My colleagues and I at Wisconsin Lawyers Mutual Insurance Co. (WILMIC) spend part of our time speaking to lawyers around the state about law practice management, risk management, and the general trials and tribulations private practice lawyers regularly face. That interaction gives us a chance to identify and address not only the risks involved in certain practice areas but also the myriad issues and challenges lawyers face when it comes to successfully practicing law.
One of the challenges we’re hearing more about these days is opening up your own law office. Many lawyers I’ve met, whether at the recent State Bar annual convention or at other events, are currently practicing on their own or are heading in that direction. It may be that you’re a recent law school graduate entering the profession and not finding a position at a law firm. Or, you’re a lawyer who has been with a firm for several years and, whether by choice or out of necessity, you want to give it a go on your own.
There is no doubt that hanging out your own shingle has rewards. But it also has risks and challenges. The questions that typically run through the minds of intrepid lawyers willing to take the plunge are the following:
- Where should I locate?
- Should I lease office space?
- What kind of technology do I need?
- Do I need start-up money?
- What should I do about legal research?
- How do I attract clients?
- In what areas of law should I practice?
Of course, there are more questions, but the ones above will give any lawyer who wants to start a solo practice enough to think about.
Recently, the State Bar’s Law Office Management Section put on an excellent one-day program in Waukesha, “Considerations for Starting a Law Practice.” The Saturday event attracted more than 100 attendees, including brand new lawyers and established lawyers looking for ways to make a solo practice work. It certainly was an indication of what is happening “in the trenches.”
WILMIC president and CEO Katja Kunzke attended the event. “This was a great program. As evidenced by the attendees, who ranged from new grads to established lawyers considering a new practice, it was geared toward different levels of experience.”
Sally Anderson, WILMIC vice president – claims, was one of the program’s speakers, and as chair of the Law Practice Management Section, helped organize the event. She says typically lawyers are used to being the problem solvers. “Asking for help is not something that comes easy to them. But help is plentiful, and if they have a problem, they should not be afraid to get some guidance.”
That guidance, Anderson says, can come from a wealth of resources available through the State Bar, including the Ethics Hotline and Practice411TM practice management advisor and resources, section e-lists, and the Lawyer-to-Lawyer Directory (published each year as part of the Wisconsin Lawyer Directory); mentoring programs; and even malpractice insurers.
Getting Your Practice Off the Ground
Some of the more intimidating aspects of opening your own law office often are the things you didn’t learn about in law school – the functional aspects of operating a business: choosing a business model, creating a budget, understanding payroll taxes, setting up and using an accounting system, and determining whether to hire staff and related personnel-
Another challenge is making sure you have enough business and clients to sustain a practice. Milwaukee attorney and past State Bar president Diane Diel has been a solo practitioner for 13 years. She says that after taking the leap, she has never looked back. “I left a then five-person firm in which I had been named partner. I was fortunate in that I had an established clientele and a good referral base. What was vital to me was the fact that I could predict my income and knew what I could afford.”
For the “newbie” with few clients, Diel recommends volunteering and developing contacts. “Get involved with a volunteer lawyers program in your town. Take every CLE program that is offered there. Join every specialty bar group that will have you, and volunteer to be involved in every activity relevant to your desired practice area. Network endlessly.” Consider also participating in a lawyer referral program, such as the State Bar Lawyer Referral and Information Service. Diel thinks effective advertising can be cost prohibitive. “Save your money for membership and lunches.”
Nerino Petro, the State Bar’s Practice411TM practice management advisor, spoke at the Waukesha seminar, and told the audience that part of successfully attracting good clients is developing habits that give good clients a reason to keep using your services and recommending you to others. He also warned attendees about client selection. “Taking every potential client that walks through your door will only lead to frustration, discontent, and possible disciplinary action.”
Anderson agrees. “Taking every client leads to practicing in areas of law in which you may have little or no expertise.”
On the other hand, Gretchen Viney, who practices law in Baraboo and teaches the lawyering skills program at the U.W. Law School with Ralph Cagle, says new lawyers have to get started somewhere. “You have to start by seeing everyone who walks in – talk to them and figure out if it’s something you can do. I wouldn’t limit your practice, but be careful what you take. Using mentors is one way to help you learn.”
Viney says there is a lot of discussion among students before they graduate about where to get proper mentoring. “They don’t necessarily want to open their own office, but with the economy the way it is and very few jobs out there right now, they are left with a tough choice. They want to practice law. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There are some really good lawyers out there who got their start as solos. But finding mentors is important.”
Diel says, “Having a mentor is invaluable. If you can’t find a mentor by networking, find two or three seasoned practitioners. Use the State Bar’s Lawyer-to-Lawyer Directory as a resource. Keep talking to your law school classmates and continually brainstorm with them. I was lucky because many of my friends were already in solo or small firm practices and they practiced in my field.”
Secure a domain name, develop a Web site, and at least get the technology basics. Good software programs for document production, billing, and timekeeping can make your life much easier – and keep you organized. Diel says, “I knew a good information technology person and he couldn’t wait to work on developing his ‘vision’ for my practice.” So where do you find a good IT person? “Ask colleagues, other lawyers,” Diel says. “Take referrals, and meet with people you may want to hire to do some technology consulting for you. Make sure you understand what they’re saying and that you trust them. If not, keep looking until you find someone with whom you’re comfortable.”
Viney says today’s law school graduates are, not surprisingly, very tech savvy. “We cover technology in our courses and try to get the students thinking from a lawyer perspective how technology can work for them. I think basic technology for the lawyer starting his or her own practice is important and essential. Advanced technology isn’t.”
Covering every aspect of opening a law office cannot be done in a short article such as this. An entire issue – maybe more – of the Wisconsin Lawyer could be devoted to this topic. But, at the very least, when embarking on such an endeavor, think about the following:
- a business plan, with financial goals and objectives;
- technology needs for your office (and out of the office);
- client selection, fees, and billing procedures;
- attracting clients (marketing your practice and networking); and
- backup plans in the event you are temporarily disabled or cannot work.
And don’t forget to consider your insurance needs, including malpractice insurance, a business owner’s policy, and health and life insurance.
You won’t learn everything from an article or even a one-day seminar like the one recently held in Waukesha. But considering these issues at the start can be a good foundation that can lead to future success and help avoid sleepless nights. And remember, there are no short cuts to a successful practice. It’ll take some long hours and hard work. Maybe recently deceased, former college basketball coach John Wooden, who won 10 national championships, put it best: “If you don’t have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it over?”