October 23, 2012

10 Steps to Prepare Yourself for a Graceful Launch

Last fall I left my job as a senior litigation associate at a big firm to start my own boutique commercial litigation practice in Midtown Manhattan. I will never forget my first day as a solo practitioner. Sitting behind an eerily uncluttered desk, I gazed at a stack of banker’s boxes, still unpacked, propped next to a bookshelf, empty, save for a couple of outdated editions of court rules.

My gaze turned to the newly installed phone at the corner of my desk, stubbornly silent. I grabbed my cell phone and dialed the office number to make sure it worked. Rrrring. Nothing wrong with the phone, but where were the clients? Well, the clients did call—though not in a predictable way, and not on my schedule. One day I got three new cases, good ones. Then, two weeks without a call. Then, two more cases in one day. A few active cases, however, equals a busy practice for a litigator. Add a couple of more? Frenetic.

I reached frenetic in about three months. As good fortune would have it, a friend of mine—a litigator at another Big Firm—was looking for a new opportunity. We agreed to partner up, which was a great relief because I was drowning in work.

Starting my firm has been enormously challenging, invigorating and personally gratifying. Many Big Firm associates contemplate launching their own firms, only to talk themselves out of it. I know because I’ve been there. Eighteen months ago, the notion of leaving a secure, well-paying job for the uncertain life of the fledgling legal entrepreneur seemed too overwhelming to contemplate.

So how did I do it? Over the past few months, dozens of Big Firm associates have asked me that same thing: “How did you start your own practice?” Inevitably, the follow-up question comes, usually in a hushed and knowing tone: “How did you get clients? Did you poach them?”

Sorry to disappoint, but no, I did not poach any clients. While clearly I have gotten clients, they have come in such varied and random ways that it is impossible to boil it down to a formula. To my mind, the key to successfully leaving the Big Firm and starting one’s own practice has little to do with trying to “get clients” and everything to do with methodically preparing oneself—mentally, physically, emotionally, financially and socially—for the rigors, responsibilities and rewards of being the star of your own show. I think “getting clients” is a by-product of that sound preparation.

What follows, then, is a 10-step road map that I made up as I prepared to leave my Big Firm. Bear in mind, it is a process, and it takes a while. So if you’re interested in taking a similar road, get started now.

1. Define your own success. Life in the Big Firm is all-consuming and hierarchical with a vengeance. No wonder, as a result, many associates eventually come to equate success with making partner. This mind-set takes over unconsciously and gradually over time. When it finally sets in, it means that you have stopped defining success for yourself and instead allowed an institution to define it for you. Therefore, as your first step, you must reclaim the right to define your own success.

The world offers unlimited opportunities for smart, ambitious, well-trained lawyers. It is absurd to assume that your highest calling is climbing the ladder in the particular Big Firm that—by sheer chance—happened to be your place of employment in the first few years of your legal career.

2. Get over losing a rigged game. If you are seriously considering starting your own law practice, almost certainly you are an ambitious, competitive individual accustomed to setting goals and achieving them. At one point or another, making partner at the Big Firm was probably a goal. Oh, sure, you may not have openly proclaimed that is what you were trying to do. But not saying something is different from not thinking it. Every time you worked with a partner you considered less capable, less intelligent, less hard-working than you, didn’t it cross your mind: If he or she can make partner here, why couldn’t I? It’s a seductive thought, and it can hold you back.

Leaving the Big Firm means abandoning that hope. And, especially for those who are senior enough to have actually been passed over for partner, it can feel like admitting personal defeat.

Get over it! Repeat after me until it’s drilled into your head: There is no shame in not making partner at the Big Firm. The logic of the model requires that many great lawyers will be passed over for partnership. And truth be told, personal traits that make one a good law firm founder (strong entrepreneurial spirit, self-confidence, willingness to take charge, tolerance for risk, intolerance for middle management and bureaucracy, and perhaps a touch of arrogance) often hurt your ability to rise within a large, hierarchical organization.

Beyond that, look at the lives of Big Firm partners. Some are quite happy, but many are not. It is not paradise. In time, you may well come to view not making partner at the Big Firm as a blessing because it freed you to pursue more fruitful opportunities.

3. Throw away your crutches. As you work on defining your own success and getting over the partnership thing, you also need to begin taking stock of what the Big Firm life may have done to you. Let’s face it: Most human beings were not designed to live the life of Big Firm associates. Often it is a life of enormous pressure, extremely long hours, not enough sleep and so forth. Associates often respond, over time, in ways that are unhealthy. Some retreat into bitter cynicism. Some turn to booze. Many neglect their physical fitness. And all too often, unfortunately, these “crutches” are widely accepted within their firm’s culture.

So, if you are going to succeed in your own practice, you may need to fix some things about yourself. Some ideas: Take a long vacation. Use your gold-plated health plan to see a therapist; even if you think you don’t need it, you probably do. Get a personal trainer and drop those 15 pounds. Maybe find some sober friends. Start going to bed earlier and getting up earlier; that is what your future clients do, and you should as well. You absolutely have to get enough sleep.

Why? Because when you start your own firm, you need to be physically, mentally and emotionally ready to handle not only the pressures of starting a business (huge), but also your clients’ fears, concerns and needs (also huge). Taking stock of the “crutches” that you have developed, and ridding yourself of them, is a process, but it is essential.

4. Save your pennies. Having addressed your mental and physical well-being, you also need to mind your money. Starting your own firm actually costs less than many might imagine, but it does cost money. So you need a start-up fund.

But, some good news. As a Big Firm associate, you are earning a very healthy salary. Saving enough money to start your own practice (allowing for several slow months at the beginning) is totally doable. However, you do need to do it, if you haven’t already.

