Go Solo, You (Probably) Won’t Starve!

mehta_tejalby Tejal Mehta

The Profession

You may have a great boss. You may have a lucrative job. You may work at a law firm or a public agency, with job security and benefits. You may have all of the above. But haven’t you ever wondered how great life would be if you could call your own shots? Your. Own. Firm.

Of course it is daunting. You will ask yourself, “What will be my  niche?” “How will I find clients?” “What if my clients become unhappy and sue me?” “Will a home office do?” “Who will buy my paperclips?”

Relax and take a deep breath. Thanks to countless new websites, online products and phone applications, hanging out a shingle is easier, safer, and even more rewarding than was possible even a few years ago. If you are even considering taking the leap, read on.

Budget

One lesson learned the hard way by many new solo practitioners is that you don’t want to start off by spending too much money. Because you will be on your own, you will probably have a few lean months in the beginning. Your necessary expenses will include marketing, malpractice insurance, bar dues, a post office box, office supplies, travel and parking. Create a startup business operating budget of $5,000-$10,000 for your first year, and stick to it.

Your Business Plan

You will already have thought about this, in the course of deciding to go solo. But while you are working through your startup list, keep thinking critically about your niche. What do you like to do? What are you good at? And where do you want to practice? If you want to practice criminal defense and be in court regularly, perhaps apply to be a bar advocate. Starting up a civil practice may be a little more challenging, but that is where marketing comes in.

Your Marketing Plan

Network, network, network. A professional support system is crucial. Start by drawing upon the colleagues and connections you already have. Join the local bar association of the geographic area where you plan to practice, and attend events as regularly as you can. Call your colleagues from your prior firm or from law school, and let them know they can send you cases and you will give them a portion as a referral fee. You will start building your practice and your reputation.

As you continue to network, you will likely meet attorneys who are willing to send you their overflow cases. Do not be afraid to ask for this, and for general advice. Before I launched my solo practice, I scheduled a dinner meeting with a solo practitioner colleague who walked me through his startup, informed me how he handled his billing and taxes, and provided me sample fee agreements and boilerplate motions for court.

Join the Massachusetts Bar Association or the Boston Bar Association and attend events or section meetings. The Massachusetts Bar Association has a valuable “Lawyer Referral Service” through which you can receive case referrals for your legal specialty.

Is there a legal topic you know well enough to teach to others? Write a letter to the MCLE programming coordinators and explain that you would like to volunteer your time, by chairing a panel or speaking as a panelist, on that particular topic. This will make you more visible in the legal community.

Websites such as Avvo.com are gaining popularity among attorneys. You can create a basic profile, with your photo, for free. They also have services to make you highly visible online and help you stand out in your desired geographic area and practice niche. This can be more of an investment, so do your research on these sites before diving in. Another widely used networking tool is LinkedIn.com, which allows you to create an online profile for free and connect with lawyers and other professionals who are on this platform.

Do you have a Facebook account? Make your Facebook page your business page! Use your logo and bio, provide details of your expertise, and broadcast your new venture to the network you have already established. It is free advertising, and even if it brings in one new client it will be worthwhile in your first six months. Keep it professional and you can use it along with your business website to reach out to Facebook users. I would suggest using it in addition to, not in lieu of, your business website, as the audience you connect with on Facebook may be different from the audience you would reach through a customary website.

The Nuts and Bolts of Your Actual Startup – In Order

Plan your start date for 30 to 60 days out. Then set the wheels in motion.

Contact information. Set up a free Google voice number or use a similar service, as your work line on your existing phone. Use caution when giving out your personal cell phone number. Clients will call you at all hours of the day and night. Also set up a work email – a professional name on a gmail account will work. Courthouses still send and receive faxes, so it may be worthwhile to set up an efax on your computer at some point.

Firm name. This is a personal choice. You can be creative, or just use your last name, e.g., Smith Law Offices.

Office/Post Office Box. Having a physical office can be expensive and is not really necessary in the beginning. Wait and see what your needs are. You will need a space where you can meet clients, so in the meantime, you can meet them in a courthouse conference space or in public establishments such as coffee houses or the library. To keep your relationships professional, do not meet clients at your home or theirs. Also, you can ask a colleague to lend you a conference room and pay them for that day. Or, you could pay to have use of a virtual office and conference space, on an as-needed basis. You can list it on your business cards and thus have a mailing address at a professional building. If you do not initially rent an office or use a virtual office, you will still need a mailing address. Rent a post office box in a convenient location. The small or medium sized post office boxes offered should suffice, and will cost about $100-$160 annually.

Bank Account. Go to the bank of your choice. Take your checkbook. There will be a minimum balance requirement, likely at least $1,500, to set up the business account. Inform the bank you need a small business checking account and an Iolta account with a low minimum balance and no fees. The bank will need your firm name. If you have not incorporated, then you can call your firm a “dba” (“doing business as”), e.g., John Smith dba Smith Law Offices.

Do you need to incorporate your business? Not immediately. Many attorneys do it, but not all. The key question to answer is, what assets do you want to protect? The purpose of incorporating is to shield your business from liability in the event of a lawsuit. If you have very little to protect, you may not need to incorporate right away. It costs approximately $500 to $1000 to incorporate with the Secretary of State. You can defer that cost at the onset of your new practice. You may also seek to obtain a higher liability insurance policy initially, while deciding whether to incorporate.

Malpractice Insurance. Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly contains liability insurance recommendations. Or, you can ask a colleague for a recommendation. Do not be afraid to shop around. You should purchase a minimum of $100k/$300k coverage.  A basic policy should cost approximately $600 for your first year. It will rise after that.

Business cards.  Look at colleagues’ cards for ideas. Create a simple design – logo optional – and limit the text. Use an easily legible font. A business card that is handsome and easily readable is an asset – one that is too busy or uses type too small to read is useless. You can find economical printing options at Staples or Costco. You can print 500 cards for as little as $15.

Letterhead. Again, look at your colleagues’ letterhead for ideas. You can easily tailor yours and print it from your own computer.

Website. The vast majority of potential clients look for their attorneys online, or, if they have been referred to an attorney, they Google that attorney to see what they can learn about him or her. Get a professional headshot. Or, take a friend to a law library, stand in front of the reporters, and have the friend take your photo. Then create a website and post your photo on it. A site such as WordPress will construct a basic website for $100. As time goes on, you may want to make it more expansive, with client testimonials, information about cases you have handled, and even a blog. Some of my colleagues use professional website companies that engineer the site to put them at the top of the list in online search engines. I nearly fell over when I found these services cost upwards of $15,000 per year. This type of cost can be deferred until later.

Essential items. You will need a computer, printer, office supplies, and a datebook or online calendar to keep track of appointments and payment dates. You will need access to a scanner and a fax machine, either in your home or at a place such as Staples. You may also wish to purchase a credit card reader from a service such as Lawpay, in the future. Make sure to save all of your receipts for tax time.

The Rest Is History

Starting your own law practice takes guts, and the beginning may be a bit rocky. But if you set up your firm with care, have a vision of your practice, and plug away at networking, you will begin to enjoy success. Before you know it, your name will be out there and new attorneys will be asking you for advice on how to launch. Good luck!

Note:  this article reflects the author’s personal opinions and experiences, and is not to be construed as an endorsement of any specific services or companies set forth herein.  If you have any specific questions relating to starting your own practice, please feel free to email the author at tmehta.law@gmail.com.

Tejal Mehta, a trial attorney, has worked at civil litigation firms and the Middlesex District Attorney’s Office, and now operates a thriving solo practice.  She is a former member of the Boston Bar Association.