to discuss the bill and make it clear that you need to be paid in a timely manner. These conversations are not easy, but they are necessary for you to pay your own expenses.

Solidify the Client Relationship

Look at every client as a client for life. Even if they do not need your services in the future, they may become the best referral source for your next client or clients. Every step along the way remind yourself that if you do a great job, this client may hire you again or lead to new clients. You want the client to call you first for every legal need and recommend you to their friends and family. To ensure this, you must be timely in responding to the client, take all necessary phone calls when the client calls, and return phone calls and emails within 24 hours. When the case is done or the business transaction closed, stay in touch with the client about every six months with informative emails, newsletters from your office, and general legal information that has value to them or their business. Remember, this is your career and you are building a business. Make sure that the client remembers to call you first for all legal needs.

New clients are the lifeblood of a law practice, and you need to create a lead-generating system to get the phone ringing. Combine smart investments to get your name out in the community and network to meet people and develop their trust in you to be their attorney. All the clients in the world do not matter if they do not pay you, and they will pay you if you demonstrate that you are working hard for them. Do this by being responsive to their inquiries and by sending them copies of all the work you produce on their behalf.

By following the path set forth in this article, success is your only option. Good luck!

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Kerry M. Lavelle is a shareholder and founding partner of Lavelle Law. He is the author of The Business Guide to Law: Creating and Operating a Successful Law Firm and The Early-Career Guide for Attorneys: Starting and Building a Successful Career in Law. Both books are available to purchase at Shop ABA.