October 23, 2012

Ask Bill

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November/December 2010 Issue | Volume 36 Number 6 | Page 12

Ask Bill

Q. Bill, I graduated from law school last year and can’t find a job with a law firm. I’m thinking that opening my own practice is probably my only hope right now, but I don’t know how to do it and I don’t have a lot of money to spend. How can I start a practice with no experience and limited resources?

A. I recently had the opportunity to give the keynote speech at the Colorado Bar Association Solo & Small Firm Conference, where I got to spend a day with 100 lawyers who were in situations similar to yours. Those lawyers came from a variety of backgrounds—some were freshly out of law school, others had worked for firms but been cut loose owing to the economy, and a couple of them had worked for corporate legal departments until they were laid off—so obviously, some had more experience than others.

But here’s one thing that’s particularly notable among the things that all did seem to have in common: Before starting my speech, I polled the audience to find out if anyone there had decided to start their own practice because it was what they really wanted to do, as opposed to it being a backup plan when they couldn’t find a job working for someone else. In response to my question, not a hand was raised. Everybody there was pursuing “plan B” and, as best as I could tell, they were doing so without much preparation or planning. My challenge in Denver, then, was the same as I face when trying to answer your question—to give encouragement and advice on how to start a business, which here means a law office, when the person planning to start that business appears so reluctant about doing it.

You need to remember that there is a difference between having a passion for doing legal work in a firm and having a passion for starting and managing your own law practice. One of the participants in the Denver conference expressed the difference this way: “It’s like the guy who likes wine and decides to start a vineyard. What he really wants to do is make good wine and share it with the world. But what he finds himself doing is planting grapes, weeding the field, fixing the tractor, hiring pickers and trying to find buyers for his grapes at a price that will sustain his business.” That struck me as being a lot like the job description of a solo practitioner. So with that in mind, let’s consider some essential to-dos for you.

Focus on Managing the Practice and Developing Business

What I told the audience in Denver is that success and failure in starting and building your law practice will depend on several critical things:

  • How thoughtfully you develop and execute a sound business plan
  • How well you look for, create and seize upon business opportunities
  • How well you surround yourself with people who are committed to you succeeding
  • How well you manage your finances

Of course, law students often go directly from college to law school without any business or management experience. But others, often older students, have had the benefit of working in jobs that required them to do many of the things that the new solo has to do—managing people, managing money and managing their time. Those fortunate few who worked in a business before attending law school have a real advantage in that they learned that business is hard work. Perhaps that describes you; if not, you’ll want to start studying up on sound financial and business practices right away.

Another thing to determine up front is what type of clients you’ll be serving early on. I asked many of the attendees in Denver what kind of a practice they were planning to start. Most gave the same answer that I think I might have given when I opened my practice many years ago: “Anything that comes in the door.” That, I submit, is the wrong answer. You need a more strategic approach. Instead of taking any case that comes your way, a better approach would be to decide on a particular practice mix that fits your skills, temperament and personality. What’s more, your practice mix should involve clients and cases that you have a likely chance of getting in the door.

So what’s likely? You will probably initially find yourself doing work that involves a higher volume of cases, such as bankruptcy, criminal law, family law, wills and probate or personal injury (other than products liability or medical malpractice). Don’t expect to go right from law school to handling leveraged buyouts and corporate mergers.

Whichever legal market you decide to enter, you can be assured there will be a lot of competition, so in addition to honing your skills in your mix of practice areas, you will need to market yourself nonstop. You will need to give the public a reason to jump in your boat and not the boats of the other lawyers who are trolling in the same waters. Established lawyers will tout their experience and successes in the Yellow Pages and on their Web sites and through speaking engagements, and your first reaction may be to think that there is no way you can compete. The good news is that you can compete and you can succeed. It just takes a lot of planning and hard work.

What’s more, technology has leveled the playing field, so you needn’t spend a lot of money on advertising campaigns and directory listings. A good many people, probably most, find a lawyer online these days, and you can have a Web site for your practice designed and up and running in a matter of weeks or even days.

Also, since you’re more newly out of school and therefore likely more versant in newer tech tools and social media than a lot of older practitioners tend to be, you might use that to get a leg up in your marketing. LinkedIn, Facebook and even YouTube are free resources that you can use to let the world know that you are open for business and ready to solve problems for people.

Reach Out for Good Learning Tools

If you are fortunate enough to live in a state that has a bar-sponsored practice management program, you will be able to get help in starting your practice, usually at no cost. Also, most bar associations have solo and small firm and practice management sections or committees, where you can meet experienced lawyers and find someone you can call with questions. Many bar associations even have mentoring programs for new lawyers.

Also, you should go to the ABA Law Practice Management Section’s Web site, www.lawpractice.org, and check into the resources available there. Since solo practice and marketing are such important topics, there’s also a special “Solo Resources” section on the site. For business development ideas, I particularly recommend a new book by Theda C. Snyder, titled Women Rainmakers’ Best Marketing Tips, Third Edition, which has practical and useful examples of how other lawyers have used low-cost, creative and innovative techniques to build their practices. You may also want to check out Flying Solo: A Guide for Solo and Small Firm Lawyers, Fourth Edition (edited by me), which has various chapters on practice and financial planning, quality-of-life issues, and technology and marketing.

I advise you immediately start determining what marketing tactics you’ll use in your business planning, because without good marketing, you won’t have any work and you won’t have any money. Marketing isn’t everything, but it is the starting point.

And even if starting a solo practice is your backup plan, I predict that with a little success you will find yourself becoming passionate about what you are doing. Then it will be fun.

About the Author

K. William Gibson is a personal injury lawyer and arbitrator in Clackamas, OR. He is President of the College of Law Practice Management and a Past Chair of the ABA Law Practice Management Section.

Have questions about your career, your practice, your computer or anything else? Send them to Bill Gibson at kwg@gibsonmediation.com.