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10 tips for the entrepreneurial attorney

tips for the entrepreneurial attorney - how to start your own practice

I don’t think there’s a big-firm lawyer alive who doesn’t sometimes entertain the idea of starting their own firm. There’s certainly a lot of romance to it.

There would be no overbearing partners telling you what to do and how to do it. The office politics would be gone. In theory, there are fewer rubber-chicken dinners you have to attend on behalf of the firm.

It sounds great on paper.

Yet, while running one’s own firm can be rewarding – trust me, I did it – it can also be a nightmare if you don’t properly prepare for the experience.

Thus, here are the top 10 tips for entrepreneurial attorneys wishing to start their own law firms:

#1: Follow your passion

There’s really no sense in starting your own firm if you’re only going to practice the same kind of law you practiced (and hated) at somebody else’s firm.

Sure, you probably have some level of proficiency in it, but trust me when I tell you that a practice area you disliked at your original firm is not going to be any more rewarding when you’re doing it at your own shop.

Instead, why not open up a practice that directly relates to a passion in your life? After all, following one’s passion can lead to improved mental health and overall life satisfaction. You made it through law school, didn’t you? Then you’re smart enough to figure out how to start a practice that aligns with your passions.

#2: Find a mentor

This tip is especially critical for anyone starting a practice right out of law school, but it’s also important for seasoned attorneys who are just starting their own practice for the first time.

The truth is, there are a lot of nuances to running your own practices, from hiring staff to finding clients to figuring out what to do if you have two court appearances scheduled at the same time in different counties.

There’s no reason for you to re-make mistakes that others have made before you. Figure out how to find the right mentor and lean on that person as much and as often as they’ll let you.

#3: Find a larger support system

So, you found a mentor. Great! Now, you need to be mindful of not burning that person out with your newbie-neediness.

That’s where your larger support system comes in. By that, we mean the organizations you can join that are aimed at entrepreneurial attorneys just like you.

The Solo, Small Firm, and General Practice Division of the ABA is one of many examples. There will likely be mini-versions of this within your local bar association, too.

Also, don’t be afraid to join organizations that aren’t solely focused on law, such as your local Chamber of Commerce or Rotary Clubs. There, you’ll find all kinds of entrepreneurs who can provide general advice on successfully running your own business.

#4: Hire paraprofessionals that are more experienced than you

This is another tip that is exceptionally important for lawyers opening their own firms right out of law school: get the best paralegals you can find.

I don’t care if you graduated at the absolute top of your class, you actually don’t know much about the practice of law yet. And by that, I mean the critically important administrative details such as dealing with court clerks, calendaring deadlines, formatting legal documents, and so on.

If you hire a paralegal and other paraprofessionals with more years of experience than you, they can teach you a lot of these critical functions.

Plus, you’ll spend less time managing your staff and more time learning the ins and outs of running a practice.

#5: Take advantage of available resources

In today’s age of endless, free information in the palms of our hands, there’s no reason why you can’t study up on the basics of how to start your own law firm.

You don’t have to agree with everything available in these resources, but they’re certainly a good place to start. It’s wise to examine multiple perspectives and strategies before making a decision, anyway.

As you build your practice, look for great resources to learn skills like social media management, search engine optimization, and even leadership. You’re more than just an attorney now – you’re a business owner, and that requires a lot of skills that you won’t necessarily learn in law school.

And that brings us to the next tip.

#6: Have a marketing strategy

Just because you have a billion-dollar idea for the world’s next law firm doesn’t mean that you know how to tell anyone about it or that anyone will show up when you open your doors. Trust me on this one, it’s harder than you think.

Take marketing classes, read marketing books, and find a marketing mentor. Without all that, you might as well polish off your old law firm resume.

Figure out the marketing stuff before you ever even hang a shingle. Get an education in law firm marketing. You don’t want to spend all your resources opening your practice and then try to figure out how you’re going to bring in enough money to keep the lights on. Marketing is one of the core parts of your business plan, so get it handled up front.

#7: Follow the rules on lawyer advertising

Many of the best resources available on marketing your business will not be specific to your law practice.

That’s ok. They’re still valuable.

That said, just remember that as an attorney, you are bound to comply with a whole set of ethical rules governing attorney advertising. Don’t start your solo career with the State Bar breathing down your neck for violations of these rules.

Some practice areas may be more heavily regulated. Do your homework and know the rules before you start.

#8: Be good to your community

One trap of starting your own firm is the temptation to isolate yourself.

Not only is that probably a bad idea from a mental health perspective, but it’s also a bad business development strategy. Networking and referrals are an important source of business for all kinds of attorneys.

Taking an active role in your community can help you meet potential clients and position yourself as someone who is invested in the welfare of your neighbors.

As an added bonus, staying plugged into your community gives you a better understanding of the people you serve and the things they need from you. You’ll spot opportunities sooner and do better work for clients, which ultimately leads to more business.

#9: Have a David v. Goliath strategy

If you’ve ever practiced in a big firm, you know that big firm attorneys salivate at the idea of an opposing counsel with a solo or small law practice. They know they can bully you by burying you in paperwork generated by their army of young associates.

That’s ok. You can handle it if you have a plan.

Whether that plan involves hiring freelance lawyers or something else, just be prepared for this eventual reality before it strikes. Your mentor can help you understand how big firms operate and create your game plan to deal with the situation when it arises.

#10: Be somebody else’s mentor

If all goes well, there will be a day when you look back at your first entrepreneurial leap and marvel at just how far you’ve come.

That’s exactly the time when you should offer yourself as a mentor to new attorneys who are just taking that leap themselves.

Acting as a mentor later in your career can be exceptionally rewarding, personally and professionally. So get on out there and give back.

Final thoughts

It takes a tenacious entrepreneurial spirit to open your own law firm. If you think you’ve got what it takes, you probably do. Get on out there and build the firm you’ve been dreaming of. It might not be easy, but it will be worth it.

Author

  • Jennifer Anderson practiced business litigation in California from 1999 to 2016. When she’s not writing from her floating cabin on the Columbia River, she can be found hiking or kayaking around the Pacific Northwest.