Associates often ask me just how much money they need to set aside to start. My answer: As much as possible. Personally, I set aside enough to cover my start-up costs and to pay for my life and business overhead for six months—meaning that I could have survived even if I hadn’t brought in a nickel for half a year. Fortunately, that grim scenario didn’t come true, and as it turned out, I could have gotten by with a smaller reserve. But believe me, having that reserve made life a lot less stressful during the first months.

5. Get your significant other’s okay on the plan. You cannot start your own law practice unless your spouse or significant other is 100 percent on board. That means he or she needs to understand that you will be giving up a reliable salary, while also spending a great deal of up-front capital with unknown revenue prospects. More than that, he or she needs to recognize the real possibility that the venture could fail, that you will run through substantial savings, and that in six, eight or ten months, you could find yourself out there looking for a job. Oh, and one more thing: Once the venture launches, you will work harder than you ever worked at your former firm, and you will be a nervous wreck.

Sounds awesome, right? Understandably, it will probably take some time for your significant other to get comfortable with this. My wife, Julie, has been unbelievably supportive of my venture. However, having started two businesses herself, she wasn’t going to simply rubber-stamp any half-baked business plan. We had an ongoing discussion for about a year before I actually launched my firm. Over that time, my plan evolved from being vague and undefined to being clear, realistic and implementable—and as my plan improved, her support grew. I urge you to start these conversations with your significant other, and start them early.

As you can see, these first five steps are aimed toward getting your mind, body, spirit, bank account and loved one ready for the challenge of launching a law practice. The next five—which are no less important—are more practical in nature.

6. Make two lists to ensure success. For this step, you will sit down and make two very important lists. The first is your “referral” list, which will include everyone you know who could send or refer business to you—colleagues, classmates, friends, clients, opposing counsel, co-counsel, professors and so on. Write down everyone’s name. Buy a good contacts database software program and input their mailing addresses and email addresses. This will take a lot of time as you will keep thinking of new names. Eventually, this will be the list you use to send announcement cards for your new practice.

The second list to make is your “role model” list. It will include every lawyer you know who has started his or her own firm, and each time you meet other lawyers who launched their own firms, you will add them to this list. I cannot overstate the importance of these lists.

7. Build alliances one lunch at a time. Next, proceed to take everyone on your “role model” list to lunch. Do not be shy. Most lawyers who started their own firms are evangelical about the subject and they love to talk about it. They have been in your shoes. They remember the fear and uncertainty. They are invaluable resources.

Ask them anything—be nosy. Ask about their billing rate. Ask about malpractice insurance and support staff issues. Ask how they back up their data. Ask how they file papers in court. You will receive great advice and loads of encouragement. Not only that, but down the road these role models are likely to remember you and your enthusiasm and they may refer business to you.

8. Get out of the office. My single biggest regret from my days at the Big Firm is the number of lunches I spent alone, hunched over my computer keyboard, scarfing down a sandwich while feverishly responding to emails. It’s pathetic, looking back. I wasted so many opportunities to meet colleagues and form friendships.

Believe me, I haven’t forgotten the reason for those solitary lunches: Big Firm associates, especially the more capable ones, are constantly besieged with work—all terribly important at the time. Pressing deadlines, impatient clients, inadequate sleep—who has time to take two hours off and go to a bar association event or other daytime function?

If that is your view, I cannot quarrel with it. Life, after all, is about priorities. If your priority is to be the world’s best Big Firm associate, then stop reading this article.

However, if your objective is to start your own law firm, then you’ve got to make it a priority to meet other lawyers. I find bar association events to be excellent places to meet other solo and boutique practitioners, who are natural allies and referral sources. Others may have different social settings that are more to their liking. My point is not to prescribe specific events to attend; it is to suggest that you need to get away from your desk and start meeting people, wherever, whenever, however you can.

9. Appreciate the gifts your firm gave you. Once you have completed steps 1 through 8, it is likely your psychic relationship with the Big Firm has changed for the better. Now is the time to give credit where it is due.

Ask yourself, what has the Big Firm done for you? A lot, actually. You have a start-up fund because the firm paid you a good salary, so you were able to save. You have good relationships with many prominent members of the bar because the firm gave you an opportunity to work with these first-rate lawyers. You have relationships with potential clients because the firm gave you an opportunity to represent them. You have become a seasoned and capable lawyer because you received excellent legal training that will serve as the foundation for the rest of your career.

Linger on this step for a while. It requires no tangible action. But it does require a shift in your frame of mind.

10. Walk out the door to applause. Now it is time to gracefully exit the Big Firm to launch your own firm. Full articles have, of course, been written on the etiquette of leaving, but here are a few suggestions.

  • First, pick a date to leave and give plenty of notice. Second, make a list of the colleagues you want to tell in person. Start making the rounds. Take your time. Say a personal thank you to all those who took the time to train and mentor you.

  • As for poaching clients on your way out, my general advice is, don’t. Offer to transition your cases to other lawyers at the Big Firm. If a client, unprompted by you, says he wants you to continue representing him, suggest co-counseling with the Big Firm. If, at that point, the client insists on being represented by you, and you alone, the firm should understand—that is not poaching. At the end of the day, always remember that no client is worth burning bridges.

  • Finally, prepare a departure email to send to all those you have worked with at the firm. Take your time writing it. Be gracious. Remember step 9. Thank everyone by name, and do your best to avoid omitting anyone. Remember, no one cares how many people you name individually; what they do care about is that their name is included.

Follow these suggestions, and you will leave the Big Firm gracefully and prepared for launching your own practice. Will it be easy? Absolutely not. You, too, will have the experience of sitting in your office and wondering when the phone will ring. But with proper preparation, it will ring. And the person who answers will be up to the challenge.